Photoessay: Underground workers in mono

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Today’s photoessay contains images I initially shot for a client much earlier in the year; the German tunnel-boring specialists Herrenknecht and MMC-Gamuda for the greater Kuala Lumpur mass transit project. The project itself will bring a unified rail system to Klang Valley over the next five years; in the meantime, it’s utter chaos while everything is being dug up or diverted so overhead pylons can be put up. I was hired to document some of the underground work.

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Though this was initially submitted to the client in color – per their requirements – I’d also shot a number of images with the intention from the start of presenting them in black and white; I suppose I felt simultaneously inspired and challenged by Salgado’s much earlier work during the Channel Tunnel project. Unfortunately, I didn’t get anywhere near the six months or unlimited access he did – more like three days and a chaperone – but I am still very pleased with the results. A secondary objective was to obtain as high image quality as possible under the difficult (dark, wet, dangerous due to heavy machinery) conditions; medium format was out because I was not allowed to use lights or tripods for long exposures. In any case, it would have been pointless as the ground and platforms vibrated significantly because of the cutting heads of the machine. What you’re viewing here is the process of laying a keystone into the tunnel lining, which is done immediately after the cutting head; for obvious reasons it’s impossible to take a photograph of the cutting head itself in action.

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Weapons of choice were therefore the usual wide-envelope workhorses: a pair of D800Es. However, this time I used the Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon and 1.4/55 Otus – they were a challenge to focus in the darker environments, but the image quality more than justified it. The results are all suitable candidates for Ultraprinting (not that you can tell from an 800px web jpeg); many were shot at ISO 6400 just to get enough shutter speed to freeze action. In any case, I leave you to the images…MT

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


  1. What captured my interest in this set of yours is how you’ve been able to cleanly capture what might actually have been a mess of wires and dirt! But they look so clean and captivating in your images. Awesome job – especially considering the environment in which you were clicking. How do you manage to get such sharp pics each time? My pics tend to get a bit blurry in this type of an environment

  2. The third one is a delight. Thanks!

  3. Reblogged this on Mistrz i Małgorzata.

  4. albertopr says:

    Reminds me of Lewis W. Hine ;D

  5. Thanks for making sense of my last post. I guess that’s what I get for trying to post from a small phone screen during a work break! I’ll be purchasing the Monochrome Masterclass video when it comes out. If I can make a request; I’d really like to see some more B&W film processing and post-processing tips in addition to the digital stuff. You seem to have mastered both mediums with superb results.

    • Noted, and thanks for the support. Film developing/ processing is something that’s highly subjective – and emulsion-specific; so it probably isn’t of interest to enough people to justify me making one video just for Fuji Acros with a very specific workflow/ output objective…

  6. These are outstanding. I am amazed at you’re ability to capture such a large number of portfolio-grade shots. If you are willing to share, I’d really like to know how you process your color images to black and white. All of my attempts leave much to be desired, and as a result, I end up shooting MF film. If my results looked as good as this, however, I’d really consider switching completely to film. Love the site.

  7. I really like the tones. They appear a bit flat, without compromising on DR. Reminds me of Ilford HP5+ in low light. Did you raise the black point? Or did you apply your epiphany’s “technique” where you actually do dodge shadows, and burn highlights, if their adjacent tones are >2 zones different?

    • Processed per the epiphany, and optimised for print – so they may not appear perfect on your monitor (and that’s heavily dependent on calibration anyway).

  8. Wayne s says:

    My favorites are #1,3, and nextvto last one.
    The first one is the best, love the composition perspective and love the excellent B&W processing.
    I can’t believe they wanted it in color instead of B&W.
    Otus really shines here with D800E. My Otus hasn’t come of my D800E yet since I got it. 🙂

  9. My god, that third shot – wow! That and the shot of the worker peaking into the machine are my favorites. Great work! Salgado would approve, I’m sure.

  10. You are one of the sources that has helped me take out my Nikon 28 1.8g lens. I am still learning how to use the lens creatively and your articles help. My favorite lenses have always been the 50 and 85.

    • I must admit that I haven’t used the 28G for a while…mainly due to optics on the D800E being less than stellar compared with my other lenses.

  11. Great series, Ming. For some reason, you seem to be really in simpatico with the urban, industrial thing, finding beauty in what might be ugliness for everyone else.

    I’m curious how you’d describe your client’s preferred color style as compared to yours.

    • Thanks Andre. The client – as always, for these things – likes clean, bright colours and relatively high key exposures; it shouldn’t be perceived as dirty or dangerous or heroic. Just another under-control-day-at-work.

  12. Great pictures, especially the 3rd one.

  13. Really great images!

  14. it’s great to take part in project like this !
    love the story and the last image is a great for the bottom line

  15. liramusic says:

    My teacher terms this: aesthetification. Absolutely thrilling photography. In work like this, so many skills intersect. Timing is such an incredible element. One half second either way and the photo would be totally different. A powerful photo essay. Thank you for sharing all this. I’ll attend a bon fire in an hour that will be four stories high. I have a d600 and I’ll use two lenses, but Ming, I do not think I have one tenth the skill you have. Thanks for being an inspiration. I really mean that.

    • Thank you!

      Hint for fires: spot meter. I didn’t have the skill to begin with, but developed it through lots and lots of practice…

  16. I am a fan of yours and have been following you for over a year. I really like this set. Your set on steel was really nice. I run a construction company in Hong Kong, and may I contact you on the possibility of having you do some work in my projects.

    I wish one day I can possess a quarter of your skills.

  17. DXO gave a medium assessment to the Zeiss 21mm :
    Is this the same lens you use ?

  18. Those photos are very inspiring and vivid.
    I find most of your work just admirable. Thank you.

  19. I can only join the praise! Beautiful b&w pictures of working men. Original perspective views! Did you convert with PS, LR or SilverEfex?

    • Thanks. I use PS, never filter packages. Insufficient control and I know how to consistently get what I want out of very few steps in PS.

  20. I think that the ultraprint help you to mask the noise in the picture (at 300ppi and 6400iso, it would be more easier to see the noise of the D800e).

    Very nice pictures. Congratulations.

    • Thank you. Yes and no – on one hand, the Ultraprints are extremely unforgiving of any imperfections; on the other, the D800E’s noise is quite high frequency, so it does get disguised somewhat. In any case I did have to do some processing to dial it back just enough so as to be not objectionable, but at the same time without sacrificing acuity.

  21. paul witzig says:

    Fantastic work Ming ! Thank you once again for the continuing inspiration !

  22. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Wet, dusty and hot environment. How your lenses coped with all that. Did you use protective filters?
    About estetics. Do you ever consider toning your B/W prints. In many instances, especially when people are in the picture, a sepia tint gives more natural, more rounded impression opposed to neutral, clinical pure B/W. Your thoughs?

    • They did just fine, despite only the 24-120 being sealed. I don’t use filters because they always negatively alter the optical properties of the lens.

      As for toning – in the digital processing I aim for neutrality; the final print output is actually slightly warm because the paper I print on is slightly warm…

  23. These are AMAZING! Thank you for sharing!

  24. The third picture is Epic! Portfolio grade.

  25. Very arresting set, Ming! And the third picture is, for me, the indisputable king of the herd!

  26. Pretty interesting subject and good to know what causes all the traffic diversions in KL. I think the b&w set is a very good choice. Would be nice to see how the color set compares to it.

    • Thanks. I’m not sure I’ll post the color images though – they don’t fit with my personal aesthetic, though that was what the client originally wanted.

  27. ISO6400!?? Wow that’s clean! At least on my iPhone screen, for better or for worse. That’s cool the client lets you release a complete different set of b&w’s from the assignment. I’m guessing the original piece has already run?

    • It’s clean on a 10×15″ Ultraprint, too. My contracts always have the clause that allow me to use images for personal/ professional portfolio, of which this counts. In any case, as you point out – the color and B&W images are totally different in feel – and in most cases, the actual image selection, too. The piece ran in May.

  28. Ron Scubadiver says:

    I really like the set. Photographing people with their surroundings is something I like to do. Funny, I have been shooting my 20mm f/2.8 AF (over 20 years old) a lot lately.


  1. […] camera) and the event providing your sole aim is providing coverage. A good example would be say my construction documentary work. This is NOT the same as traveling to experience, not by any […]

  2. […] a tunnel boring machine from the KVMRT project. The clients was making large prints, which meant as much image quality as possible. You cannot set […]

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  4. […] to monochrome for the aboveground portion of the monochrome documentary (underground was here here, focusing on the workers). A sense of scale is needed to appreciate the extent of the project, and […]

  5. […] follows on from the last On Assignment; it’s the aboveground portion to the earlier underground portion focusing on the workers. A sense of scale is needed to appreciate the extent of the project, and […]

  6. […] images from the job can be seen in this photoessay, and this set on […]

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