Venetian cinematics and time-lapse

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I’ve been making cinematic stills for a while now, and have had this niggling feeling that they felt too static – after all, cinema implies motion. Sure, it’s possible to capture a pose of dynamic imbalance in a subject where they’re clearly caught mid-step or similar, but that doesn’t always work if the subject isn’t moving much (but obviously isn’t completely still, because humans normally never are). This series is an experiment to do blend motion, mood, and above all, the idea of intransigence and just passing through – which most of the people in Venice are doing.

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The light of Venice is fantastic around twilight and early night: you’ve got these little pools from the street lights, which are cast onto old, textured walls and in puddles on the flagstones; shop windows are recessed into thick stone mullions, which means that you also get nice soft spill from the sides – much like large softboxes. Finally, when there’s a little rain, everything becomes a little shiny and starts to reflect its ambient environment – the quality of light just becomes atmospherically magical. I suppose an alternate title for this photoessay could be ‘The umbrellas of Venice’; there’s something evocative and ethereal about the floating, colourful shapes, which are simply at odds with both the atmosphere and the sombre people. Unlike in other parts of the world, it seems that colourful umbrellas are de rigeur. Together with the ambiguous shadows, anything darker simply feels sinister.

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Besides integrating motion, I’ve also been experimenting with using a wider 2.4:1 aspect ratio, more closely matching mainstream cinema and a very interesting challenge to compose with – it’s much harder to find appropriate foreground than you might think; lenses ‘draw wider’ because of this, and if there are human elements, they’ve got to either be truncated or small. It’s great for adding context in a constructed set, or emphasising horizontal distance, but is really challenging to work with when trying to include vertical detail – your camera has to be at precisely the right height for all of the elements to align, and usually lower than you might think. It also doesn’t help that none of the stills cameras have cinematic crop guide lines either in finder or LCD.

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For almost all of these images, I didn’t do any in-camera curation – partially because the environmental conditions weren’t pleasant, partially because I was trying to make the most of the short windows in which the umbrellas were out. The scenes may look staged, but the reality is you may be waiting quite a long time for the ‘right-looking’ person or combination of people to come past. All you can do is set up and wait with anticipation. Whilst thumbing through the images on the back of the camera to find a particular one, a little one of those serendipitous discoveries happened: the playback speed of single frames was fast enough to make it appear like a stop-motion video. I of course then had to keep all and grade* all of the outtakes and unused frames into a time-lapse…

*Batch processed through ACR for each scene; adjustments made to one frame, synchronised to all – doable because almost all of the time the camera was on a tripod – and saved direct. Photoshop CC has video editing capabilities; you can import single still frames directly to a video layer or stack and it will automatically sequence.

This is probably one of the few times you’ll see my outtakes! Note that for the vertical frames, I’ve done a crop to fit to the horizontal 16:9 aspect ratio, so you aren’t seeing the whole image. I leave you now with the final individual frames – there’s a little more processing here than in the video simply because it’s impractical to dodge and burn 300+ images consistently from frame to frame…enjoy! MT

This series was shot with a tripod at shutter speeds ranging from 2s to 1/8s (depending on the speed of the people) with a Pentax 645Z and 55/2.8 SDM. Postprocessing was done using the cinematic workflow in Making Outstanding Images Ep. 4 Exploring Style and Ep.5 Processing for Style.

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


  1. Reblogged this on Eileen Lyn Wah.

  2. Per Magnussen says:

    Great pctures. And the colours in the second photo…mmmmm. 🙂

  3. david mantripp says:

    Very nice work, perfectly conveys the atmosphere of dank, wet winter Venetian nights. I’ve been doing something similar with Venice from a slightly different perspective for several years now, and it’s interesting that we have both zeroed in on many of the same locations for night time work.. I’d recommend that you check out the furthest reaches of Castello and Cannaregio on your next visit, for a less picturesque but very “film noir” flavour (but maybe take a friend along …. 🙂 )

    • Thanks. I didn’t feel Cannaregio was unsafe, by perhaps it wasn’t late enough (since sunset was at 4pm!). No need for unnecessary risks…

  4. Really nice set, captures a feeling of Venice very different from the daytime summer crowds. Just curious, was this a personal project separate from the workshop days, or did you work your own shooting into the workshop as part of the teaching experience? I imagine the latter would be interesting, like being part of your “how to shoot” videos. Do you have any plans to do workshops in Asia over the next couple of years?

    • Thanks. This was a personal project. I don’t tend to do creative experimentation during teaching sessions as I need to focus on shooting; I can’t do that if I’m also teaching or have an audience (which tends to affect subject behavior).

      Asian workshops: possibly, but there appears to be a very large disconnect between expectations of quality, price and equipment vs technique…

  5. I’ve always thought the ‘cinematic’ style has been your strongest and it’s good to see you still experimenting and taking it to another level. The timelapse was also very well done!

  6. Stunning work Ming! Fantastic!

  7. You never cease to amaze. Hard to say any one set of images is the “best”, but I think this set is my favorite. (Until you inevitably come up with something even more amazing). Look forward to more.

  8. Beautiful choices in the play of light. Are you spot metering and thinking zone system when doing these? Or firing off a few test frames to survey the scene, then waiting for the composition to jell?

    • Actually, I have to work backwards from shutter speed – because that governs the amount of motion. The rest is predetermined by that and the tradeoff between depth of field/ noise.

  9. This set positively makes me wish I had been there.

  10. Amazing, Ming.

  11. Peter Mellis says:

    I’ve been in Venice during the winter several times; these are the most evocative photos of that time and place that I have seen (or taken, for that matter). Quite wonderful.
    The format/aspect ratio really adds something.

  12. knickerhawk says:

    If you haven’t seen it already, rent/download “Don’t Look Now,” the 1973 movie directed by Nicholas Roeg, starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland and set in Venice. It’s a dark, creepy movie with a number of scenes set at night in the Venice alleys. Very evocative, very moody setting and I’d recommend viewing it after (not before) visiting Venice!

    • I remember watching that many years ago. The atmosphere made the whole thing scary as hell – and yes, I’m glad I didn’t remember it before going out to shoot this set…

  13. islesfreelance says:

    Ming! This is fabulous! I would use this at the beginning of a documentary on rising sea levels and global warming narrated by Morgan Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. If I had the money, of course.

  14. These are brilliant, mood-full, with a masters sense of place and Time! Would love to see them projected, a few feet from the viewer, in a darkened room, or museum/ theater as the music takes viewers to another consciousness when paired with your beautiful work.

    • Thanks – yes, they’d definitely work best large in a dark room. But I feel digital projection – other than transparency/optical – would lose a lot of the tonal subtlety.

      • I was in Las Vegas last year when Nat Geo had an exhibition of the 50 Greatest Photographs. My excitement was cut short, nay, slashed at the jugular, when to my surprize, the installation consisted of 50 duratrans of the selection. I felt betrayed. There is a solar system worth of difference between a durtrans and a print, especially if that print were to be an Ultraprint.

        However, there were some electronic displays adjacent to a few of the “prints” wherein they presented a behind the scenes commentary via video, but what struck me, was that when the presentation started, the exact same image was displayed side by side at roughly the same size, one on duratrans, and the other on LCD/LED flatscreen. In the darkened room, the images on the flatscreens were stunning! It made me wonder why they didn’t just do the whole exhibition as The 50 Greatest Images on Flatscreen.

        • Zeiss did something similar at Photokina this year – 80″ 4K displays instead of prints, and I was told they looked pretty darn good by a lot of people. It might well be the way to go in future for temporary display purposes, but prints will still of course win for archival.

  15. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Great pictures with a soul. Just one thing, you wrote pictures were taken OFF ? tripod with exposures ranging from 2 sec to 1/8. Must be a typo, isn`t it?, or you have rock steady hands.

    • Should be ON. Definitely ON. I wish I had hands that steady…

      Sorry: just re-read that. ‘Shot off a tripod’ means ‘shot with a tripod’; the choice of syntax was a bit confusing. I’ll edit that.

  16. Excellent series….some have ‘TheThird Man’ noir feel to them especially the guy on the steps…Ian

  17. These images are very dear to me since I were there when Ming took this series. Not beside him, but taking shelter in my hotel room 🙂
    It might not appear from the set here how crowded Venice may be, but it is at moments like this you feel the antiqueness and ancient history of the city. I was astounded how peaceful and tranqile the city atmosphere is, even during the busy day hours. It is unique for a place that crowded.
    Ming how well you captured the evening light that dabbles the walk ways, buildings and bridges .. it is like being there. The format just emphasize the atmosphere the place has at that particular period of the year with shortened days and long eveninga and nights. Venice is so photographical rich and even the surface of the city is not that big, I could spend days and days walking around with my camera in hand. Have to go there again.

    • Thank you, Gerner – the whole idea of going to Venice in winter was to avoid the usual – light was challenging, but he evenings were long and the umbrellas cinematic 🙂

  18. Gary Morris says:

    Travel images extraordinaire! It appears that you’re mastering the Pentax.

  19. randomesquephoto says:

    Very awesome work. Love the noir-ish feel. Like a European blade runner.

  20. Interesting direction you’re taking, though I guess not surprising in light of your video director work. There are some interesting implications: the biggest one is probably that the viewing medium is about as far from an Ultraprint as possible. You’ll have to deal with low-bandwidth channels delivering content that’s being squeezed to death just to fit in those channels.

    And humans have less capacity to tell quality in a moving image, so that saves it some, but then you’ll have to do a lot more work on the front end collecting and processing images to deliver something that perhaps 90% of which won’t ever be perceived (cf. video codec compression ratios compared to say a bunch of D810 or 645Z RAWs).

    BTW, what do you think about cinemagraphs? I’ve been curious about trying to make one.

    • I think these would work best as very large prints in a darkened room on black walls; it’s about being there rather than getting lost at close range.

      Cinemagraphs: hmm. I’m on the fence for the moment…mainly because I feel the tradeoff to out some motion in is a certain looseness in precision of the moment, which bothers me at many levels…

  21. Anatoly Loshmanov says:

    It is definitely in mood of the best cinema shot in town.


  1. […] final intended exposure after postprocessing, or actually shoot 1) and use it as a reference. (The Venetian Cinematics were shot this way, and though the final output is extremely low key, the starting point looked […]

  2. […] Participants will need to have a large sensor mirrorless or DSLR camera, fast prime lenses (even a 50/1.4  on a DX body is perfectly adequate) and a laptop to post process on. Nikon or Canon mounts are best since Zeiss has also generously agreed to loan us some suitable lenses for the Masterclass in those mounts, too. Manual focus fast primes are also excellent (even older glass via adaptors such as the Nikon AI 105/1.8) especially if paired with an EVF, waist level LCD or LCD magnifier*. A tripod is also useful so you can set up shots and work with a little motion blur, such as in the Venetian Cinematics. […]

  3. […] An alternative to the Venetian Cinematics […]

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