Leaving behind a successful career to become a full-time, professional landscape photographer is a dream held by many. For Kah-Wai Lin, a strong passion for nature and the drive to achieve this goal has turned what would otherwise seem like an unattainable desire into a reality.
This month, we had the pleasure of chatting with Kah-Wai about his beginnings and how his photography has evolved into the successful business that it is today. We also gained some insight into the process behind his work, what motivates him to keep creating, as well as his future plans for photography.
Kah-Wai Lin is a Malaysian-born landscape photographer who is currently based in the USA. Photo by: 'Kah-Wai Lin'.
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Hello Kah-Wai! You’ve had quite a journey from your early beginnings to where you are now in photography. For those who are unfamiliar with your work, tell us a little bit about your background. How did you develop an interest in the art and what were your initial plans for it when you first got started?
I was born in Malaysia but I have lived in other parts of the world for most of my life. I hold a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree from Lviv National Medical University, Ukraine and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in Medical Science from Karolinska Institute, Sweden – the institute that nominates the Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine.
Since 2012, I have made my home in New Jersey, USA. Following a 4-year career at Princeton University where I did research on cancer molecular genetics, I followed my passion and became a full-time landscape photographer.
I have been an avid amateur astronomer since I was 13, when I received my first telescope and had the desire to record the beauty of the universe. At the time, I bought my first camera – fully manual analogue SLR camera. That’s how I got started with photography. I still remember the old days when I saved my pocket money to buy and develop film. It was a long time ago, when I was 13 in 1996.
I wanted to be a medical scientist, or physicist, astronomer, archeologist, police, or even a Jedi knight! It was never in my plans to become a photographer, I just never thought about that at all!
Kah-Wai grew up wanting to be an astronomer. Photo by: 'Kah-Wai Lin'.
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Do you have any formal training in photography?
I don’t have any formal training in photography. I am a self-taught photographer. I read a lot of books and I spend a lot of time studying other photographers' works.
Red sails in Greenland. Photo by: 'Kah-Wai Lin'.
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With so many genres to choose from, how did you first make the foray into landscape photography? Can you tell us more about your connection with nature itself?
I was a city boy and I grow up in a small city in Malaysia. I seldom had the chance to get really close to nature during my childhood but my father was addicted to documentaries like National Geographic, and I loved them too! Perhaps that was the time when nature first started budding in my heart.
In the beginning, I photographed everything but I focused on architectural photography when I was in Sweden, because I was surrounded by many beautiful churches and historical buildings. I always wanted to do more landscape photography but I had very limited time to travel in graduate school.
Since I moved to the US, I have been fascinated by American landscapes and they have been my main source of inspiration.
Kah-Wai became fascinated with nature at a young age. Photo by: 'Kah-Wai Lin'.
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How would you describe your approach to landscape photography and how do you differentiate yourself from other landscape photographers?
I am addicted to colour. I am addicted to long exposure as well. When they both meet, they work out perfectly! I always look for opportunities for long exposure photography.
In my landscape photography mind, I believe I have incorporated the “scientific mind and methods” from my medical research background into my creative process. I like to deal with problems using reason and arguments – logical thinking. I like to solve problems with a rational process using experimentation and come out with a conclusion or “theory”. For example, I like to figure out all the possible ways to photograph a scene with all the possible scenarios and conditions and analyse what more can be done next time (perhaps most photographers do that!). I like to explore the theory and logic behind images, as well as to apply it to future shoots (perhaps only scientist photographers do that!). I just like doing experiments!
Kah-Wai takes a scientific approach to photography. Photo by: 'Kah-Wai Lin'.
If you were to pay homage to any landscape photographer, who would it be?
There are many amazing landscape photographers who have gained my respect. As a full time photographer, I am fortunate to work with many great landscape photographers. But if you want me to pick one, it is Ian Plant, an American landscape photographer who never ceases to inspire me. His unique compositional style is just amazing!
What technology or camera gear do you currently use?
I am sponsored by Fujifilm, so Fujifilm GFX 50R is my main gear at the moment. I am also an ambassador for NiSi Filters, Fotopro Tripod and Feiyu Tech, so this is the equipment you will find in my camera bag.
Penguins in Antarctica. Photo by: 'Kah-Wai Lin'.
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What kind of software do you use for post-processing?
I use Photoshop for post-processing. I have the Nik Collection and Noiseware Professional as a plugin.
How important do you think post-processing is in photography today? Can someone succeed without processing their images?
It is extremely important. To me, it is as important as shooting in the field. If you don’t know post-processing, it is just like a chef who picks raw materials but doesn’t know how to cook.
A penguin with chicks in Antarctica. Photo by: 'Kah-Wai Lin'.
What are your thoughts on photographing lesser-known and unique locations, such as in China?
I like exploring and photographing lesser-known and unique locations, I like to show how fun and how interesting our world it is, but I don’t like to see them flooded by tourists.
Out of all of your world travels, which places have captivated you the most, or were the most challenging to photograph? Were there any locations that left you a bit disappointed?
Greenland and Antarctica are perhaps the places that I would like to go back again and again. I just returned from Antarctica. It was such an amazing place for landscape and wildlife photography; I really enjoyed every single day of the trip. Perhaps it is more precise to say that there was much more that I wanted to photograph, rather than to say it left me a bit disappointed. I wouldn't mind staying there for months!
Kah-Wai has photographed many incredible places around the world. Photo by: 'Kah-Wai Lin'.
Given that you're guiding tours for a large portion of each year, how do you handle your workflow? Do you spend an allotted amount of time during each trip on post-processing?
I do the post-processing very slowly. Every piece of my work is considered as a fine art and never the mass production. I spend a lot of time processing an image until I think it is perfect and impeccable.
Rice fields in China. Photo by: 'Kah-Wai Lin'.
How do you balance the demand on your time for photography and home life? What keeps you grounded?
I have an extremely busy schedule with running my photo tour business, seminars and classes (over 200 seminars and classes around the world in the past 3 years), a photo school in New Jersey, as well as a lot of paperwork. It is really difficult to keep the balance between work and life, I am still trying hard!
Kah-Wai has a successful landscape photography business that takes up a lot of his time. Photo by: 'Kah-Wai Lin'.
For someone just finding they have a passion for photography, what would you say is the best thing for them to focus on from the very beginning?
Learn the basics! Have a solid fundamental in operating your gear. Read and study other photographers' works. Don’t hesitate to mimic other photographers' style at the beginning, that’s the learning process, but eventually you may want to develop your own style – the mind, composition, and post-processing. It is so easy to start photography but the path to success is extremely long.
The path to success in photography can be long. Photo by: 'Kah-Wai Lin'.
What is one very valuable lesson that you think every landscape photographer needs to learn?
You get what you pay for, you need to work very hard and there is no shortcut to being a good landscape photographer. Fully utilise your brain before you press the shutter, always ask yourself many questions: what would you like to express, why do you want to compose in such a way, what is the end result you would expect.
There are no shortcuts to becoming a good landscape photographer. Photo by: 'Kah-Wai Lin'.
The world is full of amazing places and photo opportunities – what are some of the countries or regions you would like to visit and photograph in the coming years?
There are many of them, I never been to the African continent so it is on the top of my list. I love winter landscapes so I would really like to explore some lesser-known places in the Arctic Circle, such as Greenland, Norway and Alaska.
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