Amateur shoots to the top of photo world
Cupertino software engineer wins competition against pros
Friday, October 21, 2005
If you ask Michael Soo what put him on top in the "Photographer of the Year" contest by the world's biggest photography magazine, he might say it was a butterfly.
Not his 8.2 megapixel Canon EOS 20D or his wide-angle and telephoto lenses, but a Cethosia hypsea hypsina ordered direct from Malaysia.
It was just one of the many props stuffed into two suitcases in July by the Cupertino software engineer as he readied himself to face two other finalists in a three-day "shoot-off" in New York City sponsored by Popular Photography magazine.
"For me, preparation was key to settling my nerves," said the soft-spoken Soo, who turns 33 today and began his photography hobby five years ago. "I probably put more thought into that than the other guys."
Such modesty does not surprise those who know Soo, who leads an online photography forum and offers occasional free seminars to fellow amateurs.
"Michael gets a shot that's compelling and unique every time, but he's not a flashy guy," said Shelah Osbrink, who met Soo at last year's Photoshop World expo in Las Vegas.
"Everything he does is well done technically, but it's his thought process that makes it," said Osbrink, who plans to open a professional studio in San Francisco.
Soo stands out by sharing his knowledge at every opportunity, Osbrink said, a thought shared by Maurice Green of Palo Alto, who invited Soo to lead a portrait workshop in September for the Silicon Valley Computer Society's digital imaging group.
"He seems to love to teach," Green said. "He has a lot of passion for photography, and he loves talking to people about it."
Soo displayed a wide-ranging skill that impressed contest judges, said John Owens, editor in chief of Popular Photography, that has 450,000 paid subscribers worldwide.
"Michael is very talented, he's very focused and his work is technically beautiful," he said. "We gave him the title of 'Best Shooter on the Planet.' "
Soo's journey into amateur photography fame began in February, when he spied the magazine's announcement about its inaugural "Photographer of the Year" contest.
"It was our version of a reality TV show," Owens said of the call for readers to submit four images, which drew more than 800 entrants from around the world. The magazine whittled them to 10 finalists that were subjected to online voting, with the top three invited to New York.
Soo, who is divorced and the father of 4-year-old Ethan, found himself competing with two professionals from New Jersey, Andrei Jackamets and Mike Peters, for the $5,000 prize and a chance to shoot the magazine's December cover.
Soo also found himself at a disadvantage: He had never been to Manhattan and he had to pack everything into two bags, while the other two knew the city well and could cart as much gear as they could fit into a limousine.
"I didn't bring many clothes," Soo said, opting instead for a smoke machine, a selection of wires and product stands, a block of glass and other props like the butterfly.
During the three days he shot four assignments, which began with one titled "Eating on Wall Street."
Contestants received a watermelon on the second day, with the assignment to do something creative with it, as well as two hours with a model for a portrait shot. The third day, Soo said, was the worst.
"It was pouring rain, and I was supposed to document the excitement behind the scenes at Belmont Park racetrack," he said. "It was empty, and I was desperate."
By the end of the day, however, the sun had returned and Soo had taken more than 300 photos, finding himself hard-pressed to select his 10 favorites for the judges.
Since his contest victory, Soo has followed comments both good and bad about his efforts.
"A lot of people say congratulations, but there is also controversy. Some people say I didn't deserve to win," he said. "It's been a very interesting ride."
A native of Malaysia, Soo attended the University of Hawaii and moved to the Bay Area in 1994. He discovered photography as a way to counterbalance his work at Sun Microsystems, he said.
"Day in, day out, I have to think logically as an engineer," Soo said. "I didn't have any creative outlet."
Mostly a self-taught photographer, at first he used film, but his dislike for the smell and handling of darkroom chemicals steered him toward digital imaging. His first digital camera was a 0.5 megapixel unit that he used mainly for snapshots. But then he began to research techniques on the Internet and experimented more as his interest grew.
While eating at a Malaysian restaurant in Cupertino one day, Soo began trading ideas with the owner on how to produce a new menu. He ended up designing and taking photos for the project.
That first commercial venture led to work for other restaurants and The Boy's Store, a Sunnyvale online clothing retailer. Soo also takes wedding pictures and portraits, but remains reluctant to turn fully professional.
"I was born as a Libra," he explains. "It means I have to have a balance. I can't seem to focus on one area of photography, which is what most professionals do to make a living."
Instead he launched San Francisco Bay Photographers Club, a forum where dedicated amateurs trade advice on lighting, image processing and equipment. They also join up for photo outings to places such as Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz.
And he plans to continue the free workshops he offers occasionally at his home or the Santa Clara Micro Center, where Maurice Green's group meets every month.
"The classes are my way of giving back to the community," Soo said. "I don't know if I have the bandwidth to turn photography into my actual work."
He has nevertheless impressed people with the energy put into his images.
"I don't think the man sleeps," Osbrink said. "He always seems to be figuring out something new."
Readers of Popular Photography have sent hundreds of messages describing the inspiration they got from the contest, Owens said.
"The work by all the finalists was fantastic," he said. "But what
really tickled a lot of people was that an amateur can take on a
professional and win."
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