Fortitude: resolved, a film (or: Thaipusam 2017 with the H6D-100c)

Fortitude: resolved from Ming Thein on Vimeo.

Note: the video was shot in 4K, and will play at 4K if you click through to Vimeo, or use the full screen player and pick the appropriate setting.

Every year, a huge number of Hindu devotees gather at the Batu Cave temple outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the Thaipusam festival. It celebrates a significant event in the life and mythology of Lord Murugan: the gifting of a weapon to defeat evil. Participants burden themselves with offerings to Lord Murugan in various forms – from milk pots to portable Kavadi shrines and other offerings piercing their body. It is believed that the more significant the offering and the higher the personal suffering, the more blessings are accorded to the devotee in their struggle against their own personal challenges.

I’ve covered this event for several years running; at first to challenge myself, and later for various agencies or publications. It is the kind of environment that we photographers relish: it’s target rich, photography-friendly, and provides endless variety. It’s also extremely challenging for so many reasons – not just because the peak of action takes place in a cave, at night with relatively poor lighting. There are also significant crowds (estimated at 500,000 over the course of several days), high humidity and temperature, and all of your subjects are moving. It’s simply an intense sensory overload, at so many levels.

Last year, in 2016, I shot the festival with a borrowed H5D-50c; it was both the first time I’d shot in anger with that camera and the first time I’d attempted that kind of documentary with any medium format system. This is probably not the typical kind of situation under which you’d pick medium format as your first choice – and I wouldn’t blame you. Very surprisingly, the shooting experience was not just workable but produced the best pictorial results I’ve managed from this festival – both from a creative standpoint and also one of absolute image quality. Since the majority of my commercial and personal work revolves around available light documentary-style photography, one could say that the experience opened new possibilities to me – and was what convinced me to switch to Hasselblad completely.

Fast forward another year, and with significantly more familiarity with the H system under my belt, I revisited Thaipusam again – this time, with the H6D-100c. Achieving pixel-level perfection last year was a huge challenge given the pixel density per angle of view (the determining factor for lowest hand-holdable shutter speed thresholds, visible camera shake etc.). But I did the math and figured it should be possible: I shot with the 80/2.8 previously, but now I had a 100/2.2 available, together with another stop of usable sensitivity from the new sensor. Together, this should theoretically buy me enough additional latitude to avoid visible shake – a shutter speed somewhere around 1/ 2.5x of the focal length, or in other words, 1/250s for the 100mm. This is a ‘safe’ speed that takes into account several factors: the angle of view on the larger sensor, motion of the subjects, and the caffeination level of the photographer (high, given we were shooting well into the small hours of the morning).

I had one other magic bullet: a cross-arm bracing technique I’d been experimenting with for the last few months to try to couple the mass of the camera to the mass of my body by resting it on my upper arm and shoulder to increase stability, instead of the usual under hand-hold. Carefully used, it’s good for another stop or so – but doesn’t help if you need to shoot at any height other than eye level, compose portrait orientation, or of course have a subject that’s dancing around.

In practice, I needn’t have worried so much: light levels were about half a stop higher than last year thanks to installation of new lights, but the extra latitude bought by the faster lens and new sensor proved to be more than enough. Beyond the obvious resolution gains and print possibilities, the biggest difference I found was that dynamic range and color purity were preserved out to a much greater extent than with the 50MP sensor.

The files not only have more latitude for adjustment and allocation of the tonal range, but also a richness of tone that’s very difficult to achieve with a smaller sensor – something that was reinforced when I did the color grading for the video* – it was nearly impossible to maintain both color accuracy and close tonal separation in skin tones, despite being shot with much faster lenses and significantly lower sensitivities. It’s also important to note that resolution and tonality are not independent: the more spatial steps you have to describe a tonal transition, not only can you convey finer detail, but you also have a greater ability to represent more subtle changes in luminosity and color.

*The video was shot in Cinema 4K on a pair of Olympus E-M1.2s with 12-100/4, 25/1.2, 45/1.8 and 75/1.8 lenses, handheld, with no additional rigging and no stabilisation required in post. What was originally meant to be a simple ‘product in the field’ video somehow turned into a short National Geographic segment…

In short: using a camera like the H6D-100c for this kind of work is not only possible, but delivers results we could only dream of not long ago. We are very much in the realm of not just conveying our observations and impressions – but now have the transparency and resolution to able to put our audience in the position of being there – under a huge range of circumstances. MT

Still images will follow in a coming photoessay; I shot with the Hasselblad H6D-100c, 50 and 100mm lenses, and post processed with a mix of cinematic workflow in Making Outstanding Images Ep. 4 & 5. and later on, The Monochrome Masterclass.

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More info on Hasselblad cameras and lenses can be found here.

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