BETWEEN FROZEN PEAKS AND STARRY FIRMAMENT: FENG SHUO

Mother Nature and the Universe meets in many of Feng Shuo’s photos. His fascination of the world and the cosmos beyond has served to take him further out, yet also deeper within. Here he shares some of his experience with us.

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Feng Shuo constantly longs for the reminder the peaks and stars give him to allay the stress from modernity.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you started on your photography journey.

To me, photography is about sharing what I have seen with my families and friends. When I was in junior college in China, I got a chance to visit schools in Japan and my Dad gave me a camera for me to take photos. From then, I began to take photos for my families and friends to record our memories.

When I enrolled in NUS, I entered the photography club in King Edward VII Hall and began to learn about photography basics: aperture, shutter speed and ISO. I started out with event coverage for hall and university activities, then later during my exchange program, I tried to shoot landscapes and cityscapes, which led me to become a Getty Image and iStock Contributor.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | f/4 | 3.2s | ISO 100

We understand you are into landscape and city-scape photography. Can you tell us how and why you initially got into this genre?

I had a chance to go on exchange for one semester in Montreal, Canada when I was in year 3. Montreal has a few spots with good views of the city, just like Marina Bay Sands here. What’s different is that I had more time to explore Montreal, so I met a senior there and we drove outside the city for stargazing and photographing the Milky Way.

We failed the first time because the moon was too large and bright, so we chose another day on the lunar calendar and we succeeded eventually. Although there was still some light pollution, we could identify the shape of the Milky Way with our bare eyes. It was fascinating, and so from then, I got obsessed.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | f/10 | 1/30s | ISO 100

What is it about this genre that has kept you hooked?

“The mountains are calling, and I must go” – John Muir.

Modern lifestyle offers us convenience, but the stress that comes along makes me cherish, and also long for the inner peace the snow mountains and the Milky Way bring me. That’s why I pack up, set off, and point my lens to the firmament.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | f/4 | 30s | ISO 100

What sort of gear did you start with, and what are you using now?

I have been using Canon for over 7 years. My first was a gift from my Dad and it was a Canon compact camera. When I started studying in NUS, I bought my first DSLR. It was the Canon EOS 60D with a 18-200mm lens kit. This zoom lens gave me the experience of playing with different focal lengths, so after a while, I found my preferences in wide-angle and telephoto lens. I used to have a Canon TS-E24mm f/3.5L IICanon EF180mm f/3.5L Macro USMCanon EF300mm f/4L IS USM.

Now, I’m using a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, which has accompanied me for more than 2 years with a TS-E 17mm F4LCanon EF16-35mm f/2.8L III USMCanon EF50mm f/1.8 STM and Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM with an Canon Extender EF 1.4x II.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III| f/5 | 1/2500s | ISO 100

What are your reasons for the upgrades?

I prefer to take wide-angle photos so I upgraded to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III to remove the crop factor from the Canon EOS 60D. I also chose the Canon EOS 5D series for its better handling and durability. I brought it to -30°C Canada to shoot ice and snow, and I also brought it to Ijen and Bromo volcano, where it’s full of dust and sulphur mines. After two years of travelling, it still in perfect condition.

I sold my Canon EF300mm f/4L IS USM to get the Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM because a zoom lens is better for travelling around. This new zoom can also provide really sharp images from 100-400mm even when it’s wide open. The four stops image stabilization is also very useful for hand-held photography.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/2.8 | 30s | ISO 2000

We understand that you used the 5D Mark IV on your recent New Zealand trip. How was it different from using a camera with cropped sensor?

In order to photograph the amazing Milky Way, I choose the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, as compared to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, because it has a better high ISO performance. I don’t worry too much about the noise even when shooting at ISO 3200, 6400 or even 12800. Additionally, the low ISO performance, including the dynamic range and SNR ratio,  is great as well. The 30 MegaPixels are also better for printing purposes.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | f/4 | 30s | ISO 6400

Could you tell us a little about how the idea to focus on the Milky Way came to be or what inspired you to do that?

Gazing up at the night sky was my childhood favorite activity. Those twinkling dots accompanied my contemplation during sleepless nights, reminding me how small I was compared with the vast cosmos. Years later, after I acquired a taste of photography and learnt the basics, I had the chance to meet with eminent photographers. Their masterpieces, marked by the magnificent Milky Way, were a particular motivation for my attempt to try with my own camera.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | f/22 | 1/8s | ISO 100

What were some of your preparations for this shoot?

As a landscape photographer, I plan in as much as possible before I go. The first is timing. Different seasons have very different scenes. I will also check the lunar calendar carefully and take note of moonrise and setting time. Usually, the new moon is the best time because the moonlight can shine on the foreground and I can still see the Milky Way.

I will then check the weather forecast and prepare my clothes as the temperature difference for day and night will be significant. I remember when I was in Canada, I wore a T-shirt in the day, but wore heavy coats and warm shoes when I shot the Milky Way at midnight when it was about -15°C in the forest. There are also many other minor issues that I may also check before I leave, such as the rise time and position of the Galactic Center, light pollution conditions, tide information, precipitation information, and drone regulations etc.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | f/8 | 1/20s | ISO 100

Which features of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV particularly helped in your shoot?

Other than the huge improvement in sensor and image quality, since I use a 10 stops ND filter and do a lot of long exposures, I use the live view to simulate exposure very frequently.

Compared with my Canon EOS 5D Mark III, the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV has a new function: the dual pixel AF which works fast and accurate. I used to manually focus before I put on the ND filter. Now even with a 10 stops ND filter, under live view, the camera can still focus accurately. This saves a lot of time and energy.

The shutter has less vibrations when shooting, which is quite important for long exposure shots. I also like the GPS built inside the 5D Mark IV body. Recording GPS data is useful if you want to review your travel plans.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/2.8 | 30s | ISO 6400

What are some of the other gear and apparatus you brought with you?

For the New Zealand trip, I brought a Canon EF16-35mm f/2.8L III USM to shoot wide-angle because the size and weight is reasonable to me. I also brought a Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM attached to my Canon EOS 5D Mark III. This zoom lens is also very handy as it covers 100mm all the way to 400mm. I used it a lot to shoot snow mountain peaks.

There are a few apps I find very useful. The first one is “CanonSGLens”. It can provide basic lens information as well as a depth of field calculator. It is very useful when I shoot hyper focal length photos. I also use two apps for tracing stars – “Sky Guide” and “Night Sky”. They help me to locate the stars and the Milky Way. Another extremely useful app is “Planit”. It basically contains all the information you need to take a landscape photos – Bortle Scale map of the whole world, which is the light pollution scale; Milky way height and position for now and the future; high and low tide times and such.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | f/5 | 1/1600s | ISO 100

How does one organise a shoot for oneself when trying to achieve a Milky Way shot?

Where, when, what and how. “Where” is simple. If I come across a beautiful Milky Way photo online, I will check its location and plan a visit. Since during the full moon, the Milky Way will be faded and difficult to shoot, I will check the lunar calendar as well to determine ”when”.  As taking only the Milky Way itself may be boring, I will look during the day for “what” interesting foreground to include, such as some weirdly-shaped rocks, a small stream or river. If I have planned all these before I leave, it just leaves the “how” part – which is very simple. Usually the settings are: largest aperture, 30s at 16mm, ISO 2000-6400, and focus at infinity far. Just be extra careful as it will be very dark.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | f/4 | 30s | ISO 6400

What are some of the key things to note when doing this kind of photography?

I think it is the planning. Stamina and physical strength is also a key factor. Shooting the Milky Way can be an exhausting task. There are many places not accessible by cars so one will need to carry the heavy gear and march into the mountains and stay there till midnight to shoot the stars.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | f/5.8 | 1/80s | ISO 100

Could you mention a few challenges specific to this type of shoots?

Since my plan is so detailed, the remaining challenge is only my physical limitations. I remember when shooting at the Jasper National Park in Canada, two friends and I spent two days and three nights in our cars driving to different locations during midnight to get different foregrounds with the Milky Way.

As weather is the most important factor in a landscape photo, and I always hope to see dramatic clouds and a bright Milky Way, good luck and patience is also needed for those magnificent scenes.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | f/22 | 8s | ISO 100

What are some of the places you suggest for people to attempt this genre?

I have not travelled to that many places because of my studies but Mount Bromo and Ijen Volcano are two of the closest places to Singapore that you can try to shoot the Milky Way. The scenery is great and it’s not as expensive.

I have been to the Banff and Jasper National Park in Canada and Yosemite National Park in US, and I want to visit them again. The national parks in North America are amazing and there are a lot of beautiful views to shoot with four different seasons.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | f/4 | 30s | ISO 3200

New Zealand is a great place to shoot and relax. You can drive all around the North or South Island and there are a few spots in New Zealand which are considered the best places in the world to see the Milky Way. As long as you’re not close to city, you can see the shape of it with your bare eyes.

Is there a new project or particular subject you are now after?

I will continue to explore Singapore to shoot nice cityscapes, and I also wish to go to Europe after graduating next year. I keep seeing Matterhorn Peak, Mount Dolomite as well as a lot of Iceland photos from websites and social networks and these astounding scenes always motivate me to go further in photography.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | f/2.8 | 4s | ISO 100

View the jaw-dropping landscapes and starry skies at Feng Shuo’s Instagram or his website.

First published: Canon EOS World

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