Photoessay: The architectural details of Amsterdam

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Following one from part one – part two focuses on the little touches that add character to a building, and if done well, reflect a little of the society that created them. I like to think of them as stamps or quirks of individuality, and something which I consciously look for when I travel to places with a strong design culture.

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I find the make or break point of modern architecture tends to be how well it integrates and interfaces with older structures, especially when there’s a strong traditional or historical element that must be taken into account. Complimentary, fairly similar recent designs speak of a strong respect or restriction by tradition. Different, reinterpreted designs with clear inspirations from traditional elements and themes suggest progressiveness. Locally, I tend to find things that are either completely soulless ‘international’ boxes without any stamp of the architect (or perhaps that is the stamp of the architect) or designed with few restrictions; the latter tend to be very interesting indeed as the sky is the limit. I saw the whole spectrum in Amsterdam.

This set was shot with the APS-C Ricoh GR and the 21mm GW-3 converter. Enjoy! MT

These images were made during the October 2013 Making Outstanding Images Workshop in Amsterdam; 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 | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. I see you went to De Kas! Your Stadhuis blows me away. Endlessly fascinating cityscape – and you make me want to go back again. Did you get to Borneo-Sporenburg? Best wishes, Nick

  2. Jorge Balarin says:

    Thank you for your extraordinary photos. I like very much your style.

  3. Maybe the highest praise I can give you is that whenever I read your blog and look at your work, I start to think about all aspects of photography and then I get the urge to go out and take some more photos! Thank you for building this site, showing your inspiring work and sharing your knowledge.

  4. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Talking about architecture photography everybody knows that in analog days it was all about shifts and rectilinear lenses. Hassy SWCs Biogon is famous for its straight edges for example. Nowdays there`s PH and in camera corrections and so on. I do notice some barrel distortion. Does GR corrects them in-camera, does it apply for both JPG and RAW or only JPG. How severe`s 21 add-on converter in that respect?

  5. It’s becoming more and more obvious to me that you seem to be able to see well (quite an understatement) through the lens of a camera (or perhaps the back screen of a GR digital camera). I’ve visited and photographed Amsterdam a couple of times, always impressed with the city itself and architecture. I mostly focused on capturing people in that beautiful environment, perhaps because it’s hard to capture the architecture itself. You seem to see the pieces of the whole better than I do, or most others do, or perhaps I should say “whole coherent pieces” of the whole. This is not easy to do. You also seem to appreciate beauty per se in whatever you’re photographing, from watches to skyscrapers and people in between. Whatever is captured in the image, you also manage to bring it out better in the way you finish the print/image. Many of us come to this site to see what we can learn . . . no “because we see so much that we can learn from.” You cannot say that about too many other web sites.

    You mention that these are just web/jpg images from a GR, which implies the real goal is a large print. I saw a Salgado exhibit in NYC once, all printed for him by Kodak, and very large, extremely beautiful b&w prints. I came home and quickly discovered that I didn’t have a gallery to handle such prints. It really is the way to experience photographs though. More more often than not a maximum 7-9 inch or so on the longest side is what going to appear in print in a magazine or book, or even in a frame on a shelf, or in a web site. This is a maximum limit to what most people end up doing with an image. As much as I like large prints, I have discovered that there’s really only room on my own walls for something 12×18 inches or less matted and framed. And only a few of those. Fortunately, this happens to be about the max size of my Epson Printer (13×19). What this all implies is that the quality that a camera like the GR and many other new, small digital cameras with great sensors and lenses is more than enough for most people’s needs. And you’ve demonstrated that well in the work that you just shared with us. This race for larger and better sensors for lower and lower prices may have peaked. Again, there’s also not enough room on most people’s current computers to manage files larger than 16-24 MP. Improvement in the quality of sensors this size, however, will always be welcome. Your photos here make me wish I needed a new 28mm fixed lens GR, but it would simply have to replace my existing 28mm f2.0 lens. If this is the kind of choice we have to make, it’s a good time to be making photographs. And through you and others a global community to share them.

    • Thank you.

      Addressing your point on printing: I’m working on a method to print smaller but much higher quality; imagine a large format contact print. Early test runs – much more tweaking to be done – can distinguish between 16 and 36MP even at 8×12″ size…

      Of course, viewing distances matter. You really need a loupe to make the most of these prints.

      • Your comment on printing small makes me think of the iPad with the retina screen. I bought one just to look at and show photographs. I often download from my MacBook and large external screen system to the iPad just so I can see how it “really” looks. The retina screen has very high resolution compared to the other devices that most people use. So, here’ another way to use one’s photos that skips printing altogether. Haven’t tried the MacBook laptops with larger retina screens. It all goes to the question of what you do with a paper print once you have one. For me, they have to be large for the wall (11×14 or lately 12×18 inches) or iPad size for sharing on web sites or the iPad itself. Most “casual” photographers that I know (almost everyone now) don’t seem to do much at all with their photos once they’ve sped them off somewhere on the internet to friends.

  6. I always admire the “sharpness” of your pictures. You don’t seem to be a fan of fuzziness or “bokeh”? 😉 I also like composition. It fits Amsterdam very well.

    • I’m a fan of the right amount of bokeh – enough to isolate, not so much to distract or remove context. And bokeh + architecture makes no sense…

      • OK, I must have missed that. 😉 I just notice that the vast majority of pictures are really crispy sharp. And I like that. It’s a change to the trend I observe that these days a lot of photos by “street photographers” are blurry or fuzzy and that’s sort of hip.

  7. Your shadows look very dark to me; but rightly so, you must have exposed for highlights as a priority. On screen one can see into the shadows, but don’t you have to lighten everything for prints?

    • I can’t say whether you’re seeing what I’m seeing – variations in screen calibration and all that – but if my shadows are dark on my monitor, it’s definitely intentional. My calibration matches that of my printer, so I’m confident that I get what I want in the final output.

  8. Richard T says:

    As someone who lived in Amsterdam for many years: outstanding pictures!

  9. Marco Oudheusden says:

    A superb set of pictures Ming, and it really shows that the true art of photography lies in the eye and imagination of the photographer, not in what kind of equipment he or she uses. A series like this put all gearheads, boasting about their kit to shame, while I can only be proud to be living in such a wonderful city. It tells me even I should have a better look around in everyday life.
    Thanks again and kind regards, Marco.

  10. Paul Hung says:

    Good eye and great observation is what a photographer needs!

  11. Peter Wright says:

    If you had not said that these were shot at 21mm eqv on the GR, I would never have guessed. Many of them look like they could have been taken with your Hasselblad and 80mm lens. The GR seems to be surprisingly versatile in capable hands.

    • The GR/21 combination doesn’t have the same perspective rendering as the 80mm. However it IS a camera that punches way above expectations and spec, but then again, these are also web jpegs…

  12. Very inspirative!

  13. Great photo set. For the second to last photo, how much planning did you do? I mean, did you know the direction of light, timing, and position of the shadows down the alley in advance, or did you “happen to be there” and was able to quickly construct that composition?

    • Thanks. For a planned shoot, yes, I’ll figure out the direction of light in advance; for something like this which was more spontaneous, I just make it work with what I’ve got when I’m there.

  14. Beautiful images Ming! Too bad you haven’t been in Rotterdam, in my opinion the architecture there is way more interesting, but also mostly modern (due to it’s history in WWII). Some examples (though not mine):

  15. Visual perfection! Each and every one of them. If I were forced to pick a favorite (and it would be very hard to), I would say 1274 – the one that looks like it’s a framed photo hanging on some’s balcony. Crisp reflection and lack of clutter makes it look very realistic!

  16. Great set of pictures! Did you shoot these in manual focus mode of GR? What is your recommended focusing method for architecture while using GR? And did you use spot metering in all of these pictures? It seems to me that GR underexposes the image when using matrix metering but your pictures are perfectly exposed and hence the question.

  17. Kristian Wannebo says:

    “I find the make or break point of modern architecture tends to be how well it integrates and interfaces with older structures … ”
    I can’t agree more.

    “Complimentary, fairly similar recent designs speak of a strong respect or restriction by tradition. Different, reinterpreted designs with clear inspirations from traditional elements and themes suggest progressiveness.”

    ( Yes, I believe that is the intention and I have seen it succeed,
    but I have seen many places in Europe – more in Germany and Sweden, less in e.g. France and the Netherlands – where one has tried to use old style design elements in modern buildings among old buildings, and failed dismally.
    I feel that _good_ modern architecture can often blend in better. I believe that similar or reinterpreted designs need _even better_ architects, I’ve seen too many examples that include imitation or mimicry and just look incongruous.)

    I assume your comments mean that you feel they have succeeded often enough in Amsterdam!

    Your photo selection delights me, I recognize that Amsterdam feeling, although it was forty years ago.
    And that stork nest through the glass ceiling is a nice touch, any nests in Kuala Lumpur?

    • I think the architects did a pretty good job in Amsterdam – but I am no expert! 🙂

      We do have storks, though the nests tend to be in the wetlands out of the city.

    • The mix of old and new is always striking to me when I visit the EU, especially Berlin. It’s not very common in America where things are relatively new. Older American colleges (eg. Harvard) are probably the best places to see this kind of mix of old and new in the US, since they can be older than the US Republic itself, and they’re can be pretty adventurous in commissioning new architecture.

  18. Peter Boender says:

    Beatiful set Ming, a very nice representation of our capitol.

    One question: the pictures have different aspect ratios. Since they’re all shot with the GR, does that camera provide different aspect ratios in-camera (like my LX-7), or did you crop afterwards for intended artistic effect (and shot with that in mind)?

    • Thanks Peter. Since the GR has no difference in horizontal FOV – it just crops – I compose with the final intention in mind and crop afterwards. I always like to have as much information as possible to work with…

  19. Great pictures. The Ricoh GR looks like a very capable camera.

  20. Impressive set Ming!

  21. Wow Ming, this set is amazing. I like all of them.

  22. Beautiful set!

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