Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Canon S120 review: 3.7 years later

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This image was shot on my iPhone SE which, like this camera, offers impressive performance in an affordable and compact package

When the Canon S120 appeared in 2013 it was a technological marvel. It managed to pack a relatively large sensor, a useful 24 to 120mm lens, with a large f1.8 at the wide angle, and optical image stabilization, in a form factor that was impressively compact.

I bought it on 3rd March 2014 to replace a Canon Digital IXUS 980 IS (2008). The 980 IS is a legendary camera but technology advances and the S120 offered much improved image quality with its evolved sensor and brighter lens.

Since then I have used the S120 as my main journalism camera, bringing it with me to Nepal, Burma, and North Korea, where images were used to illustrate articles published in NewsChina, CNN Travel, and Aljazeera, respectively.

In fact, the North Korea trip has turned out to be the most profitable.

Images I shot there were printed in Marie Claire (Netherlands & South Africa) this summer, proving you don’t need a big, bulky DSLR to sell images to glossy magazines.

I still bring the S120 on reporting assignments, for portraits mostly, in case the newspaper for which I’ve been freelancing needs an accompanying photo.

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The ‘legendary’ Digital IXUS 980 IS which I used from 2008 to 2014

But lately I’ve been feeling the urge to upgrade.

The Sony RX100 and the Canon G7 X use sensors that are double the size of the one in the S120 with evolved imaging software that combine to produce DSLR-alike images in a frame not much larger than the S120.

But I am finding it difficult to choose.

The RX100 series are superb compacts that people rave about, and deservedly so, and from the fourth iteration onward manage to fit an awesome EVF into its svelte body. But I prefer Canon’s colour profile and the Sony camera’s focal range only extends to 70mm.

The Canon G7X II uses the same larger-sized sensor as the RX100, and has a longer 100mm lens reach, but I’ve heard it has auto-focusing issues and is a slower camera to use compared to its speedy Sony rival.

My other option is to upgrade to a larger camera where there are mirror-less options such as the Canon M6, the Fuji X series, and the Sony A6000. The latter two use colour profiles that are not to my liking, while the M6 could be a real option if it were a little cheaper.

The conclusion?

I think I will stick with the camera I have, at least until I see an option that is as good as the difference that I saw between the 980 IS and the S120, where there were no compromises and only improvement. I won’t get that with the G7X II, but maybe the third iteration or a new Canon mirrorless in the new year might sway me.

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A writer first, a journalist second

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Some writers, wanting to write, get into journalism. They like writing, and journalism offers them a place to do it. Think of Hemingway who started out as a cub reporter on The Kansas City Star, or Malcolm Gladwell who spent ten years as a reporter for The Washington Post before going on to create exploratory narratives for The New Yorker.

There are writers like Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) and Jennifer Egan (A Visit From The Goon Squad)  who are both novelists and accomplished magazine journalists. One of my favourite writers, John Jeremiah Sullivan, plies his trade in this journo-literary tradition.

Then, there are journalists who love the reporting. They like digging out facts and unearthing truth, the power to tell hidden stories, and exposing wrongdoing and injustice. These are bloodhound reporters, ambitious, and sometimes noble; the world-changing pen-warrior. Examples include John Pilger, Robert Fisk, and in broadcasting, Orla Guerin of the BBC.

Thirdly, there are journalists whose passion lie not in journalism at all or even writing, but who are just very smart, very organised and very competent. I’ve known a fair number in Beijing who fall into this camp. I won’t name them but imagine Oxbridge and Harvard graduates, or cosmopolitan bi-lingual Chinese, who fill the echelons of Reuters, the FT, the WSJ, and you might get the idea. Some of this camp just happened to drift into journalism, blown by circumstance, and who had the right skills to fulfill their accidental fate. They can write and report to a very high standard but don’t necessarily regard it as a vocation.

If I were to put myself into these three rough categories I would say the first group is the one with whom I identify the most, even if I may not share their talent.

I studied journalism at degree level because I had some interest in writing. Later on, I did more writing, and journalism was the arena in which I practiced it.

These days I’ve broadened out so that I do more writing that’s not just journalism.

For example, lately I’ve been working in an ad agency writing a story and script for a promotional campaign for a German automaker. It’s fun, highly creative, and quite well paid.

I still do journalism, freelance, but mostly I confine my writing focus to working on a novel. Writing fiction has taught me a lot about story, narrative, and much else; far more than journalism does, but I’m still glad that journalism gave me some rigour and practice. But I’m also glad that I jumped out before the sentence structures of journalism became completely ossified and entrenched.

Writing a novel is no route to riches and is a difficult road without any guarantees. But I’ve definitely enjoyed learning the craft along the way. Copywriting is a fascinating process too and a neat addition; something that is complementary to the life of a professional writer.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 27, 2017 at 11:02 am

How to Become a Freelance Journalist in China

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This is a brief guide to the posts on this blog. I arrived in China in the autumn of 2012, and had just graduated a journalism degree. I learned the ropes of freelance journalism when I moved to Beijing.

This blog started in the autumn of 2013 after I had begun to freelance more professionally. The posts from previous years were written while I was still learning, but I hope that they may be of use to you.

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How do you get a visa as a freelancer in China? 

This is usually the most pressing question. And my guess is that this is the biggest hurdle for those thinking of coming to China to do journalism. The official J-visa (full visa status and accreditation as a professional journalist allowed to do journalism in China) is difficult to get. It’s not easy to get even with the full backing of a major news organization. Suffice to say that unless you are employed or sponsored by one of these large media companies, it will be nigh on impossible to secure a J-visa.

5 Most Frequently Asked Questions About Being a Freelance Journalist in China

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There is still a massive demand for information, news and stories

Publications are hungry, starving for new and exciting information and stories. If you are placed in a niche or location that’s in demand, then you could be hot property.

6 Things I Learned about the Freelance Journalism Market While I Was In China

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Four months equates to a season, in a year, and so 2015 was irrevocably marked by this season of difficulty. But, there have been bright spots. Most notable among these was the money I earned from freelancing. This year’s haul is almost four times as much as what I earned the previous year from freelancing.

A Year in the Life of a Freelance Journalist Abroad

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I first got paid for writing in a place where writers typically never get paid: an internship. I spent last winter in Washington DC writing for an international affairs journal called the American Interest. My main gig was producing short 200-400 word news analysis posts for their online blog. At the end of my time there I wrote my first-ever feature story and that is what I got paid for ($200).

Part One: Freelance Journalists on their First Ever (Paid) Commissions

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Meet your fellow journalists
Find them on Twitter, LinkedIn – search out bylines and reach out to them. Most will gladly meet up for a coffee. Some may even share freelance and job opportunities down the line. You’re all in the same boat, so having that network can be invaluable.

5 Things To Do Upon Arriving in a New Country as a Freelance Journalist

There are many more posts about freelancing, and the experience of freelancing in China. Please have a browse of this site if you are interested.

2016: in review

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For me here are the most significant aspects of 2016:

  • Stayed in 5-star hotels a total of four times
  • Traveled quite a lot
  • Made quite good money from writing & editing that wasn’t journalism
  • Started writing fiction

This was the year I took a step back from freelance journalism. I have written many more articles this year for promotional materials and content marketing. I managed to publish a few journalism pieces; for The Guardian, NineMSN (two commissions), and Kotaku. I had one essay in consideration by the biggest name in western newspapers but it was finally turned down (I have since pitched it successfully to another publication).

I read around ten novels and a few other books, as well as re-reading some novels — an activity I highly recommend for writers. I wrote a few short stories, but the one I am currently writing, the most ambitious yet, is at a crucial stage where I feel I cannot approach it until I feel a way forward.

I stayed in five star hotels three times, and I paid for one the fourth time. The hotels were in Shanghai (Kerry); Bangkok (Sofitel); Guilin (Shangri-La); and Shanghai again (The Renaissance). They were experiences that I enjoyed a lot.

It was a good year for me. I know it has also been a tumultuous year — I’ll never forget the shock I felt after seeing the conclusion of the United Kingdom’s EU referendum. And my astonishment and incredulous amusement that that guy Donald Trump became President-elect of the most powerful country in the world.

But again, this year, 2016, has been good to me, especially in contrast with 2015 where I had several months of financial and psychological hardship.

I traveled quite a bit — I went to Valencia, Thailand (Phuket; Ao Nang), Hunan (Zhangjiajie; Tianmenshan; Changsha; my gran’s village), Chengdu, Qingdao, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Thailand again (Bangkok; Chiang Mai), and Shanghai again.

Freelancing went quite well this year, and I made enough money to put some away. Not a lot but having some savings really does soothe the mind.

In terms of life in Beijing I have felt more comfortable than any other time in the years I have spent in this city. Next year I think I may be bolder and more adventurous, and look to newer experiences. I am hoping to make more of my freedom next year.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 31, 2016 at 8:36 am

On Distraction, WeChat, and the endless staring at screens

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On any given day my waking hours might be colonized by the time spent staring at screens. During the working week I might spend hours, in accumulation, looking at a computer screen (my Lenovo Ideapad S210 Touch laptop) or staring down at a mobile screen (my LG G3 smartphone).

It has reached a point where the habit is so routine that I wonder whether my mind is now corroded in its capacity to dwell undistractedly.

You probably know what I’m talking about.

Being a freelance writer I have perhaps more freedom than most to spend time staring. And throughout the day I’ll have my phone close to me, sometimes pausing to look at it, to see whether its tiny beacon of light is shining.

Notifications have become gratification, even when there are none…

WeChat is the app I spend the longest time with. It’s China’s version of WhatsApp, but far superior in its functions and utility. It acts as social portal and work-related messaging platform. It’s a gateway and hub for my personal and professional life.

Facebook is a reflexive distraction, where I’ll pay attention to unimportant and not really very interesting items uploaded by friends and “friends”.

I do feel more distracted.

And work doesn’t help. I don’t spend a day outside doing wholesome, outdoorsy things to compensate. My work also involves staring at screens: it might be writing emails, articles, or researching. I do use pen and paper. But a laptop is required for the business end of completing work and sending it off to clients to make a living.

And then I’ll stare at screens some more in off-work hours.

The reasons are varied for my reliance on screens: work/technology, life in a big city, geography, a freelance life, etc. And there doesn’t seem to be much I can do to be rid of the reliance. What would I do instead of staring at screens? I live in a large, highly urbanized city; I cannot go to the woods or the mountains or the sea. I could instead do more productive things like learning a language, painting, etc. Yes I could be more productive and use my time more usefully. Couldn’t we all?

I am aware of the screen and attention and distraction problem, even as companies like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube et al are increasing their sophistication in hooking and retaining my attention.

For a freelancer like me, when daily life is not structured according to the commute, office, lunch, standard working hours, what can I do?

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 9, 2016 at 6:41 am

It took me four years before I started making good money from freelance writing. Could I apply this to other fields?

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A painting (based on ancient cave art) I did last week. It’s not great, but what if I kept practicing? Wouldn’t professionalism eventually be an option?

I’ve been freelancing since the autumn/winter months of 2012. Back then I’d recently moved to Beijing and was interning at a listings magazine called The Beijinger. And in order to supplement my meagre income I started pitching to UK publications.

I’d learned how to pitch and the rules of how to do freelance journalism while I was still a student on my journalism B.A., so I knew the fundamentals. But doing it while I was a student was like a game.

Doing it for real, in order to try and make money, as a professional freelance journalist, was something I learned how to do as a necessity.

For several years the majority of my income came from the full time jobs I had; freelance journalism was what I did on the side, both as a very satisfying sideline (with longer term career prospects) and extra income stream.

Last year I turned fully freelance, and it was tough, but since the start of 2016 it has become a viable and comfortable means of living.

It took me four years before I reached this state of affairs. I now control my time, am earning a comfortable income, and have many opportunities for travel, leisure, and socializing, while at the same time indulging in my interests and thinking of other ways to develop.

One of these interests is painting, and I attended a painting class very recently in Beijing. I discovered how much I enjoyed it and that I displayed a natural knack for it. And I’ve been thinking to myself, “What if I kept at this for four or five years?”.

What if I started learning how to draw, then how to paint, and steadily kept at it. Wouldn’t it, at some stage, reach a level where it could be professional?

At this point, two dissenting voices will come to light. They will come from family and friends and will go something like this…”He goes to one painting class and now he thinks he can be a professional artist!” Or it will be something like this…”You think it’s too easy, so easy to do it, but you don’t know how hard it is”.

That voice, which comes from a place of doubt, and short-term thinking, is one you do not need to listen to, especially at the beginning. If you are a person who shows discipline, dedication, obsession, adaptability, and a huge appetite for learning and, perhaps more importantly, an appetite for self-learning (and how to do that), then you need to simply disregard that voice.

The second dissenting voice, and this one is more serious, is the voice that says your motivation is wrong. This voice is one I respect much more. What it’s saying is that you shouldn’t automatically think you can just be a professional and think it’s so easy to make money from being an artist or writer or photographer. This voice says you’ve got it backwards. You need to first appreciate the process, before you can enjoy the outcome.

That’s a voice with serious authority. Too much have I seen other writers or journalists, aspiring to make a living from it, not dedicating serious commitment to actually getting better at it. I write, and edit, for a living, and I write for a hobby and in my spare time. Because I love it. And I try to constantly improve. So forgive me if I’m a little skeptical about the aspirations of amateurs.

This is exactly what a professional painter could say to me, with my little dream as an amateur of someday making money from painting. The only way you could disprove that skepticism is by putting in the time. By putting in about seven years or so into learning the craft. Why seven years? Well, I took four years learning the freelance game, but I spent three years previously learning more on my journalism degree. So there’s seven years of experience (not including earlier, perhaps foundational experiences before that) that has led up to this point.

However, I think there’s nothing wrong to have that dream of making money from an art or craft, as long as you respect the process of getting there, and the time and effort needed. For me, that thought is the little fire powering some of that motivation. The motivation of learning how to paint or write. What serious writer doesn’t harbour dreams — along with critical acclaim and crowd adulation — of, if not stupendous riches, at least very comfortable earnings from the work they produce?

If I want to become a professional painter, then I’ll need to commit. See you in about seven years then.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 20, 2016 at 4:51 am

Freelancing is lonely — that’s fine, just try to lay down roots wherever you can.

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The life of a freelance writer is categorized by loneliness, but this loneliness pervades all life, to varying degrees. And this depends on how much you feel it in the company of others, and how much you feel it in the company of yourself.

Traveling and staying in various places in Asia solo; waiting at the airport solo; checking into a hotel and staying there solo; eating at a restaurant solo; residing in a cafe solo, is something I’ve done many times. Note that I don’t use the word “alone”. Because I don’t often feel alone when I am traveling.

I often feel free and relaxed, rarely troubled, fixated on the present and the immediate future (“where shall I go to eat now?”). It’s just one of those things you learn about yourself, and that I only really accepted very recently, when I was in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

You realize that perhaps not needing company is okay.

There have been times in Beijing — my early days — when I was quite alone. It was tough, but not awful.

Sitting now, on my couch, typing this on my laptop that’s propped up on a desk chair, and looking out at my balcony — filled with the bright but cold light of November in Beijing — I feel fine. Healthy. Relaxed. Money is okay. There are things I want, but very little I need. My thoughts always bend to the future (the curse of an overactive mind), but I try to remain in the present and to enjoy it and to appreciate it.