Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Six Dream Gifts For A Freelance Journalist

leave a comment »

These are six things a freelance journalist rarely can afford, and so she or he would love to receive them as gifts. This summer why not treat your friendly freelancer to one of these items, any of which would make him or her very happy.

The Sony A7 II (left) is a full-frame camera like the Nikon D800 which it is pictured next to. A big selling point is its small size compared to DSLRs.

Sony a7R II, £2,063 (body only)

Now I’ve gone on record saying how I don’t rate Sony cameras because their colour rendition is poor. And it is true that the colours they produce are not comparable to the accuracy and vividness of Canon and Nikon cameras (Sony’s palette tend towards yellow-green). But for the Sony Alpha 7R mark two, I will make an exception. It is a very well-made camera. An all-metal body so it’s tough and should last some years. It has a new sensor that has backside illumination giving it even better low-light capabilities than its already formidable predecessor.

The main advantage of this camera is its small size compared to the lumbering beasts that are its DSLR competitors such as the Canon 5D Mark III. It has extraordinary video capabilities and a 42.4MP full-frame sensor that deliver cinematic images. As a freelancer who likes to travel light, I’d love to have one of these in my kit.

ThinkPads have the best keyboards and typing experience among laptops.

Lenovo ThinkPad T450s, £1,064.79 

This is for the Intel Core i5, 4gb RAM, full HD touchscreen, 256gb SSD configuration. Lenovo is well known for its superior keyboards on all its laptops, but on its ThinkPad line they find their best form. The keys have more travel than most laptops and they just feel great to type on which for a writer is important. Considering a keyboard is one of the main ways you interact with a computer it stands to reason it should be decent.

The trackpad on ThinkPads are also superior. Battery life is around 7 hours. They are built rugged and durable so they can take rough treatment. The T450s has a 14-inch screen, which will take up extra space for traveling rucksacks. There is a smaller brother, the X250, which has a 12.5-inch screen. The larger one has a better screen and keyboard, but not so great as a travel laptop, but both versions satisfy as machines to get business done.

It’s a small computer with photo & video production capabilities.

iPhone 6 Plus, £789 (128gb) 

I wouldn’t use this device as a phone. It’s unwieldy and hard to use with one hand. But if you conceive the iPhone 6 Plus as a very portable computer and media production machine, then it immediately becomes more compelling. It’s essentially a mini-mini iPad, but with a better camera and more useful ergonomically as a camera. The camera in the Plus is better than the iPhone 6 because it has optical image stabilization. Images and video look better on the larger screen too.

And what a camera. Ken Rockwell, not a photographer who easily doles out praise, calls it a “very serious camera”.  It’s also a genuine filmmaker’s tool. One of my favorite filmmakers YouTuber Casey Neistat says the iPhone takes better time-lapses than his DSLRs. It also records good slow-motion footage.

The phone also works as an email and productivity tool with its giant screen, although the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is better in this regard. Another phone to consider for its photo and video quality are the Samsung flagships the Note 4 and the Galaxy S6, the latter of which has OIS and works better as a phone. But for ease of use, you cannot beat an iPhone.

Subscriptions to media, various prices

Okay this might not be the dreamiest of gifts, but the truth is a lot of journalists would like subscriptions to their favorite publications — whether that’s the New York Times, GQ, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic — but what we would really like is for someone to buy us a subscription to these magazines or newspapers, digital or paper.

I only have a subscription to The New Yorker, but I’d really like one to the New York Times and many of Condé Nast’s productions. In my dreams…

An around-the-world ticket, £1,500+

The cost of an around-the-world ticket can vary depending on how many stops you have, the route and distance. So the above price is around the low-end. The advantage of this kind of ticket is that you can change the date and times of the tickets to pre-ordered destinations at no extra cost. The reason why I’d like something like this is so I could properly test my travel + journalism idea, and go to places where I desperately want to write stories about and from: Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, Central Asia, Turkey, USA all immediately spring to mind.

Let me emphasize: you don’t need a ticket like this or lots of money to start a career in international freelance journalism. But since this blog post is about dream gifts, then of course a freelancer would love one of these.

A Journalist, Filmmaker, Storyteller? This camera brings it to inimitable life.

Sony PXW-FS7, £5,250

I asked a friend of mine Jordan Terrell who made a video with Daniel Holmes, that was recently published by AJ+, what his dream gift would be. Here’s what he had to say about it:

“If someone surprised me with a rich gift I would first be worried what the catch was. But as a filmmaker new equipment is even better if it’s free. I would be happy with new lights, a zoom audio recorder but if we’re talking super fancy I would be thrilled for a new camera. The Sony FS7 wouldn’t be bad. I’ve rented it out for a project before. It’s easy to use, the super slow motion is excellent when used wisely and the look of the video can take a film to a level DSLRs don’t have. Plus I could rent it out to make a bit more money for other equipment”.

Let’s Talk About These ‘Digital Nomads’

leave a comment »


Recently, I’ve seen a few articles describing a new trend. They’re about so-called digital nomads. They are people who travel the world, jetting from one place to another, doing work that requires simply a good WiFi connection. They might be web designers, graphics artists, app developers, or freelance writers.

What they do is location independent, not needing to punch into an office. Some do like shared office spaces, in Bali for instance. Many are freelancers. And all they need is a computer and the Internet to communicate and to transfer the work. They don’t make huge amounts of money because it’s freedom they prioritize. Southeast Asia is a hub for these nomads because this region is cheap, well-connected when you want to move on, from Vietnam to Thailand say, but still possessing coffee and WiFi.

I’ve never tried this kind of lifestyle. I work from Beijing, from where I contribute China-related journalism to various publications around the world. Sometimes they are articles that aren’t contingent on the fact I’m based in China. This is an example — I could have written that from anywhere in the world. Journalism isn’t a hugely well paid gig, especially when you’re freelance. I’ve mentioned numerous times how living in China helps as things are cheaper here, but, the truth is, Beijing, and the many enjoyments it offers, makes it only slightly better in that regard.

Read the rest of this entry »

Trying to cobble together a sustainable freelance writing career

leave a comment »

I have been somewhat busier recently. After I came back from Nepal, I was fortunate enough to be commissioned for several stories. This helped with my sanity, sense of self-worth, and, yes, my precarious finances.

I was commissioned by a couple of local magazines, both of which are English language, but companies that call Beijing home. One of those commissions was about Nepal which I was gladdened by as I was not actually expecting too much from that sojourn (it was paid for by a mysteriously well-funded monk). Otherwise that trip was an experiment in micro-reporting and micro-publishing.

There have been a few other commissions also, as well as a project to teach journalism for a corporate client, to their employees which should be interesting. I have always liked the idea of being more involved with pedagogy and the idea of improving as an educator and teacher greatly appeals — I will have the opportunity to design the classes and deliver them.

As a freelancer, it’s only really now that it became searingly clear to me that in order to succeed, this is what it will have to come down to. Scrabbling, searching, hustling. Cobbling together a variety of income sources and maximizing the skills that I have, marketing and utilizing the full extent of what I have to offer.

But enough talk about business, enough talk about finances and money. It only corrupts free-thinking and well-being. But I do have an inkling that if one figures out how to make freelance work for themselves, then surely freedom awaits. Along with misery and joy. (One cannot have one without the other, after all).

Summer is in its full-blown heat now although the sense of summer of course is still in its infancy. There have been times recently where I have felt the tremendous weight of loneliness and isolation. Freelancing can be like this. And jadedness can result. But I had a great week last week which helpfully expunged that.

I’ve been in Nepal…

leave a comment »

Sorry there has been no update this week. I’ve been away in Nepal — I flew in from Beijing, via Hong Kong, to the capital Kathmandu, last Sunday. I was in Nepal for five days, on the invitation of a monk who invited a group of journalists for a new project of his.

It was a press trip, and I certainly would not have been able to afford the trip under my current circumstances: see blog post ‘I’m still broke…’

I saw the effects of the earthquakes, which were the worst to hit Nepal in 80 years, everywhere. But I enjoyed the trip and I was captivated by Nepal and intend to go back. I’ll write up my dispatches over the coming week.


Written by Lu-Hai Liang

May 30, 2015 at 9:06 am

Posted in Features

Tagged with , , ,

A response to “DSLR vs Point-and-Shoot” — by Brent Crane

leave a comment »

The author with rebel soldiers in Laiza, Kachin state in November, 2014.

The author with rebel soldiers in Laiza, Kachin state in November, 2014.

I first started getting into photography while I studied abroad in southwest China in 2011. I had a Sony Cybershot HX9 point-and-shoot camera. With that I was able to get some really strong, high-resolution photos, arguably as good as any mid-range DSLR could do. A couple of years later I upgraded to a Nikon D5100 DSLR, which is my main piece today. There are differences.

As Lu-Hai said, the DSLR is less discreet. You have very little time when you arrive on a scene to snap truly candid photos before people notice that a photographer is in their midst. The point-and-shoot is not immune to this, but it’s easier to sneak by undetected with one than a DSLR, if that’s what you’re trying to do. Typically, I don’t worry about hiding my picture taking. If someone doesn’t want their photo taken they should be able to see me doing it and let me know themselves (and many people have).

Another point. It’s assumed DSLR photos are always going to be of a superior quality but this isn’t true. Point-and-shoot technology is really fantastic these days. Makers like Sony and Leica produce some superb point-and-shoots that can capture as good or better images than mid-range DSLRs. Really, what makes a DSLR better depends on the lens you have on it.

I was unimpressed with the stock lens that my D5100 came with so I bought a $140 Nikon 50mm prime lens from Best Buy. It was incapable of zoom or auto-focus but it took in a lot of light and produced some really high-resolution photos—when you got the focus right. Its limited frame, inability to zoom and manual focus made it a challenge but also a teacher. I learned to take care in each image and, while I lost a lot of potentially good photos to blurriness, that lens made me a better photographer.

It was the only lens I had on a recent jaunt through China and Burma and I got a bunch of photo essays published with it. I was able to capture images that I probably wouldn’t have thought of taking with my compact. It didn’t necessarily allow me to take better photos, but its limitations forced me to adopt a different perspective. In photography, that’s everything.

Brent Crane is a journalist with bylines in The Atlantic, Daily Telegraph, Aljazeera, Roads & Kingdoms, The Diplomat and VICE, among others. He can be found tweeting @bcamcrane

His previous guest post is here.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

May 25, 2015 at 6:05 am

DSLR vs Point-and-Shoot: a Journalist’s Consideration

leave a comment »

My Canon Powershot S120, and Canon 450D DSLR; the photo was taken with my crummy mobile phone camera.

My Canon Powershot S120, and Canon 450D DSLR; the photo was taken with my crummy mobile phone camera.

Lately I have been using my digital SLR. It’s a Canon 450D (also known as a Digital Rebel XTi). I’ve had my DSLR since 2008 but in the past two years I’ve neglected it, preferring to use my compact point-and-shoot: a Canon Powershot S120.

I dug out the DSLR as I wanted to walk around my neighborhood, shooting. It’s a very different experience. It’s the physical tangibility, that reassuring weight of a DSLR that is, I think, most influential in changing the approach you take to photography.

However, on journalism assignments and on freelance trips — to Burma, to North Korea — I have left behind the DSLR, and only brought my little camera. This is because the agility of the S120 and the ease of taking a usable photo with it is far quicker and more efficient than a DSLR.

Another thing I noticed when I was out and about with the DSLR was that the mere sight of it, the fact I was stopping and using this quite obviously noticeable camera changed my surroundings. People noticed me more, people actively tried to avoid the camera’s glare, and I, in turn, tried to be more conspicuous.

This is perhaps even more important.

If I used my DSLR in North Korea I would’ve taken fewer pictures and fewer photos of sensitive things, and the North Koreans would’ve been more sensitive to my presence. People have an almost instinctive reaction to a big, professional-looking camera far more than they do to a little compact.

Also, the quality produced by my point-and-shoot compared to the photos coming out of the DSLR are not massively different. With a DSLR, you can see more clarity, more cinematic colours, more depth of field, things that contribute to a more “3D” effect in the photo. But looking at photos taken with my S120 on the internet, you barely register the “inferiority”. For evidence see the photo galleries, which I took with the point-and-shoot, here and here.

I’ve sold photos using the S120 and the value of those images are in the fact they tell a story. The camera was inconsequential.

Sometimes I do feel wistful when I see fellow freelancers scoring photo galleries that I know would be difficult to manage with a compact camera. My friend Brent Crane’s photo story for Condé Nast Traveler is a case in point. The 12-picture gallery — ‘China to Pakistan: Road Tripping Across the World’s Highest Border’ — was shot on Brent’s DSLR and the vibrancy and sweep of the landscape shots are quite detailed in the way only the larger sensors found in DSLRs are capable of.

But I still trust in my little Canon compact to deliver the goods and I don’t foresee myself replacing it with a DSLR on journalism assignments.

I’m still broke — May 18th (life of a freelance journalist abroad)

with one comment

It has been over a month since I quit my regular script-editing job at the TV company. And since then I have only been surviving on my freelancing income.

Since I came back from my Burma trip, which cost too much due to a mishap with flights, I have been more or less broke — having had to ask for an extension on paying my rent, and for a personal loan to bail myself out.

I have had two job interviews. One of these jobs would’ve been perfect; offering a flexible schedule and a great salary. I did not get it however. The other job is for a big news agency where competition is tough so I am unsure about my prospects.

I had a lot of stop and starts when I first came out here – gigs that fell through, pitches that were lame, a bank account that was at zero so many times I nearly packed it in and went back home (on multiple occasions).    — Kate Hodal, freelancer turned Southeast Asia correspondent

When I read these words from Kate Hodal, I always feel better knowing that those before me, and also my peers, have struggled financially doing journalism.

But equally, when I see freelancers who are for more prolific than I am I feel spurred on to work harder and to find my own spread of amenable publications.

This is not to say I haven’t been enjoying myself — enjoying the acres of free time, partying with friends. That’s the beauty of China, money goes further: the experience of being broke here is unlike being broke in England, where relative poverty reduces choices more starkly.

But I thank the lord for my bank account’s overdraft.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 76 other followers