Photoessay: Hong Kong from the air

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One of my recent assignments in Hong Kong involved some helicopter time; I made the most of the lull in transit between locations by doing a little sniping. I’m sure there was some subconscious inspiration by Yann Arthaus-Bertrand’s Earth from the air, but for the most part, I was doing my usual search for interesting geometries (and admittedly, some landmarks) but in mostly two dimensions.

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Aerial photography generally results in rather flat looking subjects most of the time because unless you are flying low and shooting off into the distance (almost impossible in a city with urban height restrictions) you’ll be looking down instead, and you generally don’t want to be too far away because there is always some atmospheric haze that robs acuity. (This particular morning was quite hazy.) As a consequence, it’s tricky to get a sense of scale and depth into the image; I generally just go the other way completely and look for planar abstractions of color and form. In this set you’ll notice some skyline overviews, but also a lot of detail – the latter is what I find most interesting, but also the hardest to shoot. Contrary to popular belief, helicopters are actually smoother when making a little headway rather than hovering; this means precise framing is actually quite tricky, especially at high magnifications. And you have to be very aware of wind buffeting when hanging out of the door. It’s actually easiest to shoot with the smallest camera you’ve got and the shortest lens you can get away with, and definitely no hood – that just acts like a sail.

My personal favourites are in the second half of the set – enjoy! MT

This set with shot with a Nikon D800E and AFS 24-120/4 VR, and D810 with AFS 80-400/4.5-5.6 VR.

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High density everywhere

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The chase

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Road to the top

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Marina I

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Marina II

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The snake

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Marina III

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Mass-market contentment in a box

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Context: how the other half live


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  1. Dan Lehman says:

    Ming, you write “Yann Arthaus-Bertrand’s Earth from the air” and some might question the title, esp. w/Amazon (US) giving ” Your search ‘Yann Arthaus-Bertrand _Earth from the air_’ did not match any products ” –though just the title DOES get hits. Anyway, by serendipity, I happily acquired two of the titles –viz., “From the Air” & “From Above”–, and w/o copies beside me can’t recall how much of any difference there was (little, is my recollection, to the point of some puzzlement). Lovely book, and a neat format (once I figured that out). I also got to see an exhibit of a Nat.Geog. photog who shot from an ultra-light (mostly over Africa, was it?), and the perspectives are amazing. … and now come the drones …

  2. Rex Gigout says:

    Excellent! as usual, I really do like your eye for architectural images; these aerial shots are no exception.

    I am reminded of the time I shot parts of Houston, Texas, at night, from a police helicopter. The purpose was to get images of pedestrians and vehicular traffic around popular night-life venues, to help plan for an upcoming basketball tournament, and its related parties, not produce art, which was just as well, because if any of my images were good, it was by accident! (I did “snipe” a few memorable personal images, that looked OK, though I do cannot claim to own the rights to them, of course, as I was on the taxpayer’s dime.) I learned much! I doubt I will have an opportunity to repeat the experience, unless I hire my own helicopter and crew, as I am not in the business of photography.

    • Thanks Rex. I too doubt I’ll get to do it again, even being in the business of photography – budgets are shrinking and work is going the way of the drones…

  3. Wow this is so beautiful !

  4. Beautiful photos Ming.

    What do you think about using a 36 megapixel camera for day-to-day or traveling/vacations shooting? there is just something that stands out from the others in all these high-megapixel photos, maybe the soft and more neutral colors, and the huge amount of tonality.



    • Thanks. Resolution doesn’t really have anything to do with color or tonality, especially not at web sizes. I used it because I was shooting on assignment and that’s what I had with me between locations. Perceived final image quality is dependent on so many things in workflow – shot discipline, pixel quality, lens quality, postprocessing, output method etc. It’s of course possible to make a great photo with a phone if you use it within its limits, or a poor one from medium format.

  5. beautiful and great view 🙂

  6. Jackson Jones says:

    In shot 8 there is a pagoda. Do you know where in Hong Kong that is and the name of the temple? Great series.

    • Thanks – no idea, sorry. It wasn’t one of the targets for that shoot (all of these were shot between locations) so I didn’t really have time to register exactly where it was…just shoot.

    • @Jackson Jones: This is Chi Lin Monastery which is located next to Diamond Hill MTR station in Kowloon. Opposite you will find Nan Lian Garden. Both places are definitely worth visiting.

      @Ming Thein: really beautiful set of images. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Amazing set! This one should definitely go into your gallery portfolio! Esp the different perspective – very very cool!

  8. Jérôme Doutaz says:

    Great set, though this time I prefer the color pictures. Color seems always accurate without over saturation ; a great feel of “beeing there” (even with the low res’ web images).

    I read somewhere in one of your comment that you are gonna expose some of your pictures/set in galleries worldwide ; let me know when/where you do, I am really interested in seeing your work “for real” !

    • Thanks. Depending on where you are at the moment, the Feroz Galerie in Bonn has a selection at the moment. I am working on Hong Kong and Chicago for later this year.

  9. Yet another great set, Ming !

    “Mass-market contentment in a box” instantly made me think about a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, i.e. “The ‘little’ tower of Babel”. I wonder, was the link between both intentional ?

  10. François Arbour says:

    Hi Ming,

    Love this set of pictures, the light, the color palette, the composition.Thanks for your work.

    Best regards,


  11. Fascinating and rare viewpoint. As always it amazes me how strong you personal style comes through no matter how unusual the subject/perspective are (I don’t know why, you’d have thought I would be used to it by now…but that would be taking it for granted, and that would be doing you a dis-service). Great series MT 🙂

    personal faves are Marina III and Mass-market contentment in a box

  12. Very nice set, Ming. Outstanding compositions.

  13. Hi Ming,
    Wow… I love the geometry.
    Not sure if I get your intention right, but the colour tone of this set is quite painting-like, especially Mass Market and Marina. Is it intentional ?

  14. Amazing what rotating propellers can lead to 🙂 Amazing photography from a different POV!

  15. Hi Ming Thein, your website has been extremely slow due to ‘syndicate.tweeter’ and other ad engines. Suggest to take a look…

  16. mojoshawn says:

    Very interesting image and architecture.

  17. Hello Ming, I don’t know, if it is my PC monitor, but your aerial pictures don’t look very crisp to me. Sorry, but the glasses you’ve used for this report, seems not to be the best, in the row of Nikon lenses!

  18. Wow. I love the first cloud puff (the untitled one), and Mass Market. It’s one thing to have the access (and helicopter), and quite another to then exploit that opportunity to take photos like this. Nicely done, Ming!

    • Thanks Andre! This set was actually the B roll grabbed on the move from one location to another…the chopper was actually never static for any of these images.

  19. Nice shots – takes some “cojones” to shoot from a helicopter, I would imagine. Far more than from a plane!

    Concerning the black and white shots in particular – I like the tonality and overall appearance of those. Is that something I could learn from the b/w post processing video you released a while back? I’ve been on the fence about picking it up. Not for fear of quality issues (I’ve had nothing but positive results from the videos I’ve bought so far and they are done to a high standard) but because I’m usually able to get my b/w shots looking pretty decent with some combination of the gradient map, the channel mixer or (heresy!) silver efex pro. Nevertheless, they still don’t come out quite as nicely as yours do. Do you attribute it to the light, the processing, or some combination thereof?

    I think what I’m driving at is that I’m asking you to sell me on the b/w video. I’d like to get it, but I suppose I need to know what it will teach me that I’m not doing already. Hope that doesn’t sound sneaky – it’s a genuine query.

    Thank you!

    • No cojones, just harnesses and VR.

      As for monochrome – yes, I suspect you’re going to have to use a bit more than just global controls because of the way digital sensors respond especially at the shadow/highlight extremes compared to film. This can appear as a local effect that will have to be countered by dodging and burning and a judicious start point. Short answer: yes, we do cover that in the MM video. And imagine if you think the tiny web size images look good, what would the full size originals be like? 😉

      • Thanks. I will definitely give it serious consideration!

      • Have you tried similar techniques on color images, and if yes, does it have any benefits? It’s the same signal from the sensor after all, though channel differences may smoothen the bright/dark gradients and transitions in comparison to b&w, I guess (triple resolution in a sense). Colour film must work in a similar manner with “rounded off” highlights etc.

        It is interesting to look at your posts around 2 years back. I originally found the blog through reviews (surprise) but kept reading due to the good available light photography. Now a lot of the photos from back then look quite dated in comparison to your recent work, especially the processing. I will definitely keep reading and learning.

        • Channel mixer? No, it doesn’t work because color accuracy goes out of the window. I have another technique for dealing with highlights, and yes, the overall workflow has changed quite a bit compared to the first Intro to PS Workflow video. Several steps have been eliminated entirely, actually – and color accuracy is much better. So much so we were filming PS Workflow II yesterday…and this one will have example raw files to download 😉

          • Actually I thought about how the image natively (or after normal pp) looks like – in a colour version the channels are not in sync, which might smoothen tones or transitions in some cases, compared to a b&w “compressed” version. But never mind, I will wait for the video 🙂

  20. All these images are unreal. Your are bringing me to another dimension of seeing Hong Kong.

  21. Amazing photos.

  22. Always enjoy your shots from a copter! Too many favorites to list….

  23. Really interesting images! A fascinating photoessay about an exotic and somewhat mysterious location. Well done, Ming!

  24. Hi Ming,

    Great pictures.
    You have seen Hong Kong from a perspective that I still haven’t got the chance to enjoy first hand!
    Nonethess, thanks for sharing there pictures.

    Just out of curiousity, was it an interesting assignment in Hong Kong? Will the public get to see that work of yours some day?

    Best regards,

    • Thanks. Yes, a very interesting assignment and one over which I had full creative control. The client is planning an exhibition probably around the middle of the year.

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