Friday, April 22, 2011


A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune to have an excuse to spend a long weekend in Singapore, one of my favorite cities.  My wife was there on a business trip and I had enough Lufthansa miles for a very low cost fare, so 4 full days in Singapore for little more than 300 pounds, jumped at the chance.  I did spend a day in HP's Singapore office as I also had some people I could usefully meet, however, my primary goal was to have 3 or 4 days free with my camera to explore the city and try to capture something of its' essence.

I was also giving my new Samsung NX100 mirrorless compact camera a good try out.  Although I love my DSLR's and lens collection, the weight and bulk can be a challenge especially when traveling.  As a result I have been looking for something lighter and smaller, but offering the versatility of an interchangeable camera system.  A Leica is out of the question for any number of reasons.  The Samsung appealed as it sports an APS-C sensor and there are a couple of really nice pancake lenses available for the system, a 20mm (30mm FFE) f/2.8 and 30mm (45mm FFE) f/2.0, both fast and very sharp.  To this I have added a 50-200mm zoom and an EVF so that I can avoid framing using the display screen in extreme light (i.e. Singapore).  Together with a flash, battery charger, spare batteries, POL filter, and a few other bits and pieces this fits in a camera bag which would just about hold my Canon 5D2 and single lens.  To cap it all my wife bought me the body, kit lens, 30mm lens, and flash as an anniversary present.

The only downside of the system at present is the rather limited lens selection especially at the extreme wide end, however Samsung will shortly release a 16mm (24mm FFE) f/2.5 pancake which will nicely round out my kit.  With the prime lenses the quality is very good, and the sensor can handle ISO to about 800 before noise becomes a real issue.  I also get the impression that Samsung plans to be a major player in the mid-range market, leaving the DLSR's to Canon/Nikon, but seriously competing with Sony, Olympus and Panasonic in the EVIL technology space.  I suspect they will do rather well and it will be good to have competition for the usual suspects.

This was my kit for Singapore...

I planned to simply wander the streets and see where my muse took me, no goals, no assignment, just me and my camera - be a flaneur for the day.  This, however, might have been great in Paris, but in the tropical heat (+30 in the shade) I rapidly wilted and my ambition had to be curtailed.   Photographing early in the morning was not really an option, jet lag saw to that and I also wanted to have some fun, not simply exchange work at my computer for work with a camera.  Evenings proved very fruitful, however, the sun moves quickly on the equator so I had to work fast.  Landscape was also limiting, the air is so wet that haze obscures much of the distance, a useful feature in some situations, but I can see why Hong Kong is more popular for city scape photographers.

After the weekend I did not leave with a unifying theme, rather a series of images that coalesced around a number of ideas:

  1. Architecture - I cannot resist it and am finding this might be my genre
  2. Old and new - Singapore is constantly being rebuilt, often with little regard for history
  3. Night Life
  4. Interiors
  5. Street Life
I still found myself nervous about shooting "Street", although the discreet little NX100 really helped not to draw attention to myself.

Starting with architecture here are the best of what I shot:

These two are pretty conventional high rise shots, but I am still very pleased with the abilities of a simple camera to take such clean shots (both use the 20mm)

This was taken from the top floor of a skyscraper hotel and shows the Singapore theater complex, looking like the eyes of a giant bug with the new Sands Hotel, Leisure and Shopping complex behind.  The challenge with this shot was to manage the reflections in the window and to frame in an interesting manner, I hope I succeeded.

The final two shots are taken at the base of the Sands hotel development, a very strange architecture, but offering interesting juxtapositions to the city.

Moving onto Old and New, Singapore offers quite dramatic juxtapositions of traditional Chinese buildings with  the Glass and Steel of the financial district.  As I walked around I felt a sense of the destruction of the old by the new, in particular it felt sad that the banking system that has caused so much pain in the world recently still has the arrogance to crush history to make more money.

Of these the second seems very sad to me, this traditional shop house appears about to be eaten up by the emotionless buildings behind it.

However, Singapore is a vibrant city that comes alive at night, a vibrancy that is fueled by the money pulled in by these buildings.  The ultimate contradiction is that the charm that makes Singapore is effectively destroying itself.  The following photos really reflect the colour of the area around Clarke Quay and also demonstrate that the NX100 can handle low light and colour pretty well, all photos are hand held.

I also took some twilight landscapes of the river area, somewhat more conventional:

Shooting in the evening once the sun went down was a pleasure, doubly so as there was always a bar with ice cold Tiger beer nearby, although a second mortgage would be needed to get a skinful.  during the day I was increasingly driven inside by the heat, but then again, Singapore is an inside out city, much of the colour and structure is indoors and even deep underground as people only spend any time outdoors at night.

The first two shots are of two very different shopping centers, the first is Funan, 6 floors of computer and camera shops, very tempting but also fun to photograph:

The second shot is the Sands complex, very high end shops and really insane architecture.  It feels like being inside the metal skin of a Zeppelin.  Another obsession of mine, other than buying lenses, is photographing underground railway systems, these two images are taken at the Dhoby Ghaut interchange:

I did get reprimanded taking the second of these, I still find it odd that officialdom is scared of people photographing railway stations, especially in the age of the 8MP camera phone.  The people they need to worry about are not likely those who take images very ostentatiously!

My final selection of shots is themed around street life, the original objective for all of the images, but one that I had to curtail due to heat and an ongoing nervousness about shooting people without their permission.  I start with a couple of shots taken in the canyons of the financial district

I particularly like the first photo, with its splash of colour and the foreground presence of an office worker passing by.  I also spent some time in the backstreets of China Town, trying to capture the "real" Singapore, whatever that is, but also creating some juxtapositions and layered images:

I also captured a few odd shots:

Finally I have three photographs that don't really fit into any of these themes, firstly a football game

And to think that I was struggling to take photographs, these guys must have been melting.  

This is a favorite building very colourful, the Porsch passing by just adds to the colour and wealth that is Singapore.

My parting shot was taken out my hotel window after nightfall using a tripod and long exposure.  They never stop building in Singapore, night and day there is activity.

This was a good visit, but not as productive as I would have wished, however, I enjoyed taking the photographs and learned a lot.  This was the first time that I thought about a short trip such as this as an assignment and worked hard to produce a variety of images that capture the spirit of the city.  I hope I succeeded.

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