Alternate presentations: cinematic Thaipusam 2016 photoessay

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As a follow on to the article a few days ago about my experiences shooting medium format for low light reportage work, I’m presenting the promised cinematic set from Thaipusam 2016. I deliberately left a few articles’ gap between them rather than presenting them back to back; this allows a bit of settling time and objectivity between the two sets of images. It also brings up the question of stylistic choices: how do you decide?

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As far as this particular set of images goes, here’s the underlying logic. Firstly, the nature of the festival itself is intense for participants and observers: as sensory experiences go, it’s an extremely strong one. Color only works to further reinforce that impression: it adds a level of vividness and transparent reality that ups immersion, and the dominant warm tones play with our subconscious. There are lots of yellows, reds and oranges, which somehow manage to keep the mood hovering between warmth/security and danger – there’s an underlying edge here that is evocative of something primal. It’s also the first time I’ve been 100% happy with the accuracy of the tonal palette represented; it’s about as close to reality as I’ve been able to achieve. Previous years were challenging because of channel clipping and overall hue shifts thanks to the mixed (sodium vapour, mismatch fluro, tungsten, halogen, low CRI LED, neon etc.) lighting sources and high ISOs involved (1600, if you’ve got f1.4 and very steady hands).

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However, at the same time, the festival is something that has been taking place for hundreds of years; there’s a timeless quality to it that has somehow survived modernisation pretty much intact (LED signboards on the portable shrines being perhaps the exception to this). I feel that age is lost in color, and we get swept up in the immediate intensity of it all. Color grading also tends to be subconsciously evocative of a particular era in history – this is as much to do with technological development of film emulsions as anything else, but it’s quite easy for us to identify when an image was shot by the color palette alone – even if there are no other objects present that date the scene. It also doesn’t help that anything before a certain point is entirely monochrome, further reinforcing the impression of age.

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Personally, this year was quite a different experience for me – in the past, I played the part of the stealthy observer, and stayed out of the way. There were also a lot more photographers; even though I’ve always shot at roughly the same time of day (or night, from about 1am to 4am when the processions are arriving from Kuala Lumpur) I was the only one in the main cave temple this year – there literally was nobody else present with a camera whose sole purpose was photography. It’s nigh on impossible to manage being stealthy with a medium format rig, either. I needn’t have bothered. Soon upon arrival at the top of the stairs, I was singled out by one of the devotees in trance, who abandoned the crowd of people seeking blessings from her and came over to me. I received some blessings of my own, and a marked forehead. After that, still in trance, she turned and left. The same thing happened with several other groups of devotees throughout the night – even though they often couldn’t see me visually through the trance (or had their eyes closed), they would often specifically single me out, beckon me over, and in more than one case, signal for me to shoot. Some situations were just not workable because they were in dark corners of the cave, and there was nowhere near enough light, but I went through the motions anyway. This was better than an all-access pass – I guess I got lucky, and I’m extremely pleased with the resulting images. The lines between observer and participant blurred.

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In the end, both presentation styles called to me with equal strength. The cinematic stuff was closer to the real (surreal?) experience, but the monochrome felt a little darker, edgier and more in tune with the visceral underlying pulse of the festival. I curated these two sets and processed them accordingly. But as far as a final presentation goes – at some point, one has to decide which path to follow, and that’s where the internal conflict starts. Beyond immediate visual appeal – it’s arguable for many reasons that an image that’s strong in monochrome can also be made strong in color and vice versa, especially with judicious use of the channel mixer tool in conversion – the answer probably lies in what the intended message or story is. I think the real challenge lies in deciding if the image is for immediate consumption (‘disposable instant gratification’) or posterity. As much as we aspire to make every image one to last, I find most images to fall into two distinct camps: the kind that hit you hard now, but don’t really offer much else on closer contemplation, or the kind that are continually rewarding but require some intellectual investment on the part of the audience.

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Images in both camps are very, very rare and difficult to make deliberately (aside from simply reading too much into unintentional elements, of course). Actually, it’d be interesting to know what proportion of the two types of images were made with an end audience in mind (usually a client) vs purely for the artist’s own satisfaction. In this case, I submitted this color set to the agency – again, the question of immediate editorial consumption arises – and curated the monochromes purely for myself. I wanted to challenge the notion that a colourful festival has to be presented in color. Believe it or not, this is the first time I’ve seriously considered this question and both shot and processed withs that duality in mind from the start: you’ll notice the cinematic images also work as taller aspect ratios, and the light is monochrome-friendly, too. (The one exception to this is the title image, because there’s simply no way this composition works as a 16:9 landscape.) I see this as something I’m going to have to address again in the final curation of Paradise Lost – In hindsight, I’m still pleased with both sets, though it would be interesting to revisit this question again in a year or so. MT

This series was shot on a Hasselblad H5D-50C with HC28/4 and HC80/2.8 lenses, and post processed with the Cinematic workflow in Making Outstanding Images Ep.5.

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Coda: not all miracles…


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  1. Jorge Balarin says:

    Extraordinary images, great color. They look pretty much clean at Iso 6400, at least for me.

  2. calvin yee says:

    Hi Ming, happy new year. what are your thoughts of using small portable led lights for the shoot in the cave? i would be tempted to bring along something like a rotolight. would that destroy the whole feel of the place or can someone make that work? thanks, calvin.

    • Firstly, using flash or external light sources would be really disrespectful to the participants in the ceremony, and possibly cause issues for those who are in trance. So on that basis alone, I wouldn’t do it – but yes, I think bringing in additional lights would destroy the mood unless you could really set them up in such a way that was complimentary to the rest of the place (difficult).

  3. Pixelgreat says:

    Excellent example of how B&W compares to colour, for me the B&W has more emotion, or is more evocative; the colour is more “in the now”. Glad to have been able to compare the two. I haven’t even attempted any B&W shots yet but will do so.

  4. Martin Fritter says:

    Your comment about color rendering signaling a specific historical era is excellent. (I can’t get Kodachrome out of my head.)

    Digital converted to b&w does this too, but to a much lesser degree. As for this series, I think monochromes work better – more emphasis on the faces perhaps. As you mention, a touch of noise contributes to the effect.

    The big tableaus seem better in color however.

    • Digital period does this – there’s the ‘early digital’ odd hues and binary clipped highlights; then we’ve got the HDR era, supersaturation, and now filters. Perhaps we will eventually move to something a bit more natural – the problem with that is it requires a very interesting composition to not merely look like ‘mundane reality’. That said, these eras change so fast we’ve gone through perhaps five or six in a decade…

  5. Michael Matthews says:

    Much as I like black and white, the subject this time really sings in color. Thanks for posting both. It makes for an interesting comparison.

  6. As others wrote before me, these shots really make you feel right in there. Really awesome! I guess you shot at a reasonable high shutter speed; at what ISO setting did you shoot?

    • Thanks. 6400 (max setting on the H5D-50C) and often pushed a stop further afterwards. It was very dark in places and even then that would only get me 1/80s at f2.8 (fastest lens I had, and nearly fastest lens for the system, too)…

  7. Every 80mm image made me really feel “there” in the capture. Everything looks so realistic from those images.

  8. An exceptional set, Ming – well done. I loved the B&W set but for me, this colour collection has the edge. I’ve been to similar events, albeit years ago and not in Malaysia, and this puts me right there.

    (‘B8411470 copy’ appears twice, by the way, at least in my browser’s rendering.)

  9. Fantastic work once again! Applaud how you captured the emotion and spirituality on each images. I think the people were so drawn in their moment that they didn’t mind you taking their picture with an enormous object. Haha!

    • I was welcomed warmly in most cases – I don’t know if it’s part of the modern social media culture or perhaps a need to be recorded, but people wanted to be photographed. I just maintained a respectful distance and body language (it was a religious festival after all) and things seemed to work just fine…

  10. Love the stark contrast of that last shot (literally and figuratively!). For me, colour takes the overall victory by adding greatly to the sense of visual overload that I’m sure is an integral part of the real experience; that said, certain shots work better without it (the piercing glare of the man looking straight into the camera, especially).

  11. Guy Incognito says:

    Ming, brilliant sets.

    The post was compelling. Very timely for me:

    > at some point, one has to decide which path to follow, and that’s where the
    > internal conflict starts. Beyond immediate visual appeal – it’s arguable for
    > many reasons that an image that’s strong in monochrome can also be made strong
    > in color and vice versa

    I am still digesting photos from my recent holiday. The quality of light at midday/afternoon made scenes with very high contrast and long shadows. I took many photos with the intention of processing them as monochrome. Several weeks later I am looking at some and struggling to make that commitment. Which way to go?

    The intersection between your two sets allows for an interesting comparison. I am being cheeky here in doing the comparison – as it deliberately takes the images out of context and ignores what they contribute to the set they are in! For me, I think it comes back down to subject isolation:

    B8411470 – (posted in colour twice!). Tough call. The subtle tones on the man’s body are well represented in monochrome and help highlight him. On the other-hand, the participant on the left is more prominent in colour – since he seems a part of the narrative, I prefer this one in colour.

    B8411285 – again, a tough call. Great in both. The guy in the foreground ands depth to the scene but is a bit attention grabbing in colour. Conversely the background does not dominate so it works well in colour. The way you have processed the tones in monochrome brings out the smoke brilliantly. My preference is monochrome.

    B8411787 – the guy is sandwiched between two tones of red. The colour in the background actually frames him well – better isolating him. My preference? Colour.

    B8411519 – a great photo. I couldn’t decide. In monochrome, good ole facial recognition kicks in and I spend more time focused on the man’s expression. I find the distribution of colour in the scene (especially the background) makes me consider the context more. The hands of the participants are also better highlighted in colour. Honestly either are great.

    Once again great sets – you are clearly able to take images that are strong in both colour and monochrome. Assuming you have to choose and do not want overlap – I suppose at this point, it is not about the image but more about the synergy it adds to a set. Choose the set (monochrome or colour) where it contributes more strongly to the narrative? I found the monochrome set to be more about individuals and experience/emotion. I found the colour set to be more about context and rituals.

    • Good observation about individuals vs narrative: that was a conscious choice, and the hues in the colour set were carefully managed for that (it was cinematic, after all). The really challenging part was composing images that worked in both 16:9 and 4:3 at the same time

  12. This color set is certainly enjoyable to view as it displays the beauty of the festival as the b&w could not. That said, it somehow lacks a certain emotional depth that was there in the b&w set. The color set seems to have a lightweight relaxed feel to it, while b&w gave the images a more serious dramatic look. Your comment… “the monochrome felt a little darker, edgier and more in tune with the visceral underlying pulse of the festival” really sums it up well.

  13. Just one man’s opinion:

    While both sets (color and B&W) demonstrate your eye for composition, the color images seem to be nice reportage shots that many could say (without actually being there) “I could have done that”. The B&Ws on the other hand, seem to be truly memorable, convey emotionally much more than the color images, and reflect an artistic sensibility that we all strive for but mostly lack.

    • Asif Mandvi says:

      Very astute observation. I agree completely.

    • Thanks – interesting perspective. Perhaps because the B&Ws require you to imagine ‘what if’, but the color ones are more literal? (though not that literal, having been there…)

  14. Awesome, thanks for sharing the color set ! I still wonder how you managed handling MF gear in the crowd (!) very impressive. I personally decided for me to prefer the color set compared to the b/w because all pictures are so clear and shining which adds to the flavor of coloring. For b/w somehow I even wouldn’t mind some high iso noise to contribute to the mood…, know what I mean ?
    Again thanks for sharing both b/w and color results – absolutely fantastic work !

    • I went very light and only had one additional lens and the Q in a waist pouch – wasn’t too bad, actually.

      The B&W set has noise – but there are so many pixels it averages down. I think the surreality is part of the appeal of it, personally.

  15. great set of images, am really glad you covered the event this year (although we were there at different time slots), thanks for sharing, sifu. comparing your work to mine is really a good case study and benchmark for me to improve – ways to go ;).
    cheers, ken

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