Autumn in Japan, and some observations

We paid Tokyo and Osaka a visit last fall, following up on my life’s goal of visiting Japan at least once every two years, and nothing disappointed — not the food, people, weather, galleries, nor multi-storey complexes designed to make me buy media and electronics. As Craig Mod alluded to recently on Twitter, Tokyo is a place that fulfills the city’s promise as a tool for human life.

The thing I love about its density and intensity is how that translates into support for all manner of subcultures and obscure hobbies. Today, you can barely find a functioning and interesting bookstore in Singapore, while in Tokyo it’s not just bookstores that thrive. One can wander into massive stores selling model train and forest diorama-building supplies, or records curated from a specific period, or vintage camera parts emporiums. We’re not large enough to incubate that kind of diversity, and the city dweller’s life suffers for it.

Continue reading “Autumn in Japan, and some observations”

Melbourne, June 2017

In the midst of a busy June, between jobs and dealing with a massive electrical wiring failure where we live, there was time for a week in Melbourne where it’s currently winter. Being one of the few places in the world where it’s cool right now may have had something to do with that decision. As much as I love Japan, there isn’t enough curry rice or fresh sushi in the country to make another summer visit worthwhile.

I’d decided before leaving to only shoot in B&W, but just couldn’t keep it up after a few photos. The warm, fall-like colors and architectural textures just sort of demand it. Also, I had new VSCO Film X filters (Kodak Gold 200!) to play with. I’ve found myself really enjoying shooting RAW on iPhone and stretching the dynamic range. Along the way, I noticed that I’d pretty much stopped using the iPhone 7 Plus’s Depth Effect after the first few months. I’m not sure why that is. I guess it’s not very accessible or prominent in the UI? Ideally, it would behave like Auto HDR and just capture both normal and edited stills when you’re using the tele lens.

We didn’t really have time to do anything out of the ordinary. A few exhibitions here and there, a couple of bars, some coffee, and visiting friends. But it was the right kind of city for the break I needed. In particular, rediscovering the joy of bookstores! The book retail scene in Singapore is at its lowest point ever now, with the only large chain left being Kinokuniya, and small bookstores with deliberately curated and stimulating selections are simply non-existent. I bought a couple of interesting books, and then promptly loaded up ebook versions on my phone for convenience. I can’t deal with the hassle of paper products, but I really like the store experience.

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Two Weeks in New York

How’s everyone doing? I recently went to New York for the first time ever, and did a bunch of touristy things. It was also my first time in the U.S. in over a decade, and maybe overestimated how bad the TSA and airport immigration situation would be. It’s the last thing you want after 20 hours of flying: to be stuck in an hour-long line with people barking at you to take your clothes off. But we got in and out of JFK without much hassle.

Having an Uber account is fast becoming the most important thing to a traveler after having maps on your smartphone and watch. It lets you integrate with any city with no more difficulty or delay than if it were your own. There’s no need to plan an airport transfer in advance, find out if tipping’s expected, or get flustered if you’re late for a show downtown.

We got into a performance of Hamilton literally against all odds. The show is sold out for the next year, and resale tickets are pretty much unaffordable, but there’s a daily online lottery where you can get front row seats for $10. I heard somewhere that tens of thousands of people enter each day, and it can take months of trying. Kim somehow managed to win tickets a day into our second week. It was the first day of Javier Muñoz’s permanent run as Hamilton after Lin-Manuel Miranda stepped down, and he killed it. I was sick and shivering with a fever, and it was still incredible and unforgettable.

You can’t take any photos during the show, so I don’t have any. And despite bringing my Fujifilm X100T on the trip, I didn’t even use it once. Not one frame. Maybe it was the summer heat and not wanting to be encumbered or precious about one more thing to avoid banging about/losing/getting stolen, or maybe I just wanted to keep it casual, but my iPhone did everything. Fusion HDR and ProCamera’s LowLight+ mode helped in extreme lighting conditions. For shooting distant subjects in good light, I think it’s really close to what the X100T would have got. As holiday snapshots go, I’m happy with what I got. This fall’s iPhone 6SE/X/whatever will close the gap even more.

The one thing photos can’t do is capture other aspects of the experience, but Live Photos and 360º panoramas can be better at it than the usual 2D stills. We recently got a Ricoh Theta S at work, and now I want to take something like it on my next vacation. Being able to grab everything in a scene with a single button, and re-enter that environment later with a VR headset… why wouldn’t you? I’ll hold out for the next model with better image quality, but it’s one thing your smartphone camera won’t compete with for awhile. If you have the time to stand in one spot for a few minutes though, you can use Google’s oddly branded Street View app to capture spherical photos.

Real talk: I didn’t get to see that much of the city, relatively, but it was pretty cool to visit. In terms of livability, though, it’s not topping Tokyo for me in any of the categories. I’m probably the worst person when it comes to dealing with loud crowds, germs, heat, public transport breakdowns, the threat of impending personal harm — basically i’m a paranoid baby. Living in New York probably wouldn’t play to any of my strengths. But between Ktown and David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam, I think they’re doing a great job with Korean food! It was far from my favorite cuisine before, but now I’m a convert.

Okay, photos.

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The line on the street for Hamilton *after* we got out
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Couple making out in a hotel had an audience below
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Freakily realistic statue on the Highline
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Saw this the day after Philando Castile was shot
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A Starry Night at MoMA
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Nintendo World
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Apple Store in Grand Central Terminal
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Okay this was HK, during the stopover

31 Days of Black & White

I spent the month of January shooting photos only in black and white. Not just the ones I posted on Instagram, but everything in my camera roll got converted and saved in black and white. When I scroll through my timeline in the future, this block of 60 or so shots is going to stand out.

I got the idea from @espresso on Twitter who shot monochrome photos for the entire year of 2015. That’s dedication. It only came to my attention in December when he started mentioning how much he looked forward to color again in the new year. You can see his Storehouse collection of photos here.

It was absolutely worth it. You can always learn a lot in any creative endeavor by putting restrictions in place; I think because it’s too easy to try to grow in many ways at once, especially when taking photos, you can go from landscapes to close ups to street scenes in a single day, and play with a dozen photo processes and apps at a time. Taking away some options can make you focus long enough in one direction to notice something new. Taking color away immediately makes you think about lines and composition and texture. All the habits you’ve formed around what looks interesting and when to raise your camera are rendered unreliable, and you’re made to look at everything through new criteria that you’re forming through practice.

It reminds you that the absence of color is actually a powerful tool that has gotten too closely associated with making statements or establishing mood. It’s a legitimate way of directing attention, and a different set of skills when doing post-processing. And it frees you up from taking photos of every meal, because it’s quickly apparent that most won’t turn out very appetizing.

If anything, a month might be too little time, especially with the demands of work and other hobbies. Now that it’s over, I intend to keep doing it, maybe at a 1:3 ratio with color photos.

Everyone should try it out some time (with the #bwchallenge hashtag). I highly recommend the Darkroom app, as always, because it gives you a ton of control over how tones are converted and shifted, going beyond the emulation of simple color lens filters.

Also check out my friend Cong’s feed, who did the challenge with me and stuck with it even through a trip to Osaka, which took some guts.

Edit: Forgot to add an observation. A lot of these photos were taken with my iPhone, and I found that turning a photo black and white negates the weaknesses of small smartphone sensors. Noise and muddy colors in dark scenes are no big deal, and the quality of available light (in gradations) seems to increase when you combine the color channels.

   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
   

First Photos From a Fujifilm X100T

I was in the market for a Sony RX1R because I’d heard that the price had come down to as low as $2,400 SGD at third-party retailers, whereas Sony’s own retail stores still sells them for about $3,800. I know that’s a lot of money for a fixed-lens camera, but it was intriguing. I bought a Ricoh GR earlier this year as a birthday present to myself, and have only used it sparingly. The guilt! How could I justify a camera for Christmas too?

This particular fit of consumer madness began when a friend started looking at the new model, confusingly named the Sony RX1RII, or RX1Rm2, and which costs $5,000, for his own needs (isn’t that how it always starts?). He eventually decided to go even further upmarket with a Leica, but that’s a different story.

In the end, I hesitated too long because of the asking price and the unbearable judgment of my already adequate camera shelf, and discovered earlier this week that the older RX1R was no longer available at every third-party camera store I called and visited. My guess is Sony wanted better control of the price, and to remove competition for the new $5,000 model. It’s better, but it’s not $2,600 better.

So after a bit more research and the use of a friend’s Fujifilm X100S for a few days, I got the beautiful X100T you see above. It’s nearly a thousand dollars cheaper than the Sony would have been. It’s not a fair comparison because the sensor is APS-C sized instead of full frame, but its 35mm prime lens barrel is a lot shorter and less conspicuous as a result. Fuji’s color reproduction and JPEG quality is also quite lovely, and I’m happy with the way things look straight out of the camera. I often find the Ricoh GR series’ 28mm field of view too wide for most purposes, and with many other compacts now starting at 24mm (like Sony’s RX100), it feels great to finally shoot with The Standard.

A quick recap of the specs, if you have the time:

  • Fixed 35mm f2 Fujinon lens
  • 16mp CMOS sensor with phase detection autofocus
  • An integrated hybrid viewfinder that switches from optical to electronic with the flick of a switch (only the new RX1R has an EVF)
  • Built-in WiFI for transferring photos to a smartphone via Fuji’s barely functional app
  • Software emulation of Fujifilm’s classic film stocks (perhaps more in name than reality): Provia, Velvia, and Astia
  • A little bigger than the RX1R, although more compact on the whole thanks to a smaller lens
  • An ND filter and electronic shutter mode for really fast captures in bright light

Here are some shots from a photo walk I took yesterday, which happened to coincide with the Hello Kitty Fun Run. I never knew it was such a big deal. Two observations: Having a camera around your neck makes you more liable to be asked to take someone’s photo, and if people notice you pointing one in their direction, they’re more likely to flash you a peace sign.

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Off to Tokyo Again, Alone

 Hanging out in one of the lounges at Changi while waiting for my flight to Tokyo. It’s been more than 2 years since I’ve been in Japan, and the Go Go Curry craving is getting a little unbearable.

I haven’t been in the mood for this trip this past week; too many things on my mind at work and home. But a friend just told me how they would kill to switch places right now, traveling alone (well, for a few days until I’m joined by some friends), getting away from a nagging partner, responsibilities, etc. and I have to say, it woke me right up for this.

It’s super uncool to not have gone on a holiday alone before (I’m guessing being abroad to study doesn’t count), but yeah I’ve never done it. There’s always someone else to plan with, figure out transport with, make decisions and compromises with (or force into compromises most of the time -_-), so now I think I’m going to be a little lost. Wandering and just seeing what happens. Not really my nature!

26° Clear
T1 Link West, Changi, Singapore, Singapore