Artist Interview: Simon Zhu
Tell us a little bit about how you got into photography. How long have you been shooting?
I met a friend who was into photography while I was doing a research exchange in Singapore during the summer of 2017. He mostly did street photography and weddings (completely different from what I shoot now), but I’d often explore the streets of Singapore with him, taking pictures on my phone. I picked up my first camera when I returned to Vancouver in the fall. It’s been about a year and a half now and I’m not looking back.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done to get the shot?
I’ve had countless crazy rooftop experiences, but one of the most memorable was a crane climb from a trip to Toronto last year. My friend and I woke up at 4am to make our way to the site, hoping to catch blue hour/sunrise atop the crane. As we entered the site and climbed two levels of scaffolding, everything seemed to be going smoothly, but just as we were about to step foot into the building we saw flashlights shining up at us from below. We slowly tiptoed towards a stack of wooden planks and crouched behind them, hoping that the security guards wouldn’t see us.
We stayed there for over an hour as they walked back and forth around the perimeter of the building searching for us, and numerous times their flashlights shone directly at us I was certain we would be caught. Finally, the footsteps receded and we entered through a wooden door into the building and started making our way up the stairs. When we finally reached the roof level after nearly 70 stories, we could see the crane reaching straight up above us. Feeling happy and relieved that we had made it, we climbed up the base of the crane to wait for sunrise, but when we got to the top we were surprised to find that the crane cabin was already occupied. We were confused at first, but quickly realized that another pair of explorers had already arrived there before us.
They came out of the cabin to introduce themselves and revealed that they had been expecting us, having heard from a mutual friend that we would be climbing the crane for sunrise. As dawn broke, my friend and I began to ascend the arm of the crane, while the other two stayed at the base. At the top was an incredible view of downtown, and with the city lights shining all around us, it was truly a sight I’ll never forget. After spending a few minutes to take photos and soak it all in, I started climbing back down, and on the way I realized that workers had already begun to come onto the roof. Surprisingly, they barely gave us a second glance, so we quickly and discreetly packed our things and left, and against all odds we made it out of the site without getting caught.
All in all a crazy, exciting morning, and a great story to tell the grandkids one day!
Do you prefer shooting alone or with a group of people?
It depends, but usually I enjoy shooting with other people. It’s always nice to have second opinions on angles, framing, etc. and I find that observing others often inspires me to come up with better compositions of my own during the next adventure. I also learn new things every time I shoot with new people.
Another reason is that I often like to place people in my shots for a sense of scale or for a more dramatic effect:
However, if I have a very meticulous plan for something I want to shoot, then sometimes I prefer to go alone since it keeps me free from distractions.
Describe the photography community where you live.
The photography community is pretty tight knit since Vancouver is a relatively smaller city. Most serious photographers either know one another or have friends in common, which is great when you’re looking for people to collaborate/shoot with. Since the city is surrounded by mountains and temperate rainforest, there are photographers engaging in both urban/cityscape and nature photography, as well as various other styles.
What was your first camera?
What's your favorite photo that you’ve taken?
It’s hard to say since my preferences change all the time, but right now this would definitely be one of my top picks:
Locations and weather conditions seem to be a crucial aspect to a successful photo. How do you handle these unpredictable factors?
Weather can be very frustrating, and to be honest this is one of the reasons why the majority of my photos are shot at night. I think the city is more beautiful after dark, but I also like not having to worry about lighting conditions. However, when I do plan to shoot sunrise or sunset, I use an app called Sun Surveyor that tells me the exact time and direction the sun will be at any time in the day. This way, I can plan my shots days in advance. I also make use of any webcams and weather cams that there are to make sure the weather is good on the day I plan to shoot.
When shooting are you meticulously detailed or do you go with the flow?
Most of the time when I’m shooting street or urban photography, I’m pretty meticulous and always try to get the the perfect shot. If I’m shooting car trails, I might wait for over half an hour just to get cars in all lanes driving at the perfect speed. However, I try to stay open-minded and experiment with different angles and settings just for fun.
When you’re out shooting, are there any props that you keep in your toolkit?
I have this Portrait Light Stick (YONGNUO LED Video Light) that I use for light painting, which I used to take with me everywhere:
However, it’s a bit tedious to carry and I don’t bring it with me as often anymore. I always used to carry steel wool with me as well:
What’s something about you that would surprise our readers?
I work for Facebook (the company that owns Instagram). I have friends who can get your Instagram account verified for $200-300 bucks 😉.
What crazy project do you want to tackle next?
I’ve been starting to get interested in video lately. I’m working on multiple different ideas for timelapses/timeslices/animated photos at the moment, and I want to transition into filming videos from there.
Focal Collective: Artist Interview Series
Focal Collective would like to thank our contributing artists! This recurring propensity to create and growing community continues to inspire us. Are you interested in sharing your story? Feel free to apply to our Artist Interview Series with your portfolio, IG, and a brief introduction via our contact page. We'll look out for your message!
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