Thaipusam is a Big Deal for those involved religiously* – but also quite an amazing experience as an observer. One of, if not the largest of these festivals takes place in a cave temple about 15km outside of Kuala Lumpur every year at the Batu Caves. I’ve photographed the event previously in 2008, 2011 and 2012. This year’s festival happened just a couple of days ago on the 23rd-24th of January, and I went back for the fourth time. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a very special experience even as a non-participant and not really understanding the significance of the ceremony to the believers. There really is some energy there from the sheer number of participants and general positive and hopeful thoughts that are going around at the time.
*Wikipedia does a much better job of explaining it than I can.
From a photographic standpoint, other than the obvious visual overload and huge number of subjects, there are also massive challenges: you’re working in a physically almost solid crowd most of the time; the peak of the action happens somewhere between 2-4am when the procession arrives from a downtown Kuala Lumpur temple; it’s physically hot and very humid inside the cave, which lacks any meaningful ventilation, and you’ve got to climb about 350 steep and slippery steps – along with everybody else – to get there. Accidents do happen, usually involving slippages or heat-stroke. It doesn’t help that the more devout are carrying portable shrines up those steps that may weigh upwards of 50kg; they’re at the limits of their endurance after having carried them the 15km or so from the other temple – on foot. At very least, you have to be hyperaware of what’s going on around you both not to get in the way of the participants, for one’s own personal safety and on top of that – not to miss any photographic opportunities.
Each time I’ve been, I’ve tried to do something different; the first year was the first time I’d shot with anything that didn’t feel restricted in such low light situations – the D3 in 2008; in 2011 I was working on my cinematic technique with the D700, 2/28 Distagon and 85/1.4G. 2012 I was shooting for an exhibition with the M9-P and 35/1.4 ASPH FLE – both to overcome my aversion to 35mm, and to see if I could produce images to my satisfaction under those conditions. Looking at my EXIF data from previous years, it appears the overall light level has improved by as much as a stop in places; but don’t get me wrong, we’re still talking about shooting in the dead of night with only odd color temperature sources – a mix of fluro, sodium vapour, low-CRI LED, tungsten and colored spots – and barely managing 1/50s at f2.8 and ISO 6400 in places. Pretty much everything in this set was at ISO 6400, or worse – ISO 6400 underexposed and pushed in ACR. That is not a lot of light by any standards, and even less if your fastest lens is f2.8.
This year, I had a Hasselblad H5D-50C, 80/2.8 and 28/4 lenses on loan from Hasselblad and Shriro (the Asia Pacific distributors for Hasselblad) while my V was being repaired; I initially planned to go with the my 501CM (V series) with the Leica Q serving as primary, but in hindsight, I’m not sure I’d have had any keepers from the V at all. Light levels aside, remember that not only are medium format lenses much slower than the 35mm counterparts, but you have no stabilisation (and for obvious reasons, tripods are not an option here) and most lenses are more like f4. On top of that, you’ve got to remember the demands of higher pixel density per degree FOV, and then take into account significantly more mirror vibration from a physically much larger mirror, too: 1/2x focal length is borderline on my 501CM – so we’re looking at 1/125s with the 50mm, or 1/250s with the 85mm (there are only whole stop increments for shutter speed). In a way, I’m glad I had the H5 – shutter speeds are more continuous, and the mirror damping is significantly better, so 1/2x was safe, and 1/1x possible a lot of the time, too.
Even so, I felt things were pretty challenging – this is basically the edge of the shooting envelope for medium format; we’re working in a situation which is dark, contains a lot of moving subjects (even if they’re relatively static, they’re still swaying or not completely still, and requires continuous AF or a machine gun shutter) and is not so easy even with most DSLRs – D4/5 and 1DX class excepted. Mirrorless would have trouble because of AF tracking, I think. I felt the real limitation was in focusing more than anything: the single point systems of most MF cameras are simply not sensitive enough with this little light, and relatively slow lenses do not help. The slower 28mm focused a lot faster and more accurately than the 80mm, though – suggesting it might also be partially hardware related.
Interestingly, the sensor was more than happy – 6400 seems to be an arbitrary limitation, seeing as results were still superior to 35 full frame in color accuracy and dynamic range; I’ve seen sensors that do worse than this not far off base ISO. But of course we knew this already, given the Pentax 645Z goes several steps higher – I just underexposed a little when I ran out of shutter speed. Something has to be said for the integrity of big pixels…
I have now shot quite extensively with three of the 50MP CMOS derivatives (645Z, CFV-50C on the 501CM, H5D-50C), and have a passing familiarity with the remaining one (Phase One IQ250). A comparison of sorts is only natural; especially when the price points are so dramatically different – $7k new for the Pentax (even less from Hong Kong); a hair under $10k for the CFV back (but you’ll need to add a V-series body and lens, for about $1200 or so); ~$15k for the H5D, and a whopping $24k for the Phase One. To put things in context, it’s worth noting that the Nikon D5 was announced at very nearly the $7k mark too; yet we have the D810 available around $3k.
Fundamentally, there are few differences in core image quality. The only ones worth mentioning are the Pentax clips quite abruptly, so one has to be very careful when exposing to the right not to go over; you can’t recover it. It has the cleanest shadows of the four, though. The Phase One has very strange and blue-cyan shifted colours; you can profile this out, but it’s not easy. The two Hasselblads have the most natural and accurate color of any camera I’ve used to this point; I barely shifted any of the channels when profiling it. They also manage the highlight rolloff much better than the Pentax and a bit better than the Phase One, at the expense of a bit more shadow noise. I suspect what may be happening is slight underexposure and a nonlinear boost to the shadows to achieve this.
That’s about where the similarities end, however. The body options couldn’t be more different. As I’ve previously remarked in my review, the 645Z feels, handles and operates like an oversize DSLR. It will present no surprises to existing Pentax users, or even DSLR users, for that matter. Live view is far more fluid than the Hasselblads or Phase One. But the one massive advantage of most MF systems to this point is missing: flash sync is a very slow 1/125s, and the lens selection is somewhat inconsistent (though much better now with the revised SDM lineup – if somewhat incomplete). I think where the Pentax excels is for handheld work – the AF system seems to be much more positive than either on the Phase or Hasselblad, and works better in low light, too. The Phase is really for studio or setup work: its 1/1600 flash sync speed is untouchable.
This leaves the two Hasselblads: flash sync at 1/800 (H series) or 1/500 (V series) could be better, but it’s good enough. And by the time you stop down for sufficient depth of field, you’re already well towards cutting out ambient light. AF on the V series is academic (the back will work on cameras from the 1950s!) – but what it does provide is probably the least digital – but still digital – photographic experience. The back literally works like any other film magazine; attach it, set ISO and go. No need to rewind or change out after 12 shots, but with the benefit of modern image quality, live view and a histogram if you so desire. You can even turn the screen off entirely if you so choose – and that’s the way I usually work. All in all, it’s a pretty liberating and definitely unique experience (and one I’ll write more on in a future post). Aside from the Pentax, it’s also the cheapest entry in to medium format by far, with the one caveat of not really having any wide angle solutions since the lenses were all designed for 6×6, and 40mm on 6×6 is already very wide.
The H5D-50C is a middle child in many ways. I think I started off on the wrong foot with it: I tried to shoot with it like the Pentax, when in reality I should have treated it like a V with autofocus. (This is probably the most accurate way of describing the dichotomy between the Pentax and the rest: the former feels like what we’d expect from a modern DSLR; the rest are sort of ‘traditional’ medium format-plus.) After getting around that mental step, I found the whole experience very fluid, and with a higher keeper rate than I’d have managed with the V – having proper wide options was extremely liberating, too. The camera shot and wrote fast enough that I didn’t feel I was waiting for it, and fortunately I managed to make it to the end – nearly 700 shots with 35% left – with one battery – that’s all I was given, in any case.
What is remarkable is just how far technology has some: this kind of image quality under these shooting conditions would have been unthinkable a few years ago. It’s gotten us both spoiled and greedy, but also opened up new creative avenues. It would now be possible to mount an exhibition with very natural and transparent prints even under extremely challenging conditions – bringing the experience to an audience in a much more immersive way. I can certainly see the potential for pushing my existing corporate documentary work further. I have to say that it’s gotten me thinking: I forgot (or more likely was in denial over) how much I missed the results from medium format, and I could probably find most of the required cost in eclectic but fundamentally underutilized gear collected over the years. Lens curation would be required, though – medium format glass makes Otuses look cheap. Perhaps it’s time for another garage sale, and you can live with half a liver, right?
I want to close with a couple of thoughts on presentation of this set of images – the photographs are of course why we put up with any of this gear-angst. Though this set is monochrome-only, it’s both a stylistic choice and an attempt at preserving some of the gravitas and intensity that gets distracted away by the riot of color. It was also something I wouldn’t have attempted with many other cameras because the tonality usually goes out of the window under these types of shooting conditions. I’ll also present a future set (curated differently) in cinematic-style color, too. There’s something timeless and primal about the atmosphere that is distilled when the color is removed, but it’s also extremely challenging because you potentially lose a lot of the emotional feel, too. I’d welcome any thoughts from the audience on this, too. MT
The various cameras mentioned here are available from B&H except for the Phase One – Pentax 645Z, Hasselblad CFV-50C, Hasselblad H5D-50C. Postprocessing was with the Monochrome Masterclass workflow, and I’ll be covering some of these images in the next Weekly Photoshop episode.
Ultraprints from this series are available on request here
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