Monday, November 26, 2012

Charcoal Factory at Kuala Sepetang

Confession, I bought a new lens a few days ago, and it was for my Sony Alpha A350. I found a very good used deal from an online buy/sell portal in Malaysia, and I could not resist. The lens is the budget, yet highly revered Sony DT 35mm F1.8 lens. I got the lens just in time for this weekend's special travel outing organized by Sony Malaysia, a photography trip to a Charcoal Factory in Kuala Sepetang. 

It was a rather hectic weekend for me, because I have just had a wedding reception dinner shoot on Saturday night in Kuala Lumpur city center, and as the dinner ended close to midnight, I asked my friend Jason to drop me off at the meet up point of the outing members in Pudu Plaza. Imagine the exhaustion from a full on shooting session, with no rest, I immediately jumped into the next outing. I packed my gear into two separate bags for the evening, the Olympus gear in one bag which I used for the wedding shoot, and entrusted to Jason to take care of it after the assignment, and another bag only with Sony gear, which I brought along for the Kuala Sepetang trip. The participants of the Sony outing gathered at Pudu Plaza at an ungodly 1am on Sunday, and we departed shortly after, in a bus which was about half full. We arrived on location just before sunrise, which was perfect for the start of this photography adventure. 

All images in this entry were taken with Sony Alpha A350 and Sony DT lenses, 35mm F1.8, 50mm F1.8 and 18-70mm F3.5-5.6 kit lens. Almost all images were taken with the 35mm. 

Drama in the smoke


Smokes and Ashes

Fire

Burning

Hot and Red


Sparks

I have never been to a charcoal factory before, hence I did not quite know what to expect from this shooting session. All I had in mind was the beautiful factory as the backdrop, with factory workers dilligently working their sweat off, and I could somehow play with those subjects which I have previsualized with whatever limited memory I think I had with factory and its settings. As we arrived on location, I was a little disappointed to find out that the factory was in fact inactive for Sunday, and most of the workers were resting, and having their day off. There are a few workers around doing some light maintenance work, but the impression I had earlier on how the whole factory is full of life and bustling with chores and activities.... that all went out the window into the nearby swampy drain. 

I did not want to give in, thus I walked around, and searched really hard for my "victims". I did find a few, since not many of them were working, I had to make do with what I have, and had no choice but to use the same "model" for multiple shots. 

Apart from the idling factory on Sunday, the main concern in this shooting session, that has something to do with technical execution, would be the extremely low light condition. It was very, very dark, and using a dinosaur Sony A350 was not something most people would say.. "usable". Indeed, I needed to push my ISO beyond 800, sometimes 1600 (even shooting wide open at F1.8), just to achieve sufficient shutter speed to freeze motion. Yes, there is strong presence of ugly noise all over the images, but I came to a point of not caring about that anymore. Surely having a superior camera and perhaps some nice F1.4 lenses would mitigate this issue, being able to go away with clean ISO6400 images, but hey, I am not submitting any of these images to anyone, and I surely do not expect anything else from the outcome, other than personal pleasure which I always attained from my shutter therapy sessions. So what if there was presence of some ugly noise? Just keep shooting. Photography is a lot more than just high ISO noise. 

Having two fast prime lenses, the 50mm F1.8, and the newly acquired 35mm F1.8 lenses, have saved my life. 

The resident

Very empty

Transport

My Work Place is my Home

Ashes to Ashes

Burn

I have not used the 35mm F1.8 lens extensive enough to make much useful comment, but it left me with very good initial impressions. The autofocus performance is very, very good, far more superior than my 50mm F1.8. Somehow I am starting to think that my 50mm F1.8 lens could be faulty, I get very high "miss" percentage of my shots with the 50mm. The miss is not just by slight inaccuracy, the miss, which happened every 1 out of 5 or 6 shots, could be entirely out of focus. As for the 35mm, it was almost, always perfectly focused. Perhaps I should borrow someone's 50mm F1.8 and see if the focusing issue I had was unique to my own copy. Or maybe I should just sell this 50mm F1.8 off and get myself the Minolta 50mm F1.7 instead. 

The 35mm F1.8 felt very natural to me, as I needed the extra width of coverage, close to 50mm on 35mm equvalent format. Shooting in a charcoal factory, it is crucial to be able to establish the location, and incorporate subjects from the surrounding environment to further support the main subject of the photograph. Using the 50mm F1.8 alone would have been too restrictive, and the tight perspective might not work for most shots that I had in mind. The only complain I had was not having a good enough wide angle lens, and I admit the kit lens 18-70mm is not really a lens which I can use happily. Something equvalent to the Olympus Zuiko 11-22mm F2.8-3.5 would be godsent as I was framing and composing the scenes inside the charcoal factory. Knowing I never had a good wide angle lens to work with in the first place, I shifted my focus to close up on the workers instead, documenting their activities from a more intimate point of view. The 35mm worked just right. I have very good working distance to keep myself safe from the sparks and fire, while I could get myself close enough for shots with adequate impact. Yet at the same time, I can squeeze in some details in the background and surroundings. 

If you are a Sony shooter, if you do not have the 35mm F1.8, trust me, this is one cheap lens, that you MUST have. 

Peeling the Skin

Breaking Logs

A Man and his tools

Hard Labor

Packing in the final product

The shooting at the charcoal factory was really fun. I was a participant, in a group of almost 30 photo-thirsty Sony users. They all came so prepared, that I felt so empty handed. There were monopods, tripods, ND filters, external flashes with off-camera firing techniques, etc. Everyone was overly enthusiastic, with plenty of HDR experimentation  panorama shooting, and I am not kidding about what I am going to say: we arrived before the sun came up, and the group already started shooting the factory against the vast sky which was clear with stars, engaging long exposure. Being in this group of photographers was quite a different experience, their level of hunger for good photographs may very well surpassed mine. I felt so under-equipped, and among-st all of the people in the group, I must have been the one with the least photographs taken from the charcoal factory session. 

It was an interesting shooting environment that everyone was very eager to perform their best, and do everything they could to get the best photographs. Many Sony outings before usually were based on photo-challenge of competition, that at the end of the day all participants will submit their images, and the best image will win some delicious prizes, such as camera bags, external flash units (original Sony) or even lenses. My friend Jack won himself a beautiful macro lens from the previous Sony outing/challenge. Nonetheless, for this particular charcoal factory outing, it was a casual shooting session with no competition being held. I'd prefer it this way, at least everyone got to relax and not worry about "people stealing their ideas". Just shoot, and most importantly, enjoy shooting. While you are at it, make some friends !

Using the Sony A350 was no easy task. I constantly still have problems with the unpredictable metering. The under-exposure was so severe that even after I dialed back the exposure compensation to +2EV, the image still appeared to be about more than a stop under-exposed. Two options to overcome this problem: spot metering or manual exposure, both with would require pressing of some buttons and loss of time. The quickest way to work around metering issues would be the exposure compensation dial, and in Sony A350's case, the metering was so far off that the exposure compensation can be useless. 

Light leaks

From the roof

Portrait of a young factory worker

He told me he was 11 years old. 

Taking a break

The outing did not end at the charcoal factory, the next stop was a mangrove forest, located just opposite the charcoal factory location. When I arrived at the mangrove forest I was already so exhausted, and I knew it was time to put the camera down. I walked the full trail (they said it was about a kilometer's distance, but it felt more like 3 kilometers) around the jungle, and out into the waiting area, where I finally succumbed to my exhaustion, and took a nap. Well, I was not the only one, there were a few more who joned me at the waiting shed. It was indeed more physically demanding than usual for me, coming from a photography assignment, and immediate travel to another state, starting the shoot even before the sun rose. 

Of course, every great journey must have great food. Ours ended at Mak Jah Mi Udang (Prawn Noodles). 

Mak Jah Mee Udang

I hope you guys enjoyed this mini-series of Charcoal Factory photographs taken at Kuala Sepetang. It was different from my usual shooting sessions on the street, and having different subjects and environment to work with was quite refreshing to me. Thanks to Sony Malaysia for organizing such an interesting outing, everyone did enjoy themselves. 

Any of you using the Sony 35mm F1.8 lens? Do share your thoughts !!


53 comments:

  1. Yes the lens is nice but it's your skill that shows off the lens. I have often wondered what you could do with a cheap point & shoot camera.

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    1. Thanks Libby for the kind words. I do have a compact point and shoot camera, and I do use it from time to time (less often these days). Do look around this blog, you will find it easily.

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  2. Stunning shots! The "light leaks" shots are amazing, the "man and his tools" and the workers are portrayed perfectly. Again, it's this "magic" Robinesque sauce. I really, REALLY loved looking at this series and enjoyed reading about it. I don't own a Sony 35mm, but the fast Nikkors, and I love them. This Sony lens is sharp!

    Fabulous work, Robin! My hat off!

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    1. Thanks Andre !! I wish those shots could have been better. There are many ways to improve them.
      Yes, that Sony lens is very sharp. Imagine if using that lens on a newer and more capable body !

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  3. Beautiful photography. You are an inspiration!!

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  4. Great shots. Especially "Very empty"

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    1. Thanks Arek. I love that shot too.

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  5. Hey Robin, Time to add a new "tab" at the top of your blog called "SONY GEAR REVIEWS" *smile*.

    Peter F.

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    1. Thanks Peter F !! But I don't buy gear often (except those I really need, and use frequently).

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  6. Tho these are all good, "very empty" is also my favourite!

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  7. Great shots! Portrait of a young factory worker is my favorite. Perfect moment. Instead of the minolta 50/1.7, try to track down a good deal on the minolta 50/1.4. I got a good deal for mine and find it sharper than the more modern sony version wide open.

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    1. Hey Wataru,
      Thanks for the kind words.
      The 50mm F1.4 is about three times the price of the minolta 50mm F1.7, which I think is not really worth paying for. Then again I have not tried both extensively. Will keep that in consideration.

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  8. I like the last picture because it looks delicious!!! haha

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    1. Thanks Amir !! Have you tried the mee udang before?

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    2. I didn't recall eating mee udang before..=)

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    3. You should !! If you pass by Kuala Sepetang make sure you check it out. The place is always full with people.

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  9. Wow yoummy! Very nice picture!

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  10. Look like an interesting place. Let plan and go to the place again.

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  11. I agree with Kelvin. Very interesting place!
    BTW amazing photos Robin...

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  12. Ah Ah, great Robin. Yov've taken it before me , at last :) Well, now I know that it's a very good lens and what I need with my Alpha. I've read about it's quality but looking at your pics, it seems better than I thought

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    1. Hello Ugo,
      Based on my very brief encounter with it (Ive only used it for 2 days now), the 35mm is sharper than the 50mm F1.8, and the focusing is more silent, faster, and more reliable as well. Very happy with it. Needed it for wider perspective in this session, and it did well !

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    2. I'll get one very soon. and i've also found a Minolta 50 mm 1,7 2nd hand

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    3. Nice !! I am sure you will love the 35mm !!

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  13. Robin - I love your work and this series is just wonderful. I am, however, struggling to rationalise your comments and experiences here with your comments in the recent review of the Oly 17mm 1.8 in which you express no real empathy with this focal length?

    Keith

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    1. Hello Keith,
      35mm on the APS-C Sony corresponds to 52mm, which is closer to 50mm focal length, which I find very useful for my shooting style.
      The 17mm on Olympus 4/3 sensor is equivalent to 34mm, so it is the classic 35mm focal length. At the 35mm equivalent focal length, I struggle greatly to produce the kind of photographs I am shooting.

      I hope that clears some misunderstanding.

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  14. Brilliant photographs

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  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  16. I have the 35f1.8, and yes, it's a little great lens (but it seems even better in your hands, Robin!). If you want a suggestion, I have another "cheap plastic fantastic" lens, the vivitar 100f3.5 AFMacro, http://www.dyxum.com/columns/articles/lenses/cosina_100_35_macro/cosina_100_35_macro_review.asp , which is simply... surprising. Bought that for less than 100€ and worth every penny, even if the noise it does when autofocusing is so horrible you normally decide for manual focus...

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    1. Thanks for the suggestion Romano !!

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  18. You really did a fantastic job capturing the light in so many beautiful ways, Robin. I would be very reluctant to be changing my lenses often (if at all), in such a dusty enviroment. The ways that you captured the light with the dust and smoke was beautiful.

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    1. Hello Gregg,
      Thanks for such kind words. I was also hesitant to change lens, but then I thought the sensor can be cleaned, and I was not exactly using a very expensive camera (bought it at a good deal). Hence, it was either getting the shot or missing it.

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  19. Hi Robin:
    the style you present reminds me of a great documentary photo study for National Geographic magazine on local culture (people at work) and factory workers.
    Great work! Strong images. Love the light beams through ceiling as well and Man and his Tools.

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    1. Hey Adrian,
      You were being too kind !! Nowhere near Nat Geo standards tho, but I like the idea.
      The light from the ceiling could have been better with slightly wider angle coverage. I was stuck with the kit lens 18-70mm, I would say at 16mm or 14mm would create a more dramatic shot.

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  20. *Hadi nik*

    Great shot..really like read ur blog..lots of knowledge i can earn here..belive it or not everytime when i need to shoot, i must enter to ur blog to get some knowledge and idea..ur blog are my referrence till now..thnx a lot..

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    1. Hello Hadi Nik,
      Thanks for the kind words !! Will you be joining any future Sony outing? Will be glad to shoot with you more. Lets all learn from each other !! I have much to explore and improve too. But most importantly, we should shoot and practice more.

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    2. For sony outing..i need to check with my schedule..if d event not clash with my schedule its ok..really miss to join d outing..
      For now everyday i will take my gear with me..everyday i will shoot n shoot n shoot...never bored to shoot..WHERE EVER I GO, WHAT EVER I DO, D GEAR ALWAYS NEAR WITH ME..

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    3. Hello again Hadi,
      You are right, having the camera with you is very important !! Sometimes the best photography opportunity happens without us expecting it.

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  21. Strong images mate. Your skill transcends brand or model. I have been biasing my monochromes dark, but looking at yours, might try neutral as a different technique.

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    1. Hello Ananda,
      I think we can process the B&W images, depending on what we want to achieve. Notice that in the background of the photos in this particular charcoal factory series, there is that mysterious mist, to be honest I was not sure if it was morning mist (it did feel cold like mist) or smoke/ash from the burning at the charcoal factory emitted from the furnace, or the mix of both. If I were to increase the contrast of the B&W images, you won't see that misty background anymore !!! That was the reason why I made it more neutral, with more "greys" to show more of that mist.

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    2. Oh and if you were referring to the light leaks from the roof and walls, that was a different story. They do look really good too being presented darker with more shadows.

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  23. Wonderful shots. Fantastics macro pictures in others articles !!
    Have a nice day.

    Didier

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