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Kevin Mak on The Visual Elements of Photography

Bamboo Scenes Photography Artist Kevin Mak, Hong Kong
Bamboo Scenes Photography Artist Kevin Mak, Hong Kong

An award-winning photographer and architect in Hong Kong, Kevin Mak’s photography focuses on the city’s unique urban and spatial perspectives. Through his photos, Mak’s imagery captures Hong Kong’s unique layering of history and cultures, capturing the city’s timeless charm.

Spurred by the vanishing neon street signs of Hong Kong, Kevin also co-founded streetsignsHK to preserve  this icon of the city. Now, these street signs are abundantly represented through his work and have helped him build a strong Instagram community of followers who love his urban perspective.

Bamboo Scenes Photography Artist Kevin Mak Everyday-Lightshow (2017) - Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong
"Everyday-Lightshow" (2017) by Kevin Mak - Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong

What was your first camera? Which camera would you suggest for photographers that are just starting out?

I started out using my mother’s Nikon FM and later, I bought a Ricoh point-and-shoot film camera with all my Lai Si
 [red pockets distributed during Chinese New Year) money in my bank when I was small. It was perfect for learning about basic optical mechanisms through the fully manual camera, while the second was fully intuitive.

While everyone in this generation has now been forced to start with phone cameras—which I also use a lot—starting with a manual film camera at the same time will add another dimension to your experience in photography.

Bamboo Scenes Photography Artist Kevin Mak Crossing Light (2017) - Wan Chai, Hong Kong
"Crossing Light" (2017) by Kevin Mak - Wan Chai, Hong Kong

What editing software do you like to use?  Do you have any quick tips for editing photographs?

I love using Adobe Lightroom. I think it’s important to learn from photographs that you relate to so that you can study how the contrasts and color tones have been expressed. I found it useful to start by understanding how you like the brightest and darkest areas in the photos to be shown and to compare different versions of these studies. For example, it makes a huge difference to darken all the shadow areas to something close to black or to keep the details in the dark still visible.

What do you find the most challenging aspect of taking unique, interesting photos when traveling?

I take it easy when it comes to traveling and photography. In general, I really don’t like to spend my time shooting but not experiencing a place with body and mind. My wife and I prefer not to aim to visit everything when we travel. Instead, we prioritize one or two areas, instead of a list of must-visit landmarks in a single day, then keep our plans open and flexible so we don’t just visit “postcard” spots. This naturally leads to more opportunities for unique photos. 

Bamboo Scenes Photography Artist Kevin Mak One Thousand Sunset Stories (2020) - Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong
"One Thousand Sunset Stories" (2020) by Kevin Mak - Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong

What inspires your photography?

The challenges faced by different generations in developing urban spaces, and how we live in one of these cities that has been built by generations of accumulated thoughts and histories.

What photographers have influenced your style the most? What do you like about them?

I tend to not think about how my style is influenced, and I tend to like photographers that create very different visual styles of photos than my own but have strong concepts. For example, I like both Osamu Yokonami’s conceptual photos and Greg Girard’s documentary urban photography.

From Osamu, I learned how portraits and landscapes can be expressed in conceptual ways, and from Greg, I learned how a photographer sees photography as an integral part of his way of living and decisions in life.

Bamboo Scenes Photography Artist Kevin Mak Hi, Shops (2020) - Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
"Hi, Shops" (2020) by Kevin Mak - Sheung Wan, Hong Kong

How is your personality reflected in your work?

In my work, I like to observe and reorganize everything into a structural visual framework and look for subtle aesthetics. That reflects how I always first give a very basic structure to the environment of my life or my way of working, but never plan until the end. I like to start with certain basic constraints and principles and let the rest happen naturally.

What does Hong Kong mean to you and your photography?

It’s my home, my cultural attachment, and my inspiration.

What advice would you give to today's young aspiring photographers

Shoot less—live and think more.

What are your photography goals for 2021?

Same as above! Shoot less, live, and think more.

Why did you choose Bamboo Scenes to showcase your artwork?

It’s a truly Hong Kong-based curator of art. It’s a perfect match for how closely my photography is integrated into this city.

Bamboo Scenes Photography Artist Kevin Mak Light Of Mercy (2018) - North Point, Hong Kong
"Light Of Mercy" (2018) by Kevin Mak - North Point, Hong Kong

What is your favorite photograph from your collection at Bamboo Scenes?

Light of Mercy. I just love the lighting.

How has your architectural training influenced your photography style?

In design training, I was largely influenced by the emphasis on urban context and the importance of understanding cultural and historical values beyond the physical. And, of course, the structural visual representations can also be traced back to how architectural models and drawings are usually represented.

Bamboo Scenes Photography Artist Kevin Mak, Hong Kong
Bamboo Scenes Photography Artist Kevin Mak, Hong Kong

You're the cofounder of streetsignHK. Why did you choose to get involved in this, and how are you using this in your photography?

Hong Kong signboards are a very unique presence in the streetscape of Hong Kong but have been rapidly disappearing over the past 10 years, mainly due to changes in building regulations. As an architect, I could see their urban values but could do nothing for this vanishing phenomenon at my daytime job.

That’s the reason we started to work on conserving the heritage of Hong Kong’s signboards, both as an interest and a social responsibility. This became the background of my seeing Hong Kong signboards not just as a visual element of my photography but as a need to share the values and liveliness of these Hong Kong icons.

Bamboo Scenes Photography Artist Kevin Mak Welcome, Neon (2020) - Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong"Welcome, Neon" (2020) by Kevin Mak - Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong

Instagram has been a big part of your journey. Can you describe this?

Instagram has been both my personal diary and my main means to share the values behind my photography. I truly feel glad to have met a lot of people through this.


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