Category Archives: General

Play, pray, or chase the buffalo?

Last year we visited villages in the Krayan district of North Kalimantan, a remote highland area close to the border with Sabah (Malaysia). We were fortunate to be invited to a Dayak Lundayeh wedding ceremony in the village of Terang Baru, near Long Bawan. These days the villagers are devout adherents of Protestant Christianity, but they continue to observe many of the unique cultural practices of their ancestors.

A lot of the rituals of the wedding entailed the exchange of gifts between the bride’s and groom’s families – in addition to giving countless practical household gifts to the happy couple. There were hand-plaited baskets, hats and sleeping mats, crockery, cooking pots and furniture, food and clothing.

But the biggest – and most valuable – gift was that of a large kerbau (buffalo), which the groom handed over to his new wife. Everyone from the village was there, watching the exchange with great interest – none more so than a young boy and girl who were enthralled by the buffalo.

As the traditional part of the ceremony was concluding, and the congregation prepared for Christian prayers, the buffalo was led away to pasture – with the two children following in close pursuit. You can imagine the excited conversation between them:

“Hurry up, let’s follow the buffalo and see where it goes!”

She: “Hang on, the prayers have started. We’d better stop.”

He: “Do we REALLY have to stop? The buffalo’s getting away!”

“OK then, let’s pray. The buffalo will just have to wait till we’ve finished!”

Karen, along with her colleague Paulus Kadok from Yayasan Mahakam Lestari, has written a wonderful article about the ‘Bridewealth of the Dayak Lundayeh‘, which was published late last year in Garland Magazine. Do have a look; it’s a really interesting read. Nice photographs, too…

 

 

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Anzac Day in Balikpapan

This morning we attended the Anzac Day dawn service at Pasir Ridge here in Balikpapan. And it was every bit as interesting as we had expected it to be. The event did however involve some measure of culture shock, as we listened to the unaccustomed tones of Australian voices in Balikpapan, and (a recording of) a Scottish pipe band playing ‘Waltzing Matilda‘ and ‘Along the road to Gundagai’… repeatedly.

The Anzac Day dawn service is a well-established annual event here, one of only four locations in Indonesia where the day is officially commemorated. Balikpapan is also home to a well-maintained Australian War Memorial (the Tugu Australia) which sits in the middle of a roundabout down on Jalan Jenderal Sudirman.

Balikpapan was the site, on 1 July 1945, of the last major land operation of the Second World War, and the Australian Army’s largest ever amphibious landing. 21,000 Australian troops, supported by artillery and Dutch, British and American air and naval forces, overwhelmed the Japanese occupying force of just 3,900 soldiers. By that time, the Japanese had occupied the island of Borneo for three years.

However many historians, and even many military leaders at the time, have said that the operation served no worthwhile strategic purpose. The oil refineries, port facilities and most of the military fortifications had already been destroyed by months of artillery and aerial bombardment (comprising some 23,000 shells). The Japanese forces in Indonesia were already close to collapse, and (as it happened) the end of the war was only six weeks away.

Nonetheless, 229 Australians died in the ‘Battle of Balikpapan’, and 634 were wounded. Pasir Ridge, where today’s service was held, was the site of some of the fiercest fighting.

Around 1800 Japanese soldiers were also killed in the battle (nearly half of their total number), and just 63 were taken prisoner. Near the site of the Australian memorials on Pasir Ridge is an unmarked and unremarkable mound of earth, where a number of Japanese casualties were buried in a mass grave.

Despite the early hour, we were keen to attend the commemoration. In part this was because my father was here on that day, almost 73 years ago. He was on board the landing ship HMAS Kanimbla – though happily he was was not sent ashore, and his ship returned to Moratai the next day.

The (hopefully not apocryphal) story goes that General Blamey addressed the soldiers of the 2/9th Battalion aboard the Kanimbla, en route to Balikpapan, trying to gee them up in preparation for the imminent massive battle. “I know that the 2/9th will want to be in the thick of it!” he proclaimed. At which point one of the ‘Diggers’ interjected loudly: “Pig’s arse! Aren’t you coming with us?!”

All up, around 100 people attended the dawn service at Pasir Ridge, which is on land now held by the oil company Chevron Indonesia. There were, amongst others: representatives of provincial and city governments, Chevron, senior staff (including military personnel) from the Australian Embassy, officers and rank-and-file from the Indonesian military (TNI), veterans and war widows, as well as a number of Australian expats resident in Indonesia.

It was a nicely inter-cultural, Indonesian-Australian event, with all speeches and prayers delivered in both Bahasa Indonesia and (Australian) English language.

Adjacent flagpoles flew the Indonesian flag (the ‘Merah putih’) and the Australian flag – at half mast. In front of the flagpoles, an Indonesian honour guard stood at attention throughout the service.

About a dozen large wreaths, each marked with the words “Lest we forget” were laid, by both Indonesian and Australians, on a memorial formed from parts of a wrecked Australian tank.

As is traditional, the service concluded with (a recording of) The Last Post, a minute of silence, and Reveille. The Australian flag was raised from the half mast position up to the level of the adjacent Indonesian flag.

And then (of course!) there was an extended block of time set aside for group photographs, with almost every possible permutation of people assembled and photographed in front of the tank memorial. 

Yes, including us! (Seen here with Fleur Davies, Matthew Campbell and Richard Swaby from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta).

 

Then the ceremony was over, and we all decamped, boarding the two provided buses to take us down the hill to the Novotel Hotel for a buffet breakfast and warm conversation. But no beer and two-up…

Thanks to the Organising Committee for our invitation to attend, and for planning and hosting such a memorable and professionally-run event. Lest we forget.

For more on the Battle of Balikpapan:

 

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Temples of Chiang Mai

The Buddhist temples (wat) of Thailand are beautiful and fascinating places. We recently had a too-brief (5-day) visit to Chiang Mai in the Central North of the country, and visited some of the many many wat that dot the landscape. Just inside the relatively small area of the old walled city there are 3 dozen active temples. Across the entire city there are, depending on which source you consult, more than 200 or 300. Suffice it to say that there are a whole lotta wat.

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Each wat has a character, a history and an atmosphere unique to itself, but each one is an oasis of calm and elegant style in the midst of a bustling city of 960,000 people living in the metro area.

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We first visited Wat Phan Tao, which is just over the road from where we were staying in the Old City. The old (late 14th century) viharn (assembly hall) is constructed entirely out of teak wood.

There were hundreds of blue flags flying around the grounds at the time we visited, blue being the colour of the revered Queen Sirikit – whose 84th birthday was about to be celebrated. The flags almost obscured the view of the chedi (stupa) which stands behind the viharn.

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The wat was originally built as a palace for one of the early rulers of the Lan Na Kingdom. A carved panel over the entrance still displays an ornate peacock, the symbol of the monarchy, standing astride a dog – which is the zodiac symbol for his date of birth.

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Large heavy bells stand in a row in the garden outside.

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Inside the viharn, a large Buddha sits in blissful meditation with smaller statues in front. On either side of the Buddha figure are suspended two large naga (snake/dragons). They protect the Buddha. There is a story of Buddha, meditating under the bodhi tree after attaining enlightenment, when a severe story erupted. A huge cobra snake came and shielded him from the rain with his big hood.

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Next door, in front of the very much larger Wat Chedi Luang, is a small but richly decorated shrine for the Sao Inthakin (City Pillar) of Chiang Mai. Such shrines are found in cities across Thailand, and it is considered that the prosperity and safety of the city is dependant on the city spirit deity (Chao Pho Lak Mueang) who resides there. Women are not permitted inside.

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There is also a very large Dipterocarpus alatus tree standing beside the shrine. There is a widespread belief that a disaster of some sort will result if this tree should every fall. (But a disaster is already occurring – as these magnificent trees have almost entirely disappeared from the forests of Southeast Asia.)

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Wat Chedi Luang is so named because of the stupa located there, behind the (much newer) viharn. This massive structure was first erected in 1391, to house remains of the father of the king (Saen Muang Ma). Construction continued for nearly a century, by which time it was some 85 metres tall! For a time it housed the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred Buddha statue in Thailand, before it was moved (first to Luang Prabang in Laos, and then to its current home at the Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok).

In 1545, an earthquake caused extensive damage to the chedi, and at least the top third was lost. There were partial restoration works conducted in the 1990s. It’s still very impressive!

The main assembly hall (viharn) was built in 1928, and is itself rather impressive – especially so when the monks (Wat Chedi Luang is an active monastery) assemble for evening prayers.

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One stray temple dog wandered in and out during the prayers, which appears to be a regular occurrence, as no-one seemed overly concerned. One monk made a half-hearted attempt to expel the intruder – who then simply re-entered through another door!

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Speaking of temple dogs… at the Wat Chiang Man there were many resident dogs, including this lordly creature who looked like he was holding audience on his throne.

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Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, dating back to 1296, when the city was founded. The chedi here is quite different to the one at Wat Chedi Luang, fully intact and quite elegant in form. The top, gilded part of the chedi contains relics – of the Buddha, or of some auspicious monk.

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The main viharn was renovated almost 100 years ago. Behind the large Buddha (and not visible in the photo above) is another Buddha, standing and holding an alms bowl, which is the oldest Buddha in Chiang Mai, dating back to 1465.

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There are a limited and prescribed number of standard Buddha poses – standing, sitting, walking, reclining – and also a number of specific gestural variations. I particularly like the ‘calming the ocean’ pose. The depiction must be executed correctly, if the Buddha is to have power.

The Reclining Buddha shows the Buddha lying on his right side, close to death and about to enter into the state of paranirvana. We encountered this Buddha at a Wat (not sure of the name!), east of Chiang Mai, while on a bicycling tour.

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Some of the statues in this new wat were very colourful and, with the sunglasses as above, perhaps not quite as seriously reverential as we saw elsewhere.

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Another reclining Buddha, this time in repose at the Wat Phra Singh. You may be able to see Karen standing by his feet.

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This large and stunning wat dates back to 1345. It got its current name in 1367, when the famous statue of Phra Singh Buddha was brought to the temple, and housed in the all-teak Viharn Lai Kham. The Phra Singh Buddha is reputedly from Sri Lanka – though there is also evidence that it was actually made in Chiang Mai. Another story tells that the head of this Buddha was stolen in 1922, and that the statue now sports a substitute head. This statue is greatly revered, and is carried through the streets during songkram festival is April.

The wall behind the Phra Singh Buddha is red lacquer, decorated with patterns of gold leaf.

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The other three walls inside the Viharn Lai Kham were decorated with mural during the 1820s. These detailed murals depict stories from Buddhist mythology as well as from Chiang Mai day-to-day life, and are amazingly detailed – though fading in places after nearly 200 years.

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The complex of buildings has been extensively restored on several occasions, including in 1782, 1920 and 2002. The very shiny golden chedi (known as the Phrathatluang), with a golden elephant emerging from each of its four sides, is dazzling, and almost too bright to look at when the sun is shining.

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The wat houses a large number of monks (all male), ranging from the very young to elderly and wheelchair-bound. All gather several times a day for prayers at different locations around the complex – including afternoon prayers here under a breezy sala (pavillion).

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After prayers, the monks head off in single file, hands clasped in front of them in the classic wai gesture. (The wai is so common in Thailand, and so routinely used for greetings, that even the Ronald McDonald statues in Thailand stand in that pose!)

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The monks make three clockwise circumambulations around the chedi, chanting quietly in unison as they walk.

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We saw this quite firm instruction near a reclining Buddha figure at the Wat Chiang Man. We were of course disappointed, but we dutifully refrained from take wedding photo there.

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Singapore: My camera loves mirrors

Now that we’ve left Kalimantan (at least for the time being), it’s an opportunity to catch up up some photos from other places. So I’ve been (finally) processing photographs taken in Singapore last December, when we were there on a ‘visa run’.

What struck me about the images is that most of them were composed to feature reflected light and/or odd perspectives. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and I hadn’t even noticed it until I started processing the photos. Perhaps it was the contrast with Kalimantan, where there are fewer opportunities for that kind of image – or perhaps I was just feeling obtuse…

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Here’s Karen and I (and other diners) having lunch in the ’Smoke and Mirrors’ bar at the newly opened National Gallery Singapore, housed in the former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings. The Gallery is a SG$450,000,000 blend of colonial and highly contemporary architecture, which (often) works really well.

The bar is constructed with a single huge curvy piece of stainless steel – which is said to weigh 400kg. It makes a great way to feature the panoramic view across The Padang to the Singapore waterfront and the unique Marina Bay Sands resort.

We had fish and chips.

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Here’s a more conventional perspective on that same view – from the same place.

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A fisheye mirror on a bend in a pedestrian laneway, with a construction site behind, made for an interesting (though perhaps unoriginal) composition. Did you spot Karen over my right shoulder in a green blouse, also making photos?

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Another, quote different, circle. Looking down into the entrance hall of the National Museum of Singapore from a balcony on the next level up.

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And from the same position, a third circle (actually a hemisphere!), looking up into the magnificent dome. The original building dates back to 1887, when it was built as the Raffles Library and Museum. Recent extensions have more than doubled the floor area of the Museum, but the very modern new parts have been (almost) entirely concealed when viewing the building from outside.

The stained glass in the rotunda was painstakingly restored in 2004-5. All 50 of the curved glass panels were removed, and glass, lead and joints were replaced or rectified as needed. The result is beautiful.

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As Singapore transformed into the modernistic glass-and-steel metropolis that it is today, it has been moderately successful in preserving some of the better architectural examples from its colonial past. This juxtaposition of past and present can be seen everywhere.

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Entering the new National Gallery feels like being invited back to a more ordered, graciously elegant past.

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But once inside, it turns into a futuristic, techno-organic world. Very different, and the contrast is a bit overwhelming at times!

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The joins between the two architectural ages are interesting – but not entirely seamless.

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I think I most liked some of the classical-looking parts of the building, where you couldn’t be sure whether it was very new or really old.

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There are some quite dramatic, and sometimes confusing, perspectives when looking down from high up in the atrium spaces. It’s a bit Escher-esque at times.

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Strong railings and high glass walls help to dispel the vertigo!

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In front of the Gallery main entrance, and leading across Coleman Street, through the grounds of St Andrews Cathedral toward North Bridge Road, is wonderful covered walkway. The high ceiling of the walkway is fully mirrored.

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I found it difficult to walk along there without tipping my head backwards to marvel at the kaleidoscope of fractured reflections above.

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My camera loves mirrors.

More of my Singapore photographs can be seen on my website by clicking on this link.

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Making photos: 27 Tips, Tricks and Techniques

I’ve recently run some photography training, and I thought it might be worth sharing the notes that I made for the workshops through this blog. I called it “Making photos” because the tips, tricks and techniques only get you up to the point of pressing the camera shutter button. There’s nothing here about the equally important topics of photo editing (or ‘post-processing’) or about photo collection management. Maybe for later blog posts…?

1. KNOW YOUR CAMERA

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Every camera is different. To use a camera effectively, you need to understand the principles of photography, but you also need to have knowledge of the specific controls, features and limitations of the camera you are using. Read the manual, talk to other expert users and practise using the camera before taking it into the field.

 

2. MAKE A PLAN

Picture02There’s an old saying in business that: “If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail”. It’s true for photography too. So, before going on a ‘shoot’, get prepared! Make sure that your camera is ready:

  • lens(es) cleaned,
  • battery and spare battery fully charged,
  • memory card ready,
  • other gear (e.g. tripod, flash, torch etc) in working order and ready for use.

It can be very useful to make a list of ‘shots’ that you need to make, especially if the shoot is going to be brief or busy. So for event photography, for example, you may want to list: an overall view of the venue of the event, photos of people arriving, the official opening, each of the main speakers, audience shots, catering, etc).

Plan to arrive early if possible, so you can prepare your equipment, check the lighting conditions, shoot some test photos, talk to people to be photographed, and generally survey the situation.

3. SHOOT IN ‘RAW’ FORMAT WHENEVER POSSIBLE

Picture03The RAW image is like a ‘digital negative’ – it’s an accurate record of what the camera sensor sees. You can then process it any way that you need.

A JPG image, however, has already been processed and compressed, so some of the original image quality is already lost.

4. WHAT IS THE SUBJECT?

Picture04aThink before you open the shutter. What is the purpose of this image? What do I want to say or record with this photo?

Make the subject prominent within the picture, and remove unnecessary content from the frame.

(You can of course also crop and delete unwanted content later during post-processing – but it’s better to get it right when you take the photo).

Picture04bConsider placing the subject (person or object) against a completely plain neutral background (e.g. a wall, sky, a screen, uniform vegetation) to remove all distractions from the subject.

 

 

 

5. The ‘Rule’ of Thirds

Picture05aOne tip for composing a photo is to put the most important part of the subject at a point one third of the way from both the vertical and horizontal edges of the frame.

This ‘rule’ is really only a guideline. Don’t follow it if you want show symmetry or some interesting effect in your image.

But always think about your composition before you press the camera shutter.

6. Repetition of form

Picture06aThere is something ‘pleasing’ for the human eye to see a repeating shape or colour in a photograph.

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. Symmetry

Picture07bSome subjects are naturally suited to symmetry. An evenly symmetrical image looks very ‘stable’ and ‘solid’.

If you want to make a precisely symmetrical image, you need to take care to get the horizontal and vertical lines exactly aligned. You may also need to do some editing in Photoshop to get it just right.

 

8. Receding lines

Picture08aA line angling through a photograph to the horizon (e.g. a road, a wall, or a line of trees) leads the eye of the viewer into and through the photograph.

 

 

 

9. Active is better than static

Picture09A photograph that records movement is usually more interesting than one where everything appears frozen e.g. people doing something is better than a group of people just standing in a row facing the camera.

 

 

 

10. Include an object in the foreground of a landscape photo

Picture10A photo of a distant landscape can be boring to look at. It will be more interesting if there is some object (or animal or person – even a rock!) in the foreground of the image.

A foreground object will also help to lead the viewer’s eye into the image.

 

 

11. The Eyes Have It

Picture11When we look at someone, we look directly at their eyes. If photographing a person, make sure that the person’s eyes are in sharp focus. Even if other parts of the person are out of focus, the image will look OK.

 

 

 

12. Avoid ‘red eye’ when using flash

Picture12‘Red-eye’ occurs when light from a camera flash is reflected back off the subject’s retina at the back of the eye and into the camera lens. Most camera flash units have an ‘anti-red-eye’ setting to prevent this occurring. It works by firing a brief initial flash which causes the subject’s pupil to contract, before firing the main flash and making the photo.

If you use bounce flash (see below) or a flash which is some distance from the camera lens, you will not get any problems with red-eye.

Red-eye can also be fixed in post-processing. Adobe Capture RAW and Adobe Photoshop, for example, both have good red-eye correction tools.

13. Use creative camera angles

Picture13aMost people take photos in a standing position, and so most photographs are taken around 1.5 metres above the ground. However it can be more interesting to shoot a scene from a different point of view e.g. from ground level or from above the subject. If a drone is not available (!), consider standing on a chair or other object to achieve a different perspective.

Be creative and experiment! Try several different camera angles on your subject, and you may produce some very Picture13boriginal and interesting images.

 

 

 

 

14. Aperture (1) – Set your camera to ‘AV’ – aperture priority mode

Picture14Control of camera aperture controls not only the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor, but also how much of the image is in clear focus.

This is so useful that I nearly always operate my camera in ‘AV’ (aperture priority) mode (not ‘Auto’!).

In AV mode, the photographer chooses the aperture setting, and the camera automatically selects a shutter speed that will produce a properly exposed image.

15. Aperture (2) – Use a wide camera aperture to separate subject from background

Picture15The subject will be made more clear if it appear in sharp focus against a blurry background.

Use a wide camera aperture, and try to keep the subject distant from the background (if possible) e.g. don’t photograph people standing with their backs against a wall.

 

16. Aperture (3) – Use a narrow camera aperture to bring everything into focus

Picture16If you use a narrow camera aperture (e.g. f/11, f/13 or higher) you will ensure that more of your image is in sharp focus. We says that this increases your ‘depth of field’.

This can be useful for landscape images, where there may be both close and very distant components of the image that you want to be in sharp focus.

 

17. Aperture (4) – Use the narrowest possible camera aperture for macro photography

Picture17Depth of field becomes critical for extreme close-up (macro) photographs. You should use the narrowest aperture which is possible on your camera. Because the narrow camera aperture results in less light reaching the camera sensor, you may also need to use a tripod and additional flash lighting.

 

18. Prevent blur (1): Hold the camera still

Picture18It is important for the camera to be as still as possible when taking pictures. If possible, hold the camera with both hands, with your elbows tucked into your sides.

Lean up against something (e.g. a wall) if that helps your stability.

Use a viewfinder in preference to viewing the camera LCD screen if possible.

If you have a long telephoto lens on the camera, hold the camera body in your right hand and balance the lens on your upturned left hand.

When you are ready to take the photo, breath out slowly and just squeeze the shutter button (don’t jab it!)

19. Prevent blur (2): Use a tripod

Picture19aThe best way to prevent blur when there is not enough light is to use a tripod. With a tripod you can set the shutter speed to be slow.

To further stabilise the camera, and prevent camera shake, use a 2-second timer delay and a ‘mirror lock-up’ setting if your camera allows this.

20. Prevent blur (3): Set shutter speed according to the focal length of the lens

Everyone’s hands move a little, and there is a minimum shutter speed that will usually prevent that movement from causing visible blur. The standard formula for calculating minimum shutter speed is:

Minimum shutter speed=1/(Focal length of lens (in mm))

So, for example, if hand-holding the camera with a lens focal length of 300mm, the shutter speed should be no slower than 1/300 second.

For a ‘standard’ lens, in ‘average’ conditions, you should try to shoot at 1/50th second or faster.

21. Prevent blur (4): Use higher ISO in low light

Picture21Setting your camera to a higher ISO setting increases the sensitivity of the camera sensor, so you can take photos in low light situations without causing blur, or having to use a tripod.

But note that the image quality is usually much better at low ISO (e.g. ISO 100), and at higher ISO settings (eg. ISO 1600 or greater) the image can contain a lot of visual ‘noise’, especially in the darker parts of the image.

22. Prevent blur (5): Set shutter speed according to the movement of the subject

Picture23To freeze the movement of a moving subject, simply ensure that the camera is using a fast shutter speed. The required speed will depend on the speed and direction of movement of the subject, but to be sure you should generally use the fastest speed available. If a speed of 1⁄1000 second (or faster) is possible, then motion blur will be minimised.

Note that, to achieve a very fast shutter speed, you may need to increase the ISO (‘film speed’) setting on the camera.

23. Use ‘fill-in flash’ for strongly backlit subjects

Picture24bIf:

  • the subject of your photo is in front of a brightly backlit scene (e.g. a person standing in shadow with a bright sky behind),
  • it’s not possible to re-arrange the people/objects/angle of view to get even light through the image, and
  • the subject is not too far away from the camera,

use flash to balance the exposure, and illuminate the subject.

(You can also use exposure compensation to get the correct exposure on the subject, but that will make the background become over-exposed.)

24. Bounce flash if possible

Picture20On-camera flash can result in harsh lighting (the ‘rabbit-in-the-headlights’ look), and should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. However, if you have a dedicated flash unit, you may be able to bounce the flash light off a wall or ceiling so that it looks much more natural when it strikes the subject.

If there is no suitable (and neutral-coloured) reflective surface nearby, angle the beam of the flash at 45° to the subject with a reflector behind the light beam. This will produce smoother, less directional light on your subject.

Better still, use one or more external (off-camera) flash units, triggered by radio waves or an infra-red signal, to produce natural and controlled directional lighting effects.

25. Make ‘environmental’ portraits of people

Picture25When photographing a person, it can be useful to include some components in the picture that tell the viewer a little more about the person depicted. For example:

  • a carpenter in his workshop, with some woodworking tools visible in the frame;
  • a proud mother, with photos of her children on the wall behind her.

 

26. Use photos to tell a story

Picture26bOne photo can suggest or even tell a story, even if the details of the narrative are not clear. If the viewer sees things happening in the photo, particularly interactions between people or people and objects, they will naturally try to work out “what’s going on?”, and will even make up their own story to resolve the question. We humans have a natural urge to understand the situations that we encounter; you can use this to make your photos more interesting to the viewer.

Picture26aBut a series of photos can also be highly effective, if the connection between each of the photos is clear. This can be particularly useful when you want to photograph a process, when each photo can depict one step in that process.

 

 

27. Show some emotion!

Picture27aDon’t be afraid to show emotion in photos. The viewer will be more interested in a photograph, and will be more likely to remember it afterwards, if she or he has an emotional reaction to the photo.

 

 

 

With the exception of pictures for tips 12, 14, 18, 19 and 21, all the above photos are (c) 2016 John Boyd Macdonald and may not be reproduced without my express permission.

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Selamat Natal dan Tahun Baru 2016!

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

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Isen Mulang parade

No story this time, just some faces from the opening parade of the Isen Mulang Festival, which was held in Palangkaraya 18-24 May. The festival is an annual celebration of Central Kalimantan cultural diversity – but most particularly Dayak culture. Isen Mulang means ‘Never give up’ or ’Never retreat’ in the Dayak Ngaju language. It is the motto of the province of KalTeng (Central Kalimantan).

The festival program is chock-a-block with performances and competitions between the 13 kabupaten (districts) and one city that make up the province. Dragon boats, dance, music, blow-pipe target shooting, cooking, wood-chopping, night-time soccer using flaming coconuts – it’s diverse, a bit like a Royal Easter Show, even including sample bags from each district. The Festival has strong local support, but seems to be little known outside of Central Kalimantan. We attended many (but by no means all) of the events, and saw no more than perhaps a dozen foreign tourists during the entire week.

The Festival was opened by the Governor Agustin Teras Narang, signalling the start of a three hour parade around the Bundaran Besar (the ‘Big Roundabout!) which is the centre of Palangkaraya. And what a unique parade it was!

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Mahakam River

The Mahakam River runs for just under 1000km from the Muller Mountains in the ‘Heart of Borneo’ southeast to the provincial capital of East Kalimantan (Samarinda) and the coastal delta, eventually discharging into the Makassar Strait.

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It’s very wide and muddy in its lower reaches, and narrow, almost fresh and punctuated by rapids nearer the headwaters. The Mahakam Lakes, an extensive region of shallow freshwater lakes, some only existing during the wet season, sit near the middle.

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On the map it may not appear that we got far in those ten days. But it’s not an area that can (or should) be rushed – and the logistics of getting around can be complicated. Six hours on local buses to get from Balikpapan to Kota Bangun, three days on motor-powered longboats to explore the Mahakam Lakes, then 41 hours on a local passenger/freight boat to reach Long Bagun, around 14 hours on three speedboats to get up the rapids to Tiong Ohong and back again, and a final all-night car trip (with eight of us in the car) to get back to Balikpapan. But we enjoyed the challenge of organising it all as we went along, and it all came together rather nicely.

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Our longest single stretch of travel was on a ‘kapal biasa’, the main passenger and freight vessels on the river. We spent 41 hours on board, delayed when the spotlight at the front of the boat stopped working, which meant that we could no longer travel at night for fear of colliding with the many large logs floating in the river. We slept on a platform upstairs, where there are spaces for 76 passengers, though thankfully it wasn’t full. Downstairs is crammed with cargo goods being delivered to the many villages along the way, and also with those passengers who couldn’t afford the $25 fare to travel in ‘luxury’ up top.

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We really enjoyed the journey, spending much of our time sitting on a little platform up front from where we could watch the river, villages, forest and other vessels pass by. The river meanders continuously, the boat moved slowly with many stops, and the steady hum of the engines made for relaxing and contemplative travel.

However the facilities were somewhat basic. The shared ‘bathrooms’ have less floor area than a phone booth, with a big hole in the timber floor which doubles as the toilet and as the means of bathing. The latter is achieved by repeatedly lowering a small bucket-on-a-rope down into the river below to fetch pails of coffee-coloured fast moving water below with which to wash.

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As always there were many people keen to wave to us as we passed, none more exuberantly than this guy who looked resplendent in his typical Kutai-style hat, cigarette in gloved hand. He was one of a team working at a timber mill which was mounted on a floating platform in the river.

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There are plantations (mostly rubber and oil palm) and gardens, but for most of the journey the banks were a wall of forest. Almost none of it is ‘primary’ (undisturbed) forest, with all of the accessible and high-value trees having been removed long ago.

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It’s still beautiful, with big trees standing defiantly amongst the smaller trees, vines and regrowth. Bands of monkeys (mainly long-tailed macaques) lurk on the branches.

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But logging (along with coal mining) is still the major industry up-river. The trees are usually felled some distance from the river, and brought by truck down rough forestry tracks to the river. There is no road to the mills in Samarinda, hundreds of kilometres downstream, so the logs are transported down the river.

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Once in the river, big rafts of timber are constructed by tying logs together with rattan and rope. These rafts can be a hundred metres or more from end to end, and it takes several days to journey to the mills. One or two little boats are used to pull and guide them, and a small team of men ensure that the raft stays tied together. These guys have great balance – falling between two logs could be nasty – and they seem to spend nearly as much time in the river as on it.

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Coal barge heading downstream.

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Riverside cliffs downstream from Long Bagun.

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We stayed in Long Bagun village, where the kapal biasa terminates before the rapids upstream. As always, we met lots of interesting and friendly people. Traditional tattoos are still common, and the guy on the left above sported some of the finest dayak motifs we have seen. He seemed a little fearsome at first, until we read the tattoo across his chest which says (in English, a language he doesn’t speak!) “Love my Family”. The bloke in the middle was putting the finishing carving touches to a pair of wooden statues to adorn the front entrance of his home. (He also keeps a angry little pet monkey on a chain, which launched itself at Karen when she got close.) We met the couple on the right as they began their wedding ceremonies by visiting the homes of all of their family members in the village.

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Angry little pet monkey.

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The last village we stayed in was Tiong Ohong. The six hour speedboat journey there from Long Bagun was sensational, negotiating several rapids, through deep gorges and deep forest. The rapids were pretty exciting, particularly after we were told about the boat that capsized a few months previously with the loss of three lives. We were quite happy to put on the bulky lifejackets offered to us.

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Tiong Ohong is actually two villages, (Tiong Ohong and Tiong Bu’u) facing each other across the river, with a suspension bridge connecting them. You cling to the side rail when motorbikes cross over.
The village is also the base for the seven day ‘Trans-Kalimantan Trek’, a very tough wet trudge through jungle and over the Muller Mountains to the Kapuas River in West Kalimantan. Mud, leeches, spiky vines and dozens of river crossings. People who have done the trek express ‘grim satisfaction’ on completion, and we are yet to find reports of anyone actually enjoying it.

But we stayed on the river, returning from Tiong Ohong to Balikpapan over the following two days, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

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