How Robert Overcame His Back Injury and Won in Closeup Photographer of the Year and NANPA, published Magazines for Conservation, and Got Invited for Exhibits

I sat down (virtually) with Robert:
where he shared the story of his photography journey,
how he got a scary back-injury accident, and
how he was able to win lots of recognition and awards in record time.
He also talked about how he quit his job and put all his effort into conservation.


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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Hey, Hey. Hey. Hi. Nice beard. This is the new look. The locked down look. Oh, I see. That's that's good. So good to see you. Why don't you tell us a little bit about about you?
Speaker 2 (00:18):
Okay. Well, um, actually my, I grew up in Switzerland and my first job was a photo journalist back in the early eighties. And then I did an album cover and I want you to be a rock photographer, but I always wanted to be a photographer. And then I got seduced into sales and marketing and became a publisher and moved to Hong Kong and in 1990 following my girlfriend out and I, I took photos. I looked back and I cringe at the photos, but, you know, I, I always enjoyed, I was always a decent photographer from what I've learned during my photo journalism stages. And so, yeah, then I did, I was the general manager of a media, a local media group and working regionally. I was the sales and marketing director for the economist and business development and a regional director for Reuters. Um, so I, I own some good money gotta like Paul McKenzie says, you know, Hong Kong is a great place for adding money and it doesn't leave you a lot of other time unfortunately.
Speaker 2 (01:20):
I had some great holidays and things and in 2018, um, I left that and, uh, started a daily blog on animals in Hong Kong because what would happen is I'd go out, find something, take a picture and go, what on earth is that? So that I'd go back and Google it, go to a specialist groups and find out about it. And then I thought, well, why not write about it? So for two and a half years now, I've blogged. Obviously sometimes there are three or four weeks in advance or when I know I'm going to be busy or whatever it is, it's not, I don't write every day, but every day I publish. And so, yeah, I have about 600 people who get a daily email and about eight, 9,000 people who get it on Facebook. And then there's also LinkedIn and other bits and bobs.
Speaker 2 (02:13):
Um, and so that, that was going quite well. And I'd always wanted to do an exhibition and that I achieved in early 2019. So really I've only been a photographer since mid 2018 to 2019. I did the exhibition and I made it portraits of Hong Kong, wild creatures in Hong Kong. And, um, idea behind that was to get right up close and all these different animals sort of people could see them in a way they hadn't seen before. And that went really well. I sold 56 pictures, which was fantastic. I had 80 different species on the walls and sold 56. And then I went skiing and a disc popped out of my back and it was just really painful. So then I came back to Hong Kong. I had some surgery, everything was fine. And then four months later in September, I was walking with a friend and I had a mild ...., which means that the nerves were crushed in my back from the scar tissue coming back.
Speaker 2 (03:22):
So I spent six weeks in the hospital and three months in a wheelchair. And that's when you think, am I going to have to take pictures in a wheelchair? My goodness, I won't be able to walk again. So that was really tough. And now, now I can dance a little jig. I can, I can't run and I can't walk up and down slopes. I can't jump around in streams, but I'm a 95%, 90% mobile again. And I I'm tremendously grateful and lucky to have I'm pretty fit at the moment I carrying all my gear around and I'm loving the new mirrorless cause it's about a third of the weight of my old gear. So that that's great.
Speaker 1 (04:05):
So, so you have, you had an exhibit just in one year after you started photography?
Speaker 2 (04:12):
Yeah. Yeah. I was quite proud of that.
Speaker 1 (04:15):
I see. So, so I mean, you already had an exhibit, so what got you into play, like coming into this whole, like this cause and stuff like that, like, were you having any challenges when you take photos or you just want to improve or like what is the story?
Speaker 2 (04:30):
Yeah, I mean, looking back, I think, I think I've always been quite arrogant. I mean, I've learned a lot from my professional career. I mean, arrogant in a way that when I, when I started my photography, I'm like, Oh, I don't need to learn from anyone. And so I did that for about, I dunno, about almost a year. Um, and then I, uh, I, I read, um, I forgot the name of the book by Tony Northrup. I think it's the best selling photo book. Yeah.
Speaker 1 (04:56):
Yeah. I think he and his wife had a really popular youtube channel.
Speaker 2 (05:00):
Yeah, they're really good. He really is quite, uh, is a very good educator as well. Like you, I must say. And that kind of led me to think, well, I don't know this stuff. Right. What an idiot. So then, then I sort of looked around and one of the key things, one of the, uh, I have like, I have, I tend to cause that I want to improve in. That's what I try and keep in my mind, like the next one is going to be focused stacking for example, or something like that. And about a year or so ago, for me, it was Photoshop. And I thought, I want to learn Photoshop. And your, I think it was a DTS program that you were doing, your dynamic tension stacking. That's a very cool name and acronym for what you'd want you to do. And I thought, yeah, that's what I want to learn.
Speaker 2 (05:46):
And right at that moment, you contacted me and said, well, that's good, but I'm doing this other course. Why don't you do this whole course? And I just want to learn a photo stacking. And you're like no, it's part of the whole course. Just, just do the whole course. It's the same thing. And I'm so glad you said that because wow. I mean, I've learned so much more, I would say. And the funny thing is for the last two months, I haven't done any Photoshop because I've been too busy processing. My, my other photos, which are winning awards and that's kind of down to the things that I learned from you. So I think going back, my, my, my photo journey really started from Tony and Chelsea and then to you. And then from you, it led to Andy Rouse and a whole bunch of other people. I bought their books and I've started reading.
Speaker 2 (06:41):
I mean, I was in hospital up until January, February. So after that time, so it's really quite short. 20 hours to catch up when I joined God, how do I do? And then you do your three hour coaching courses. How do I ever keep up? And, uh, actually, uh, Monday, uh, or just yesterday, um, I started the, um, uh, day before yesterday. I started your course again. So I've decided I missed out too much. I didn't do it thoroughly. I want to go back to the Photoshop. So my next thing is to redo your entire course and really focused now on my Photoshop skills. So it was funny because your interview with Paul McKenzie, which was, which was so interesting, and he's such a great guy and, and shared so much, but he did say one thing and what he said, uh, yeah, I can't wait to start traveling again because there's no wildlife here and he lives in Hong Kong and I'm like, well, that kind of, you know, Hong Kong. It's funny. That's the thing for me is I'd love to go and shoot cheetah Cubs and giraffes. And
Speaker 1 (08:00):
Is this your new book or this is the magazine that
Speaker 2 (08:03):
No, this is not a new, well, it's only 32 pages. So it's quite, it's not very thick, but yeah, that was brilliant because this cost eight Hong Kong dollars. What's that? Uh, yeah, one us dollar to print. Wow. And I'm selling them for $10 and I've sold 1,700 now. Yeah. Some of the money goes to charity. It's not, but it's just, now I'm getting calls from Sino hotels who want to do a wildlife brochure with me, I'm getting quotes and WWF. I've just bought 20 photos to go into their exhibition. It's really, despite everyone saying print is dead. The funny thing is,
Speaker 1 (08:50):
Well, you're the, you're the printing genius over there. So you were able apply this into this. Hold on one second. So let me summarize. So you were able to, uh, first of all, create this group and then you were taking photos of wildlife in Hong Kong, and then you were able to print like such as this book for a low cost, and then you're selling it in a very reasonable price, not like trying to make tons of profit, trying to kind of spread the message about the wildlife, but you're using, uh, the earnings for charity. So that's, that's, that's really fantastic. My God. This is really good.
Speaker 2 (09:29):
It works really well. And um, so now I've got, I just got a grant to do a Chinese language edition, which I obviously can't do, and that's going really well. And, um, hopefully in the next two months I'll be publishing a guide, a field guide to Hong Kong snakes.
Speaker 1 (09:47):
So did, did the program like other than the post-processing, did it help you with any other new insights or what, what do you find with the most interesting to you?
Speaker 2 (09:59):
Yeah, one of the most "annoying" things that you said to me or to the group was full frame. I'm like, what planet are you ever going to get full frame? But it really stuck with me. And I'm actually one of the, one of the, uh, uh, future award winning photos. Again, I thought, how on earth can I, can I fill the frame? And it's always in my mind now the balance between filling the frame with a particular subject or filling the frame with an emotional composition, which can show habitat or whatever it is, the tricky thing with how a lot of people see images today, it's on the phone. So if you were at something that big, how can you show a spider in its habitat? I mean, you know, but to show the eyes of a spider, people can, can relate to that a bit more.
Speaker 2 (10:56):
So yeah, full frame was definitely a quite annoying one, but, but absolutely a revolution in my mind. And Oh my God, the (Canon) R5, I have twice as many pixels now going across the top and down the side of my photos. So that's been interesting. Yeah. So the, the full frame took clearly one, the other one was the background and it's so funny cause I've just started your program again, like I said, your first module is all about and point your shadow here and swinging your body to the left. And here's the yellow box that you can put the thing. And I'm like, if only it was that easy there, have you got a bird in a tree and you've got about, I dunno, 20 seconds to take its photo and it's another tree behind it. I'm like, where's the yellow tree in Tin Man's diagram.
Speaker 1 (11:49):
Speaker 2 (11:50):
It's one of the, but, but it has taught me when I was shooting in England, I was on my belly next to the pond. You know, you still use complaining that there's no background. You, you have to create it. And that was a big learning. The other one was, it's a funny one, but go where the animals are. Right. And it's one thing really, duh, but actually I do a lot of walking around because it's when you, you find more stuff. But, but what I found was, okay, the birdwing caterpillars are in this place at this time of year or the egret with their blue faces are in their nests in Tai Po (Hong Kong) in February or the wide eyes are in the cherry trees. So don't muck around, go go there for three or four days. And that's when you're going to get the shot. So that was, it seems a silly thing, but that was a really, really interesting thing. But I hadn't, I hadn't given a lot of thought to,
Speaker 1 (12:51):
Yeah, well, let, let's take a look at your photo with the nice background. Can we so like this? So now I see that your photo is just this minimalist beauty, right. A signature right now. And then, uh,
Speaker 2 (13:05):
You said that you were like, go for the, go for the, uh, not Rembrandt, whoever it was, the black background, you know, sort of stuck in my mind when you, when you showed the paintings of the old masters where they're leading the eye around. And I think that's one thing too, to begin to structure my photos more, the feedback I had on this one, a lot of people think it's a necklace. They think it's a pendant.
Speaker 1 (13:28):
Yeah. I love that. See, it has the thing that's about the, the, your uniqueness about the composition, right? That, that, that is a good, very good. Fine. Yeah. Wow. A lot of people didn't pay attention to the composition. They think in your face, wildlife is good, but just by changing a little bit, you can change the whole mindset, right? Like for example, this one, right. Probably 99% of the people, we try to get my hand on and then all the stuff. And then they didn't didn't think too much about the background, but with the black background, you get the mystery. And then with the golden ring on both sides coming down, while you have this feeling of like, Oh, there's a necklace. Right. But without this composition. People ... if people took it with a different background, right. People would not think about that. Right. So, so that is really like really knowing that, that the, where the emotion is going, right, this is good. And then this one, right. I want to talk about this one. So I remember when we were going through the, the course, and then you came back like one, like by the first, first few days and said, Oh, I just came and came back with this photo.
Speaker 2 (14:31):
That's right. Because this, this photo is very structured. Um, uh, so a lot went into this in terms of I had the tripod. I had a 70-200, I'd had, uh, extension rings on it. I had an off-camera diffuse flash. And, um, there's a myth that the bugs glow at night, their nose is low at night, which is why they're called lantern bugs. And they were named that before anyone actually checked the locals or you have a glow at night ha. And then they went off and actually named it a, the Latin name is [inaudible] and the English, the common name is Lantern bug. It's one of my ... It's a very interesting bug too. Um, it actually, you can just see, I don't know if you can see, but underneath its legs, there's a, there's a little black line. That's not a leg that's mouth parts and it, it sucks out sap using that mouth part. Um, which, so it makes it a bug and, uh, it, yeah. That down down a bit. Yeah, no up a bit. Yep. So you go to the end of that, you can see a tiny, tiny, tiny, sharp thing. That that's the thing that it uses to Pierce into fruit of a sap of a tree to then suck up the, uh, the sap and, uh, the sugars that it needs. Wow.
Speaker 1 (15:53):
You're really putting the photography in another level because there's no overlap, but otherwise, I mean, there's only this much space. You can get this separation here.
Speaker 2 (16:03):
I keep trying to do an abstract of its wings. And every time I look at it, it hasn't worked now. I can't seem to get, um, a shot, which really just abstracts the wings out, you know, like a really micro macro shot of the amazing structure. Because when you really look closely at these bees, they really quite entertaining.
Speaker 1 (16:25):
No, these are Van Gogh's, look at that. This pattern is called starry night. Really? I think you should definitely. Um, in addition to like, because a lot of people are really doing it in a documentary way, but now I can see that you're mastering the art of it. Right. Really showing and all the animals their deserved respect. Almost all the animals that you're showing them really just the most beautiful, possible way. Right. I mean, this is, um, I'm just, I mean, just stunned to see all this work that you have been, uh, you have been doing. So, so, Oh, like this one also won some awards right. Recently. I remember.
Speaker 2 (17:02):
Yeah. That that's, um, that's got a couple of actually, um, uh, Oh, that's Close-up Photographer of the Year (Finalist).
Speaker 1 (17:10):
Good news. Yeah. Congratulations again.
Speaker 2 (17:14):
Yeah. This one, I was quite interested because it's one of those moments. Um, when I was taking a picture of another type of Bee, uh, very small blue banded bee, I mean these, the half a centimeter big and, uh, for this little bee came in and I didn't know until I looked at the picture, which is sometimes I, you know, you know, when it's like, when you're going through your photo and he's like, wow, I didn't know that, that I captured that moment. And, and if you go into each eye, you've got always like little hexagonal back there. So if I was going to show this to other people, I'd probably crop it tighter and blow it up. So you could really focus on the, I
Speaker 1 (17:52):
Mean, uh, and then, uh, can I zoom in? Yes. So look at this,
Speaker 2 (18:03):
That now in my mind is that's the photo I want full frame. That's the problem. Right? You see the photo and now you think, okay, how can I do it better? How can I, how can I get close enough? Just amazing stuff. So it's more, more educational, more ID.
Speaker 1 (18:21):
So what were you using before that dynamic tension stacking? Were you using light room before? Yeah. Just light room. I see. I see. And now you can,
Speaker 2 (18:32):
I bought, what is it? Viveza (Nik)I think it is, Oh yeah. Two, two things. I think I have to thank you for one is the Viveza, which I actually haven't used yet. I'm not using Photoshop. And also when I try to run it on, my old Macintosh had said, nah, I'm not, I haven't got enough power to run these programs altogether. And the other one was Topaz de-noise.
Speaker 1 (18:55):
Ah, that is amazing. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Speaker 2 (18:59):
So just, just take an image, blow it up. You got your noise, you put it through the filter. It takes 30 seconds. It makes me a bit lazy. So when I'm doing photos for my blog, I just aperture. I do, I do a few tensions in, in, in, in light room. Then I do a pass through Topaz and I'm done. Hopefully I find it very interesting to, to see the reaction of different people to the photos. And it's taught me also, your, your idea of looking at the photos and judging is the right word, but certainly appreciating them. Um, I'm looking at what people have done and you can learn so much, but what you add is that element of actually getting together with the coaching calls, talking, interacting, being able to deal with different people. So I really liked that, you know, on the, uh, the Facebook pages, you do the comments you get from people you're helping you get from people. That's the old idea of media in its truest form is, is, is that link and the community. Hats off to you. I think you've done.
Speaker 1 (20:04):
Oh, thank you for saying that. I want to thank you once again for everything you do.
Speaker 2 (20:09):
Thank you very much. No, it's fantastic. It's been, you've been so inspirational. Thank you, Tin Man.
Speaker 1 (20:13):
Yeah. I'm really inspired. And I'm deeply moved then I need to rethink about what I'm doing after hearing your inspiring stories. Yeah. Amazing. Yeah. So I will talk to you soon, Robert. Congratulations. Talk to you soon. Okay. Bye bye.