Photoessay: Cinematic in Tokyo

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Not in Kansas anymore

One of the most important things for the creation of a cinematic feeling image is control over light: control light and you can control what stands out, the order in which your audience reads an image, and beyond that, how they feel when they view it. This is of course significantly easier to do when the light sources in question are not random: it’s much easier to make a cinematic image with ambient neon than it is with pure sunshine, as there’s just so much more directionality and variation of color. Fortunately, I had a decent amount of both in Tokyo; I’ve always found it to be one of the most easiest cities in which to make these kinds of images for that reason.

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The divide

What might surprise you is that you really don’t need very long or very fast lenses to create that cinematic look; a good number of these images were created with a wide (28mm) or stopped down short normal (45mm). Only the few that punch into details go beyond that to 85mm, and there’s a sole 180mm image in there. Even though cinematic images tend to be presented in sequence, I still think that too much bokeh isn’t really desirable because it also abstracts out any context or storytelling ability. Yes, cinematic images are about the creation of a mood or feeling rather than telling a single story in a frame, but there’s still a halfway point between a still from a sequence, a standalone image that feels like it, and a documentary one. I believe these hit the intended mark. Enjoy! MT

This set was shot with a mishmash of equipment and processed using the Cinematic style and workflow in Making Outstanding Images Episodes 4 & 5, available individually or as bundles here. You can also travel vicariously to Japan with me as your guide in How To See Ep.2: Tokyo.

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An interlude of dreams

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Afternoon idea of man

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Platform 16

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Coordinating an exit

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Preparing for the dinner rush

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Since you didn’t eat that…

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Last stop

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


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


  1. Interlude of Dreams. Amazing!

  2. Interlude of Dreams…hope that makes your print gallery soon.

  3. Megatron says:

    Lots of stunning frames here. Add in a little JJ Abrams style anamorphic flare and it’s a legit hollywood scenes :p

  4. Terrific series, but “An interlude of dreams” blew my mind — as an image, and as an image that I would miss. It is a great inspiration.

  5. Daniel Boyd says:

    Afternoon idea of man is beautiful Ming.

  6. Very good work and insightful thoughts, as always! I love your approach, no BS.
    Have you tried anamorphic lens for still photography?

    • Thanks. No, anamorphic lenses don’t make much sense. You’re better off cropping and they were never designed for the kind of resolution the current generation of cameras needs…

  7. Hi Ming. Some great images here. Like you, I have been giving titles to my images for some time, but I confess I’m having second thoughts and am considering reverting to a Place, Year approach. I hear what many say, that ambiguity of an image forces a viewer to find his/her own meaning, and broadens the audience that can connect. What you see may not be what others see. Your “divide” stresses separation, I was more intrigued by two people walking in parallel in the same direction…

    Another point: you mix several formats here, from 2/3 to 9/16 to (I think) wider than that. Cinematic to me is wider than 2/3, but whatever you pick, I believe a set is stronger when it shares the same format. Your thoughts? Personally, I’d be happier to shoot wide if I had a dedicated tool for it, like a Hassy X-Pan. I just hate cropping, and love composing in-camera. But that’s just me of course…

    • Cinema wasn’t always 2.4:1 – I agree 2/3 is probably stretching it a bit, but a cinematic feeling must go beyond format to light/ composition/ mood etc.

      • I agree with light/compo/mood, totally. Yet you are the first to say that consistency is key and I feel that the 1.5:1 images throw me off balance when going through a series of 2.4:1s or 16:9s. My favorite of the set here is Dinner Rush, which is 1.5:1… but the color bands above and below are compressing it to a wider feel.
        I’d have liked more B&W, B&W movies are great too.

        • At the risk of contradicting myself, the feel should be consistent and inserting B&W would have disrupted that. But there’s also a consistency of balance that’s highly subject-dependent and not something one can control when the subjects are all candid – working around the aspect ratios is the only way to achieve that. The particular example of Dinner Rush with bands above and below would not feel compressed or wider without the bands – you can try cropping it yourself and you’ll see what I mean. We only gain those visual cues when included; when excluded it requires our audience to make too much of a leap of imagination.

  8. Terrific images here, but I find it doubly interesting that both “Since you didn’t eat that…” and “Platform 16” are greatly reinforced by reading the caption, then returning to the photo.

  9. great set of photos, the first one and the one of the chef at “dinner rush” are among my favourites, but the whole set has indeed something of cinematic.

  10. Martin Fritter says:

    Your work is generally free of cheep effects and trickery. Regarding the cinematic approach, I read somewhere the 28mm equivalent focal length is pretty much normal for establishing shots: deep focus but perceptible and unobtrusive bokeh. I just discovered the the IMDB entries for recent movies include fairly detailed technical specs. I was curious about why the B&W in “Nebraska” is so horrible and that of “Ida” so ravishing. I’d thought the latter was film, but nope, digital.

    • Still trying for transparency, and neither of those things fits the bill 🙂

      Agreed on 28mm. There’s a reason why it’s the ‘Hollywood Distagon’. As for Nebraska and Ida, I suspect PP plays a huge part in it…

  11. Stephan says:

    “there’s still a halfway point between a still from a sequence, a standalone image that feels like it, and a documentary one. I believe these hit the intended mark.”

    You certainly did. My favorite essay in a while.

    – Stephan

  12. Ming,

    I think that An Interlude of Thoughts is a wonderful view of the MVRDV project on Omotesando (the Gyre Building).

  13. Hard to pick a favorite. Well seen.

  14. Love this set endlessly Ming .. hard to pick a favorite this time 🙂

  15. Can’t say enough about this set, it’s just amazing, probably one of your best.

  16. Since you didn’t eat that…is absolutely spectacular. Wonderful capture. I keep looking at that and wonder, what really is about to happen here…that’s an aggressive looking hand coming in, why is the other hand so relaxed, are they old friends…so much to the imagination. Bravo!

  17. Really like this set, brings back good memories. The street in the “Crowd” seems very familiar 🙂

  18. Great photos they have that beautiful natural look. Apprehension is my favorite. I am going to Tokyo for the first time this
    July and cannot wait to experience the streets and people there.

  19. snappycow says:

    Wow, love every single one of them. Probably my favorite set! (could be because I like photographs that tell stories more than anything)

    Went there for a holiday 2 years back and it was magical, I can’t wait to go again. I envy the frequency that you get to travel to Japan (I don’t envy the work and deadlines though, and I know frequency has its downsides; I understand the magic gets diluted through repeated washes, but whether that is the fault of the place or the photographer, it’s debatable).

    • Thanks! I know what you mean about the repetition part: I’ve been to Tokyo every year for the past seven or so; it’s starting to feel more like familiar territory and less like ‘new and exciting’, if you know what I mean. Perhaps time to find somewhere else…or perhaps globalisation has resulted in corporate homogeneity closing the gap…

      • Well Ming, I can imagine how you feel to some extent, but I have lived in Tokyo for 15 years and before that had traveled to or lived in Japan for various lengths of time since 1989. It has yet to lose its excitement/interest for me. Have you gone much outside the well-traveled (and over-photographed) areas of central Tokyo to smaller stations? Nearly every station area in the prefecture has an entirely different character even though they may only be minutes from each other on foot. A few near me on the Toyoko line are Jiyugaoka, Toritsudaigaku, Tamagawa, Denenchofu, Nakameguro, and many more. I often just walk that line and find many interesting opportunities. There’s always something interesting for me. Other areas in Shitamachi such as Yanaka, Ryougoku can be interesting. They often require an investment of time—but as you know if the light is right, an attentive person can always find good opportunities. Then there are places like along the Tamagawa River which provides some “nature” and waterfowl opportunities. And then there’s Kanagawa Prefecture just minutes away.

        • Yes I have, but not covered anywhere near enough of them – the station network is massive! I think out of Tokyo entirely is probably the plan for next time…

  20. Richard says:

    Since You Didn’t Eat That: I doth my cap to you, SIr. Awesome.

  21. Wonderful set MT.

  22. MT- check the link to your gallery on flickr(footer below the images) missing a “y”. I normally wouldn’t point out a typo however this one may cost your shop some traffic.

    “The Divide” is great story telling in an image.

  23. Ming,
    Really like the images, also this updated cinematic style. – Eric

  24. Caesar Merlin says:

    Very nice! your cinematics are always my favorite of all of your photo essays.

  25. These are cinematic street masterpieces! I had so much fun in Tokyo too.

    • Thanks Ciao – you might remember some of them since you were around when they were shot…

      • Yes, I remember both of us spotting that girl with the pink head costume and running after her immediately 🙂

        • I wasn’t sure it worked on the back of my camera screen; turns out it did in the end. I think the uncertainty was a case of not enough thinking time before the moment and just spontaneous reaction…

  26. Really nice series! I enjoy looking at your pictures! =)

  27. Lovely! I really like the Kansas picture, and I like that your concept of cinematic doesn’t involve teal and orange highlight and shadow toning like every other movie out today.

  28. Really good to see a cinematic photoessay after quite some time! Your interpretation of ‘cinematic’ as a style seems to have evolved as well. Great set!

    • Thanks – it’s not something I do that often these days because to some extent I feel my personal inspirations have changed…


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