Portraiture, part two: candids, reportage, street, and the ‘happiness barometer’

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In part one we looked at why images of people fascinate us, and the nature of portraiture. However, this only covers half of the possibilities for ‘images of people’: instances where the subject is a conscious and cooperative part of the process. What about the other possibility: where the subject is not aware the photographer, or only aware of them in the most fleeting of moments before any conscious self-image or rapport can be built?

The images in this article are all candid: unposed, unplanned, and with subject unaware. Even if it appears they may be looking at the camera in certain situations, it is a result of conscious timing, observation of something behind me, and/or a particular moment rather than catching a long stare. None of them showed any acknowledgement of my presence before or after the shot was taken, which was actually quite surprising in some situations. They saw me, but my presence didn’t register.

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Unlikely protector

A ‘formal’ portrait might be thought of as a quantisation of the relationship between the artist and the subject because a relationship exists; in this way, the world of candid people photography is equally fascinating to us – perhaps more so – because it is the precise opposite. For the purposes of this discussion, candid photography encompasses everything where there is either no real relationship between the photographer and subject. It includes almost all street photography, most documentary or reportage (but not editorial, since there’s frequently two way communication and conscious selection of the presented images afterwards). But hopefully not any commissioned portraiture – if there is no interaction between photographer and subject – think of it as chemistry, perhaps – then the resulting images tend to be rather distant. Corporate head shots are really more a catalog than portraiture, so I suppose they can be excluded. There is one grey area, and that’s the kind of documentary where the subjects are aware of being photographed but not precisely when; especially over longer periods of time, any conscious facade presented to the camera usually gets dropped as the subjects revert to their ‘typical’ selves.

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Since there is no relationship between photographer and subject in a candid situation, the outcome is one of two things: the instantaneous reaction to being observed/ scrutinised by a stranger, or a sort of unguarded glimpse at the subject’s reaction to his or her environment. It is this unguardedness that is interesting: there is no time for a change of self-image to be thought of (“how do I want myself to appear to a stranger?”) nor is there generally sufficient time for self-consciousness to intrude (“am I doing anything that might possibly be interpreted as negative or embarrassing?”). In some ways, we are getting a far more intimate look at the subject than they might have otherwise intended. The illusion of not being noticed in public is a false one, of course; it is that instant of self-consciousness that creates the discomfort and perhaps uncertainty of one’s own actions. Candid images of other people interest us not just because they give us a little window into the lives of somebody else – but I suspect that at a much deeper level they are also the cause of some personal comparisons and make us question our own self-image. And research has shown we can certainly understand or at least interpret the different facial expressions captured at a cross-cultural level.

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After years of photography, I notice a few behavioural patterns emerge when people notice they are being photographed:

  • Preoccupied individuals with purpose or some other urgent task tend not to care or notice the photographer, or if they do, they do not modify their actions – an example would be emergency personnel in a crisis situation, or a seasoned professional at work;
  • Those who are confident but not engaged in any activity tend to acknowledge the camera but either ignore it or not change their behaviour;
  • Those who are not confident tend to be very self-conscious and start checking their actions and how they appear to the camera – junior professionals, or people who think they might have been caught doing something embarrassing for instance;
  • Individuals with self-image issues tend to be very confrontational or hide behind something (teenagers, illegal immigrants)
  • Those who are socially uncomfortable tend to be rigid or ‘frozen’ as though they are unsure of how to react
  • Children are always inquisitive, generally far more observant than adults and generally friendly and open – they have nothing to hide and if anything their behaviour tends to become even more emphasised and exuberant.

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The eyes

What about truly candid situations in which the photographer’s presence is never noticed? I think we are back representing relationships again: but this time, between the subject and the other individuals they are interacting with. It is a glimpse into another aspect of the subject’s personality, but again one that has been curated – it is what or how they want to present themselves to their social partners. In a situation where the subject and social partners have a deep relationship, the emotions displayed may be more genuine and wide-ranging. The precise instant captured now becomes important: an expression that may be of interest to an outside observer may not necessarily be of interest or representative of that individual; in fact, it may be so exceptional that the subject might land up being surprised or unhappy about that particular aspect of their behaviour being preserved for longer than the intended instant it was displayed in real time.

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The dominant reaction of subjects to viewing candids of themselves tends to be highly bipolar: there’s either a great appreciation that the photographer was able to capture ‘the real person’ – i.e. as others see them and perhaps as they also see themselves, or a deep feeling of violation of privacy. What doesn’t make logical sense is that the subject’s actions were of course observed by the individuals they were interacting with, and perhaps more if the interactions took place in a public space. Or perhaps those feeling derive from the discomfort of being scrutinised in detail without permission – explicit or otherwise. It does not take much of a jump to be back at stealing souls again.

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I do believe the best documentary photography has to be of this nature, though: it cannot be a faithful representation of reality if the observer inadvertently changes the situation. Quantum mechanics at a large scale, then. By far, the biggest challenges of documentary photography have always been being there at the critical moment, recognising the critical moment, and being ‘in it’ – and by extension, bringing the audience with you. It is actually quite easy to be in a crisis situation without being noticed because all other individuals are absorbed in their own priorities; it is far more difficult when subjects are not involved in events of immediate urgency as they have plenty of spare observation capacity to notice the photographer and modify behaviour accordingly, which of course results in an undesirable outcome. It is almost impossible to convey the feeling of being a participant with a telephoto lens, and the wider you go, the closer you have to get to your subject – and it’s pretty obvious how difficult it is to do that without being noticed.

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Most modern documentary and street photography tends towards wider lenses for this reason; there is definitely an improved sense of inclusion versus a telephoto perspective, but I think the outcome is changed too much. A good example would be Bruce Gilden’s work – you cannot provoke a much stronger reaction from a stranger than by approaching them at very close range and firing a flash in their faces. It is certainly a good test of how nervous or skittish an individual might be. I wonder though whether candid images of solo individuals can really say something a bit more about the people in question: do people ‘put on a face’ even when there’s nobody watching (or they think there’s nobody watching)? Doubtful, given the effort required to sustain something like that. It’s probably therefore a safe assumption that what you see (when you are not being seen) is what you get – unless one has some serious issues, you’re hardly going to hide from yourself.

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Extrapolate this a bit further given our ability to recognise common facial expressions, and we have my working theory of the last few months: real candids, where an individual is on their own and not aware of the photographer, are really a sort of ‘happiness barometer’. Perhaps this is not entirely accurate: ‘personality barometer’ is a bit closer to what I had in mind. If you take some time to do candid street photography in a city, you’ll tend to notice that some cities have more happy people in them than others – assuming of course I’m reading facial expressions consistently. There are cities that are worried, there are others that are aggressive and confrontational. And there are still other changes depending on the weather; if you find yourself in a city that’s not happy when the sun is out, you might find it extremely unpleasant if it rains. I don’t mean to make these statements as an exclusive sweeping generalisation, but I’ve noticed this especially in places which I’ve made multiple visits to over the course of many years – Tokyo, for instance, seemed worried; London alternates between a sort of poker-faced coldness and a loss of inhibition depending on the amount of cloud cover. Kuala Lumpur is oblivious or hiding; Singapore, Hong Kong and New York are a bit aggressive. Prague is energetic/ enthusiastic and Paris is indifferent. It is not the stereotype images that are interesting – it’s those that break the mould and challenge our expectations.

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Through the looking glass – for some reason, glass renders you unnoticeable. Especially with a waist level finder.

I have to say that expectation is one of the other factors that can really affect the outcome of candid photograph and portraiture in general; if you’ve been ‘caught’, then acting confrontational and that street photography is within your rights (even though it is) is probably not going to win you any friends. In fact, it’s likely to escalate to an unpleasant situation. The expectation of the subject is what drives the unpleasantness; both parties are expecting to defend what is perceived as a conflicting right – one to privacy, one to freedom of action. On the other hand, I always recommend smiling and being friendly even if it is against all of our natural instincts simply because it is not the expected thing to do. I find that in almost all cases, this disarms any hostile intent. And humour and backing down takes care of the rest. Sometimes one has to ‘lose’ to win.

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Lighting up

The subject in the photograph above, for instance, caught me and confronted me. He was trying to light a cigarette inside his jacket on a windy day, and the impression was so close to that of a bird sleeping (and thus unusual) that I had to make a photograph; but the camera was slow to power up or he was fast to light and he emerged with me standing in front of him. This was the only shot I got. The ensuing conversation went something like this:
Him, angry: “WTF! Were you taking a picture of me?”
Me, smiling: “Well, I tried to, but you were too fast – I’ve never seen anybody try to light up
inside their jacket before. Anyway, it’s cold out here – have a nice day!”
Him, somewhat mollified: “Uh, okay, you too.”

We then went our separate ways. I suspect he was expecting a denial or some aggression. I didn’t get the image I wanted, but I got a more interesting candid expression instead, and managed to get out of the situation.

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The strange thing it that expectation also influences the outcome in planned/ conscious situations: people  who are not used to being photographed (or not with serious setups involving lights and a large camera) tend to act very nervous, tense and generally not at all like their usual selves. You can almost feel the expectation is like that at a dentists’ surgery. Needless to say, this is not conducive for natural or good portraits. I’ve tried many ways of making portraits with various equipment, and find that there’s almost always the expectation that it has to be formal and stiff; I’ll make these images because the subject expects them, but then never use them. The really good images come together when everything is set up, I’m talking to the subject about something completely unrelated, and I just ‘happen’ to hit the shutter – I’ll do it a few times, and after a while, the subject ignores the flashes and camera and continues the conversation.

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I don’t subscribe to the theory that compacts or Hasselblads or rangefinders are better portrait cameras than DSLRs because the subject can see your face, though there’s definitely something intimidating about having a giant eye pointed at you. Rather, everything returns to the relationship hypothesis. A ‘better’ – or at least more transparent – portrait is made because there is no a relationship between the photographer and subject; the camera is merely witness to that interaction, recording it on command. After the rapport has been established, I can pick up the camera again and then continue shooting as normal without any change in the subject. The camera has been relegated to the position of a tool, or a device, rather than the focus of the relationship. It’s an interesting turning point on these assignments, and one I’ve consciously noticed all the time.

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The invisible divide

In a candid/street/documentary situation, the same thing doesn’t quite happen because the photographer never has a relationship with the subject: it’s more a case of going unnoticed. We can take advantage of the fact that direct communications between individuals is signalled by the eyes to remain unnoticed. Similarly, if a subject is looking directly into the camera, there’s a lot more intensity and focus directed through the image at the viewer – even if what has actually happened has simply caught their heads or eyes in mid-pan. If eyes are visible, it is therefore important to have them in sharp focus simply because this is the number one point of contact for the observer, an instant homing beacon for those communicating in conversation, and painfully obvious if not well defined.

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Looking for a fare

If you’re not looking directly at somebody or vice versa, there is no perceived two-way connection – it is observation in one direction only.  People will tend to ignore you – which of course gives waist level finders an advantage. Here, the equipment plays a much bigger role in the outcome – which is not to say that you couldn’t do candid street photography with medium format; you can. Regardless of the hardware or the outcome though, it’s important to remember a couple of things: portraiture has and always been about preserving personality and emotion either as a product of a relationship; candid photography is an extension of that (or perhaps a purification) where ideally we see only the individual in question. What does that glimpse into another person’s life tell us about them? Certainly not the whole story, but perhaps enough that we might want to find out. MT


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  1. Dirk De Paepe says:

    IMO, this is a very important article, Ming, because of the subject being in the pinnacle of what the greatest forte of photography really is. Photography is the only discipline that can catch and copy moment’s out of real life and freeze them into lasting images. That’s what makes the timing a crucial factor.
    As always, your article is stuffed with very interesting visions and analyses. (I believe their level is quite unique on the internet.) As often I’d like to slightly nuance things a bit. (Of course I express my personal vision here, but I believe that it’s exactly in the exchange of different visions that we can further develop.)
    In the beginning of this article you referred to the former one, with posed portraits, and said that thát one only treated half of the matter. I don’t think so. I believe a posed portrait mainly must show a person in the way that he/she wants to be shown. The acting skills of the model play a big role herein. The key idea is: “this is the image of myself that I want to show”. Such a picture is normally to be performed in a way that the model is in control of the impression he/she makes on the spectator, because this picture is all about this model’s personality. (Of course this domain is bigger, but this is the essence of it. Working with a professional model for instance won’t necessarily have the model’s personality as the subject of the picture.) I’d like to compare with colors now. One could say that this kind of potraiture (posed potraiture that is) represents one color of the spectrum, say green. Of course there’s an infinite amount of nuances in green, but still, they are all green – and there are so many other colors! That’s why I believe that candid shooting can show so many more aspects of humanity, of human behaviour, and therefore I believe it to be much more interesting.
    The interest in candid shooting doesn’t ly in showing the through being, the through character of one specific person. Instead it’s rather to hold up a mirror and make us reflect about how people in general can act/react in specific circumstances. It’s to create a palet, as diverse as possible, of the different aspects of humanity. We must realise that we all (ourselves included!) can show that kind of behaviour, in specific circumstances. The more we recognize this behaviour, the more we realise that all humans are pretty much alike. This can help in being less embarresed about certain defaults we think we have, realising that everybody has its own defaults, and as such this can work liberating, since we will be more in peace with our own defaults. Once we realise this true purpose of candit shooting, we will be able to see that it’s not at all about intruding into one specific persons identity (which is already impossible because the photographer doesn’t know the “model” and both the photographer and spectator don’t know the circumstances that lead to this momentarily situation, so the picture can’t possible show this person’s true nature), instead it’s all about intruding into the true nature of humanity in general, exposing how we all are. As such it’s a tool to increase tolerante between people. So candid shooting is not about violating once privacy. The more since we take the pictures in public, which means that the image has been fully exposed anyhow.
    Because of all of this, I believe candit pictures to be the most interesting, when people don’t look into the lens. Looking towards the camera gives almost always the impression that the person’s thought of that moment was “I’m being photographed!”. One could Call those shots “unposed, yet aware portraits”. They can deliver beautiful shots, still It’s like they all are different schades of blue. Blue is a very beautiful color, with many nuances, but I like to see the whole color spectrum! The situation is so much more interesting, when there’s no photographer desturbing it. It shows so much clearer all different aspects of human life and behaviour. As said, sometimes, when a person immediately reacts to the camera in an open, welcoming way, the picture can really show something of the person’s true nature. Those pictures often result in very beautiful “personality portraits”. But the majority of the people only look natural, when the shot was taken fully candid.
    You won’t be surprised that, from this point of view, I like “Focus” the most. “Chopper” is a very fancy shot, a feast to look at, but the girl is much more interesting to me, from a general human point of view.
    Well, I find me having written a small article myself here! But that’s only because I value your articles that high, Ming. I hope you will continue publishing here for as long as I live. …Mustn’t be that difficult, since I’m quite a bit older. 🙂

    • Interesting thoughts. I’ve got one more: there’s another shift in translation between subject and photographer – and no matter how good the model at expressing their desired image, or how well the candid subject hides themselves, the photographer can undo all or overcome all of that through their own biases of observation and skill (or lack of). So perhaps in a way things aren’t as clear cut – is the photographer who captures and unintended candid glimpse of the actor skilled or unskilled? Etc.

      • Dirk De Paepe says:

        One can have skills in many different domains. For instance one have have great skill for timing, but less for composition. The more skills are combined, the greater the work, ergo the photographer. IMO.

  2. Great photos Ming. That Stallkeeper image oozes cinema. I am waiting for the next scene to play out but alas it’s only a still. I’d love that colour palette and lighting for film work. Awesome.

    • Thanks – it’s all in the grading…

      • 🙂 I’ve graded a friend’s feature film (very low budget) just by following some YouTube tutorials and using Sony Vegas. My one and only ever though. Would have loved to use software with easier masking/power windows so I could re-light some shots (I guess it’s similar to what you’d do with dodge and burn or gradients to a photo). Will be buying your photoshop workflow videos soon and will see how much of that I can transfer to video. If you look at the trailer – https://vimeo.com/53564867(please remove the link if it’s not appropriate to post it here Ming), you’ll see there’s some shots where the subject hasn’t been isolated through light well enough and you’d need to fix that in post. His monitor wasn’t properly calibrated either so I had to wing it using the scopes and my eyes. Would love to revisit the grade once I’ve gone through your course. Actually I was reading a cinematography blog yesterday and there were some comments by the readers about how much of a revelation it was that they should be lighting for the main subject! Obviously haven’t read your blog before 😛 …and I’ve waffled on a bit here so forgive me.

        • Haha, no problem. I’ve actually got a cinematic stills workshop coming up with Zeiss in July in Hanoi…perhaps that’s what you need 😉

          • Hah! I’m in Adelaide…was in Melbourne a week before your last workshop there. Just missed out or else I could have done that course. P.S. Can we see that commercial anywhere? You directed one last year for a car company from memory.

  3. “The Eyes” have it all.
    Thank you for continuing to share your astonishing work.

  4. LOVE them all this time. But that first one is exquisitely awesome!!!

  5. Ming, I’m really enjoying the pictures in part 2. There’s a lot of (perceived) personality and … soul (gasp!) in the subjects coming through. You said this was mostly earlier work, and I think it’s nice to occasionally remind people that you aren’t just about abstracts and forests! 🙂

    • Thanks Andre. That is one of the big challenges with the internet and perception: if you show only one thing, then you’re a one trick pony. If you do multiple, then you’re not focused. Haaahhhh…

  6. “I wonder though whether candid images of solo individuals can really say something a bit more about the people in question: do people ‘put on a face’ even when there’s nobody watching (or they think there’s nobody watching)? Doubtful, given the effort required to sustain something like that.”

    It’s no effort and it’s automatic. All the above photos are of outdoor masks, not of inner persons. It is rare to find anything revealing in street candids — it would probably take situations of considerable stress.


    • Do you put on an ‘outdoor mask’ all the time? I’m not convinced everybody does; it’s just too much effort. I know I don’t.

  7. Martin Fritter says:

    Wonderful stuff. Just terrific.

  8. Lucy March says:

    To answer Michael Matthew’s question, it looks like an electronic bike — that’s the battery pack under the head tube. They are pretty popular here in NYC among food delivery guys, though the guy in the photo looks to be tricked out for style rather than for work. That style bike has long been popular with older Puerto Rican guys here, though electirifcation is a new element.

  9. Great stuff, Ming. “Unlikely protector” is terrific.

    Your question at the end, “What does that glimpse into another person’s life tell us about them?” brought to mind the old saying, “Every photo is a self-portrait…”

    • Thank you. Yes…an image reveals plenty about both subject and photographer.

    • gnarlydognews says:

      I don’t fully understand that caption. What does it mean?
      Does it say that the guy showing affection is unlikely to be a “protector”?

  10. Hi my friends, we are on the photographic web, we are trapped in a cocoon silk, poisoned by gear focus and waiting to be eaten by Sofupus Canikonca and Ming is a little knight trying to deliver us with his little sword.
    I’m not sure there are cities more street photographer friendly than others. It all comes to your subject some are open and some not , it’s about us to be smart enough to avoid conflicts. If you want the shot be prepared to any contengency. I think we all have funny little stories about how we escaped troubles.

  11. This is a terrific article and your candids are just superb! I love candids and think they are the only way to shoot street photography. In the US the law is quite generous with photographers so while people may not like being photographed, they really don’t have a case against photographers unless the photos are used commercially. So it’s really up to photographers to decide what is ethical and what isn’t. I live in Los Angeles and people here are so obsessed with paparazzi, they immediately assume you are one (argh!) and that there must be some celebrity in the area. That makes them easy preys… 🙂 But, unlike in NYC, there are very few places in LA where you’ll find a large number of interesting people walking, waiting for a bus, or just hanging out…

    • Thanks. I find that pedestrian-friendly cities work better for candid work since people are encouraged to get out of their vehicles and walk…

  12. Michael Matthews says:

    It’s distressing, but great as the candid portraits are I’m fixated on what the cool dude in “Chopper” is riding. Is it simply a bicycle? Or is it an electrically-powered bike?

    Please accept my apology. It’s sort of like,”Yeah…terrific ceiling, Michelangelo — but where did you get that pizza? Looks and smells delicious! Gotta get me one of those.”

  13. The best photography related article I’ve ever read. Great, valuable insight.

  14. Colors, mood awsome… Just great


  15. Daniel Boyd says:

    The expression in Light up is priceless Ming!

  16. Ron Scubadiver says:

    I really enjoyed this article, probably because I do so much street photography. Your observations about how people react in different cities are interesting. I found most US cities, with the exception of New Orleans, to be photographer friendly. Warm to hot weather is best for me because people are not hiding under coats and I hate the cold anyway. France is the worst. Not only can you be sued for publishing the photos but people will glare at you or get nasty.

    • From the comments it seems Germany is even worse than that…

      You found even NYC friendly? Perhaps they just don’t like tourists…

      • Ron Scubadiver says:

        I have not been to NYC in ages despite having grown up in the area. New Yorkers have a bark that is worse than their bite.

  17. Beautiful, fascinating photos!! I am writing this before a have read the text, your comments, which again are in high esteem. But, however (I am from Germany as well), unthinkable presenting or publishing pictures of charcters without their permission. I could even not present them in a closed circle, in the family etc,, just looking at those photographs for myself.But then, there is no sense in it, just looking at photographs of women (?), girls (?), children (????!!!!), men (???). I have always been fascinated by the variety of human look, human expression etc., and I have an excellent memory concerning human faces. But taking photos of human beeings without their consent is a white spot on the map for me, an absolute no go for me. I hope, this does not hurt your feelings! Regards, Werner.

    • Thanks Werner. No, it doesn’t. It does make me wonder if people are aware of their images being recorded forever on security cameras etc. and what exactly they are doing in public that would be unacceptable to record but fine for everybody else to see…

  18. Great portraits, Ming. I couldn’t help but check the camera (something I usually never do with your entries) on flickr on some of these, and was quite surprised that all but the girl in the window were taken with an E-M5. Seeing that most look quite tele, and subjects are nicely isolated, can I assume that those that lack a lens in their EXIF were shot with an adapted 50 Summilux? I remember your using it for quite some time to practice, and reflect on “cinematic look”.

    I know you no longer use m4/3 gear for stills anyway, but I have to ask: Do you think on some, with the benefit of hindsight, that you should’ve used a larger sensor(ed?) camera to get more out of the images from an economic point of view, e.g. selling some as large(r) prints?

    Your articles are always a pleasure to read, and eagerly anticipated!

    • Thanks – yes, those were the 50 ASPH.

      To answer your question, no. Because you don’t really need that much resolution for portraits anyway, and not for these uses. Would I now prefer to have as much resolution and image quality as possible to maximise possible output uses? Yes, and hence the D810/Otus…

      • Frank Murphy says:

        Interesting. I was looking at the info about the first pic (“Chopper”). Did you mostly shoot these wide open? I seem to remember that you like stopping down quite often.

        • A lot of these were from a) an earlier period of my work, and b) the cinematic phase. So there were quite a few that were wide open.

    • Roel Vinckens says:

      These are done with a E-M5?!
      My first reaction: I need to get that lens.
      Second: Why have you been reading Ming’s articles? Up your game!

  19. pramol Wangpholdee says:

    Thank you Mingtien

  20. Excellent series. Your observations about emotions / moods of cities are very interesting. We instinctively catch them from the movements and facial expressions of the people around there, like for example if you enter the ‘wrong’ part of a city, or the general mood on a festival day etc. I have visited a number of cities in India and lived in many, and have similar impressions. Also about the two countries I have visited.
    Other observations are also very pertinent. You write very well studied articles that also show your deep thinking on the subject. that is why they come out so well.
    Thanks and maintain the high standard.
    All the best.

  21. In Germany is street photography an touchy matter. You’re not permitted to take any picture of a single person, without his permission! I personally, keep my fingers out of this to avoid any legal problems!

    • Hungary, too. And here’s one more reason I can’t do workshops in Germany. What if I accidentally photograph a person?

      • Ramon Hegedüs says:

        As for Hungary, although the strict law is there, but I don’t think anybody would care about this in the open street, and (being a Hungarian myself) I never heard of a lawsuit against a photographer taking a picture of somebody without his/her explicit permission. So, unless accidentally dealing with celebrities, who might be more aware of this law and would more deliberately file a suit if feeling harmed, you don’t have to worry. If I may suggest it, Budapest would be still a very interesting place to organize a workshop.

        • I’m glad to hear it. Not being there or knowing any Hungarians personally, one tends to read only the extreme ends of what’s going on…

  22. Awesome series Ming!

  23. Very nice series. The colors are exceptional.


  1. […] Thein’s interpretation of how certain personalities react differently: https://blog.mingthein.com/2015/04/19/thoughts-on-portraiture-2/ (Blog Website, last accessed: […]

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