Mark Teo, with Flair and Honesty
Mark Teo is brutally honest. He will give you completely unfiltered opinions of anything you ask for. He is especially honest about himself. In the age of self-promotion via social media, this young photographer’s approach is refreshing, at the very least.
“Born and bred in Singapore,” is how Teo first describes himself. This is quickly followed by “I dropped out of engineering school.” Doing poorly in all his subjects, Teo reevaluated what he wanted to do with his future.
At the time, he was an active aggressive inline skater. This sport got him interested in video and photography because his friends often filmed what they were doing. This was in the days just before digital filmmaking was becoming accessible, so Teo was immersed in film.
After film was developed and printed, mixed results with the family camera, or whatever they could get their hands on, discouraged Teo. Engineering school was not a good fit, and Communications seemed more his style. He moved to Perth, Australia, and enrolled in Edith Cowan University, where his sister was already attending university. Once there, he chose a major in Photography, which also featured some video work. In three years he got his degree.
Teo feels the greatest skill he acquired at university was how to do research on his own. After graduating, he continued his education with online research of other photographers’ blogs and Strobist, in particular. The Internet had lessons on lighting superior to anything he learned at university.
Eventually returning to Singapore, Teo became associated with different extreme sports practitioners, and built his portfolio. He began freelancing in 2008, and has been a full-time professional since then. As he increases his editorial work, he finds lifestyle magazines are steady clients, giving him a range of demands for different types of photography, including food shoots, lifestyle portraiture, product photography, or anything else being featured that month. An association with Red Bull has kept him busy, also, including a six-week stint photographing runners in the Austrian Alps.
While a student at university, he got involved with digital photography, but still keeps film cameras for his own personal shoots. For clients, he uses a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, with a Canon EOS 7D for backup. On specific projects he uses a Canon EOS-1D. For lighting, he relies on speedlights and Elinchrom Quadras.
When asked about triggering his lighting, Teo relates a story. “One night I planned a big shoot with lots of smoke and a skater at a skate park at night,” he recalls. He brought a pair of off-brand remotes he had acquired on eBay. “In the room, indoors, one flash, they worked fine. I brought them outdoors, and I set everything up. The flashes just didn’t work, so the whole night I was just kind of coming up with excuses. ‘Sorry, guys, one more time,’ ‘Could we try that again?’ ‘Ah, the flash didn’t go,’ ‘Oh, that was good, but the flash didn’t go.’ I was so fed up with the remotes that very night I went to the B&H site, and ordered my first set of PocketWizards.”
Teo considers his setups to be standard, but his results are impressive. “My basic setup, if I knew the assignment was going to be run and gun, there is not much time to set up and test the lighting and all that,” he says. “I usually try to bring at least two lights, so there is a total of about three PocketWizard units as my basic setup. Then I decide depending on where the light is. Sometimes I try to balance it out with the available light. Sometimes I just want to dumb it down and light it myself. Usually, I like to get a slightly grittier look, so no modifiers or anything like that. Just the bare flashes, sandwich the guy, highlight the guy, separate him from the background. This is quite standard stuff in terms of positioning, I guess.”
Accurately positioning himself for the perfect shots with extreme sports athletes is of critical importance. “Whenever I have the chance, I walk the course before the actual race or event, so that always helps,” he says. “I walk through, and I look through other people’s photographs. I usually research the event, and I see where potential crash areas might be or big jumps or a nice backdrop. That’s how I decide in general. After that, it is a matter of shooting and adjusting yourself from there.”
Despite these precautions, Teo has had a few close calls with speeding athletes, but considers himself lucky. He’s fallen, but the worst that’s happened is he’s broken a few lens filters. Not bad, considering his proximity to speeding skaters.
Off-camera flash in high speed sports is just one use Teo has made of his PocketWizards. “When moving to my new studio, I was thinking it would be cool to see what the MultiMAX could do,” he says. “The time lapse function is excellent. I just leave it hanging with the whole camera dangling from the ceiling with one MultiMAX, and one to trigger the camera trigger cable. Then I just go out for breakfast or I go for lunch or I spend a day and come back in the evening when it is done. Then I just take my card out. It would fire a shot every 25 seconds.”
The outdoors, though, is where Teo sees himself taking the majority of his shots. “I don’t really like shooting in the studio,” he says. “I like extreme sports—that’s why I go out and shoot. Having a nice sky or a nice backdrop I think helps to tell the story a little bit better.”
In the future, Teo will continue to capture extreme sports, but he’s also interested in more journalistic and documentary work in other countries. “That’s what interests me as well, actually. I see myself in all these other cultures, just experiencing a different way of life,” he says. Count on Teo seeking out the high-speed action wherever he travels, and capturing it with both flair and honesty.