Through the lens

Michael Soo walking along a trail on Mount Whitney in the United States, looking for a subject to shoot.
On weekdays, software engineer Michael Soo types away on the keyboard, but during the weekends, he clicks away with his camera. He is so passionate about photography that he photographs anything that strikes his fancy – landscapes, birds, portraits and car races. 

Soo has had an intense desire to learn and explore all forms of photography since he took up the hobby seriously five years ago.  

That explains why he swept the Photographer of the Year 2005 title given by Popular Photography & Imaging, the world’s largest photography magazine, for being the world’s best all rounded photographer in August. 

For the award, 32-year-old Soo – who has been living and working in the United States for the past 15 years – received US$5,000 (RM18,800) and the opportunity to shoot the December 2005 cover of the magazine. His works are published in this month’s issue of the magazine.  

The Batu Pahat-born Soo has won more than 10 photography challenges held over the Internet but he said this is his best achievement thus far.  

Did he expect to win?  

Soo photographing the tallest peak in the United States – Mount Whitney.
“Yes, I had confidence in my images. I believe they are consistently strong. I know there are a lot of good photographers out there but I’m different as I’m strong in most forms of photography,” he said in an e-mail interview. 

For the contest, Soo sent in four print photographs – three on people, product, action and one of his choice. Photoshop use is allowed in the contest; however, out of the 30 images Soo submitted, only one is manipulated beyond dodging and burning, he explained. 

Out of all the entries from around the world, the magazine editors picked 10 semi-finalists. Their works were posted on http://www.popphoto.com/ and readers voted for the top three photographers.  

The magazine then selected and flew the three finalists to New York City for a four-day photography session in July. The photographers were put through a gruelling but fun series of back-to-back assignments to test their mettle in various types of photography. They were handed assignments on the spot, and they had to scramble to do the work and meet deadlines. At the end of four days, Soo was picked the winner. 

His pictures reflect a keen observer and strong visualiser who adds creativity to mundane subjects. 

For one of his photographs in the Eating in Wall Street series, Soo captured the serious mood and the fast paced environment of Wall Street using the panning technique. The entire background was purposely set in black and white except for a brown bag of packed food and drink in a man’s hand and his skin tone. One might mistake the picture (Market Waits for No Man) for a black-and-white print but it is not. 

“I chose a bank that had a number of ATMs as my backdrop to depict the financial district,” said Soo.  

Other images in the series include a striking red steak house called Nebraska amidst a slump area (Stark Contrast), a zany image of a bronze bull with a burger stuffed in its mouth (Bullish for a Reason), a black man in a red vest drinking Gatorade (Hole into Wall Street) and a homeless man eating a sandwich that Soo gave (Lunch Varietal). 

Soo artfully drew out the various facets of Wall Street which most visitors would have missed. He also has a sense of humour as seen in the photograph of the bull with a burger.  

Soo’s portrait shot is also not the regular face-front pose. Instead, it is taken with the model’s back facing the camera, the face turned sideways and a butterfly resting on her shoulder.  

For an arty fruit shot, a piece of melon is popped into a vase full of soda water. In another, the melon appears in a bucket of ice, making it look misty and mysterious. 

”I also had ideas of photographing the melon in bed and how sexy it would look,“ Soo added but he did not submit the photograph.  

An action shot that Soo submitted for the Photographer of the Year 2005 contest before he was selected as one of the top three finalists.
Soo left for Hawaii in 1991. He graduated from the University of Hawaii in Manoa with a Bachelor of Science in computer science in 1994 and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area the same year. He worked with various companies as a software engineer, among them, America Online; he is currently a senior software engineer with Sun Microsystems, Inc, a networking company that sells mid- to high-end computers.  

Soo works on web applications and sites such as java.sun.com, sun.com and java.com.  

Besides photography, Soo also does graphic designing for ads and websites during his free time. 

“My current challenge is balancing my main career and my work as a photographer. I am in the midst of deciding whether I should just focus on one. I enjoy both aspects of my work, so it’s a tough call,” he said.  

Soo learned photography techniques through the Internet. He gets his ideas from magazines, famous photographs, reading books and doing research online. 

“I try to understand the ‘essence’ of what makes them great and implement a fusion of these values into my work,” he said.  

Currently, Soo is concentrating on photographing products, food, portraits and landscapes. He pointed out that the key elements of his work are pre-visualisation, composition, emotion and post-processing.  

“Each piece of the puzzle, when fused together, will become a great piece of art.”  

Soo is living in Cupertino currently and has an online forum for photographers who get invited to his free Photoshop Workshop whenever he can find spare time to organise one.  

“It’s my way of giving back to the community,” he said.




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