Various musings and observations about photography, architecture, design, and life.

The Importance of a Good Playlist
Rocking out when I still lived in Shanghai, China.   Photo by Valerie Liu

Rocking out when I still lived in Shanghai, China.
Photo by Valerie Liu

Random Thoughts

Music has always been an important part of my life growing up. I learned to play the piano and violin at a young age, and picked up the guitar as I entered high school. I was involved in piano recitals and orchestras as well as a couple of punk rock bands. I helped lead worship at a couple of churches and have continued to play guitar here and there to this day. I have even photographed a few concerts and really enjoy it.

One of my proudest moments was helping to create, organize and participate in the Rock for Charity concerts in Shanghai back in 2004. The charity concert was such a huge success that when the tsunami hit Indonesia later that year, everyone committed to putting together another concert to help raise relief efforts there. It is now the largest student-led annual charity concert in one of the largest cities in the world. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we helped start something that was larger than just a bunch of international kids and teachers coming together to play some music. We provided a way for international students and teachers to help their communities and neighbors in a large and impactful way together. What started off as a one-off event for the international community to help raise money for an orphanage on the outskirts of Shanghai turned into a larger movement that I’ll always look back on and cherish.

I have and still am surrounded by music all the time. It is essential for me to have a good music playlist when sitting in front of a computer all day doing design work and editing photographs. Of course, musical tastes are highly subjective and different people will work more efficiently with different kinds of music. Sometimes I switch around playlists depending on my mood to help boost productivity. Regardless of music genre though, I like my music to have good substance. First and foremost it needs to have solid lyrics. Second it needs to have instrumental accompaniment that successfully sets the tone. It doesn’t need to be complex but it does need to have substance; simple melodies and rhythms can have very good substance. And finally, the musicians need to actually perform well live.

Songs that have bad or awkward or illogical lyrics bother me. I can’t use them as background music when I need to work because I get fixated on the subpar lyrics and agitated to the point where I lose concentration. These are most commonly found in modern popular songs on the radio. For example, the very first line in Katy Perry’s Firework completely overshadows the rest of the song for me. “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag / Drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?”. What kind of line is that? Was she referencing American Beauty or something? It just sounds out of place in relation to the rest of the song. None of the five songwriters (including Perry) vetoed that line? And Bruno Mars. Oh Bruno. First there’s the Grenade song. Then there’s the Marry You song. I would go on, but that may require a separate blog post. I digress.

The Rocketboys playing at Under the Couch at Georgia Tech

The Rocketboys playing at Under the Couch at Georgia Tech

A wide variety of music is important in a playlist depending on how I’m feeling. Usually in the morning I like to start with more mellow music to help me settle into the day. As the day goes on I like to switch to more upbeat music to help give me an extra boost to finish out the late afternoon. When people decide to have a meeting at a desk nearby where I sit and I need to concentrate on getting my work done for a deadline, I will temporarily switch to louder music to help drown out the noise. Sometimes though, I will actually just sit in front of the computer with my headphones on and no music playing at all. This is usually due to one of two things: I’m completely in the zone and just cranking away at my work or I’m zoning out and have almost zero productivity. If it’s the first scenario, I usually just keep going. If it’s the second scenario, I get up and walk around for a little bit and get a snack or some coffee or water before returning and switching to a more upbeat playlist.

I have included a list of some of the music I like to listen to when I’d like to be productive to the right. As you can see, it’s a pretty wide ranging mix from chill acoustic coffee shop type music to melodic synth-pop to rap. I have listed some of the artists more popular songs though I do also listen to and enjoy almost all of the music created by these bands, so I highly recommend listening to their other stuff as well.

I’m always searching for more good music.

Timothy NiouComment
Process | Dermatology by Design

Back in May, Dermatology by Design held an open house for its grand opening located directly across from Tanner Springs Park in the heart of Portland's Pearl District.  This was a unique photoshoot assignment as it was one part architectural photography, and one part event photography.  

Lobby / Waiting area

Lobby / Waiting area


This is a cleanly designed dermatology office with a lot of great details to capture.  Of course I may have a slight bias since the designers of the space are my friends.  It's not a large space, but it makes the most of the space that it does have with all critical areas receiving ample amount of natural daylight.  I can envision their clients walking in and appreciating the cleanliness of the environment.  In addition to the entry lobby/waiting area, there is the Doctor's office with its own waiting area, a few examination rooms, two restrooms, and a break room that was mostly left untouched during the renovation.

There was plenty of light so I wasn't too worried about blurry or grainy photos.  My main challenge with this space was controlling the white balance.  There were many different artificial light sources in addition to the natural ambient light filling the space.  Couple that with the overall contemporary white and gray color palette and it makes for a pretty fun post processing session.  Another challenge for this space was the arrangement of objects.  Since the space itself was very clean and sleek, the placement of the objects become a lot more noticeable since they would stand out and immediately become to focus of the image.


I arrived about half an hour early to get some shots of the interior space before it got filled with people.  I was immediately drawn to the clean, modern look that the space conveyed.  Typically when design becomes less ornamental, the details start to stand out more.  I set out to capture those details that help set good design apart from tacky and boring design.  

In addition to the details photos, I also wanted to capture the displays that pertain to the clinic.  These included products on display shelves, the doctor's office, the exam rooms etc.  I figured these photos would be used the most for the website as they represented the space and the clinic's branding. These photos were the ones that I spent the most effort on in terms of composition and editing.

The final set of photos I worked on taking was the open house event itself.  These photos primarily consisted of the guests interacting with each other and the staff and volunteers.  I also wanted photos of the guests engaging with the physical space itself.  As with most of the events that I photograph, I tried to find moments where you can infer some kind of conversation going on between the people in the photo and generally having a good time and enjoying themselves.

Timothy NiouComment
Photo Tips | Chasing Sunrises

I love taking photos of the sunrise.  I enjoy the anticipation of what the sunrise will look like from the moment I wake up earlier than any sane person should to the beginning of blue hour.  It's like nature is slowly unwrapping a present that we've been eager to receive.  As I have mentioned before, photographing sunrises require a ton of persistence because there's no guarantee that the sunrise will be a burst of vibrant color, especially in the Pacific Northwest.  It isn't a complete crapshoot however.  There are a few easy indicators and resources that can help increase the chances of a great sunrise.  I'll share the things that I usually check for before deciding if I should commit to waking up early for a sunrise photoshoot.  

Clouds: Any Weather App

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The best sunrises in my opinion will always have some clouds to provide some depth and character.  The best clouds to hope for are cirrus clouds, which are light and wispy.  They'll provide the opportunity for the sunlight to reflect, diffract, and disperse and create those vibrant colors.  Check the hourly forecast in your local area for partly cloudy, partly sunny, and mostly sunny skies the hour before sunrise.  Even mostly cloudy conditions can provide gorgeous sunrises if the clouds are high enough.  If you have a particular backdrop in mind be sure to check the forecast for that area in addition to your local forecast.  For example, if I want to photograph the sunrise from the Pittock Mansion viewpoint I will always check the forecast around Mt. Hood as well to make sure that it will make an appearance.  The best resource for seeing what the cloud conditions will be like is your local news weather reports or even if you can handle their bombardment of advertisements.  The weather app on your phone also works.  Again, always check the hourly forecast instead of the daily forecasts.  It also doesn't hurt to observe the clouds the night before.

Atmospheric Transparency: Clear Dark Sky

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In addition to the traditional cloud coverage in the sky, another important aspect is the atmospheric transparency.  This will determine the quality of the scenery for the sunrise more than anything else especially if you're hoping a far away object such as Mt. Hood will be visible.  For this I usually check the astrophotography reference,  Their Clear Sky Chart provides a lot of great information such as cloud coverage as well as how transparent the air will be and how clearly you can see objects.  The clearer the better, but I've often found that even a below average rating seems to be good enough for a great sunrise sometimes.  After all, this site is geared towards photographing objects that are much further out in space. I would only really worry if the air transparency or seeing quality is poor.  

Sun Location: SunCalc

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Now that the conditions are likely to produce a great sunrise, the next step in the process is to find where the sun will actually be rising to help with framing the photo and even help determine which location to shoot from.  There are a few websites that can help you with this:,, is a nice and clean graphical website of where the sun position is at any given time.  It doesn't provide too much data outside of the basics to go along with the map and graphic overlay.  Time and Date is really good for planning ahead with more numbers, but doesn't have as useful graphics as far as telling you where the sun will be rising from.  You'll have to figure that out for yourself with the solar azimuth angle. is a hybrid of the nice graphics and the more in-depth numbers, but its interface is a bit obnoxious with the giant advertisement bar taking up a quarter of the screen.

Second Opinion: SunsetWx

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After I have looked into all of the different resources, I like to head over to and check to see how their forecast turned out.  This is a fun little website with sunset and sunrise forecasting.  It's not a guarantee of what the sunrise quality would be like, but it does give a decent general idea for how it will turn out.  I would say that most of the time it lines up with what I anticipate which is a positive sign.  There are some things that it will miss and that are the local conditions that it never accounts for such as forest fires causing smoke to fill the air or locations that are often enveloped in fog etc.  

Execution: Preparation

"The separation is in the preparation" as Russell Wilson often says.  Make sure all of your gear is ready to go the night before.  Charge up the batteries, find the quick release plate for the tripod, pack your gloves, pack some snacks, pack some memory cards, pack the clothes you're going to wear, etc.  You want to do all of this the night before because the brain most likely won't be firing on all cylinders at such an early morning.  Set multiple alarm clocks.  I always like to set an alarm half an hour before I need to get out of bed to get ready.  I set another alarm at the time I need to get out of bed to get ready.  And then I set a third alarm clock for when I need to get out of the door.  Every once in a while I don't get out of bed until that third alarm.  This is when preparing everything the night before comes into play and can save your sunrise shoot.  
NOTE: If you are too drowsy to drive safely when you wake up, do not drive. It is not worth it.

And that's pretty much it.  The final thing to do is to hope that the forecasters were right and that the clouds in the sky cooperate with the wind.  Most importantly, don't forget to take some time and enjoy the sunrise while you are photographing it.  It's this memory and feeling that you will try to recall when you process the RAW photos.  Most likely the photos the camera captures will not be able to fully present the dynamistic properties of the sunrise like our eyes do without some post processing.  If properly exposed or bracketed, the information will be there in the RAW file, it just needs to be brought out to the forefront of the image and presented for all to enjoy.

Good luck chasing the sunrises.

Timothy NiouComment
Process | Portland Design Lecture Series: Collective Inquiry

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of photographing Billie Faircloth of KieranTimberlake while she gave a presentation during Portland Design Event's Lecture Series.  This lecture was both inspiring and thought provoking, challenging the audience to continually explore and learn from their processes.  I have been taking photos for the better part of the last decade.  This experience has allowed me to not overthink too much about the process of my photography--especially with photojournalistic event photography; most of my professional photography experience has come from documenting events and presentations.  Every once in a while I stumble upon an old photo I've taken and question what I was thinking when taking that photo.  With that in mind, I figured I could and should start documenting my thought process and intentionality behind the photos that I take.  Often times there is no rational thought behind a photo other than just experimenting and trying something out and that's okay.  I think I just need to document that thought.  I believe this could be beneficial to my photography craft when I look back on these thoughts and compare them to others.  I'm hoping that I can keep this up as a regular series of blog posts going forward.


The audience trickling into Ziba's auditorium and finding their seats

The audience trickling into Ziba's auditorium and finding their seats

Let's start with the setup of the space.  This lecture took place at Ziba's auditorium in downtown Portland.  I Googled the venue to get a general idea of what it's like.  It is a very uniquely designed space with steep auditorium seating that immediately catches the eye.  From an architectural point of view I was very intrigued with the modern design and found it to be a successful extension of Ziba's high design caliber.

Prior to the event I was forewarned that it will get very dark during the presentation, a condition that I assumed would be the case.  Since I have never been to this auditorium before, I decided to rent two lenses for this event to increase my flexibility: the Nikon 24-70 f2.8 and the Nikon 16-35mm f4 VR.  I opted to forego the 70-200mm f2.8 primarily because I didn't anticipate using it too much and it wasn't worth the extra weight.  If needed, I also had my 50mm f1.8 and 85mm f1.4 in my bag.  I did not regret this decision, but there were a couple of occasions where I thought that it would have come in handy.  Based on the seating layout, I would be primarily limited to photographing from the sides along the staircase.  It would have been distracting for me to step in front of those seated in the front row to capture a few photos.  This wasn't a huge deal.  I still had plenty of freedom to move up and down the stairs to get from one side of the auditorium to the other and add to my step count for the day.  I felt pretty confident with the gear I had going in and my preparations that I should be able to get some pretty decent photos.  The only things left were variables outside of my control--the speakers and the actual lighting conditions.  

Arriving early allows me to capture images like this: Gray Magazine setting up the space with a free copy of their magazine for the audience.

Arriving early allows me to capture images like this: Gray Magazine setting up the space with a free copy of their magazine for the audience.

I arrived a little bit early to the venue to walk the space while the event organizers were setting up.  I like to do this because it helps me get comfortable with my surroundings and offers a sneak peek to what the (lack of) lighting was going to be like.  The other advantage of arriving early is that it allows me to present myself as the photographer to the event organizers and volunteers and speakers and gives them a chance to be comfortable with me taking their photos during the lecture.  Gray Magazine was setting up the venue with a free copy of their latest issue at the time.  The videographers were testing out the live stream features.  Volunteers of Portland Design Events were setting up promotional materials.  And the Ziba staff were running through the presentations, going through soundcheck, and testing the lights.  They weren't kidding when they said that it would be very dark.  I would say the most challenging aspect was that there wasn't a dedicated spotlight that followed the speaker, which caused the amount of light on the speakers to vary depending on where they were on the stage.


When I set out to take photos, I always try to figure out what I want the three C's (content, context, and composition) to be--especially for photojournalistic photos where visually telling a story is crucial to its success.  In other words, I ask myself the following questions:
Content - what is the focus or subject of the photo? Is it obvious enough?
Context - what else is going to be in the photo and does it help enhance the subject? Is it too distracting from the focus of the image?
Composition - how do I want to visually present the content and context?

Billie Faircloth addresses the crowd in Portland, OR.

Billie Faircloth addresses the crowd in Portland, OR.

In this photo, my main subject is Billie.  And more specifically, Billie lecturing.  The context I set out to include was the audience.  Too often I see photos of lecturers or speakers where it's a zoomed in photo of the speaker without providing any context to help ground the image.  The organizers had set up a lectern for the speakers so I tested out some potential compositions based on its location.  Billie rarely stood anywhere near the lectern and instead moved around the stage quite a bit, engaging the audience.  This forced me to have to think on the spot and find a new vantage point.  I decided to settle for a couple rows up from the audience so I can place the audience in the foreground and bring the viewers into the photo as if they were part of the crowd that evening.  By default I tend to compose with the rule-of-third as a safety net, especially when I need to think quickly on my feet and won't have an opportunity to redo a photo.  There was a row of lights above that perfectly illuminated Billie when she stood from a specific spot that would allow her and the audience to line up along the rule-of-thirds.  All I had to do was wait for her to return to that spot and do some kind of action that was generally appealing whether that be some gestures, a smile, and/or an expressive face.  Luckily for me, I was able to catch her doing all of those at the same time.

In addition to the photo above, I also took photos of the audience, the other opening speakers, and photos from other vantage points.  The photos were delivered to Portland Design Events where it gets distributed to the press upon request.  It's always interesting to see which photos they end up choosing to showcase.  I understand different people will have different tastes and may pick certain photos over others.  However, it's a little validating when more often than not the photos that I thought were most successful end up being the ones that get picked.  


For most of the evening I used the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 lens on my Nikon D810 body.  The main photo above was shot with a shutter speed of 1/250s at f2.8 and ISO 6400.  One of the main things that I like about the D810 is its dynamic range and the ability to bring back information from the shadows and highlights.  This allows me to underexpose the images a little bit to maintain an acceptable ISO and increase my shutter speed.  Post-processing for this image was fairly minimal.  I increased the exposure by almost 1-stop, lightened up the shadows a bit, corrected the white balance and lens distortion.  I also applied some noise reduction to the images.  Overall I'm pretty satisfied with the resulting photos from this event.

I don't think there would be much that I would change with this setup outside of upgrading to the Nikon D850, but I don't see that happening anytime soon unless someone is feeling very generous.  I would also probably use the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 VR if it were available to rent from the gear rental place.  Now that I'm more familiar with the venue, I probably wouldn't rent the Nikon 16-35mm f4 VR again since it wasn't really needed.  24mm was plenty wide for my needs.  I'm still on the fence with the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 FL VR and would probably depend on who the speakers are.

Portland Design Events
Gray Magazine
Portland Architecture Blog

Timothy NiouComment
Sneak Peek Senior Portraits!

Last weekend I shot my little cousin's senior portraits.  This weekend I'm starting to go through and edit them and I'm pretty pleased with the results! She is the youngest out of all the cousins so it's pretty exciting to see her finish out high school and prepare for the next chapter in her life. 

We photographed some popular locations around the Pearl District in Portland such as Jamison Square, Tanner Springs Park, and the Ecotrust Building.  We also went down towards the Portland waterfront and across the Steel Bridge.  Finally, we went north to Ester Short Park in Vancouver, WA to finish out the day.  It was a little bit less cloudy than what was forecasted for the weekend, so that made for some challenging lighting as we approached noon.  But I think we were able to make due with what we had.  The whole session was photographed with an 85mm f1.4 lens.  I had contemplated switching lenses for certain shots but the 85mm is such a good portrait lens that it stayed on the camera body the whole time.  

I try to mix in a range of emotions into portrait sessions so that they aren't all smiles that appear to be more and more forced as the day goes on.  I don't usually like to pose people either because I'm terrible at it.  I don't shoot portraits consistently or frequently enough.  I usually just stick with some basic directions of what to do and then they tend to produce more natural and comfortable results.  It also helps that all of my cousins are very photogenic!  These are some of my favorites so far.

Timothy NiouComment