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CPMC 2019: Up Close with 1st Prize Winner Mohd Safuan

For Mohd Safuan bin Salahudin, champion of the Canon PhotoMarathon Asia Championship 2019 (CPMC2019), photography was so much of a passion that it was a natural decision to leave his engineering job for a full-time photography career. He tells us about his photography journey, the strategy that helped him win a number of photography competitions, as well as the story behind a few of his CPMC2019 shots.


Hi Safuan, congratulations on your win! Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your photography journey?

Both my grandfather and father were photography enthusiasts. I started playing around with my late grandfather’s camera when I was around 5 years old, and bought my first film camera as a teenager in 1998. One’s memory can often fail, and I like how photography allows you to preserve moments and share them with the world.

When I was still in school, I shot for events and took group photos of my classmates, printed the photos, and sold it to them. I continued doing this throughout my university days until I graduated in 2008.

I always had my heart in the photography business, but my parents wanted me to start off with a stable career. So, I found a full-time job as an engineer. But I still worked as a part-time photographer on weekends, shooting for weddings and events. With my income, I finally bought my first DSLR camera in 2010.

In 2013, I quit my engineering job and went into photography full-time.

Leaving a stable career to go into full-time freelance photography is quite a difficult decision for most people. What was the deciding factor for you?

I think for me, it’s all about passion. Even while working as an engineer, I spent a lot of time on photography, including weekends and in the middle of the night. And I was happy doing it. Eventually, I realised that photography gave me a lot more happiness, time, and even income than my engineering life. Therefore, I decided to “step down” from engineering and start a full-time career in photography.

What were some of the challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?

I faced a setback just a week before I quit my job:  burglar broke into my car and stole all my equipment! I had to use my teammate's equipment (an EOS 40D and EOS 60D) for quite a while after that until I got my EOS 6D in 2015.

Apart from that, I think I have been quite blessed. In the beginning, it was tough to get clients. I was lucky that I had some exposure thanks to my part-time photography, so at least people knew that I was a photographer.

Winning competitions such as the Canon PhotoMarathon (CPM) Malaysia and participating in programmes like the Canon Photo Face-Off (CPO) helped to build my business reputation, as they proved my potential and capabilities. CPMC2019 has taken this a step further, and provided a great opportunity for business networking. 

Mohd Safuan checking his EOS R

Mohd Safuan checks a shot on his EOS R during one of the CPMC2019 challenges.

(Note: Mohd Safuan won the 1st prize in the Canon PhotoMarathon Malaysia in 2016 and 2017, the Grand Prize in the Canon PhotoMarathon Malaysia 2018, and now, 1st prize in the Canon PhotoMarathon Championship Asia 2019.)

Apart from these, how have programmes such as the Canon PhotoMarathon and Canon Photo Face-Off helped you grow as a photographer?

CPM, CPMC2019 and PFO all test our creativity. CPM and CPMC put us in unknown places with a limited time to create photos. I learned to manage those limitations and create unique images that suited the theme. Meanwhile, in PFO, we had to use the camera provided, which could be of any model, to handle surprise challenges at unexpected locations. You have to really think on your feet and be creative even while working with an unfamiliar camera, and it shows just how much the photographer's skill really matters.

Through CPMC, I made new friends from different parts of Asia. We collaborate and share our own works as well as those from others, and through that, we inspire each other. Through PFO, I got to meet and learn from an international award-winning professional photographer, Justin Mott, and have my photos judged by him, which provided very valuable feedback.

Mohd Safuan with GOTO AKI and Hirokazu Nagane

Mohd Safuan (centre), with CPMC instructor GOTO AKI (right) and guest instructor Hirokazu Nagane (left).

You have won a few photo contests. Could you share about your strategy?

The key is to understand what the organizers want. If you know who is judging the contest, it helps to know their style and preferences too. Then, you plan your strategy, which usually requires you to try to think outside the box to create something that fits the theme. It’s like winning a girl’s heart—we need to know how to tackle her.

What was the most important thing you learned from these contests?

I have learnt to be patient. From past experiences, I realised that even if I had planned my shot beforehand, I would lose track of my idea if I let the adrenaline rush take over. The brain needs to be calm and relaxed in order to be creative. So, I would advise photography contest participants to stay happy-go-lucky, enjoy the experience, and don’t be stressed. Don't be in a rush to shoot; look and understand the environment first, then create the picture.


Some of Mohd Safuan's CPMC2019 shots and the stories behind them

Sakura and bee

Open Challenge/Location: Ryuganbuchi
EOS R/ EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM/ FL: 100mm/ Manual exposure (f/10, 1/1000 sec, EV+0.7)/ ISO 800/ WB: Manual

This is my favourite shot and the most memorable. It was shot at Ryuganbuchi, which is a famous spot for photographing sakura trees with Mount Fuji in the background. Unfortunately, the sakura were not in full bloom when we went.  But when I went closer to one of the sakura trees, I saw the bees flying around the flowers. Knowing that sakura was one of the symbols of Japan, I decided to take a macro shot of a bee with the sakura.

I spent almost 40 minutes observing the bees and flowers, praying to the Almighty for a good shot that could help me win. My prayers were answered when a bee flew out of one of the flowers, and I obtained this shot, which is sharp and framed perfectly.

Keen on taking your own sakura photos? Here are some photography spots and tips: 
Photographing Sakura in Japan: Scenic Spots & Pro Photography Tips: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3


Steam train on bridge over river

Open Challenge/Location: En route to Senzu Station
EOS R/ RF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 24mm/ Shutter-priority AE (f/10, 1/80 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 400/ WB: Manual

I was very inspired by Mr. Hirokazu Nagane, the famous train photographer who was a guest instructor for CPMC2019. He puts the landscape and the train together in one picture, and I found his shots amazing. Since we had the chance for him to review our shots, I tried to create pictures that I thought would impress him. This is one of them.

This shot was taken on the bus while on the way to Senzu Station. I imagined that the old steam locomotive was travelling into the tunnel of nowhere, like a scene from the movie “Back to the Future”.


CPMC2019 participants at Otago Beach

Challenge 5: Moment/ Location: Otago Kaigan
EOS R/ EF17-40mm f/4L USM/ FL: 35mm/ Manual exposure(f/5, 1/100 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 200/ WB: Auto

The seaside at Otago Kaigan (Otago Beach) is a famous spot for shooting sunsets. Twice a year, the setting sun will appear perfectly in the middle of two islands.

As the theme here was “Moment”, everyone aimed to shoot the sunset. So, to ensure that my photo was different, I decided to shoot a different type of moment: The moment where photographers from all over the world were shooting the sunset. That in itself is a moment to remember.

I choose to shoot in black and white to express the soul of the picture. While that meant I didn’t capture the beautiful golden hour light, it helped me to focus more on the light direction, quantity and quality of light around me. I feel it also helps to capture the emotion of the subjects better.

Next: CPMC 2019: Through the Eyes of GOTO AKI


Find out more about previous instalments of CPMC in:
Through Different Lenses: An Interview with the CPMC 2018 Winners
Canon PhotoMarathon Asia Championship Report: Battle for Top Spot in Final Showdown in Japan!

You might also be interested in:
GOTO AKI: Changing Careers to Follow My Photography Passion
So You Want to Be a Freelance Photographer


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