Thursday, January 20, 2011

Thaipusam at Batu Caves

Happy Thaipusam to all Hindu/Tamil beautiful people out there !!

It was nearly midnight that three insane photographers decided to embark on an adventurous shooting session the following ridiculously early morning at Batu Caves, to capture the festivity of Thaipusam. Why insane? After finalizing our plans, it was already midnight, and that left us less than three hours of sleep before Jasonmumbles, Huey Yoong and I met up at ungodly 4am and we drove all the way to Batu Caves from Sri Petaling.

I was born and raised in Kuching, and am relatively new to Kuala Lumpur. Back in Kuching I was not very well exposed to Hindu and Indian traditions/culture, simply because I live in the part of town with Indians as minority. Nonetheless, now working in KL, I have the opportunity to widen my views and knowledge on the Indian community. Today is the Thaipusam festival, a huge celebration for the Hindu community, and I decided I should take this chance to learn, witness and immerse myself into one unique culture that shaped up this unique nation of Malaysia. I was really glad I did, because what I saw today was beyond what I have imagined and expected.

Shaving the head before the procession.
ISO 1000, F2, 1/30sec

Fire, the symbol of light and blessing.
ISO 1600, F3.5, 1/30sec

Resisting the flames.
ISO 1600, F2, 1/160sec

To those of you who are not familiar with what Thaipusam is (actually to be honest I was not entirely sure as well) I shall include direct excerpts from Wikipedia:

What is Thaipusam?

Thaipusam (Tamil: தைப்பூசம், Taippūcam ?) is a Hindu festival celebrated mostly by the Tamil community on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (January/February).

The festival commemorates the occasion when Parvati gave Murugan a vel (spear) so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman.

Preparations of Kavadi

Devotees prepare for the celebration by cleansing themselves through prayer and fasting approx-48 days before Thaipusam. Kavadi-bearers have to perform elaborate ceremonies at the time of assuming the kavadi and at the time of offering it to Murugan. The kavadi-bearer observes celibacy and take only pure, Satvik food, once a day, while continuously thinking of God.

On the day of the festival, devotees will shave their heads and undertake a pilgrimage along a set route while engaging in various acts of devotion, notably carrying various types of kavadi (burdens). At its simplest this may entail carrying a pot of milk, but mortification of the flesh by piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with vel skewers is also common.
The simplest kavadi is a semicircular decorated canopy supported by a wooden rod that is carried on the shoulders, to the temple. In addition, some have a small spear through their tongue, or a spear through the cheeks. The spear pierced through his tongue or cheeks reminds him constantly of Lord Murugan. It also prevents him from speaking and gives great power of endurance. Other types of kavadi involve hooks stuck into the back and either pulled by another walking behind or being hung from a decorated bullock cart or more recently a tractor, with the point of incisions of the hooks varying the level of pain. The greater the pain the more god-earned merit.

Many stayed the night over at the surrounding areas of Batu Caves, just before the festival.
ISO 2500, F2, 1/50sec

Batu Caves entrance, looking as majestic as ever.
ISO 1600, F2.8, 1/50sec

The 272 steps up to the upper platform of the temple.
ISO 1600, F2, 1/200sec

Nearing the entrance.
ISO 800, F2.8, 1/30sec

Devotees going in.
ISO 800, F2.8, 1/20sec

Alright enough Thaipusam lessons, lets come back to the shooting session with my friends, Jason and Huey Yoong.

We arrived at just before 5am, and the sun has not risen just yet. The entire place surrounding Batu Caves were already flooded with people from God knows where. If you want to imagine the volume of the crowd, think about a football stadium, yeah it was that massive. Battling through the crowd, we found ourselves getting nearer and nearer to the temple in the caves. We had to climb the 272 steps stairs to the top of the platform to enter the temple. Such gigantic celebration brought tones of opportunities for photography, and I have intended to capture the scene and share this unique culture prominently observed in Malaysia with you beautiful readers out there. Believe me when I mentioned it was a gigantic celebration, I have not really seen any festival at such a grand scale in Malaysia before, where such unimaginable huge amount of people come together in unison.

It was truly a joy to be able to witness something fresh, a celebration that I have not encountered before. It was different from hearing stories and reading articles, or seeing photographs by others. Being there, blending into the crowd, walking with the masses, to be able to see, touch, and smell the atmosphere, everything felt so alive and real. I wanted to be in the celebration, and I wanted to be able to bring that bit and reproduce them in my photographs.

Carrying jars of milk.
ISO 1600, F2, 1/30sec

A simple portrait.
ISO 1600, F3.3, 1/40sec

Young age is not an excuse not to join in.
ISO 2000, F2.8, 1/50sec

I was climbing the stairs up, and as I looked down OMG the view was breathtaking !!!! Too bad there was a strong spotlight shining on us.
ISO 2000, F2.8, 1/25sec

Arrival of the upper platform. Gotta love the limestone formation.
ISO 2000, F2.8, 1/50sec.

Inside the huge cave.
ISO 800, F2.8, 1/50sec.

This shooting session was one of the most difficult I have encountered so far with my Olympus E-5.
Here is the list of challenges that I faced:

1) Low light – We started shooting at an ungodly 5am, and the sun was not up yet. It was dark, really dark, and the surrounding ambient light did not provide sufficient illumination to properly light up the whole place. High ISO shooting was not something that I would do very often, but in this case, it cannot be avoided.

2) Bad Light – the light was not only very dim, but the quality of light was extremely bad. There was mixture of lighting source from tungsten to fluorescent to some unidentified source of light with many varying colour casts, all mixing up together, creating an issue for the camera to handle the white balance. Not only was there mixed multiple lighting source, the light illumination was very uneven, casting heavy shadows at many unwanted places in the photograph.

3) Too many people – The place was swarmed with so many people, it was very difficult to move around. Composition was a horror, it was almost impossible to get clean, isolated shots of the subjects I wanted to photograph. Most of the time you get people moving in front of you, or hands and head sticking out from the left right front and back !!! It was really annoying especially when everything moved and nothing stayed still, and not being able to move freely under such overcrowded situation was not helping at all.

In full concentration.
ISO 2000, F3.4, 1/30sec

Multiple piercings.
ISO 1600, F2, 1/80sec

Chains on my soul?
ISO 1600, F2, 1/60sec

As usual, Malaysians have a lot to learn when it comes to "do not litter".
ISO 1600, F2, 1/125sec

ISO 2500. F2, 1/200sec

ISO 2500, F2, 1/160sec

Exiting from the temple.
ISO 2500, F2.8, 1/160sec

4) Skin tone – I do not mean to be making any racist remark here, but dark skin tone, under such horrendous lighting condition just made things a lot worse. The metering of the camera did struggle from time to time to nail down the right exposure, when the metering was taken from the darker skin tone.

5) Motion and Blur – Nothing stayed still, and everyone was moving at such fast pace. Freezing movements meant that I need to use higher shutter speed to compensate for the motion blur. That means, I have to bump up the ISO even higher.

6) No Flash – I have decided not to use the flash, though I know the fact well enough that flash would aid greatly in providing additional illumination. I did not want to be intrusive and annoy the devotees who may be in deep concentration in their Thaipusam devotion practice. I was showing respect, and did what I can not to cause a scene.

Kavadi, or burden being carried by a devotee.
ISO 2500, F2.8, 1/50sec

A journey completed.
ISO 5000, F2.8, 1/30sec

Jason said this dude was in trance. I think it is a form of self-hypnosis, when a person entered his sub-concious state of mind, tapping into physical capabilities beyond ordinary.
ISO 5000, F3.3, 1/30sec

ISO 3200, F2, 1/160sec

The following are the settings and camera options that I have used throughout the shooting session:

1) All photographs were shot in JPEG, at Large Super Fine, Noise Filter: Low and White Balance: Auto

2) Exposure setting was Aperture Priority, with EV set to +0.3 or +0.7 when necessary. I intentionally overexposed my images a little to minimize high ISO noise, which would appear worse if the images were underexposed.

3) High ISO setting of 1000-5000. I tried to maintain ISO below 1600, but there were just times when I needed to boost them much higher than 1600.

4) I used 50mm F2 macro and 11-22mm F2.8-3.5 lens, and show at wide open aperture at all times.

How did I feel about the overall results from this shooting session?

I do think I did very badly, especially bad lighting control, poor composition (with too many distractions) and horrible colour reproduction. Lighting has ALWAYS been an important part of photography, and this can never be excluded or ignored from the overall equation in producing good photographs. I always believe that, if your original ambient light is bad and inadequate, no matter how you play around with your camera, your shots will come out bad due to the poor lighting. I thought if I have used flash, the photographs might have turned out much better, but that would defeat my purpose of not being too intrusive and a nuisance. We actually left just when the sun started to rose. Also, I believe the shots would have been tones better, if it was shot under gentle, warm and flattering morning sun light. Oh well, everyone was too tired and sleepy by the time the sun rose, hence maybe we will do that the next coming year.

I was quite pleased with the high ISO output from the Olympus E-5. Should I be using the old E-520, results at ISO800 and above would have been hopelessly useless, due to destructive amount of noise. Up to ISO3200, the chroma noise has been very well controlled on the E-5, and at ISO1600, I can get rather clean and smooth result, as if shooting ISO400, or even lower on my old E-520. This certainly aided me in obtaining many of the shots shown in this entry.

Nonetheless I did enjoy myself thoroughly. It was really great seeing a celebration at such large scale happening in Malaysia, and be able to photograph it. This was also my first time meeting Huey Yoong in person. She is one talented and really artistic photographer, do head over and check out her blog/portfolio if you have not done so.

Any of you Malaysian photographers who were there at Batu Caves? Do share what you think and your experience shooting there.


  1. Impressive photographs as always. You should consider joining this contest in London called the International Street Photography. There is a link in dpreview regarding the details on how to join. I'm pretty sure you'll be able to win this contest hands down.

    By the way, if you're interested in checking your Olympus E-5 shutter count here's a link to check it...(just in case you don't know yet)

    I tried it myself on my E5 and it actually works and I've read the code also work for the PEN series.

    Keep up the good work!!!

  2. Hello Eric,
    Thank you so much for the kind words !! I appreciate it.
    I will look into the info of the contest, thanks for the heads up. I might actually join ! Cheers

  3. Wow Eric, the E-5 shutter count check works !! Thanks again mate.

  4. Wahh.

    Great photos of the event although I'm a bit shock about the high ISOs and fast shutter speed that u used.

    However, u've explained it very well in the posts of why u're using them.

    I think with all the shiny stuffs and oil covered bodies makes it hard to focus especially with the lighting conditions that you've been experiencing that day. Hmm.

    The high ISO's are manageable, in my camera 3200 was grainy as hell. Haha!

    Composition wise, I think all the photos are well composed and the portraits are awesome!

    After reading this post I am quite ashamed of myself that despite been living in KL for 17 years and only a 5minutes journey to Batu Caves, I've never climb the stairs!

  5. hi Snowfire,
    Thanks so much for the kind words. I do think that the photos can still be improved further.
    Nonetheless, I would have preferred to shoot under bright, beautiful morning sun light, over such bad light at night time. I can use low ISo instaed, producing cleaner and sharper images, and much pleasing colors and skin tone !!
    Do not feel ashamed, there is always next year mate.

  6. i dont think the photos are bad.
    i think they're good. and show that olympus can be pushed and performed very well at higher iso. ;)

    good job robin!!

  7. regardless your complains about the environmental factors for bad photography, I sincerly believe your shots are AWESOME!