An Unfinished Business – The Makiling Botanical Gardens

It will almost be a year now since I first went to this place and I’ve been wanting to come back ever since. Although this forest is brimming with tales of the supernatural where unsuspecting visitors could wind up lost for days, I managed to come out unscathed. Maybe it was the stories but shooting alone here was nothing less than surreal. It’s not difficult to imagine fairies and ethereal beings appearing in the steps or a windblown sound calling your name coming from the far distance. Nevertheless, it was an amazing experience and a true shooting challenge. I remember how the sound of the birds can be heard all over the place when you first arrive and how later on you will forget when everything became silent. Was the forest striking a pose? or was it pondering what to do with us measly outsiders. I was on the edge because of the place’s legend and it won’t take much to throw my thoughts to full blown fear, I had to carry on because I’ve  never been to a place with such mystery.


It was only this month that I was able to drag myself and my wife to come back. The last I was here, the river alone consumed most of my time and prevented me from venturing out further than I originally intended. Taking photos along the river was a challenge in itself as you scamper for the best angle you can think of and then there’s the rocks that you have to step on to. There’s also a multitude of opportunities with the insects living on a world of their own. I never would have realized this if not for my wife who’d occassionally sit down to observe them.

Not only did we enjoy taking photos while we were there, we also enjoyed the time just being together and not being bothered by anything. I recall the tranquility of the place seemed to amplify our conversations as if they were echoing in a dream. Some may find it romantic, some may find it eerie but I found it nostalgic.  Although I can’t exactly tell what compels me to come back again and again, it could be the scent of mystery in the air or the thrill of conquering my fears.

…or was it the sound of my name blowing in the wind?

The Makiling Botanical Gardens is approximately an hour and a half drive from Manila.  The Gardens is within the grounds of the University of the Philippines Los Banos and has an entrance fee of Php 20.00.  Legend has it that the Spirit of Mariang Makiling lures outsiders to the depths of the forest confusing them until they lose their direction for days.  The well-known cure for outsiders experiencing this was to remove their clothes and wear them inside-out.

Life in Mono and Random Thoughts

Color is among those things in our lives that is easily taken for granted. Its significance is often lost as our attention is drawn towards its superficial qualities rather than its very essence. Color – its abundance or lack of it are like Apples and Oranges and are entirely worlds apart.

Recently, I was rummaging through the photos I’ve collected and I was surpised how some photos I used to ignore suddenly unfolded with different character when they were converted to monochrome. I was surprised how turning to monochrome allowed me to see the others things that were going on in the photos. When I first captured these photos I felt that there was something about the scene but I just wasn’t able to figure out what it was. With too much information, I was easily overwhelmed and failed to realize the beautiful converge and divergence of lines, emotion and most importantly context.

This brings me into thinking how life is for people who are color blind. Are they less fortunate or is it us? Do they get to stop and smell the roses while we remain lost and amiss from too much stimuli around us? Or maybe it shouldn’t be thought of as a disadvantage in the first place. Life in Color or without may never be a question of reality as I’ve always thought that for us individuals, Reality is relative because reality is what we see and interpret through our senses which can never be identical. Similar but still not identical.

“I find hope in the darkest of days, focus on the brightest. I do not judge the universe.”
– Dalai Lama

My Sweet November and getting Cross-Eyed at Sonya’s Garden

I was down to my last weekend in the Philippines before flying back to work for the next 4 weeks. Being on this set-up for quite some time now have made me realize the value of time especially how it drastically appreciates when its less and how it is neglected when there is plenty of it. This actually should not come as a surprise anymore because everything else behaves the same way like – Love, Happiness and Attention or something more earthly like Food and Money.

I can think of several movies whose plot revolves around people making the most of their limited time. Sweet November is one of those movies which although I only managed to watch in fragments conveyed enough emotion for me to keep it in my Unforgettable Movies List. I am surprised to find out that the lead actors in that movie were nominated for Worst Acting Roles in a 2001 awards. I thought the movie had decent acting job or maybe the plot itself was so emotionally alluring that I didn’t notice their acting.

So, for my last weekend for the month of May, me and my wife decided that we go on a somewhat mellow exploit as our “Sweet November”. Sonya’s Garden in Tagaytay was in our sights because of its accessibility and the curiosity it has spurred on us for quite some time already.

Unlike my wife, I’m not really being a big fan of raw vegetarian food in which Sonya’s Garden is known for but we were excited to spend nice quiet time and see what the Garden really is about.

On the way there, we encountered a heavy rain which reduced to a drizzle when we finally arrived. The cold climate of Tagaytay combined with the humidity of the drizzle made us feel like waking up in the wee hours of the morning but it was actually around past 3 in the afternoon already.

After finding a parking spot, we walked to the front desk of Sonya’s Garden anxious of the entrance fee that awaits us. To our surprise, one of the employees at the front told us that there was none. Fees are only charged to specific services so unless we’re content to just hang around the place then there is nothing to worry about.

The flowers of Sonya’s Garden were indeed impressive and the whole place was as peaceful as what we were led to imagine from advertisements and discussions by other visitors. The rain earlier proved to be an advantage as the overcast and slightly gloomy sky further added on to that “cozy-sleepy” atmosphere.

And like sprinkling salt and pepper to a dish, the drizzle was just enough to put an extra touch to the flower photos we were able to snap.

We had a great time taking photos of flowers that I almost got cross-eyed. Unlike landscape photos, taking flower photos present a unique challenge as you have to deal with close subjects which usually cannot be properly judged by the camera’s Auto-focus System thus, you have to rely on Manual Focus and spend longer time peering through the viewfinder.

Depth-of-field also plays a crucial role in flower photos so it is best to take photos of your subject at various aperture values and compare them later.

We spent around 3 hours at Sonya’s Garden before we decided to leave. Since we were craving for something deep-fried like KFC, we thought we’d give the veggie food a pass for now.

How to get to Sonya’s Garden – From South Superhighway exit Santa Rosa and turn right towards Tagaytay. Upon reaching main Aguinaldo highway, turn right toward Nasugbu, Batangas. Go past Tagaytay Rotonda and proceed for 10km. After Splendido Golf course and Sunrise Hill make a right turn on the Buck Estate. Drive for 2km and watch out for Sonya’s on the left side. Use the first gate and drive towards the end of the driveway and make a right towards parking lot.

Sonya’s Garden also provides Bed and Breakfast and a well frequented Spa. for those interested to take on the complete Sonya’s Garden experience.

Industrial Photography

The schedule of my work requires me to be on site for 28 consecutive days on 12 hour shifts with no weekends and then 28 days vacation to even it out. It will probably sound like a good deal at first but I say the 28 days off might not even be fair enough. You will definitely be amazed how 28 days working straight can totally mess up your mind and drive you almost to the point of insanity.

That is why when I’m at work, I am bound to do work whether I like it or not. I think of myself as a bird flying away from the great forest and going straight into a cage every time my 28 days of work begins.

There are days when all you want to do is survive and get one day over with so you’re one day nearer to returning home. For me, most of the days are like that though. One positive thing about it is that when I am at work, I sleep early…way too early unlike when I am at home in the Philippines, I just can’t get enough of one day and I feel like I can’t give it up yet just to sleep.

That reflects my point of view about sleeping which I don’t see as a mere necessity for my body. For me, sleeping involves a profound connection to life. For me, sleeping is our personal surrender that a day is concluded. One day was like a play held successfully on the stage, with all the chorus and highlights, laughter and sadness. The curtains cannot go down unless the applause is made.

Not quite the same thing here. Because of the unforgiving monotony, I can no longer tell where one day ended and the other day started. My body feels the same and no matter how many hours of sleep I get, I will wake up still tired and dazed. What used to be my reality is reduced to a dream.

I make it a point to bring my camera with me on my 28-day roster. Although I know there is little chance of putting it to any significant use, my camera keeps me hoping that something better will show up. Some evenings, I try to shoot with my camera but I end up dissatisfied with what I come up with and just give up. I feel all creativity in me is snuffed out. Sometimes I feel bothered what if I can’t recover my creativity back. Fortunately that has not happened YET.

All being said and after a long, bleak but personally necessary introduction, here’s the deal.

I was given an odd assignment 3 days ago by my boss. He said he wanted to frame some photos of our Refinery and put them throughout the office. It sounded like a good idea but if you think about it, do you really want to see more pictures of the Refinery when there is obviously nothing else to see outside of the office besides the Refinery!

But anyway, I found my boss’s request a humbling compliment and of course a challenge. Right there I knew it will take a miracle for me to turn ON my creativity when I turned it OFF the moment I left Philippines. Trying to breathe some enthusiasm to my predicament, I told myself that this could be something that I can add on to my blog. After all, I haven’t seen anybody blog about an Oil Refinery better yet make it a Photography subject.

Among the things a photographer will find interesting in an Oil Refinery is the unlimited instances of repetitions and patterns. The first photo I have here is one example of repetition. Despite the complete lack of creativity and aesthetic value of the subject, this photo is admirable from an Engineering point of view because of stuff like commonality of equipment, inter-changeability of parts, maintainability etc.

Now, a lot of people love to take photos of repeating subjects. Sadly, it is used so often especially by beginners because it is one of the simplest compositions to make and due to our inherent bias towards appreciating patterns the results always turn out to be pleasing. But of course there are some that do not show any thing of interest anymore because they have been done a lot of times already. Think about clothespins on wires, crayons, pencils – familiar right?

It is debatable and probably depending on one’s taste how to take photos of repetitions. Do you use a shallow Depth of Field or do you go full blast at F11? I know I might get tied to the cross for this but I find it absurd to use a shallow depth of field on repetitions because you will end up blurring out the rest of the items not in the Focus Point hence making the entire repetition scene useless. If you ask me, I use a shallow depth of field when I want to isolate a subject.

The next photo I have here is a view taken from one of the Heat Exchanger platforms showing an excellent view of the process columns as well as the storage tanks. Nothing of particular interest here but It is a best effort of combining the hefty portions of the subject and some bits of the surrounding environment (vegetation, weather and topography). My curves and exposure seem off at this point but I had to compromise because I wanted more attention to the details of the piping, columns, stacks and all the boring stuff . I felt that an HDR is not necessary as the photos will be viewed more by Engineers anyway.

This next photo is intended to strike a sense of dimension emphasizing to the viewer the height of the subject and the relative distances they are between each other. A good level of detail was called for in this shot because the leading lines created by the Wide-angle lens have a tendency to draw the viewer’s eyes all the way through the top. Actually, I veer towards a liking on photos that draw attention and have that power to manipulate the eyes of the viewer.

This last one is an off angle shot I included in the mix to give a dynamic sense to the place. All the straight vertical and horizontal lines tends to convey that boxed-up emotion so adding a little angle gives that extra kick and puts some energy. I’ve done this in lots of occasions and it works well on group shots of people. It works wonders too because when your subject sees you tilting your camera they will start to loosen up which makes the whole process more natural and spontaneous.

Right now I’m looking forward to what my boss chooses to print out. How about you? Which one would you choose?

Photography and Me (so far)

I’m far from the likes of Ben Stirton or Joe McNally but I thought I’ve progressed significantly enough from where I was before. Photography has become my passion and if my memory serves me right, I’ve never experienced anything so gratifying like Photography long enough to even call it a hobby.

Fortunately the fateful day came when the Shutterbug crawled up on me a gave me a good bite. For years, part of my work had to deal with me having to take pictures for the sake of describing stuff to bosses and colleagues but was never meant for appreciation but a mere tool. The photos I took then were far from anything you might associate with creative photography. There was simply nothing creative about it.

At the time when everyone seem to be eyeing DSLRs I was content to just asking how much they were and learning about how much they cost made me more comfortable that I’m never going to afford to jump on the same wagon. Eventually a fortunate windfall came my way and I had a chance to buy my own camera.

My first camera was a Lumix FZ40. The circumstances why I ended up buying that instead of a DSLR was because of some smart-talking vendor in Hongkong that brainwashed me into believing that a Bridge Camera was better than a DSLR. The Lumix by the way cost me more than a Nikon D3000 that I was eye-ing at the time. I bought the camera in Hongkong by the way, the excitement of going through Disneyland and Ocean Park with no camera justified my urge that it is time for me to venture out into this field.

That was one of my first snaps with the Lumix. There was definitely no clear subject and the technical aspect of using the camera was definitely off. Of course, nothing against the Lumix as I realized that it is by itself a very capable camera and it is indeed true that the person taking the photo makes the most difference and not the camera.

The Hongkong trip was just the start, soon I found myself bringing the camera along whenever I had the chance and eventually as most Photography hobbyists are guilty of, the camera became the reason why I had to go out and we were inseparable. I never was so engrossed in Phtography like anything else before. I was reading a lot of material learning at the same time experimenting. I was Figuring out stuff like Aperture, Shutter Speed, Depth of Field, Composition, Framing and the rest of the lot. It didn’t take me long enough to outgrow the Lumix and I finally bought my first DSLR.

The photo above was taken the day after I bought my first DSLR. It was a Canon EOS 550D which was a widely appreciated DSLR for beginners. That camera did a lot to further stimulate my development. As you can see, I learned to look for my subject, I knew how color or the absence of it can do a lot in isolating interest and most importantly to look for the right opportunity. There still was a lot of room for improvement.

Then there comes a phase when every Photographer feels that he need another lens. Sad to say that is also the bane of getting into Photography as it really is one the expensive hobbies out there. Lens, filters, off-camera flash, tripods and more filters. The list can go on and after you tire out of one addition you will find another reason why you need some more.

Eventually I ended up with a Nikon D7000 and it has been my camera ever since. The reason why I enjoyed the camera more than the previous ones was because it was so easy to use and all the settings you need to make can done on the go. I remember when I was using my EOS550D, my wife which was my girlfriend back then often suffered from facial cramps having to smile for extended periods as I fiddle out how to change settings in my camera. This always ended up as a hilarious scene for both of us as I get mocked for being the hobbyist that I was and then I get even by coming up with a photo of my wife with a smirk far from the optimistic smile she began with.

My D7000 was with me all the time and it felt like I couldn’t care less for other things beside taking photos which makes me wonder if it was a normal thing that photographers go through or it was just me.

A few more trips followed and I was really getting the hang of it and I was starting to get some admiration from others already. I thought that was it but then I somehow reached the point when I started to feel stress which was not supposed to be. I soon realized that all the beautiful places I’ve been  to despite sucessfully getting good photos left me empty. My satisfying my Photography but I wasn’t enjoying my travels. I had to strike a balance in enjoying what was around me and my Photography because sooner or later I will burn myself out.

One good example is when you go on a vacation and you see different people all with cameras varying from point and shoots to pro level DSLRs and you wonder, who had fun the most? Was it the person with the fancy camera or the one who was just content snapping away with his cellphone’s camera. It’s hard to tell just as it is but for sure the person who will enjoy it most will be the one who was able to look around to see the clouds and notice how the trees swayed with the wind, how the children laughed and played, how the barbecue was cooking and how it reminds you of the place afterwards.

I have a long way to go and I’m not worried how long it takes. I am content that I am having fun and I have my camera right where it should be…just beside me and not in front of me.