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Capturing Nature’s Casual Side: An Interview with Macro Photographer Tszkin Ng

Last year, the ITM team took a leisure trip to Costa Rica, and while we were staying in the small coastal town of Cahuita, we met a friendly gentleman who always had a camera with him. Since Chris was never without his camera either, we struck up a conversation and learned that the man was also on vacation and was determined to capture images of the smallest members of Cahuita’s wildlife - lizards, amphibians, arachnids, insects, etc. As the week went on, we had a chance to share stories and our own photos with the macro photographer and we found that we couldn’t wait to see which critters he found each day. Now, we are delighted to share Tszkin Ng’s images and techniques with you in this special interview.  

What is your background in photography? How did you get your start?

I’ve never had any formal training in photography, but there were many major principles I did learn at Dawson College in a 3-year professional program called Illustration & Design. Otherwise, I learned techniques and concepts mostly through trial-and-error, and by researching books and consulting various websites. My first serious photographs were taken during my last year in high school, and it was purely a pastime. I started diving into it right after I bought my first camera: a used 35mm Minolta that used film (analog). Shortly thereafter, I took my first close-ups of an ant carrying a caterpillar. When the photo was developed, I got really excited about the possibilities, and knew that I needed more zoom. That’s when I had purchased my first macro lens, a 105mm Vivitar. From there, every year I’ve been refining my techniques, with better and more precise equipment every few years, and I’ve had a blast ever since.

What drew you to macro photography as a specialty?

I’d say the textures that we never notice, even when they’re visible to our eyes. Macro photography allows me to show to the world the beauty in details, even if it’s just a glimpse — the so-called micro-universe. This type of photography makes a statement, saying, “Hey, this is what you’ll be able to see if you look closely next time. This is real, in our world.”

What is your favorite macro image? Why?

I have so many. But if I had to save one from a digital fire (it’s strange to say that, most of these images haven’t been printed yet), it would be the one of the strawberry dart frog. The very first photograph I started processing when I landed back home from my last trip was of this alien-looking dart frog from Panama. I remember meeting this little fellow as I neared the Red Frog Beach (a very fitting name), and realized how she hardly flinched as I approached slowly. The frog stuck out so much among the yellow-white sand — almost like a gem that had belonged there. I love her colors, the reflections in her eye (which, by the way, dimly showed a large animal jumping from one tree to the next at a higher resolution). The sense of scale is amusing in this image, where individual sand is seen scattered over this frog’s face and body, almost like little spitballs sticking to her skin.

How long have you been a photographer?

I’ve been a photographer for roughly 13 years. Because I’m partial toward animals, often of the more-than-four-legs kind, I usually emerge with my camera in the summertime (our winters are long here). In the past, I’ve met incredible animals during my stays in Hawaii, where I’ve see animals adapted to desert-like weather, and others that thrive in a rainforest environment. Hiking in the Hong Kong area also gave me many opportunities to photograph interesting animals, even when it was in December. Yet, I sometimes forget that we have incredible animals here too, in the region where I live — I just had to look.

Does your day job affect how you think about photography?

It really does, and my past jobs did too. I currently work as a 3D artist at gsmproject, a design firm specialized in creating exhibitions and observation decks, and my job is to produce images (using 3D software and Photoshop) of what a space would look like, before it was built — for design validation or for attracting prospective clients. After I graduated from school, my first two jobs were in the architecture field, with similar duties. Because I had to work with cameras in 3D programs, I had to apply the same principles as I would in real photography, such as composition, color, lighting, choice of subject, etc.

Can you give a short summary of your Costa Rica trip and why you chose to go there?

For a long time, I had always wanted to visit a tropical rainforest. Growing up, I would watch in awe with my father the various documentaries showing the personal world of insects, spiders, centipedes, crustaceans and all the other invertebrates that inhabit various rainforests. This fascination was what motivated me to want to meet all these individual living things. In September of 2015, I visited Costa Rica for the first time. I was mainly on the Caribbean side of the country, moving from place to place. I first stayed at a wooden jungle cabin near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. There, I would wander freely in the forest on the property, always finding species that I had never encountered before. Cahuita was next, where I met you two. It was a great area to snorkel, and the national park in the area was nice. My last destination was definitely memorable: Tortuguero, the land of turtles. There, the highlight for me was witnessing baby sea turtles emerge from the sand. That for me, was quite a fond memory.

What is your next destination and what do you look forward to photographing there?

I’m considering South America — perhaps Ecuador. One of the deciding factors would be the presence of tropical rainforests, and the promise of photographing frogs (I’ve got a soft spot for the little hoppers). Also, any invertebrate fascinates me, especially ones with a wide spectrum of colors or unexpected textures. I want to find these animals, and try to show them in a way that they have never been seen before — that’s my goal.

Do you have any tips or tricks for those getting started with macro photography?

For those who are on a tight budget, renting macro equipment might be a good idea. That way you would have good-quality gear and be able to tell if you like it. Although not a prerequisite, I would recommend photographing with an analog camera. Having done that myself, I have a fuller appreciation for the art, and a better understanding of how cameras work and the history behind the various icons and terms used in the digital versions of today. You also have to be comfortable with the idea that there will be struggles behind that camera. In my case, wildlife macro photography, tripods are usually a luxury. Things hop and jump and fly, so I had to learn to really relax and still myself (even in the tropical heat and humidity) to capture that perfect moment. For many, that’s grueling and work, but for me, it’s exhilarating, especially at night.

Trying is the word I would use often. I am never fully satisfied with a few shots — I know that it’s not everyday that I come across a jolly-rancher-colored cricket — I always try to get the maximum amount of images from a single subject, and then cull them afterwards if I have to.

Other advice I would give applies mainly to living animals, and generally not to plants or fungi (although they too deserve respect). Because of the intimate nature of macro photography, I always try my best to be mindful of the subject’s temperament. If the animal is sleeping, I avoid waking it up just to get a shot of its eyes. It’s also important to ease into it — imagine being a frog and a giant great ape with strange clothes and a huge light decides to quickly crouch toward you. I try to always watch my surroundings and be respectful. Many animals have emotions and their body language usually expresses them. Like you mentioned in your guide to photography, I try to get down (or up) to a subject’s eye level. The way I see it, there’s always a subjectivity in this kind of photography (in many other types too, I can imagine), and I’m always trying to wait for that one honest moment where my subject lets her guard down and shows me her casual self.

What is your dream destination? Is it the same as your ideal place to photograph?

I have a few. I would love to explore an African rainforest (Tanzania looks amazing). From what I’ve seen online, some of the animals there are just dazzlingly beautiful! This is very vague, but I’d also say caves in general. The fauna and flora in these isolated and hostile places look so foreign, so alien. The Great Barrier Reef (Australia) would also be on my long list. I would say however that those last two would be logistically and technically challenging. I would need very expensive equipment, and underwater photography would be a whole new challenge for me, not to mention underwater macro photography.

About Tszkin Ng:

Brought up in the Montreal 90s (Canada), Tszkin has many interests that have shaped who he is; these interests are broad, usually require a lot of patience, and sometimes even intersect one another. From papercraft to 3D modeling to martial arts and hockey to coding in python to watercolor, and of course hiking to photography, Tszkin enjoys a plethora of activities. He currently works as a 3D artist and likes to draw on the way to work. Like so many creatives, he is always chasing after uncatchable perfection.

June 9, 2016

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