Hot on the Trail of Picture Perfection

National Geographic photographer, Catherine Karnow, and competition winners embarked on a journey of learning

Issue: Sep 2011

Catherine Karnow in CapitaLand-NGC Photo Competition publicity
Catherine Karnow advising winners Ben Tan (left) and Thomas Poon on framing techniques

For this year's "Building People" Photography Competition, the prize was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get a day of personal coaching from renowned travel photographer, Catherine Karnow. She had specially flown into Singapore flown in from San Francisco, where she was based, to conduct a photography trail of selected CapitaLand properties in Singapore with the winners.

Story Before Technique

With the exception of the second winner, Liew Tong Leng, who was overseas, Karnow and the other three winners began their photography trail from CapitaLand's headquarters, Capital Tower in Singapore.

Karnow considered Capital Tower the most challenging building in the photography trail. Her preference of including people and the way they interact with the structure led her to gravitate towards the entrance of the property.

"This is where people are coming out of the MRT (station) and where there are koi ponds and colorful ball sculptures. To have a shot of people and any of these elements from here, you miss the whole form of the building. To see the whole form of the building, you must go quite far away. But then you lose the koi ponds, the colorful balls and the people in the open space in front," said Karnow.

In situations like these, Karnow advised that while technical difficulties may baffle, technique should never overwhelm the story behind the picture. A photographer's job is to see and tell the story through pictures.

"She emphasised that the storyline in a photograph is far more important than having a perfectly exposed photograph," said Thomas Phoon who won the third prize.

Ben & Ms Karnow laughing over a shot
Karnow sharing a light moment with participants on the trail


Picture of Voters' Choice Award
Ben Tan's sunset shot of a couple at ION Sky, the observation deck of ION Orchard, won the most votes out of the 32 pictures shortlisted for the public online voting contest

"I was interested to hear her view of current trends like fish-eye lenses. She reminded us that though the lens does give interesting perspectives, we should never let the lens do the work for us," said first prize winner, Wong Chek Poh.

The trail was conducted in a very relaxed and interactive manner, buoyed by Karnow's natural nurturing spirit and generosity in sharing tips.

"I kept up a steady stream of thinking aloud how I look for photos and once I see them, how do I compose, what do I do," commented Karnow.

For Voters' Choice Award Winner, Ben Tan, seeing Karnow at work was a real inspiration. Tan, who became hearing impaired following a bout of fever in his childhood, had sent in only one entry for the competition. But it was one that embodied what Karnow believes about seeing "the moment".

"I saw the sunset with the couple and I quickly took out my camera and took the wide angle shot. I only had my 8mm lens. I didn't have my tripod and I didn't even have a flash," said Tan.

Although 42-year-old Tan has not heard a sound since he was five, he has more than made up for it with his is ability to see and capture beauty. As a textile artist, his eye for patterns is vital to his work in designing men's shirts, shirt tags and doing graphic design. As a photography enthusiast, his works have gained him a measure of recognition locally. Last year, he was in a team that won the Grand Prize in the Photo360 Contest organised by Microsoft in Singapore. This year, he was awarded the Merit Prize in The Photography Competition for the Deaf.

Tan brought along his own interpreter to facilitate communication with the group during the trail. "Karnow showed me how she took the same shot and we compared notes," said Tan.

Phoon & Karnow frontal at the pool
Seizing the moment: Karnow and participants geared up to capture the perfect shot at the Infinity swimming pool atop Ascott Raffles Place

Capturing the Moment

Along the way, Karnow taught the winners the importance of capturing "the moment". Beyond framing, it was about looking out for the light and waiting for the right moment after a shot had been composed before clicking.

"I learnt that the most important thing during an outdoor shoot is to be attentive and alert to the surrounding. I missed many moments in the past and today!" noted Wong.

Karnow also impressed Wong with her dedication to detail and perfection. "She is so meticulous about her shots that she brings a magnifying glass with her [to check her shots]!"

But none of it is ever done at the risk of losing a shot. "She reminded me not to look down and check my shots so often or I will miss a shot forever," said Wong.

"She taught us to have patience and to shoot from the heart," added Phoon. Beyond framing, it was about looking out for the light and waiting for the right moment after a shot had been composed before clicking.

Crowd jumping in the air
Using her infectious blend of enthusiasm and warmth, Karnow managed to convince these young people to pose for the group


Winners with Ms Karnow posing at building
Picture Perfect: Delighted participants and Karnow beamed at the camera at the end of the trail

Engaging the Subject

Karnow also shared ways to engage people in order to photograph them, giving them a live example by coaxing a group of strangers to pose for them at Clarke Quay.

"The jumping shots showed how you could show the essence of the architecture by the way people experience that architecture, whether meditative, or joyous," she explained.

When asked how she managed to get people of different cultures, languages and positions in life to be at ease with her so that she could capture a moment, Karnow laughed, "I like to overcome them with positive-ness."

"One piece of advice Ms Karnow gave us all is to shoot more and build up our own profile or niche area if we wanted to strike out in the competitive field of photography," said Wong.

During the trail, the group also visited residential development RiverGate at Martin Road, integrated development Raffles City Singapore before ending the trail at serviced residence Ascott Raffles Place Singapore.

Perhaps Karnow expressed it best when she summed up the experience, "Creative photography brings out the essence and the humanity of great buildings and great photographs help us to better appreciate the human endeavour and creativity that great architecture can inspire in us all."

Read about Catherine Karnow and CapitaLand-National Geographic Channel Photography Competition 2011 here

Click below to view the gallery of competition entries
CapitaLand-National Geographic Channel Photography Competition 2011
CapitaLand-National Geographic Channel Photography Competition 2010


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