Jalanjalan tips from award-winning photographer Darren Soh


CNY gathering restrictions? Shops closed for the holiday? No problem! If you are still not quite sure what to do with yourself this long weekend, take a cue from architectural photographer Mr Darren Soh and go #jalanjalan the HDB estates to capture some uniquely Singaporean snaps. Afterall, it was the image of an HDB block’s reflection that made him the only Asian name among the 10 global winners in Apple's inaugural Shot On iPhone Challenge in 2019. The photographer’s captures of our local public housing has also been transformed into exhibitions such as Building Blocks – a folio of his architectural work that has been showing at the Kay Ngee Tan Architects Gallery since 2007; and a showcase at the Singapore Pavilion of the EXPO 2017 Astana in Kazakhstan, as well as at the St+Art Urban Art Festival in Mumbai India. “I enjoy going out to the neighbourhoods to photograph because I keep finding new things through research. Every HDB block has a history and a reason why it looks the way it does,” shares Mr Soh. “This back story is what makes a seemingly nondescript-looking block interesting.” Here, he shares his pro tips on photographing our Jalanjalan.me neighbourhoods. 

Shooting is not rocket science. just keep going from block to block and taking lifts and climbing steps. You never know what the view is like until you see it. There is no substitute for that.

If you’ve ever wondered why your pictures of buildings never quite look as sharp and straight as you would like them to be, here’s a pro tip: find a tall HDB flat that will give you a view. Point the camera straight at the building that you are shooting and don’t tilt it. This is where the high vantage points come in: the higher you are, the less you need to tilt the camera to fit the whole building into the picture. And if you are shooting with the panorama function on your phone — which is most useful when you are high up — use the guiding lines to keep the phone levels. Do not deviate from the line as you pan the phone from left to right. Also note that the panorama function works best for shooting subjects that are far away.  If you shoot something very close to you, such as a block across the road, you will get a weird distortion. The bock will end up looking like a banana.

For those dramatic casts of shadow that add dynamism to a shot, shoot in the early morning, just after sunrise, or late afternoon after 5pm. Essentially you have a window of 1.5 hours in the morning and in the evening, and that’s provided that it doesn’t rain! The other perk of shooting at these times: the birds are more active, so you get that bonus bird-flying-across-the-sky element, which I have no patience to wait for…

I always go to Jalan Besar because it is laid back. And if you are interested in history you will always have new discoveries in the area. The Petain shophouses are iconic, but there are also townhouses and the old British Colonial quarters have been turned into commercial rental units — such as those on Rowell Road, where my former studio was. You will find pre-war British government quarters that have been conserved in that area, making it very interesting for just walking around and taking pictures. Of note are also the Rowell Court point blocks – they are very tall and provide a nice vantage view of Little India. Rowell Court is also interesting because it was the last HDB development in the central area until Pinnacle at Duxton was built 1999. This was because the MRT started in 1985, linking the city to other parts of the country.

Clementi has a lot of super tall HDBs that were built in the last 10 years. They are indicative of our country’s need to maximise land use in popular neighbourhoods, and you would also find them in other estates such as Dover and Toa Payoh. Each of these 40 storey blocks have amazing views of the entire western part of Singapore, some allowing you a view stretching all the way to the city.
Clementi Mall also makes an interesting subject because it is the first HDB private-public partnership mixed used project which incorporates a privately developed shopping mall. It is also one of the first to incorporate a transport hob.

Chong Pang has great food! But there are other interesting things about Yishun’s oldest neighbourhood on the photography front. Blocks 115A, B and C – built in the late 90s and 2000s, while the rest of Chong Pang was built in 1970s – are very symmetrical and has a façade of unpainted bricks, which isn’t very common. There is also a rather large columbarium beside the Chong Pang Combined Temple: though it was built in the early 80s, it features a neo-classical pagoda-like form that is fairly modern in its angular design.

I mourn the demolition of the standalone swimming complex, which I have shot a few times. Thankfully, there are still gems, such as the 1970s HDB flats in Chai Chee. A large part of it area was redeveloped in the 90s, so there is a lot of post-modern type of architecture which juxtaposes against the older 1970s built HDB flats. With the blocks all painted in similar colour schemes, trying to identify the old from the new is a bit like a treasure hunt.

AMK has the unique Clover block – which is only symmetrical on two sides, so you would get a different perspective if you just go 90 degrees to either side. Anybody interested in shooting buildings should shoot it right now from a large field across, where you can get a lovely morning view of the Clover. The field is slated for BTO flats and will be gone once construction starts. From the Clover itself, the common corridor on the top floor gives you a very nice view of the Lower Pierce Reservoir where you can get great sunset views. For views, also try the roof garden of the newly completely BTO at Ang Mo Kio Court, where you can get a panoramic view of Bishan Park and beyond.
Ang Mo Kio is also one of the first estates where a mix of 4- and 5-room flats are combined within a slab block: up until then you could only find 5-rooms flats in a point block. This combination makes for a more complicated looking bar, which is visually interesting.


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