Photoessay: The Dreamscape Project

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Sometimes – quite frequently, actually – I fin myself on an aircraft with not very much to do. I fly often enough and spend enough time in the air that I’m one of those people who will bother to try and find out the flight route in advance and pick the seat most conducive to photography on arrival or departure – assuming of course there isn’t an engine or wing in the way*. I’ve gotten some very satisfying images this way.

*Frequent travelers will know there’s always a tradeoff: the front of economy is usually blocked; the rear usually is noisy and has a lot of traffic en-route to galleys and toilets, and the view isn’t always clear because of the convection visible due to the engine exhaust heat. Or, you fly up front and land up bankrupt.

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I’m also fascinated by clouds: like trees and water, they’re fractal objects with endless variety that means you never get bored. One thing I’ve always wanted to do is try to create a consistent documentary of the clouds I see during the course of one flight; however, I’ve also always had challenges: dirty windows, wrong seat, poor weather, poor light, no clouds/ ugly clouds…but on one flight in late July, everything came together: I flew in the morning, with nicely directional light; I had a seat in the front of the plane thanks to some air miles, and we had a nice assortment of clouds. I also had a prototype Zeiss 1.4/85 Otus and a factory-fresh D810 – a perfect recipe to cut down a long haul flight (normally, I use them to create content for the site so long as I have power).

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I could have shot this series in color and made it as faithful to reality as possible; however, I wanted to convey a slightly otherworldly, timeless and yet surreal feeling: the kind of odd detachment from reality and feeling of being an observer in your own life that happens when you haven’t had enough sleep, feel jetlagged and slightly uncomfortable: In short, all of the things that happen to long distance travelers. There is no land visible in any of these: that’s deliberate, to minimize our brain’s ability to automatically assign orientation and scale to the scene. The clouds that pass by offer a momentary respite from that boredom and fatigue. They are light, ethereal, and free. We wish we could be them, if only for a moment. We cannot be, but we can dream – and there really isn’t much else to do on these journeys. The images have no names because they do not really have solid existence in our minds; the very temporary nature of clouds is akin to fleeting thoughts that don’t quite rise to the surface of consciousness. The series is presented in not chronological order, but rather an order of evolution: a sort of slow visual morphing to match the nature of the subject matter. The final image descends into the most homogenous yet detailed of the lot – a visualisation of entropy. MT

Individual images or a set from this series are available as limited edition 10×15” Ultraprints; please use this form to order or request a quote. The entire series was shot during the course of a single flight with a Nikon D810, Zeiss 1.4/85 Otus APO-Planar.

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Limited edition Ultraprints of these images and others are available from


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


  1. As always, another great post with amazing images. I love the way some of the images do not even remind me of clouds but almost of a desert wasteland.

    Also I was wondering did you ever think of turning some of the images upside down? XIII is one that I really think works in this manner and it really changes how the images is viewed, it then becomes a wide expansive cave with rocky stalactites.

    • Thanks! No, I haven’t inverted them – but now I will try…I think it will work well, as you say, since there’s so much abstraction here and lack of reference point.

  2. Surreal and spectacular! I get a strange feeling of disorientation looking at these. The brain immediately recognize that I’m looking at something organic, but then it struggles to put it in the correct perspective and context. XIII is simply captivating. If I had an office, I would hang it on the wall opposite my desk, as big as possible.

  3. awesome cloud photography, ming.
    i try to do this too when I fly, i have a camera ready in the bag; and as you say, when the conditions are right, i just click away. typically, i manual focus, use a small aperture setting while keeping shutter speed sufficiently high to prevent camera shake, with image stabilisation turned on, but i do find lacking with my images is sharpness and clarity, which i attribute to the window’s glass; while yours are tack sharp! any words of advice, sifu?
    here are a couple of examples …
    best regards,

  4. Very nice; interesting as a series.

  5. Magique !

  6. I had just finished re-calibrating my monitor before I saw this post and the series looks fantastic! Some of them just suck you right in. I don’t know why, but something about VIII stood out for me. (Maybe your proximity to the clouds, or wider view?) When I clicked it, it said on Flickr it was taken with the Ricoh GR. Would you say that a 15×10″ is the maximum size Ultraprint for the GR? I know you like the GR and wondered if you had done some test Ultraprints with it and reached any conclusions about maximum print sizes?

    • Thanks. Yes, there’s one image in there with the GR – needed a slightly wider field of view. The GR will go to about 9×12″, and slightly larger but only for limited subjects.

  7. XVI remeinds me of small icebergs floating in the ocean.

  8. I was fortunate to get an upgrade to First on an Emirates flight back from Brisbane to KL, 2 years back…and the superb space allowed gives you a whole three windows to shoot from!
    When I returned, showed photographs to friends and posted them on my Tumblr, all everyone was interested in were the shots of the cabin, and it’s attendant luxuries than the shots from the windows, lol! In fact to this day, they gathered the most likes and reblogs of any post that I have ever made. 😉 I’m still not sure what that says about my pictures, or what people are really interested in seeing. 😄

  9. Great photos I really like them.
    This is a total geek thing but if you get stuck over a wing there is something worth looking for.
    Modern airliners travel at transonic speeds and so there is often a visible supersonic shock wave on the top of the wing.
    I’ve seen it many times and its kind of hypnotic to watch it as it moves but so far I have failed to get a decent photo.

    • If you’re in the tropics or a humid environment, you also get all sorts of moisture-flow patterns forming too – the low pressure on top of the wing is quite interesting, behind the lift increase devices, and of course inside the engine intake plenums on takeoff. Ok, I admit to being an airplane geek too 🙂

  10. A very nice series. Earlier in the month I saw some amazing clouds but had trouble framing them – using a longer lens seems to have worked much better for you, I’ll try that next time!

    (By the way, this year I’ve had three business class flights with Malaysia airlines at economy class prices (pay for an economy seat, wait for the upgrade offer, bid just above the lowest amount). Worth the difference for the view alone, and I would think you’d be well placed in KL to take advantage of their current pricing!)

    • You can’t always make the longer lens work though; clouds by nature lack edge definition, so the tighter you can make that edge in percentage of your field of view, generally the better the results are. But sometimes you luck out with really nice clouds 🙂

      I fly so much that I usually redeem some air miles on longer journeys and sit up front…much easier with the quantity of gear I have to haul to jobs and the necessity of being fully functional on the other end!

      • “….the tighter you can make that edge in percentage of your field of view, generally the better the results are……”

        Succinctly put! Thanks, that’s given me something to think about. I might go back and play around with cropping some of the photos I took before – not ideal from a quality perspective, but it might help next time for framing…

  11. Thoughts about filters? Have you tried red, for example, rather than / in addition to processing in post? It would be great to have a post on filters in general, e.g. polarizers for architecture, and their pros & cons relative to post-processing.

  12. Beautiful series! I like the surreal feeling of these images.

  13. Ron Scubadiver says:

    I have taken lots of photos from commercial jets, but always used a 50 or wider and color. Next time I am going to try 85mm and B&W as these are inspiring.

  14. Wonderful series, some are like an aerial view of a forest….”sky forests”? I find the highly structured formations so compelling, as in V, with that wonderful anvil amongst the cumulo-nimbii

    • Thanks Ian. I find watching clouds extremely relaxing…and a great way to pass boring airplane journeys. Unlike dealing with certain commenters…

  15. There is some real science to this and I think of these as an effect similar to boiling water. Yours have an Ansel Adams feeling. Then thinking on a deeper level, indigenous spiritual thought links the all of earth to God. I am merely using English words and this is not a theological forum, but there is a mysticism to this. If religion per se can divide us, mystical thoughts should join all of us together in a single thought. One writer once coined the phrase: the commonality of differences. As photographers we do this, I feel; we gaze respectfully at into another world. We all as humans can feel wonder. We all should wonder what the far side of the moon looks like (no one quite knows). So, here we gaze at the top side of clouds. This is very nice. It is purely art, too, in the sense that you did this for yourself and people like me. An artist is forever curious and a photographer collects moments of time.

  16. I feel like I’ve returned from a long journey, or was it just a dream…Great way to wake up this morning

  17. Great images, Ming, fascinating, though the contrast is a bit too much for my tastes. To each his own, I guess.

    • What’s your screen gamma set to? This is likely to have an effect as they were calibrated to gamma 1.95. The typical PC setting of 2.2 will be far too contrasty.

  18. MUST be printed large. Gorgeous!

  19. You’re on a roll at the moment. The shots from the ski slopes, and now these, are spectacular. Really a pleasure to view.

  20. Kristian Wannebo says:

    They are all lovely!
    That fantastic light in many of them.

    Also the kind of images I would like to loose myself in in a waiting room, e.g. at the walls in an airport …

    And there are shapes of clouds I’ve never seen before – I’ve never seen a levitating iceberg, 😉 – ( nr. VI )!

  21. Beautiful Set Ming! Amazing clouds you had that day.

  22. Great set. It’s hard not to have a love affair with clouds.


  23. Really beautiful set of cloud images ….the depth to them is amazing. And I think black and white is perfect for them. I love the glass of the sea beneath …. thankyou Trees

  24. Roger Wojahn says:

    One of your best groups to date, Ming. It seems most of the time I end up with the scratched window and the GR it’s just a little bit too wide much of the time. As the series I think these really feel like they’re coming from your heart. Bravo!

  25. A great series Ming. I hadn’t considered the fractal connection between clouds and trees.

    On a practical note, I recall you writing about photographing through aeroplane windows when you showed that image of London from the air. Any tips you can share? Or is it just common sense (shading window and lens from reflections inside the plane)? And what about distortion created by the shape and relationship between the two window layers? A negligible artefact I imagine,but wondered if you tweaked for any of these things in pp.

    • The two window layers and quality of glass are a very real problem. There’s nothing you can do if you get a lousy window other than just enjoy the view with your own eyes. Sitting up front obviously helps as you won’t have any of the wake heat turbulence from the engines.

      • The worst two elements in your Otus are the two keeping you from the -51C and 800kmph wind chill then!

        An argument perhaps for the A380 then and it’s larger windows. First time I’ve thought of aeroplanes in optical terms!

        • Sadly, yes. The A380 has an internal pane that’s very far from the external one which is great for insulation, but a disaster for internal reflections. I actually like the smaller Airbuses like the 318/19/20 for that.

  26. Very nice Ming. Looking at the world thru your eyes has allowed me to see my world better!

  27. Wow – a beautiful – whimsical or dreamsical series…LOVE them!!!

  28. These are the most fascinating cloud photographs I have ever seen. Thank you for posting. I’m afraid I can’t afford to own one of your prints, but treasure the opportunity of seeing these on my macbook retina screen. Thank you, Ming!

  29. As you know, this is my favorite recent series of yours! Now to decide which image to get … any suggestions? It will come from somewhere in V-XII.


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