FD Photoessay: Prague monochromes, part II

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The second part of the monochrome photoessay from Prague was shot on film, with a Hasselblad 501C and my favourite B&W film – Fuji Acros 100. To be honest, given the tight quarters, I’d have preferred to have had something either a little wider or a little longer – preferably both – to give me some additional ability to add context, or compress (especially with buildings clinging to hills in the background). Nevertheless, we make do with what fits inside our camera bags – after making provisions for film, I didn’t have any space left for lenses!

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I was told by my students that the camera was receiving some attention and curiosity from the locals; I didn’t really notice it when I was shooting, but then again I tend to go into ‘the zone’, much to the exclusion of everything (and everybody) else. It certainly didn’t hinder my ability to get the images I wanted. I tried something different with the processing this time – there was more than enough light for me to pull several of the rolls; I would have expected a bit less grain and even smoother tonal transitions; however, it seems that Acros does the same thing as when you push it: the highlights develop faster than the shadows, and you land up with a bit more contrast and denser shadows; admittedly I did not try this with that many rolls, so it could be some other variable like the x-ray dosage received at airport security, my chemistry or development process, but it really does appear that ISO 100 is pretty much optimum speed for this film. Unfortunately, the more I look at the low-res Flickr versions, the more I’m convinced that you really need a large print – at least 20×20″ – to do things justice. The display medium matters! Don’t worry if you missed the last European print run – I’ll probably have another one coming up soon.

Enjoy; I know I certainly had fun making these images, regardless of whether or not some people think I’ve lost the plot and been imprisoned by the square… MT

These images were made during the October 2013 Making Outstanding Images Workshop in Prague; I will be holding three more of these in Melbourne, Sydney and London later this year. Click here for more info, and to sign up.

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2014 Making Outstanding Images Workshops: Melbourne, Sydney and London – click here for more information and to book!


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


  1. Really good street shots! good job!


  2. Well done.
    My favorite, by far, is the trio at Pilsner Urquell Lokal

  3. hi ming,
    love your photos and writing lots, for me they are very inspiring to achieve more with my photography. many thanks for sharing.
    seasons greetings and happy new year 2014.
    btw, are you based in malacca?
    best regards,

  4. Fun to see you’re development with the Hasselblad: Square is different, isn’t it? I think it’s possible to see your thought processes and how you’re learning the medium. I hope you’ll get into color. Very curious to see what you have to say. Curious about how you’re doing your metering. Happy Julian New Year.

    • Thanks. Color is somewhat limiting because I don’t have as much control over the outcome via development, plus it really requires quite specific control of the process. I did shoot some slide film, and that will be the subject of a future photoessay/ article…

      Metering: by eyeball.

      Happy new year!

      • Eyeball! I am impressed – seriously. You must have started out with film. Incidentally, using a Hasselblad 500 series for street photography seems a bit quixotic. Only Friedlander seems to have a reputation for Hasselblad street work (and he uses a super-wide). Rolleiflex seems more intuitive for street photography and they are quieter than any Leica. Fwiw, I shot a bit with a super-wide . I’m kind of resistant to the fetish value of cameras, but not this one! If you’ve never handled one, they’re quite small, and, lacking a mirror, also silent.

      • Iskabibble says:

        Looking VERY forward to your slide film article!

  5. Wonderful series. I like the 3 sailors and the guy in the stairs.

  6. Acros is now a Cult film. You can do N, N+1, N-1 without any change in development. You can do all that in post processing.
    Acros makes digital camera conversion files look clinical and soulless! You got to see a print as mentioned. Scanning is perfect as the base is almost clear. Never push the film. Rodinal 1+50 will hit the spot. I am so glad that you discovered the KING of film. I use it with my Hasselblad 500CM and meter with the Sony RX100 but drop the shutter to a one slower point, which means that I am probably using it at maybe 50 or 80. Acros is very forgiving in exposure but watch your processing technique and keep it constant. Ansel is using it in heaven, and he’s there, believe me.

    • Iskabibble says:

      Absolutely agree! Acros DOES make digital monochrome look soulless. I could not believe my eyes the first time I got a roll of Acros back from the lab. OMG, what amazing textures and tonality. I was an instant convert. I hope Acros is the last film standing when Fujifilm throws in the towel.

    • Actually…I’ve had great results pushing it +1 or +2 – it increases shadow density and 3/4 tone richness without apparently sacrificing any highlights. Looking for a stand development recipe with DDX – I can’t get Rodinal here – so far it’s just slow semi-stand at 1+8 and about 10-15 minutes.

  7. Is this the same bridge that features in the B/W photo of the couple walking under it with a shaft of light highlighting them?

  8. Dear Ming,

    I’ll give you my feedback, though, of course, it would be damn foolish to take any one else’s opinion to heart, unless they make a comment that makes you realize something that you, in fact, believe too, but perhaps didn’t initially realize. … and because maybe the worst thing for an artist is to put their work out there and then hear nothing?

    One of my favorite images in this set is the ninth, the scene with the electric trolley and two persons in the LR. It is what I call a “near perfect” composition. It feels remarkably balanced and inviting. I love the atmospheric glare that veils the buildings, like the one with “Boulevard” printed on it. Those persons in the LR really complete the composition. Without them, it would be a bit monotonous and unbalanced … it would have a more common, large, relatively uninteresting foreground. But those two people provide some dark anchor notes and their shadows, running off the bottom on the bias, opens up the scene too. Bravo.

    Another favorite in this set is the first one. It is the boldest and strongest composition in several ways. I do feel a slight urge to pan the camera slightly to the left and perhaps a bit up, but I like it regardless. Anyway, what the hell do I know? I’m a painter, not a photographer 😉 Keep up the good work! I really enjoy your blog. It makes me think.

    • I should clarify that my urge to pan the camera in the first image is because I feel an urge to have the seated persons move towards the lower right a bit. It is an intuitive thing that I feel, it is not an issue of right or wrong.The massive arches of the bridge, an the shadows cast by the bridge, work beautifully within the frame of the image just the way you shot it.

    • Thanks David. The first image in the set (‘the headline’) is usually my favourite from the set; it’s chosen because as the one you see first it should grab your attention. Painter or not – we both work with visual media…out of curiosity, have you ever tried painting in monochrome? I don’t recall ever seeing say, oil monochromes done before.

      • It makes sense that you put a particularly strong image in your “headline”. Though I was not taking that placement into account when I selected two of my favorite images from this batch. You are right, there is much in common among all the visual arts. I believe that all the arts share some common ground. Perhaps photographers and painters would create better work if they embraced and appreciated music, dance and literature as well? It isn’t something that is stressed too much these days, but I think it is all connected.

        Yes, there is a type of monochrome oil painting that is called “en Grisaille”, usually black and white or brown and white. I recently painted a black and white study of a plasticT-Rex model that I have:

        Most painters try this at some point in their education but many great painters have circled back to try “value studies” later in their careers. DeKooning’s Orestes, is a good abstract expressionist example:

        Picasso, Sargent and Hopper, to name just a few others, all produced black and white or monochrome oil paintings at various times in their careers. Whistler, one of my favorite painters, produced some lovely monochrome lithographs and etchings as well as some oil paintings that are so limited in their color range that they are very close to monochromes:

        Most drawings and many prints are, of course, monochrome in nature. One could argue that abstract composition is the key, i.e. the cornerstone, to all visual art and many other art forms as well. I probably would.

        • Thank you for that education in painting – it appears I’ve been looking in the wrong place!

          I admit that what I had in mind was more of the photorealistic or chiaroscuro styles of painting – in monochrome – and a little less impressionist. Even that Whistler has color in it; not much but enough to invoke a certain feeling.

          Certainly the creative arts are interlinked; I’ve been trying to write an article on the relationship between photography and music, but I can’t find the right language. I don’t know if it’s because we lack adequate terminology to describe it, or whether I simply lack the expertise – probably the latter. I’m a big fan of diversity leading to more creativity; it stands to reason anyway since creativity is the almost always the result of external influences.

          • I’ve heard it said or reported many times that there’s a strong correlation between music and mathematically inclined people as well. Is it a transitive relationship from photography to math ? 😉

  9. Ian Christie says:

    Very nice work, Ming, and a happy New Year to you and all your readers.

    For excellent colour images of Prague in late autumn, see the Sigma special site on the DP3 Merrill.

    IAN C

  10. Compression issues be damned, these are terrific images. I’ve been struggling with my 503cw. I’d be happy to have images with such clarity and tonality. Question: were these handheld or with tripod?

  11. I like these photos, while I wasn’t too thrilled about the previous set with the GR. Tastes obviously differ 🙂

    Some tonality will obviously be lost in the Web versions, but it must be possible to evaluate the photos in the Flickr sizes too on a quality screen. Naturally they will look better in larger size, but you know the saying “Everything looks good in large format” (yes, 4×5″ is way better than 6×6..); the content needs to be there and that’s evident even from smaller sizes.

    Was the lens used a 80/2.8? I’ve gravitated a bit towards using a 50/4 for a wide view. The 180/4 is wonderful, but quite heavy.

    • You know the drill: photography is art and art is subjective…

      Even with flickr sizes – I never upload anything that big anyway because of image theft in the past – you land up having compression take out subtlety of tonal transition and downsizing making edges look hard. Sadly…the only way to see the difference is in a print.

      Yes, I only carried the 80/2.8 to Prague – the 50/4 FLE is excellent but heavy, and at 28mm-equiv duplicated the GR I was also carrying. The longer lenses are tricky to use handheld; your usable shutter speeds are pretty much only 250 and 500…

      • Taildraggin says:

        Regardless of the equipment and processing, these show how aggressively you shoot. They are ‘steet course’, in themselves.

        Never would have guessed that these were shot on film, though. Are you certain you didn’t use the D800e? There is so much more to B&W film!

        • If you get a chance to see the two latest videos from Japan, you’ll be impressed! Carrying a Hasselblad with a giant eyelevel finder, big digital back, big lens and big grip, and a tripod all over Tokyo, fueled mostly by Calpis soda, shooting street photography, there is no doubt when Ming’s taking a picture of you. Those commentators who think Ming’s allergic to camera weight have no idea at all … nor those that think certain cameras are too loud.

        • Thanks. Yes, I’m pretty sure what camera I used (!). You lose a lot of the tonal characteristics at these smaller sizes. Exif says D800E because that’s what I scanned with.

          • Taildraggin says:

            I have the same trouble digitzing 35mm Tri-X, but not 120 TX, which retains its tonality much better when scanned. No one should ever use TX, though. (I need to maintain some kind of advantage.;)

  12. It seems that my opinion differs from the majority. The tones are certainly nice and surely there is a wow factor in large size, but I find neither the compositions nor the subjects very interesting. As a series the images do not convey any strong feelings of the place to me, though there is pro quality visual and contextual consistency (as expected). If this was a random flickr gallery I would probably scroll through fairly quickly, concluding that it is yet another set deemed special because of the b&w format (and shot on film no less). With utmost respect, I believe you have long ways to go with these tools to reach the magical results you are capable of in other formats. I am looking forward to seeing what you will learn on the way.

    To attempt some constructive feedback (I do not produce much magic myself), I think the photos with unambiguous and clearly separated subjects work best (e.g. #1), to an extent that is not necessary in non-square color photographs. Perhaps it is caused by a combination of several things: lack of color making subject separation less obvious and various textures less interesting, the square format being relatively static, and the camera making it difficult to capture special fleeting moments. I think in many cases I am distracted by the subject being small and dark in the midst of large light and gray areas. The last photo should be a real winner but my brain tells me to pay attention to the house, not the couple.

    Thank you for the comments on xq1 vs rx100. I settled for the former since it simply felt nicer. Commission will be delivered in form of future video purchases 😉

    • Thanks for the honest feedback – much appreciated. However, I think I know exactly what the problem is: it’s related to size, but not that obvious. Downsizing digital somehow works much better at preserving the overall feel of the image. Downsizing film – a non-discrete medium, and especially for large formats – results in you losing a lot of that subtle separation both in tonality and DOF that remains in a large version, or better yet, a print. Honestly, between pixel averaging and jpeg compression, there’s an enormous difference between the 800px web versions, the full size on my 2560px monitor, and a 20×20″ print. But, point taken: I shall endeavour to do better next time! MF film is definitely not as well suited to reportage work as say a GR…in fact, let’s be honest: it’s bloody difficult. But I had to see if it could be done, and if so, whether there was anything to gain pictorially from the properties of that format.

    • Re: Tarmo – if Ming is anything like me (said with all due humility) the film shots are the ‘B roll’ not the ‘A roll.’ When I visited Prague in the spring I did all the mood/place shots on digital, and went for a different feel with my film efforts. There was a slight overlap due to which camera was at hand but that’s pretty much how it went. As a result many of my digital shots are not unique, although they certainly convey the city and its atmosphere, superficially at least. I shot digital for the first couple of days, and film on the last two days. My film set, and Ming’s here too, feel more like the result of someone getting past the obvious shots and picking out details which would easily be overlooked. I haven’t shared most of my film shots from that trip, and I don’t know that I will. I am sure though, that if I visit Prague again, I’ll shoot more film and less digital than on my first visit.

      As an aside, in five days in Prague I only saw one other film camera in use – an Asian gent with a battered Nikon F3. My Holgas got a lot of strange looks…

  13. Amazing images as usual.

  14. I like the squares. Your shots from the blad are amongst my all time favorites.

  15. John bresnen says:

    Hello Ming, been getting mail and facebook from you for about a month…I decided to buy a camera and read your review on the
    Lx7 and the Leica 6. I ordered the lx7 for $279..good price for a very good camera. I will try to avoid using the automatic. Should be fun…..the camera will be delivered in a week. Thanks and We hope you have a happy and healthy 2014….john

  16. Do you think this is your best film work yet, in terms of tonality? It looks that way to me; I love the highlight tones in the pictures with high contrast light.

  17. Ron Scubadiver says:

    Something must be wrong with my monitor, all of these are square. Just kidding. Lots of black blacks. Very nice.

    • I know, right? It seems my sensor is throwing away precisely 1/3rd of the image. Or perhaps it’s a HTML fault. 😛

      • Ron Scubadiver says:

        Well, It might not be a fault. Some people make a big deal about shadow detail, but black blacks can look good. Hey, the weather was nice today and I got to wander through the industrial districts and shoot a bit. Even found a few volunteer models. Tomorrow it is supposed to be very mild. I am stoked.

  18. Amazing as usual. Your images set a benchmark in my mind I hope to someday achieve.

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