Photoessay-project-WIP: Crust

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Today’s post is going to be the first time I’ve presented a partially completed project – for the simple reasons that I feel it’s probably useful to discuss the creative process, because it’ll make a good follow on to this post on projects in general and because I have honestly no idea if or when I’ll ever be able to complete this set. The idea behind Crust is fairly self-explanatory: the dried, hard, textured earth from the air in monochrome – all the better to enhance the suggestion we may well be looking at a highly magnified burnt breakfast offering*.

*And I think I might well shoot that as the title image, too.

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Clearly, the problems are mostly of logistics and resources: the nature of the subject I want to shoot requires remoteness and expansive space, making it difficult to get to on your own; the perspective and scale puts drones out of the question, helicopters marginal, and hot air balloons romantic but unpredictable. That leaves serendipity (with perhaps a little forward planning of one’s route) and commercial airlines. Challenges here are significant: you are at the mercy of weather and light direction and cannot sit behind the wing because hot air from the engines will create noticeable changes in refractive index and poor optics. Even if you luck out or pay for business (or god forbid, first) you still need to have a window that’s both clean and large enough that you don’t have problems from internal reflection if the camera isn’t aimed perfectly perpendicular to the window.

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The best aircraft I’ve found for this are newer 777s (they have largish windows for a commercial airliner, and a relatively short distance between inner and outer panes). The 787 should be good if the electrochromic layer doesn’t affect clarity; the A380 has large windows but too much separation between inner and outer layers, meaning 75mm is about the shortest you can go. A new aircraft from the A320 family is good, too – smaller windows but very short pane separation. On the hardware front, you’re also limited in both directions by focal length and resolution: since the intention is obviously to print large and exhibit, there is obviously a minimum resolution, but due to aircraft motion, there’s a maximum focal length and resolution beyond which you just see blur. Even at 85mm, 1/500s is required for critical sharpness on the 36MP and higher bodies. IS helps but only if it can detect panning.

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I’ve found the best combinations for air-to-ground so far to be the Leica Q (but it tends to be too wide for this kind of thing, and you can really only aim it in one direction before you start to see window edge or engine), the D810/ Zeiss Otus 85, the Canon 5DSR and 40/2.8 STM, the Pentax 645Z and 90 SR Macro, and the A7RII** and Zeiss FE 55/1.8 or 85/1.8 Batis lenses. Zooms are generally out because they rob too much microcontrast and compound the color challenges you’re already going to be facing from the perspex. You need every last bit of transparency you can get, and I was surprised just how much of a difference there was between say the Otus 85 and Nikon 85/1.8G – even shooting at f5.6-8, by which point both lenses are excellent. It’s also important to maximise information captured in the file because your histogram is going to look like a thin peak that occupies a quarter or less of the entire range – that has to then be stretched out to fill the entire input-output range, and manipulated to be aesthetically pleasing. If there’s any visible compression in the source information, then it’s even more visible in the output.

**Note caveat on compression: you can start to see it in even some of the web size images here, and more so on the full size. You’ll note that all of these images were shot with the A7RII anyway, and prior to the 14-bit firmware update – simply because I did not have any of the other cameras with me when the opportunity presented itself. I would prefer to restrict this camera to very high contrast scenes, though.

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This project is something that’s been kicking around in my mind since I first flew over the Australian Outback during the day and as a conscious photographer many years ago. The challenge has been finding opportunity to make it work; I suspect I might just have to do a cross-country legs during the daytime between Perth and Sydney or something to create a whole set, and again across Mongolia and perhaps the United States. Ideally, the project should show a large variation in textures, locations and perhaps even weather conditions or signs of urbanisation – I haven’t decided if the latter two weaken the concept or not – but certainly one flight isn’t sufficient. What you see in this set was shot over the Middle East from Doha to Chicago; there were more potential locations en-route, but cloud cover ended play prematurely. Oh well, until the next flight…MT

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I’m facing a bit of a struggle with this final image and the concept in general: it is so strong in color that it makes no sense to present it in monochrome, yet it is the only one where this is the case. The rest suffer from all sorts of tonal issues because of atmospherics, windows, haze etc. necessitating the use of every single photoshop trick in the book, and even then only marginal results. I suppose as always it will come down to the final intent and curation once I feel I have enough material to call the project complete…MT

Images in this series were processed with the Monochrome Masterclass workflow (with the exception of the final image, of course). You can also look over my shoulder at the underlying postprocessing in the Weekly Photoshop Workflow series.


The Lisbon Masterclass (9-14 Mar 2016) is 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. John Brady says:

    This is a wonderful set Ming, amongst your best. Thanks for sharing your tips.

  2. Most impressive!
    Salgado comes to mind, but these are most definitely Ming Thein.
    I think it was mentioned before, but Crust + Dreamscapes + utraprints = Worldtour exposition to me.
    I really hope to see you get there.

    • Thanks – I really hope so too! And I would chuck Forest into the mix too 🙂

      • Quit right!
        All of these tend to put humanity back into perspective. Or is that just me?
        Anyway, they put me into this meditation/contemplation state that I love so much.
        And that’s just looking at a screen…

        • In that case…perhaps I could interest you in an ultraprint or two? 😉

          • Once I’ll have the walls to put them on and the money to spend it would be my pleasure! They’d need to be big for full impact I guess, which takes me back to the exposition idea. How big can you actualy go in ultra?

            • That depends on the image. I’ve sold one from the Forest series as a backlit Ultra at 6×7 feet

              • Right. The 5-digit one… I read about that in your New Year’s resolution I think.
                I won’t start asking about production cost, but selling some of these, or the prospect of selling some more, might take that world tour a little closer. You will probably not hit a 6-digit sell immediately, but a dozen or so sells during and father the tour will get you there.
                Now all you need is the time and the budget I guess. And a healthy dose of luck.

                • That was a very special project – both in budget and execution. Unless I have a very deep pocketed sponsor, I don’t think that’s feasible. But the best possible display method though.

  3. Absolutely stunning set….great work Ming.

  4. You should fly over nothern Norway sometime. The mountains are something to behold.

    • Are there any commercial flights that take that route?

      • If you fly Oslo – Bodø, the in-flight to Bodø is something special(assuming the weather’s not crap, it can be that sometimes) The major airlines(SAS and Norwegian) fly there. There’s also Widerøe, a smaller airline that takes one to the more remote locations.

  5. Outstanding b&w conversions. These are certainly among your best ever. The 4th one from the end is remarkable.

  6. Brett Patching says:

    There are some really breathtaking images in this set Ming – incredible textures.

  7. How fun. I did a lot of flying for a few years and I always had my little P&S to take snapshots (that sometimes worked for me (usually of clouds) and oftentimes failed) because of how pretty the earth is at airliner altitude. I think 1615 is my favorite – I love the effect clouds have on shots like these.

  8. Martin Fritter says:

    These are wonderful. Would make an excellent book! Given your travels far-and-wide you can put together a superb portfolio. You might consider exploring fractal geometries in general. You certainly have the technique and gear and eye for some equally compelling macro images. If I may say so, formalism is one of your strongest aesthetics.

    • Thanks Martin. Sadly the economics of book publishing remain marginal at best…

      • Martin Fritter says:

        Yet there are lots of photo books published and there are houses that do nothing else, e.g., Steidl. I can readily accept that self-publishing would be a loser, but it seems to me that your are both well enough known and your work is more than good enough to interest an existing publisher. Even if the direct returns to you were negligible, it would reinforce you print sales and drive exhibition attendance.

        • It really isn’t that simple. I’ve approached many publishing houses and the answer was pretty much the same: you’re not famous enough, or you’ll have to pay us something for the setup costs…

  9. Gorgeous, Ming!!!

  10. Excellent! I think the last shot in color works really well for the series. It almost book ends it in a way and hits home the idea for some reason.

  11. Alex Carnes says:

    They’re fabulous! 🙂

  12. Michiel953 says:

    Amazing and challenging. Challenging, because how can we go on and on about the quality of our sensors and lenses, and then stick’em up against two thick layers of perspex, grease marks and all?
    The views remind me of the times I traveled (20-25 years ago) in the US. Taking off from Tucson International in the desert heat, just clearing the end of the runway and then (just) clearing the first mountain tops, then cruising at 30.000 ft, being able to identify cars driving on a highway far, far below. It must have been a very clear day,

    The visual memory lingers. In colour of course.

    • Thanks. And yes, I realise the irony, but what can you do? Even so, an image with the Otus has far more pop than the 24-120. Go figure. 🙂

      • Michiel953 says:


      • Well, what you can do is to use the optically much better cockpit safety glass windshield instead of a plastic passenger window. Jef Raskin started chatting with the flight crew of his flight one night and when they figured out who he was (father of the Macintosh project at Apple), he got invited up to the cockpit to get a better view of Haley’s comet over the Pacific. Probably much harder to accomplish on a commercial flight after 9/11, but maybe if you make friends with a billionaire who has his own private 757, etc. One can dream … Or, you can ask your helicopter pilot to remove the door for your flight.

        • The only time I fly a helicopter, it always has the doors off because a client has commissioned it. Way outside my budget otherwise 🙂

          As for cockpit shooting – one of our readers here is a pilot and has flown me a couple of times…

  13. What a good idea to do this in monochrome. It seems to be hard to get good color photographing out a commercial airliner window, due to all the layers of perspex, and you can’t use a polarizer without getting rainbows from the stress patterns in the plastic. One Boston photographer, Neil Rantoul flies in smaller planes and photographs out an open window for his color aerial photography, though that’s not unique. Ming, are you familiar with the late American photographer Bradford Washburn’s mountain images? He used to hang out the window of planes with an 8×10″ aerial film camera, and photographed a lot in the Alps, the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and mountains in the western USA and Alaska. His work is all B&W, and quite dramatic.

  14. What about suggesting airlines to have photographer seat with special transmission optimised window and offer it for a double of price? 😉

  15. un bellissimo lavoro, complimenti!

  16. Fantastic, Ming. I think this shows, for me at least, that if colour film came first, then B/W, we’d see why. The colour image seems so inferior to the others. Colour doesn’t seem to work here.

  17. Kerry Glasier says:

    Isnt Planet Earth a beautifull place. Have you seen John Shelton’s images? How he would have liked digital tools. Deeply satisfying work from you Ming, more please.

    • Absolutely – and it always amazes me when we see something outside the usual concrete jungles. Mankind has come a long (and not necessarily better) way. Thanks Kerry!

  18. Gerner Christensen says:

    These images are no less than gorgeous Ming! Absolutely gallery class.
    I would guess such a project really has no end to it. It stands well already as is, but additions may come.
    It’s is clear that these images can’t be planned in forehand except for reserving the right seat and be prepared with the right lenses etc.
    Thanks for the advices about which lenses does best in this respect.

  19. Hi Ming,, that’s so fascinating ! Absolute phantatic work !
    I tried many times during the flights but haven’t managed yet that brilliant pictures. One question, don’t you actually track the locations ? Would be nice to know on which patch of the world we’re looking at.

    • Thanks Robert – no, I don’t track the locations – the airplane’s maps aren’t that accurate, and GPS devices are to be switched off in flight 🙂

  20. Guy Incognito says:

    Deciding the underlying theme of the set might help you decide weather (bah-doom) you include signs of urbanisation in the series.

    The visual complexity created by fractal patterns in nature can be interesting enough to explore in its own right – particularly at a scale we seldom observe. I like where you were headed with The Dreamscape project. I can easily see aspects of the two projects being combined. So I would err on the side of curating out signs of urbanisation. Conversely, you could adopt an Un/Natural approach and explore the contrast (bah-doom) between both nature and cities from a distance/wide scale.

    I think the Perth to Sydney flights spend a considerable amount of time over sea (Great Australian Bight). The rest is over semi-arid land. I would recommend a Darwin to Sydney flight or an early flight from your neck of the woods. I once flew from Singapore to Sydney (a very early flight around this time of year). Somewhere in the interior were fluffy clouds casting shadows onto red soil with dried up water runs. Plenty of abstract shapes in there – the experience made me think of Dali’s landscapes. To do the iron oxide justice, monochrome is not an option!

    I would love to spend time flying over one of the great deserts with dunes in the late afternoon. Perhaps the Namib desert. Makes one want to strive for a fixed-wing or hot air balloon license!

    • You’re probably right about the curation – as I remarked to another commenter. Though it just occurred to me that if presented in a sequence, perhaps natural abstraction to a bit of civilisation to all civilisation might make for an interesting progression too…

      I did some interesting stuff on Auckland-Singapore once, but it’s a really long flight…as much as I like making these images, I’m not sure it justifies sitting on a plane for the better part of a day and a half 😛

      Hot air balloon would be fantastic. Open, no glass, and low enough to have a bit more clarity.

  21. Great shots!

  22. I really enjoyed this set of images. I like them because they are visually interesting due to the textures, angles, and birds eye views. But they are also intriguing because I’ve tried to shoot on commercial airlines and I know how difficult it is. Great work!

  23. For me I think the images that really work are the more abstract ones; it becomes all about the texture and form, and scale becomes a bit ambiguous… Even removing the horizon helps I think, to create a more mysterious image.
    I agree that human habitation from the air can be interesting but maybe it’s just not part of this series because the forms are too geometric. Probably needs a separate series that would be nice in color to take advantage of the color used in construction etc?
    Very nice images, love the deep tones in the b/w.


    • Thank you – good points. You’re probably right about the habitation – hence the WIP status of the project…

      Color is a bit of a crapshoot because the haze and windows make it nearly impossible to correct to neutral. It’s a nonlinear adjustment by luminance, so you can’t just do a bulk HSL shift, either.

  24. NeutraL-GreY says:

    Wow! LARGE amounts of respect from me. I don’t fly much at all but the last time I did I attempted images much like these. 35mm color negative film does not really work at all for this what so ever. I would totally pay to see your final images in person and if I wasn’t a college student I would buy a print or two.

  25. Another factor can be the particular side of the aircraft verses the direction of flight. RHS of a north bound flight in the early morning will exacerbate any haze in the lower levels, whereas the LHS can provide greater contrast. Also watch for some very interesting phenomena when flying in very thin high level cloud…..

  26. Great project. The images looks well framed, and images so detail-rich, it would be great to see them in print.

    (I will take better care with aircraft type selections in future!)

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