Inside The Photographer’s Studio: Tan Ngiap Heng

Ngiap Heng is the founder of The Pond. He started his photography career shooting for the performing arts in Singapore. He then became a well-known wedding photographer in Singapore. He now focuses on portrait and dance photography. His long term interests are in the human form and human emotions.
You studied Electrical and Electronic engineering and then worked as an arts administrator at the Singapore Arts Centre. How did you become a professional photographer?tnh01

I have always been interested in dance. After studying to be an engineer for eight years in London, I spent one year in the London Contemporary Dance School. I really loved that year in dance school but because I was too old to be a dancer, I decided not to pursue it as a career. When I came back to Singapore, I worked as an arts administrator but I was still in love with dance. I made friends with the head of the dance department from the Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts and managed to take pictures of dance classes and performances out of my own interests. The editor of The Arts Magazine then, Phan Ming Yen, saw some of my photographs and asked me to shoot for The Arts Magazine. So through dance photography, I accidentally became a photographer. I finally left my job as an arts administrator at The Singapore Arts Centre (now known as The Esplanade Theatres on the Bay) and became a full time photographer. At first, my clients were performing arts groups. Then for awhile, I worked as a wedding photographer and two years ago, I decided to focus on commercial portraiture.
You now use studio lighting in your work. In fact, you teach studio lighting at Objectifs. How did you learn about using lights?

When I started photography professionally, I had been taking photographs as an amateur for nine years. I had not use studio lighting before. I shared my studio space with Wesley Low from Memphis West Pictures. I learnt the basics of strobe lighting from him and in the first couple of years he also guided me in the professional aspects of photography from technical know how to advice on running a photographic business. On my part, I was very interested in dramatic lighting as I was influenced by the lighting which I saw in theatre and dance performances. I spent many hours doing experimental shoots. I would ask actors and dancers to come to my studio and I would try out different lighting techniques.

After three years, I decided to attend photographic workshops in Santa Fe, one of which was a location lighting course by an American commercial photographer Jim Arndt. I picked up some tips from that.


Then two years ago, I attended the fashion photography course given by Geoff Ang. I found that very interesting and was inspired by Geoff’s creative usage of light. And shortly after Geoff’s course, I went to intern in Chicago at a studio of a commercial portrait photographer, Paul Elledge. I spent three months there and it was an eye-opening experience. The way I was controlling light up until then seemed to be very crude. I learnt a lot more about the fine control of lighting from Paul. I also saw some large production shoots while at Paul Elledge’s studio. So I learnt a lot about organising the logistics for a large shoot.

You are the resident photographer for Singapore Dance Theatre. Are most of your clients from the arts?

I still do work with arts groups, but the main bulk of my work is in corporate portraiture. I shoot for annual reports, websites and profile portraits for public relations purposes. I also do a fair amount of family portraits and individual portraits for performing artists. I also do editorial style photographs for companies that need to publish newsletters. My studio, The Pond, is geared towards portraiture and people photography. However, I do have a photographer, Anvin Hoo, who specialises in product and interior photography. I also have a portrait photographer, Shin Lim, who has a different photographic style to mine.

How would you describe your work then?


If you are talking about my corporate work, I am a portrait photographer. For my personal work,it is harder to categorize, but it is closer to fine art photography. My work constantly evolves, and I am now more interested in a type of photography categorized as personal research. This type of work is represented by photographers like Anders Peterson and Joseph Kuldelka. At some level, it looks like photojournalism, but the work is more in depth and more a personal experience of the photographer.

To be Singaporean, can you earn a living from fine art photography?

Not in Singapore. I know that there a artists like Sherman Ong, who use photography as art and can survive on exhibition grants and photographic sales overseas. I want to explore taking more photographs overseas and exhibiting overseas. But while I am in Singapore, it is the corporate portraiture that earns me money.


However, I think that it is important to keep exhibiting my personal work in Singapore, even as I search internationally for inspiration and financial support. I think Singapore is a fast developing nation, and with exposure to international cultures, we can develop an appreciation of the arts in Singapore.

Your studio is called ‘The Pond’, why did you choose that name?

I think that people do find that strange. In fact, I get enquiries for ponds and fish. ‘The Pond’ is from a personal story. My nickname in school used to be Froggy Appleton. In fact, there are people who still call me Froggy. And when I was in university, computer programs would ask me for a name and a company. I would put in ‘Froggy Appleton’ for the name and ‘The Pond’ for the company. When I finally set up my own company, I decided to use the name ‘The Pond’. And I think it is suitable for my organisation now. I believe that we work in an ecosystem, like a pond. So it is important that everyone in this ‘pond’ called Singapore, work together and treat each other with respect.

So what do you think of the photography in Pond Singapore?


I think that the commercial photography in Singapore is extremely strong. Singaporean photographers are making award winning images internationally. Some of them are PPAS members, like from the Shooting Gallery. But it is strange to me that these award winning advertisements are rarely used in Singapore. And there are local art photographers like Sherman Ong and Francis Ng who are making a name for themselves overseas but are not well known in Singapore. So I think there is a lot of photographic talent and knowledge in Singapore, but somehow this is not being valued. Our local companies prefer to look for cheap and good photography and are unaware of international copyright. They believe that photography is simply a technical skill and not a creative one. And many corporate people in Singapore do not see the value in photographic art. I hope this changes or else Singaporean photographers have to keep searching overseas for support. Or even worse than that, some photographic talent is not developed because no one in Singapore cared enough to support them.

How do you think the situation can improve in Singapore?

I think that local companies need to be educated in the value of good creative photography. We see really creative photography for companies like Apple, Nike and Levi’s. The creative photography can add a lot of value to an advertising campaign. But you cannot treat the creatives like manual labour. Photography and imaging is an expensive endeavour to begin with. Just like our ministers who get compensated for running our country well, photographers with talent and flare should be suitably compensated for their work. Somehow, people in general need to start to appreciate the value of creativity.


I think it is hard to certify creativity. So having certification and a table of pricing can help, but personally I don’t think that is effective. I believe that photographers need to be able to present themselves to their clients in a good light. Promoting oneself takes creativity too. Sometimes it is unfortunate that a good photographer is not good at promoting himself or herself. I think we need photographic agents in Singapore like there are in the United States and Europe. This will help free the photographer from having to slog at promotion and focus on the job of photography. Sometimes I hear from people that the market in Singapore is too small to have agents. I think that if we want to succeed as photographers, we also have to think big. If we have agents, I think they should present our work to clients in at least the Asian region, if not worldwide.

What advice would you give to a young photographer in Singapore?


I think that my advice to young photographers is to be humble and have patience. I get phone calls from graduates from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts or some college asking for a shooting position in my studio. I think that this is the wrong question to ask. In America, photographers get degrees in photography and assist for up to six years before they even think of starting their own studio. I think that young photographers will have to put in time as an assistant, even if they are fortunate enough to have an innate talent for photography. This is because there is a great difference between being able to take a good photograph and running a business. When a photographer assists in an established studio, besides learning technical knowledge, it is also crucial to learn how to run a business and produce a shoot.


In this instant age of MTV and instant internet access, a lot of photographers think that photography is about the equipment and technique. I think that is only half the story. A good photographer also needs to develop a sense of aesthetics and have a range of life experiences to draw on. Young photographers may be able to pick up technique quickly, but how is that technique used and how much depth is there in the images? A photographer does need time to mature. Just like food, fast food and instant coffee taste bad when compared with a properly prepared meal and well brewed coffee.


At the end of the day, if all one has is good technique, there will be no value added to one’s images. There will always be young photographers who will be able to master the current technique and charge a lower price. So a photographer needs to develop a personal style and distinguish him or herself from the other photographers. This is a harder road than following the latest trends, but if a photographer’s work is not unique, it has no long term value.

How do you think you will develop as a photographer?

I think that I now understand the basic technicalities of photography and how to craft an image. For me, I want to find greater depth and meaning in my images. I want to explore more of the experience of living than just taking a visually beautiful image. I think that there is beauty in people’s daily struggle. There is the idea that the hero is the person who gets on with their lives day in, day out. And now I am interested in exploring the beauty of the human spirit. This does not mean that I am going to forget basic technicalities and how to compose an image, but I think I will be able to use a simpler style of photography in future.