#358. The making of InSight: Singapore

By Paul Perton | How-To

May 29

Almost anyone – whether they have been there or not – will tell you that the only reason to visit Singapore is to change planes, and/or shop.


Haji Lane

Haji Lane


Well no. At least not in this house.


Our first visit was in 2005 and again almost every year since. It is a spectacular city, marked by the extraordinary wealth of Orchard Road and its environs, the high life available and the real city, around just about every corner.


Deciding to produce an InSight: Guide about Singapore was an easy one. What to cover, include and exclude wasn’t.





As a starting point, I had my own experience and the places I’d seen on many previous visits. To this I added some intensive on-Web reading, Web pages, tourist guides, flights of virtual reality on Google Maps and Apple’s competing Maps and finally conversations with former Singapore hands.


The latter proved to be especially helpful; there’s no substitute for living in a city to begin to know and understand it’s secrets.


Some other things that I needed to consider; how to photograph such a complex and vital city – did I opt for DSLR, mirrorless or rangefinder?


The answer lies in pragmatism. The DSLR option is fine, but they are both heavy and obvious – neither quality well suited to street photography.


The mirrorless option meant M43, or one of the more recent small APS-C, or full frame cameras.


Finally, the rangefinder. Leica and Fuji pretty much own this sector and offer both excellent image quality together with a reasonable size/weight combination.


I’ve tried them all – from Nikon’s battlewaggon D2x, a Canon G10, Sony’s NEX-C3 and -7 and finally, Fuji’s X100T. They all perform brilliantly, but as air travel has become increasingly restrictive, my willingness to haul heavy bags has decreased in lockstep, I’ve opted for the Fuji and the utterly reliable NEX-7 with a small selection of manual focus M mount lenses.


On the street, the Fuji’s 23mm is intended to produce an absolutely ideal equivalent 35mm focal length image from its APS-C sensor. It performs brilliantly, even in semi-darkness. It has a totally silent shutter and is small, easily disappearing into a hand or large(ish) pocket.


The NEX-7 isn’t quite as small, but a powerhouse nonetheless. My choice of lenses include Voigtlander’s 14mm, Zeiss’ 25mm Biogon and Leica’s 35mm and 50mm. With those I can shoot 99% of an InSight Guide.


The city's former police HQ

The city’s former police HQ


Other preparations include dressing appropriately, choosing the right (read comfortable) shoes and a camera bag that doesn’t look like a camera bag. For me, that means my ageing, worn and grubby Crumpler messenger bag. It can easily swallow a DSLR and a lens or two as easily as a small case containing a Sony and a couple of lenses, rain jacket and a large bottle of water. It’s also comfortable to carry and doesn’t scream “photographer” on the streets.


Ready to hit the road, I tend to set out early, usually before sunrise. There are lots of reasons for this, not the least of which is that the temperature is manageable. Singapore starts work early and by 06:00 breakfast is in full swing, deliveries are being made, building sites are buzzing, people are making their way to offices and the early light makes everything soft, gently coloured and easy in contrast.


Where do I walk? If I don’t have a specific destination in mind, anywhere. Most mornings, I walk around five kilometres before breakfast, wandering streets, alleys, markets and eating places, trying to capture the very Asian way Singapore starts its day.


My preference is to then return to the hotel, upload my photographs and charge batteries while I eat breakfast and prepare for the rest of the day.


Boat Quay at sunrise

Boat Quay at sunrise


I’m usually back on the (by now hot) streets between 10:30 and 11:00, heading for a specific destination. Most recently, one such excursion was Joo Chiat, about halfway between the city and Changi Airport.


The area had been suggested by a friend of a friend and to be honest, I wasn’t too hopeful when we stepped off the Metro at Paya Lebar and walked towards Geylang Road. All I could see was a new shopping centre, the inevitable Starbucks and a small Asian market. Feeling a little mis-informed, we walked further east, intending to walk to the next Metro stop and return to the city.


After about a kilometre of uninteresting suburbia, a right turn opened up and for want of anything better to do – we followed it, to discover shops, emporia, restaurants, eating houses and general stores, all in the midst of what was clearly a predominantly Vietnamese community.


A couple of hours and several hundred photographs later, we chose a restaurant at random, ordered pho ga (Vietnamese noodles, broth, chicken and fresh vegetables) and cold beer to counter the heat of the day.


Sunbrella, Joo Chiat

Sunbrella, Joo Chiat


Lunch done, we continued our stroll, eventually forsaking the Metro and opting for a bus back into town and a short walk to our hotel.


Evenings are usually a much quieter time. It’s been hot and most days I will have walked anything up to 12 kilometres. Tiredness has set in, so the day’s photographs are downloaded and backed-up, some initial edits done and a few notes about the day and it’s highlights and activities made.


Our preference is to stay away from the city’s tourist and business hotels, preferring to be closer to working Singapore, especially the area around Robinson Quay on the Singapore River. In the years we’ve been visiting, this area has become increasingly popular with locals and expats, meaning bars, restaurants and clubs now abound and offer a bewildering array of food, drink and entertainment. It’s a good place to be.


But then this is Singapore.


Haji Lane - tourist central

Haji Lane – tourist central


Back home in Cape Town, the InSight: Singapore starts to take shape. I outline the walks which will make up the Guide, select images by area and lay out the pages I plan to use in chapters defined as InDesign templates. Once the outline is complete, I write the intro section and add photographs, which gives me an excellent feel for the way the book will come together and look.


The maps come from Google Maps (thanks to them) and need to be captured, sized and marked-up where appropriate.


Ground floor

Ground floor


Then I tackle each of the walk chapters. It’s not an entirely linear process, but if I meander too much, I forget or overlook things.


About a week in, I have a taster Intro section to send to Pascal, my associate at DearSusan. If he likes what he sees, I know I’m OK to proceed.


Chapter follows chapter, then everything comes together as a book for the first time. At that point, I have a page count so can add page numbers (the worst job of all) and start the checking process.


Sometime around a month after the work starts, I have a proof copy which is read and amended by a small team of checkers.





Typos fixed, literals corrected, photographs aligned and the maps complete, InSight: Singapore is converted to a single full screen PDF document, checked once more and the job is done.


InSight: Singapore (and all the other InSight Guides) are available here. Now, where to next?





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  • pascaljappy says:

    Brilliant, Paul, thanks. All your guides are great, but the level of photography in the last 2 (Tokyo and Singapore) is just fantastic. I’ve visited a few times on my way to and from Australia, but the guide really makes me wat to stop and explore for longer than 48 hours at a time. Meet you there ? 😉

    • Paul Perton says:

      Thanks Pascal. Any time we can arrange a couple of days in the same place at the same time would be a pleasure.

  • Philberphoto says:

    Paul, you leave out two aspects that are dear to me, and, coming from a Frenchman, this won’t surprise you: food and feminine beauty. I’ve travelled a fair bit, and have great memories of Singapore food. From the best (IMHO) hotel restaurant in the world, in that it caters to people of infinite variety, of each time zone, and every culinary taste under the sun. It is the restaurant of the great Shangri-La hotel. But also, the best seafood I’ve ever eaten (hairy crab, drunk shrimp, etc.) in small with-your-finger eateries of McPherson street. And of course, Chinese food of all types.
    Similarly, visiting Singapore offers the visitor a dazzling display of feminine beauty. It used to be said, in the world of business travelers, that you always left Singapore with a sore neck, so many were the women whose path you crossed, who were so dazzling, it was impossible not to ogle, thus straining you neck muscles like some ordinary Formula One driver…:-)
    That said, I concur with Pascal, superb pictures. You and I need to educate him on the joys of pre-dawn shooting. Especially in the summer, with the exquisite 3am-to-4am get-out-of-beds…

    • Paul Perton says:

      Thanks, Philippe. We’ve been trying to organise a get together for a while and aside from our brief (and drenched) meet in Paris recently, have failed. I think we need to be a bit more determined!

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