Sunday, December 30, 2007

Tostada chips and some new insights

Where was I about a year ago?

I stumbled upon an old draft a few minutes ago. It was written on 2 January 2007 and contained only a few lines (here corrected for punctuation), among which were:

Sivin's favourite quote of the day, spoken over tostada chips: "When all else fails, there's still chips."


I am a delayed person. Dr Chin once gave me a jab and said 'oi?' because I didn't cry. Only later did I cry. Delayed response.

I spent New Year's Day 2007 with Yen, Tien, Shern Ren, Li-Shia, Fang Hai and Sivin at Chili's Mid Valley. You don't get a more unusual combination!

Looking back, I should've shot the entire basket of tostada chips instead of leaving it only half in the frame. I suppose I've made the most leaps this year in framing, and perhaps most of all because of the 50mm lens. Prime lenses really make you think about what you're putting in and what you're leaving out. They make the photographer a lot more discerning.

Not that zooms are bad, but in the wrong hands they are more often than not an excuse for lazy composition resulting in crappy pictures. I use my 18-55mm now more than ever (since getting the 50mm), but the sort of pictures I'm taking post 50mm are markedly different from those before. For one, I'm now more inclined to use my legs instead of my fingers to adjust distance.

Didn't quite expect such a lengthy reflection on tostada chips. :-P

Speaking of reflections on photography, I've noticed that people who've never used an SLR almost always hold the camera shutter-side down when composing vertical shots, i.e. they twist their right wrist 90 degrees back. It happened both in Malacca and Camerons.

At first I wondered if it was a left-hander thing, as one of my friends is left-handed. But the others aren't, so it couldn't be. I think it's because most people are used to holding digital compact cameras that way; there's no need to support a lens, and as the camera is light it makes sense to just flick the wrist back for a vertical frame.

I never actually noticed all of this. I think it's because I always hold the camera with my right hand on top; any other way would exert a good deal of strain on the arm (except where space constraint is a factor).

(If there are any SLR users reading this and you disagree, please comment below. This is only a theory, after all, and I'm not even sure if anything I'm saying is true; it just seems to make good sense of the data so far.)

All is quiet on New Year's Day.
A world in white gets underway.
I want to be with you, be with you night and day.
Nothing changes on New Year's Day.

--U2, 'New Year's Day'

Saturday, December 29, 2007

One tag too many!

Double-tagged by SooT. I'm going to attempt one now, and the other long and tedious one perhaps another day.

* * * * *

(a) A holiday with Li-Shia.
(b) Nikon DX Nikkor 12-24mm f/4 lens
(c) Nikon Micro-Nikkor 200mm f/4 lens
(d) Nikon D300 DSLR
(e) A ticket to a U2 concert

(a) Do I need a reason for this? :-P
(b) Wide angle!
(c) Dramatic close-up shots!
(d) With all those lenses, a second body is useful
(e) Best band on the planet. Period.


(a) Very musical.
(b) Has weird plans for facial and cranial hair
(c) Very intelligent.
(d) A great model (for photography; role model I'm not so sure :-P).
(e) Lightning-speed eater.

Agreed to partner me on TM Squared. Much of it started from that point.

MOST LOVED INVENTION (does not need to be technologically advanced):
It's a tie between the pen and the camera.

Hypocrisy. Mine included.

Li-Shia, Denise, Suit Lin, Kee Aun, Ming-Shien, Melody.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Malacca: Entangled

I did it in Mersing and I thought it might also work in Malacca: for want of better direction in my photography I decided to build my photos around a theme in Mersing. The environment there lent itself very well to the 104th Psalm which, in my opinion, is one of the grandest psalms celebrating God's creation.

At the end of the trip I had put together a collection of photographs whose very diversity astounded me. I have remarked that it was the best photography outing of the year so far for it was a breakthrough in many ways.

I would later learn that it is not uncommon for travel photographers to use the device of a theme or motif or, in the great National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson's words, an assignment. After all, you can't shoot everything while on holiday, and you certainly don't want the sprawling lack of focus in a photo collection characteristic of an attempt to do so.

Thus I decided to use Scripture again. But I think I learned there (and more so in Cameron Highlands, but more on that later) that God will not be used.

Considering the historical nature of Malacca and the abundance of colonial erections, the word 'stronghold' suggested itself to me. It wasn't long before I found myself at the 46th Psalm whose first and last verses read thus;

God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble...

The LORD of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our stronghold

--Psalm 46:1,11 (NASB)

Also, I reminded myself that it was about time to start shooting for the Publicity Department of the PKV's Easter 2008 production. I asked Suit Lin for the theme a couple of months ago, and so I put aside that word till the holidays. It was 'Entangled' and I was free to interpret it photographically as my creativity and imagination led me.

My train of thought went something like this: Entangled. Stronghold. Colonial influences mingled with local culture. Entangled. Roots hold a tree in the ground. Tangled roots. Strong. A tree is like a stronghold. The Porta de Santiago (A' Famosa) is a stronghold. A tree can stand longer than a human stronghold. Trees are nature's stronghold. Entangled. God with us. God holds us fast. God got entangled in human history and culture in the midst of a Roman colonial environment.

Something like that.

So I set out to shoot photos which would juxtapose local elements with colonial ones, and I decided to use colonial structures as the subjects.

A personal mission of mine, totally unrelated to the Easter production and the psalm, was to shoot popular structures at unpopular times of day. Thus Valerie and I found ourselves at the peak of St Paul's Hill at the crack of dawn with nothing stirring but the wind and everything else dead but the shifting shadows cast by nearby sodium lamps.

This was the result:

Many have taken photos of St Francis Xavier in the harsh afternoon sun, so I thought I'd show the more mystical side of the St Paul's Church ruins. Along the way uphill, I almost thought St Francis turned his head! It turned out to be the movement of a leaf's shadow.

With the aperture open at f/8 I left the shutter for 20 seconds at ISO 200. It's an interesting photo, and the bright planet (not star, as it wasn't blinking) adds a dimension of life and timelessness to the composition. One of my favourites from my trip, but I suppose at most merely an experimental shot.

* * * * *

Half an hour ago, I decided to scrap the psalm, despite having all the photos I needed to illustrate it as I did Psalm 104. Some of the photos weren't good enough, and I didn't want to overshadow the photos that really mattered.

Because to me, the purpose of taking photos is not to illustrate Bible passages; the Word of God is so much more than that. But I wanted to show the connection; how God has amazingly, through His Word and random ideas, enabled me to make a picture I think perfectly embodies the spirit of all the various influences I mentioned earlier.

It was a great trip for my friends (the BF Classmates) and I, and we have a fair share of memorable group and individual photos. And for Suit Lin's mission, I shot from various angles. a mass of roots between the Stadthuys and the Aldy Hotel where we stayed.

But just over half an hour ago I saw one of my favourite photos in a totally new light. It looked good on the camera; it looked great on the computer. This is one of those moments when a photo just means so much to a person that every other photo pales in comparison.

When you look at it, there may be nothing special about it. But when I shot it mounted on a tripod from the near-impossible ground level angle, I had no idea I would be capturing such a rich scene in one frame.

* * * * *

It is dawn, and the sun has yet to rise. The white tomb stands in the middle of a garden; the green grass reminds the observer of the battle that was waged in Gethsemane three nights ago. Satan's forces fell when this man Jesus acknowledged his name.

"We are looking for Jesus."
"I am he."

It's just a pronoun to most of us, but the Jews knew the name of God. Above all Satan knew the name of God. I AM. Perhaps it reminded Satan of another garden, the Garden of Eden, where God promised to break the curse and crush the serpent. At Gethsemane the promise looked to be fulfilled.

But then Jesus surrendered and we all know what happens next.

It is Sunday, and before the sun is up (and before everyone knows the Son is up), the women are on their way to the tomb with spices ready and hearts perhaps not yet quite able to accept the death of their Lord.

Beyond the tomb lies the ruins of St Paul's Church. The house of God in ruins. When Jesus died something happened in the Temple; almost as if Jesus declared by the ripping of the temple curtain that he wasn't done with it yet. Indeed Jesus was well known for causing chaos in synagogues and the temple courts, driving out thieves and swindlers, healing the frail, claiming to be the Messiah. And now even in death he wasn't done with the temple.

So the church is in ruins, the tomb lies in the middle of the garden and there is a tree with huge roots in the foreground. Such a stark contrast: life upon life thriving in the halls of the dead. Perhaps the image also suggested itself to the women and the disciples; the irony of the dead being laid to rest in the midst of so much life.

We don't know yet that the tomb is empty, nor do we know that there are angels at its entrance bearing news that would be too good to be true. But that was Easter morning: a journey fraught with irony and unspoken grief.

A journey of entangled emotions and thoughts, thinking of Jesus' prophecies about himself yet knowing that dead people don't rise. Recalling Lazarus and thinking that maybe Jesus might just do what he said. Having seen the very gory death of Jesus and feeling that that hope was just a little too far away to believe this time.

But above all a morning when the God who chose to entangle himself in humanity would show the way through this tangled mess of our lives, bringing life through death and the promise that the strongholds of the tomb and our so-called 'great' constructions and obstructions are no match for the strong hold of God himself.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Thoughts on Pride and Precedence

Meet Yen Mii, a usually reserved fellow d'NAer but with some really interesting and profound insights and hidden depths of wackiness.

Today at some point in the journey from KL to Seremban the topic of pride for an educational institution came up. I commented on the differences between UM and the VI; how UM students don't seem to have nearly as much pride for UM than Victorians for the VI.

Yen Mii said it's probably because those who enter the university have never known what it is like to be proud of an institution with traditions and a rich history. And since the 'cycle of pride' is never started, there are few (if any) seniors to pass it down to the juniors.

Over dinner I realised this idea is also true in another context. Li-Shia says my Nikon P5000 digital compact camera has excellent colour reproduction, but I always beg to differ. It has, however, occured to me that my judgement is probably due to overexposure (no pun intended) to the SLR system such that I now expect a lot more from a camera than before.

But then again, Li-Shia is no stranger to my SLR-produced pictures. Is it then because I rarely see photos taken on digital compacts such that I don't have level grounds by which to compare the P5000?

Oh, the possibilities...

* * * * *

Written at 9.00 a.m. on 15 December 2007:

(On holding on to what you know is right in an otherwise upside-down world)

We do not know how long the night will last
Or when the dark will turn to day;
But if we do not hold our candles fast
There'll be none to light the way.

Friday, December 14, 2007

It's not about being Green

Henri Nouwen wrote, in The Way of the Heart:

"...the end of the persecutions [in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D.] did not mean that the world had accepted the ideals of Christ and altered its ways; the world continued to prefer the darkness to the light (John 3:19). But if the world was no longer the enemy of the Christian, then the Christian had to become the enemy of the dark world."

* * * * *

Last Thursday, when having lunch with Fang Hai and Guruparan at Annalakshmi Mid Valley, the topic of biofuels surfaced in conversation. Guru pointed out that, despite the success of cane ethanol, sugarcane plantations were eating into the Amazon.

I support biofuels and I think cane ethanol is a wonderful energy source. It was reported in National Geographic (October 2007) that cane ethanol has a lower retail price compared to an energy-equivalent amount of petrol, produces 56% less greenhouse gas emissions than petrol, and has a whopping 1:8 input:output ratio of fossil-fuel energy used to make the fuel compared with the energy in the fuel.

However, Guru's remark alerted me to the flip side of agro-fuels and, indirectly, the darker side of environmentalism.

Al Gore's recent hit An Inconvenient Truth had the world talking about global warming, but I have always thought of the whole environmental problem as much more than a matter of trading in carbon credits and/or adopting an energy-efficient lifestyle. Because if you think about it from his point of view, then sugarcane plantations are a good thing, because they maintain the green cover on the planet in addition to producing cheap, clean fuel.

But then in Annalakshmi I saw the whole 'Let's Fight for a Greener Earth' argument fall before me. Extrapolating the idea to Singapore (and to YTL's Sentul East and Sentul West projects), I realised that green landscaping is not the same as conservation. Singapore is well-known as a 'garden city' with lots of trees everywhere, but no serious biologist will consider Singapore's greenery a thriving ecosystem (save, perhaps some parts around Bukit Timah).

The point is, we can eradicate all the forests on Earth and still maintain the greenery. Brazil's situation is proof of that: clear all of the Amazon and replace it with plantations; Earth remains green, global warming is in check... so what's the problem? Only this: we would have lost thousands upon thousands of plant and animal species, most of them probably as yet unknown to science.

Mr Gore and a lot of 'green earth' activists overlook this. You can fill a city with trees and have all the plant-a-tree campaigns you want, but the value of a forest is not that it has a lot of trees; it is that it has a lot of different trees. That's what biodiversity means, and diversity means there are plants that just won't be feasible in a city either due to maintenance or aesthetic issues. Keeping Earth green will keep carbon dioxide levels low, but not prevent mass extinctions.

Deforestation is a bad thing; reforestation good but nearly impossible. To effectively 'reforest' a plot of land, the reforester has to know the exact composition of plant and animal species in the area before it was cleared. And even if all the plants can be replaced by some miracle of seed-sourcing, most of the insect and animal species may be gone for good. It is also folly to assume that animal species are homogenous in the same region; Perak's rainforests exhibit a different biodiversity from those in Pahang.

Global warming is a big issue, but it is only a small portion of the environmental problems humanity faces. Ultimately the question is not about monitoring greenhouse gas emissions because from an evolutionary point of view, it is no threat to the environment at all, as polar bears which lose their icy homes will probably evolve aquatic appendages... or die in a classic case of 'survival of the fittest'.

And surely the Big Meltdown can't be any bigger than the other famous disruptions in the history of the universe like the Big Bang, the Big Dino-busting Meteor and the Ice Age. I mean, we're probably living in the Oven Age; what's so bad about that? Thermophilic bacteria aren't complaining.

The heart of the problem is what we make of Earth. Is it worth saving? And if it is, why? To me there is no better answer than the preservation of Earth's biodiversity. But this is also the least profitable and fashionable reason. Al Gore has made environmentalism 'cool' and accessible, but there is more to it than high-profile campaigns. It involves convincing governments all over the world to choose the preservation of nature over massive economic gains, and in a greedy world it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

I believe this is a subject I will return to in the near future with newer insights. Environmentalism is a big thing and questions about what it is and how best to go about it have yet to be answered at length.

* * * * *

So where does the Nouwen quote come in?

If we take it as part of our Christian duty to care for the environment as stewards of God's creation, then the present situation is this: the world is also following suit. Environmentalism is becoming a subject of international acceptance, much like the Church under the rule of Constantine the Great.

But the physical growth of a church (i.e. its numbers) says nothing about its spiritual condition. Likewise environmentalism is becoming something like wearing a red ribbon in support of AIDS sufferers not because you actually care, but because it is easy to do so. Not many who eagerly wear the badge will volunteer to work amongst AIDS patients for fear of, among other things, infection.

The world has ceased to become the enemy of the Church in this sense. In fact there are Christians who claim the environment is not worth caring for, simply because the universe is temporal and we should be investing in heaven, not earth. (I shall leave the stupidity of this statement to speak for itself.) Hello, if this Earth is pointless, then why does the Bible open with a grand account of God creating it and declaring it 'very good'?! Does an artist produce a masterpiece only to have it trampled underfoot by swine?

But the alignment of the world to what seems to be a noble ideal does not mean that it has accepted the ideals of Christ. As I have pointed out, the vogue in environmentalism today is about doing as much as we can but not too much; it's about convenient methods which do not compromise on profits too much. It is, ultimately, merely utilitarian.

How does the Christian become the enemy of an environmentally conscious world? Not by saying the environment is not important, but by being aware of the hypocrisy of environmentalism. By remembering the Maker of all things created, seen and unseen. By working for the preservation of God's creation despite it being difficult and unprofitable. In many ways this reflects the call of Christ to deny ourselves, carry our crosses and follow Him.

In His teachings, Jesus would begin with a contemporary problem, examine it in the context of Jewish (and sometimes Roman) law, and then shed 'new' insights on it based on the original purposes of God. Like when the Sadducees asked about marriage and heaven, and Jesus said that they had their whole concept of God wrong, that God is God of the living and not the dead.

Our contemporary problem is the deteriorating world. In the context of present-day environmentalism, we are aware of measures we must take to keep this world afloat. But we must move beyond the sacrifices of lambs and pigeons to the One Sacrifice; beyond the purposes of man to the purposes of God. To save the world because at the end of the day, it belongs to God and He will call His stewards to account. And we are His stewards.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Judgement and Botanical Photography

I have of late been drawn to the biblical passages on judgement, specifically the writings of the minor prophets. Just now, in the evening, I read this in Amos and it really jumped out of the page.

"You only have I chosen
of all the families of the earth;
therefore I will punish you
for all your sins."

--Amos 3:2 (NIV)

Amos begins with prophecies on the destruction of the nations around Israel and Judah. But then the judgement on Israel and Judah is even harsher, because they disobeyed the Law of the Lord. Much more was given to them, and thus much more was expected.

I couldn't run from it. God has given me so much, and for me to stoop so low...

Father, forgive me. Forgive us. Let the judgement not be too harsh.

* * * * *

Went shooting at the Orchid Gardens in KL with Kelvin yesterday. The following are some of the best pictures of the day, all shot with his lenses on my camera. Proof that it is, above all, the lens and not the camera that makes a picture great (besides the photographer, of course!).

Minor highlight and shadow adjustments, and a little sharpening here and there, on the computer.

Close-up of a half-floating flower in a pond.

Nikon D50 + AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f2.8 lens, 1/320 sec at f5; ISO 200

This orchid reminded me of the elegant orchid mantis. And I began to wonder, does the mantis resemble the orchid... or does the orchid resemble the mantis, as in this picture?

Nikon D50 + AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f2.8 lens, 1/100 sec at f5; ISO 200

Some of the orchids for sale.

Nikon D50 + AF-S 17-55mm f2.8 lens, 1/250 sec at f5; ISO 200

Possibly the best insect shot of the day. There were many interesting insects, from fruit flies to shield bugs, but the excessive wind made focusing a nightmare and many of the shots were blurred.

Nikon D50 + AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f2.8 lens, 1/200 sec at f5; ISO 200. Cropped from the original as I dared not approach too near for fear of scaring the wasp off.

* * * * *

(I comment on the following out of context.)

Do two walk together
unless they have agreed to do so?

--Amos 3:3 (NIV)

Walking together is so much more than the agreeing. It also comes with the bearing whatever comes of it.

But by the grace God that is exactly what we will do.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Reflections on Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

I finished Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea yesterday (or was it the day before yesterday?) after about three days of much reading, having begun it during training for Royals but never getting very far since.

It's a great book, although 'great' depends on whether or not you like Hemingway's simple, disarming style. He's not much for style, but he's a great storyteller. To me, what's most amazing about this book is that it really is about the old man and the sea. 75 of the 99 pages in the Vintage Classics edition are dedicated to the old man's adventures in the open sea.

Take away picturesque settings (it's endless ocean and sky), intriguing characters (the most exciting characters are the sharks and, of course, the giant fish), engaging dialogue (the old man talks to himself... and the fish) and dynamic plot (it's basically a cat and mouse game, only worse: the old man has already hooked the fish, but he's chasing it in order to reel it in when it's weaker)... and what do you get? I don't know how Hemingway squeezed 75 pages out of this barrenness, but that is exactly what he did!

And to top it all off, it was a page-turner and read like any exciting thriller. The following are some of my favourite quotes/excerpts:

* * * * *

... the fish's eye looked as detached as the mirrors in a periscope or as a saint in a procession.

p. 74

"But man is not made for defeat," he said. "A man can be destroyed but not defeated."

p. 80

(This is my favourite, and I think it sums up what the whole story is about:)

Then his head started to become a little unclear and he thought, is he bringing me in or am I bringing him in? If I were towing him behind there would be no question. Nor if the fish were in the skiff, with all dignity gone, there would be no question either. But they were sailing together lashed side by side and the old man thought, let him bring me in if it pleases him. I am only better than him through trickery and he meant me no harm.

p. 76

Thursday, December 06, 2007


Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

--Habakkuk 3:17-18 (NIV)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Hits, Misses and Stray Shots

Soon, Dad will return this laptop to the office to be sold off. When that happens, I won't have access to my photos for some time as Windows ME on the other computer is hopeless when it comes to picture management, due to compatibility issues.

So I won't be blogging for a while; at least, not the usual photoblogs. And considering that I've been less wordy lately, it's unlikely I'll be writing anything long either.

Looking through some of the photos on this laptop (i.e. those either recently taken or transferred here en route to CDs/e-mail), I've selected a few to talk about. Some of these were real breakthroughs this year, others were creative misadventures; all are equally unforgettable.


* * * * *

This is where the year really shifted into forward gear: with the addition of the 50mm f/1.8 (a.k.a. portrait) lens to my arsenal. The very first photos I took with it were of Yen, and they remain among my best ever.

After a while, some photographers can get bored of the usual portrait styles which tend to include most of the face. So I thought of experimenting with this lower-half-of-the-face shot of David. It proved to be somewhat more successful than the attempts on other d'NAers!

I was trying to demonstrate the effect of high ISO shooting to Yen. I shot one in colour and one in black-and-white, and the latter remains one of my most iconic pictures of the Sahur Café yet, reminding me of the strong character of grainy monochromes.

The night we arrived at the Fraser's Pine Resort for the CC Trip, I looked out a window in the function room and experimented a little with composition. Adrian liked this shot very much, and it has proved to be one of my most unique this year.

For some reason, this fun shot at the KLCC Park's wading pool turned out to be a big hit with virtually everyone who's seen it. This is not a work of art and no photographic expertise was required. It was a creative romp in which Chee Seong, Yean Khinn, Amos, Evans and Oliver participated enthusiastically. The little child was a coincidental blessing indeed.

Li-Shia came over to celebrate Georgie's 6th birthday. What a good time we all had!

The usual suspects at KLCC for the MPO's performance of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. They wanted to pull off a Mafia-esque pose, and I suppose they had most of it right, except (and a very big except!)... they were a tad too cheerful!

One of a series of 'album cover' shots at UiTM during the Royal Debate Tournament, it is this kind of photo that begs the question: who is the real Kang Zarul Irwan?

While Hugh, Kee Aun and I were chatting with Iera and Fairuz of IIU (background), I noticed this cat lazing in the drain. I decided to go for a crazy angle, and I daresay it worked!

The night of the final day of Royals, Li-Shia and I managed to catch The Idea of North at Alexis Ampang. This was a low-light photography triumph, representing the other great function of the 50mm f/1.8 lens: excellent low-light performance due to its large aperture.

This is a political observation. 'Premis Bersih' made me think that, taken from a different point of view, this could be the headquarters for the Bersih movement in the country. Throw in a few Indian characters, and you have signs of Hindraf. But really, this is an Indian restaurant with no connection to those rallies whatsoever.

Yet there is something that I cannot escape: looking at the Malaysian flag in the picture, the 'Bersih' word and the Indians, I realise that this is the truest face of Malaysia. It is a land in which freedom of speech and assembly still prevail despite government crackdowns, simply because Malay gerai, Chinese coffee-shops, Indian banana leaf houses and mamak stalls still exist.

Whatever words are exchanged on either side of the equation, the people have the final say, and this is something no government can ever take away from us Malaysians.

While waiting for Hugh before leaving for the MMU Friendliest of Friendlies at Cyberjaya, I noticed that the morning sunrise cast really wild and fiery shadows on the wall behind Kee Aun. It was a shot too good to be missed.

* * * * *

Throughout the year, I have discovered this truth:

Between SooT and Yen, they could fill up a gallery with their portraits without risk of monotony.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Message through Habakkuk

Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed
and establishes a town by crime!

Has not the LORD Almighty determined
that the people's labour is only fuel for the fire,
that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing?

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD,
as the waters cover the sea.

--Habakkuk 2:12-14 (NIV)

A necessary reminder.