Tokyo Oct 2012 workshop report

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I arrived in Tokyo a couple of days early – partially because of the flight schedules, partially because Tokyo is one of my favorite cities in the world for photography and I hadn’t had a chance to shoot here in nearly four years – it was high time I rectified that. I have to say that a large part of what made Tokyo so darn attractive was the fact that it felt so different from the moment you stepped off the plane; I don’t know if it’s familiarity or something else, but I didn’t really get that hit this time around.

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That aside, I spent a good two days just walking around, looking and shooting anything that took my fancy. I travelled very light – in the end bringing only the OM-D, 12/2 and 45/1.8 lenses, plus a Sony RX100 for backup (the links are to my reviews); not having a bag – hell, not even having to use the pockets of my shooting jacket most of the time – was positively liberating, not just because Tokyo appeared to be going through a warm ~25C spell.

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Plenty of opportunities to shoot distracted commuters during the many train rides.

The first day of the workshop started off with a briefing to explain the critical components of what goes into making a good image; followed by a period of just walking around Ginza, observing, with me pointing out compositions and the participants not distracted by the technical aspects of taking a photograph; by the end of the half hour, I was starting to see a lot of sneaked shots.

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We proceeded to a rather nice garden for a gentle introduction to the workshop, and easing the participants in by practicing proper perspective use and framing of edges – the best way to do this is always to focus on one topic alone and remove all other distractions; gardens are great for this because they’re quiet, tranquil and static objects are of course very friendly to do-overs until you get things perfect…

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Not part of the museum’s exhibits, but I’d like to think the style is very Japanese and it’d have at least made it into the amateur category.

One of my favorite places in Tokyo is the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography at Ebisu; they always have some interesting exhibitions running, and it was here where I first encountered Salgado’s work – in the form of original prints, no less. There were two exhibitions running – one of a competition from a local photography club, and one of a number of classical photographers considered to be masters. We spent some time assessing both – looking at what worked in the images, what didn’t, and deconstructing them for the participants to understand what elements they specifically liked, and how we would go about replicating them – first for the amateur images, and then the classical ones. Needless to say – there were a lot more hits in the classical images, but still a surprising number of misses or difficult to understand images in both.

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The afternoon and early evening was spent at Asakusa and the old market around Senso-ji temple; here we practiced the use of stages and waiting for a subject; timing, and making cinematic. There was also an unfortunate hangyoku (Tokyo apprentice geisha) who got pursued around for a few blocks…

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Dinner was at Akihabara, but not until the participants had a chance to practice some of the techniques from the Asakusa session again in a more lively environment, plus add in one more tool: the correct use of spot metering for the subject.

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Doyle was still raring to go after the rest of us were footsore and too full of yakitori; he kept shooting.

Day two dawned bright and clear again – the light was fantastic with nary a cloud to be seen; in the mornings, the tall canyons of buildings and their glass sides serves as very strong light guides and secondary sources; we spent it wandering around Ginza looking for light, and making the most of the naturally interesting sources both for street photography and architectural abstracts.

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Following another look-for-compositions-only walk to the Otemachi district near Tokyo Central (which was mostly observed, though it broke down somewhat at the end), we dealt with the use of reflections and layering to give images added context and depth, before calling a halt at noon once the light became non-conducive for this.

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We started out with all the cameras in a bag. By the end I don’t think anything could have forced the participants not to have them in hand all the time.

The group headed to Shibuya for the final instructional portion: shooting through people and acting calm, and working a single scene for a set amount of time to force yourself to work harder to see compositions rather than just abandoning and moving on. Both of these techniques require a huge amount of people, and Shibuya crossing on Saturday afternoon didn’t fail to oblige!

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Our last shooting session happened around dusk, at Shinjuku on the threshold of the seedy (and even busier than Shibuya) Kabukicho district. Here, the participants were given free reign to employ all of the techniques they’d learned in the previous sessions to capture whatever felt natural and instinctive to them; we regrouped for a review and feedback to figure out how to strengthen the idea, then went out for a final session before calling it a day for sushi.

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One of my experiments with motion – handheld. To be the subject of a future article.

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Another battle in the never-ending RF vs DSLR debate

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One of those scenes filled with randomness that happens from time to time in a place like Tokyo.

The final day was spent completing the workflow: yes, introducing the basics of Photoshop! Probably just as well, as the weather was miserable and raining. Up til this point, I didn’t think there was physically enough space for that many Macs in one room anywhere in Japan outside perhaps the Apple Store and rural Hokkaido.

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A gray, postprocessed shot for a gray, postprocessing day

You may be wondering why we didn’t visit the tuna auctions at Tsukiji: simple, because in recent years, access has gotten prohibitively restrictive to the point that now you have to queue from 5am to get a ticket for 5.30am that only allows you access to the auction portion for half an hour, and nowhere else. If you want to shoot the rest of the market, you can only come after 9.30am – long after all of the action is over. There simply wasn’t any point.

Images from the trip are slowly making their way into our reader Flickr pool by Khair Mahfar, lemonice photos, ekindangen, doyleshafer and dcmer. I’ll be uploading mine over the coming days and weeks, and most will come here as themed photoessays, too.

And yes, don’t worry if you missed this one – there will be more workshops planned for next year; provisionally, San Francisco, New York and possibly Boston in April; Munich, Barcelona and maybe London in September. I’ve also got a couple of spots left for Melaka on 3/4 November this year, as well as the last of the Zeiss Food Photography Masterclasses. Send me an email too book a place or if you’d like more details. Thanks! MT


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. A real world camera gear battle! Always wanted to see that, lovely capture.

  2. DH in SF Bay area says:

    Please advise if/when you will be doing a program in San Francisco! Have moved from Nikon systems to Olympus OM-D and found your site while looking for information about this new to me system. Very informative and much appreciated reviews! Thank you!

    • Yes I will be – probably April 2013. I’ll be putting an announcement up on the site as and when dates/ schedule are confirmed – thanks!

  3. Erwin Kindangen says:

    Hi Ming,

    I had a great time there and my photography definitely improved after the workshop. It taught me how to “see” scenes and what scene would actually make a good photo and not just randomly shooting at people. Plus the basic wizardry of Photoshop at the end of the workshop definitely ties it all up.

    In the meantime, I’ll keep perfecting what I’ve learnt before I jump to the next workshop (I hope there will be a follow up).


    • Thanks Erwin! There will be an intro to wildlife session next month in KL, and a USA tour in April next year or thereabouts. Will keep you informed!

  4. Cool shots Ming! Made me feel like I was actually at the workshop! 🙂

    1) For those candid shots of pedestrians walking past a set background, are you spot metering some part of the background (since I assume you’ve also prefocused on the background as well)? Or are you somehow metering the subject as it walks by?

    2) How much did you all spend on rail tickets getting around Tokyo? Couldn’t have been cheap. 🙂

    • 1. Yes, but if the pedestrian walks through a spot of light, you need to anticipate your required exposure compensation.
      2. About $10-15 per day.

  5. Hey Ming,

    It was a challenging and interesting workshop. I would have never forced myself to see Tokyo in different ways. To be honest I was happy with my photography for the most part and had little interest in branching out. But as I mentioned earlier, after the workshop it’s like seeing The Matrix for what it really is: some basic “code” and infinite possibility.

    Now when I walk through Ginza it’s going to take me much longer than before the workshop. It’s funny because I used to think that place was kind of dry and boring!

    It’s all still sinking in, but my photography has already tightened up quite a bit. And I won’t even get into post processing…that rocked my world like when we did layering in Ginza @. @


    • Haha – Ginza is one of my favorite places to photograph because the of the variety of textures, mix of natural and manmade light, and the variety of characters – go one or two streets behind the main drags and it feels totally different.

      Looking forward to seeing your new work – add it to the reader pool! 🙂

      Thanks again for participating and supporting!

  6. So, I assume that the first shot is with the 12mm Zuiko, yes? The edges of the frame look very two-dimensional; even closer in toward the center…the man in the flannel shirt looks like a cardboard cut-out. Is that typical of this lens, or just this angle/shot dynamic?

  7. Crossing my fingers for a workshop in Boston next year.

  8. The shot of the guy named Doyle got me. It’s like he’s anticipating some girls walking by, I can hear him thinking ”Hot pants! Mini skirts!”.

  9. Can you please make some comments about Oly 12 lens? How does it behaves for people photography? I’m considering using it to photograph kids on OM-D, but it is a significant decision due to price. Do you plan to make a separate review?
    Great photographs as usual!
    Many thanks!

    • I’ll be reviewing it in the near future. 24mm equivalent is never flattering for people, but it is good for wider photojournalistic work and putting context into the scene.

      • Many thanks for the help, I will wait for your’s review before purchasing. Please include in your review evaluation of the lens for low light photojournalistic work in closed spaces.

        • Short answer: buy one. It does just fine for those purposes, especially with the excellent stabilizer on the OM-D. Just don’t expect the clutched manual focus feature to actually be useful though; it’s not very precise.

  10. kenneth voigt says:

    You should do a portrait study of the girl in the group.


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