Welcome back to our interview session with Jon Siegel! In the first part, Jon spoke about the beginnings of his work, how he got into street and portrait photography and how his profession as a Creative Director influenced him. He also touched on his life in Asia, and this is where we pick up the second part of his interview
My wife and I moved to Singapore almost two years ago and while I would say it is just as safe as Japan, it is a very different and unique culture experience. I should say cultures, although there is a very distinct local culture. I find the true beauty of Singapore really lies in it being an incredible intersection of many Asian cultures. My wife and I have friends from many of them and their influence on my art is profound. Singaporeans care greatly about photography and I have met some truly brilliant photographers since arriving. They even have their own reality photography TV series where contestants are given photo challenges and specific equipment with which to reach the goals. The architecture, the food, and the amazing people really make it a great place to find amazing subjects for photography.
What gear do you use?
I shoot with a D700 and a kit of classic Ai and AiS glass. I have a few modern lenses, but my love is in older, manual focus lenses. I am frequently asked whether I would ever consider "upgrading" to a new or bigger model, to which I respond that I will just buy another D700 until they become impossible to find. I’m rather stubborn like that, not to mention I look at my camera as a good friend rather than a tool. Selling my D80 brought a few tears to my eyes so many years ago – that’s how attached I get to my cameras. I think that love has also kept my cameras and lenses in pristine working condition. Never had a breakdown even once.
I am also asked quite often about how I get “those colors”. I know a lot of pro photographers keep their techniques and EXIFs secret, and I respect that. Since I don’t shoot for money, I don’t feel I have much to hide. Rather than write tutorials on how to do it, I would rather point people in the direction I took so they can also enjoy the journey as much as I did. Everyone has their own style, it’s just a matter of time, effort and persistence before they find it. Although, there really is no perfect technique, photography is a constant learning experience and that is one of the joys of the medium, there is never an end to it.
Are you using any equipment that you would call out of the norm, like any DIY or repurposed things?
Not equipment, but technique. My camera is an extension of my body, I don’t often look through the lens, I measure the distance first on the lens and then shoot. I have become so familiar with my camera and lenses that I can generally hold my camera in almost any position and take a sharp photo most of the time. I love spy movies and those films where the protagonist shoots their target over their shoulders, I like to pretend I can do that with my camera, and most of the time I can.
Most of my lenses are old primes such as the 50mm F1.2 AiS which goes everywhere with me, and the 135mm F2.8 Ai. I like to borrow my friend’s Zeiss lenses from time to time, but if anything I would very much like to get my hands on a decent tilt-shift lens to play with. Perhaps when I win the lottery. Just recently I rented a Nikkor 24mm F1.4 G to shoot a series for a music related project. That lens is really fun, I could sit in a bar stool, with the camera in my lap, and take bright, fun shots of my subject in clear focus in very low light. That’s another lens on my wish list.
When did you first hear about Flickr, and what made you choose it as the home for your photos?
I love Flickr. It is a matter of separation of my personal and professional life. I despise posting my photos to Facebook or any other social network, no matter how many new “features” they integrate. The last thing I want is for a client or respected new friend to Google my name and find a site that combines stories of last weeks bender along with a few samples from a model shoot I conducted just a few days after. Not that I frequently find myself in compromising situations like that, it’s just that as fascinating as I find this new era of transparency, I strive to maintain a professional presence online and keep my personal life personal.
Flickr is the best place on the web for finding and interacting with professional and enthusiast photographers of a very high caliber. Comments given are often serious, constructive and respectful. It is also the place where I have met many new friends with similar photography interests, and I love it for that. For example when I first moved to Singapore, one of the photographers I made a contact on Flickr sent me a message that he would be in town for a visit and asked if I would like to meet up for a photo walk. That was an absolute pleasure, and I have made many new friends this way. I organize and host Pecha Kucha Night Singapore which is a speaking event for professionals in Singapore, and it was through Flickr that I could make contact and invite the super talented Danny Santos to speak at the event.
It was really just a casual decision years ago to join Flickr, but looking back at it, it was one of the best things I have ever done. Sharing my photos on Flickr and interacting with the community gave me great confidence in myself as a photographer, and greater focus. In a way it made me think harder about what photos I wanted to share, and made me put greater care into selecting and preparing only my best.
Are there groups or other photographers on Flickr that inspire you?
Another unique aspect of my childhood were my friends who came from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam. Through their influence I grew up watching a lot of Asian cinema, and developed an affection for the works of Wong Kar-wai. There’s a small Wong Kar-wai Flickr group that I joined and put my photos into from time to time, and another similar group called The Cinematographer. It was through those groups that I eventually discovered the beautiful works of ce28nn and TGKW, both of whom are my photography heroes. They both push the medium to the limit and beyond. Until finding those two, I had never seen anything like their works before. Even elements that are not photographic, like Tommy’s wonderful and insightful writing which accompanies each of his shots.
If you had one tip for someone who had just picked up photography, what would it be?
Pick up every camera in the shop until you find one that feels the most comfortable. Buy it, then go out and explore and discover the world around you. Don’t get caught up with specifications and features, I have met photographers who can take remarkable shots with any camera. It’s all about patience and personal dedication.
What’s your “secret ingredient” for taking street photos?
Brass balls. Don’t be shy, get right in there and take the shot. If you’re not comfortable taking the shot, then walk up and ask permission. Asking strangers for permission can be a painful experience and often results in a big NO depending on where you live, but it will earn you bravery points that convert into self confidence which I sorely lacked from the start.
Before we conclude, I want to ask you one more thing: You recently teased a new project in your photostream. Is there anything you can share about it?
A good friend and colleague asked if I would work with him on a personal project of his. It’s music related and it’s a subject we are both passionate about. I cannot say who or what it is for, but it was an opportunity for me to apply my love for cinematography to a fun and special project which I will reveal later this year. I got to spend a lot of time with a beautiful model in some low lit bars and clubs and I loved it.
Jon, thank you for taking the time to share your story with us! We’ll be back soon with the next interview.