Photoessay: Painterly in Venice

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Lamps and gondolas

Soft, diffuse light from an overcast sky; directionality to darkness brought on by narrow alleyways; perpetual twilight indoors necessitating the use of artificial incandescent light all the time. Sounds like a photographic nightmare? Not quite; I’ve revised my initial philosophy of ‘you always need great light to make a great image’ to ‘there’s no such thing as bad light: just inappropriate light for the subject and vice versa’. November in Venice is almost nothing but this kind of light – one can either put the camera away entirely and stay indoors, or make the most of it by finding the right subjects.

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Afternoon tea

In a previous article, I discussed the nature of ‘painterly’ photography – in simplest essence, a photographic (i.e. optical facsimile of the real world) image that gives the illusion of being an entirely artificial scene. It is one of complete compositional and tonal control plus a bit of contradiction against the expected behaviour of light for a little for a little controlled imperfection – realist paintings strive to include irregularity and unexpected to replicate the nature of the real world; painterly photographers must exclude it. We need to have the ‘right amount’ of perceived reality.

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Empty table

There are fewer images in this set than usual, for the simple reason that finding these kinds of images isn’t as easy as it looks. I was out with one of my students during the Venice Masterclass in what turned out to be one of the most frustrating photographic experiences for both of us: we came across a room, inside a building, behind a window, whose furnishings and quality of light were the very definition of the term ‘painterly’ – complete with a bowl of polished persimmons on the table. But, try as we might, we could neither request access (private property with no visible entrance) nor photograph through the windows: they were two layers of bad old wavy glass with some sort of security mesh at just the right frequency to render vision possible, but photography utterly impossible. That room and what could have been will haunt both of us for some time to come.

In some of these photographs, you’ll notice the use of water elements – but to render these in a painterly way, I’ve had to use ND filters to drag the shutter speed out a little to make the movement in the waves look like brush strokes. There’s no ‘right duration’ for this – it depends on how choppy the water is. Enjoy! MT

This set was shot with a Pentax 645Z and mostly the 55/2.8 SDM and processed with the ‘fine art’ workflow described in Outstanding Images Episode 5: Processing for Style.

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The announcer

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Prelude to a mystery

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Lagoon evening

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The foundations of a new Venice

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Work complete

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Aliens come to Venice

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Clearing storm at San Marco

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A geometric study of arches


Be inspired to take your photography further: Masterclass Chicago (27 Sep-2 Oct) and Masterclass Tokyo (9-14 Nov) now open for booking!


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. “Scale” is a modern Canaletto, same sensitivity and perspective. Great

  2. Outstanding set of images! I really like the mood created.

  3. Don’t see these as painterly, but they are beautifully seen and beautifully photographed. I would bet that most “photographers”, including my self, would walk past of these places and never look twice. Well done!

    • Thanks Jim. The painterly part is a lot more obvious when printed – digital output at small sizes tends to harden the transitions.

  4. Dave Rathke says:

    I really like your painterly images (and those of past blog posts). A few of these are Leiter-esque. Well done!

  5. jimtardio says:

    Just wondering if the 5th. shot down was taken in the Hotel Principe. If so I think I had that same room.

  6. lisaosta says:

    Interesting that you almost avoided gondolas until the last shot where they are barely visible. Venice is one of the most beautiful of cities, it is one of my favorite places. I enjoyed your photographs though I don’t see them as that painterly they are very well designed as usual for you. Cheers Ming!

  7. Len Harrison says:

    Who says “You cannot make a silk purse out of a sows ear”
    Great stuff.

  8. Romance and poetry. Time forgotten. No sense of struggle. Well done!

  9. Rich Southgate says:

    A beautiful set of images Ming. As someone who’s studied art history (painters primarily) I love ‘painterly’ photography and these images really embody that kind of work wonderfully. Great stuff!

  10. Alex Carnes says:

    They’re really nice. I’m noticing you weren’t quite so concerned with getting everything absolutely straight and square and level to the last pixel in that set too! Did you forget to pack your tilt shifts? 😉 Seriously, very good stuff.

  11. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Typo? “.. for a little for a little ..” 🙂

  12. Kristian Wannebo says:

    I ‘ve always wondered a little over your
    “…‘you always need great light to make a great image’…”

    Your claricication
    “… ‘there’s no such thing as bad light: just inappropriate light for the subject and vice versa’…”
    is what I’ve been waiting for…


  13. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Ming, you didn’t mention a story these images tell:

    The perpetual contrast of human culture embedded in nature.
    The neverending story of what people, each shielded in his or her own surroundings, do.
    The story of the wanderer wandering through.

    I believe the “painterly” style, as you call it, is a good part of the storytelling.

    And your mentioning the episode of the inaccessible room enhances this story.

  14. Beautiful !!! Muito lindas as imagens de Veneza !

  15. thephotoseye says:

    Beautiful series! Love them all!

  16. Great images. Just came back from Venice, actually. It is a very visually interesting city.

    • Thanks – I hope you had better weather than us 😛

      • It was about 30°C for the whole week. Just warm enough, and the beach was fortunatelly just a 10 minute boatride away.

        • That actually sounds pretty good. Must have been full of tourists though at this time of the year?

          • Yes. It was packed, but the lines to get into the San Marco Dome as well as the bell tower wasn’t that bad(though I went early)

            I did go to Florence as well and the temperatures there were about 10°C higher than the Venice ones. Almost unbearable for someone not used to it,

            • I’ve been to Venice several times but actually never went into San Marco because of the queues…and the prohibition on photography.

  17. Wonderful images Ming! And what a great story with Gerner!

  18. Fantastic, as always. I really like the feeling of Prelude to a mystery.

  19. Oh, how I love this series Ming. Thank you for bringing them up to the surface again.
    My nose is still flat from pressing it against the window to that room. Worth another visit to Venice if permission to enter would be issued on request 🙂
    That appropriate light for the story is what it takes, you have just proven.

    • Ah yes…that room! I think you more than anybody else will identify with this series, Gerner – since you were there when most of them were shot…

      • So absolutely Ming. Will never forget the moments we shared there, such a precious experience 🙂

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