Saturday, May 10, 2008


"Cameras, film and memory cards should be carried onto the plane as hand luggage. Even if your clothes don't make it, at least you can still take photos."

--Richard I'Anson, Lonely Planet photographer; quote from Lonely Planet's Travel Photography

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I've posted a few extreme close-ups here lately.

The experiment was a simple one. I purchased a lens coupling ring for RM28 from Keat Camera in Pudu. This is a simple technique to achieve insane magnifications (up to about four times life-size; macro lenses used on their own allow life-size reproductions) at an extremely low cost.

A large aperture lens (usually a 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8) is reversed on a telephoto lens in the range of 135mm to 200mm. The magnification is calculated by dividing the longer focal length by the shorter.

Generally the results of my tests were very good, although depth of field is something one must be prepared to sacrifice with this technique.

However, vignetting (darkening at the edges) was apparent as I reduced the zoom distance from 200mm on my 55-200mm lens.

The method allows extreme close-ups such as this of a butterfly's compound eyes.

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Lupus is an auto-immune disease in which a person's antibodies attack his/her own cells. Any organ can be affected; skin, joints, kidneys, heart, lungs, brain and so on. If not properly treated, it can be fatal.

More information on the Persatuan SLE Malaysia (Malaysian SLE Association) website here:

To commemorate World Lupus Day (today), Persatuan SLE Malaysia and Shutterasia organised a photography competition themed 'Anything Butterfly'. (One of the tell-tale symptoms of lupus is a butterfly-shaped rash across the nose and cheeks.)

Had I submitted any of the following two pictures, I might've won anything from 3rd Prize to one of the 15 Consolation Prizes with a fair bit of certainty. Winning photographs are on display on the first floor, Oval, 1 Utama till 18 May.

But I didn't. And I'll explain why later in this entry.

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Entry was by a minimum donation of RM10 to the association. Every RM10 donated entitles the photographer to submit one entry. I asked Dad to contribute RM30 so I could send three pictures, but he gave RM60 since he felt it was for a good cause anyway.

Photos had to be taken between 1 and 7 May (competition rules) so I decided to kill two birds with one stone and combine the butterfly outing with the visit to the Coliseum Café with Ai Wei. Chatting online with Valerie one day, I remembered we were supposed to go shooting to give her a feel of her 'new' SLR, so I invited her. Then she invited Kee Aun.

So it came to pass that the four of us spent some three hours from 9.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. at the KL Butterfly Farm next to the Lake Gardens on Tuesday, 6 May.

Of the many pictures taken, I selected 25 and submitted them to the scrutiny of a fistful of friends and my parents, and what follows are the six I chose in the end along with some of the interesting comments given for each.

Unidentified Nymphalid on twig.

Denise; "This looks very much like a painting. I like the simplicity, not much interference from the background, with just the butterfly and the branch."

Mum; "Looks like the cover of a Biology textbook."

Rajah Brooke resting on cage.

Denise; "Is there a story to this one?..."

Ai Wei; "I like it for the fact that it is not resting on a natural surface."

Rajah Brooke face-to-face with Ai Wei.

SooT; "I think this is unique shot, and it's as if the butterfly's gonna crawl into her eyes."

Denise; "...I think it allows your friend Ai Wei's presence to be there but still having the focus on the butterfly."

Rajah Brooke on Ai Wei.

Ai Wei; "I like the angle and the way the eye was on the butterfly."

Birdwings mating.

Valerie; "This is the clearest of the mating butterflies."

Alissa; "...I'm quite grossed out by the mating butterflies."

Large Tree Nymph on fern. (This was a big hit.)

SooT; "I just love the colours. Turquoise rocks!"

Valerie; "I find this very interesting, the butterfly, the pose, the lighting makes it look translucent. And the butterfly demands the attention..."

Denise; "One of my favourites... Just cause I've never seen a butterfly like this one before, and I like the background colour together with the leaf. They somehow gel very well..."

Alissa; "... majestic."

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The Coliseum hasn't changed; it's like time has been frozen within its four walls.

We learnt that the Special Orange Juice is not a jumbo-sized orange juice, but two oranges in a wine goblet; twice the strength as Valerie discovered. Turns out Ai Wei has quite a taste for sour stuff!

Ai Wei's Fish Concalaise was easily the best dish on our table (in my opinion).

Kee Aun found the Tequila Sunrise quite a force to be reckoned with, though the swizzle stick was a little out of place! Pictured here are also the thick slices of bread the Coliseum is famed for.

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Looking back, I realise this is only the second time ever I'd gone butterfly shooting. The first was about a year ago, at the end of the road at home; the pictures were posted on this blog. This outing was considerably more successful as I've learnt over time to pay more attention to detail and watch out for technical flaws.

I'd like to thank Ai Wei, Valerie and Kee Aun for accompanying me on my hunt, for enduring the typically gruelling Ben shoots and for their invaluable feedback. I'd also like to thank SooT, Denise and Alissa for their feedback and, at times, extremely thought-provoking comments. But more on that in a moment.

Above all I'd like to thank Dad for sponsoring the bulk of the endeavour, i.e. the RM60 needed to enter six photos and, if I don't repay him, the RM70 spent on the Butterflies and Moths handbook.

Along with the RM34 I paid for the group's admission (RM8 per student, RM1 per camera; Kee Aun paid for his camera) and the RM28 for the coupling ring, nearly RM200 was spent on this project. Was it wasted? I don't think so, and that's not just because I can still use the handbook for my ecology work in the semesters to come!

I've been spending the last few days thinking about my photography (these reflective, introspective moments have occurred quite frequently in the past few months), and something Alissa said when commenting on my pictures really struck a chord.

She said she chose some of my pictures because of their uniqueness and because they "say something more than 'Here I am, a pretty butterfly perching on a flower.'"

What I noticed about the top three winners today was that they're all pictures of butterflies on flowers. Not that it is wrong to shoot butterflies on flowers, but I think I shot this time around with the intention of avoiding that cliché.

Also, I attempted to make use of backlighting in the late-morning sun, so that the translucent quality of the wings would be brought out (most apparent in the picture of the Large Tree Nymph). I wanted to offer a fresh perspective to butterflies; incidentally the mating Birdwings and the Nymph were perched on ferns, and I really like ferns!

I realised while having lunch with Mum and Dad at Jack's Place today that the emotional connection a photographer has to a photograph greatly influences the chances of that photograph being selected; it doesn't always work to the photographer's advantage in competitions.

But above all, I think my pictures might've been a little too unusual for the judges. The competition's theme was 'Anything Butterfly', and there were some unusual submissions featuring 'butterflies' made with shadows, a butterfly-shaped nose-ring and a picture of a butterfly painted on a child's face. But none of the natural butterfly pictures were unusual; I think my pictures bridged both worlds by offering real butterflies in not-so-common settings.

Denise might be right after all. (I'm still coming to terms with the whole dinosaur thing!)

Or as Valerie said, "In other words, you're weird!"

Another other thing I discovered is that I enjoy on-location shooting. I think if ever I were to become a professional photographer, one of the last things I'd ever acquire would be a studio. Even in shooting portraits, I like doing it in a place with which the subject has some affinity.

Maybe that is why a lot of my photos seek to portray a sense of place; a sense of the interaction between the subject and its environment.

Take the following picture, for example. It didn't make it to the final six, although if I could've submitted seven, it would've been the seventh.

Denise loved the striped leafy background, and I think if the butterflies were just a little sharper, it would be an excellent picture for any wall of mine.

The general trend with macro photography is to produce 'clean' backgrounds with only the subject in focus, so as to reduce the amount of distraction. I think I disagree. True, backgrounds often clutter close-ups, but when photographers get the backgrounds right, the close-up is much more enhanced, in my opinion.

But that's the challenge; it's not easy to produce close-ups in which subject and background are in harmony.

I don't really know if there's any one main lesson I learnt from this experience, but I think I've come a step closer to proving the following:

Backgrounds don't always have to go in close-up photography. Yes, they can be a simple turquoise wash or 'watercolour', but they can also be a canopy of leaves.

Butterflies don't always have to be shot from above/behind, and they don't always have to be shot with flash.

Butterflies don't always have to be photographed perched on flowers, as if that's all they ever do.

Photography is fun, and you don't necessarily need a macro lens; all these pictures were taken on a 55-200mm zoom lens.

I'm still learning, and loving every step of the way!


Kaun said...

i love this post =) so nicely written =) as usual. but the detail you have put into it with a reasonable amount of words.. something I am yet to be able to muster enough discipline to do..

wow.. =)

Siedne said...

you see! it's taken you how many..three years? to realise i was right all the while in calling you a dino!

and the judges of the competition..hmmm..they should be brought out on a field trip, with no flowers on set!

i agree 110% with your choice of photos submitted, and if you'd submitted the flower ones that would be sooo not ben-like. stay true to your weird self :D