Kota Kinabalu Sunset and Night Photography

My interest in low light and night photography always sparks my curiosity to venture into the night to look for vantage point and location to capture nightscapes. I photograph nightscapes for personal projects as well as commission work. 

Kota Kinabalu, also known as KK, was the latest addition to my chasing light adventure and night photography location scouting. This is the capital city of Sabah, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. It offers amazing sunset and seascapes along the coast. 

The most accessible location for a sunset view is here, at the Todak Waterfront. A popular landmark in downtown KK, located behind The Hyatt Hotel. 

Borneo is one of the places in Southeast Asia that has amazing sunset, which mesmerises both locals and tourists.   Then again humanity seems to have some kind of love affair with sunset and the sea. 

Across the sea are three of the five islands within the marine park. The one on the right is known as Gaya island, also the largest island of them all. Half of Gaya island is inhabited by people while the other half is protected under the marine park. The other islands that can be seen from this waterfront is Manukan and Mamutik.

A row of fish trawlers are parked at the waterfront. The fish market is just round the corner, which is another interesting place to photograph in the early morning.

I am using a 7Artisans 12mm with a Fujifilm XT2 for this photography. The lens created slight distortion at some angles, as shown on the third photo. On the first photo, it had some light flare on the left corner, but it wasn’t an image spoiler. In fact, I like the way it is. Despite all that, this 12mm is a good sharp prime lens. I have it on my XT2 all the time and interchange it with the 25mm occasionally. 

Sun sets around 6.30 pm in KK at this time of the year. I moved to the opposite side of the waterfront facing the Swordfish roundabout to capture the beautiful twilight sky with silhouette of people.    

Unfortunately, when the street lights came on, capturing the night sceneries became rather challenging. There were too many stray lights. I was cautious with my angles and positioning of my camera to avoid too much harsh and non-symmetrical light bursts in the photos. 

I wanted a smooth curvy light trails against the background of the beautiful pastel coloured twilight moment.  Also, I wanted the “I Love KK” symbol to be positioned nicely in between the tail and the curve of the swordfish. This was the best take for this particular location, with negative spaces below and above this image. The photo was later licensed for an editorial print.  

Next, I moved in towards the city centre. Still working on avoiding more stray lights from street lamps. Traffic was low. Therefore, light trail was very mild. Then again, downtown KK tend to be quiet at night. Locals would exit the downtown area after office hours and head home or hangout in the suburbs.  This is the main road that connects the city and the outskirt. 

There are a lot of extreme warm lights in this area. It overwhelmed the rest of the colour tones. Therefore, working on the Kelvin temperature is important to set a favourable white balance to extract the needed tones from the scenery. Although I shoot in RAWJPEG, I still prefer to do the leg work from the in-camera setting the minute I am on the camera. 

The colourful Hotel Capital building as seen below was the result of the closest favourable setting of the Kelvin to balance off the warm lightings and to extract the multi colours from the building. That is a JPEG photo which I did minor adjustment of contrast and brightness only.

The sea used to go right up to that colourful building, which is Hotel Capital. The land reclamation started in the late 70s. Then row of shophouses were gradually built towards the current waterfront. 

This evening, I was looking for angles and location to capture the sense of KK. My composition and perspective are a bit off. I had to hide under trees, where possible, to avoid too many harsh light bursts in my photos. Perhaps changing my lens to the 7Artisans 25mm  or Fujinon 16mm might have worked better to reduce the ultra wide angle and to avoid too many street lights getting into my frame. I don’t have these two lenses with me at that time. As a result, I had to keep my highlight and shadow in control to avoid too much of cleaning up at post processing. 

Heading towards the end of the city are these architecture that was built during the British administration sometime in the mid 1950s. Somehow, I always like this part of KK. 

These historical buildings, which include the white building on the left, is the Harrisons & Crossfield, once a major trading and shipping company in Sabah. To the right, in the background is the sturdy white washed architecture that houses the HSBC Bank. In front of HSBC are the remaining pillars of once a railway station during the British colonial era. The wooden facade was burnt down in the late 20th century. It’s a clever idea to utilise these pillars, instead of demolishing it, to disseminate conservation messages through art. The messages on the pillars are calling for the protection of Sabah’s nature heritage. I went closer to have a look at those pillars, known as the Pillars of Sabah. 

Sabah is known to be Malaysia’s riches state for wildlife, which a majority are endemic and endangered, landscape wonders such as Mount Kinabalu and Maliau Basin, and renown world class dive sites such as Sipadan island with enormous marine life. These pillars communicate all that.

I used a shallow depth of field to compose the above photo. First I wanted to highlight the art on the whole pillar on the right. However, eye pleasing composition was restricted at all angles. So I decided on this particular angle. It nice to show some people in the photo but I don’t want to have a sharp focus on them. The background wasn’t that favourable either, which is a mall. So a shallow depth of field was the best option to blur out the background, yet viewer can still make out what it is although the colour composition is a bit off.    

Continue further inland, I went on to photograph Foh Sang the next night. This is location is about 6 kilometres from downtown Kota Kinabalu. It is dubbed the Chinatown of KK. 

These shophouses were built between the early 70s to late 80s, situated within a huge housing estate.  By night, most shops are closed. Only a few restaurants are open. Few bars are located along dark walkways on the upper floors of these shophouses, where one can hear patrons singing away at some karaoke session.

Lightings are not consistent throughout the location. There are a lot of dark areas. Other areas that have lights are overwhelmed with warm low lights. This is a good challenge for night photography.  

Therefore, my photographic approach on Foh Sang was to work with shades and shadows to draw out the characteristic of the place.

Foh Sang was built on swamp and was always floodprone in the 80s. These days, it is like a place to go to for food, to buy daily fresh produce or simply hangout at good old coffee shops for a chit chat with friends. Almost everyone knows each other in Foh Sang. 

I have not photographed its hustle and bustle in the day. I was curious to see how it looks like at night. This alley is filled with vegetable and meat vendors in the day. At night, it looked as though it is abandoned. What a camouflage. 

When these shops are closed for business by sundown, another set of mobile vendors will take over the car park. They will set up their stalls, selling fruits and other fresh produce into the wee hour. This is also the place to go to for durian when it is in season.

These good old shoplots are also getting some facelift over the years. Walls are painted with colourful arts depicting the people’s lifestyle in this suburban Foh Sang. This will be another day time series to photograph. 

Coffee shops, also known as Kopitiam, are famous joints for the locals to hangout over coffee or tea while savouring some of the local signature dishes such as prawn noodles, porridge and Bak Kut Teh (mix cut of pork simmer for hours in herbal soup). Although Hakka, a common Chinese dialect that is widely spoken in Kota Kinabalu, Foh Sang is where you can indulge in the dialect with confusion. That is, if you don’t speak it.

As the city is expanding, the district of Foh Sang is getting overly populated with traffic congestion. It is centrally located, a pit stop I would say, for anyone heading back and forth downtown into the other suburbs. 

Photographing sunset and night brings out a different sight of a location. It can be very rewarding when using the right techniques. If you are new to the location, use the first day of shoot to scout the location and take a few sample shots from all angles. If you have more time and the location is worth a second take, go back again the next night, all prepared with the do’s and don’ts to take better pictures. 

That concludes the first part of my photography documentation of KK and Foh Sang after dark. 

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