Nine Emperors FestivalOil Ceremony

Nine Emperors FestivalOil Ceremony
For the past three years, I have visited the Butterworth Tow Boo Kong Temple for the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. Last night was the 3rd night of the festival. On this evening organisers of this festival make a medicinal oil for devotees to buy. The mixture is a base of coconut oil, herbs and a large amount of medium blessing sprayed on top. Let me explain.
The process to make this oil starts with festival organizers creating makeshift wood fire stoves. On top of the stove, they add a huge wok and pour in gallons of coconut oil. They stoke the fire and then let loose with the mediums. The mediums are young men that apparently get possessed by a deity or spirit. These men scoop up handfuls of oil from the cauldron all while in a state of possession. They then dance about and quickly spew it into the fire resulting in a huge ball of flame! This lasts for about 15 mins. Afterwards, they continue to boil the oil along with some added herbs. Later they bottle the oil and sell it for 2 ringgit a bottle.
This event is very difficult to photograph. For one thing, there is a lot of oil being sprayed around and I am extremely close to the action. This means both my clothes and my camera risk getting splattered with oil!
It is also difficult to expose properly. It is dark, but the fire explodes and creates huge balls of light. So your exposure varies wildly and instantly! On top of this, the mediums move around very quickly. So if you want anything but a blurry mess you need to shoot at least 125th of a sec. I made the mistake of using the new Fujifilm 8-16 mm f/2.8. A mistake because I risked getting oil on this costly loaner lens (I can only hope my friends at Fuji are not reading this)!  But photographically, I needed a faster lens than the f/2.8. In the years previously I shot this event with the 16 mm f/1.4. That extra light and speed gained by shooting between f/2.8 to f/1.4 makes a big difference.
I could have used flash. But frankly, unless I added a CTO gel on the flash the ambience would have been ruined by using the flash. I the only option I had was to crank up the ISO, put the camera on “continuous high” burst mode and pray that I stayed dry!
Planning to photograph the Nine Emperor Gods?


Interested in photographing the Nine Emperor Gods Festival at the Butterworth Tow Boo Kong Temple? If you are on Penang Island you will need to either drive to Butterworth or as I like to do, take the ferry over. After that, it is super simple to find. I advise you to arrive between 6:30 pm to 7:00 pm to get your bearings and be ready for the blue hour. There are a ton of places to eat either before or after your shoot. Enjoy!
Throughout the year I run photographic workshops and tours all through Asia. Would you like to be notified when registration goes live? Subscribe to my newsletter and be among the first to hear about new workshops.

About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.

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