June 2012 Archives

Running into Anuar Zain

Was smoking a cigar at the Havana Club, Le Meridien KL Sentral, a couple of days ago and received a surprise when Anuar Zain walked in. He was wearing a simple pair of jeans and a denim shirt. A handsome man by any accounts, and he smokes Partagas. He knows his cigars!

In the brief couple of minutes he was in the store, a few scenarios ran in my mind. Do i play it cool, pretending not to recognize him? (impossible, it's Anuar Zain). Do i play the fanboy, and give him a manly hello and try to engage him in meaningless chatter? (eeewww) Do i treat him like a Brother of the Leaf (a fellow cigar aficionado) and comment on his cigar choice, ask him to join my friends and i for a smoke? (i came t-h-i-s close to doing this).

In the end, my hesitation made up my mind for me. He turned to look at our group, and we made eye contact. I gave him a smile, and he smiled back. "I know who you are" - "I know you know who i am" kind of exchange happened. Then he paid and he left.

Anuar Zain, Incomparable

The photographic sequence

Elliot Erwitt shot some of the most poignant and interesting photographic sequences i've ever seen; his famous 32 sequence of a couple trying to close a beach umbrella is a classic. A cross between between the stills of single shot photography, and the moving picture (video), a sequence of related photographs tell a story that is normally punctuated by a punchline at the end.

"You always look for the best picture, but sometimes the pictures are not that great alone. But in a group, they become interesting," Erwitt says, citing the series of people trying to close an umbrella on a windy day. "None of these are a picture on their own, but as a sequence of 32, it's hilarious--not being able to close the umbrella and going home with it open."

In some ways, the timing required to pull it off has a smaller margin of error than single shot stills; a sequence is only as strong as the weakest frame, and like a link in a chain, if a single moment is missed, then the full sequence falls apart.

See the story in the sequence below, the changing expressions tells the tale. His name is Sandeep Joseph, and he is smoking an '05 Punch Royal Seleccion No. 11, a discontinued classic Cuban cigar. The sequence is titled, "What the f#@k?"







A little bit of this, that and cigars

If only all our world leaders smoked cigars, much more good would be done. Almost nothing bad has ever come out from a couple of people sitting down together, sharing a stick or two of premium hand-rolled tobacco leaves and talking things over. I've made countless friends over the years through a puff a smoke, settled more than a handful of deals with the aroma of Cuba in the air and come up with more than a few good ideas under the influence of a good dose of nicotine.

Ming Thein, Dave Ching and myself at Little Havana, drinks, food, and a round of cigars. Comrades.






Rush hour hustle

I was curious about the rush of people out of the office during lunch; the hustle of that precious hour of replenishment in a busy work day. Like a buzz of bees, a lined formed at the gates, and when they opened, it was like the bursting of a damn. Everyone had something to do, somewhere to go. Food. Shops. Banking hall. Dates. Meetings. Starbucks. The chaos was magnificent.



Forrest Gump said, "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you'll find inside."

That's exactly what went through my mind when i came across this mechanic's tool cabinet. Full of nuts and bolts, things that he needs to make his livelihood. Dark, oily with hidden nooks and crannies, things that even he would have forgotten about. How many of us have cabinets just like it?


Stumbling opportunities

On the way to a meeting this evening, i was unlucky enough to be caught in the mother of all traffic jams; that's KL for you on a Friday evening. So i dumped the car by the side of road, and walked. The meeting venue was just a few hundred meters away, driving all the way would have taken another hour.

Turns out it was a good decision, not just for the time saved, but also because i gave me a chance to get the camera out for some action.


Awas: The Beast


Hardhats and locks

Lens Choices for the Olympus OM-D EM-5

Received a question from a reader today: I recently bought the Olympus OM-D EM-5, what lenses should i start with, i'm interested in street and landscape photography.

First of all, my best advice would be to always visualize and frame the shot first, "see" the photograph in your mind, only then choose the the correct lens to enable you to capture it. This will train your eye better, and allow you to make compositionally competent decisions. If you look at things the other way around, then the lens becomes your keeper, it can become a shackle to your creativity.


Headshots and portraiture are an easy example of where you need the "see" the framing of the shot before choosing the appropriate focal length. The reason why 85mm-90mm lenses are popular portrait focal lengths is because the lens gives the subject and photographer a comfortable separation/working distance.

Having said that, a camera needs a lens. And when we're dealing with an interchangeable system camera such as the OM-D Micro Four Thirds, the choices are many and can be quite confusing. So based on your needs, i'll recommend a few workable options.

The new Olympus 12-50mm that acts as the kit lens for the OM-D is quite a stellar performer. Weather-sealed just like the body, it covers a great range of focal lengths pretty competently. It also has a macro mode that works quite well. So if you need one lens that works through most scenarios, this one will work. Having said that, f3.5-f6.3 is pretty slow so low-light and bokeh opportunities will be limited with it.

If not the 12-50mm, there are two lenses in particular that i really like for the M43 system, the Olympus 12/2 and the Olympus 45/1.8 and i'd recommend both very highly. Both lenses are blazingly fast, low-light will not be a problem. For the 45/1.8, wide open, bokeh is creamy delicious. Although i don't own the 12/2, i've tested it quite a bit, and have been impressed at how sharp and distortion free it is even at max aperture. 

Generally speaking, and i urge you to read the first paragraph above again at this point, the 45/1.8 is a very competent portrait lens that offers a good amount of pulling power in most other scenarios. The 12/2 is suited for the street, and also useful for landscapes where the subject (e.g. Mother Nature) tends to envelop a larger area thus requiring a wider frame.


Bokeh-licious, Olympus 45mm f1.8


Sharp and distortion free, Olympus 45mm f1.8

Price-wise, the 45/1.8 is a steal. You can probably find it at some places for RM950. It really is a no brainer if you own a M43 system camera. The 12/2 is much more dear -- RM2200 is about the lowest price i've found. It all depends on your purchasing power: for some people RM2200 is not much. In that case, go for it. You won't regret it.

If budget is a concern, i'd still recommend the 45/1.8 and one other, the Panasonic ASPH 14mm f/2.5. The Panny 14/2.5 is a pretty understated lens; some people look down on it because it's the kit lens for the Panasonic GF3. Some also say that it's soft around the edges when wide open (which is true), and that CA (chromatic aberration) is a problem in high-contrast scenarios (which is true). Optically, it is an inferior lens to the Olympus 12/2 but that's not to say that it can't product good results. Knowing the limitation of the lens allows you work around them.


No worries about the edges being soft when they aren't a part of the subject, right? Panasonic ASPH 14mm f2.5

The Leica M-Monochrom

Wide open, sharp as a tack in the center. See the lines, and the lack of distortion. Panasonic ASPH 14mm f2.5

Slicing dexterity - 2 packets a minute!

Wide open, you'll notice some minor vignetting. Work that into the shot so that it doesn't matter. Panasonic ASPH 14mm f2.5

And all of this at a remarkable price point: RM600 -- go to the larger shops (i got mine from the camera shop in KLCC) where customers who buy the Panasonic GF3 do not want the 14/2.5 lens that comes with it. Shops will generally take the lens out and put it up for sale separately. "Open lenses" like these sell at a remarkable discount: a boxed 14/2.5 will cost RM1200-1300. 

So there you go. Always remember -- frame the photograph first, then worry about the focal length. Once you've squared away the discipline required to do this, then get your lenses. For the Olympus OM-D EM-5, the ones i'd recommend are the Olympus 12/2 and the Olympus 45/1.8. It's a dream team. Almost like having LeBron James and Kevin Durant in the same team -- one has the range, the other has the finesse, both are amazingly powerful and versatile. 

For the budget conscious, the Panasonic ASPH 14mm f2.5 is no slouch and worthy of consideration. Another notable mention is the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm f1.4 -- amazing 50mm equivalent lens built to Leica specs. Also, if you're able to hold off a little while on the 45/1.8, i would suggest comparing that against the soon-to-arrive Olympus 75mm f1.8. It might be a little too long for some, but you might like it, worth a try.

H is for Hell

I struggled for a long time to think of something insightful to say about this photo. Something about homelessness. Something about the social safety net. Something about street vagrants who had no where else to go. Something about the social caste, where all we can do is walk past, pretending not to see or look. 

In the end, i gave up. There is nothing to say. H is for Hell. Oddly enough, it is also for Home.


Guarding to deceive

This is not as uncommon as you'd think: a lonely security guard, on duty in front of an empty building. To him, is it just a job, or does he feel the irony of his position? Is he guarding a deception? Or is he the deception?

Guarding to Deceive

Dark alleys

A much better photographer than me once said, "You control how you want the photo to be taken."

It seems like such an obvious truth, a truism. But the meaning is a lot deeper than what the simple words represent. 

I've come to realize that the moment a photograph is taken means many things to the photographer, the least of which is a mirroring of his state of mind at the moment when the shutter is released. A happy person will see the world in a happy light, and will tend to take happy photographs. An angry person will be angry at everything, and will tend to capture anger in his viewfinder. Of course, it's not a hard and fast rule -- the very best photographers are able to engineer the emotion of the photograph, and the viewer will hardly be the wiser.

I'm not one such person. What i shoot very strongly captures my current state of mind. 


Into the breach



The editorial process

In the "old days" (i use the term loosely, because it really wasn't that long ago), photographers would shoot their rolls of film and develop it out onto contact sheets, 3 x 9 rows of thumbnails, to help with the editorial process -- culling of the bad shots, selection of the good ones. This made sense for the main reason that it was (still is) expensive to develop every shot from a roll of film. So contact sheets were used, the best shots identified, and only those were printed/sent to publishers/etc.

The modern day equivalent of a contact sheet can be found in most digital photo editing softwares such as Aperture and Lightroom, where the photos are laid out for easy viewing. The editorial process for me is pretty straightforward:

Digital Contact Sheet

  1. After downloading everything from the memory card, i quickly perform one round of culling. Technically poor shots, uninterestings and trials are marked for rejection and removed.
  2. Then i apply a basic preset of actions on the remaining shots. The ones that don't work are then culled too.
  3. The remaining ones enjoy a bit more attention (by this time, i'm down to about 10-15% of the original download) and are given more customized processing work. The ones that don't make it are removed.
  4. The remaining shots are either keepers, maybes or keepsakes. Keepers are the ones i like and can be published right away. Maybes are "maybe keepers". Keepsakes are kept because they are good memories, not really for publishing but for personal momentos.
Every so often, i go back in time to look at my maybes. Some of them look worse, and are then culled (if for no other reason that to save HDD space). Some of them look better with time. It's probably not the photograph that has changed, but it's me that has changed -- a perspective since then and now has changed, which makes the shot more interesting than the first time i saw it.

An example is the photo below. It was marked for rejection when i first saw it, but before i hit the delete button, i was compelled to save it to a "maybe". Then now, a week later, i look at it again with fresh eyes, and decide it's alright to publish. There is something there, the interplay between the wine glass, wine bottle, or perhaps the expression in his eye, that makes it interesting enough to me.

What do you think? Keeper, Maybe or Cull?


Video shooting setup for My Cigar Blog

I recently moved out of my comfort zone and fiddled with the video capabilities of my Canon 5D MarkII to shoot a HD video, one of My Cigar Blog's video cigar reviews.

It was much more fun than i anticipated, and i'm seriously pleased with the video quality and the sound quality; i can see why the 5D MarkII has a legendary status as a video recording device.

Here is the setup i used this weekend. Check out the video below.

Canon 5D MarkII video setup

The Chinese Busker

I was in KL Sentral this morning, and as i was walking around, the sweet sounds of a violin came over the air. A little known fact about me -- i play the violin too, or rather, i used to play it as a teen. Can't say i was any good, but it is a lovely instrument to play, and given the chance to pick it up, i'd do it again. 

It seems the source of the music was a elder Chinese man. He must have been in his 60s, sitting in his chair, violin in hand. His song selection was limited, just to a few well known tunes. And he played them in an unending loop. Not particularly dextrous, with notes going randomly off-key every so often. But interesting enough that i stood there for more than several moments to listen. His violin case quickly filled up with coins and notes, he emptied it once it was half-full; perhaps that's a busker's strategy: people are more likely to tip when they see an empty case?






Wow. Oh. Hehe. Faces of Mia.

Sometimes, less is more. So, with that said, allow me to present to you the Three Faces of Mia - Wow, Oh and Hehe.







Zainal Abidin Mohamed

A legend in the Malaysian music scene. His songs such as "Hijau" and "Orak Arek" are iconic landmarks in the local music scene.

The years are catching up with him, but his energy remains undeniable -- an example of what happens when you couple talent with a bucketload of elbow grease.

Can't wait to see him perform in concert in a few weeks, at the Legendary Concert.

Zainal Abidin


I don't know this man, so i make no judgements. Perhaps he is alone, as in truly alone and is at the bar to drown his sorrows. Perhaps he is waiting for someone, that person is late, his beer is getting warm, and his arms are crossed in impatience. Perhaps he is just lost in his own thoughts, whatever they may be, stroking his glass of beer and noticed his reflection in the mirror. Perhaps he wasn't looking at the mirror at all, but at one of the many bottles of liquor lined up underneath it.

Only he knows, all we can do is stare at the photograph and ask (and guess).


Edward Kwon, gastronomical superstar!

Initially, i wasn't planning to go for the launch event and luncheon, but i allowed myself to be convinced. What a decision it turned out to be!

I've always been a bit skeptical about the whole concept of the "celebrity chef" -- i mean, how much nicer can the food be? Food is food is food. You eat it, you fill up, then you walk away. But as i was about to learn, there is eating, and there is eating. 

Edward Kwon, a Korean, is a real talent. Charismatic, witty, he knows his way around the kitchen. I observed him talk about his craft, and it's obvious he's passionate about it. He wanted to be a priest growing up; if his dream had come true, what i can say is that monks in a monastery somewhere would have beed very well fed indeed! When it was time to turn up the heat and plate the food for 80 guests, his attention to detail was inspiring. Everything had to be just right, every plate went through his hands.

The proof is in the pudding. And so it was with his food. Amazing. The soya bean paste soup was creamy, rich and heavenly tainted with foie gras. The wagyu beef stew, braised with Korean pears practically melted in the mouth. It was so good. Desert was a berry sorbet to end all sorbets: smooth as silk, almost impossibly so.

I said to my neighbour at the table, "Edward has ruined my meals for the week -- nothing will be able to compare to this." I was understating it terribly. Try the next month. You don't forget a meal like this, and perhaps that's where the talent lies: to make food taste so divine, it becomes unforgettable.

The full photoset (10 frames) can be found on my Flickr page.

You mean, here?

You mean, here?

Sharing a light moment with a fan

Interacting with a guest

Addressing the audience

Regaling the audience with tales of the trade

Feeding frenzy!

The media goes wild!

A lady, a hypnosis circle

Every once in a while, i'd take a photograph that i really like. It's rare; i'm perhaps my own harshest critic. Whether the capture is "good" or "bad" is not important, not to me anyways. I just really like it. 

It's like looking into layers upon layers upon layers, and still being unable to figure it out. Like a hypnosis circle.

A lady with a cigarette

Pits of Sin

Malls are like pits of Sin. Don't mean that in a bad way. After all, to sin is to be human. You'll find that in abundance wherever the objective of the construct is to pander to human nature. In many ways, malls are the capital -ism.







Monochrome conversions, why and how

All my life i've taken photographs in colour. It's only once i started getting serious with it as a hobby did i begin gravitating to the possibilities offered by monochrome photography. There is a charm about monochrome photography, an effect that removes the influence of colour and focuses the attention on the composition and subject in the photograph. Obviously, this means that with all the attention on the composition and subject, any errors or imperfections become all the more glaring. That's the double edged sword monochrome photographs have to endure -- an average photograph can easily become a bad one sans colour to hide its flaws, a good photograph can now become great with the focus of the audience focused on the critical elements that make it good.

Why monochrome rather than black and white? Because hues of colour such as palladium and copper may also be used, leading to a particular effect desired.

I use Lightroom for my post-processing, and when i'm converting to monochrome, i use Nik's Silver Efex Pro v2.0. Both are excellent pieces of software, and are more than adequate for the purpose. Without describing in too much details how it's done (because it's easy -- a few clicks of the button, and moving sliders to taste), let me focus on my favourite conversion paths and why i like each one.

Here is a recent shot, that'll act as the colour baseline.


In colour, this photo tells the tale of an old man, in his 70s, which a slight cheer in his half smile and twinkle in the eye. There is a feeling of positivism, reinforced somewhat by the healthy earthen skin tone and fashion of his clothes.


My default preferred monochrome conversion is a customized Silver Efex Pro preset of AGFAPhoto APX 100 film. The light tones are culled by roughly 12% and the contrast is increased by 8-10% depending on the shot. I renamed the custom preset as AGFA APX Silver 100. After applying the preset, individual control points are used to bring out the shadows, improve clarity and structure in specific key spots; this is done on a photo-by-photo basis, each shot will require a slight different treatment.

This conversion tends to create a hyperfocus on the subject, in this case the face, the creases and lines. Less attention is afforded to the eyes in particular, and the half smile is less obvious. 


This preset is a customized effect -- high structure, high contrast, grain and vignetting. I generally use it for street photography when the tale i want to tell is one of gritty realism, of dark mysticism and allusions of imperfection. Perhaps less suitable for portraits in this context, i include it here to illustrate its possible use in completely shifting the focus off the subject an onto the emotion the subject proposes instead. 

If you're a Lightroom and Silver Efex user, drop me an email, and i'll be happy to share my basic presets. They won't necessarily give you an exact solution for every monochrome conversion you'll ever do, but it'll certainly work as a base from which you can work on and further customize to personal taste.

A man i wish i knew

Visited a grand uncle today. He lives alone on Malay reserve land in Kuang, Selangor, in a small one room abode. I didn't even know his name before today.

He apologized for the mess. "This place is a store room, for my children." Seems almost impossible that such a small space can fit so many things. A broken down TV in the corner. Boxes stacked against the walls. A small sofa is the only thing to sit on in the living room. Empty prescription bottles can be found everywhere. Pirated DVDs seem to be his chief distraction; there are dozens of them strewn on the floor and in small boxes. A ceiling fan that doesn't seem to have moved in a long time. But it's all very bright, the sun pours in a large window facing East. Despite it all, it isn't a dreary, unhappy place.

He regales with gossip and stories, things about the family that no one else has heard in years. I'm soon lost, but i listen anyways. It is pleasing, his enthusiasm firm and energy vibrant.

Soon it is time to leave, too soon. His name is Redzuan, my grand uncle.





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About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from June 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

May 2012 is the previous archive.

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