Fortitude: resolved, a film (or: Thaipusam 2017 with the H6D-100c)

Fortitude: resolved from Ming Thein on Vimeo.

Note: the video was shot in 4K, and will play at 4K if you click through to Vimeo, or use the full screen player and pick the appropriate setting.

Every year, a huge number of Hindu devotees gather at the Batu Cave temple outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the Thaipusam festival. It celebrates a significant event in the life and mythology of Lord Murugan: the gifting of a weapon to defeat evil. Participants burden themselves with offerings to Lord Murugan in various forms – from milk pots to portable Kavadi shrines and other offerings piercing their body. It is believed that the more significant the offering and the higher the personal suffering, the more blessings are accorded to the devotee in their struggle against their own personal challenges.

I’ve covered this event for several years running; at first to challenge myself, and later for various agencies or publications. It is the kind of environment that we photographers relish: it’s target rich, photography-friendly, and provides endless variety. It’s also extremely challenging for so many reasons – not just because the peak of action takes place in a cave, at night with relatively poor lighting. There are also significant crowds (estimated at 500,000 over the course of several days), high humidity and temperature, and all of your subjects are moving. It’s simply an intense sensory overload, at so many levels.

Last year, in 2016, I shot the festival with a borrowed H5D-50c; it was both the first time I’d shot in anger with that camera and the first time I’d attempted that kind of documentary with any medium format system. This is probably not the typical kind of situation under which you’d pick medium format as your first choice – and I wouldn’t blame you. Very surprisingly, the shooting experience was not just workable but produced the best pictorial results I’ve managed from this festival – both from a creative standpoint and also one of absolute image quality. Since the majority of my commercial and personal work revolves around available light documentary-style photography, one could say that the experience opened new possibilities to me – and was what convinced me to switch to Hasselblad completely.

Fast forward another year, and with significantly more familiarity with the H system under my belt, I revisited Thaipusam again – this time, with the H6D-100c. Achieving pixel-level perfection last year was a huge challenge given the pixel density per angle of view (the determining factor for lowest hand-holdable shutter speed thresholds, visible camera shake etc.). But I did the math and figured it should be possible: I shot with the 80/2.8 previously, but now I had a 100/2.2 available, together with another stop of usable sensitivity from the new sensor. Together, this should theoretically buy me enough additional latitude to avoid visible shake – a shutter speed somewhere around 1/ 2.5x of the focal length, or in other words, 1/250s for the 100mm. This is a ‘safe’ speed that takes into account several factors: the angle of view on the larger sensor, motion of the subjects, and the caffeination level of the photographer (high, given we were shooting well into the small hours of the morning).

I had one other magic bullet: a cross-arm bracing technique I’d been experimenting with for the last few months to try to couple the mass of the camera to the mass of my body by resting it on my upper arm and shoulder to increase stability, instead of the usual under hand-hold. Carefully used, it’s good for another stop or so – but doesn’t help if you need to shoot at any height other than eye level, compose portrait orientation, or of course have a subject that’s dancing around.

In practice, I needn’t have worried so much: light levels were about half a stop higher than last year thanks to installation of new lights, but the extra latitude bought by the faster lens and new sensor proved to be more than enough. Beyond the obvious resolution gains and print possibilities, the biggest difference I found was that dynamic range and color purity were preserved out to a much greater extent than with the 50MP sensor.

The files not only have more latitude for adjustment and allocation of the tonal range, but also a richness of tone that’s very difficult to achieve with a smaller sensor – something that was reinforced when I did the color grading for the video* – it was nearly impossible to maintain both color accuracy and close tonal separation in skin tones, despite being shot with much faster lenses and significantly lower sensitivities. It’s also important to note that resolution and tonality are not independent: the more spatial steps you have to describe a tonal transition, not only can you convey finer detail, but you also have a greater ability to represent more subtle changes in luminosity and color.

*The video was shot in Cinema 4K on a pair of Olympus E-M1.2s with 12-100/4, 25/1.2, 45/1.8 and 75/1.8 lenses, handheld, with no additional rigging and no stabilisation required in post. What was originally meant to be a simple ‘product in the field’ video somehow turned into a short National Geographic segment…

In short: using a camera like the H6D-100c for this kind of work is not only possible, but delivers results we could only dream of not long ago. We are very much in the realm of not just conveying our observations and impressions – but now have the transparency and resolution to able to put our audience in the position of being there – under a huge range of circumstances. MT

Additional coverage and full size sample images are here at Hasselblad.com

Still images will follow in a coming photoessay; I shot with the Hasselblad H6D-100c, 50 and 100mm lenses, and post processed with a mix of cinematic workflow in Making Outstanding Images Ep. 4 & 5. and later on, The Monochrome Masterclass.

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More info on Hasselblad cameras and lenses can be found here.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Michael Fleischer says:

    An amazing video…very vivid and alive – almost like being there! The image quality/timing in your stills are so excellent, colours a joy for the eye. Very artful. Now some serious Silica gel around my Mac! 😉

  2. Stunning photos Ming! And kudos for your new position in Hasselblad.

  3. Fascinating video. Some of the footage where the people are passing out really put me on edge and made me extremely curious about the festival.
    The shots are fantastic; candid shots are what I love the most. You’re a lucky person to have access to the equipment you do.
    I love the “medium format look”, although I know some that don’t think there’s such a thing. Perhaps it’s to do with the focal lengths and distances to target; I don’t know, but I always find the medium format portraiture captures my eye the most.
    Were there any still shots taken with the Olympus?

    • Thanks Steve. This article talks about rendering and MF. No, no stills from the Olympus – only video. It was a production for Hasselblad after all…

      • Fair enough indeed when you’re there for Hasselblad 😉
        One glorious day I will be able to venture into the medium format world of Hasselblad….
        Anyway, love the shots and the footage. Big fan of looking over Hasselblad shots and I’m really intrigued by the OM-D E-M1 Mark ii.

  4. Kyungchan Min says:

    Amazing work Ming, and an applause to your video crew on capturing gorgeous footage that transitioned perfectly from your images. Did your video crew find themselves using the 12-100/4 very much? I’m currently looking to outfit my GH4 for a documentary shoot this summer and I need a zoom like to capture a lot of things at a moment’s notice. During daylight I’m sure it’s no issue, but I’m a little worried about other lighting conditions.

    • Thank you! 12-100/4: yes, fairly, for the wide scenes. The hybrid IS worked very well; not sure how effective it’ll be on a non-Olympus though. Noise overall for video is a bit less of an issue since there’s some downsampling and you can get away with a little more NR than stills…

  5. Great video and stills Ming – congratulations.

  6. Jeff Smith says:

    Off topic. Ming, congrats on the Hasselblad opportunity! Wish you the best in helping them get on a path to sustainably make terrific cameras for many years to come.

  7. These shots are stunning Ming. It’s exciting how far medium format has come. I rented the 100 for a big shoot which was in a studio with very low light. I was handholding at 3200 and just gobsmacked and electrified by the results. I didn’t have the need to push higher with the ISO but yours here look remarkable at even higher. The bigger problem I found was it was too good! It’s out of my reach budget wise at the moment and shooting with anything less is downright depressing 🙂

  8. Just saw the announcement on your new job, congratulations! Best move Hasselblad has made in awhile. Hope you can get them to make the X1D more competitive with the Fuji.

    • Thanks. The X1D isn’t supposed to compete with the Fuji; the cameras have completely different underlying design philosophies. However – there are certainly operational aspects that can be improved, and I know the team is working hard on it given the restrictions they had at the time of development of the camera…

  9. Caleb Clapp says:

    Ming,
    Way off topic, but congratulations on being named Chief of Strategy for Hasselblad!!!
    All the best

  10. Superlative, in every sense. After 5 minutes of letting your work digest, my western mind is still wrestling with the wonder and euphoria while trying to make sense of it all. From your artistry to the hard-nosed reportage, I can’t help but consider you a master of your craft. From what little I know of you through your words, you’re humility won’t allow you to harbor that title for too long. 🙂 Dunning-Kruger effect in reverse, I suppose!

    From a strictly selfish angle — this video is being shown to my girlfriend for the artistry, yes… but also as a potential travel ‘brochure.’ I’m so CRUDE!

    • Haha, thanks! Here’s my rebuttal: I shoot what I see but choose carefully what I look at…the rest of the internet assumes I’m still just a review blogger. And in this world, it’s not what you are, but sadly what people think you are. 😛

  11. Looking at some of those scenes just astounds me as to how much of this world I haven’t seen. The stairs going up into the cave … like something out of an old Indian movie or Indy Jones maybe. How little some of us, including me, know about the world. Really, really great work.

    I’m so envious of what you do but watching your material helps to motivate me with mine. You also have a great voice for narration!
    Looking forward to the next one.
    Rohan

  12. I look forward to the stills collection, of course, but what really strikes me as stunning in this adventure is the performance of the Olympus EM1 II video. No comparison, I’m sure, when the large format stills are seen at proper size — but for the intended use, the quality of the video is just great.

    • Can’t argue there – we were very impressed with the video performance, too – both the outright IQ (10x the data rate of its predecessor) and the stabilisation.

  13. Looks like a photographer’s paradise, that place!

    I was interested to see you using that grip, using your forearm to hold everything steady. Is that something you arrived at on your own or did you pick it up from someone? I ask because some years back I saw an article by Joe McNally where he does something very similar. I’ve used it before (when I had cameras heavy enough to make it worth doing!) and it can certainly be effective.

    • Target rich, but rather challenging.

      Grip: I arrived at it myself after sitting down once and shooting something over my shoulder; it’s not very intuitive so I had to force myself to keep using it until it could be done ‘relaxed’. It only works with a heavy/longer camera as you need to have some area to perch…

      • Interesting stance. I’ve used something similar when shooting rifles, but only if I have something that I can rest my support elbow on. If you are interested, take a look how biathlonists hold a rifle in standing position. It feels uncomfortable at first but becomes second nature after a while. In a nutshell the idea is to brace one’s arms against the body as tightly as possible to eliminate shake, while supporting the weight of the rifle on the pelvis bone, leaving the shooting hand unstressed for perfect trigger control. Cameras don’t have a shoulder stock, but with the eye on the viewfinder you get a similar support point. I have tried this with heavy cameras and longer lenses and it works. There are limitations though. You need an even terrain and some room, and camera movements are limited to a rather narrow sector. Still, another tool in the toolbox when needed.

  14. it is absolutely superbe – the stills are amazing, and the video is great… congratulations.

  15. Impressive work as usual, both photographically and videographically! The photos and footage make the place look rather well lit. That’s until you take a look at the exposure settings. Ouch. 🙂

  16. Absolutely stunning, Ming. I’m a Tamil Hindu, albeit not religious in any way; I haven’t attended a Thaipusam but have been to other festivals and seen some of what you’re showing here. However, I’ve never seen anything close to your rendering of it – the results are just outstanding.

  17. That’s a fascinating event. I’ve seen some of your earlier coverage of it, and it seems you are getting steadily closer. I’m really glad you had a video crew, since they are able to show the removal of the hooks and piercings, and the transition from the trance state more clearly than a single still could. Did your video guys record to the cards in their cameras or over HDMI (more bits of color possible?) to external recorders? The sound didn’t appear to be synchronized. Did someone just wear a recorder and leave it running? Roughly what settings were they using?

    scott

  18. This must be what you mentioned on Instagram. Wonderful.

  19. Calvin Yee says:

    Inspirational Ming! So, what’s next year’s challenge? Using your 501cm with one lens?

  20. Anatoly Loshmanov says:

    Hello Ming !
    Video and yours images looks very impressive.
    Photographs are unforgettable.
    Sincerely,
    Anatoly

  21. Fantastic work, Ming! Your video is remarkable in the depth of it’s storytelling. The way you simultaneously told the story of the festival and your quest to capture it photographically is compelling. Kudos!

  22. Brilliant. Hats off to your endurance in that environment.

  23. If I were a professional photographer, I can’t imagine wanting any other camera than the Hassey. Unless super speed AF was a requirement for sporting events or long zoom wildlife at say 600mm or more, a Hassey would be my target stills camera for sure. The ergonomics look perfect for my big hand, and I love that huge pistol grip. But since I’m not a pro with pro level revenue to justify such an expense, I’ll have to settle for mere mortal equipment. I really enjoyed your video and I think the experience was everything you intended it to be for me. But what struck me, in fact blew me away, was how well the EM1MKII performed shooting the film. The stabilization (wow, I mean WOW! that stabilization is crazy-are you sure you didn’t have a gimbal?!?), the sharpness, the low light performance, were all outstanding to my eye. I’m not a fan of tiny sensors for stills but apparently, they more than hold their own for video. After a long day’s or long weeks shoot on an assignment with the Hassey, it must nice to slap that 12-400 on the Mark II for fun stuff at home and streets. Some people might be intimidated if they saw you coming at them with that ginormous Hassy locked and loaded on your forearm, especially with new double cross-over in-line position stance you’re using 😉 Superb Video Ming…Thank you!

    • The M4/3 pixel density makes most sense for wildlife, but remember that a FF crop off the H6-100 (not that I’m advocating it!) in a pinch is still 40MP, and there are 300mm AF lenses, a 1.7x TC, and 500mm V lenses, and 1.4 and 2x TCs…so it probably *is* possible if you’re amsochistic enough.

      Video stabilisation: nope, none – you can see there was nowhere to swing a gimbal; it was entirely handheld. And with almost zero post stabilisation too 🙂

      All that said and done: I still pick the Hassy for my own stuff most of the time!

  24. Whoa, the video footage is night and day compared to the X1D’s video night scenes. Total clarity, lots of details, no noise. I thought it was shot on a Sony a7sII or something 🙂

    And finally there’s a rare chance for the public to see your processed shots in magnificent 4k resolution. Feast for the eyes.

    • Nope, E-M1.2! 🙂

      What a difference a year makes. Couldn’t do it on the Sony, would need a rig and it would be too bulky (from the footage, I’m sure you can see why…)

      • I thought that the audience were surprisingly calm being swamped by the professional Hasselblad video crew, but you were probably the most prominent member of the crew with that clicking shutter and the histogram beeping. Although you’ve taped off the AF illuminator with the gaff tape 🙂

  25. nopriors says:

    Fascinating event, excellent footage and excellent narration. Thank you Ming
    Peace
    Greg

Trackbacks

  1. […] longstanding affinity for their hardware. I’m sure many of you are aware that I continually push the envelope for what’s possible with medium format and achieve some pretty unique results in the process. On top of that, I have the added benefit of […]

  2. […] now that that’s all done – have you watched the H6D-100c Thaipusam video […]

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