Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Is this the death of the camera?


A couple of days ago, my friend Aggy over at DEW Traveller posted something over on Facebook that made me stop and think. She confessed that she'd started using her iPhone as a near-total replacement for a proper camera while travelling, citing the alternative as being far more lightweight and easier to carry while maintaining decent image quality.

Although this isn't really something that should have taken me by surprise, it nonetheless did. Already, there are vast numbers of tourists that opt to use their phones to capture memories of their trip; during my most recent trip to Scandinavia, it was glaringly obvious that most people around me had abandoned their standalone cameras in favour of iPhones and Samsung Galaxy S5s.

And no wonder - the cameras on these phones are among the best in the market, and their ease of use makes them extremely consumer friendly. There are an abundance of apps which can turn any picture into something breathtakingly beautiful and easily sharable, from the pioneers of social photo-sharing Instagram to VSCO and Afterlight. Is there really a need to continue hauling around a big, bulky, clunky camera?


Starting out in photography

I started becoming interested in photographs when I was 11 and picked up my first copy of National Geographic Magazine, although it wasn't until 2012 when I picked up my first dSLR that I started becoming interested in the art of photography. My first 'real' camera was the Canon 550D, a beginner-level little thing that was nonetheless an amazing first camera.

I dived into playing with settings (I refused to use any of it on Auto mode) and my first real photography experience was at Galloway Forest Park in September of that year. Galloway is famous for its dark night skies, free of light pollution and giving rise to the opportunity for seeing the Milky Way.

Of course, the only tricky thing about trying to photograph the Milky Way is that any kind of star photography requires at least a passing knowledge of how light hits a camera. If your shutter isn't held open for long enough, all you'll photograph is pitch black, so the shutter needs to be open for 30 seconds to a minute at minimum. This was my first real experience with using a camera on a fully manual mode.

Galloway Forest Park, Scotland, September 2012. Shot on Canon 550D.
Why do I talk about something that happened two years ago? Because this is a prime example of something which simply cannot be replicated on an iPhone camera.

The iPhone holds its weight

For all the fancy filters and ease of use of the iPhone, there are limits to its capabilities. Of course, the iPhone's camera does hold its own - recently, National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson travelled around Scotland armed with nothing but an iPhone 5S.
With intense use (I’ve made about 4,000 pictures in the last four days) I’ve discovered that the iPhone 5S is a very capable camera. The color and exposures are amazingly good, the HDR exposure feature does a stunningly good job in touch situations, the panorama feature is nothing short of amazing—seeing a panorama sweeping across the screen in real time is just intoxicating. Best of all it shoots square pictures natively, a real plus for me since I wanted to shoot for Instagram posting.

Once I figured out what the camera could do well I began to forget all the things it couldn’t do at all.


So clearly, the iPhone camera is good enough that there are professional photographers willing to leave their workhorses at home when they travel. And, as Jim Richardson notes, "What surprised me most was that the pictures did not look like compromises."

The cons of camera photography

As some of you might know, I freelance in photography. I've put aside my Canon 550D now, and my baby is a Nikon D90 that lives in a makeshift dry box (it's really an airtight box with a pack of dehumidifying silica gel thrown in) with three lenses. And really, when I travel, those are all the lenses I really need.

Is it bulky carrying around a D90 and three lenses? You bet. I've found that the Crumpler 5 Million Dollar Home is the best way to carry all my memory-capturing essentials when I travel. I'm guilty of often wishing that my D90 wasn't the big, clunky monster that it is - when I pull it out of my bag, it's a look that screams 'tourist' and often makes me feel really self-conscious.

Ritual bather in Bali, Indonesia, December 2013. Shot on Nikon D90.

The iPhone captures small moments

The rise of iPhoneography is in no small part due to the ease of having your device on you all the time. Most people don't have their standalone cameras on them all the time; I'm guilty of carrying my iPhone with me absolutely everywhere, even to the bathroom. The constant availability of the iPhone has changed the way photography happens. It's less intrusive, less forced, more natural. This is particularly useful in photographing people who might not be comfortable in front of the camera - the result is something more like a daily moment.

I'll be the first to admit that I don't take my D90 with me everywhere, while on my iPhone I am more likely to capture moments that I would not have before. I would very rarely, if ever, use my D90 to take pictures of food, but on my iPhone I don't think twice before pulling it out to capture an attractive food setting or take a selfie of a precious moment with friends. Besides, I can hide any photographic imperfections with an array of enhancing or desaturating filters.

Another advantage of smartphone photography is how easy it becomes to share an image. With Instagram being a dominant channel of social media, capturing an image on a smartphone makes it easier to upload a picture than if you used a different device. For a lot of people who just want to share bits from their life with their friends and followers, this can be a huge plus.



The camera still has a role to play

But would I consider giving up my dSLR in favour of my iPhone? Probably not, and here's why. Despite the ease of use of the iPhone, the camera on an iPhone simply does not have enough control. You can't control aperture, shutter speed, or ISO on an iPhone camera - perhaps fine for the vast majority of users who don't really care, but this would definitely be a significant loss for me. There's no way I would have been able to capture Galloway in September 2012 on an iPhone camera.

On a smartphone, you probably won't be taking any particularly stunning pictures. You'll probably be capturing everyday moments. In addition, you lose a great deal of depth of field - the resulting images are flatter. There isn't a total loss of depth of field - they're great for capturing what's around you, which is perfect if your purpose is to take a nice landscape, but a more particular photographer may feel restricted.

An example of depth of field, Westfjords, Iceland, June 2014. Shot on Nikon D90.
There's a beauty to the big, bulky SLR that isn't acknowledged often enough when talking about smartphones and cameras. I will mourn the day that we no longer require the technical knowledge that is necessary to creating a good photograph, the day that the exposure triangle and manual settings on dSLRs become redundant, and the day that people no longer suffer the weight of the tools of their photography.

Despite how much we resent the weight of camera bodies and multiple lenses, photography, like any other creative form, is a mode of expression whose creators are often caught in a love-hate relationship with the art. We love what we create, but we don't love the pain that creating it causes us. (I mean that very literally - my shoulders often ache from the weight of carrying around three lenses, extra batteries, and sometimes even a tripod.)

Of course, it might be easier to just go entirely iPhone, but then the legacy of photography would be lost. No longer would we be able to follow in the footsteps of Ansel Adams; we might very well lose the magic that was once the exclusive domain of those capable of capturing emotive pictures in the style of Sebastião Salgado.


Some conclusions

Is the camera going away any time soon? I doubt it, at least not as far as dSLRs are concerned. I think there's a chance that smartphone cameras may replace point-and-shoot cameras completely - the usual function of point-and-shoot cameras is to take somewhat decent photos in a relatively compact body, which smartphones today are perfectly well capable of doing.

There's absolutely no doubt that the advent of iPhones have made photography more accessible to the everyday person. Anyone can be a photographer today, and I think it's great that it's easier than ever for anyone to capture the moments that mean something special to them. But the big, bulky camera remains the home of the 'serious' photographer; the amount of control you get on one of these is not something that can yet be replicated on a smartphone.

While anyone who is serious about taking quality pictures is not likely to toss their dedicated camera, the iPhone, for the vast majority of people, is a more than adequate, easy and compact device that captures everyday moments. Many lightweight, budget and compact travellers also value the small body of the iPhone.

The dedicated camera and the smartphone camera are both image capture devices, but their best use varies wildly from user to user. Both devices have their niches in very different applications, and even the best photographers may find use for both dSLRs and iPhones.

The big, bulky, standalone and dedicated camera isn't quite ready to die just yet.

What do you think?

Is the iPhone steadily encroaching on the space of the dSLR or the dedicated camera? How many of you have abandoned your cameras in favour of more lightweight, portable options? Or have you been able to find an in-between compromise at all - how many of you are trying Micro 4/3 cameras as lightweight photography options? Let me know in the comments!


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review: Lush's Herbalism, the weirdest skin cleanser you might ever use!


Today, I've got something a little different for you than the usual travel stuff! I'm really excited because today I'm going to be doing a review on the Lush Herbalism face and body cleanser.

I picked up Herbalism while I was in Gothenburg, Sweden a couple of months ago, mostly on the recommendation of a Lush girl who I'd stopped to chat to. We were both totally fangirling about amazing Lush products, especially about how great they are for cabin-bag-only travel. I've loved Lush ever since I found out they do solid shampoos, soap bars, solid body moisturisers... As a travel addict, Lush is pretty amazing.

So when the Lush girl I was talking to told me that Lush does solid face wash, you can imagine I was pretty excited! After talking about the various options available, I decided to pick up Herbalism, which is this little green crumbly monster in a pot.


Now, first things first. How do you use this stuff? I'm gonna admit that Herbalism does take a little bit of getting used to. It's not often that you get face cleansers that are in solid form, but even then it took me only something like three or four uses before I got the hang of them. You just pinch off a tiny little bit, add a tiny amount of water, mush it into a paste, and use it the same as you would a regular cleanser.

The key here is really not to add too much water. What I usually do is to wet the fingers of my other hand and start working the product into a paste. It then turns a very pretty colour of green - a light, milky green - and then you use it the same as you would any other face wash.

The thing I've found I like a lot about Herbalism is how natural everything is. I grabbed this from the product website - the list of ingredients include ground almonds, kaolin, glycerine, chlorophyllin water, nettle, rosemary and rice vinegar extract, rice bran, gardenia extract, rose absolute, chamomile blue oil, sage oil and perfume. Those are all natural ingredients, and I really like the sound of them, which is great if you're inclined to use all natural products.

My take on it

I love how my face feels after using this face wash. I've used the same face wash in a few different climates while travelling, and I can safely say that it's been holding up really well so far. Whether I'm in a place with wetter or drier humidity - like Singapore or Sweden - it doesn't make my skin feel dried out. I just feel refreshed and clean, which is great! Rice bran is the exfoliating agent here, and it's a soft enough exfoliant that your skin doesn't feel red or sore after use, so you can use it every single day.

Kaolin clay as an ingredient is also great if you have oily skin, because kaolin soaks up excess oil in your skin. Here in Singapore, my skin gets really oily really quickly, and I have definitely noticed less shine on my face after starting to use Herbalism. It takes a little while for your skin to adjust, but all around it does a bang-on job of being a great, gently exfoliating cleanser for all skin types.

Because it's a solid face wash, it's also fantastic for travel because you don't have to worry about liquid restrictions when you put it in your carry-on. Herbalism also doubles up as a body cleanser, so you can save on even more space in your travel bag!


On the website, Lush says:
"Nettles, rosemary and rice bran vinegar work to cleanse the skin, removing dirt and grease, leaving bright and beautifully clean skin. Chamomile blue oil and rose absolute are used for balancing skin tone. Rice bran and ground almonds will gently exfoliate the skin and when mixed with water, the almonds create a soft cleansing milk. Our chlorophyllin is extracted from alfalfa, which is rich in vitamins and minerals and is great for revitalising the skin."
Will a face cleanser, which is on your skin for all of maybe a minute and then washed off, really be able to give your skin a boost in vitamins and minerals? I'm doubtful. I'm not sure that chlorophyllin water is all as effective as Lush makes it out to be, but at any rate it turns the product a really pretty green. 

There have been times that I've gone over my skin with a toner afterwards, and there is a bit of a green tint on my cotton pad. So even after washing off, there are traces of the product left on the skin, but it doesn't really bother me. My skin's not being stained a bright Elphaba green, and I feel so much better after washing my face with this.



While I love this product for the most part, that there are some cons. Probably the biggest one is how quickly it goes bad. The shelf life of the product is just 2-3 months, which is isn't very long at all. Given how little of it you need to use every time, a small 100g pot is going to last easily 4-6 months, so that's a lot of product that goes bad really quickly. My confession: I'm actually past the expiration date for my pot already, but I'm still using it because it doesn't seem to be losing any of its effectiveness. I should be safe... Right? I'll keep you guys updated if my skin winds up breaking out or doing crazy things, which it isn't doing just yet.

Something else that's extremely interesting is Herbalism's smell. I've read a lot of reviews, and something that seems to come up again and again is that some people don't quite like the smell - people are saying that it smells like 'green chutney' and 'vinegar'. Weirdly enough, I don't think that at all. Quite on the contrary, I love the smell of Herbalism! To me it smells like fresh-cut grass and has a really nice sweet forest, jungly kind of smell. Some people may like it, some people may not, but personally I love the smell. It's not overwhelming - just enough for you to feel refreshed when you use it, but it's not overpowering in any way.

Price: S$25 in Singapore, or £6.40 in the UK for a 100g jar. Isn't it crazy how different prices are in different parts of the world?!


What do you think of Herbalism? Have you tried it before? Will you be trying it anytime soon? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Warsaw: A City Destroyed and Made New Again


I remember the capital of Poland from The Pianist, which is in my opinion one of the best WW2 films out there.

I've played piano pretty much my entire life, so seeing how Adrien Brody's character suffered not only at the hands of the WW2 injustice but also from being away from his instrument, I can quite truthfully say that I almost cried when Szpilman started playing Chopin's Mazurka in A minor.

Everyone, on three: sob.
The city is beautiful, its architecture old and weathered. Warsaw has survived numerous wars throughout its city, most famously World War 2, where some 85% of the city was destroyed. It has since been rebuilt (can you imagine rebuilding an entire city?), although the city bears memories of the war and especially the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, with monuments dedicated to the Warsaw Jews.

The Warsaw Uprising monument on Krasinskich Square

Warsaw is a city shaped by its scars.

Despite its difficult past, it's clear that it has come a long way. Today, it is very much a liveable place, with all the creature comforts that one would expect of a global city. The summers are comfortably warm, with people out on the streets under blue skies walking in between crayon-coloured buildings. Without the many monuments to WW2 victims, you might not ever know that this place was once the scene of massacres.



My German fellow Couchsurfer Ozzie and I set out on a hunt for the perfect pierogi, a Polish dish of stuffed dumplings that are first boiled, then either baked or fried. A summer day in July is perfect for just such a hunt.

I love seeing interesting adverts, especially if they involve upcycled materials. So when Ozzie and I were walking around and came across this advert van, I just had to take a picture.


We wandered down some tree-lined streets leading up to beautiful gates. (It's almost like Warsaw had to double her efforts to look pretty after being destroyed in all those wars.)


It turns out that 'authentic' pierogi isn't really a thing - in Poland, they're as common and widespread as fish and chips. (Imagine the embarrassment when we were trying to ask around for 'real' pierogi. Typical tourists!) Ozzie and I finally headed to Zapiecek, a restaurant chain that is well-known for having kickass pierogi at really decent prices.


Zapicek is super cute - it has a really homely atmosphere, with servers dressed in Polish costume and every restaurant decorated the way you might expect a grandmother's house to be. It looks and feels almost like a fairytale grandmother's house, which makes it all the more fun to be in.

After having a very Polish meal, we had fun hunting down the most Polish name that there was. (The name is "Stanisław", in case you're wondering.) And it's so typically Polish that we even found streets named Stanisław.


If you're a chocolate connoisseur, listen up: there's a Polish brand of chocolate called E. Wedel, and it's got an entire chocolate factory in the centre of Warsaw. Yup, that's right - a whole chocolate factory! Where there are chocolate factories, there must be cafés, and it was here at the Warsaw E. Wedel factory that I had some of the best hot chocolate I've ever had.

As if having hot chocolate next to a chocolate factory isn't enough, it's even better that the heavenly smell of chocolate wafts through the air around the factory. It's like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory come to life!

That chocolate! That whipped cream! What more could you want on a summer afternoon?
The heart of Warsaw's Old Town is its marketplace, which is bustling with restaurants and cafes filled with people at dinnertime. Amazingly, this entire area was systematically destroyed by the German army in the second World War and then completely rebuilt in the style of its pre-war appearance after the end of the war! A near-total reconstruction of a medieval city - that's pretty incredible.



It's clear that Poland is full of people who are as stubborn as they get. Complete rebuildings of cities are all in a day's work for these guys. I guess that's what you get from being a part of a country that's forced to toughen up from endless war and suffering, and that's what makes the Polish some of the most admirably resilient people there are out there.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Singaporean in Warsaw


One of the last places you might expect to bump into Singaporeans would be Warsaw in Poland.

And yet, Warsaw is precisely where I met the amazing and incredible Toniwalia, who - despite having grown up in Singapore, being totally Singaporean through and through, and cooking maggi goreng of all things for me on my first day in Poland - is Poland's top Couchsurfing host.

Toni is absolutely the most amazing guy and the most incredible host - he left Singapore some 18 years ago, moved to Warsaw, and never looked back. And when I asked him why Poland of all places - most people would go to the UK or the US - he simply said that it was the first place he went to and that he'd fallen in love so much that he never left.

This is "do not freak, I am a Sikh" Toniwalia.
Toni has hosted over 800 people in his little apartment in downtown Warsaw in 5 years of being an incredibly involved Couchsurfer. There's never a week that goes by that he doesn't have someone staying with him.

Imagine the amount of trust you must have to let more than 800 people through your front door!

Apart from being an incredible host, Toni also cooks insanely good Asian food. He runs a place called Tandoor Palace that makes the best tandoori chicken. The signature dish is called Chicken Toni (named after himself, of course) and it was the best Indian food I've ever had.

After having spent a good year away from Singapore and food like this, having this little taste of home was the best thing that ever happened.

Perfectly crisp tandoori chicken with neon green mint sauce. Soooo good!
While in Warsaw, I met a German girl named Ozzie who was Couchsurfing with Toni too. My temporary room-mate and I hit it off from the very get-go, and as everyone knows, liking the people you meet is the foundation of any amazing trip!

Toni took us around some of the most famous places in Warsaw, including the Łazienki Królewskie park to see a statue dedicated to one of Poland's most famous sons, Frederic Chopin.

Ozzie and me in front of the Chopin monument in Łazienki park!
Walking around Łazienki on a warm summer's day is like some sort of a dream, with happy families out having picture-perfect picnics on the green, green grass. And the park is massive - like, really, really huge, occupying an incredible 76 hectares in the centre of Warsaw.

In fact, Łazienki park is so big that it even boasts a palace. A palace! It's called, imaginatively enough, the Palace on the Water (because it sits right on the water).



The Palace on the Water actually sits on an artificial island that was built in Łazienki Lake, so it divides the lake into two northern and southern parts.

In keeping with the style of what seems like every other piece of royal real estate out there, the palace has peacocks. Indian peacocks, right in the middle of Central Europe. Why? I don't know, but it seems like every piece of royal property has to have peacocks, so... Peacocks for Poland!


Let's not forget the peahens.
The peacocks and peahens in Łazienki are so tame that they are barely bothered by the humans all around them. Some are even so tame that they'll take food right out of your hands! Most people feed pigeons, and then there are those that feed peacocks... Ha ha!


While we were walking and talking, Toni, Ozzie and I started making some so-bad-they're-good jokes. Toni told Ozzie and me about the Polish dish pierogi, which are a sort of dumpling with all sorts of fillings on the inside. ("P-p-p-pierogi!")

He also told us that since we were staying at his place, we were free to make ourselves at home. 

How much at home, you may ask? "If you go out and bring someone home, all I ask is that you bring one girl home for me too," says Toni. "With Polish girls, you don't fuck them - they fuck you!" Well, Toni, we'll be sure to keep that in mind! Bahaha!


I could not have been any happier with the new friends that I'd made that day in Poland. Two Singaporeans and a German in Poland? Sometimes the most unlikely combinations are the foundation for the most memorable moments.

Monday, August 18, 2014

In the South of France


I don't usually take group tours when I'm travelling, but when I do, it's because I want to go to some seriously pretty towns for less money that I would otherwise have spent if I had done it solo (oh, the woes of travel and money! Every traveller wishes that they could have an infinite bank account.)

But on occasion, being on one of these group tours can be pretty interesting, when they take you to really sweet little towns that you never knew existed.


Have you heard of a place called Moustiers-Sainte-Marie? I hadn't either until my tour group took me there. It's a really little place, a tiny little village tucked away on the edge of a limestone cliff and at the entrance to the Gorges du Verdon. With a population of only 700 people (seven hundred!!!), it seems like everyone wandering their streets in summer must be tourists.


The buildings in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie are painted in shades of warm, terracotta colours, with shutters that stand out against the colour of the walls. It's all very quaint and quintessentially French, as one might expect from a little village in the cliffs. The bushes and plants are alive in summer, and with clear blue skies, nothing could be more perfect.



What I liked about this picture-perfect little village is how, despite the buildings and cobblestone that seem caught in time, little details like metal foldaway chairs provide a gorgeous modern contrast to the old.


While in a place as picturesque as this, what else is there to do other than indulge in some seriously good eats? This basil and cheese sandwich that I had was absolutely to die for - perfectly grilled bread and yummy yummy basil! How is it that something so simple can taste so good? Whatever it is, I'm stealing the secret recipe!

I also had some lavender ice cream, which I decided to get because it was such a gorgeous shade of pretty pastel purple. I wouldn't really recommend it though. Lavender is amazing as a scent and I love dropping a few drops on my pillow before bed, but as a food it comes across a little too strongly for my liking. As far as lavender ice cream goes, I'll pass the next round.



Still though, food and blue skies in the middle of a cliffside French summer? Sign me up!



Moustiers-Sainte-Marie opens right up to the spectacular Gorges du Verdon, which has water the most mesmerising shade of bright turquoise. The most incredible bit? All this is real! Water this colour actually exists! The water attributes its colour to glacial melt as well as the suspension of mineral rock flour sediment.

I would have loved to be one of those happy people in boats paddling around the canyon!

Look closely at this picture - do you see a guy cliff jumping?! If only I'd been able to join him!

Standing on a bridge in the middle of the Gorges du Verdon is breathtaking - just being surrounded by bright turquoise water on either side. Turquoise!!! This blue-green colour is absolutely my favourite colour ever, so can you imagine how excited I was? Just like a little girl who couldn't keep still!

The contrast of summer dry grass to the turquoise water is so pretty, too :)


Tell me - will you be visiting Moustiers-Sainte-Marie and the Gorges du Verdon?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Lavender Summer


Did you know that the L'Occitane has museums in the middle of France's lavender fields? Yup, you read that right. Museums! For a skincare company! There's an endless display of L'Occitane related things - from the founding of the company to incredibly pretty seasonal packaging.

I guess it's no surprise that L'Occitane has a museum in this part of France, given how obsessed the French seem to be with everything related to lavender especially this time of year.


It's easy to see why and how the lavender obsession starts (although any real French person will never admit that they're properly obsessed over anything, that's being far too passionate). The fields burst into vibrant purple, so colourful it almost doesn't look real. Interestingly though, the characteristic calming scent of lavender doesn't get released until you crush the flowers, so even though the fields are filled with lavender they don't scent the air!


I couldn't resist taking a picture of myself in the field of flowers. Look how it's all the same colour as my hair!
This region of France is crazy scenic. I mean, this view! Look at this view! A warm summer's day, with clouds lazily drifting in the sky... It gives the effect of making everything look incredibly timeless, as if these fields and buildings have been here forever and will be here for a very long time to come.


It's impressive how every row of lavender is perfectly in line - just endless rows of perfectly carved, straight bushes of lavender. The only thing that wasn't perfect about this scene were the many bees and other bugs among the flowers - I kept thinking that I was going to get stung by a bee! Luckily for me nothing of the sort happened in the slightest.


So I continued dancing among the flowers.


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