9 Emperor Gods Festival – Pt 2

The medium must now walk the long distance of the parade route.

The medium must now walk the long distance of the parade route.

If you are reading this before reading the first part HERE, then you might be at a slight loss as to what this festival is about. Do yourself a favor and go back and catch up before reading on.

The Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods is at its core a Taoist festival that focuses on nine emperor gods that are now celestial stars. On this, the 5th night of the festival, spiritual mediums skewer their cheeks with long sharp stainless steel poles. The poles look to be 4 to 4.5 meters (around 15 ft) in length.

  • A guest performers from Taiwan.
  • Guest performers rest before the show starts.
  • Prayers are offered at the temple alter.
  • A dragon sculpture and fountain at the Tow Boo Kong Temple.
  • Prayer are offered non-stop throughout the night.


I asked Philip, one of the festival organizers at the Two Boo Kong Temple, who are these mediums? He said they had been born for this as if it is a unique gifting.

As the long poles are lined up in readiness for the event, oranges are stuck on the end of each pole’s point. Partly to keep people from playing with them as well as to act as a type of disinfectant.

  • The mediums begin to shake after the serpent whip is cracked.
  • Then one by one they start to get up and move and sway.
  • They start to squawk like monkeys or talk like babies.
  • They start to squawk like monkeys or talk like babies.


The mediums need to get ready for the piercing by allowing a spirit to enter their body. They sit and pray. Then as soon as another medium cracks a serpent shaped whip the group starts to convulse and the spirits enter their bodies. They take on different personalities, mostly of children or babies. These are obvious by the baby talk and pacifiers (or dummies) they start sucking on. Other turn into monkeys with whooping, and squealing.

The scars from the piercing are real and last a lifetime.

The scars from the piercing are real and last a lifetime.

They are then lead to a stool and very quickly but carefully the skewers are pushed through one side of their cheek. Here in Penang, they don’t seem to put anything other than the pole through their cheeks, unlike in Phuket where mediums push large objects through their cheeks.


Some of the mediums had their left cheek pierced, others their right.

The mediums then carefully rise and bow before the temple and it’s gods.   Then slowly move to the front of the parade. This ritual is done nine times with each of the nine mediums.

  • Oranges are uses to both protect the public from the pear tips as well as a way to disinfect the spear.
  • The orange is removed and the spear is pass down to the men who will be placing it through the medium's cheek.
  • A medium himself, this man hold one of the younger men as he get ready to have the spear placed through his cheek.
  • The right spot is carefully found.
  • The sharp spear brought carefully up to the correct spot.
  • Then the spear is pushed through to the middle.
  • Once completed...
  • the medium rises...
  • bows to the temple and then leaves to join the parade.


The parade itself is unremarkable. It is like any other parade in the U.S or around the world. It is made up of everything from  pom-pom dance teams to floats and dignitaries. The only difference between this parade and the Belton, Texas 4th of July parade, is Belton doesn’t have men with 15 ft  steel poles running through their cheeks.

  • As if it were obligatory, the parade like so many others around the world has it's own pom-pom team.
  • Floats with local dignitaries and clubs made up the parade.
  • The mediums with their spears through their cheeks walked the long route of the parade with help.
  • Every so often a medium would stand on a stool and encourage the crowd to cheer.
  • Every so often a medium would stand on a stool and encourage the crowd to cheer.
  • The parade route was long and slow. The mediums needed to rest frequently.


The parade does a huge loop and ends back at the temple where it started from. Those people who didn’t want to walk the many miles in the parade were left at the temple grounds with a live theatrical production to watch and plenty of food to eat.

The next big event happens on the 7th night: Fire Walking.

9 Emperor Gods Festival – Part 1

The mediums dip their hands in the hot oil without any perceived ill effect.

The mediums dip their hands in the hot oil without any perceived ill effect.

Living in Penang is sometimes like living in Epcot Center. Many different cultures, and parties and festivals all the time. Seriously, it seems every month there is a festival or a holiday. Many of these are visually spectacular like Thaipusam or Chinese New Year. No other festival in Penang is more visual and varied than the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods.

The Nine Emperor Festival is complicated, to say the least. I love to get as much info about what I am shooting from the local community when possible. It seems everyone, even folks that are associated with the festival are unclear of the details. It is at this point when I lean heavy on Wikipedia.

In short, what the festival is about is disputed by more traditional Taoist. In popular belief, according to Wikipedia it goes something like this:

“On the eve of the ninth moon, temples of the deities hold a ceremony to invoke and welcome the nine emperors. Since the arrival of the gods is believed to be through the waterways, processions are held from temples to the sea shore or river to symbolize this belief. Devotees dressed in traditional white, carrying incense and candles, await the arrival of their excellencies.

A carnival-like atmosphere pervades the temple throughout the nine day festival. During this period of time, the constant tinkling of a prayer bell and chants from the temple priests are heard. Most devotees stay at the temple, eat vegetarian meals and recite continuous chanting of prayer. It is believed that there will be rain throughout the nine days of celebration.

The ninth day of the festival is its climax. A procession which draws scores of devotees sends the deities back home.” Wikipedia

As a photographer, the important part of all this is knowing the schedule. There is no point in showing up after an hour’s drive to find that the only things happening are speeches by dignitaries. Fortunately, I found this schedule at the Tow Boo Kong Temple website. Tow Boo Kong is the largest Nine Emperor Gods Temple in the area.

Festival Event
  • 1st Day Deity Nan Dou Birthday Celebration
  • 3rd Day Deity Bei Dou Birthday Celebration
  • Playing with Hot Oil Ceremony
  • 5th Day Spear Skewing Celebration
  • Float Procession
  • 6th Day Selection of new Urn Trustee
  • 7th Day Fire Walking Ceremony
  • 8th Day Fort Crossing Ceremony
  • 9th Day Deity Dou Mu Birthday Celebration
  • Sending-Off Ceremony


My first day to visit this year was on the third day. Having only read about the “playing with hot oil” I was intrigued.


The Chinese drama under the yellow lanterns. Not the best lighting.

The Chinese drama under the yellow lanterns. Not the best lighting.

When we arrived ( I was photographing with two other photographers from Penang, Simon Bond and Pete DeMarco) things looked rather tame. There was some drama being performed in the temple under, of all things, yellow lights. I had packed light. I brought my Cactus RF-60 flash, but that was completely manual. I also had my very tiny Nissin i-40. The Nissin is almost half the flash the Cactus is, but it is TTL and allows for rear curtain sync. If you read my blog you know I love to use rear curtain sync at events like this. But, I soon realized the limitations of the Nissin. 1. The flash just could not overpower the yellow lights from where I was forced to be. 2. The recycle speed seems to be very slow. I am not sure how much of that is the flash or how much the batteries.

Pouring the oil into the wok to heat it once they start the fire under it.

Pouring the oil into the wok to heat it once they start the fire under it.

After awhile it was time for the hot oil ceremony. The men from the temple organizing committee started to build small brick like ovens, but more like a chimney. They placed a huge wok on top of each oven and made fires under them. They had it barricaded off. However, I noticed several photographers with the local press inside the barricades so we joined them. No one said anything.

It was good that we did. The makeshift ovens had an opening that faced away from the crowd, and this is the opening where the spiritual mediums would eventually spit the hot oil and make massive fireballs.

Possessed by spirits of children, the mediums dance around the fire playfully.

Possessed by spirits of children, the mediums dance around the fire playfully.

After the fire was roaring, the men poured oil into each wok. Then after about 20 minutes of being heated by the fire the mediums arrived. They were hooting and squeaking like monkeys. When I asked about this, I was told that most of them receive the spirit of a child or a baby. But some get the spirit of a monkey.

The medium reached into the hot oil with their hands and then scooped it into their mouths.

The medium reached into the hot oil with their hands and then scooped it into their mouths.

The mediums went right away to the oil and began reaching into the hot oil with their hands and then putting a handful into their mouths. They would walk around and then spew it into the fire resulting in a fireball.

This dancing and spitting went on for about 15 to 20 minutes and then ended quite quickly. Just as soon as the mediums left the committee members added large branches of herbs into the oil to cook them.



Blowing the oil into the flame to ignite it.

The whole purpose of the playing/dancing and spitting of the oil is to bless the oil. The oil will then be sold to locals over the next few days as medicinal and the funds raised will help the temple.

All this and it was only our first night. Next visit will be on day 5, the spear skewing celebration and float procession.


Nine Emperor Gods Festival: Playing with Hot Oil Ceremony from Matt Brandon on Vimeo.


Facing Your Flash Phobia

off-camera flash, Jinbie HB600, Expose for the background

Here is Nayoung being a temporary model so I can adjust the background exposure and the power of the flash.

If you have spent any amount of time on my blog, you know that I have a phobia about off-camera lighting. I love to use on-camera flash and play with dragging the shutter. But off-camera – that’s the kind of stuff that makes my palms sweat and my body break out in hives. I am not sure why it is so befuddling for me. Maybe it has to do with my many learning disabilities or the fact that I waited way too long to learn this trick and now I am an old dog. Whatever the reason, it has been a journey of two steps forward, one step back.

background exposure, test shot, Jinbie HD 600

This is photo is pretty much right out of the camera. This was pretty close to what I wanted for my background exposure.

My off-camera flash mentor is Piet Van den Eynde, my Miyagi of light. You may recall, Piet sold me his Jinbei HD600 strobe. It is a 600-watt monster that competes with the big boys like ProFoto’s B1, only at about a third or less of the cost. It is the Jinbei that I have been using to confront my fears. Why the Jinbei and not a speed light? Well, for one thing, it is entirely manual and believe it or not, shooting manually with a flash is proving easier for me and is giving me a great foundation. Once you learn the fundamentals, only then can one move on. Wax on, wax off. Another reason I chose the Jinbei is because it is so powerful; it can overpower the sun and allow me to use this flash anytime and anywhere.

Whenshooting in manual it really is just a mater of taking a shot and making the adjustments. Here the flash needed more power.

When shooting in manual it is just a matter of making an exposure then adjusting it. In this exposure, the flash needed a lot more power.

For the past few weeks, I have been getting to know a couple of new photographers in my town, Simon Bond, and Pete DeMarco (another Pete). Simon and Pete are both relatively new to the area; they arrived here while I was away in the U.S. over the past year. These guys shoot a very different style than I shoot.. They are more into creative techniques and photo magic such as  light painting.

Simon and Pete invited me to try out light painting.  Simon has a new toy he is still learning to use. They wanted to introduce me to light stick called a Pixelstick.  They suggested we go to the very southern tip of the island to a place called Vanilla Bay and shoot against the sunset. The only real issue is there has not been a significant sunset for many days. It has rained every day here since arriving back to Malaysia in September. But the weather changes here by the minute, so who know? We risked it and drove to Vanilla Bay.

We were a rather large group: Pete and his partner Nayoung, Simon and his wife Jayoung, Vijiakumar Shunmugam from a local Facebook photo group,and Chrysmic Qmin and her boyfriend Yaan Sin Lee. Qmin acted as our model.

Pete, Simon and their respective partners and I arrived early to scout the right location and set up the gear. Sometimes the best moments are serendipitous. As we arrived I noticed two boys flying red balloons from fishing poles. The boys were silhouetted against a late afternoon sky.his was too good to pass up.

I quickly asked Nayoung to stand in as my model while I frantically tried to get the exposure of the sky correct. What I have learned, (wax on) is to first expose your scene for the background. Get it as dark or as light as you want it. Of course, all this is done in manual mode. On my X-Pro2 I needed a flash sync of 1/250 sec. so I simply adjusted the aperture to get the desired exposure.

A side note here: the biggest enemy in my photography and I would wager in yours is panic. I was quickly trying to get the exposure before these boys left or their balloons popped. I kept telling myself, “Slow down!”


Jinbei HD 600, Vanilla Bay Balancing ambient light and flash.

Eventually, it all comes together!


Jinbei HD 600, Vanilla Bay Balancing ambient light and flash.



It's a good feeling to get it right in the camera.

It’s a good feeling to get it right in the camera.

Once I got the background exposed the way I wanted it I had to set up the flash unit and softbox. “It is still pretty bright out, do I use the grid or not?” Trial and error. I left it off for the time being.  I told myself, “Just set it up and take a few frames to balance the exposure on Nayong (wax off).” It was way too light. I needed to lower the power of this monster. Bam! I got it!

Above are the results of my effort. But it was only after a few frames, and the boys left. Of course not without a portrait of their own.


Chrysmic Qmin

Chrysmic Qmin


Chrysmic Qmin and her boyfriend. An impromptu couple shot between setups.

Chrysmic Qmin and her boyfriend. They asked for an impromptu couple shot between setups.


Later that night I became the VALS or Voice Activated Light Stand ;-).  In other words, I held the light all night. But it gave me a chance to observe Simon and his Pixelstick in action. I began watching how he maneuvered it. I had to try. I had an idea. Could I make angel wings? If I turned on the stick while standing behind her and moving the stick to form a wing then turning it off and repeating the same move on the other side it should make wings. In theory. The problem is, I can’t stand behind her when the flash is popped. So I have to run out and after the flash goes off start drawing my wings. Easier said than done on coral rock at night with a 5 foot Pixelstick  in your hand.


My first attempt at angel wings looked more like a peacock tail!

My first attempt at angel wings looked more like a peacock tail!


After thinking it through , this was a much better attempt. Not bad for two tries.

After thinking it through , this was a much better attempt. Not bad for two tries.


On my first try I just about broke my ankle (actually cut it on the coral) Oh well, the show must go on. The second try was better. Maybe the blood loss slowed me down. By this time of night, everyone was exhausted and frankly, it was time to go home.



A good night of inspiration and hard work using new tech. It was also a night of relearning old lessons: don’t panic, slow down, be purposeful.

Tomorrow I am off to some pretty fun places with my piece of tech, my Fujifilm X-T2. Be looking for new photos and some thoughts on this amazing little camera in the days to come.

Announcing the 2nd Location Portraiture & Lighting Masterclass in Varanasi, India

banner Masterclass


I am pleased to announce the second Location Portraiture and Lighting Masterclass in Varanasi, India. Well, ok it’s really the second time we’ve run the class, but the first time we’ve used this name. I am teaming up again with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Guru and Wizard of Light Piet Van den Eynde. We will be releasing full details in the days to come. But let me assure you this will be an amazing class! Piet and I have been working all winter hammering out the details to make this class one that will be both highly educational, exciting, challenging and memorable and I think we have succeeded. We will be covering techniques and skills that are often skipped over on other workshops of this price or length. We will be covering the broad topics of: Continue reading

Layer Your Image for Narrative Depth

Most of the time when photographers talk about layers in a photo, they speaking about postprocessing in Photoshop. In this post, I am talking about visual and narrative depth in an image. To make a photo visually appealing, you need to create a sense of depth both physically as well as narratively.

Given that most cameras do not have stereo vision and so by default shoot a two-dimensional image, creating a sense of depth has always been an issue for photographers. We are always struggling how to translate depth into only two dimensions. So we have to suggest at depth. We do this in a very simple way.

  • Example of lack of depth
    This valley is certainly dramatic and the side of the valley leading up to the edge of the frame does give it some depth. But look at the next image...

Continue reading

A Photographic Growth Spurt

Someone once told me, a photographer, not to take a photo of them but a video instead. This statement was not to be taken literally; it was more of a metaphor for how we look at people and form opinions. The idea is we all change. What she was trying to say was she is not the same person she was ten years back as she is today, don’t view her by her past. Take a video, because we all change. If someone was to form an opinion of who she is, view her for who she is today, not a static image of her from 10 years ago. Continue reading

What camera should a beginner buy?

Stident on old collage chum George Neal had never picked up a camera till I got him shooting a Fujifilm X-20. Later he ugraded his camera to a X-T1. Here is George on the left with both camera next to Piet Van den Eynde on a recent trip to India.

Student and old college chum, George Neill, had never picked up a camera till I got him shooting a Fujifilm X-20. Later he added an X-T1 to his kit. Here is George on the left with both cameras next to Piet Van den Eynde on a recent trip to India.

One of the more frequent questions I get asked, is “What is the best camera I should buy if I am a beginner?” Honestly, these days there are so many choices, which can make it confusing and overwhelming. But the reality is it doesn’t have to be. I tell newbies to step back, take a breath and answer a quick question or two. Then I give them usually one, possibly two answers. They are almost always happy if they follow my advice. Continue reading

Depth of Field: Damien Lovegrove


Damien Lovegrove

Damien Lovegrove is a treasure trove of both photographic and business knowledge. With years of photographic commercial and wedding work under his belt, this knowledge is all field tested by real life. I feel fortunate that he took an hour out of his busy schedule to share some of this insight with us. To say Damien is easy to talk with would be an understatement. He is flowing with wisdom, ideas, encouragement and more.

Damien is considered by many to be one of the world’s most influential contemporary photographers. These days he is best known for creating portraits that make women look amazing. Damien is known for his lighting style picture composition. If you don’t believe me check out his website, Lovegrove Photography and you will soon be convinced.

He is also a fellow Fujifilm X-Photographer and ambassador. He has shot exclusively with Fuji cameras since May 2012.

Damien shoots around 1,000 frames a week. He says if he doesn’t shoot that much in a week he starts to feel like he is going backwards. Yet, I never got the impression in this conversation that he is driven to the point where he runs over everyone in his way. Generous with his knowledge and experience, he speaks with me about creating what he calls that “big picture equation” that helps a photographer stay afloat financially. We also spoke about developing a style that is uniquely yours and how critical this is to your work. We cover how to take a dream and turn it into a reality and so much, much more.

Check out Damien’s work at:

Facebook: facebook.com/damien.lovegrove.1
Twitter: @damienlovegrove
Instagram: @damienlovegrove
Blog: ProPhotoNut.com
Personal Website: Lovegrove Photography