From Hobbyist To Award-Winning Photographer

How Teo Chin Leong shot his way from hobbyist photographer to international award winner, and his tips for aspiring shutterbugs.

By Alywin Chew        18 May 2022

As the Chief Commercial Officer (Aero) of Fukuoka airport in Japan, Teo Chin Leong has a hectic work schedule that often sees him making business trips around the world and working closely with numbers. 

But though his key responsibility is driving the revenue of the aviation hub, the Singaporean is equally adept in matters of a more artistic nature as well. 

In fact, Teo has proved himself to be quite the high-flier on the international photography competition circuit, having won many awards over the past years. His accolades include the Most Awarded Photographer gong at the Siena Photo Awards’ Pangea Prize in 2019 and top prizes in the ND Awards, the International Photography Awards, the Chromatic Awards, and the SmileWorld Photo Awards.

Earlier this year, Teo added another achievement to his trophy cabinet when he was named Singapore’s National Award winner at the Sony World Photography Award (SWPA) 2022.

NSman recently caught up with Teo to find out more about his passion for photography.

Q: When did you develop a passion for photography?

Chin Leong: I started taking photos about 20 years ago when I was studying at Cornell University in New York. Back then, there was no such thing as smartphones with cameras so the only way I could go about capturing memories was to use an Olympus film camera.

Q: Were you a natural at photography?

Chin Leong: I don’t think I am. I think I only started improving my craft about 10 years ago when I bought a Sony interchangeable lens camera. Getting to try on the different lenses really helped me to develop my skills better as they allowed me to see things from different perspectives.

Q: Why did you decide to take part in photo competitions?

Chin Leong: It all started during this group trip to Malaysia where fellow photography enthusiasts and I got to take photos of turtles laying eggs on the beach. At the end of the trip, the organisers held a small photo competition and I ended up winning the top prize. I suppose it was beginner’s luck, but this incident also motivated me to submit my works to other competitions.

Q: What advice would you give to those looking to win something at such competitions?

Chin Leong: It helps to always try something new. I’ve come to realise that while certain styles or concepts might have been popular in the past, they may not win you anything today. You can also look at recent winning entries and try to understand why they won and what the judges are looking for. Generally speaking, your subject matter should not be something that has won a big prize before within the past few years. 

Q: What’s your favourite photo from your collection?

Chin Leong: The winning photo (above) from the Sony Photo Awards this year. I took this photo last September in Tokyo and I really like this because of the way it captures the energy of sumo wrestling. I’m really happy with the composition as well.

Q: Many of your photos are from your travels. Do you travel much?

Chin Leong: I love traveling! I studied abroad during my college days. I’ve worked overseas. My career in the aviation industry has also given me the opportunity to travel to places like Brazil, Argentina, Kenya and Ethiopia. Personally, I think Iceland is a fantastic destination for landscape photographers. Bangladesh, too, is a great place to visit and capture images.

Q: Why did you become a volunteer photographer for Earth.org?

Chin Leong: As the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words, and I think these “words” should be used meaningfully to convey important global messages about issues like environmental conservation and protecting vulnerable communities. 

Q: Has your NS experience impacted your photography or professional career in any way?

Chin Leong: During my time as a combat medic in the SAF, I was fortunate enough to have gone on several overseas training trips to countries like Taiwan and Brunei. In each of those trips, I got to work closely with the locals, and these experiences, besides teaching me how to be more flexible in the way I deal with people, also helped me develop a more global mentality. In fact, these experiences were what spurred me to study and work overseas and explore the world!

Inspired to get into photography, or keen to hone your skills behind the lens? Learn from fellow shutterbugs at the SAFRA Photographic Club: www.safra.sg/interest-groups/photographic-club

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Photos: Teo Chin Leong