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5 Photography Tips We Learned from Michael Kistler

By Sophie Pettit 14 September 2018
The barber snipping away in his backstreet shop. The row of abandoned gloves hanging from the bamboo scaffolding. A tethered bicycle with plastic flowers sitting on an island in the road. Every moment of every day, we stumble across picture-perfect moments of Hong Kong life just waiting to be caught on camera – but how do we spot them? And how can we do them justice from behind our lens? Enter Michael Kistler, the talented street photographer who has taken Hong Kong – and Instagram – by storm in recent years with his jaw-dropping shots of our beloved city.

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Jumping to the rescue of aspiring urban photographers, Michael is inviting Hong Kongers to join him on a three-hour photography workshop to learn how to capture the perfect shot – and naturally, we were first in line to pick his brains. Our masterclass began with a brief discussion with the Instagram legend, where he gained an understanding of our previous experience with a camera, and offered some words of wisdom on photo composition, perspective, and what to look for in the ideal shot. Then it was time to hit the streets of Wan Chai to put our skills to the test – with our trusty smartphones in hand.

1. Trust Your Smartphone

[caption id="attachment_76144" align="aligncenter" width="660"]untitled-design3 How low can you go?[/caption] We soon learned that fancy pants cameras aren’t essential for snapping incredible, high-quality shots of our wonderful city. With some excellent technical tips from Michael, we quickly got to grips with focusing, framing, and getting the perfect lighting for each shot with only a few taps on our screens. And while we’d all love to splash out on hefty, top-notch snappers to dangle from our necks, nobody can deny the satisfaction that comes with knowing you have one that fits right in the palm of your hand, available to use at any given moment. Speaking of which …

2. Live in the 'Fleeting' Moment

[caption id="attachment_76097" align="aligncenter" width="660"]untitled-design-9 Hong Kong's next top model[/caption] It sounds a bit romantic, but when you’re 100 percent focused on life as it unfolds in front of your very eyes, you can’t help but live fully in the moment, and this really shines through on your camera roll. One of the main lessons we learned from Michael was to keep our eyes wide open and our fingers hovering over the shutter button, because you never know when those spontaneous, unplanned, and beautiful ‘fleeting’ moments will present themselves to you in the form of a perfectly-timed picture. Just like when this adorable old lady walked into the frame of my cluttered hardware store shot, or the split second when a bicycle dashed across a busy urban crossing as I crouched down low, ready to capture the swarm of pedestrians heading towards me. Priceless!

3. Don't Be Afraid to Break the Rules

[caption id="attachment_76146" align="aligncenter" width="660"]reflections Seeing double - feeling reflective in Wan Chai[/caption] Rules were made to be broken, right? We quickly discovered from Michael that when it comes to taking great shots, experimentation is key. Sure, the well-known ‘rule of thirds’ will help you compose a well-balanced shot, neatly filling each section. And yes, symmetry and patterns are easy on the eye, while looking at your subject head-on will allow you to capture it perfectly. But sometimes, being a Maverick with a camera and daring to break the rules is even more satisfying when it comes to taking a killer shot. “Don’t be afraid to get on the ground”, Michael would often tell us, encouraging us to get down low to capture that dramatic, towering shot. “And keep your eye out for reflections” – turns out some of our best shots were captured in shop windows, reflective puddles, and shiny, metal facades.

4. Venture Off the Beaten Track

[caption id="attachment_76149" align="aligncenter" width="660"]untitled-design4 Back Door #2 by Michael Wolf and Flipping The Finger by Sophie Pettit[/caption] You never know what might be lurking around the corner – a backstreet barber shop tucked away from a bustling street, a mysterious row of gloves flung over red, rusty pipes, or a golden-glazed duck hanging in the doorway of a local restaurant kitchen. With Michael leading us enthusiastically off the pedestrian track and down quiet, abandoned alleyways, we were able to discover the beauty of the backstreet world. We really enjoyed channeling our inner Michael Wolf to capture the ‘behind the scenes’ of everyday Hong Kong life – finding beauty in the seemingly mundane and unnoticed objects. We’re sure Wolf would be impressed!

5. Wait Patiently for 'The One'

[caption id="attachment_76156" align="aligncenter" width="660"]patience Waiting for the perfect ... moment[/caption] Good things come to those who ... wait. Like pouring the perfect pint of Guinness, capturing the perfect picture takes time. Perhaps the most significant piece of advice we took away from Michael is to avoid the temptation of snapping a million photos of the same scene in the hope that just one will make the cut. Of course, sometimes it requires one or two attempts to make sure all the boxes are ticked and you get the ideal shot, but exercising a little patience makes all the difference between enjoying a few minutes flicking through your camera roll and spending hours trawling through 1,000 pictures to find ‘The One’. It turns out that beautiful photography, like most things in life, is worth waiting for. [su_note note_color="#eeeeee" text_color="#000000" radius="4"]kistler-featureWant to learn from a pro? Join Michael for an urban photography workshop and explore the streets of Hong Kong in search of beauty in the fleeting moments. You will learn new tips and techniques, practice what you’ve learned, and go home with some great new photos to be proud of. The hourly rate for the courses is $900, and full-day, half-day, and night workshops are also available. Click here to find out more.[/su_note]
Read more! Check out City Life Through the Lens of Michael Kistler, and find out what's on in The Weekend Ahead.

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Sophie Pettit


Sophie is always on the lookout for a great story and her next big adventure and loves nothing more than discovering the city’s hidden gems—and most delicious cocktails. When she’s not exploring new places, she’s off travelling and ticking countries off her bucket list.