Update: I was complaining about a failed Compact Flash memory card by Lexar in my previous entry (click), and guess what? I woke up to an email from Lexar Support, asking me to send in the proof of purchase and the card to see if they can fix it, or replace it for me. Now this is getting freaky, I never knew anyone would be taking my blog entry that seriously. I was overwhelmed, but I thought an apology should be in place, because I did reacted emotionally in that entry, and failure could have happened to ANY cards by ANY manufacturers, there are so many reasons and causes of card failures. I applaud Lexar's initiative and effort in reaching out to me and making sure I got the proper compensation.
As I was heading home after work today, I was browsing the news feed on my Facebook through my HTC mobile phone, and I saw Luke Chua saying he would be shooting at Ampang Nine Emperor Gods Temple, asking anyone else free to join him for the shoot in the evening. I clicked "like" on his status, and immediately opened up Google Maps to search for the location of the temple, and means to get there via public transport. Just as I was searching through the phone App, a call came in and it was Luke !! I thought he was reading my mind across town, and somehow he knew I would be coming after clicking "like" on his status. Seriously, I sometimes believe photographers have some sort of telepathy network that we can know and understand each other even if we don't speak!! So Luke asked if I was coming, and I said yes.
Now I was facing a dilemma. Knowing the temple setup would be really challenging for photography, I would need my Olympus gear (and the wonderful Zuiko lenses). However in the bag I was carrying I had the Sony (because I was still testing and learning how to use this new system) instead, and if I made the trip home to change my equipment, I would be late. I decided to just head to the temple straightaway with what I had in my bag, and I took a train to Ampang LRT train station, and walked about a kilometers to the Temple.
All images were shot with Sony DSLR A350 and DT lenses 18-70mm F3.5-5.6 or 50mm F1.8
No, not inconsistent white balance, the camera white balance was accurate, just inconsistent bad lighting. Different lighting source, hence different color cast. I could correct them in PP but what the heck, I wanted to show them as true to the eye as possible.
Baby on the floor
no place to sit
Everything do it yourself
memorizing the script
The Traditional Chinese Opera
Before the opera started at 8.30pm, we actually had the privilege to shoot at the backstage, while the performers were in preparation, doing their make-up, dressing up and getting ready for the show. This was the perfect opportunity for many behind the stage shots, opening a lot of photography opportunities I think are far better than just shooting what happens on stage. You get to see how the performers did the make up by themselves, without external help. You get to see the passion and great discipline the opera performers have, to keep the culture and tradition going strong, though the practice has been losing interest in the newer generation. Their effort, sacrifice and dedication to the art were admirable, and praise-worthy. I applaud their genuine effort and hard work to preserve the Chinese art, which I believe is very important.
In this particular shooting session, I was faced with plenty of challenges.
1) Very Poor Lighting Condition
As the sun was dying, the stage/hall has very poor lighting conditions. The main light high above the ceiling was fluorescent, which dimly lit the entire hall with a strong greenish cast, which was destructive to skin tone. The very dark condition was also difficult for me, since I did not bring the external flash, and have to make do with external light with the Sony system, which was a 4 years old dinosaur that does not fare well in high ISO shooting. On several corners of the hall, tungsten bulbs are being set up to aid the process of make-up, and near the tungsten light source, the condition improved, but not by that much. Furthermore, the mixed lighting between the fluorescent and tungsten was not something easy to deal with. Worse still, the lighting was so uneven, there are unwanted shadows and highlight cast all over the place. I found myself using the 50mm F1.8 to counter the low light, and trying my very best to stay below ISO400 to minimize high ISO noise.
2) Cluterred/Messy background setup
The whole place at the backstage was VERY messy, with furnitures and all sorts of junk being scattered all around, and that posed a huge problem for clean composition. Everywhere I point the camera to, there would be something in the background that could be distracting. If I use the wide angle kit lens, I would capture a lot more distractions and unwanted subjects, than I intended. It was not easy to work with such a cluttered setup, and surely using the F1.8 on the 50mm was necessary to blur the background away. Even so, the shallow depth of field trick can only work to a certain extent, I finally accepted the fact that there was no way to avoid this and just continued shooting, adding the elements into the composition, which I wish could have been much simpler and cleaner. I do not like having too many things in my photograph, I prefer simple and straightforward framing most of the time. We know poor composition will result in poor photographs.
look at that mess !!!!
The script again
3) Gear Limitation
I openly admit that the gear I was using for the night, Sony A350 and two lenses, the kit lens 18-70mm and 50mm F1.8, were not really sufficient to handle such challenging situation. I would have fared much better with Olympus DSLR E-5, 11-22mm F2.8-3.5 and the marvelous 50mm F2 macro.
The main problem was that the 18mm wide end (27mm on 35mm equvalent) was just NOT wide enough for my usual shooting, and I really, really need something much wider. Coming from constant use of 11-22mm lens, having the widest end of 11mm (22mm on 35mm equivalent) seriously made a huge difference, not to mention the F2.8 widest opening. Being stuck at not so wide angle really restricted my composition, and I found myself having the need to step back a lot, and in constrained corners, I already had my backs on the wall and still not fit everything I needed. I do not know about most of you, but wide angle lens is definitely a necessity for me in every serious shooting session that I am doing, no excuses. Perhaps not something ultra wide, but surely I need it to be much wider than the 27mm on the kit lens. Furthermore, that 18-70mm is not exactly a stellar lens, being infamous for being soft and having all the technical flaws.
Besides wide angle limitation, I was faced with a 4 year old CCD image sensor inside the Sony A350 that won't make good images above ISO800. I tried to shooting everything at ISO400 and under, and found myself needing to push up to ISO800 in some situations. Surely shooting with the 50mm at wide open F1.8 helped a lot, but we all know how soft the lens can be at F1.8.
I can complain on and on, and wishing things could be better (better lighting, better gear, etc) but the truth is, in every shooting, the condition was rarely ideal, and being a photographer, I have to accept the situation and find ways to work around the limitations. It was not easy, but if you really have the heart to make it happen, it will. I know the Sony is capable, and I just have to put my heart and head into it to make it happen. The fact that I actually had wonderful subject to work with added the drive and motivation to push further. Indeed, it was not an every day thing to be able to shoot a Chinese Opera, and having the privilege to go backstage !! I shall NOT waste this rare opportunity, even with an under-performing gear, I will do what I an to squeeze some shots out of it.
If there is a will, there is a way. If you want to shoot bad enough, you will get the shots !!
Helping one another
It started to rain
As the show started, it actually rained. I was surprise to find a crowd still building in front of the stage, though the rain got heavier. The support from the local community was a good sight to watch, unfortunately it was from the more senior citizens, not so many younger crowd. Nonetheless, having a crowd was important to the stage performers and it sure added motivation for them to perform their best. As it rained heavier, I was reluctant to go out in the open as the Sony A350 and lenses are not weather sealed. I managed a few quick shots from the front of the stage, and then went back up to the backstage, and shooting from the side.
You know what? As I was reviewing the shots on my computer screen, I actually quite liked what I saw from this Sony system !! Keeping the ISO low made a huge difference, and now, having getting used the focusing behaviour of the 50mm F1.8 lens, I get very high hit rate. I have mostly accurately focused shots now, and they looked good enough. Yes, they are still soft by any standards, but seriously, I do not need those photos to be clinically sharp. I am not delivering them to clients, it was a personal shooting session. Yet I am falling in love with Sony's older 14.2MP CCD image sensor, its color rendition, as well as that AMAZING dynamic range !!
I was actually joining Luke Chua (who initially called me and invited me to the event) and a new friend, Paoblo from Argentina. Both of them use much more capable gear than what I have, Luke using a D90 with great Nikon lenses, and Paoblo using D700. Luke has always been an inspiration, him being on a wheelchair did NOT push him down even a little when it comes to obtaining great photographs, and his photography skills can put most photographers I know to shame (even myself to some degrees).
That legendary D700
Luke Chua, taking a high angle shot. There are no limits, just excuses not to achieve what you want.
Do check out Luke's blog here.
I sure had plenty of fun being at the temple, and shooting with the Sony gear. I am getting to know it better, and surely, I am much more efficient in handing the Sony now. Also, it was great catching up with Luke Chua. He has great ambitions for photography, and his desire to go far was insatiable. If you think I was passionate in photography, you will reconsider that after you meet this Luke. Thanks for having me with you this evening for the shoot in the temple, and we must catch up and shoot together again !!