Nine Emperor Gods Festival: A Chinese Opera

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

small mirror. 

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 !!!!


Cute mirror

The script again


Almost ready

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

stage shot

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 !!


  1. Hi Rob,
    Thanks again for this wonderful photographic experience. Once again you prove to us that its not the camera that takes photos but its really the photographer. The camera is just a tool. Having weaker equipment is an opportunity for us to get stronger in a sense. I love the behind the scene shots specially 'the baby on floor', hair and everything do it yourself. Photography is not just about colour, sharpness and composition, but I think story telling is also important. The pictures need to speak to us. And for this you are a great story teller.

    Johan Chan Seem

    1. Thanks for the kind words Johan.
      I agree the camera is just a tool, but we often forget that one very important thing: knowing how to use the camera is crucial to making good shots. Story telling is not easy, still discovering and learning.

  2. You captured some great shots regardless of the gear. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Looks like a really nice evening Robin. And no-one looked stressed! Gotta be rare for a live performance.

    1. Thanks Tom !! It was indeed a very relaxed environment, but you can see that the performers are very focused, and to a certain extent being in their own world.

  4. Hey Robin,

    thanks for sharing..
    really salute Luke for his passion in photography
    please shoot more with Oly.. waiting for you to "poison" LOL

    1. Thanks Eric!! No worries, for now I am trying to get to know the Sony better. I won't forget about Olympus no worries.

  5. It isn't surprising that your post captured Lexar's attention: you have a fine blog!

    You look like you had a fun evening. This is something that we do not see over here (Calgary Canada). Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks Dillan.
      indeed Chinese Opera is unique to Chinese tradition, you can find it in China and certain parts of the world with large chinese community like Malaysia or Singapore.

  6. Hi Robin
    You are fantastic photographer and I love your publications
    By I prefer you are working on Olympus gear

  7. Hi Robin:
    I thought about the difference of the Sony colours of your A350 camera vs. Olympus colours and why they look different as others have commented. In my job, I print a lot (50 percent of most wedding jobs and the rest are digital books for outside printers) and I make small changes in print for impact and change colour balance regularly, and I think I see why now as it is a subtle difference.

    In some photos there is perhaps more yellow and less red in skin tones of Sony, where as Olympus has their skin colours bit warmer by default. Skies outside in previous article, perhaps a bit muddy in a few images, not all, (mixed balance) from bit too much yellow saturation, like the cityscape photos in previous entry (while Olympus has cleaner evening sky colours on E5). It is a very subtle (small) difference which is why it took longer for me to figure out. See the first image in this article and one of group in the rain with umbrellas (I imagine some colour is the room ambient light affecting WB). Many of the pictures are certainly fine with existing colours of Sony, but some show this difference more.

    Perhaps shifting the colour balance a bit in some photos may help with Sony for subtle change. Please take this as useful tip and not intended as criticism. Your compositions of this event are great as usual and I would like to have seen the event in person. What is your own opinion of the difference on Sony vs. Olympus colours?

    1. Thanks for the thorough analysis Adrian. I understand and appreciate your observation. The colors can be easily fine tuned in PP (green vs magenta cast and temperature WB adjustment) for consistency, but I thought it would be nice to leave it as is, so that I can understand the camera behaviour better. I thought that the colors are quite pleasing, though not very consistent, and bear in mind of the heavily mixed lighting condition.
      It is interesting to see how different manufacturers optimize their own color reproduction, and I do think Sony is doing it quite alright. We are talking about a 4 year old camera here. Surely they must have improved further in their newer cameras.

    2. Oh and I forgot to complain about the metering, it was acting up again, even when wthere was a tiny tungsten bulb in the background, the whole picture got underexposed by 3-4 stops !! Even when I dialed in the exposure compensation to full +2V, it was still Very underexposed. Very, very bad metering. I had to lock the metering on something else, before shifting it into my composition frame for focusing. I know the AE lock is the answer but its inconvenient and frustrating !!!!!

  8. Nice post Robin.... I like the baby on the floor....hv submitted to Maybank photo awards? he...he...

    1. Hey Jai,
      Long time no see. We must go shooting some time !!
      I won't be joining competition, no worries. I shoot not for competing, only for personal pleasure. Hehe.

  9. What can I say - amazing work as usual, Robin! Very captivating pictures, it puts one right in the middle. These look plenty sharp to me, by the way. Considering the lighting, the colors are good as well - maybe not 100% accurate, but that doesn't matter - it's the whole atmosphere -the expressions, colors, composition and the decisive moment that makes the picture. That see-in-the-dark equipment (D700 et al) is nice, but look at the amazing results you post here with more humble gear. Thanks for sharing with us this excellent work!

    Massive respect also for your friend Luke!

    1. Hey Andre,
      Thanks for the kind words !! I think the sense of being there is very important for any sort of documentary purpose, even for video shooting, as well as photography. Thanks for pointing that out !!

  10. Robin, you may know by now how much I like your work. However, I'm unfortunately not in love with the results from the Sony - and I like Sony! I was actually surprised to hear your story about the super deal on the used Sony. I wondered if another Olympus body may have been available for the same amount of money.

    Anyway, good luck with your continued practice. Hoping your Shutter Therapy brings the Sony results into alignment with your usually amazing Olympus results.

    1. Hey Ken,
      LOL, can't hate Sony that much !! What did Sony ever do to you?
      I am just going to enjoy shooting, regardless of whatever equipment is in hand !

  11. Hi Robin,

    Nice photos. I have always wanted to shop at the backstage of a Chinese opera. May I know how do you get the privilege to do that ? And how can I do that ? Thanks. You may also email me at

    1. Hey Anonymous,
      You can just walk into the stage at the temple openly. A few other photographers did the same. Just do not obstruct or cause any issues to the performers, it should be fine.

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

  13. Hi Robin, this is AaronLam (we were at the backstage shooting this Chinese opera).

    Obviously we didn't have much time talking to each other while shooting this wonderful subject :P Your works are wonderful, I especially like the clarity and the perfect exposure on the shots. I agreed, you would've got more excellent shots with your Olympus + Zuiko lenses. Your works are inspiring to me. I had great interest in cityscape but now street photography is my new interest; lots of things to learn :)

    Hope to join you for some outing if you don't mind :)

    AaronLam (

    1. Hello Aaron,
      Wow, you found me here !! What a surprise !!
      Glad to have known you, and yes I do wish I could have chatted with you more. It was difficult, with the busy happening and noise everywhere.
      Glad to hear that you are picking up street photography. It is fun, and very fulfilling too !! Hope to meet you again too some time.

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