SEA Games 2015 Opening Ceremony Fireworks—The smokiest I’ve shot

Fireworks over the Singapore Sports Hub during the SEA Games 2015 Opening Ceremony. This is a 2-shot composite, one of the pyrotechnics over the Sports Hub roof and one for the main fireworks.

The 28th SEA Games opened with fireworks at the Singapore Sports Hub on 5th June 2015. With all the media hype on the event, I was excited over the prospect of seeing some great fireworks, but it was not to be.

Joined by my friend David and his girlfriend, we went to our shooting location at one of the HDB flats overseeing the stadium and waited for the moment. We knew that the fireworks would be set off at around 10pm, so we still have quite a bit of time when we got there around 9. Expectedly, all the higher floors were taken but we are happy to have a spot on the 8th floor.

We set up our cameras and waited. David also streamed the live telecast on his iPad mini so we know what is going on and can be better prepared. The first few shots of fireworks finally came. Possibly due to the high humidity, wind direction and what I suspect to be poor-quality fireworks fired at rapid intervals, smoke quickly accumulated. Tons of it. I have never seen so much smoke in my previous fireworks shoots. I hope the fireworks during the closing ceremony and SG50 National Day Parade will be much better.

Here is a shot taken near the end of the fireworks. Just look at that smoke!

Smoky fireworks from the SEA Games 2015 Opening Ceremony

We only managed to get 1–2 keepers each. For the above, I merged two exposures—one consisting of the main fireworks on the right, and one with the low-level pyrotechnics fired over the stadium roof. The latter had too much smoke on the fireworks side to be useful.

I also set up my iPhone to shoot a video of the fireworks display. You can see the smoke accumulating after the first few bursts.

Now, a note on camera safety.

I was using an ultra-wide-angle lens and wanted my camera as close to the front as possible, so I mounted my camera on a Joby Gorillapod and clamped that onto a railing. For safety, I also tied the camera to the railing via the camera strap so that it won’t drop 8 floors down. David was rather squeamish about that but I assured him that it won’t drop as it’s tied to the railing.

Not long after the fireworks ended, we learnt that someone’s Gorillapod-mounted DSLR went free falling 15 levels at the block next to ours, hitting a Honda Civic below. Ouch. Thankfully no one was hurt. So, secure your cameras properly or you might just kill someone.

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Heartland Star Trails

Star Trails above HDB flats

This evening, I saw a Facebook update by a friend who was excited over the clear, starry sky that she saw at the East Coast Park beach. Since I stay in the east as well, I decided to check it out.

Looking out of the window, I see a nearly-cloudless sky filled with stars. I originally intended to see if I could get a milky way shot, but wasn’t successful. So I decided to go for a star trails shot instead.

To get the star trails, I set up my Fujifilm X-T1 with the Zeiss Touit 12mm f/2.8 lens and set the intervalometer to take a hundred shots. The exposure was found by trial and error (helps having a computer nearby to check these.) to be 20s at f/5.6 at ISO 1600.

After the 100 shots, I downloaded the images into Lightroom CC, then did some exposure/colour adjustments on the first shot. I opted for a slightly bluer white balance which I think looks better for the night sky. The HDB flats in the foreground was kind of bright, so  I toned that down via Lightroom’s graduated ND filter. Once I am happy with the adjustments, I used the Sync Settings in Lightroom to apply to the other 99 shots, then exported them as JPEG files.

Finally, the 100 images were stacked in StarStaX, which did an excellent job at stacking them and also filling in the gaps in the star trails. It’s by coincidence that I managed to get the centre of the trails in the centre of the frame. Talk about good luck!

 

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A Visit to Raffles Lighthouse

Raffles Lighthouse

It’s not often that one gets to visit one of the several lighthouses in Singapore. So when the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) of Singapore organised a tour of the Raffles Lighthouse as part of the Singapore Maritime Week, I jumped at the chance.

The one-hour journey began from the Marina South Pier and along the way, we passed by a few of our southern islands. We even caught the RSAF practising their aerial displays for possibly the upcoming 50th National Day!

Sisters’ Islands

Pulau Sebarok, an oil storage island and refuelling dock.

Pulau Biola (Violin Island). Doesn’t look much like a violin though.

RSAF Aerial Display

Before long, Raffles Lighthouse came into view and we alighted shortly.

Located 23km away on the southernmost island of Singapore, Pulau Satumu, the Raffles Lighthouse was completed in 1855. The name loosely translates to One Tree Island, referring to the Malay name of a large mangrove tree, Bruguiera confugata. There are more than one tree on the island now.

In the early days, the lighthouse operated on wick burner lamp, followed by a pressurised kerosene one and eventually replaced by an incandescent light in 1968. The forth-order optic used to focus the light to the ships at sea can be seen at the mini-museum below the lighthouse. The museum also showcases various old equipment which was used in the lighthouse’s early days.

4th-order optic used in Raffles Lighthouse in 1968.

Since 1988, the lighthouse used an array of quartz halogen lamps in aluminium parabolic reflectors and mounted on a rotating pedestal. These lamps used only a fifth of the power required by the incandescent lamps to produce the same intensity of light, allowing them to be powered by solar energy.

Although the lighthouse is now automated, it is still manned by a team of two lighthouse keepers who stay on the island for 10 days, before another team of two takes over. Unfortunately, we did not get to see them.

The way up to the top of the lighthouse begins at a narrow 107-step spiral staircase at the foot of the tower.

Spiral staircase leading to the top.

Old clock and plaque commemorating the lighthouse’s 150th anniversary.

The spiral staircase leads to a level below where the lights are, and the final steps are via a slightly curved ladder. Behind that lies the old storage tanks for the kerosene which used to fuel the lighthouse’s lamp.

Ladder to the top of the lighthouse. At the back are the storage tanks for the kerosene which used to fuel the lighthouse’s lamp.

The ladder leads to the lamp enclosure, and a crawl through a small little door leads to the balcony outside. The view from the top is stunning. I see crystal-clear, turquoise waters that’s more commonly seen in places like Phuket than in Singapore. It was truly beautiful.

Beautiful turquoise waters surrounding Pulau Satumu.

View of the tip of Pulau Satumu from the top of Raffles Lighthouse

Lighthouse Beacon

Another view of the beacons.

Back on the ground, I took explored the base of the lighthouse and also took a walk around the island. The place has a very idyllic feel to it, away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. It’s a great place to relax.

A corridor at the base of the lighthouse

Turquoise waters

Idyllic beach

Before long, it’s time to head back to Singapore. The tour was a real eye-opener and I really enjoyed myself. Thanks to the MPA for organising this, and I hope I’ll have a chance to visit the beautiful Sultan Shoal lighthouse in future as well!

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The “Bloodless” Lunar Eclipse I Almost Missed

Composite image of the lunar eclipse on 3 Apr 2015 as the moon emerges from totality.

The lunar eclipse on 4 Apr 2015 is the third of a series of four—called a tetrad—consecutive eclipses spaced six months apart. It was also the shortest, lasting barely 5 minutes at its peak.

I staked out at the Esplanade Bridge an hour before totality and waited. Nightfall came, I don’t see the moon. I waited some more. Still nothing. I posted a message on Facebook to see if anyone else saw anything, nobody did. Totality, which is supposed to be at 8pm, came and went but I still don’t see it.

Singapore is really not a very good place to observe astrological events. Last year, two Supermoons eluded me because of cloud cover. I also missed last year’s blood moon at its totality, but was lucky enough to catch the moon coming out of eclipse. This time round was no exception.

After half an hour, I gave up and walked to Raffles City to have a drink. I checked Facebook once again to see if anyone has caught sight of the moon, and that was when I saw that a friend has caught the crescent moon and tagged me in her post.

Finishing my drink, I dashed out walked back towards the Esplanade Bridge. I couldn’t see the moon along the way, but I kept my hopes up. Halfway through, I decided to go to the rooftop at the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay instead as it’s nearer.

I looked up the sky as I walked onto the rooftop terrace. Lo and behold, there it is, a sliver the crescent moon peeking out of the clouds like the smile of a shy girl. I quickly setup my camera and tripod and took photos as the eclipse progressed. I was lucky enough to have a Nikon AF-S 300mm f/4 PF lens which I got for a review. Combined with my lunar camera of choice, the good old Nikon V1, I was able to achieve an effective focal length of 810mm with the V1’s 2.7x focal length multiplier. This lets me get a decently sized moon in my shots. I set the White Balance to “Sunlight” instead of “Auto” as the latter usually results in a whitish moon. Here’s the crescent moon as it emerges from totality.

The crescent moon as it emerges from totality.

The height of the moon at this time also meant that I can no longer have any usable foreground interest, so after shooting, I used PhotoShop to composite them onto a single frame. Unlike some other photographers, or should I say, digital artists, I decided not to also composite the sequence into a landscape. I have also left the colour as it was originally, instead of making it more reddish since the reddish tinge only occurred during totality, which was already over. I have thus called it “bloodless” in this post as it was no longer reddish when I caught it.

Many thanks to my friend, Belinda Tan, for giving me the heads up on the first sighting of the moon. Hopefully, the weather will be better at the next astronomical event.

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San Francisco Star Trails

Star Trails shot from the balcony of an apartment in San Francisco.

Being a big city, San Francisco is the last place one would think of to shoot star trails. The light pollution usually makes it a very difficult feat. However, when I arrived at the rental apartment at the SoMa district where I was staying in and looked up from the balcony, I saw a clear sky with several stars. The Orion constellation was also clearly visible. So, I decided to give it a try.

I set up my Fujifilm X-T1 fitted with a Zeiss Touit 12mm f/2.8 lens on a tripod at the balcony, and took a few test shots. Lacking any other foreground interest, I decided to use the two apartments in front as the foreground.

To maximise the chances of capturing the stars, I used the ETTR (Expose To The Right) method, using as much exposure as possible without grossly overexposing. After post-processing a few of these shots, I decided that the exposure chosen was good to go. In this case, it was 8s at f/2.8 at ISO 1600. This resulted in the following shot.

First test shot, straight out of the camera

First test shot, straight out of the camera

After setting the appropriate film emulation (I chose Camera Standard/Provia), white balance, exposure, highlights and contrast, I managed to get this. The light pollution is still clearly visible, unfortunately.

After some post-processing.

After some post-processing.

I set the camera’s intervalometer to shoot a hundred shots and left it to do its thing. After it’s done, I imported all of the shots into Lightroom, corrected the first shot and then synced the settings across the rest of them.

The next step is to stack all the shots together. I chose the free StarStax software which let me quickly stack all the 100 shots. Annoyingly, the Fujifilm X-T1’s intervalometer pauses for 8s (the exposure time) in-between the shots, creating some small gaps in the star trails. Unfortunately, even the gap filling feature of StarStax wasn’t able to completely fill them in.

The apartments in the stacked photo turned out a bit too bright, so I opted to blend it with the apartments from the original shot. Final adjustments were done in Lightroom to improve the contrast and reduce some more of the light pollution. The final image is the opening shot. Other than stars, aircraft trails were also captured!

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Grand Canyon West Rim

View of the canyon from Eagle Point showing the Skywalk and the valley below.

I’ve always wanted to go to the magnificent Grand Canyon, after not taking the opportunity to do so when I was nearby in Las Vegas some 15 years ago while attending the now-defunct Comex show.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Las Vegas again, this time for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2015 and decided not to let the opportunity pass again. I took a day tour package from canyontours.com. They have tours to South and West Rims, and I decided to take a chance and went for the West Rim instead of the more common South Rim and was not disappointed.

Unlike the South Rim, which is managed by the Grand Canyon National Park, the West Rim is managed by the native Hualapai tribe and is relatively untouched. Despite having no railings and guard rails, I am told by the guide that the West Rim has not seen a single fatal fall in the past 25 years they’ve been operating. The South Rim on the other hand, had a number of fatal accidents despite having railings and all. Go figure.

The tour passes and stops by the Hoover Dam, but unfortunately is not a very good vantage point for photos. We also stopped by one of the Joshua Tree forests along the highway.

Joshua Trees. I can’t remember what’s the name of those low shrubs though,

Closer view of one of the Joshua Trees.

We eventually reached the visitor centre of the West Rim and then to the first stop—Eagle Point. It was so-called because the dip in the canyon walls resembled that of an eagle’s wings.

Photos can’t do justice to the grandeur of the canyon, I spent some time alternating between taking photos and simply standing there and taking it all in.

Eagle Point was so-named as the depression in the canyon walls resembled that of an eagle’s wings.

With the selfie culture being prevalent these days, it’s not hard to spot people taking selfies, with and without the selfie-stick. Here’s a couple of them.

A woman takes a selfie at Eagle Point, Grand Canyon West Rim with her mobile phone attached to a selfie stick. It always intrigues me how people contort themselves into all sorts of positions just to get the perfect angle for the selfie.

A woman takes a selfie at the edge of the canyon with her mobile phone.

Visitors sit on the edge of the canyon at Eagle Point. Part of the Colarado River is visible near the middle of the photo.

A cactus grows on the edge of the canyon at Eagle Point.

The next point of interest is Guano Point, a short distance away via the shuttle bus that plies the area at pretty regular intervals. Guano Point offers a better view of the Colarado River which runs through the Grand Canyon compared to Eagle Point.

The U.S. Guano Corporation purchased the mining rights in that location in 1957 and built a tramway to mine the bat guano (droppings) from a bat cave 2,300m across the canyon and 760m below. The bat droppings were rich in nitrogen and were used for fertiliser.

Guano Point is probably named after this mining activity which ceased in 1960. The tramway is now abandoned.

Abandoned tramway to the bat guano (droppings) cave across the canyon.

Near the abandoned tramway is a mound of rocks resembling a pyramid. I didn’t climb up as I didn’t think I was fit enough to make my way up and down again. I am sure the view up there is stunning, though.

Pyramid near the abandoned tramway.

View of the pyramid and the canyon below.

Colarado River winding through Grand Canyon West Rim

View from the Guano Point

View of the canyon into the snow-covered mountains in the distance.

 

Visitors take in the view from Guano Point at the Grand Canyon West Rim.

A pair of ravens perch on a tree at Guano Point.

Before long, it was time to move on to the next point for lunch before heading back to Las Vegas. I was glad I picked the West Rim tour as I found out later from some of my colleagues who drove to the South Rim and it was foggy. I’d still want to make a trip there the next time I have a chance to.

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Moonrise, Moonset

Full moon setting beside Southbank Condominium, Singapore.

On the way to Stadium Waterfront for an early morning shoot with my friend, Kit, I spotted the full moon low in the sky. I looked for a suitable foreground interest and took a few shots with various buildings in the foreground.

It’s always better to shoot the moon during dusk or dawn as the contrast levels will not be as high as night time. For one, the sky will not be pitch black, and you won’t end up with a shot with a big white blob if you exposed for the foreground; or if you exposed for the moon, you end up with almost no foreground. Continue reading

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Disappearing Places: Sungei Road Thieves’ Market

Aerial View of a section of the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market.

Shortly after World War II, the area around Sungei Road grew to become a flea market. It eventually known as the Thieves’ Market due to the many stolen/contraband goods sold there. The saying goes that if your belongings got stolen, chances are that you can buy it back from there.

In the 1930’s, there was a ice factory—Singapore Ice Works—which is why the area is also known as Gek Sng Kio (literally Frosted Bridge in Hokkien.) Like most old things, the factory was torn down for redevelopment in the mid-80‘s. Continue reading

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Occupy Hong Kong Protests Part 2—Admiralty & Causeway Bay

Colourful Tents along Connaught Road Central at Admiralty, Hong Kong

Continuing from my short write-up about the protest site in Mong Kok, we move on to Admiralty, which is the main protest site and also where the protests began. The site is situated right outside the central government buildings and thus chosen by the protesters to make their point. Continue reading

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Occupy Hong Kong Protests Part 1—Mong Kok

Minion-themed rubbish bins along one of the barricades at Shan Tung Street, adding an element of fun and humour to the protests.

The Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong started on 28 Sep 2014 outside the Central Government Complex at Admiralty and soon spread to Mong Kok and Causeway Bay as well. Despite some bouts of clashes between the pro-democracy and anti-occupy protestors (which the mainstream media love to emphasise on), the protest appears to be a largely peaceful event. There were also poignant images of protesters shielding the policemen at the scene, despite them using teargas on the protesters. Continue reading

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