Jay Maisel’s Workshop

Friday night, New York City.  The body is aching, the stomach is still full, the brain is shot.  Welcome to the final day of the 5-day workshop by Jay Maisel.  I have mixed feelings:  I'm tired, mentally overloaded, and homesick, yet feeling sad that this all-too-brief little world of 8 people is coming to a close.  We've come from all over the world to learn: Sydney, London, Vancouver, L.A., San Francisco, Boston, and Connecticut.  We come from different walks of life: a doctor, a couple of pro photographers, me, a mining engineer, a barrister, a retired librarian, and a salesforce efficiency analyst.  A fun point: all the men shoot Nikon, all the women Canon.

We've been eating well and varied, too, part of the reason for being here — good food and drink, great company, and total photographic immersion.  Japanese, Italian, Greek, American, Jewish Deli, and Vietnamese to name a few.  "Good Food Poisoning", Joe McNally, one of the attendees, called it.  I feel I need to cleanse my system with some bread and water.

Why am I here?  Perhaps as a cleansing journey as well.  Many workshops show you how to do things, like work with lights, or to work with hard light, or how to pose people.  Few tackle the really hard question of what makes a good photo, or break things down into sterile rules.  I've been trying to figure that out recently, spending bits of time in topics related to human perception and gestalt, trying to get photos that can make people react.  Jay's workshop was very timely.

Jay's retired from commercial photography and is focusing his time on his personal projects and street photography now.  I have never been much for street photography, yet his workshop is all about street photography for the shooting exercises, so here is an opportunity to jump into the deep end.  So much of what I've seen is boring, voyeuristic captures with super long lenses of inane, uninteresting moments.  A quick grab of someone walking and talking on their phone just doesn't do it for me.  I'm dreading this, but I am approaching this with as open a mind as I can.  Empty vessel, empty vessel, I repeat to myself.  Jay sends us out into NYC alone, each person going his or her own way to find worthy photographic opportunities and to work them.

The light is tough.  Greyish overcast hangs over Manhattan for much of the time, only lifting one morning to provide glorious contrasty backlight.  When the skies finally open up with rain I'm happy as well with the new opportunities — it seems that there are way more umbrellas here per capita, compared to Vancouver.  But as I know from weddings, it's about doing the best you can with what's available, and the overcast gives a soft light quality for portraits.  It's easy to get fooled by great light and forget about the point of the picture, just like glorious sunsets are easy to photograph, but so many of them are empty and pointless.  I do things I didn't consider before, like stalking worthy subjects up and down the block, waiting for them to be framed perfectly, or to do something interesting.  Or stake out a good spot for 15 minutes for an actor to walk onto my stage.  It's a blast!

Back at Jay's bank-residence-studio, we go into the boardroom for daily critiques and presentations.  Juan Jose quips upon our first invitation, "someone is going to be fired."  Nervous laughter.  It isn't that bad.  If there's a nervous feeling about the quality of any picture, it's probably warranted, and normally results in a bad critique.  I learn to be objective about my work, taking all emotion out of them, and I get better.  Who cares how much effort it was to take a shot if it's bad?  Even so, I feel a bit nervous even with stuff I like, and handing in the USB stick of images each day brings back memories of handing in a test in university.  Though tough on his critique, you know he just wants to make you a better photographer: "It's the sin, not the sinner", "If you're not your own severest critic, you're your own worst enemy".  These and many other Jay-isms will stay with me, as will the anecdotes from a life of photography.  Straight and to the point "Boring", "Doesn't work for me", "What's all this shit in the corners?  You're responsible for every square millimeter of your frame!"  Yet one can't help but love the guy who guides and nags us along our journey using colourful aphorisms and streams of f-bombs. 

As the days go on, it becomes easier, I become bolder about getting the shot, which includes a lot of waiting, running after the prey, and putting up with the dirty looks that people give when they see you.  My critiques get better too, thankfully.  I realize that street photography is very similar to wedding photography, namely opening myself up to the multitude of photo-worthy places and moments around me, anticipating them, setting up the camera, composing the frame, focusing, and capturing the moment.  I'm learning to let go, to truly have fun, and to take the chance to either succeed gloriously or fail gloriously.  Each day the pictures get better and the honest critique is such a refreshing change from the inane "that's pretty good", "nice" platitudes that are so often uttered in hopes of not quashing feelings regardless of the quality of pictures.

Jay brings a fresh, child-like enthusiasm for life, not just photography, and realizing this is where the workshop goes past how to take better pictures to touch on how to live a richer, happier life.  As we go through his work and ours, we start gaining a sense of what makes a photo interesting.  Jay distills it down to three things: light, colour, and gesture.  While light and colour are pretty self-explanatory, gesture is really what gives the image its finishing touch, its soul, its sense of movement.  As we start to incorporate one or more of all these elements in our photos, they get better and better.  Looking back just to the start of the workshop shows definitive improvement for everbody.  Photos we were proud of on Monday now seem mundane and embarrassing.  Our baseline for what constitutes a good photo are forever changed. 

Surprise guest speakers drop by Jay's workshop; apparently nobody has refused him.  This time around, we had Barbara Bordnick, Duane Michals, and Walter Iooss.  I hadn't previously had the pleasure of seeing Barbara's work in various fashion magazines, but she has some of the best flower pictures I've ever seen; Duane is a hilarious, stream-of-consciousness speaker; and Walter is a celebrated SI sports and swimsuit photographer credited with bringing Fuji film to the US among other things.  All have had successful commercial careers, but they are also just as interesting for their personal work that they shared with us.

This post would be incomplete without mentioning Jamie, Jay's assistant, who made everything painless, had everthing organized, from the posters we all got to take home, to hand-stamping our name cards.  How he does all he does yet keep calm is a mystery to me.  Both Jay and Jamie make everything easy, pleasurable, and fun.  The overall experience is amazing, from the food, to the ever-changing artwork for us to admire, to the gifts like camera straps (an Upstrap, no less), memory cards from Sandisk, posters, T-shirts, and books.

A trip to the upper floors of the bank reveal room after room of stuff.  One floor looks like his overflow storage area.  Rooms are stuffed old tools, coral, seashells, gears, ball bearings, marbles, and other bric-a-brac held onto simply because they are interesting.  Interspersed with these are some artistic works-in-progress: a tray containing electric toothbrushes topped with rubber eyeballs anyone?  If it weren't so darned organized, somehow cohesive, and uncluttered, it might be a trip into a rogue hoarder's home.  Rooms on other floors are set up like galleries, with Jay's work adorning the walls.  The visual senses are stimulated past overload.

Tonight, instead of going out, we had a wonderful dinner upstairs in Jay's residence on the 6th floor.  His wife Linda is a great cook and host and we're all welcomed like old friends.  We chill out and also get to meet Joe and Jamie's wonderful wives Annie and Jenny.  We also have a chance to go up onto the 7th floor roof and shoot the NY skyline with Joe's 600/4 lens.

All too soon it is over and we're back downstairs packing up and saying our final farewells.  I'm sure as I reflect over the next few days on this workshop it will very likely join my list of pivotal, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.  It is a substantial investment in time, no doubt, but one I'm happy to say is supremely worth it.  To the other attendees: you guys rock, thank you for being a wonderful part of it.


D3x – first impressions

After much agonizing, I bought a Nikon D3x.  After owning the D3, unwrapping and getting started with the D3x is totally anticlimactic.  Everything is identical across the two cameras and instantly familiar.  This is definitely a good thing when using your muscle memory and working quickly under stressful situations.  I took it out, unwrapped it, slapped in a battery from the D3, and started shooting.

I took several frames with the lens I happened to have on hand, which was the 105/2.8VR macro lens.  Those first frames were stunning.  Out of my office window and down into the parking lot, I was able to easily resolve the expiry dates on license plates (and very nearly the smaller barcodes), and the subtle weave on a person's pair of sneakers.  They had extreme sharpness and bite and the per-pixel sharpness is better than the D3, which always looked a tiny bit soft without some sharpening.  Tonality, especially the crucial skin tones, seems to be extremely good.  I'd also noticed previously back around Christmas when I had one of the first D3x's in Canada on loan for a few days that the blacks were pure and noiseless.  I would extend that to say the D3x has incredibly low levels of noise across the board at its base ISO of 100 where it's noticeably less noisy than even the D3 at its base ISO of 200, where some noise can creep into the shadows and midtones.  This smoothness is visible when bumping up the overall exposure, and makes for a much more malleable file in post processing.

Noise does seem to creep in earlier than the D3, with a little graininess visible at ISO 400 and up.  Therefore you have to be more careful with exposure compared to the D3, which tolerated all sorts of sloppiness.  But the magic of having all these pixels is that if you resize downwards to D3 resolution, the noise essentially gets averaged out and the results aren't too far off the D3's sensor.  Now, some detail is being smoothed away by the D3x's default noise reduction that kicks in at ISO 400 and above (it can be turned off up until Hi-0.3 at which point you have no choice in the matter), but the final image does show more detail with very similar noise characteristics.  The D3x stops at Hi+2 or 6400 ISO, and while the D3 goes two stop higher, I wouldn't hesitate taking the camera up past 1600 with the downsizing in mind.

I can see that the camera is going to be extremely challenging on lenses, exposing any little flaw.  It'll be interesting to see what lenses fit the bill.  Even the 24-70 looks like it could be challenged, and it is an incredible lens.  It could well be that some decent primes are the way to get the best out of the body even though I'd pit the 24-70 up against the very best primes in its range, just as I would the 14-24.  Likewise, the camera is also going to expose every little flaw in shooting technique: Every bit of camera shake, lack of use of a tripod, focusing slightly off, and lack of depth of field control is going to show.  And don't think that increasing the f-stop to broaden the depth of field is going to cover up misfocusing because diffraction also kicks in at a lower f-stop and anything over f/8 is getting dangerous for sharpness; f/16 and above definitely are to be avoided.

Basically, I can say that if you don't invest in exemplary glass and technique, the D3x will be a disappointing waste of money.  You'd be better off with a D3, D700 or D300.

The D3x looks like it will be an extremely competent studio camera and I can't wait.  Its big draw, besides the resolution bump, was the native 100 ISO support, which helps in running larger apertures in the studio and in the many situation where studio lights can't be powered down enough and the D3's excessive sensitivity was an issue.  Running full-tilt at (only) 1.8fps in 14-bit RAW mode seems pretty workable, especially given that studio lights normally don't recycle that fast (except maybe the new Profotos), and faster shooting is possible in 12-bit mode.

For wedding or PJ work where high ISO is a must, the D3 is still the champion of course, and at usual print sizes I doubt most people will be able to tell them apart.  But I can definitely see using both D3 and D3x together and applying their complementary strengths.  They are different cameras, naturally, and it really does make a lot of sense for Nikon to release a camera like this in a role that is essentially a viable competitor to medium format, optimized for the best IQ at low ISOs, while the D3 excels at high ISOs.

As an aside, praise goes to Nikon Canada, who recently announced a free 2-year extended servicing period for D3/D3x owners.  This will take care of unlimited sensor cleanings, and one major tune-up per year.  This is a nice bonus for those who have shelled out for a professional body and often need the corresponding level of support.  In a great goodwill gesture, they've also included previous owners into the program by allowing the the servicing period to go to March 2010 or two years after the purchase date, whichever is longer.

Ancestral Journey: Day Three

When I awoke on the Saturday, it was with a bit of alarm, as the weather forecast had been for rain and the streets in Huizhou were wet.  I was concerned whether we’d be able to go visit the grave of ancestor #1 — not that it would really have stopped me (or probably many in our expedition!).  We had allocated an extra day for our trip in case we needed it.

Luckily, the skies cleared and things dried out.  We met up again at the Wing Wu shop, and after a while chit-chatting, we all got in the bus and headed south, away from Wing Wu and Tam Tong.  Several of the local relatives accompanied us.  In our bus were ten people from our original party, much more than we’d expected, as our original plan had only four of us (Chee Sing, my father, me, and Kim Seng) since we had anticipated a tough slog through the brush.  Obviously the excitement of finding ancestor #1 was infectious and the anticipation was in the air.

We turned off onto street that led to a school, parking outside the school gate.  Behind the school were several hills, with power transmission lines crossing them.  It became apparent that those were the hills we were going up.  After traversing a cleared section of land with several deep ditches, we ended up at a small creek at the base of the slope.  This creek was the source of water for the locals as there was a constant influx of people filling up their plastic containers from a hose.  We followed a path that paralleled the creek upwards for a while and then took a fork to go up a series of several steep paths that had some basic steps carved into them.  These would have been fairly tricky if they had been wet; as it was, the remaining damp helped to keep the dust down.

We met a few other people descending the path and it seemed likely that there were other graves in the area.  Just before the base of a transmission tower, our guides cut left across some low, springy undergrowth to a grave site about 50m from the path.

As we looked at the decaying gravestone, there were enough of the characters discernible to confirm that this was Chung Yuk Yen’s grave.  This was our holy grail!  It seemed inconceivable that only a relatively short while ago we had not even known where Tam Tong was.  Now we had found the very first recorded ancestor in our genealogy who lived from 1551-1622.  Again, this site has good views of the surrounding valley, though luckily its location seems to be less threatened at the moment by being directly under power lines and on a steeper section of hill.

We returned back to Tam Tong, humbled and glowing with achievement.  At the Chi Tong, we lit incense and placed them at the main and side altars and outside.  That day happened to be the start of Ching Ming, the special time of the year for Chinese when ancestral graves are cleaned, couples get engaged, and the spring renewal of life is celebrated.  The timing couldn’t have been better.  

When leaving, we took a leisurely stroll through the village, meeting up with other relatives, including one that worked in Huizhou and had an email address.  While doing so, some relatives rushed up to us, saying in effect that “everybody’s waiting for you back in the town!”  One phone call later, we had arranged to meet a new relative back in Wing Wu for a late lunch.

This new relative happened to a be a Mr. Lee.  He was Nai Yen’s oldest daughter’s son.  One of Nai Yen’s youngest daughters, Meng Yue, had later left for Malaysia to get married, and the age gap between the nephew (Lee) and his aunt (Meng Yue) was only a year, so they had grown up and played together as children in Tam Tong.  He hadn’t seen her since she left in around 1940, and he brought along a 20-year old wallet-sized picture of himself for us to give to her.  She had been asked to participate in the trip, but had sadly declined.  That day was also her 90th birthday, an auspicious occasion for Chinese.

Each day in Wing Wu / Tam Tong exceeded the previous one.  We’d achieved much, much more than we had ever anticipated on the trip.  More importantly, we’d forged links with the local relatives, and reacquainted them with their ancestry, something that had long been lost in time.  Hopefully we’ve planted some seeds of interest with them and perhaps some day we’ll get a call from China with some new information.

Ancestral Journey: Day Two

The next day we decided to take the morning off to do some sightseeing of Huizhou.  We visited the scenic West Lake area, ascended the Sizhou Pagoda, and walked through the nearby market to buy mui choy, the local specialty of preserved mustard cabbage.  The wet market portion sold various live treats like turtles, frogs, geese, and rabbits.  Photographically speaking, China is pretty tough as there is a constant foggy grey haze obscuring things, no doubt caused by pollution.  Blue skies were pretty non-existent during our visit and the sun can be so obscured to only show as a dull pink disc in the sky.

When we returned to our relatives’ shop in Wing Wu, we were greeted by a new relative, Kon Choong.  He remembered Chung Nai Yen, Chung Jen Miau’s (my great-great-grandfather) eldest son who had remained in the village when the rest of his family left for Malaysia.  He also appeared to be related to Liew Min, whose father was Jen Yen, the elder brother of Jen Miau.  We had found a link!

The relatives also indicated they knew about some local family grave, so we agreed to visit it.  Through various twists in the translation, we had thought this belonged to Nai Yen, though as it turned out, his remains are interred elsewhere.  With the locals as guides, we took the bus to visit the grave site, which was in a recently-cleared area on a hill, a few paces from the road.  Obviously this site could be threatened in the future; a pig farm was being built only several hundred meters down the road.  When we checked our GPS coordinates later, we were able to locate the hill as being across the river from Tam Tong, about a kilometer away as the crow flies.

Chinese graves are often mass family graves with a one or more headstones engraved with the list of those buried there.  Typically, these stones will list a generation number, along with the generation name, and below this a line containing the given names, starting from the centreline outward (obviously to allow room for adding names).  There is sometimes a second stone on the other side, listing only the surnames of the wives.  Additional generations are added to the bottom of the stone — a very efficient method that allows the recording of many individuals, albeit without date information.  We had no idea how the individual graves were laid out at the site.

As we examined the gravestone, we were delighted to discover the Jen generation name and Chung Jen Miau (1858-1896) on it.  Above his name was listed the Woon generation and Chung Woon Fah (1826-1886), his father!  We were extremely excited at this point — not only had we found my great-great-grandfather, but my great-great-great-grandfather, an unexpected bonus.

Now, we had previously ignored the central stone, thinking it simply listed the fact that it was a Chung burial site.  But upon further inspection, we saw it mention something along the lines of the grave of the great patriarch of the family, Chung Yeuk Lee (1782-1877), Woon Fah’s father, and his wife.  We had nearly overlooked the fact that Yeuk Lee would have likely been the first one in the grave site and all his relatives would have been buried with him.  This was a triple bonus!  Three generations (7, 8, and 9) of direct ancestors in one grave site was hitting the proverbial jackpot. 

The grave also contained names from generation 10 and 11, but since my great-grandfather Jen Miau had already left China by that time, these relatives are less directly related to me.

Obviously designed with good feng shui in mind, the grave site overlooks the rolling hills of this area of China.  Five generations of Chungs, dating back to the 1700s, would have walked on this very ground to bury their deceased, an incredible thought.  They would likely have crossed the river from Tam Tong and ascended these hills.  This was not a formal graveyard and we surmised that in olden times, families would simply have sought out suitable sites based upon good feng shui and that land ownership was not so much of an issue.  We all made the traditional three bows of respect to the grave site before leaving.


The day was not complete yet.  After returning back to the road, we turned off at a Chinese temple on the way back and ascended a small hill.  At the top of the hill were some pottery urns, about 60cm high.  We were told that these urns contained the bones of the deceased that, for whatever reasons, had been removed from their graves and placed in these urns.  It is possible as well that some of these remains were from graves that had to be removed when the land was cleared and used for other purposes — the price of progress I suppose.  The Hakka people also follow this practice as they brought their ancestors’ bones with them during their migrations.

More importantly, we were also told that one of the urns contained the remains of the generation #2 ancestor, Chung Cheong Yung, a very exciting prospect.  Jen Miau’s eldest son, Nai Yen, would have been interred there as well.  We were not able to verify either fact personally as it would have involved opening the urn to read a memorial tablet inside the lid, and that was only possible the following day as part of the Ching Ming celebrations.  However, we wouldn’t have reason to doubt the local relatives as they would be fully knowledgeable about their early ancestors such as #1 and #2.

Today exceeded all our expectations of the entire visit.  We had found generations 2, 7, 8, 9 in a single day.  We wanted to find #1.  Would we?

We returned back to Tam Tong and had dinner with the local relatives.  Discussions some time during the day revealed that the local relatives did indeed know where ancestor #1, Chung Yuk Yen (1551-1622) was buried.  They had made several attempts to find the grave in the past and were successful sometime in the 80’s.  Kim Seng had also heard of this site on his previous visit when the Wing Wu relatives pointed to some large hills to the south and mentioned some vague stories about ancestors being buried there.  They’d warned us that this was a strenuous climb, and that they wouldn’t want to attempt it if it were raining.

Ancestral Journey: Day One

We met up in the morning with the rest of my relatives from Malaysia and Hong Kong: several uncles, an aunt, two granduncles, and a grand-aunt.  After a reunion dim sum breakfast, the fourteen of us headed for Huizhou on a chartered tour bus, crossing the Hong Kong SAR / China border.

Upon our arrival at Huizhou in the afternoon, we checked into our hotel and headed south for the ancestral village in a chartered mini bus.  We arrived first in Wing Wu, the town closest to Tam Tong, and asked for directions from the first local resident we met, which served to be futile.  With the help of Chee Sing’s GPS-enabled phone with road maps and Kim Seng’s recollection of the route, we at last found Tam Tong.

To enter Tam Tong, you leave the main road and drive on a single-lane paved road on top of a bund wall or dyke.  This dyke exists to keep out the river, which was reputed to regularly flood the village.  Back in the older days, this dyke did not exist and various relatives indicated with their hands to their chest how high the river flooded.  The houses had dark stains on their walls up to about the 1m level, probably the visual remnants of the flooding. 

We overshot the ancestral home, and in the process of trying to find a good spot to turn the bus around, we pulled off the road into the Chi Tong, or family ancestral hall or temple.  This building served as a place for recordkeeping, and a gathering point for the Chung family for important events of worship.  To walk up to this structure and see the Chung Chinese symbol on the front (rightmost character over the doorway) of it was simply amazing.  This was our ancestral hall!

The hall consisted of a three rooms, separated by two courtyards, and an altar in the very rear room.  The courtyard next to the rear altar room also had small side annexes with smaller altars and padlocked doors to other areas, likely just storage.  Colourful decorative murals were placed high up on the walls, ostensibly depicting various poems or legends.  The roof was constructed with timber framing, exposed on the inside, and tiles.

The interior was pretty sparse, consisting really of floors and walls, except for the altar in the rear.  Some marble plaques recording donations, and some carved wooden details are really the only decorative touches on the walls aside from the murals.

The building was obviously still used as it had been maintained.  No doubt there were other Chungs around!  Our visit had also attracted the attention of several locals, including a lady with her grandson, still sporting the traditional Chinese baby haircut.

When we finished our visit, we walked back to the ancestral home, only about 100m away.  The home that Kim Seng visited is actually within a cluster of several other houses.  As we would discover later, these houses were also occupied by other close relatives, so it is extremely likely that if my great-great-grandfather would have lived in one of those houses we saw.  The home sported a new white plaster finish, much to Kim Seng’s disappointment, as his great-grandfather had written a poem above the doorway many years ago expressing his feeling about leaving China.

The house, and several others in the cluster, are occupied mostly by Chungs, as it turns out.  Some of the houses are used for storage, and some appear to be abandoned.  The evidence certainly suggests that a large number of Chungs lived in the village.  By local accounts, there were around 700 in the neighbourhood.  When, or how, this number was calculated is a mystery.  A very large number have apparently moved away from the area over time, just as my ancestors did, leaving a reduced, but still appreciable number.

When we left the ancestral home, we decided to drive to the nearest school just outside Tam Tong in hopes of finding the retired school master.  We lucked out again as he happened to be standing outside the school gates.  We were invited into the school staff room to talk further by the current school master, who was one of the retired school master’s students.

Through some feverish gesturing, pointing, writing, and excited discussion in various dialects — Hakka, Mandarin, and Cantonese, we learned some history of the region, including the headmaster’s own history.  He turned out to be a Chung as well, Chung Chee Kuan, with the same “Chee” generation name as my father.  He was more distantly related, perhaps a fifth or sixth cousin, so he wasn’t able to directly help us. 


We made plans to visit him again before we left the area.  As we prepared to leave, we decided to make a symbolic donation to the school, which the current headmaster politely refused until we insisted.  We had learned that the Tam Tong village and Chung ancestors had contributed to the rebuilding of the current school after it had been burned down by the Japanese during the Occupation.  There also used to be a school in Tam Tong itself that also was burned down in WWII and never rebuilt.  This old school had been built with funds collected from the Chung descendants in Malaya by my great-grandfather Khin Seong and named after our first generation ancestor, Chung Yuk Yen.  A picture or plaque of my great-grandfather was apparently placed in this old school, but this obviously no longer exists.

After our visit with the retired headmaster, we drove to see the local Chung relatives in Wing Wu, the ones that that knew Kim Seng and his uncle.  They ran a combination driving school booking agency and grocery shop in Wing Wu, and in the back of the shop there were the obligatory mahjong tables.  As we pulled up to the shop, we saw the white-haired man from the photos, Chung Sin Fatt.  As before, Kim Seng and my father took the lead in interviewing the relatives, trying to coax out little nuggets of information, trying to link these Chung relatives to our genealogical map and showing them the various diagrams and photos we had brought with us.

We left Wing Wu in the evening with some mixed emotions.  The local relatives had seemed a little reserved and less forthcoming with information compared to Kim Seng’s visit and we hadn’t been able to establish any sort of genealogical link.  Even Sin Fatt, who had seemed the most promising, didn’t know how he was related.  The school master hadn’t been able to provide as much genealogical data as we’d hoped, though he’d provided some interesting history of the area.  However, we were all still electrified to have visited the ancestral home and hall.  We would hopefully find more the next day.

Some Genealogical Notes:

Compared with western genealogy research that benefits from a wealth of information available in government or church birth, marriage, and death certificates, much of Chinese genealogy was written by the individual clans themselves.  The Chung family is also Hakka, a migratory people, so formal government records may also be harder to find unless the actual migration path of a family was known.  In our case, the main record was a written genealogical record on rice paper, passed down through the generations.  This priceless record was lost for a while, then rediscovered by my father.

Chinese genealogical records may come as a clan genealogical record, combining several different forks in the family (say within a village), or may only be a record of one’s direct lineage to the exclusion of those not directly related.

My family generations are numbered starting from an arbitrary starting point, before which written records do not appear to exist.  This is the root of our genealogical tree, ancestor generation number 1, Chung Yuk Yen.  This numbering convention appears to be used for grave markings as well, so the descendants were normally aware of which generation number they were.  Some Chinese families are currently at generation 130 or more.

Each generation is assigned a generation name pre-determined hundreds of years ago, usually recorded in a poem.  My generation is 13, with a generation name of “Chok”, so my full Chinese name is “Chung Chok Weng” — Chinese always put their surnames first.   My daughter’s generation 14 name is “Toong”; my father’s generation name is “Chee”.

Chinese genealogy has some advantages due to the common use of generational names and specific titles based upon the generational distance between two people as well as whether this relationship is through the mother’s side or father’s side, and where in the birth order someone is. 

These two common practices can help immensely in interviews, especially with fading memories, to determine the exact relationship someone has; in contrast with typical western practices where someone might be an aunt, Chinese terminology can help zero on in whether this aunt was on the mother’s side and where in the birth order she came in.  These can be crucial bits of information that can increase the probability of a successful match — in our case we were trying to link up these modern-day relatives to our tree by determining who they knew and what they called them by.

Ancestral Journey: Prologue

My trip to China came about through the rediscovery of the Chung family ancestral home in Tam Tong, a village near the city of Huizhou in Guangdong province.  Chung Jen Miau, my great-great-grandfather, and his family had left Tam Tong for Malaysia in the early part of the 20th century.  Several generations later, descendants of the family had spread across the world to Canada, Australia, and the US.

Knowledge of Tam Tong's location had faded throughout the years until it seemed that it would be lost forever.  Even though the family genealogy had been rediscovered, translated, and disseminated in the 80's by my father, it was not clear where the village was located.  The records indicated some cryptic geomantic details — hardly enough to know where to start looking.

Chen Kim Seng and his uncle, Kim Swee, visited China in 2007 with the intention of finding the village.  Kim Swee had lived in the village during the 1950s while he avoided conscription in Malaysia by the English during the Communist Emergency. Remarkably, when they were in the nearby village of Wing Wu, they were directed to Tam Tong by someone in the back of a shop who heard them asking for directions and recognized the uncle's voice as someone he had known 50 years back.

They were able to visit the home, untouched so far by the ravages of redevelopment in China, and talk to local relatives. They were unable to connect all the genealogical dots as they lacked crucial data. Kim Seng was able to report back to my father, whom he had corresponded with previously on genealogical matters, the location of Tam Tong (Kim Seng is related to my father in that their great-grandfathers were brothers).  At last we knew on a map where the village was.  Time was, and is, of the essence as the older generation sadly starts to pass away and large chunks of family history are lost, so a plan came together for 14 Chung relatives across three continents to visit Tam Tong.

I am writing this in Hong Kong. Tomorrow we meet up with the rest of the family that is making its way here, then we plan to cross the border into China and to the city of Huizhou in Guangdong province. Using Huizhou as our base we will make daytrips into Tam Tong, the ancestral village, located about a half-hour south. We are armed with GPS, computers, cameras, and the latest genealogical data courtesy of my Uncle Sing. Three generations of the 鄭 / 郑 (Chung, Chen, Chang, Zheng, Teh and other variants depending on the dialect and romanization) family will be represented in this little expedition.  Members include my father, my uncle Chee Sing who continued the genealogical work my father started, Kim Seng, several uncles and an aunt, two granduncles and a grandaunt.  Ages range from 40 (me) to 92.

Several questions need to be answered:

  1. One of the relatives in China is a white-haired man who is spitting image of my great-grandfather. How is he related exactly?
  2. How did the ownership of the house pass to the people living in it now?
  3. Are there remaining ancestral graves in the area and will we be able to find them?
  4. Will there be other scions of the family tree in the neighbourhood and will we be able to connect them up to our main family tree?
  5. The local schoolmaster may have further knowledge on the Chung ancestry. What else does he know?
  6. Kim Seng, when asking about genealogical information, had heard there was a family genealogy written in both Chinese and English. When he saw it, he found it was a copy of my father's genealogical work, completed in the 1990's, but in a nicely bound and typeset format! How did this work get from Malaysia to a small village in China? Who took my father's typewritten copy and made a book out of it?

The answer to question #1 may be that he is the son of my grandfather's second wife, a wife that was not well-known to have existed; and not to my father until quite recently. Perhaps all we need to connect him to the family is to ask, "what is your grandfather's name?"

The answer to question #2 appears to have been through Kim Seng's uncle, who, during his return in the 1950's found the house locked and unoccupied. When he left China, he gave the house to someone in the second family.

Complicating #3 above is that people often referred to themselves differently than would be on the grave marker — the grave marker would indicate the formal generation name (the one historically pre-determined), even if they had been given a different generation name. In effect, the formal generation name would supersede everything else.

We look forward to finding the answers to these, and many other questions.

D3 vs D3x

Indirectly through Nikon Canada I had a chance to have a D3x over Christmas.  There have been endless criticisms of Nikon’s pricing on the D3x, a whopping $8000 US, or $9450 CDN, and I won’t touch upon that here (much).  What I wanted to analyze for myself was how it compared to the D3 at the same resolution: noise would likely be increased due to the smaller sensor sites, but a downsampled image would reduce noise as the individual noisy pixels would be averaged out.  So how would these two opposite factors work out in the D3x? Would the resampling be able to keep the overall noise close to the D3’s phenomenal quality?  Or would noise increase so quickly as to destroy any smoothing done by the resampling?  Basically, would the D3x fulfill the role of the D3 if pressed to work in high ISO situations.

Just to set the stage, I do a lot of studio model shooting and very often run into the D3’s low ISO limit of 200.  I would love an ISO 100 or 50.  Resolution is important, but so are smooth skin tonal transitions.  On the other hand, I do available light event shooting as well, and high ISO performance is also important.  So I need a combination of a D3 and D3x.

I set up a very basic test bed: a 70-180 macro lens, chosen mainly so that I could minimize the amount of room my test Christmas scene took; as well, its tripod mount allowed me to equalize the focusing and framing when I switched between bodies without having to dismount the body from the tripod, thereby reducing any sharpness issues related to focusing variations.  The macro lens was also stopped down to f/8 to get into the sweet spot for sharpness before diffraction set in; mirror-up and cable release were used.  The images were shot in 14-bit RAW and processed in Capture NX 2 with the same camera settings.  The D3x image was then downsampled using bicubic interpolation and a small amount of sharpening was used to match the D3 sharpening (both images show some haloes around high contrast areas).

The quick test images are below.

The resampled D3x images show a sharpness improvement over the D3 images.  This should come as no surprise as any softening effects of the AA filter and Bayer sensor layout and interpolation are going to be reduced by the resampling.  This is most evident in the text areas where there is high contrast between the background and text characters.  The D3 is showing softer text and in fact has noticeable moire in some of the characters (which means that the focusing was bang-on) while the D3x image clearly has crisper text.  At all ISOs up to 6400 (the maximum on the D3x), the D3x could resolve more detail in the text than the D3, despite similar noise characteristics.  The crispness is noticeable in the 100% view.  Resampling down is good!

Noise, or the lack thereof, was a surprising discovery.  The D3x produces extremely noise-free images at low ISOs.  At base ISOs (100-D3x, 200-D3), black areas are surprisingly smooth and devoid of noise, even slightly less than the D3.  It almost appears as though the black levels have been clipped in software.  However, a quick check against the D3 image shows that the same subtle shadow details are still there, so this is amazing sensor noise performance for the D3x.

When ISOs are increased, noise increases, of course.  Per-pixel noise at each camera’s native resolutions also seems to be pretty similar up to ISO 400 as well, after which the D3 slowly pulls ahead.  That’s not to say the D3x isn’t good, just that the D3 is so good.  Thankfully, noise appears more film grain-like as with other Nikons, and is less objectionable below about ISO 1600.  Above ISO 1600, the colour noise does pick up and details get lost as well.  Resampling results at 12MP show that up to ISO 800 or even 1600 the images generated by both cameras appear identical, but with the D3x having the edge on detail throughout.

There is an interesting characteristic I’ve noted on some high contrast areas — there is some sort of noiseless dark band or halo around objects at high ISOs (around the model lightbulb), almost some form of processing artifact as I see it appearing after around ISO 400, which rules out the lens being the cause.  I thought it was a D3x thing, but I see it on the D3 as well, so I assume it’s noise reduction.

Dynamic Range
I did not make a detailed DR analysis, other than to investigate highlight headroom on overexposure and subsequent recovery.  In that regard, I don’t see much difference below the ISO 800 or so mark — the D3x provides a good amount of latitude for what I would use it for.

The D3x is an interesting conundrum.  On the one hand, there’s the price.  On the other hand is arguably the most advanced 35mm DSLR today, with stellar image quality and resolution.  Where does it fit in?

The performance of the D3x is amazingly close to the D3.  Below ISO 800, there doesn’t appear to be much difference between the two cameras, with the D3x providing the extra resolution of course, so it would be the better choice.  ISO 1600 could go both ways, and above that is D3 territory of course.  Both cameras deliver extremely similar colour, a very useful characteristic when working with multiple cameras at the same time.

Now, if you resample, it buys you perhaps two stops, so an ISO 3200 image on both cameras at the same resolution appear pretty darned close.  The D3x can be pushed past its ISO 800/1600 comfortable full-resolution limit to its Hi-2 (ISO 6400) limit with good results this way.

So for anybody not needing the stratospheric 12,800 and 25,600 ISOs of the D3 and the high framerates, the D3x could just as easily be a D3 replacement.  It’s that good.  You won’t have to choose between high-ISO performance and high-resolution for just about any shooting situation — you can get it in one camera.  This is if you resample down to the D3’s resolution of course.  It’s almost cheating — the noise goes away and the sharpness increases when you resample.  Above ISO 1600, one gets into uncalibrated ISO land and colour suffers, just as it does on the corresponding Hi-1 and Hi-2 settings on the D3.  But it’s not as bad as you’d expect, manifesting more in increased noise in my case.  Details are still holding up extremely well, especially those not in deep shadows, where the noise lives. 

For studio work, the extra usable resolution coupled with the one lower stop of ISO makes the D3x a phenomenal camera.  The sharpness and clarity are real and the noise performance is outstanding.  There is no way upsampling could replicate the extra resolution.  On the flipside, the extra resolution does make a difference when resampled down, so there is no downside to resolution in this case (other than a little sluggishness when reviewing the massive images).  Although the camera slows to 1.8fps in 14-bit mode, the vast majority of studio lights today are unlikely to recycle this fast anyway, so the limiting factor is not the camera.  Landscape shooters should have no problem.

Personally, the D3x is much more tempting than I expected.  I was prepared to reject the high resolution because I felt I would be give up too much high-ISO capabilities.  Since I’ve had a chance to test the D3x, I’m very impressed and intrigued by the both its raw image quality as well as the noise-free resampled image quality, the latter characteristic a key one for being a D3 replacement.  It certainly could fit the D3 replacement role, especially since I have a D700 as well if I need all-out high ISO performance.  The D3x’s studio performance is what’s most compelling — a noticeable jump in image quality while utilizing my investment in Nikkor lenses is what I’m looking forward to.  The studio / architecture / landscape role is the D3x’s niche.

It all comes down to value.  Is it worth nearly $4000 over the D3?  That’s a terribly tough call.  If the premium were a mere $2000, say, over the D3, I think it would be a done deal.  As such, it’s just so tantalizingly worthwhile an upgrade, yet just that little bit out of the comfort zone.

What remains is to compare this with a medium format camera (hopefully a not-so-far-in-the future test!).


A year with the D3

A year has passed since I rushed out of work to pick up my Nikon D3 at Lens and Shutter and arrived 10 minutes before closing time.  I had previously filled out the application form (aka Customer Worthiness form) that Nikon Canada was requiring all prospective purchasers to fill out and send in.  At the rate the camera was selling worldwide I had expected to receive it months later so I threw my hat into the ring just for fun.  To my surprise, only a couple of weeks passed before I got contacted to pick it up, so I ended up being one of the early adopters.

So how has it been?  Simply marvelous.  Nikon pretty much bet the farm on the D3, hoping to regain the pro market it squandered away in the 90’s film era to Canon, and yet again with the D2 generation of cameras.  The result is a resurgence of black lenses at major sporting events and a huge presence in professional circles.  The killer feature is the incredible sensitivity and dynamic range of the sensor.  The sensitivity allows shooting in ridiculously low light conditions, while the huge dynamic range allows for a wide range of flexibility in post-processing.  Images can be exposed a little under to preserve highlights and the shadows can be lightened later without incurring noise.  This dynamic range also allows for wonderfully smooth tonal transitions for skin.  Though very much branded as a sports and low-light camera, this is a gorgeous studio camera as well (a little more resolution and lower base ISO wouldn’t hurt there of course).  The camera has revolutionized my work and for the first time I don’t miss film.

The sensor is so revolutionary that I bought the D700 to act as a backup camera, replacing my D200 in that role.  It’ll probably see more action at family events since it’s just that much easier to tote it around without the vertical grip and I can leave a more compact prime or consumer zoom lens on it and get acceptable snapshots.  But when I do something serious, it’ll be the D3 I take out.

Ergonomically, the D3 fits very well with the way I do things.  There’s consistency throughout all of Nikon’s pro and prosumer bodies dating back to the film days (F5/F100) and it’s very easy for me to pick up a Nikon and start working with it.  I like the grip and controls and even though it is a bigger camera, I find it more comfortable than the D700.  The bulk helps to stabilize the large lenses that inevitably end up attached to it; the vertical grip I couldn’t live without for an extended shoot.  It just works, which is great praise for any tool. 

It’s a fairly well-traveled body so far – UK, all over North America and it’s held up well.  The only flaw is the paint on the corner of eyepiece shutter lever is wearing off and I’m not sure what it is in my camera bag that might have done that.  I recently brought back the camera to Nikon service to remap out a couple of hot pixels that showed up at high ISOs.  Nothing I couldn’t really live with, but I figured I may as well get in a last checkup before it’s out of the 1-year pro warranty.  Nikon fixed it in a few days and cleaned the sensor and I have to say that Nikon Canada’s service in Vancouver has been top-notch the rare times I’ve had to use them as well as through anecdotal evidence from others.


Joe McNally’s lighting workshop

I attended a 5-day lighting workshop in Vancouver (organized through Vancouver Photo Workshops) with Joe McNally a couple of weeks ago.  Joe's a great, down-to-earth, self-effacing guy, pretty much as he comes across in his blog, and he worked us and himself hard.  Beyond his huge volume of published work with National Geographic and Life magazines, he's well known for his mastery of flash photography, in particular the use of Nikon's Creative Lighting System.

Probably the best part of the workshop was seeing the thought patterns and the methodical approach he uses — sizing up a location, working one light at a time, tweaking, and adding more lights as needed.  As an event photographer and photojournalist at heart, I'm used to having to work quickly with what I'm given, and it's instructive to watch something done methodically, one element at a time.  I plan more creative shoots in future and to work this way.  Also, I plan to work harder to nail the picture in-camera to reduce the amount of post-processing work; Joe's ability (and National Geographic's requirement) to deliver completed shots in-camera would shame everybody.

The workshop was well equipped with all manner of lighting gear, from C-stands, reflectors, softboxes (including an Octa) to Elinchrom monoheads and Ranger portable packs.  As a result, there was little need to wait for other teams to finish with certain limited bits of gear.  I did find the Elinchrom bayonet system a bit frustrating to work with, so I feel better with my decision to go with Hensel.  There are a lot of nifty little things I ran across that I'd consider picking up in future, including some small flash softboxes, and various clamps and modifiers.  I brought several of my SB-800 flashes and my SU-800 commander, which ended up being valuable additions to the arsenal.  In the midst of the class, I also picked up a D700 and SB-900.

Each day was spent working in teams along with various models and areas in the studio and small or large flash.  Our last day was spent on mock assignments that Joe set for us.  Ours was to photograph a self-absorbed Bollywood star newly arrived in North America.  We spent 3 hours setting up for just two shots.  Joe's a hard marker when he puts on his photo editor hat, but I appreciate that!

All in all, it was an exhausting but tremendous experience.  It was a great opportunity to network with Joe and the other photograpers.  Kudos go to Marc, the organizer, and to my various team mates over the last week!   It was definitely worth the price for the smaller class size and overall quality of the instruction.