On Assignment: architecture by night

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Sometimes, one is given some pretty sweet assignments. Quite near the top of that list is a commission to photograph beautiful buildings by one of the country’s – arguably the world’s, too – leading architects with the rare thing of a completely open creative brief. This is the position I found myself in a couple of months ago, camera bag in one hand, Mother Of All (somewhat portable) Tripods in the other, and sheaf of permission letters and permits from Hijjas Kasturi Associates tucked away safe inside the camera bag just in case.

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The afternoon didn’t start off well, actually. Though I left my office in downtown Kuala Lumpur for the shoot location in Putrajaya with plenty of time to spare – 4pm, for an estimated 6.45pm blue hour and 7.30pm complete sunset – traffic was very, very heavy. And Putrajaya* is about 45min away by highway, assuming there’s no traffic to begin with. The problem, as always, was the why: it started to rain. Slowly, at first, then past the point of requiring an umbrella into full-fledged tropical-monsoon-cubic-falling-mass-of-water-plus-free-carwash-weather. I swear – and subsequently swore again – that when I left, things looked clear, without a cloud on the horizon**.

*It’s the nation’s new(ish) administrative capital, put into place by the leadership from two elections ago. I suppose the idea was to create a corridor between Kuala Lumpur and the new capital, but in reality all it did was clear some land, make some former plantation owners very rich, and build a long, straight highway on which I’m told it’s possible to reach 300km/h should you be wealthy enough to own the right kind of vehicle.

**I’m certain it’s because I got my car washed that morning.

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One of the occupational hazards of architectural photography is that you bill by the image, or some sort of notional day rate should you be lucky enough for the project to complete on time – but the reality is that it’s weather dependent, time of day dependent, and often seasonally dependent (direction of the sun, foliage), too. Oh, and let’s not forget to throw contractors into the mix: if the building isn’t finished on time – another one of my projects has been ongoing awaiting final works for the last six months – then you’re looking at some extremely long collection times. This whole project was relatively short by comparison – about a month or so – and close to running on schedule and budget, with about 1.5 days of total location time for a final delivery of 23 images.

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Stitch from 10 images.

Fortunately, the rain stopped just before I arrived, and I was fortunate to have a three-hour window – and yes, it rained heavily again on the return leg. I arrived early enough to set up for the first shot – I did a daytime reconnaissance after the previous morning shoot – that I had quite a lot of time and mosquitoes to kill. I therefore did what any sensible person would do: light up something Cuban (in this case, a H. Upmann Half Corona, which I’ve been enjoying particularly of late for short smokes). I’ve found that not only does the smoke seem to keep mosquitoes and inquisitive passers-by away, it’s also a very pleasant way to kill half an hour to an hour; any more than that and you should probably think a bit more carefully about your scheduling.

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For this assignment, I packed a range of gear (D800E, D600, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21, Zeiss ZF.2 2/28, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100, Nikon AFS 24-120/4 VR, OM-D and Panasonic 100-300, and of course the Gitzo GT5562, geared column and Manfrotto 410 geared head, all except the tripod packed inside a Billingham 555) – but landed up using just the D800E, 21 and 24-120. The 21 is perhaps my most indispensable architecture lens, and I’m seriously considering the 15mm, too. I don’t personally like using lenses that wide because they yield a very unnatural perspective, but sometimes you don’t have a choice because there are no other vantage points. The 24-120 requires software correction, but after doing so, it performs very well – just use the ACR profile to dial out distortion and CA.

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One thing I’ve always liked about shooting architecture is that there’s a lot of great B-roll to be had most of the time – just turn around. I generally have a second camera set up for reportage and people-watching if there are a lot of people around, or if not, then something else for longer shots. But the bottom line is you never know when a) you’ll get something that might be portfolio-worthy, or better yet b) portfolio-worthy and something that another architect asks for later…this has happened a couple of times already.

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Not the target building, but nevertheless interesting.

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Another one nearby by the same architect who commissioned me.

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There’s often some degree of personal risk involved with architectural photography, too. Especially with larger buildings: the challenge is always in finding the right vantage point. This frequently requires you to climb things, and then either somehow stick and secure a camera to the outside to clear balustrades etc. or lean over the edge.

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The image above doesn’t look particularly special, but in order to get the context of location – bridge, water, etc. and the necessary height to avoid keystoning, I had to have at least 5-6 stories of altitude. The only solution was to climb one of the bridge towers (you can see a mirror image of the one I climbed on the other side of the bridge) and set up on the outside of the roof ledge. Fortunately, the tower was left unlocked and had internal stairs, making that part easy; working on a narrow, somewhat windy, slippery bird-dropping-covered and to top it off, sloping, roof ledge was somewhat unnerving, and I didn’t stay any longer than I had to. Still, the client loved the images, so I suppose it was all worth it in the end… MT

The various equipment used is available here from my partner retailers:

Nikon D800E** – review B&H Amazon
Nikon D600** – review B&H Amazon
Nikon AFS 24-120/4 VR** – B&H Amazon
Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon** – review B&H Amazon
Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon** – review B&H Amazon
Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro Planar** – B&H Amazon
Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro Planar** – review B&H Amazon
Olympus OM-D** – review B&H Amazon
Panasonic 100-300/4-5.6** – review B&H Amazon
Billingham 555** – B&H Amazon
Gitzo GT5562LTS Systematic 6x Carbon** – review B&H Amazon
Manfrotto 410 Geared head** – B&H Amazon


Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.


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


  1. Thanks for sharing these – it’s a series that lends great character to the buildings and I imagine those involved in the lighting design are happy to see these images. #7 is just so harmonious in the way its elements are composed. Fantastic work!

  2. Peter Boender says:

    Hey Ming! Wonderful set, as usual. I’m with Tom here, love #6 the best. Gorgeous, out of the box!
    Technical question: you explained what you did to get the last picture in the set: climb up high(er) to avoid the keystoning (and thank God you survived the slopy roof). In #3 and #7 I don’t see any keystoning either. Would you care to elaborate what you did to avoid the keystoning there? Do you ever use PC in post? What about pixel degradation?

    • Thanks! Perhaps #6 should go into a print sale…heh.

      I’ll climb as high as I can, then correct minor keystoning in post – anything more than 10% is left alone, or just lightly corrected. That’s assuming of course I don’t have a tilt/shift with the right FL 🙂

  3. John Leung says:

    Beautiful work. I was just in Penang for Eid, a totally different esthetic here!

  4. Sunil Somarajan says:

    Hi Ming,

    Fantastic images. Your site is really an inspiration.

    I had a question. You mention that you used the Zeiss 21 with the 800E. I have shot with MF Zeiss with my D700 and have no problem achieving critical focus till about F11 as I use a split prism focusing screen.

    How do you achieve critical focus with the D800E/D600 using these MF lenses as I notice your images are sharp end-to-end. Technique and a good stability system plays a part but with a MF lens and especially at night I am amazed by the sharpness of these images.

    I do plan to obtain the D600 (D800E too much camera for my needs) soon. But I am a little worried that I wont be able to use manual glass on it. Does the Live View implementation on the 800E help at all ?


  5. Hi Ming, once again some stunning. Great composition and love the details on the close ups. As usual great post too

  6. Aaah nighttime architecture photography, my favorite. I like 4,7 and 10 best. Good composition and very professional, clean look, nice stitching as well.

    It would be interesting if you can find the time to compare this kind of shooting with a CCD sensor-based camera. I had the pentax k10 and the results at ISO 100 for nighttime photography were absolutely amazing, never had that kind of result with the newer cameras.

    P.s. I would go nuts not being allowed to bring out the ultrawide lens and start distorting and bending the architecture angles 🙂

  7. The hues you have captured in the sky are really lovely, as are the artificial lights – That Malaysian sky looks like it could be particularly amazing in the twilight hours.
    As an architectural photographer I mainly get free reign to shoot whatever I like on site and do it within a certain time frame. (Day rate etc) …and produce a range of images. I have also found the need in some images to retain a fair amount of ’empty’ space around the subjects for magazine layouts etc. rather than prints directly from my shots. I suspect a purely commissioned project with prints at the end goal results in more substantial stand alone composition and perhaps your favouring of strong rectangular frames. I also find that very light HDR (and it really isn’t HDR so to speak) in the form of enfused images is sometimes handy – of course this has to be subtle. http://wiki.panotools.org/Enfuse
    That being said, I suspect your architectural market is more fine art based whereas mine is more publicity and print based. I try to get a mix of both through my commissioned work so the client can pick as appropriate (or alternately, layout editors can). That is unless you crop differently for your portfolio?
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you. Skies depend very much on the time of day; I got lucky in that it rained immediately before blue hour, leaving some high-altitude clouds behind to catch the last of the sunlight, and that things were quite clear and haze-free in the intermediate distances. My clients are a mix of both; I try not to give them too much latitude to encourage insensitive cropping; what goes in my portfolio is what I’m happy with that doesn’t require any cropping adjustments.

  8. Ming, great images. How are you liking that 24-120? I’ve always been hankering for something that had more reach than my 24-70, which I love for its micro contrast, sharpness, and transmission. I purchased the “do it all” 28-300 but have not used it much due to the somewhat poor performance at the long end. One think I love about the Zeiss fixed primes is the sharpness at infinity, especially the 28mm. Take care.

    • The 24-120 has a considerable amount of distortion and CA; stop it down and the latter goes away somewhat, use the ACR profile and both are fixed. I use this lens mostly stopped down on a tripod or with controlled lighting, and I like the flexibility it affords when fast apertures are not a concern. Using the correction profile is a must, though.

  9. Great images, but I feel that a square medium format image would give the buildings more breathing space around them. The portrait format of 35mm gives me the feeling that they are too boxed in. That said, they are still amazing.

  10. A sweet addition to the Manfrotto 410 head: Hejnarphoto’s Arca Swiss style quick release http://www.hejnarphotostore.com/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=16_17
    I have a Really Right Stuff L-Bracket on the D800 and with this setup quickly going to verticals is a breeze. Verticals with the standard 410 are always cumbersome.

    • I just went Arca L-bracket for all of my gear and honestly wonder why I didn’t do it sooner. Quick question though – does your 410 lock down perfectly or still have a bit of play?

      • My 410 locks down well. The release to spin it freely is a bit clumsy and re-engages at weird angles, but all in all with the quick release plate it’s a nice combo. I feel it is a bit restrictive though when you need to angle the camera up a lot. I found me mounting the camera backwards in those cases. Maybe a cigar holder would be a worthwhile addition. 😉

  11. Really liked yr photos particularly the curves in the not the targetted and the building reflection in the water. Im not a professional photographer, but I love reading your blog and I figure if I only understand a bit of it , I might learn something by osmosis : )) thank you

  12. Great stuff. Congrats!!

  13. blotzphoto says:

    Oof, the shot from the bridge that you describe made me queasy just thinking about it!

  14. Hi again Ming,
    Another question for you!
    Re. the ten-shot stitch, 4th one down, did you get this with just the Manfrotto 410? I have this head and I wouldn’t have considered it suitable for panoramas because the base plate is off-set from the central pivot point. Or perhaps it’s not really a panorama shot at all!

  15. Wow! To be given that assignment AND have free reign too – dream job. You obviously took full advantage of the situation – wonderful images.

  16. Opulent Jewelry & Fine Watches says:

    beautiful photography……..awesome

  17. Tom Liles says:

    I’ve had my post dinner cup of PG to mull it over—#6 is my undisputed favorite in this set, and actually of all the images recently. It just. I don’t know actually, I have no by the numbers explanation for it at all.

    And thank God for that.

    • Tom Liles says:

      Sorry, scatterbrain forgot his question: MT, your recommendation of Romeo Y Julieta was really well received by my Boss. He invited me to smoke one sometime with him, and I must say as an ex-smoker (HEAVY smoker) and still unrepentant I was very intrigued. But listen, 45min to an hour to smoke one?…

      What do you do?
      Or are they that engaging on their own?

      I remember the Upmann name from the Watches & Hasselblad post. Maybe I’ll start on a thin one of them; the R&J Churchills I got for my Boss were HUGE, to my eye, I doubt I could stomach one!

    • Haha, thanks Tom; it’s mine too. Let me give you a hint: it’s the colors, textures, suggestion of what you’re expecting, and the fact that there’s just enough for your brain to complete it…

      • Tom Liles says:

        And a lingering thought that the feeling you get from looking at it, is not about the reflection of some buildings in the water.

        I’ve heard it said that if a photograph can hold your attention for longer than five minutes, then that is a very rare and exceptional occurrence. I also remember Mr Babsky (I don’t want to believe all it took was some gentle pawing, maybe a few jabs, from a no one like me to dissuade David from speaking his mind on here again. I really hope not) saying he could look at a certain old b&w shot of yours all day…

        Well, I’ve certainly looked at 6 for longer than five minutes; and could probably look at it all day.

        Definitely not just about the buildings.

        • I also think that sometimes deconstructing an image too much can ruin it. So I’m not going to comment any more. 🙂

          That said, the ‘can stare at it’ quality is something I look at for images that would also make good prints…

        • David Babsky says:

          Thanks, Tom: no, I’ve been away and busy; shooting and teaching (in Greece) and now back in England, but dismantling the boat engine, as I found the exhaust’s all coked up. Were going to go to Rye tomorrow, but now it’ll have to wait a week. This marina wi-fi on the boat is rather slow, so I’ve read the article (above) but my Mac’s only retrieved half the pictures..

          • Don’t try and load the ‘clarity’ article then, there are 47 pages of comments (at least in PDF form) and should keep you in reading material to your destination and back…safe travels!

  18. A really great series, with fascinating insights into this style.

  19. The stitch of the 4 towers is very good – that must have been a pain to deal with in post process – did you just give yourself a good overlap with the photos or use some sort of panning tool?

    Also did you use any filters on the lens, or just rely on a good exposure time. Like this stuff a lot, can appreciate the hassle to get the shots!

    • I gave myself a lot of overlap. If you’re doing say 80-90% overlap and take care of where the frames end, then you can still get a natural-looking stitch even with very wide lenses; this was done with a 21mm.

      No filters, I carefully plan time of day etc.

      • Whoa, 21mm with distortion a very large overlap would be required. I’ve been interested in doing some stitching but never got around to it.

        Also good to hear no filters – I had thought as much but thought I’d just check 🙂

        • Hence the 80-90% for each frame. It works 🙂

          • Alexander says:

            Sorry, don’t understand what you are recommending about how to best stitch panoramas with the Zeiss 21mm ZF lens. (My understanding is that a DX sized central crop with this lens excludes most of the more complex mustache distortion. Is that the basis of your 80-90% overlap recommendation?) What 10-20% portion of each of the images is included in the final panorama, and why? Is it the central portion of each image? If so, please explain why the need to “take care of where the frames end” which seems to imply instead that you are using the frame edge for inclusion in the panorama. Thanks!

            • No, you’ve got it mixed up. I’m stitching with the full frame, but each frame overlaps the next one by 80-90%. I.e. if it covers 100deg horizontally, I’ll rotate the camera by 10deg between frames.

  20. Buy a fall arrest harness and clip on or rent a helicopter. Beautiful images. Rod

  21. I always admired Hijjas Kasturi’s designs, there’s a lot of traditional elements in the details. Just for information, the “big robot head” (or better known as Putrajaya International Convention Centre) is actually design to look like a “pending”, a traditional buckle made from brass/silver/gold, when viewed from above (bird’s eye view). It’s really an amazing architecture..

  22. John weeks says:

    Simply beautiful Ming!

  23. Those are terrific shots.

    Without giving away any trade secrets, how much (as a percentage) of the final product would you put down to a) the shot itself and b) the postprocessing? I’m asking because I find it hard to fathom how anything like these shots could come straight from a camera, however appropriate the time, location, light, etc. Not to imply that they look artificial – they look fantastic – but I’m just curious.

    • Somewhere between 80-20 and 90-10? You can’t fundamentally add or remove anything in postprocessing without things starting to look unnatural; all you can do is enhance the presentation.

  24. Nice images. Pic no.6 looks inverted.

  25. Tom Liles says:

    Everything that Eric said.

    And please don’t go slipping off one of those ledges.
    But I think you had to do it—one look at the results proves it.

  26. Richard Papp says:

    Wow!! Utterly spectacular images, Ming. As much as I love the crispness of the scenes, what really catches me is the colours of the background sky and the lit up buildings … they just seem to standout so much more than would seem possible. Job well done! Very lucky customer – not to mention brilliant, to give you creative freedom. Thanks for sharing with us.

  27. I have always enjoyed the first image. It is wonderful to now see them all. Wonderful job and smart client to let you shoot it how you want.

  28. Hi Ming. beautiful photos. I like the close up sections and the big robot head. I was wondering why you only took the photos at night. Do architecture shots look the most spectacular at night ?

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