Inside The Photographer’s Studio: Sebastian Tan

At 51, Sebastian Tan, owner of The Shooting Gallery and Wishing Well The Imaging Station is one rare individual who can truthfully say he has taken the road less travelled, and enjoyed every minute of the rollercoaster ride. Formally trained in advertising art, Sebastian or Seb, as he is affectionately known by friends; fell into photography entirely by accident, and has never looked back since. This chance encounter jump started an impressive career that is instrumental in shaping Singapore’s creative industry into what it is today – a regional production hub for top media agencies worldwide.

seb1In 1987, with little more than the clothes on his back, Seb started The Shooting Gallery to provide Singapore with a comprehensive array of commercial photography services. Within two years, it swiftly grew to become Singapore ‘s largest studio. Since then, The Shooting Gallery has expanded to incorporate television commercial production, 3D imaging (undertaken by subsidiary Wishing Well The Imaging Station) and branch facilities in Malaysia , Indonesia and Vietnam.

That’s not all. Unlike run-of-the-mill studios that cash in on fickle trends for a quick buck, The Shooting Gallery has made a distinctive name for itself by delivering high-quality work that is consistently innovative, creative and relevant. Under Seb’s direction, The Shooting Gallery has won virtually every major international award, such as D&AD, The Cannes Gold Lion, the Asian Media Awards and the Singapore Creative Circle Award. In a word, you name it, they’ve bagged it.

Despite his success, Seb is one of the most down-to-earth personalities you’ll ever meet. At first sight, he resembles a very friendly grizzly bear, with generous hints of salt-and-pepper in his hair. Yet, underneath a weathered exterior, the veteran photographer and director still exudes a youthful vitality and raw enthusiasm that light up every room he walks into.

We speak to Seb one sunny Tuesday afternoon to find out what makes him tick.

Humble Beginnings

Tell us one thing that you’d really love to do right now. Right now?
I’d love to go back to sleep.

Oh dear. How many hours do you sleep on an average day?
Three, maybe four hours at a stretch. I make it a point to sleep.

You must have a busy schedule. So what do you do in your spare time?
I love gardening. I grew up in the kampong, so I love to spend time in the garden with my plants. I love nature.

Tell us, how did you get started in this business?
I didn’t plan for that to happen! I was actually working as the Chief of Security at Robinson’s for three years right after NS. But I’ve always been interested in art, so although it wasn’t my job to be involved in displays and signage, I was kaypoh enough to chip in my two cents and help the store to write signage and the set-up of displays. One day, my manager pulled me aside and said, “Seb, you should leave because you’re not doing justice to yourself. You’re good for the company and you’ll probably rise up to a senior position, but you will never realize your full potential.” I took her words to heart, and left to attend art school. So I must thank her for recognizing my artistic inclination, and for being the catalyst behind my decision to explore advertising. I was 25 when I studied advertising art at the Baharuddin Vocational Institute.

You were trained in advertising art. Why did you go into photography?
I was approached and offered a job by a photographer three months before graduation. At that point in time, I had to find a job immediately as I had to service my mortgage, and there was only enough funds to last one month after graduation. So when I was asked to join a photography studio as an assistant, I figured a bird in hand is worth two in a bush.

Did you explore other options?
I was offered a number of attractive job offers just before graduation. We were quite fortunate then; although we didn’t have graduation shows, the school would actually arrange for ready placements and interviews from various organizations. I remember my Head of Department coming up to me one day, and telling that he’d selected a high paying job for me. So you can imagine his shock when I told him that I’ve already got a job (with the photographer) which paid only S$400 a month. His response was, “What? But you’re trained in art. You studied art! How can you do photography? You must be mad!”

Oh dear. Did you regret your decision?
No. The photographer was willing to wait for me to finish my course, so I was committed to join him after graduation. Besides, I figured I could work for him for one month or two, and leave if it didn’t work out. At least I would have fulfilled my promise. And it was a blessing in disguise. Looking back I’m glad I went into photography instead of advertising art, because I’m a very restless person. I’m hyperactive! I love art, but if I’d stayed back to do art, I’ll don’t think I could sit still for so many hours in front of the drafting table. I really, really enjoy photography.


Starting The Shooting Gallery

You assisted a photographer for seven years. Why did you leave?
I was working both as an assistant and photographer by then. People started calling for me and eventually I became more prominent. Things came to a point when I was the only person shooting. It didn’t go down well. I had to leave because of these insecurities, which was a big mistake for the studio. I could have made a lot of money for the company, but most bosses don’t see the wisdom behind nurturing and grooming talent and let them earn money for you. When I left, I took these lessons and set up The Shooting Gallery.

So this is how The Shooting Gallery came into the picture. Was it tough starting on your own?
We barely had any funds when we started The Shooting Gallery. I spent my last $4,000 on a Hasselblad, and the rest of the equipment was basically acquired without any collateral or funds.

Wow. How did you manage that?
In my previous company, I was buying equipment for the studio with the money that was given to me as a bonus, because I felt that in order to deliver a good job we need certain things that the photographer was unwilling to support. Sometimes, being unselfish and not calculative works out well. All the suppliers knew that I was paying out of my own pocket, so when I had to leave, that became a blessing in disguise. When I was looking for equipment for The Shooting Gallery, the suppliers said to me, “Take whatever you want. Pay when you can.”

How long did it take to pay off the equipment?
We cleared everything within six months.

That’s very impressive. How would you describe your guiding philosophy for The Shooting Gallery?
Honesty, integrity and fairness. When I wanted to leave my ex-studio, the boss tried to get me to stay back. He actually threatened to close the company, since I was generating nearly 90% of the profits then. He offered to let me buy the company if I work for another five years. Two and a half years later, he suddenly told me to leave at once, as he had found more photographers to join the studio. When I asked for the dues that were owed to me, he turned around and said, no. He said, “This is business, and if you don’t understand it, you get burned. Too bad.”

What happened after that?
I told him, “I’ll set up a business that is based on honesty, integrity and fairness. I’ll prove to you that business need not be unscrupulous, dishonest or a cheat to be successful.” And that’s the way Shooting Gallery was run ever since. My experiences in this studio became checkpoints for The Shooting Gallery to remind us of our principles behind starting the company. They are the pillars that we operate the company by. We made it a point to let all our photographers gain equal prominence as individuals, and in two years we were the largest studio in Singapore.

The Shooting Gallery has nurtured many talents who have left to start out on their own. What do you think of this?
They don’t become enemies just because they left. For those that have left the company with honesty and fairness, we still ask them to collect the shares that are due to them. People ask, “Why do you bother? Nobody does that.” And I tell them, “I have a conscience. If they have done well and generated revenue for the company, they deserve it.” This is why we still maintain very good relationships with these photographers. Although we compete for jobs, we still have respect for each other. And we always keep in touch. Sometimes, we rent equipment to them because they know we have these facilities. This support is very healthy because at the end of the day we can’t do everything by ourselves.

seb3 Digital vs Film

What do you think of the digital revolution?
Film has its glory days, and it served the profession and the public well. But the industry must be realistic and move with the times. We cannot afford to be stubborn, and insist on doing things the way that we are used to. Digital capture has its pros and cons; most importantly, digital capture is finer than film. It is fast, and eliminates the uncertainty of shooting film. There is more stability in terms of the images captured. With film, there’s always Murphy’s law: You tell the lab, “This job is important, very urgent, please don’t screw up!” and the next thing you know, your film gets damaged in the processor.

But digital photography has made it much easier for amateurs to infiltrate the industry.

To a certain extent. But whatever it is, garbage in, garbage out. Sure, you can do wonders with Photoshop, but understanding the fundamentals and basic principles of photography; light, shadows, textures and perspective are more important, because this is what photography is about. The ability to relate to a given situation. If you don’t have a firm foundation, you’ll be spending hours and hours enhancing your pictures, you’ll be spending hours and hours correcting your pictures just to make them work. The difference between a good shot and a bad shot will still be telling.

Do you think the industry is too dependent on Photoshop and other digital imaging tools?
Digital capture has made it easier for us to capture the perfect image without going through multiple exposures or wasting processing time. But you have to know when to stop, and tell yourself, “It’s good enough. Don’t touch it.” More often then not the image is overcooked. So a photographer must have the eye to leave certain imperfections in the image, because we don’t live in a perfect world. What I usually do is to insert “intentional imperfections”; putting imperfections internationally so the image looks good, it looks natural, so it doesn’t look plastic or computer generated.

Future Of The Industry

You’ve worked as a photographer for 20 years. What do you think the future of the industry will be like?
Honestly? It’s a little bleak. Technology costs a lot more these days, but in terms of budget, the clients’ willingness to pay for creativity has not appreciated. In fact, it has been diluted and does not relate to inflation.

Inflation? What do you mean by that?
When I was a junior photographer twenty years ago, the average fee was about $2,000 a day. And this is the same rate we’re charging today. And we can’t charge any higher because we have to stay competitive. But everything else has gone up, such as rental, staff salaries and equipment. Inflation has gone up by 400-600%, but our fees have stagnated, and the profitability of the business has eroded steadily.

Are there ways to reverse this situation?
I’ve anticipated and told a lot of photographers that if we do not work together as a team and charge fairly based on our costs, it will no longer be justifiable to operate a commercial studio, because our overheads have become much higher than what we can charge out for. The sad thing is that not many photographers take their overheads and hidden costs into consideration until they break their revenue down at the end of a year. By then, it’s too late. Photographers in Singapore must realize that undercutting is not the way to remain competitive, and they cannot forgo certain charges and bill below costs just to win a job. This actually kills the industry, it kills the profession.

What are some of the hidden costs that photographers tend to overlook?
Rent, material, equipment and salaries. It got worse when digital photography entered the scene. Photographers were charging as low as $70 per shot because suppliers tell them they can afford to cut their fees since they no longer have to charge for film. But there’s a reason why we charged $30 for a roll of $3 film. It’s to cover the operational costs of running a studio, and ensure that we make enough to replace equipment that are worn due to usage.

So how can a photographer charge fairly for his work?
Clients can bargain like hell for fees, but they will never bargain for materials. That was the case for film, and this can be the case for digital. We must educate the industry to start charging for services together with fees, because it takes time to download, transfer and enhance clients’ images, and time is money. There is no way a photographer can survive based on fees alone; after deducting the money for equipment, assistant fees and overheads, you’re lucky if you get $400 for a $2,000 job. Unless photographers understand how much cost is involved in running a studio, they will exit the industry after two years because they realize they can’t sustain a living. There is no logic left for anyone to make a living as a commercial photographer.

What do you think the PPAS can do to correct this situation?
Let photographers know where their overheads are, and educate them on how much they should charge to be profitable by imposing a standard billing structure for the industry. Most importantly, the PPAS can educate the industry on copyright issues.

How is copyright relevant to the industry?
Copyright is essential for the industry to survive. Not only does it protect the interest of the creative, it also helps to lubricate the industry. If a client have to pay a loading fee to reuse the image that he has been using for the past two years, it is actually more justifiable for them to sink in a little more money to create new artwork that is fresher and more current, and generate more revenue for their business. In turn, this creates more business and opportunities for the photographic industry, the advertising agencies, the printers. Everyone wins.


Written by Ho Pei Ling