Interview #18 - Happyfingers

Happyfingers or (his real name, Don Michael De Leon) is a portrait photographer, born in the Philippines, now working and residing in Malaysia. He is also a musician.

You can find more of his work on his website or on his Facebook page (Happyfingers Photography). He is also on InstagramTwitter and Snapchat

If you haven't checked his Favourite Five, go check that one first!

Tell us about yourself? 

Hello! I’m Don Michael, a portraitist currently based in KL.  In the portrait and music world, I go by the name of Happyfingers. I'm happy to be here.

What’s happening with life?

Life’s been good! I'm busy and could be better, but I get to devote my free time to do what I’m really passionate about. I’m in the pink of health, and so are the people I care about, and that’s always a good thing.

I’m guessing you’re from the Philippines but you are working in Malaysia?

That’s right.  

How do you adapt yourself staying over there?

Malaysia isn’t too different from home, to be honest — save for the spicy food and other unique touches! You have the niceness of Singapore and the laid-back feel of Manila, rolled into one place that is bursting with life and culture. Adapting always takes time — I still am — but it has been splendid so far.

How did moving to Malaysia affect you as a photographer?

Moving to Malaysia largely accorded me the flexibility to shoot essentially wherever I wanted, within reason. Back home, there are some restraints imposed on portrait enthusiasts who take casual portraits of friends and models without some form of shooting permit, and the guards are almost always mandated to ask us to show our papers or otherwise cease shooting. In Malaysia (KL to be exact), I have never been stopped whenever I shoot in the street or in a cultural venue. It makes me happy to know that as an artist, I am free to create without having to look over my shoulder every few minutes. 

What draws you into photography, specifically shooting portraits?

I rarely go for the obvious choice when it comes to models. For the most part, I would shoot the non-model friend who I’ve had a fun conversation with, and sneaks in a side glance at a nearby mirror. There is magic in breaking barriers and capturing otherwise unseen beauty. 

Do you remember your first ever shoot?

Hahaha, yes! It is both one of the most embarrassing and formative moments of my life as a portraitist. I had no idea what I was doing and just researched how to shoot with a wide aperture five minutes before taking the OOTD (outfit of the day) of my office mate. The set was severely overexposed, my horizons were off-point, but hey, we all started from somewhere.

How’s the photography scene over there in your perspective?

It’s quite more similar to home and other Asian and Western bases, I think. Perhaps it’s because we tend to consume roughly the same schools of thought and artistic inspiration — the world gets smaller and smaller each day, thanks to social media. 

What are your challenges being a photographer?

Since my foremost objectives in shooting are to make myself, my muse, and people who see my work happy, perhaps the biggest challenge is ensuring that whatever I share on my channels meets all three points. 

How does the environment you’re living in influence your photography? 

Both Malaysia and the Philippines are known for having strong socio-religious climates. As my portraits are celebratory in nature, I’m all for liberation and freedom of expression, yet I also strive to keep a balance and fall within what is acceptable and tasteful within the spheres I live in. I suppose to make my life simple, I’d always ask myself before posting something: Is this something I’d be proud to show my loved ones? Thankfully, I’ve never had problems. 

I am blown away with your work. Tell us how you become interested in doing fashion?

Thanks for the kind words! I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I’m heavily grounded in fashion, but I do strive to capture a variety of looks based on the resources available to me. Cozy for Coffee, Structured and bold for Street, and Unguarded for Indoor. 

Do you have certain aesthetics or method of shooting?

I’m quite a warm person by default, and I’d like to think it shows in my work, with my choice of shooting styles, muses, and colour treatments. I shoot exclusively with primes, so my portraits are often tight and focused on the muse and her features

Describe how do your approach your work?

I always pre-plan and work within an agreed creative direction. If it is possible to plan everything to the very minute, especially for important shoots, I do so myself. I am responsible for everything that happens in my shoot – from the lighting conditions to the wardrobe choices, down to what the model and I eat after the shoot — as such, I need to do my homework. This is a very important lesson I learned from Vincent Laforet in a creative session I attended last year: when you pre-plan all the details, that’s what allows you the luxury of spontaneity, to “wing things,” because you’ve already covered the essentials.

I shoot as I envision, I explain to my model how and why I am shooting in a particular way, and I always show her the shots as a point of reference and improvement. Of course, I also allow room for creativity, fun, and healthy conversations!

I rarely post-process these days largely due to the lack of time (and unavailability of software). I have been running on mobile for more than a year now and I don’t see myself returning to my previous cumbersome workflow anytime soon. Contrary to what most people advise against, I am completely cool with sharing unedited photos with my models -  I lose nothing by being generous with my portraits, and it makes my models happy, too. 

Do you have preferences for choosing subjects or models?

Case-to-case basis depending on the shooting objective, but I gravitate toward soft and gentle features, I suppose. 

Any other works or photographers that you follow?

A lot! Just check out the “Following” portion of my Instagram page  

Do you value quality or quantity?

I think and shoot in sequences, so I tend to share more portraits than my peers, but I’m also about delivering the best possible work among the volume of portraits I shoot. So it’s more about balance than choosing between the two. 

In what ways that camera gears or cellphone apps matter to you in producing the work?

I’ve done professional-grade shoots in mobile and colour-grade exclusively in mobile, so I’d say smartphone photography has definitely gone a long way since 2010.

Do you earn enough as a photographer?

Monetary-wise, not really, but that’s cool. I’d rather not monetise something I’m passionate about. Friendships, totally!

Who do you think are the audience of your work?

Based on my latest tracking, on both Instagram and Facebook, 80% of my followers are women of ages 18-25. The remaining 20% are either my mom and other photographers. Hahaha. 

How much you think people will value your work?

I’d like to think I’m doing something right with what I have been doing for the past two years. Thanks to people who believed in my work, I have done print and online campaigns, food catalogs, interior photography, sports, events, and have been featured in television as well. But more than that, it’s the little stories and personal messages of affirmation I get from my muses and loved ones that remind me, “Hey, that’s why it’s worth it.”

How do you cope in getting the attention through social media or word of mouth?

Social media is always a good driver, but it’s not my end-all-and-be-all. I am doing this to be happy, not to be the king of Instagram. There are at least a thousand portraitists out there who are way better at this than I am, anyway. I’m happy where I am.  

Any music that you listen to lately? Books that you read? Movies that you just watched recently?

Everything on Spotify’s “Your Favourite Coffeehouse” playlist, Majestic Casual, and my go-to instrumentals. I’m not that much of a reader to be honest, but I just finished Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol.” I just watched London Has Fallen for the usual dose of mindless pedal-to-the-metal entertainment and boy, did they up the ante on that sequel!

How long have you been playing acoustic guitar?

All of my teenage life! It’s my first love.

What’s your go-to song to play?

John Mayer – No Such Thing (in every possible variation). It’s my life song!

Anything that keeps you excited in the future?

I'm really looking forward to more friendships and portraits this 2016!

Any last words?

Go out and keep shooting!