Robin’s take: Thaipusam 2019

Thaipusam is one of the largest festivals in Malaysia, drawing no less than 2 million people to Batu Caves in 2018. MT did a splendid job covering it in 2017 with the Hasselblad H6D-100C (photoessays here, here and a video here), shooting mostly in low light as the rituals start on the eve of the actual celebration. This year, I decided to brave the crowds at Batu Caves but was also intending to do things differently. Instead of punishing the camera in impossibly low light situations, I played to my strength by shooting during the day and utilizing the beautiful morning light.

MT’s note: I’ve covered Thaipusam on several occasions in the past, but tend to prefer working at night for both the atmosphere/drama and the lower temperatures (though it brings its own challenges in the sheer crowd sizes, light levels etc.) Had to sit out this year because of my back, but glad to see one of the team made it!

I brought the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and the M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 and 45mm F1.2 PRO. I ended up using only the 45mm F1.2 lens, for better subject isolation from the busy background. I shot wide open most of the time and under extremely bright conditions, the camera’s maximum mechanical shutter speed of 1/8000 second was not fast enough to prevent overexposure even at base ISO. I defaulted to using the electronic shutter to gain higher shutter speeds, all the way up to 1/32,000 second. I found that this was just enough to maintain good exposure and since I was not shooting anything fast moving, rolling shutter was not an issue.

I do have to voice out my observations and thoughts on some photographers’ behavior while shooting the Thaipusam rituals at Batu Caves. I know there’s a visual impact in going extremely close to the devotees with a wide angle lens for added drama. However, there are a few persistent and inconsiderate photographers who stick their large lenses right into the faces of the devotees, stopping them in their tracks and interrupting the whole procession. I admire your zeal and determination to get your shot, but please be respectful and never intrude on an on-going ritual. There is a fine line between operating at the limits and being a nuisance to others. The fact that a local imaging company decided to hold a photo-contest on the actual day of Thaipusam was also not the smartest idea. Photographers should observe and document. If you deliberately place yourself inches away from the subject, then it is no longer observation or documentation. Instead, you are selfishly imposing yourself on the subject and I am not sure what kind of photography that is. I can only hope that Malaysian photographers can be more sensitive while shooting Thaipusam next year onwards.

The Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm F1.2 PRO lens is available from B&H


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Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2019 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. I see some camera shake on shot seven . . . . . naw just kidding! At 1/32,000 second you could have been running while taking the photo and I wouldn’t be able to tell.

  2. Now I want to learn more about the culture.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Fly to KL and shoot the Festival! It is usually early February or late January, the date changes every year.

  3. SAVAGE FRIEZE says:

    What a fascinating festival. Some of the images give me the chills. glad to see a different perspective. The night time images and video Ming shot in 2017 are very dramatic, and I loved the inside of the cave images; however this perspective is welcome.

    • SAVAGE FRIEZE says:

      And excellent!

      • Robin Wong says:

        Thanks, and being different was what I wanted to achieve!

        • And well achieved. However, the opposite approach would have also been interesting: to take pictures under the same low light conditions as Ming, to see how far the m43 envelope could be stretched and whether it is actually viable. I think many people are attracted to the m43 system but are worried that it would not meet sufficiency in low light (and with non static subjects, of course). I feel that you may have not refrained from taking some pictures of the event at night or early morning. If so, please consider showing these as well in a follow up post. I bet many people would be interested.

  4. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Your comments about being considerate to others apply right across the board,, with photography, Robin.
    Some years ago I was in a restaurant in Hong Kong, eating my lunch, when a frail, elderly chinese lady came in and sat down at a nearby table. I was struck by her appearance. She had the most extraordinary dignity in old age, despite the fact she was no longer capable of eating her meal with chopsticks. And, instead, opted to eat with a spoon and fork.
    I had learned from the indigenous people in Australia how to “look at” a person without actually “looking at them” in the same way westerners do – instead, doing the “looking at” bit, relying solely on peripheral vision. It takes a abit of practice – but it’s not that difficult, in the end.
    I would have loved to have taken a photo of her – no flash needed – the scene was quite extraordinary just as it was. But I could not bring myself to intrude in this woman’s space, by taking that photo.
    So I left – simply with the memory of what I had scene – unable to show it to anyone else, ever.

    • Robin Wong says:

      You are right about being respectful and not take advantage of someone or a situation, just because that seems like a good photography opportunity. Always be human first, photographer second!

  5. great work there

  6. Simply gorgeous.

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