Soo was prepared to photograph an object for a photo
competition, but he never expected to be asked to
"impress" judges with a shot of a fruit.
"I thought maybe they'd have me shoot a camera. Who
would have thought they'd throw me a watermelon?" he
Soo did shoot a watermelon--in a seductive
setting--in bed under Egyptian cotton sheets lying next
to a papaya. He called the photo "Fruity Affair." He
also shot watermelon bubbling up in soda water and
another shot featured a curl of smoke twirling around a
piece of the juicy sliced fruit.
Those were among the many photos Soo submitted that
won him first place in the Popular Photography &
Imaging Magazine's Photographer of the Year Shoot-Out
The Sun Microsystems
computer programmer spent a hot
July week in New York City facing off against the other
finalists--two professional photographers both equipped
with more powerful cameras.
Each day of the three-day competition, the finalists
arrived at the magazine's New York offices and drew one
of their four assignments from a hat. They were given no
clues about the subject in advance, so they had no way
to prepare, and their deadlines were tight. Three to 12
images were due the next day by 8:45 a.m.
Soo had given the competition a lot of thought before
he left his Cupertino home. He brought with him two
suitcases filled with more gadgets, props, and equipment
"I had a list of things they could possibly make me
shoot," he says. "I figured they would have a model and
we would have to do some sort of portrait."
So he brought along props such as a Malay lacewing
butterfly from his native Malaysia, which he placed on
the model's bare shoulder.
The simplicity of the assignments, such as the
watermelon assignment--"Here is a watermelon for each of
you. Impress us with a photo of this
watermelon"--challenged the photographers' creativity.
But for Soo, the challenge was complicated by his lack
of knowledge of New York. It was his first visit, but
the other two contestants live in New Jersey and each
knew New York City very well.
The other two finalists were also able to go home at
the end of the day and complete their assignments in the
comfort of their own homes and with the full array of
their own studio equipment and software.
Soo, on the other hand, went back to his tiny and
expensive hotel room. (The magazine covered the cost of
the hotel except for an extra day he opted to stay.) The
room, he says, was so small that when he opened the door
it practically hit the end of the bed.
There he used Photoshop software on his photos,
adding water where there was none under a model's chin
or layering 10 photos into one to blur a sense of
movement and action into a race-track photo.
For their first assignment the photographers were
sent to well-known areas of New York City to capture the
"flavor" of what it's like to eat in that specific
location--Chinatown, Times Square and Wall Street--and
do it as if the assignment were for a travel magazine.
Soo drew "Eating in Wall Street."
He didn't know where Wall Street was or how to get
there, but the magazine had arranged drivers to take the
photographers to their respective locations.
Using the iconic bull statue representative of Wall
Street, Soo stuck a sandwich in its mouth, a tray of
fries and a brown paper bag beneath and waited for the
tourists to clear. Blending elements of five separate
photos he came up with the photo titled "Bullish for a
Reason." This was just one of eight images he turned in
the next day.
In his full-time work in the computer industry
deadlines are a given, but the shoot-out was much more
"This is a completely different kind of a deadline.
You are expected to get truly excellent shots and
process [them in] under 10 hours. I don't think most
people realize what it takes to get these shots," Soo
Soo is a "semi-professional" photographer, he says.
He prefers to shoot products but says he also shoots
special events such as weddings. Recently, he took on a
local assignment for a new Sunnyvale on-line shop,
www.TheBoysStore.com, shooting the fall line of boys
clothing carried by the new web business. Jackie Sheets,
the owner of the business, raved about the quality and
style of the photos.
"Many people tell me I have a certain style. They'll
see a photo and they tell me they can tell it's from me.
I still have not grasped it," he says.
He says he is uncomfortable receiving compliments.
However, he had no trouble receiving the $5,000 check
awarded in the contest, or the additional money he
earned from the cover assignment he earned as part of
the prize award.
The contest initially awarded Soo the December 2005
magazine cover of
Popular Photography &
Imaging, but a slight change in planning and a
pleased editorial staff also got Soo the January 2005
cover and a two-page spread inside.
Michael Soo's winning photography can be viewed in
the October 2005 issue of
'Popular Photography &
Imaging' magazine, or on his website at
where he also provides a diary
of his experience. Other images and more information
about Soo's photography can be found at