Charcoal Factory, Kuala Sepetang with Olympus OM-D E-M1

When it comes to an environmentally challenging situation, such as shooting inside a charcoal factory where dust is a big problem, I would not hesitate to pick up the ever reliable Olympus OM-D E-M1. I armed myself with all the necessary lenses for this particular shoot: M.Zuiko 7-14mm F2.8 PRO, 25mm F1.8 and 45mm F1.8. This marked my second visit to the charcoal factory, the first one being about three years ago with a group of Sony shooters (it was a Sony Malaysia official photography outing, back then) and boy was I excited to get some shots with Olympus this time around! I joined a group of passionate and enthusiastic photographers from the PSPJ (Photographic Society of Petaling Jaya) and we drove all the way from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Sepetang (it was more than 3 hours long drive out of the city), where the charcoal factory was at. 

I was faced with the exact similar issues as I did few years back, it was a Sunday, and the workers were not exactly working. Furthermore, it is now the fasting month for the Muslims (Ramadhan), and we encountered a slow, rather quiet morning, with little to almost no activity all around the charcoal factory areas. The weather was not on our side, the sky was cloudy, blocking the important sunlight, thus negating the "sun ray" effect through the holes and cracks on the ceilings/walls of the factory. While all things did not seem to work, the important thing is to stay positive, keep the optimism going and not to give up too quickly. As we walked around we did find some friendly workers were rather chatty, and friendly enough for us to shoot them! I immediately shifted my photography objectives to what I do best: shooting people in their environment and portraying what they do. So here you are, portraits of charcoal factory workers!

A resident

The charcoal factory was quite a huge place, and to get around quickly, the workers ride on motorcycles. 

Into the Furnace

Hard work

Portrait of a Charcoal Factory Worker

Inside a Furnace. ISO10,000

I think black and white works better

Fresh logs

I think the most challenging part of shooting at the Charcoal Factory was the uneven lighting condition, and often very dim situations where the workers were doing whatever they were doing, moving the logs around. This posed a challenge, either to freeze the shutter speed, or to induce motion in my shots. I typically would not choose to purposely show motion, unless necessary. 

The 5-Axis Image Stabilization in the E-M1 proved to be super helpful when I was shooting non-moving subjects, as I can practically kept the ISO sensitivity down to almost minimum, preserving the best image output I can get. However, there was an incident that I unintentionally forgot to re-adjust the ISO after I bumped it up to 10,000 when shooting inside the furnace. Yes, I needed that high of ISO (was using 7-14mm at maximum aperture F2.8) to be able to adequately freeze motion (the workers were moving quickly). As I stepped out and composed another frame, I did a rookie mistake of leaving the ISO at what it was, 10,000! 

The surprising part? As I inspected the image, I realized that it looked perfectly fine, and I would have been satisfied with the ISO10,000 image that I have just taken, a portrait shot of one of the workers. I usually would not push further than ISO3,200 when shooting with any Micro Four Thirds camera, and only use the ISO6,400 necessarily (which is quite rare). Sometimes, we just demand too much, and expectations can get quite out of hand. Did I really need that high of ISO capabikities? Yes it is true that the more the better concept applies and we want the camera manufacturers to push for better and better image quality in their new iterations of camera updates but hey, seriously, when it comes to real life, practical shooting, I do think Micro Four Thirds system is sufficient for more than 95% of the crowd (the remaining 5% being those specific photographers who demand super high resolution images for whatever purposes that they need for, superior high ISO to shoot black cats in dark alleys). I believe we should stop complaining and just start making beautiful images happen! 

The Long Walk

Picking Up

This was the accidental ISO10,000 shot, taken with Olympus OM-D E-M1. The image still retains good amount of details, good contrast, color balance and tonality, and as a whole, looks realistic to me! 

Then I realized the ISO10,000, so I readjust the ISO to 500 for this shot. 

Doing a close up shot, with the M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8, I always almost cannot believe how sharp this lens is!

More Motorcycles

4-legged resident

Rolling the Barrel

Watch your shutter speed, Robin! I am getting sloppier in my technical execution these days. I blame that on my lack of shutter therapy. Yes, I need to SHOOT MORE AND MORE!

M.Zuiko 7-14mm lens put into use

After being filled with logs, the furnace is being sealed off and the logs were kept on burning for a year. That is how charcoals are produced

This dude actually asked for his photo to be taken. 

I did wish I can do a lot more at the charcoal factory, but the lack of workers present on a lazy Sunday morning, and factoring in the lousy weather with total absence of interesting, dramatic light, I think these shots were the best I could make do with the situation I was thrown into. Indeed, I had so much fun shooting the portraits around the charcoal factory, as the setting is quite different from my usual street shooting circumstances! Sometimes, shooting in a new location, dealing with different background and subject content can be quite exciting. 

After the Charcoal Factory, we took a boat ride and visited the nearby fishing village. Shooting continues to locations that we have passed by, and the sky started to clear up as we left the charcoal factory! Sometimes, I think the photography god hates me. 

The Mangroves, where the logs for Charcoal came from

There, bird in flight. I did bring along the M.Zuiko 300mm F4 PRO, just in case for shots like this

Kuala Sangga, a fishing village. Seen in image the sun-drying process of shrimps, next to laundry (one wonders how the cloths would smell next to the seafood)

Separating the husks

The entire village was floating on the water. 

There was a small Catholic church in the village

A Kitchen

Mode of Transport

On the way home, we stopped by Tasik Cermin in Ipoh (Mirror Lake)

PSPJ Group photo taken by Jon Liang

There you go, my full day shooting adventure with PSPJ on a beautiful Sunday! I had a thrill clicking the E-M1 away. I sure hope to return to the Charcoal factory in Kuala Sepetang on a better weather day, with more sunlight! 

Do you think the Olympus OM-D E-M1 still produces excellent results, even today after the release of so many newer cameras from competition? Do share your thoughts!

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  1. Nice photos Robin! I can almost smell the smoke. Sure, the EM-1 is still a great camera, and will continue to be even though we are eagerly anticipating it's 2nd iteration. I'm still really enjoying my trusty "old" EM-5. Remember when the EM-5 was the hottest thing on the planet? Always something new coming along, always lots of fun comparisons. Photography - a great blend of technology, art, and charcoal :-)

    1. Thanks David! The charcoal smell stays with the camera and bag, for at least a few more days. E-M5 was a legend! I would still be using mine if it was not falling apart already (the rate I am using things, nothing lasts long in my hands)

  2. An interesting change of pace from the usual shutter therapy sessions Robin.

    The lighting in 'The Long Walk' is wonderful; I bet it would make a lovely print.

    1. If I have the chance to shoot something different I would!

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  4. These might be my favorite shots of yours, Robin. I love the lighting in the charcoal factory. Wish I could have joined you with my Pen f! Cheers from Seattle.

    1. Thanks Evan, these are certain my my favourites. If you do come to Malaysia please drop me an email!

  5. Very nice photos. The EM-1 is a fantastic and up to date camera because Olympus keep the updates rolling. I use it often and am still pleased.

    1. Thanks Andre, and yes, the camera has so many new updated features (silent shutter, macro stacking, faster fps, etc)

  6. Very nice photos. The EM-1 is a fantastic and up to date camera because Olympus keep the updates rolling. I use it often and am still pleased.

    1. Thanks Andre. And yes, E-M1 is still as awesome!

  7. My mother is from Ipoh, and we visited the mangroves a few years ago and drove by the charcoal factories (though we did not stop). Thanks for bringing me back again!

    1. Next time you should stop by and shoot at the factory!

  8. Nice Robin, yes the E-M1 is still a good option!

  9. Very good shots. Yes the E-M1 is still a good choice.
    You're rigth : shot, shot & shot... The more I practice the better are the photos.

    1. Thanks Lionel! Indeed, this is a reminder to myself too, to shoot more!

  10. The 6th picture is very nice. It has a cinematic feel expressing a sense of strength and vigor with the illuminated light in the background. It almost looks like he is ready to attempt a pole vault with that log.

    1. Thanks Jerr62c! I think pretty much my photography style has been influenced heavily by cinematic approach, I blame that on all the movies I have been watching!

  11. Those are lovely photos.

    I got to try the 300mm f/4.0 lens and it seems quite good, especially for such a small lens. However, the 40-150mm f/2.8 fits my needs more.

  12. Hi, can you explain a bit how you shot the flying bird? Especially, how did you focus?

  13. Yes, I use my E-M1 every day in my studio and on location and it still delivers nicely. Actually, I think my E-5 is still a great camera! Maybe not in the high ISO area, but great image quality non the less. I believe it is the lenses, not so much the camera, that makes the most difference. Olympus SHG and the newer micro 4/3rd pro lenses are the best! Great images Robin, dramatic and artistic, Thanks for the post.

  14. Very impressive work, Robin! I particularly liked the visual impact of the portraits of the charcoal workers and technically with how well you controlled skin tone exposure against such dark backgrounds. You must take me there one day!