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
Hot and Red
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.
My Work Place is my Home
Ashes to Ashes
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
A Man and his tools
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.
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 !!