Stepping into photographer’s shoes…

April 25, 2008

For sub-editors on Reuters Singapore Picture Desk, one of this year’s performance targets is a “shooting assignment”. They have to select and plan a valid photographic assignment and then shoot pictures for the wire. The exercise is intended to give them practical insight into the working lives of busy photographers in the field and the decisions and operational challenges they face on a daily basis. 

Shahida Patail is one such sub-editor.


Up until now my picture taking had been limited to holiday snaps and friends’ weddings but the thought of shooting a picture for the Reuters wire was certainly appealing.

In my eagerness I decided to go to Arab Street and on a working day to boot. There was no concrete idea in my head, but I kept thinking of the colourful shop houses and the much-photographed Sultan Mosque and felt confident that I’d be able to find a subject. Luckily, before leaving the office, my boss Pedja Kujundzic suggested a possible angle – old buildings contrasted with new buildings.

Off I went only to find all my enthusiasm melted in the searing heat as I realized I had no idea what to shoot. I ended up taking random images. I couldn’t seem to find the right angle to deliver the shots I had in mind. The shop houses suddenly seemed more dirty than colourful, and every building seemed to be blocked by those blasted trees and lampposts.

And every time I tried to take a photo with people in it, they would quickly turn or walk away. My hopes were raised when I saw one foreign worker sitting in a corner of an old shop house, tiffin carrier in hand as he prepared to eat his lunch. I was already fantasizing  about the wonderful portrait picture it would make, when he saw me and got up rather menacingly. Panicked, I abruptly turned my camera away and pretended to be shooting an adjacent building. When I felt brave enough to look back in his direction again, he was gone.


Memo to self:  

-Plan the assignment properly. Have some idea of what you are looking for – unless you wanna walk around for hours in the heat uselessly lugging heavy equipment!

-Bring a trolley back or backpack – the weight of the equipment is an issue particularly if you are not used to it. 

-Go do the assignment on an off day, not a working day. You need plenty of time and patience to wait for that picture to come, and it’s best to do it while the mind is still fresh.

After my rather unproductive maiden shoot, I was ready for another go. This time, I was better prepared. I picked a day that I wasn’t working, I dressed comfortably, I brought along a lightweight backpack.

Earlier, I had discussed possible ideas with Editor in Charge David Loh, who brought to my attention the railway track running through the Portsdown area. He told me of families living in the nearby HDB estate who had made the area near the track their private little “gardens”, growing food and plants. So my theme for the day would be the railway and its little communities.

My first stop was the railway station in Tanjong Pagar. This is the starting point for trains leaving Singapore. I arrived before 8am, and started taking shots of passengers buying tickets and waiting for the train. When the first train finally pulled into the station at about 8.30am, I followed the hordes of people onto the platform – five minutes later I had been unceremoniously ushered back into the waiting hall by a fierce-looking train conductor. “No photography on the platform,” he said in a booming voice that made nearby heads turn in my direction. At that moment I wished that the 20D (plus grip) was a lot less conspicuous.

So I turned my attention to the station building. It’s a nice building, built in 1932 in a distinctly European style. After taking a few shots there, I took a taxi to Portsdown.

Armed with a street directory, I thought I could easily find the track that runs through the area. I was wrong. The taxi made a few wrong turns, and finally I decided to explore on foot. Kind Mr Taxi Driver agreed to wait for me as I trekked across a field towards the railway track partially hidden by long grass. Yes, there were old HDB buildings across the track, but there was no one and certainly no “gardens”. The whole area was quite desolate. Plus all sorts of insects were having a go at me, so I ran back to the taxi. Luckily, Mr Taxi Driver told me the track ran through the nearby Jalan Hang Jebat, so we went there. This time, access to the track wasn’t hampered by overgrown vegetation or bloodthirsty insects, but there was no sight of the train. After taking a few shots, I slowly walked back to the waiting taxi. I was about 50 metres away from the track when I heard the chugging of the train. I turned and ran back – too late. The train was too fast for me, and by the time I raised my camera the train was gone. Determined to catch the train, I went to Bukit Timah, where there was a small station. I waited for a long time for the train to appear, and finally gave up.


So my rail theme wasn’t working out. I then remembered David mentioning that the high-rise buildings in Telok Blangah offered spectacular views of the port. I tried my luck, but the tiny corridors gave a very restricted view.

Desperate now, I thought hard and decided that Mount Faber would have good views of the port. So I headed there, and realised the hill had decent views of the city and residential skyline. I took some shots, and on my way back took some photos of the cable cars travelling to and from the hill.

It was evening when I got back to our office at Science Park Drive, but the day had been fruitful – 2 pictures were moved to the wire, and 5 others to the RPA archive.

 Memo to self – 2:

– When faced with challenges, improvise! I should have bought a train ticket and hopped onto the train; it would have offered plenty of shots and the conductor would have no reason to chase me away. And I should have knocked on doors at that Telok Blangah flat…

– If there’s time, recce the place you’re intending to shoot. Things change and people move, so a little bit of research beforehand doesn’t hurt.

– Enough trains!


It was third time lucky and thing really started to come together at the day-care centre for elderly folks. It was cramped and messy, and it was a challenge for me to find a suitable place to position myself and take decent shots. But the patients at the centre were all lovely and smiley and really made my shoot worthwhile.


This is my favourite shot – a therapist massaging a patient. When I saw the clean background behind the therapist, I knew immediately I could compose something worthwhile here. What was a bonus for me was that the patient’s face was quite expressive, but I did not notice this when I first took the shot ‘cos it was dark. And of course the camera LCD screen is small. When I opened the picture in Photoshop back in the office, I was pleased with the result. 


I was extremely nervous when taking these shots of the patients undergoing pet therapy. The dogs that were brought in were MASSIVE, and they were barking a lot. Of course they’re harmless but I’ve never been surrounded by so many big dogs in my life. Every time I crouched down to take a picture, I was afraid of accidentally stepping on a dog’s tail, because the space was so tight.


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Posted by » Blog Archive » Stepping into photographer’s shoes… | Report as abusive

Shahida, Im glad you made it on the wire.Keep the eyes ‘snapping’ first, then picks up the lenses.GOOD LUCK, bazuki, kuala lumpur.

Posted by Bazuki Muhammad | Report as abusive

Shahida,Well done for keeping on coming back!Indeed, professional photography is a real hard job.Best,

Posted by Lucas | Report as abusive

Shah, the secret with news photography is that you never really find out all the answers because there are none and it’s the learning on the journey that makes it so much fun (once pictures sent and filed to clients and you are dry, cool, fed, bladder emptied, insect bites calmed down, sun burn eased, back ache eased, and of course cool beer consumed, in varying quantities)

Posted by Russell Boyce | Report as abusive

“What a beautiful picture!” Picture means everything that can replace a word.PeaceMaura, Indonesia

Posted by Maura Yasmin | Report as abusive

hehehe Russell…. Fortunately I have to say I agree with you. It’s a tough job but once they get their pics and you relieve yourself in all ways possible, it’s definately a great feeling.Requires a lot of patience, perseverance and determination

Posted by Diana Ngila | Report as abusive

I think they are great photos. Just good for stock photo as well 😀

Posted by Aza | Report as abusive

inspirational to budding photographers!

Posted by Ken Liong (Singapore) | Report as abusive

Your acticle illustrates from a photographer point-of-view and I enjoyed the looking at the photos taken in and around Singapore. There are many issues a professional photographer might face while on his photography assignments. Glad you had the opportunity to step into our shoes!

Posted by Eugene Choy (Singapore) | Report as abusive

An interesting insight to a photographer’s work overseas.

Posted by Corporate Singapore | Report as abusive

Nice article – loved to read about him and his works.

Posted by kombizz | Report as abusive

I am very glad you made it.

Posted by kombizz | Report as abusive