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Interview with Seng Mah

It’s about time we had another Perth based photographer on RAW, and Seng not only takes some amazing shots but he also runs a ton of photography workshops on a variety of subjects. Anyway have a read and then check out his site, if your in Perth maybe head along to one of his workshops.

Update: If you haven’t heard already Seng and I and running a Studio Fashion Workshop on the 27th of this month. For more information and to book your space visit the workshop page here.

Seng Mah

Seng Mah

Tell us a little about yourself?

I’m a quiet, driven person, an ideas person, a creative person. If I wasn’t able to create stuff, i would go nuts. I write, I sketch; I used to paint, until I realised that you can create your vision more quickly using a digital camera and Lightroom or Photoshop. I guess I should also say that I’m into instant gratification – I’m not very patient, but learning to be. That’s why I like digital photography and Polaroids and Fuji Instax.

I’ve worn many different hats: I was a teacher, then I designed educational resources, then got into IT project management, before landing in photography training. I’m a communicator; I enjoy teaching; I enjoy listening to other people’s stories. I’m a manic hoarder and documentarian — it’s a way of concretely preserving memories. Photography lets me create, record, hoard and publish. I love it!

What made you get into photography?

I’ve always been drawn to the instantaneous aspect of photography — one snap and you’ve got a record of a moment in time. Things change, we age, but the image in the photo remains like that pretty much forever. I started photographing because I was driven to record things. Then I realised that photography could be more than just descriptive, and I think that was where the love affair evolved into passionate romance.

In photography, we’re dealing with the finite, in that you have to choose from what is out there that can be included within the frame. But you have so many choices: subject, angle, distance, field of view, depth of field, lighting… the list goes on. It’s like cooking from scratch – you have ingredients; you then have to decide how you mix them, how to cook them.

I used to sketch and paint; photography has allowed me to create images more rapidly and, for me, more satisfactorily. That’s why I got into photography.

How did you get started?

In terms getting more seriously into photography — back in 2006, a few friends and I decided to put together our own group exhibition, which ended up showing at the Perth Centre of Photography. I was a bit more naive back then (I think I’m still fairly naive now, but I was more naive then), but the exhibition was a hit and some of us even sold prints!

The year after, I got involved in FotoFreo (www.fotofreo.com) and eventually put on my first big solo show as part of the FotoFreo Fringe Festival in 2008. It did well and I started to think that perhaps I could really get into this photography gig. I re-assessed my circumstances, made some changes and started the business. The first year consisted of a lot of exploration: I realised that there was no real money to be made in trying to be a photographic artist, so I focused on commissioned work, but that didn’t float my boat as I didn’t feel as if I had creative ownership of the work.

After another bit of re-assessment, I decided to do something with my teaching degree and teaching experience, and started running photography workshops which now form the bulk of my business today (Venture Photography Workshops – www.venturephotography.com.au). I love it! Workshops let me exercise my creative muscles, and I really enjoy developing the skills of learners and having them participate in these crazy shoots and workshops I run.

What sort of photography do you mainly do?

I’m into portraiture and reportage, pretty much anything with a human face, figure or human element. I need my photos to be more than just placid, pretty pictures, but then again, don’t we all? At the moment, I’m really getting into physique photography, with a project called “forme”, which focuses on different human morphologies.

I also have a fairly large body of work from photographing surf life saving events over the past few years – which have come to fruition in an exhibition (“Sons of Beaches” in 2008) and two books (“Sons of Beaches” the book, and “Gun’s Up!” published late last year).

I love covering out-of-the-ordinary events, such as the Perth Tattoo Carnivale last year; I had an absolute ball being given free rein to photograph the artists, human canvases and personalities at the event.

At the moment, I’m putting together an exhibition for 2012 called “Utopia” which is about the changes taking place along our coasts from coastal living developments. Gee, I could ramble on about this, so I’d better stop.

What gear are you using?

I use a Nikon D700 and D7000, with a range of prime and zoom Nikkor lenses. I also have a Polaroid Spectra, a Fuji Instax camera, a Nikon F90X SLR and a Mamiya 645 MF but the film hardware pretty much sits on the shelf these days. But we know that it’s never about the gear, right? I also have a studio in Fremantle, with a number of Elinchrom lights and light shapers – I really enjoy studio work!

What’s your favourite lens and why?

I love wide angle lenses because they let me get close to who/what I’m photographing, so the old Sigma 10-20mm and the Nikon 24-70 f2.8 are faves. The Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 is also a big favourite as I’m learning to see the beauty in standing back and compressing perspective.

How are you marketing yourself?

I run a very active Facebook business page (www.facebook.com/venturephotography) and also try and be active on Twitter (www.twitter.com/sengmah), but I mainly market my photography workshops through my website (www.venturephotography.com.au).

Team Digital in East Perth has asked me to run workshops at their premises, so they help publicise via their blog. I also actively participate in the local photography community, whether it’s judging or presenting at the local camera club, or being involved in providing photography training to non-profit organisations like CanTeen, or being part of the FotoFreo organising committee.

Finally, I can’t say enough about word of mouth — not just from happy customers, but from your letting people know that you run photography workshops, or that you’re an event photographer and so on. Oh, and having flyers printed and distributed to local camera stores helps too.

What’s your favourite photo you have taken?

I can never pick a favourite — I have too many. Instead, this is a photo from the “forme” project I mentioned, taken earlier this year. The bloke depicted was very generous with his time and honesty during the shoot, and also very courageous as there are not many guys his age who would front up to the camera like this. I felt quite privileged being able to photograph him.

Advice for new photographers looking to go pro?

To “go pro” can be a challenge. I think many of us go semi-pro first, test the waters and see if our passion or drive is strong enough to see us past the “semi” stage. From my own experiences, I’d say this: find out what it is in photography that gets your blood pumping and focus on it.

There’s a lot of talk about photographers needing to be good at photographing everything. Some photographers are fortunate enough to love photographing everything. If you’re not one of these fortunate few, then find out what excites you about photography and see if you can make an income from it.

Don’t lock yourself into genres (weddings, families, babies etc.) but think about styles and subjects, and then build a business around it. For example, if you love documenting events but can’t stand group portraits, offer your services as a second shooter at a wedding. That way, you get to cover all the candid moments and can skip the boring family photos. Okay, maybe that’s not a great example, but you get my meaning.

Apart from the above, I’m always reminded of a line I found on my Twitter feed which I have now pinned up in my studio: “People may think your ideas suck. They may even be right. The only way to prove them wrong is to succeed.”

Visit Seng Mah – website, facebook, twitter and tumbr

Author Tristan

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