Film diaries: Watches and a Hasselblad

blad watches negatives contact sheet
Digital contact sheet of the negs.

I’ll admit that deep down, from the day I decided to buy the Hasselblad, I’d harboured a deep, masochistic desire to do this. During previous evaluations of medium format for my main commercial subjects, it didn’t really fit the bill: too difficult to achieve the degree of magnification required for watches, and digital medium format wouldn’t give me the width I needed for architectural work. It’d also be overkill for food photography in this country, given the current state of affairs*.

*I recently had a large corporate client ask for a portfolio and quote, then turn around and give the job to another photographer who quoted less and said ‘here, copy’. The results were crude because of harsh lighting and repetitively boring subject placement, but I suppose if they can’t tell the difference…perhaps I’m the one who’s got unrealistic expectations?

But hey, on film, for fun and in the spirit of creative experimentation, why not?

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The whole rig is over half a meter long…

Step one: assemble the required rig. You’re looking at a Hasselblad 501C (with custom skin) plus PM5 viewfinder prism, cable release, 21 and 55 extension tubes, and a 4/120 CF T* Makro-Planar, sitting on a Gitzo GT5562 carbon tripod and Manfrotto 410 geared head. What I didn’t show is the PC sync cable between the lens and the slave flash, which in turn triggered two other flashes via SU4 optical trigger – all in manual, of course. And being manual only, you have to do guide number calculations to figure out the right exposure; don’t forget to compensate for the magnification factor, T stop of the lens, and losses due to diffusion through the lightbox. Bottom line, I don’t really miss this bit that much from the days when I used to shoot watches on slide film with a beat up F2.

Aside from the calculations, the rest of the shooting experience wasn’t that different from what I normally do; granted, I had to change out extension tubes more frequently (and be careful to ensure everything was cocked before mounting), but it didn’t feel that much more unwieldy than usual. I have no doubt that the sturdy tripod and geared head helped immensely here. It’s also worth noting that with the mirror locked up, the V-series ‘Blads are actually very low vibration devices; the only part moving during capture is the leaf shutter in the lens, which hardly vibrates at all. There was one annoyance, though – my 501C lacks the gliding mirror that prevents blackouts of the top portion of the frame with longer lenses and/or close up; I had to guess the top 5-10% or so of the frame, so some of the compositions aren’t as perfect as I’d like them to be. If I was to do more of this work, I’d definitely get a later model body with this feature.

I used Delta 100 film, developed in DDX at 1+8 dilution (also an experiment, I normally run DDX at 1+4 and 5:45 for Delta 100), 26C ambient temperature for 10min with 10s of gentle agitation every minute. Perhaps it wasn’t quite enough agitation; the grain is small enough to be non-existent for all intents and purposes, but it does have the odd edge haloes that frequently result from stand or semi-stand development. I think it could probably do with a bit more agitation to avoid areas of exhausted developer. Still I wanted to a) see the effect of longer developing times on grain, and b) see if I could economize on developer – DDX is pricy stuff.

The negatives were ‘scanned’ – digitized – with my usual setup of D800E and macro lens held in a custom stand on top of a lightbox containing a flash (this is why the EXIF data always reads 1/250s f8 with flash). I’m still refining the post-capture conversion process – so far it’s a two-step thing that requires some presets on the negatives in ACR (get exposure right, desaturate) and then an action in PS. Bottom line: if you tried to invert the first image, you’ll find it looks very different from the contact sheet of finished images:

blad watches positives contact sheet

I shot one roll in total – that’s just 12 frames. But it did take the better part of an entire afternoon. Of the 12 images, I’m very happy with six, okay with three, can’t decide between two, and don’t know what I was thinking when I shot one. I make that a keeper rate of 10/12, which is not too bad considering there were manual flash calculations and no bracketing involved. Certainly much, much better than my digital results. Could I have tweaked things in places? Sure, but not to the extent they’d have mattered or been immediately obvious.

Now, if only color developing was as simple as black and white. Enjoy the images! MT

Ilford Delta film is available here from B&H.

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The role of a photographer’s chronograph is to time the soup

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At home with the collection.\

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Organic and inorganic. Soft and hard. Man-made and natural…there’s a metaphor in here somewhere.

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A gentleman’s accessories

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Bonus box

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Luminous material in B&W – 30s exposure

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Watch whimsy

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Old and new

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All into the hat


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


  1. Well ! hello there.
    I still don’t know how I end up finding your page ? I am still a learning Photographer. I love to Photograph Men in semi nudity, young and chiseled. Your photography is absolutely superb in all aspect. It is almost erotic … I am amazed… congratulations.
    Patrick in Los Angeles

  2. plevyadophy says:

    Ming Thein, the only man I know of who makes watch photography look sexy.

    Beautiful images.

  3. Reblogged this on saturn1ascends.

  4. me either~~~ although i’m a commercial architecture & interior photographer, understanding ur feelings of our client get our Quote & portfolio then turn around ask others cheaper for the job~~~

  5. Great rewards of a harder than usual work; the pic of the Seamaster in-between cameras is my favourite.
    Also I should mention the pic of your colourful Blad, which the lightning showcases nicely.

  6. Nice work Ming. One little word of advice. Get yourself a “small” studio stand. I use a small 7 or 8 footer ( I forget which ) with a 90 degree arm that goes up and down with a light twist of a handle. I mounted a Linhof ball head on it for precision. I can go from 1 foot to 7 feet in less than two seconds. Plus, it has lockable casters! It has to be the one best piece of equipment I’ve owned and only weighs 50 lbs. so I can transport it when needed. No more trying to level a tripod or change height with those archaic screws or flip locks. Check out the Manfrotto 806 Mini Salon.

    Take care,

  7. Tom Liles says:

    Quality of light.
    Clarity of subject.
    Balance of composition.
    Transmission of the idea.

    The glove frame felt like the weakest — if I even dare say that — only because the “clarity of subject” dimension wasn’t relatively as strong [as the others]. The Omega Speedmaster shot [amongst the cameras], on that precise point, was brilliant.

    How you aren’t more famous by now is beyond me.

    • The glove absorbed light. Texturally, difficult to light in the same frame as the highly reflective watch – shiny leather rather than suede would have worked much better, I think. Sadly I was fresh out of hitmans’ gloves. As for fame…it’s almost all luck.

      • Tom Liles says:

        Aha! and so we’re also talking about diffuse and direct reflection here? [I’m not embarrassed to admit I enlisted my sister in the UK to get me a “Light Science & Magic” second-hander and send to Japan—came last week!] OK, how does this sound: you wanted raking “hard” light — [Ming, is this just another way to say collimated? I don’t think so; but many of the contrasty/hard light examples seem to be talking about collimated beams… anyway — raking hard light across the glove’s surface, but a controlled specular highlight for the direct reflection from the shiny watch surface. There’s also the glossy leather strap to consider in your lighting as well, I suppose. At any rate, if you posted it, it means it’s premo quality—I’ve no doubt.

        There’s a nice line in EMPIRE OF THE SUN. Jim’s father tells him they might move to a bigger house, Jim tells his father “how lucky we are!” And Jim’s Dad says: yes funny, isn’t it. The harder I work, the luckier we get

        Always loved that line 😀

        • Not quite. It’s more along the lines of the matte surface requiring more light and the polished one less light to have the same reflectance; I could have composited or local-retouched with digital, but that would be against the spirit of film, so I didn’t here.

          Working plenty hard. There’s a threshold above which I think you need to get a break…hasn’t happened yet.

          • Tom Liles says:

            Your work ethic is unimpeachable Ming. And this is the point: if anyone’s got good luck coming their way, it’s you. [And perrrrhaps a little fame to boot?] And quite right too.

            Thanks for the lighting explanation. I think — I say I think — I understood that 🙂 Are we in Gobo territory, I wonder? Please don’t answer that—I have to get there by myself, the hard way. Well, I say it’s “the hard way,” but I’m having a blast. In related news: the Liles family is preparing itself for its first speedlight soon. Fun times!

            • One can only hope, but plan for the contingency that this isn’t the case.

              I could use a gobo, but it doesn’t alter local intensity other than by masking – it’s binary, in that sense. I’d really need to use two lights aimed in the same direction but with different beam widths – pile up the intensity on one side, lower on the other. Easier to find the hitmans’ gloves.

      • Tom Liles says:

        Sadly I was fresh out of hitmans’ gloves


  8. You kill me, Ming! I’ve never seen such a combination of creative passion, executional excellence, childlike curiosity and a physicist’s scientific approach. You’ve got this cool (as in temperature), urban, stark, clean sensibility negotiating with a carefree, warmer, enthusiast’s experimentation. Wow. The shots are stunning. Who else would spend all this time on a personal project and in the darkroom for hours? Don’t ever let the bastards get you down. Peace!

  9. Iskabibble says:

    Neopan Acros Ming, ACROS!

  10. A.A. Stephens says:

    Amazed by your work
    So much technique and experience

  11. Hey Ming,

    Hope all is well. Here is a very “non-photographic” reply. How do you like the new 9300 Speedmaster? I’ve been wanting a Speedmaster for the longest time, but am still debating the “original” (3570), the sapphire sandwich (3573) or this new one (which is considerably more expensive than the other two). I like the bigger size and date feature of the new one, but the proportions, symmetry and hand-winding features of the original design keep me bouncing back and forth between the three. The thing is, this wouldn’t be for collecting, but for (almost) daily wearing. What are your thoughts on this? Feel free to respond in private if this makes more sense and if you have time: bordcla at hotmail dot com.

    Best regards,


    • There’s a 42mm 9300 with straight lugs that was announced a this year’s Baselworld that might interest you. I like the 9300 just fine though – happens to be the most accurate watch I own, too; whatever they did with the coaxial escapement and silicon bits (hairspring, balance, escapement) works.

      • Unfortunately, that new 42mm Speedmaster with 9300 movement appears to be a “Broad Arrow” watch, which to me completely spoils the charm of the original design with the highly legible baton hands. I did go to the jewellery store to try on the new 9300 Speedmaster and, unfortunately, though it is striking and the I like the size very much, it doesn’t sit well on my wrist for some reason. As much as I like it, it wouldn’t be for me. So “Old” Speedmaster it is, when I’ve managed to set the funds aside in full. Thanks for your thoughts, though!

        Best regards,


  12. Hey Ming

    You just made me wanting to purchase that 45mm f/2.8P lens, it looks so good in silver finish, I guess that this lens is really well made out of metal only right? Have you used it on a D800 before? Buying that as a collector’s piece 🙂

  13. Charlie Z says:

    The B&W tonality hits me in the heart. Ooooof!

    I very much enjoy your perspective, as one who is expert with the latest technology and can compare it to the old. I know it’s a bit dear, but the Plustek 120 scanner might be a good choice for you.

  14. DynaSynergy says:

    regarding potential clients who turned you down – dont cast pearls to those who dont appreciate exquisite finesse , swines prefer mud to pearls.
    Keep on doing things in excellence & you would one day meet kings,queens or vvips !!!

  15. Anatoly Loshmanov says:

    Exelent photography! Twelve shot ONLY. Time to think in between.
    Thanks for sharing of your work. Yes, you are right, sometimes client do not see the different or do not want see.

  16. Kristian Wannebo says:

    You are certainly a watchful photographer…

    I especially like the “Luminous material .. 30s .. ” !
    ( And it takes a pro to nail that first exposure.)

    Havanas… In Sweden (high tobacco tax) they are too expensive – for me, even without the watch.

    Hasselblad equipment not only looks sturdy:
    A Swedish wildlife photographer, Nils Linnman I think, found that out in the 1960:s.
    He had set up his Hasselblad with a long tele and a trip wire anticipating a possible passing bear.
    But things went wrong, the trip wire turned the tripod over and the lens was only half as long after hitting a log.
    And this was a week’s walk from civilization.
    Well, he found a stout piece of wood and cut it so it got an edge, and started hitting the lens until it was restored to it’s original length.
    And … the lens worked as before the accident!

    • Did it still focus to infinity? 😛 Or was that just the lens hood?

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        The front part with the lenses had been pushed in.
        And it did again focus to infinity if I remember rightly.
        He told it in one of his photo books, about Lapland I think.

  17. Those are a delight. You may laugh, but my initial thoughts were ‘succulent’ and/or ‘juicy’ – not the watches (ehm), but the photos themselves, the richness of the blacks/shadows especially. It there *no* way to achieve this with digital?

    • Sadly, not. I’ve tried, and tried, and tried, and some commenters remain convinced that it’s doable with LR, but frankly, I can’t even do it with my years of experience, hours of dodging and burning in PS and every other tool at my disposal. It’s not for want of trying, that’s for sure. If I could get this kind of tonality directly…I’d do it all the time. There’s a reason Salgado shoots digital but still prints via an intermediate film step. I never understood this before, but I think I do now.

  18. I like the experimentation! Also a good selection of watches 😉

  19. The Nomos Glashutte is my fav, no comment about that photo though

  20. I thought you sold your RX100… so I assume this is somebody else’s? And with the Richard Franiec grip I note; I’m very happy with mine, though handling is still a bit slippery.

  21. really strange idea…..why don’t use directly the D800E ?

    • Firstly, out of curiosity/ experimentation. Secondly, the B&W tonal map is very different.

      • to me tonal map is really a notion of the past. LR produce all tonal map you may need…..i think you manage to create the worst of both world 😉 (i mean any scanning process require a bit of leveling and can’t be “neutral”)

        • I disagree. I think the results speak for themselves…

          • Ming, i am sorry (and there is nothing aggresive or personal with my answer) but the results doesn’t speak so much too me. On my calibrated screen, your photos are rather dull, and lack a lot of details in shadows. You must know i am a 15y experience pro, i have done a lot of bw prints but it was already too late : the products and papers Salgado used were already dissapeared and i never obtain the same results. Sadly or nor, i think my digital files are closer to what i never achive with film+paper.

            • You’re also looking at a web-sized, compressed JPEG. I think that makes a significant difference. And the prints I’ve made from this lot definitely don’t look dull, or lack shadow detail. Each to his own…

  22. Great work! Don’t be afraid to try color films too. An aquarium heater to maintain 30 or 40ºC in a large tank where you immerse a developping tank and 3 bottles from a Tetenal C-41 kit is a good start. The next step is the darkroom 😉 Digitalized films are often flat and suffer from moiré.

    • I think the tonal range of B&W film is something that digital still can’t do. But color accuracy is much easier to achieve with digital…also, my wife would kill me if I put a fish tank full of chemicals in the kitchen or bathroom!

  23. Lawrence says:

    love all your shots… noticed all the watches are set around 10 to 2 or 10 after 10… is it the watch version of ratio of 1/3?… just curious…

  24. Brilliant work Ming. That Hassy looks oddly great :-). It’s their loss not yours.

  25. David Challenor says:

    Hi Ming, Nice pictures. In the past I made close-up pics with the Hasselblad 503cw with the automatic bellows and 135mm macro lens. This combination is lighter and more flexible. Second hand its cheaper than your current system.Love your site and thanks

  26. Awesome shots. We have a lot of the same watches! When I started collecting, I made a list of “grail” watches, the classics if you will. Looks like you ended up with a similar list.

  27. Wonderful results, the “luminous material” shot is the winner for me … Perfect exposure and to my mind, something inescapably zeiss about the out of focus. Mine (much more antiquated) has made it’s way to work, I am yet to find the time, patience, appropriate subject or skills to put it into action … One day though 🙂
    Anyway, I have only recently started reading your blog so excuse me if I have missed the details… You mention your method of digital capture using a d800. I wonder if you could either provide me with a link to more detail or perhaps take a photo of the set up and send it to me. Of course no hurry, I’m sure you are busy … My experiments so far have not lead to great results. I can see that it is possible, but my patience with my self has run out and I could do with a pointer. All the best, keep up the good work! Hamish

    • Thanks. I digitize with a custom rig. Will probably be offering them for sale at some point in the next few months.

      • Consider me an early customer. I’ve always had trouble getting negatives digitized and it really puts me off the whole process. I’ve resorted to scanning the prints off the negatives which has so many drawbacks. I have a small experimental rig I’ve set up for use with the D800 but it’s… experimental as I say 😉

        Looking forward to seeing this become available!

  28. Seems like a Hasselblad to Nikon lens adapter should be enough to give you a digital Polaroid (Fuji-roid) of the lighting? It would be cropped, but the main area lighting should show accurately.

  29. Very, very good. Your pictures really show the beauty and versatility of b&w. Loved the bear and was really bowled over by the watch in the hat/cap. The contrast of texture and pattern is stunning.

  30. Good stuff !

  31. Ming,

    Very nice work, thank you for sharing with us. This may be a foolish question, but do you take test shots first with a less complicated set-up to perfect the compositions?



  32. Very, very nice. Thank you!

  33. Hi Ming

    Great work, which i think should still have been shot in B&W, if given the option of color .. I’d guess the Teddy watch is the No-No 😉 I love the way you label/name the images too.. My favs : the soup, the gentleman’s, luminous, cigar box ..

    Warm regards,

  34. Hasselblad just discontinued their latest 503CW :-/

  35. William Jusuf says:


    the watch….
    ok ok for this, I dont see the photo or hassie first

    the watch.. the composition
    back to the wacthes

    as a WIS..
    You are the Man

    and all those Swiss company is stupid not to hire you
    I wish Seiko would, but I understand how they see things.. so… hmmm dont think they want their watches look super good for marketing

    Ming this post really makes me smile and smile
    Thank you

    William jusuf

  36. Koushik Radhakrishnan says:

    Stunning work..


  1. […] who suggested that I was a ‘young turk full of hubris’ who relied on digital and Photoshop – I shot one roll of 12 completely different compositions of watches, all using flash (and calculated by guide number since the camera was 100% manual and made more […]

  2. […] Thein, een fotograaf die regelmatig voor horlogemerken gewerkt heeft. Kijk bijvoorbeeld eens naar Watches and a Hasselblad en Some Hublots of ook nog Making a $200 watch look the business. Ook over het retoucheren van […]

  3. […] Medium format and watches with artificial lighting on a single roll with no bracketing or second takes – it can be done – but perhaps is not the best idea. But on second thoughts, perhaps there is something here…the full set is here. […]

  4. […] I’m being masochistic and want to see how difficult things used to be, and if my skills are good enough (this set is a great example) […]

  5. […] I’ll admit that deep down, from the day I decided to buy the Hasselblad, I’d harboured a deep, masochistic desire to do this. During previous evaluations of medium format for my main commercial subjects, it didn’t really fit the bill: too difficult to achieve the degree of magnification required for watches, and digital medium format wouldn’t give me the width I needed for architectural work. It’d also be overkill for food photography in this country, given the current state of affairs*.  […]

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