On Assignment: the TBM breakthrough

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Today’s post is about a job I did at the start of January – the world’s premier maker of tunnel-boring machines, Herrenknecht (there are actually quite a surprising number) hired me to document the operation and breakthrough of their first variable-density boring machine*, which happened to be at work underneath Kuala Lumpur as part of the greater Klang Valley subway/ mass transit project. Up til this point, we have a pretty pathetic train system and monorail that doesn’t cover more than 3-4km; we don’t have a unified public transport system which combine with poor traffic management creates legendary jams**.

*Kuala Lumpur has a mix of rock and clay underneath it; you need a special machine to bore through both simultaneously – the machines for rock are too slow with clay and it also clogs the outlet ducting, and the machines for clay simply won’t cut rock.

**In the past, it has taken me up to 2 hours to travel the 1.5km from home to office at the wrong time. If you’re wondering why I didn’t just walk, try doing that in 35 C heat, 80+% humidity and the business suits that you’re expected to wear – not that clothes mean you’re any more or less competent at doing an office job…

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I’m going to start this post by apologising for the lack of recent on-assignment behind the scenes stuff – most of the time I’m simply just too busy during a shoot to remember to get b-roll, much less consciously focus on doing it. And then for those extended shoots where I do have the time to get b-roll, the project tends to be so large that the images are embargoed for some time afterwards, and by the time I can share them..well, you know the drill: I simply don’t have the time. This case was a bit of both.

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The brief had a few bits to it: they wanted to document the machines at work and the people who operated them, without too much focus on any one individual; they also wanted to cover the point where one of the machines broke through the wall into the deepest of the station boxes – somewhere at about 60m below ground, but cut as an open pit due to Kuala Lumpur’s geology. Finally, I was to film some interviews between a journalist they flew in from the UK and various staff representatives.

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The client’s agency required as high resolution as possible, with the caveat that I was not allowed to set up any lights on site as it was an actual working location (and any unauthorised equipment would constitute a significant safety hazard); together with the humidity, moisture and dirt, it meant that the Hasselblads were not an option. I went with a pair of D800Es, one Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon, the 1.4/55 Otus and a 24-120/4 VR – I needed as much light as possible because it was very dark in places (f2.8, 1/100s and ISO 6400) and I’d have to freeze motion. The Zeisses aren’t weather sealed, but I’ve not had any issues with shooting them in inclement weather in the past – just don’t use them in tropical monsoon rain. The 24-120 was along for a very specific role: the breakthrough portion.

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Capturing the drama of the machine – a whopping 16m in diameter – coming through a retaining wall of rock and concrete is quite something; however, you need to be reasonably close to get the right perspective. I was allowed within about 30m,and no more. Not being sure how close I’d get or where I’d be able to stand, I opted for a sealed zoom, and stabilised in case I couldn’t set up a tripod; turns out it was a very wise and flexible choice. The 24-120 has come in very useful in such situations in the past; optics are nowhere as good as the Zeisses (obviously) but it’s good enough stopped down a little. Despite the distance and the slow speed of the machine, I was still deluged in drilling mud, water, and bits of rock; the cameras survived just fine, but I didn’t risk the Otus for that particular shot. Interestingly, the thought that you really can’t set it up for another try kept entering my head…

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I believe this is the highest quality documentary work I’ve ever shot; the conditions were difficult to work under both from a photographic perspective (things moving, not enough light, mostly manual focus) and a physical one – the temperature and humidity at the working face inside the machine were very, very uncomfortable. There wasn’t a lot of space to manoeuvre, even less when leaving space for the ongoing work, and plenty of heavy/ sharp/ blunt objects to injure oneself on. I can only say that the hard hat and boots prevented injury on more than one occasion. The bit underneath the actual machine head which lays the tunnel lining was perhaps the worst of the lot – those concrete slabs weigh a couple of tons each, the exposed face isn’t that stable because of the geology, and there are a lot of moving pieces of heavy machinery. It’s one of the rare times I had an assistant on hand (along with a client rep) at all times to act as spotter.

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The final video portion was much simpler: pick a visually interesting location for each of the interviewees, set up a wide contextual camera, a tight punch-in camera on their faces, and wire them up with wireless mic sets linked to a master recorder. I had a sound engineer handle that portion for me, with backup audio running directly to the cameras. The E-M1s were my choice for this part of the job, having excellent video quality and being familiar ground (we shot most of the workshop videos with them already).

If I’d had to do everything again, I don’t think it’d be any different: except perhaps this time I might try to push the image quality envelope even further with a 645Z…MT

More images from the job can be seen in this photoessay, and this set on flickr. I’ve also got two more photoessays from this project coming up in the next couple of days.


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


  1. Outstanding images, indeed. I can’t help but surmise you’ve created some work that will or should be on display by/for future generations.

  2. Rajesh H. says:

    Hi, very nice work.
    Your clients wants B&W images? And why you shoot a lot of B&Ws on digital?

    I am new here :).

    • No, the client wanted color. This set is for me.

      I shoot B&W on digital here because film wouldn’t have given anywhere near the same image quality or dependability. Most of the photos were shot under very low light, and some you only get one chance to shoot – the first image, for instance.

  3. Martin Fritter says:

    I’ll just add my voice to the chorus of praise. The the Industrial Sublime is a great subject for you, completely appropriate to your immaculate technique. Very appropriate to your understated aesthetic.

    The images would be fantastic as very large prints and could sell for a very nice price. Sort of the Burtynsky niche.

  4. I love the first image! What a terrific set and a fascinating opportunity. Great work.

  5. Derrick Pang says:


    Great stuff again. I guess I shall test your limit by setting up more onerous environments for your upcoming shoot in HK. Always enjoy your work and write ups. It gives me a moment to relax after my long working days!


    • I’m looking forward to it – for the finished projects it’ll be tilt shifts on the D800E, but for work in progress – I’m going to kick it up a notch with the 645Z 😉

  6. The third image with the clouds! What an amazing perspective. One of the greatest photo in portrait orientation i have seen. 🙂

  7. Beautiful. Remind me of the famous scene in the Stanley Kubrick’s “Shining”!

  8. Absolutely stunning b&w images! can’t believe these are not from large format film!!!

    • Thanks – all D800E.

      • I have to agree the d800 and d810 is the best I ve ever used and its already the extension of my right arm…nearly always in my hand during the whole day….my wife is already jealous on the d800e…”you spend more time with your cam and have this cam more in your hands than me or embrace me”

        Do you have similar problems Ming???

        And what about your opinion with regard to b&w rendering ricoh gr even better than d800e or is the higher DR, resolution such a big advannatage in favor of d800 also in b&w shots??


        • Nope, I have quite a lot of cameras so no one camera gets more time than the wife :p

          As for B&W rendering – the GR still ‘looks’ better, subjectively, even though it has less DR. I think it’s down to the way Ricoh allocates it in the ADC. The D800 can be made to look nearly as good, but it requires a lot of work.

  9. Ha! Somebody is copying your signature black frame and name on the upper left:
    June 30th

    • I think you’ll find a good chunk of the reader pool is doing that 🙂

      • You are such an inspiration Ming, that’s why! Please one question about shooting 3/2 aspect ration on a m4/3 camera: do the RAW come in 3:2 or 4/3?

        • Thanks. 4/3 cameras are 4:3. You can set then to other aspect ratios but they will record the whole sensor area in the raw file.

      • The frame helps to subtly communicate that the image is a “finished work”. Looks somewhat more formal than a white border from old home\consumer prints. Treats the image as higher priority and maintains the image in more “pristine” condition compared with placing a photographer watermark directly over the image. I personally don’t think all compositions lend themselves well to the distraction of a superimposed watermark.

        There seem to be a lot of motivations and conscious choices behind it that make a *lot* of sense.

        Heck, I’ve tried to avoid black-framing for the singular reason of avoiding ‘following’ but I’m regularly, sorely tempted to succumb for the practical reasons involved, moving to a more ‘finished’ look compared with unframed being one of them.

        I suppose I could use a fuschia frame instead but I think I’d feel nauseated in the first few minutes. 😉 Maybe a proportionally spaced typeface….

        • Yes, there are: my use of the frame is actually the consequence of me also not liking the superimposed watermarks – either they get lost in the busy-ness of an image, or they are distracting because they fill empty space that’s meant to be empty. So, the only solution is to take it outside…and if you take it outside, then you need somewhere to put it. It can’t be color because that’d be highly distracting from the image itself. White isn’t visible on predominantly white backgrounds on screen, which leaves grey (washed out and odd-looking with darker images) or black – by default. Of course tweaking size/thickness and font etc is quite another matter of aesthetics and personal preferences…

          Lots of people use the black frame now because I believe it’s the only logical solution – go ahead but feel free to change typeface/ positioning/ information etc…

  10. Lovely work Ming – love industrial work. Hopefully I get some shots approaching your quality when I visit the shipyard in Singapore next week 🙂

    • Thanks Junaid – the shipyard should be fun, I did some work in one way back in 2006…you may also want to check out the EXIF on those. 😉

      • Blasphemy how dare you use a ‘basic’ compact :p

        Of course it doesn’t surprise me and you can’t tell much from the web sized jpegs, but compositionally still pretty good stuff, even from back in 2006 🙂 . The key for me is to pick out the interesting details and varied viewpoints. Also having some time to shoot is also an advantage. Trying to do the assignment you did in such a short span of time is hard. You usually need a good few days to get familiar with the site before you start shooting. I think Salgado spent like 3 odd months for the channel tunnel project?

        I don’t have a compact zoom (yet), I maybe able to get away with the D700 + 70-200 for a few days along with the GR. If I’m really struggling with just the GR I will probably buy a decent compact over there. Maybe I’m just finding an excuse to satisfy some GAS and buy an rx100 m3 lol.

        • My bad. Though I recently found a very nasty basic Coolpix in my drawer from a previous event or something; the kind that uses AA batteries and has 8MP…

          That TZ3 thingy is actually surprisingly useful: firstly the lens was decent and had a very wide range of fields of view – matched to the sensor, at any rate; the sensor was larger than the lens and maintained a constant diagonal field of view, so the 16:9 setting wasn’t cropped down from 4:3, for instance, and it had a seemingly very deep buffered 5fps continuous mode that cleared very fast. I had a few days over a month for that particular project.

          Salgado and the Channel Tunnel – yes, 3 months sounds about right. Sadly 3 days is all I got.

          You’ll probably want something with a long lens though, simply because a lot of the interesting bits are details, access is going to be limited for safety reasons, and there are only so many WA images you can make from a distance. That said, I’m sure you noticed a good number of those images were made with an original GR Digital I…

          • Agree on needing a long lens as well. And that is one reason I haven’t bought an rx100 – the lens isn’t long enough if I end up only being restricted to a compact.

            If as I suspect the d700 is limited to a few days only and no doubt will get bored with what I can capture with the gr, a power zoom compact is definitely the way to go. Especially since more than likely I won’t be going over base iso.

            Thanks for the tips! Will do some research – have no idea on the latest and greatest in the small zoom class 🙂

  11. Cool shots and assignment. Liked the cranes up high, exposed rock below best. Thanks for the geology notes also.

  12. Daniel Sandström says:

    Very interesting set. I would be very nervous before a shoot like that, not like there’s any chance to redo it. 😉 About the shoot, I’m afraid you weren’t a very high priority in the grand scheme of things. So how did things like timing the events play out, did you have any chance to influence the schedule. Extreme example being the actual breakthrough. Having no artificial lightning and probably no chance for “Hey, wait wait! Pause, the sun is behind a cloud but will probably pop out great in a minute.”?


    • Thanks. No, I wasn’t a high priority at all – and I prefer to be that way, the images come out more natural. No influence whatsoever 🙂

  13. Awesome set of photos! I enjoy seeing your perspective on an industrial shoot like this one especially since I’ve viewed a lot of your street/commercial work. I think about how I would have shot the first pic, the “money shot”, and am curious how you shot it. If it were me, I probably would have been a on a tripod, manual focus, manual mode with sufficient shutter speed to freeze the water, and then shot burst (probably until my buffer was full). I see you shot in “Auto Mode” from the exif… can you share your thought process on setting up for that image?

    • Thanks. I’m not sure which EXIF field you’re referring to exactly – auto WB and ISO, certainly. Plenty of light so I just framed, dialled in the aperture I wanted, and kept an eye on the shutter speed to ensure it didn’t drop below. A couple of insurance frames before, start shooting at the critical moment so the first one or two images are the money shot, then the rest is burst mode again as insurance. Switch to the other camera with a different FL towards the end. No tripods were allowed in case we had to get out of the way quickly…

  14. Truly exciting images!

  15. wow! I just think thats amazing!

  16. Wow. Spectacular work. The breakthrough shot is breathtaking.

  17. One of my favorite photo sets so far! I assume that your client was pleased. Congratulations!

  18. The second shot is classic Salgado. Great! Interesting to see you using the E-M1’s for video. Great read!

    • Thanks – Salgado actually did something similar with the channel tunnel documentary; I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could produce something I liked better under similar conditions (though with far less time, unfortunately).

  19. Fascinating! Something you don’t see every day.
    You say that “the thought that you really can’t set it up for another try kept entering [your] head”; was that due to your assignments being more ‘static’ in general? It is interesting to see how the price of the equipment affects our usage.

    • Thank you. Not so much the assignments being more static, but more controllable – if I need another take with body turned or chin up or the light in a slightly different position, no worries. But not resetting a rock wall and tunnel boring machine…

  20. Impressive. Really like the photos you shared a while ago and now more of the background. 👍

  21. Impressionnant !!

  22. Brilliant photography as always. Must be very interesting shooting conditions to work in 🙂

    • Thanks – more like challenging because of the humidity/heat and lack of space, not to mention dirt and moisture…but photographically rewarding.

  23. Love this article and pictures. I especially like the second wide shot of workers milling around the machine and last close shot of the three workers resting. Often in Asia we forget that the marvels of construction we see around us are the products of sweat and blood of an entire class of people our society chooses to ignore.

    On a less serious note, I’m keen to know what the noise was like as the boring machine broke through ? What’s the closest analogy ? 🙂 I’m thinking aircraft taking off meets waterfall ?

    • Thanks. As for the noise – something like that, but throw in thunder or sonic booms too as the bits of rock fracture, crack and fall off.

  24. Excellent Work! Glad you were safe. The shots are amazing…

  25. Fabulous images, especially given the environmental context…would love to see the series printed large in an exhibition. A cohesive narrative documentary, added to by your trademark tonality, texture and precision of composition MT.

    • Thanks Ian! I’m in the middle of planning for a similar but even larger documentary project for a construction/ infrastructure company in Hong Kong during the second half of this year that might well result in an exhibition…fingers crossed.

  26. Tom Liles says:

    m(. .)m

    Thanks for this, MT

    • Tom Liles says:

      And the breakthrough scene is pure sand-worms from DUNE—all it needs is a few bolts of lightning, some pompous soundtrack, and a chorus of “Muad’Dib!” Awesome.

      • Hahaha, good one!

      • Ha, Dune! What a bizarre universe…

        And damn, I see all the “boring” puns I was toying with have already been made above 😉

        • Tom Liles says:

          A great film—David Lynch put it down as well as anyone could’ve put it down (and doing David Fincher before David Fincher did David Fincher)… but the SF fanboys didn’t all go for it and we get endless remakes which aren’t even worthy of the spittle from Baron Harkonnen’s mouth (and what a scene, what an actor and what a line: I want to spit once on your head… just some spittle for your face — what a luxury Kenneth McMillan is an all-time favorite of mine, stone pantheon stuff, no doubt)

          Don’t be boring—pun away Todd! 🙂

          • And Patrick Stewart, and Max von Sydow, AND Sting!

            • Tom Liles says:

              Don’t forget the slept on talent of, Brad Dourif!

              (Who can out over-act Nicolas Cage any day of the week!)

              • Tom Liles says:

                To be fair, though, Nic Cage in the Bad Lieutenant remake was pretty much the most insane over-acting yet known to cinema…

                (and it worked!)

  27. Reblogged this on Being Southern Somewhere Else and commented:
    Beautiful work from a talented photographer, with professional perspectives on balancing active design work with creative expositions.

  28. This was an incredible piece, with amazing imagery, both in your writing and the actual photographs. It stirred thoughts about the nature of creation–that it always involves a bit of destruction from that first photograph, and that to be creative requires not only subject matter and exposure to the world in motion, but also time to create or breathing space in which to allow creative senses to stretch themselves. Thank you for sharing! I would love to reblog this. If you dislike that, please let me know and I will remove it! 🙂

  29. steve frost says:

    Superb. I’m always so impressed, and stunned, the results you achieve.

  30. Overall, I liked the man walking in the tunnel, and the yellow crane and structures, from the Flickr set. Both of those give a sense of scale to me. These are quite large machines, so I enjoy that aspect of them. Corporate industrial imaging is an under-served segment of professional imaging, though one I always enjoy. Looks enjoyable, despite the weather and danger aspects.

  31. Meeting your usual fantastic standards again Ming. The one of the breakthrough is superb – you took your one chance very well.

    How long do you have to scout the location and find the angles you want to use?

  32. Ming, what strap did you use attached in em1?

  33. Mark Gipson says:

    what are those monitors on the back of the d800 ? Thx

  34. I have to state that the picture with the boring machine breaking through is one of the best shot I’ve seen. The power of the machine, the moment of breaking through, the chaotic yet controlled condition of the working place is perfectly captured. Your industrial works must be one of the best if not the best out there. It’s really sad that we can’t have this as prints.

  35. I keep forgetting how impressive the photos from this assignment are every time I see them. It’s definitely one of the subjects that really comes alive with your high sharpness and shot discipline style … but that probably means lots of annoying little dirt particles getting in everywhere! It’s also great to hear about the technical details and groundwork behind the scenes of a shoot.

    Did you shoot the TBM’s breakthrough at the camera or was it remote? It sounds like you were at the camera location.

    • Thanks Andre. Definitely lots of dirt and care required keeping it out of the cameras and optics. I was at the location of the breakthrough – got covered in mud and everything!

  36. Think the flickr update might have messed up your hyperlink system; can’t follow any of these pictures back to the site


  1. […] photoessay follows on from the last On Assignment; it’s the aboveground portion to the earlier underground portion focusing on the workers. A […]

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