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.

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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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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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Akihabara Park, Real vs. Virtual Photography

There’s this spot in Akihabara Park beside the designated smoking area, across from Yodobashi Camera’s rear exit, where I’ve taken the same photo twice; on the second occasion purely because it was a beautiful evening and I suddenly remembered taking the first photo and wanted to replicate it from memory without referring to my Flickr account. They turned out pretty close.

The other day while playing the game Akiba’s Trip on my PS Vita, I decided to visit the same spot to try and take it again with the in-game camera feature (the title is quite an accurate recreation of the gaming/anime/gadget town); again trying to find the same spot from memory.

The level of detail is surprising, and this is just for one building out of many. I even got the same corner of the little rain shelter peeking in from the left. Makes me feel like I should visit again sometime soon.

LINE Pop-Up Store Singapore, May 2014

Japanese-Korean messaging app LINE has opened their first pop-up store in Singapore, on a prominent stretch of the core shopping boulevard of Orchard Road. It will run for a month and reap immeasurable marketing value from the high visibility and sure-to-grow lines of fans eager to buy their cleverly designed character merchandise.1

I dropped by on its first evening tonight with some colleagues, and we spent between $20–60 each. I would have spent $100, but put down a pack of 100 art postcards ($55) at the last minute. This is on top of the $40 I’ve spent on in-app purchase stickers over the last year or two of being on the platform. I don’t think any other messenger currently comes close in terms of having built brand loyalty or monetization potential that doesn’t involve serving ads or selling personal data.

Standing outside and watching the crowd, I remarked to a UX designer colleague that no other messaging app could pull off something like this in the middle of town, not WhatsApp, not WeChat. He correctly observed that none of the others have strong IP from which to make their own merchandise to even sell in a store.

“And it’s all this bloody kiddy stuff!”, I said, clutching a plastic bag filled with stickers and a pair of mugs that look like the faces of a bear and a bird. “It’s not kiddy,” he started to protest before going, “Oh alright, I guess it is.” Takeaway: “Kiddy” is largely irrelevant in Asia.


18-to-29-year-old females are its “core target,” says (U.S. CEO Jeanie) Han, explaining that in Asia, once girls were using Line, boys followed – and then this young “hip” user base helped bring in older users “like a domino effect.”

“People, especially young folks, are really adopting our stickers,” she says. “The ratio of people who are buying things online like our stickers is actually quite high in the U.S., as well as the people who are using our games inside our platform relative to the total number of users, so we’re quite optimistic in terms of our market in the U.S.” — Techcrunch, March 2013


The crowd lining up tonight was about 2:1 female to male, which seems in line with LINE’s targeting strategy. There were a few people who definitely looked over 40, and everyone present was walking out with stuffed toys, diaries, notebooks, plastic folders, tote bags, mugs, badges and the like, all emblazoned with Brown, Cony, Moon, Leonard, Sally, James, and other characters I can name because I see and employ their images in chat conversations on a daily basis. LINE is lovable, obsessionable. Few others are by design.

Against Facebook Messenger’s 200M monthly active users, LINE is said to have virtually the same MAU (out of 400M registered accounts). In comparison, WeChat (dominant in China) has 355M MAU, and WhatsApp has over 500M. I don’t consider WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger users to be the same thing2, and LINE has the greatest growth potential outside of its home country, especially in Asian countries with an affinity for Japanese culture, whereas the Chinese WeChat is likely to have a harder time. I’m pretty bullish about LINE’s success, even if their apps have a lot to improve on. For the record, LINE also reports significant revenues — $338M in 2013 — versus about $200M for KakaoTalk and $20M for WhatsApp.


  1. Within minutes of our arrival, I overheard a mom asking her two teenaged daughters, “What’s this about?”, to which they replied, “it’s kind of like WhatsApp.” 
  2. For one thing, WhatsApp is not functionally part of a platform, and probably won’t be merging with Facebook’s in the near future for various reasons. All the other messaging networks are at some stage of offering content, ecommerce, games, and enhanced communication services such as video-calling. 
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Shuttered Out

At a recent office balcony party, I spoke to a colleague who’s also into photography (by which I mean he’s also afflicted by the coin-draining hobby of buying cameras), and realized that maybe I’ve made some progress. My last purchase was the Sony RX-100, which he also bought, and then sold, and then bought a Fuji X20, and then sold, and then bought a used Fuji X100S (pictured). The urge has not visited me lately, unless you count the $200 Q Camera which no amount of money on Earth can buy at the moment because they’ve only made one sold-out and poorly handled batch.

I’m doing really well on just my iPhone 5S and excellent apps like the new Mattebox (do try my Velvius filter), and Cortex Camera. You can also explore all my posts tagged ‘Photography‘.

ArtScience Museum, Nov 2014

Some iPhone photos from a recent visit. I’d been meaning to see the Eames one for months, but it’s always a bit hard to get out to the Marina Bay Sands because there isn’t a lot to do afterwards if you’re not in the mood for an expensive meal or drinks.

There are quite a few pieces in the Eames area, including some original interactive activities from an educational exhibit they designed, although the gallery layout leaves a little to be desired. A roughshod detail here, an odd pathway there, and lots of furniture out of reach, labeled “do not touch”, leaves you empty;  it’s only at the very end when you sink into a permitted Ottoman that you feel the humanity of their designs.

The Chanel Black Jacket photo exhibition is much more enjoyable to explore, because there’s nothing between you and the content on display.

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Here are the official exhibition summaries:

Explore the life and work of Charles and Ray Eames, the most famous couple in design.

Most known for their timeless furniture creations, their influence and innovation extended far beyond that into architecture, exhibition design, toy making and film.

CHANEL’s photographic exhibition dedicated to Karl Lagerfeld’s book “The Little Black Jacket: CHANEL’s classic revisited by Karl Lagerfeld and Carine Roitfeld” opens in Singapore, joining a new stage of the exhibition that underlines CHANEL’s values of creativity and modernity.

Discover the exhibition that pays tribute to CHANEL’s little black jacket. Through over a hundred photographs the jacket is adapted and worn differently by some of today’s greatest personalities in contemporary culture. Slipped on by the French singer, Vanessa Paradis, transformed into a headdress for the American actress, Sarah Jessica Parker, or adapted to Alice Dellal’s neo-punk look – this fashion masterpiece can adapt to any style.

Tandoori Corner

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Tried out an Indian restaurant near work today on the occasion of a visiting coworker’s farewell (amusingly, he’s going back to India and another Indian coworker felt it appropriate to suggest this place for lunch — we suggested he was feeling homesick himself).

It’s on Boon Tat street and quite good, although it’s probably best to come closer to 2pm; we stood outside for close to half an hour. I had the chicken tikka which was mildly spiced (if you’re a wimp like me and like to avoid discomfort).

Camera Noir x HK

A couple of interesting people I follow on Twitter got together and formed an app company awhile back, called Pacific Helm. They released their first iPhone photography app today, Camera Noir, and it’s rather nice.

It takes (and imports existing) photos in B&W only — a sort of black-heavy, rich sort of processing. It’s been called high-contrast in every review I’ve seen today, but that term usually implies a hard, noisy look; Camera Noir’s output retains subtle gradations and shadows. In some light, the results look almost like infrared film. It’s a look well-suited to landscapes and urban scenes, as these examples from my Hong Kong set show.

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First Time in Hong Kong Since 1984 (Photos)

Here are some of my favorite photos from 5 days of eating and sightseeing in Hong Kong; the ones I knew I was lucky to have as soon as I hit the button. As I said a couple of days ago, the Sony RX100 is now my favorite compact camera — just that little bit more versatile than a Ricoh GRD thanks to its 3.8x optical zoom, and, while bigger, still small enough to carry in a pocket. In terms of pure image quality, it takes better photos than any of the small-sensored compacts I’ve fooled around with.

Still, while going through the entire set on Flickr, I was surprised by how many came from the iPhone 5. At this size, can you tell which of the ones below came from an iPhone? Click through to find out.

There are a couple of photos from Art|Basel 2013, which was running at the HK Convention and Exhibition Center (HKCEC) from Thursday to the weekend. One of the low points was sitting at the cafe area and listening to a bunch of very rich people complaining about how their cameras and iPads and iPhone 5s batteries weren’t enough to last through a busy day of buying art (and taking photos of art with the flash on) even after shutting down all the apps by double-clicking the home button (=_=). They also complained that there wasn’t enough art amazing enough to buy on the spot. I wanted to tell them to spend some money on a battery pack over at Wan Chai.

Taxi ride into Hong Kong

Under The Bridge

B&W Tenements

Hysan Place Apple Store Pano

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Causeway Bay Apple Store Exterior

Rainy Day in Hong Kong

Horses — Times Square

High Pixel Density

Golden Wonder

Roasted Meats

Love Shop

Smoking Bin

Scaffolding, Alleyway, Night

Okay Now I'm Coming Down

Do You Fools Not See The Duck Coming?!

Art | Basel HK 2013

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