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New Straits Times >> Features

Words & Wings
Poh’s out to shoot 'em all

IN this era of Malaysia Boleh and the Malaysian Book of Records, the world-class achievements of our fellow citizens usually get a blaze of publicity.

Once in a while, however, a Malaysian quietly achieves international status and admiration, yet is hardly noticed.

One such example is Laurence Poh, an unassuming Ipoh businessman who by his own admission is an “unambitious family man” who usually plans his leisure activities around his wife and children. Soft-spoken, cultured and easy-going, Poh hardly seems the kind of person to have achieved worldwide acclaim.

Yet this anak Malaysia has been lauded by French, American and British specialists for having pioneered an entirely new genre of photography. Digiscoping is a term coined by Alain Fosse of France to describe the system or science developed by Poh, a system originally described by Western experts as Digital Camera Telescope Photography.

In recent years, Poh has been hailed as “the father of digiscoping”, and is gaining worldwide recognition for what is essentially a combination of science and art. A British scientist said what Poh is doing “is both an exacting scientific skill and bloody brilliant art — and the most incredible thing about it all is that digiscoping is basically so simple!”

What is digiscoping and why am I covering it in this column? Photographing birds is an extremely difficult practice and, in fact, is almost a special field in itself. Avian photographers need to know their subjects well and understand quite a bit about field ornithology.

They also need to photograph the birds from as great a distance as possible in order not to scare the little creatures away or interfere with their activities.

As the full name implies, digiscoping is basically combining the use of a digital camera with a spotting telescope. Apart from the usual paraphernalia like a sturdy tripod and carry-cases, no extra accessories are used. This enables the photographer to utilise the powerful focal distance of a telescope and capture images from a considerable distance.

In traditional photography, a variety of expensive zoom lens are mounted onto a basic camera body. If a telescope is used, a little washer or bracket enables it to be attached to the camera much like a giant telephoto lens.

In digiscoping, a digital camera is simply held outside a normal spotting telescope in such a manner that the image comes out full and clear. The technique looks deceptively simple. The reality is very different.

First, Poh locates the bird in the telescope-viewfinder. This can be a difficult task, especially if the bird in question is a busy little passerine, flitting from one spot to another. Having spotted the bird, he brings the digital camera as close to the telescope’s eye-piece as possible to reduce viginetting or “ringing”. Great care is taken to centre the camera precisely over the eye piece.

The more sophisticated and modern digital cameras allow the photographer to adjust shutter speed, focal distance, field of vision, white balance, exposure and other factors. This is where science becomes art and the skill of the individual comes into play. The ultimate test of art, however, is in the composition of the picture and the choice of subject.

Poh’s photographs can stun and delight internet users with their heart-stopping immediacy, power and intimacy. Bird lovers get to see their feathered friends up close and natural, while naturalists and ornithologists have hitherto unheard-of opportunities to study birds like inaccessible raptors and superfast sunbirds with vivid clarity.

The composition, colour and character of Poh’s photographs are aesthetic delights. It is testimony to the man’s altruism that he has not put a price on his art, although his lawyers keep an eagle eye on photo-credits and copyrights.

This meticulous and patient hobbyist is already well-known in ornithological circles, but as his fame spreads, it is a source of pride to the nation that it is a true-blue Malaysian who has made history as the “father of digiscoping”.
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