September 21, 2005     Cupertino, California Since 1947
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Photograph courtesy of Michael Soo
Michael Soo won the 'Popular Photography & Imaging' magazine's Photographer of the Year Shoot-Out award this year with a series of images he took over three days. This photograph was taken at the race track on a particularly slow day. In his tiny hotel room in New York City, Soo used Adobe Photoshop software to overlay some 10 shots on top of each other to create the feeling of action at the racetrack's bidding counter.
Photographer wins in shoot-out
By Anne Ward Ernst
Michael 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 says.

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 competition.

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 than clothes.

"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 intense.

"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 says.

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 www.soocool.com/POTY2005, where he also provides a diary of his experience. Other images and more information about Soo's photography can be found at www.soophotography.com.

Dr. Steven Cohen, Dentist

El Camino Hospital

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