Reportage and medium format: Thaipusam 2016 with a Hasselblad H5D-50C

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Thaipusam is a Big Deal for those involved religiously* – but also quite an amazing experience as an observer. One of, if not the largest of these festivals takes place in a cave temple about 15km outside of Kuala Lumpur every year at the Batu Caves. I’ve photographed the event previously in 2008, 2011 and 2012. This year’s festival happened just a couple of days ago on the 23rd-24th of January, and I went back for the fourth time. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a very special experience even as a non-participant and not really understanding the significance of the ceremony to the believers. There really is some energy there from the sheer number of participants and general positive and hopeful thoughts that are going around at the time.

*Wikipedia does a much better job of explaining it than I can.

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From a photographic standpoint, other than the obvious visual overload and huge number of subjects, there are also massive challenges: you’re working in a physically almost solid crowd most of the time; the peak of the action happens somewhere between 2-4am when the procession arrives from a downtown Kuala Lumpur temple; it’s physically hot and very humid inside the cave, which lacks any meaningful ventilation, and you’ve got to climb about 350 steep and slippery steps – along with everybody else – to get there. Accidents do happen, usually involving slippages or heat-stroke. It doesn’t help that the more devout are carrying portable shrines up those steps that may weigh upwards of 50kg; they’re at the limits of their endurance after having carried them the 15km or so from the other temple – on foot. At very least, you have to be hyperaware of what’s going on around you both not to get in the way of the participants, for one’s own personal safety and on top of that – not to miss any photographic opportunities.

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Each time I’ve been, I’ve tried to do something different; the first year was the first time I’d shot with anything that didn’t feel restricted in such low light situations – the D3 in 2008; in 2011 I was working on my cinematic technique with the D700, 2/28 Distagon and 85/1.4G. 2012 I was shooting for an exhibition with the M9-P and 35/1.4 ASPH FLE – both to overcome my aversion to 35mm, and to see if I could produce images to my satisfaction under those conditions. Looking at my EXIF data from previous years, it appears the overall light level has improved by as much as a stop in places; but don’t get me wrong, we’re still talking about shooting in the dead of night with only odd color temperature sources – a mix of fluro, sodium vapour, low-CRI LED, tungsten and colored spots – and barely managing 1/50s at f2.8 and ISO 6400 in places. Pretty much everything in this set was at ISO 6400, or worse – ISO 6400 underexposed and pushed in ACR. That is not a lot of light by any standards, and even less if your fastest lens is f2.8.

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This year, I had a Hasselblad H5D-50C, 80/2.8 and 28/4 lenses on loan from Hasselblad and Shriro (the Asia Pacific distributors for Hasselblad) while my V was being repaired; I initially planned to go with the my 501CM (V series) with the Leica Q serving as primary, but in hindsight, I’m not sure I’d have had any keepers from the V at all. Light levels aside, remember that not only are medium format lenses much slower than the 35mm counterparts, but you have no stabilisation (and for obvious reasons, tripods are not an option here) and most lenses are more like f4. On top of that, you’ve got to remember the demands of higher pixel density per degree FOV, and then take into account significantly more mirror vibration from a physically much larger mirror, too: 1/2x focal length is borderline on my 501CM – so we’re looking at 1/125s with the 50mm, or 1/250s with the 85mm (there are only whole stop increments for shutter speed). In a way, I’m glad I had the H5 – shutter speeds are more continuous, and the mirror damping is significantly better, so 1/2x was safe, and 1/1x possible a lot of the time, too.

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Even so, I felt things were pretty challenging – this is basically the edge of the shooting envelope for medium format; we’re working in a situation which is dark, contains a lot of moving subjects (even if they’re relatively static, they’re still swaying or not completely still, and requires continuous AF or a machine gun shutter) and is not so easy even with most DSLRs – D4/5 and 1DX class excepted. Mirrorless would have trouble because of AF tracking, I think. I felt the real limitation was in focusing more than anything: the single point systems of most MF cameras are simply not sensitive enough with this little light, and relatively slow lenses do not help. The slower 28mm focused a lot faster and more accurately than the 80mm, though – suggesting it might also be partially hardware related.

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Interestingly, the sensor was more than happy – 6400 seems to be an arbitrary limitation, seeing as results were still superior to 35 full frame in color accuracy and dynamic range; I’ve seen sensors that do worse than this not far off base ISO. But of course we knew this already, given the Pentax 645Z goes several steps higher – I just underexposed a little when I ran out of shutter speed. Something has to be said for the integrity of big pixels…

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I have now shot quite extensively with three of the 50MP CMOS derivatives (645Z, CFV-50C on the 501CM, H5D-50C), and have a passing familiarity with the remaining one (Phase One IQ250). A comparison of sorts is only natural; especially when the price points are so dramatically different – $7k new for the Pentax (even less from Hong Kong); a hair under $10k for the CFV back (but you’ll need to add a V-series body and lens, for about $1200 or so); ~$15k for the H5D, and a whopping $24k for the Phase One. To put things in context, it’s worth noting that the Nikon D5 was announced at very nearly the $7k mark too; yet we have the D810 available around $3k.

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Fundamentally, there are few differences in core image quality. The only ones worth mentioning are the Pentax clips quite abruptly, so one has to be very careful when exposing to the right not to go over; you can’t recover it. It has the cleanest shadows of the four, though. The Phase One has very strange and blue-cyan shifted colours; you can profile this out, but it’s not easy. The two Hasselblads have the most natural and accurate color of any camera I’ve used to this point; I barely shifted any of the channels when profiling it. They also manage the highlight rolloff much better than the Pentax and a bit better than the Phase One, at the expense of a bit more shadow noise. I suspect what may be happening is slight underexposure and a nonlinear boost to the shadows to achieve this.

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That’s about where the similarities end, however. The body options couldn’t be more different. As I’ve previously remarked in my review, the 645Z feels, handles and operates like an oversize DSLR. It will present no surprises to existing Pentax users, or even DSLR users, for that matter. Live view is far more fluid than the Hasselblads or Phase One. But the one massive advantage of most MF systems to this point is missing: flash sync is a very slow 1/125s, and the lens selection is somewhat inconsistent (though much better now with the revised SDM lineup – if somewhat incomplete). I think where the Pentax excels is for handheld work – the AF system seems to be much more positive than either on the Phase or Hasselblad, and works better in low light, too. The Phase is really for studio or setup work: its 1/1600 flash sync speed is untouchable.

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This leaves the two Hasselblads: flash sync at 1/800 (H series) or 1/500 (V series) could be better, but it’s good enough. And by the time you stop down for sufficient depth of field, you’re already well towards cutting out ambient light. AF on the V series is academic (the back will work on cameras from the 1950s!) – but what it does provide is probably the least digital – but still digital – photographic experience. The back literally works like any other film magazine; attach it, set ISO and go. No need to rewind or change out after 12 shots, but with the benefit of modern image quality, live view and a histogram if you so desire.  You can even turn the screen off entirely if you so choose – and that’s the way I usually work. All in all, it’s a pretty liberating and definitely unique experience (and one I’ll write more on in a future post). Aside from the Pentax, it’s also the cheapest entry in to medium format by far, with the one caveat of not really having any wide angle solutions since the lenses were all designed for 6×6, and 40mm on 6×6 is already very wide.

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The H5D-50C is a middle child in many ways. I think I started off on the wrong foot with it: I tried to shoot with it like the Pentax, when in reality I should have treated it like a V with autofocus. (This is probably the most accurate way of describing the dichotomy between the Pentax and the rest: the former feels like what we’d expect from a modern DSLR; the rest are sort of ‘traditional’ medium format-plus.) After getting around that mental step, I found the whole experience very fluid, and with a higher keeper rate than I’d have managed with the V – having proper wide options was extremely liberating, too. The camera shot and wrote fast enough that I didn’t feel I was waiting for it, and fortunately I managed to make it to the end – nearly 700 shots with 35% left – with one battery – that’s all I was given, in any case.

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What is remarkable is just how far technology has some: this kind of image quality under these shooting conditions would have been unthinkable a few years ago. It’s gotten us both spoiled and greedy, but also opened up new creative avenues. It would now be possible to mount an exhibition with very natural and transparent prints even under extremely challenging conditions – bringing the experience to an audience in a much more immersive way. I can certainly see the potential for pushing my existing corporate documentary work further. I have to say that it’s gotten me thinking: I forgot (or more likely was in denial over) how much I missed the results from medium format, and I could probably find most of the required cost in eclectic but fundamentally underutilized gear collected over the years. Lens curation would be required, though – medium format glass makes Otuses look cheap. Perhaps it’s time for another garage sale, and you can live with half a liver, right?

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I want to close with a couple of thoughts on presentation of this set of images – the photographs are of course why we put up with any of this gear-angst. Though this set is monochrome-only, it’s both a stylistic choice and an attempt at preserving some of the gravitas and intensity that gets distracted away by the riot of color. It was also something I wouldn’t have attempted with many other cameras because the tonality usually goes out of the window under these types of shooting conditions. I’ll also present a future set (curated differently) in cinematic-style color, too. There’s something timeless and primal about the atmosphere that is distilled when the color is removed, but it’s also extremely challenging because you potentially lose a lot of the emotional feel, too. I’d welcome any thoughts from the audience on this, too. MT

The various cameras mentioned here are available from B&H except for the Phase One – Pentax 645Z, Hasselblad CFV-50C, Hasselblad H5D-50C. Postprocessing was with the Monochrome Masterclass workflow, and I’ll be covering some of these images in the next Weekly Photoshop episode.

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The Lisbon Masterclass (9-14 Mar 2016) is now open for booking


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  1. Hi Ming, excellent article, and welcome to the MF world!
    However, I believe you are giving CCD a bad rap, for a photographer who repeatedly emphasized the importance of tonality, I assure you CMOS is no match for CCD in that area. I have worked with H5D-50 & 50C, one as you might already know is CCD while the other is CMOS, the former out preformed the later in the studio at base ISO even with superior lighting gear “Broncolor”. I know you will tell me the H5D-50 has a bigger sensor size area with much bigger pixels than the 50C (44x33mm) sensor, and yes this was shot in a studio – well hello, most Hassy’s are used that way 60% of the time, and having a high ISO ability will not just change that and make it a sports camera, not that it can’t, I tried believe me – but that is only part of it. As Hassy owners can certainly afford another camera system for sports and the such. And most of them do !.

    CMOS gives you high ISO as well as ability to shoot movies. In my 32 yrs I never needed more than ISO1250 (and that was a wedding inside a church), and if you can afford a Hassy then you can afford a pro-vid camera. Its all about the right gear, you can over come any challenge or situation, their is no substitute for great photography skills

    Photographers that could not afford high end lenses benefitted from high ISO such as 6400 and above, because now they can begin their lens collection with an f4 standard zoom as a starting point, instead of a fast bright prime lens which would cost 5x as much. In the end you get what you pay for.

    Movie cameras with CMOS sensors fail when panning because of the rolling and banding effect. Which is why the professional movie industry has not yet adapted it fully, and continue to depend on CCD & Film to get it right.

    I am all for embracing technology, but at what expense. The main reason I bought into the MF world is because of the level of mature technology available and not the other way around.

    By all means buy a Hasselblad, as they cater to all types of photographers, but don’t beat up on the rest of their system, as most of us bought into it for that reason alone.

    Love your work, keep it up.


    PS. Please don’t use speedlights with your Hasselblad, light quality is not the same, you are young and strong, stop complaining about carrying gear around!

    • Use whatever works for you, and I’ll use whatever works for me. That’s probably why they make two versions 🙂 I’ve used the CCD cameras too and they don’t have anywhere near the same shooting envelope. You’re two stops down in dynamic range, for starters. And ISO 1250 would have gotten me about 1/10-1/20s in the conditions I was shooting in – no way you can do that handheld with moving subjects and expect anything near critically sharp pixels, defeating the whole point of more resolution.

      I agree light quality isn’t the same. But I use speedlights both for control over much smaller distances and spot sizes – which large studio lights definitely cannot do – and because the airlines won’t let me carry anything heavier.

  2. Hey Ming,
    Long-time reader. And, I was also at the Batu Caves for Thaipusam this year. My photos and experience is here: (let’s just say, they’re not as “disciplined” as your photos, to put it mildly).

    It’s a remarkable festival indeed. I chose to use colour, as it really is such a colourful festival – although, interestingly I was a little more torn than usual on this issue. I think the saturated colours that first light produces that tipped the scale.

    In any case, great set of images, and especially good luck with your workshops.

    One thing is for sure – a little spare cash and time and I will be signing up for your online courses. I’m particularly enamoured with your “cinematic” sets.

    • Thanks Nate! My preference is to shoot at night because the atmosphere is far more intense/serious…and there are almost no other photographers around, which means easy working and unique images! 🙂

  3. Many compelling shots, but some just feel like the depth of field is too shallow and i want to see what’s happening in the background. I want more context! Color is definitely missing here. In this case, it seems the gear was your limiting factor (iso 6400 at f2.8) rather than a deliberate choice to shoot b&w. With a different system (eg. Canon, nikon or sony) capable of clean higher iso you could have had color and perhaps even increased f-stop to change the feel. That one portrait with the crowd in the background looks like you tried to increase DOF by pushing to f4.0. This could perhaps serve as a study to show why medium format is not the best choice for evening event photography.

    • Actually, there’s also a color set posted, and the color is far better than anything I’ve been able to get out of Canon, Nikon or especially Sony. Increased depth of field just renders the background a mess because there is just too much going on.

  4. Jorge Balarin says:

    Extraordinay photos, but with the cost of your medium format equipment this kind of photo reportages seem a bit risky for me. Beside your equipment you must take some body guards : )

    • Actually, religious festivals are amongst the safest environments I’ve personally shot in…taking a walk in London or Paris, on the other hand…

  5. michael b gannon says:

    mr thein as always great work, I am trying to figure out my next camera gear move, with a limited budget , I have a Nikon d600 with about 11 lenses and a Hasselblad 501cm with about 9 lenses, I am trying to get honest reviews on the cfv50c for my Hasselblad system or buy the newer Hasselblad system with both having price reductions. pentax is a possible option. I am waiting to see what comes out at photokina 2016

    • The CFV50C has identical image quality to the H5 I used here. Just be aware that the crop factor can be tricky to work with if you prefer wider perspectives – there is nothing really ‘wide enough’ for the V system when you take that into account.

  6. I have the PhaseOne XF with IQ3 100 mp back and 80mm Schneider LS lens. Will you be testing this out soon?

  7. Thanks again for this article and the wonderful phoos! So interesting to me, as a medium format user. I have one more question for you. With your CFV backs, did you ever encounter a loose battery problem where the contacts over time do not make the best connection and sometimes it just shuts down? I used a CFV 39 for a while, and with the battery hanging off the back, I think it got loose. I kept the thing in by rucksack and carried it all over so this might have contributed, but ultimately it did not work and seemed like something that could happen a lot with this battery placement design. I love the 501 experience and think people respond best to waist level finders, but my concern of this happening again is one of the things that is keeping me from getting the now discounted CFV 50C.
    Separately, why are you giving up on Sony A7rii? And do you still shoot with the 645Z?

    Thanks and best and once again, great blog!

    • No, never had the loose battery problem.
      I sold the 645Z earlier in the year.
      The song is by far the least used of all of my systems, and I’d rather minimize the depreciation and put the money back into other personal art projects.

  8. Tremendous work, particularly given the restrictions of low light [something I’m all too familiar with these days].

    I believe the entire Hasselblad H5D series, and lenses, are manufactured by Fujifilm, btw.

    • Thanks – yes, they are. The Xpan, original H1 and lenses were designed by Fujifilm, too – you can still find Fuji-branded versions of those cameras. Unclear if the digital back is, though – my guess is not.

      • Back is probably a Sony wafer; educated guess.

        It’s going to be very interesting to see what Fujifilm’s forthcoming digital medium format camera system is like, since it will most likely be mirrorless.

        • J. Giolas says:

          I believe the digital back is made by Fujifilm, with the exception of the sensor and support platform, of course, which is sourced from Sony. I think it is precisely Fuji’s involvement with Hasselblad’s MF system that has discouraged them to introduce their own MF system. MF is a difficult business with a shrinking market. It is a tiny niche, within which Hasselblad has struggled to survive, let alone thrive. All of which is hard to watch for me; My first MF system was a 503CW plus four Zeiss lenses. My first digital system of any kind was Hassy’s 16MP digital back for the the 500 series. (I was not an early digital adopter.) There was something pure and authentic about using a 500-series camera–a little like a Leica M, but on steroids in terms of the feeling of mechanical connection the system produced while using it. (I continue have fleeting thoughts and fantasies of obtaining a CFV-50C and a used 503, some Zeiss lenses, etc. Ming’s ongoing use (and great commentary) of the 500-series only serves to fan the flames.) As any one can tell, I get a little wistful just thinking about those days–a formative period in my photographic career in which Hasselblad played the starring role.

          Given all this, while can’t speak for the Ming’s readership as a whole, we do owe him a collective thanks for his ongoing commitment to MF systems. Aside from Luminous Landscape, he is largely unique in this regard. He brings to the table photographic and technical insights. But it is his commitment to the hard work of getting out there and evaluating that gear that is perhaps most amazing. We only see the very tip of the iceberg of all of his hard work, the product of which is his writing, which is a masterly and truly holistic narrative account of camera gear and lenses. Kudos, And: Thanks Ming.

          • Thanks! I’ve got a soft spot for the V, too. And having spent the last month or so with the CFV-50C…I have to say it’s brought new life into the whole system. True, we give up real wide angles and have to use a 90deg prism to shoot vertically, but it’s the by far purest experience you’re going to get to focusing on only the photographic bits without shooting film.

            The only reason I evaluate the gear is because I want to have the best tool for the image – nothing more, nothing less. It’s still about making pictures at the end of the day.

  9. Fantastic photos and super interesting article! Thanks for it. I am a Phase One IQ250 owner and love it and also use a Pentax 645Z for night work or handheld, but I once had a Hasselblad CVF 39 digital back on the V series, and I agree that the images are so clean and gorgeous and in some respects , it appeals to me more than the Phase One or Pentax. As a working pro, however, the V is just too limited, especially for vertical shots. So, really it has been a choice between Hasselblad 5D 50C or Phase One (I work in Studio a lot, so need the higher synch rates than on the Pentax). The reason, however, that I have stuck with Phase One is the Capture One software. But I am tempted by Hasselblad because of image quality and now the massive price reduction – if this pricing continues, it will be hard to justify the extra costs when the next generation comes out. So, my question is what software do you use for the Hasselblad? Are you using Phocus or Lightroom? Have you tethered with the Hasselblad?

    • I’m using ACR/PS – Capture One is not particularly useful if you’re going to do local adjustments in PS anyway; skipping one step helps with speed plus there’s consistency if you use multiple cameras. I find the color to be better for the Hasselblad too. You can tether in LR, but I almost never do that because it doesn’t fit my workflow – my work doesn’t require me to spend much time in a studio.

  10. Just a stunning set of images, Ming. Wonderful B&W processing. It’s fascinating what’s happening these days in the world of medium format digital. As you many remember, I shoot with the Pentax 645Z professionally (as well as the D810/Zeiss Otus), and the rig has served me very well indeed. With Hasselblad and Leica moving their MF offerings down to well below $20K, the landscape for actually acquirable systems has never been more interesting. Phase continues to be unobtainable for all but the most wealthy and committed professionals. Their systems are certainly well beyond my means. I’d love to see a Leica S 007/Pentax/Hassy comparison by someone—ideally by you. Your insights into aspects of IQ, such as tonality and color rendition, extend well beyond the continuing preoccupation with pixel count.

    One point on the 645Z’s dynamic range. I’ve read several times your observation regarding the transition in the highlights. This is a little different from my experience…

    Once again—really beautiful work…


    • I don’t think Leica would agree to that comparison 😉

      I’ve checked again and again with the 645Z highlights. The files just don’t respond like the Hasselblad…but it does have slightly cleaner shadows.

      • J. Giolas says:

        I don’t want to belabor the point or debate semantics—I trust in your technical analysis of the Pentax’s highlights as it relates to your experience with the 645Z. But I’m wondering, why the difference in our two experiences. While the Pentax does fall short of the D810 in highlight recovery, it still handle the highlights moderately well. And the Pentax makes up for the difference in superior shadow recovery. I haven’t had to modify my shooting methodology much to account for this factor; the Pentax’s dynamic range is so high (as is, for that matter, the D810’s) that simple bracketing in high-contrast scenes is all that’s needed to ensure proper tonality is native to the file on the extreme ends of the histogram. Here’s a link to two images (both very downscaled jpegs), one an unprocessed screen shot of the unaltered file, the other a processed version. The included shot was part of bracketed series, this one being the +2-stop shot in the series. The processed version includes a -2-stop exposure adjustment as well as -60 highlight adjustment in LR. While there are some unrecoverable highlights in the snow on the mountains, etc., this is a very high dynamic range scene, and is exposed at +2 stops. Here’s the link:

        • I’m not saying the Pentax is bad; the D810 was the reference, it wasn’t that good, and the Hasselblads are better than the D810. That’s my experience using the same workflow for all cameras; take it at whatever value you wish…

          • J. Giolas says:

            It has a great deal of value. I now understand the context of your observations. Thank you for taking the time to clarify.

            The Hassy sounds very interesting. What are your thoughts on the two Hassy lenses you had vs. their Pentax equivalents?

            • I’ve always felt the Pentax had a tonal response more like the D800 – shadow based recoverability – than the highlight-based recoverability of the D810. In practical situations, I’d prefer the highlight end because it makes for more natural tones and more accurate color – the less pulling and pushing you do, the less chance there is of the signal getting distorted in a way that isn’t intentional. The Hassy implementation of the sensor seems to be the best of both worlds, though at the expense of a little more shadow noise than the Pentax – that said, this is easy dealt with using the luminance NR slider in ACR/LR.

              Lenses: both Hassy HC 80/2.8 and Pentax 75/2.8 are pretty weak, to be honest. If you stop down they’re fine, but wide open there’s softness and trace CA everywhere. Not used any of the Pentax 28 options (I think there’s only the 28-45 anyway?) but the Hassy 28 walks all over the Pentax 25 – the 25 is impressive for what it is, but by no means an outstanding lens. The Hassy 28 is an outstanding lens, and much stronger than the 80 even…

              • J. Giolas says:

                Thanks Ming. I’ve never used the Pentax 75mm, having gravitated toward the excellent 90MM F/2.8 Macro. The all-new Pentax 28-45 zoom is sharper and has better micro contrast than the 25MM. It has less overall distortion, too. Like you, I was underwhelmed with the 25, and sold it to purchase the wide-angle zoom (having never shot a zoom on an MF camera up till that point). The problem with the zoom is that it is very large and very heavy. The Pentax 55 is just good but not great. The 120 is very good as is the 150. I’m very curious about the new 35MM, if it ever becomes available. But none of the Pentax lenses, other then the 90 and the new zoom are truly excellent—at least when compared to the Otii. But not much is, and a camera system is the sum of its parts, not the individual parts themselves. The Pentax still represents an interesting set of virtues from my POV. That being said, my local dealer Pictureline rents the new Hassy; I should take it for a spin…

                I’m loving the Milvus 85 on the 810 these days, slightly preferring its drawing style to the Otus version. It’s a great lens. Thanks for your comprehensive review.

                I still wish there was someone who could provide some context with the Leica 007. But perhaps it’s still outgunned in this company. I love the lenses, the form factor of the body, etc. I want it to be good.

                • My gut feel is the leica’s lenses are superior. But the sensor is almost certainly going to be left behind on resolution at least. The D810 might run it very close, too.

  11. Rites and rituals will not take you to your goal ! Jai Satguru Dev !

  12. Please, don`t photograph Holi festival in India in black and white. Otherwise dynamic pictures.

    • It wouldn’t make sense to; that festival has a very different feel and only color is really appropriate. I’m not quite sure you understand the slight underlying darkness behind this one unless you attend it…and I’m still not convinced color is always the right medium here. Besides, experimentation is necessary for progress!

  13. Hi Ming,
    considering you were using MF, this is a really stunning series of reportage photos- as the challenges were huge.
    by watching your pictures from 2011 I feel.much more drawn into the event- these were really magical pictures.
    Like your “cigar man”. I don’t recall the equipment you were using for those outstanding pictures- but this is not important at all.
    Your eye and your own artistic view is getting it.
    So for me your approach of 2016 for my feeling is too “technical”, maybe a little bit too “sterile”.
    In old times we were saying: “The bigger the format, the more boring the output”.
    But as I sayd:
    It’s a stunning effort.
    Best Regards
    Peter Grumann

    • Thanks Peter. I had a D700 and 85/1.4…more bokeh doesn’t make better pictures. There’s also a more pertinent question of subject: there simply wasn’t anybody like the 2011 ‘cigar man’ present this year…

  14. Michiel953 says:

    Beautiful images Ming, with a timeless, classical quality. Yes, despite some modern accoutrements.

  15. Fabulous images Ming. Captured the emotions perfectly. Particularly enjoyed the second and ninth photos. Although the fifteenth was a real knockout…

  16. Some truly amazing shots here, I visited twice, but once in the middle of the day, when it was swamped with a korean youth tour group, and once early in the morning (to avoid the crowds) with flat light and not much happening.I should try and time it for a festival next time! I imagine it was hard work, but definitely worth it!
    PS: the guy and three girls are taking a selfie, not participating in a ceremony, right?

    • Festivals are definitely more interesting, but travel can be tricky.

      The guy and three girls were a more common sight than you might expect – lots of participants or supporters were taking selfies…

  17. I think in such situations the camera easily captures too much to really project anything particular to the viewer. Something has to be taken out to make strong images, and removing colour may allow preserving more of the context. Thus I’m not surprised that the colour set will be cinematic – tighter frames and less dof.

    Also I think it’s cool how you’ve included the t-shirts and cell phones, making the images more authentic than typical “post card” shots that rarely manage to replicate the feeling of being there. Those details might be more distracting in colour.

    • Reality is current and changes with the times – these little cues are about all you get to suggest era/date, so I actually think leaving them in is quite important. As for color: I find the detailed scenes work well large because the elements can spatially separate, but not so much at normal web sizes. Cinematic is the way to go both for atmosphere and the reasons you mentioned.

  18. This is a really awesome set Ming, especially considering the trying circumstances, and how effortless your photos look! (y)

  19. hello sifu, beautiful set as always.
    i was there too from 5-11 am on the first day but did not spot you, mind you, there were a lot of photogs present that morning, but with your MF set-up, you would have stood out from the others, shame, would definitely have said hello. your description of the extremely difficult and challenging is absolutely spot on, yes, low light (esp if you are shooting early in the morning), crowded flow of human traffic, hot and humid environment, etc., all makes it very challenging but also very satisfying to photograph, not to mention to experience and enjoy the spirit of the celebration and atmosphere (provided one is not agoraphobia/altophobia/claustrophobia). i have the Fuji X-E2 and my biggest concern was getting sufficient shutter speed to shoot handheld (1/60) while maintaining sufficient DOF (f2.8)/moderate ISO (~ISO 1000 to keep noise level down) and acquiring focus, its AF+MF and focus peaking helped to a certain extent though. i am humbled and happy to note some of your establishing shots are very similar to mine, yeah! i see a little like the sifu :), hope to publish some photos soon.
    regards, ken

    • Too late – I was there from 1am to 4am; it’s when most of the action happens up at the main temple and the mood is unbeatable 🙂 I was the only one up there though. Feel free to share some of your images 🙂

      • thanks for the tip, sifu. i will make it a point to go earlier next year. just posted some images on my blog. feel free to have a look, appreciate your comments, if any. have a good weekend. ken

  20. Martin Fritter says:

    This is completely out-there Jimmy Chin stuff, Ming. The idea of taking such expensive gear into such a challenging environment is just completely nuts. I can’t fully express my admiration. I mean, who else would even consider medium format in this context? And execute at such a mind-boggling level, both content and technical? This is Hasselblad Award level work.

    • I don’t think I’m in his league, Martin – no way I’d climb a mountain with it (or would even know how to climb a mountain without falling off it, for that matter), that’s for sure! But yes, I’m a sucker for a challenge 😛

  21. Always love to see your coverage of this event: I’ve never been to anything like it, so to me it’s otherworldly. Sounds like a fantastic challenge physically and mentally – looking forward to the experience-centric post. Personally, I’m not seeing the same quality jump as some of the other commenters at these sizes, but I definitely appreciate the quality of tonality given the ISO: not so long ago, even 35mm would only have yielded something nasty and binary. Gonna reserve judgement on colour vs b&w until we’ve seen the cinematic set… Interesting to note that you posted this one somewhat quicker than your typical gestation period 🙂

    • Thanks, Todd. That’s what I felt too: at web sizes, I’m not really seeing it. Flickr sizes (a bit larger, double the pixel dimensions or so) are definitely clearer, but the full size files are night and day.

      Current events and all that… 🙂

  22. Looking at these images, I feel I’m looking at beautiful stills from a movie from the 1940s. I don’t believe this interesting dated quality would be there if the photos remained in color. The most amazing shot to me is the 12th from the top. The woman holding the silver pot appears deep in thought and oblivious to everything around her. I’m curious what she was thinking at this moment. Your decision to present these in black and white really worked out well!

    • Thanks Bill – I’d say see the color set before coming to that conclusion though; they’re even more cinematic. There’s definitely a timeless quality in B&W, which is why I chose to present at least a subset this way.

  23. Wonderful collection of images. Hopefully you’ll print these large and put a show together. I recommend looking into The Rubin Museum in New York. I just saw a Steve McCurry show of his work from India there and while his work is great (see the show if you can) more importantly, it was very well presented. They know how to display photography there.

    • Happy to do so if they’ll have me, but I suspect there are far more potential exhibitors than opportunities – probably more deserving too!

  24. Pixelgreat says:

    What fantastic images! As someone else asked earlier on, I assume the B&W is because the light was so challenging? Looking forward to seeing more of your work.

    • Thanks. No, as I explained earlier – it’s a personal choice to do with subject matter. The color output was very close to the way I remember it, and the rationale will be explained in more detail when I present it so you have the benefit of contrast.

  25. Hi Ming, wonderful images, as usual btw. The 645Z can now sync to 1/8000. The Priolite strobes are the ones to have. maybe this is good to know. link =

    • Interesting – if they do so by firing multiple times, I wonder if these would let any other camera sync to 8000 also? You might get some odd artifacts with moving objects similar to regular DSLR high speed sync though.

  26. Ming, a truly exceptional series of images and captured in what must have obviously been very demanding circumstances. I’m guessing that b/w on this occasion produces nice clean images without the problem of white balance that the multi-light sources would give you in PP. Was this deliberate?

    • Thanks – yes and no; the color was surprisingly good (the best I’ve ever managed under these circumstances, and very close to my memory of reality at least). The choice of monochrome for this (personal) set is more to do with the color distracting somewhat from the darker, more visceral – yet timeless – nature of the ceremony. I’ll explain it in further detail when I present the color set because it’ll make more sense then.

  27. Brett Patching says:

    Wonderful images Ming! I can’t wait to see your cinematic colour set.

  28. Ciao Ming! First of all I must say that I really enjoyed the reading and these black and white images: I wish AP would allow me to shoot in b&w when on assignment.. Anyway, personally I think that for a documentary the monochrome choice is not an issue, nor a limitation for the viewer (unless maybe we’re doing a reportage about Mirò..).

    It’s quite some months that I’m looking for a not too expensive MF camera, and I was honestly more interested into a film camera: have you ever had any experience with the Fuji gf670?

    Thank you!

    • I had to submit color for mine too; the B&W is my own take.

      Nope, sorry – never shot that Fuji, though their collapsible folders always looked interesting…

      • L. Ron Hubbard says:

        The Fujifilm GF670 camera would have worked wonders in this situation you found yourself in. The ultra lightness of the camera, combined with the leaf shutter, allows for very slow shutter speeds without inducing any blur (if the photographer is steady). I’ve shot as slow as 1/30 without any problems, 1/8th if I can lean on something and the subject is stationary.

        The lens on the GF670 is as tack sharp and contrasty as any lens I’ve ever shot.

        • Subject motion was the limiting factor here, not so much photographer motion – that, and the results from the digital back walk all over film 🙂

  29. What a wonderful set of images. The participants are not only celebrating the mythology but living inside it. If everyone thought rationally there would be fewer opportunities for photographers.

    • Thanks Gary. Yes, they are very much living inside it – and rational or not, it has to make sense to some degree to go to the extent of suffering they do. I was quite humbled to be a part of it in a small way (more details in a future post).

  30. Gerner Christensen says:

    I am amazed by the ‘quality’ of this set Ming. Not only the just noticeable richer tonality you achieved with a medium camera, but also your compositions and journalistic close up gut. These images are very special, so congrats. Hope to see much more of the kind.

    • Thanks Gerner. I’ll present the cinematic set in a couple of days after some ‘settling time’. Can you really tell the difference at web sizes, though?

      • Gerner Christensen says:

        It might be pure self hypnosis that I think that I can…

        • The jump in quality is obvious to me either, but I wish the title would not have revealed the H5D-50c immediately, so the suspected hypnosis might be included. An impressive set of moods btw, and even more impressively awaking emotions from a live event I attended at a similar event. The west – I dare to say – is too much involved with rationalism. Those ceremonies almost moved me to tears without knowing what hit me so much, maybe sense of community and compassion watching all this, like a trance lasting quite a while to recover from.

          • Hah! Well, at least it didn’t require any mortification to achieve. It’s very easy to get caught in the mood; I think the time of day also plays a huge part AND the slight sleep deprivation I always feel when I’m there – it’s just surreal and easy to let go and go with the flow…

  31. Gorgeous imagery. Thanks for the daily dosage 🙂 Can only imagine the shooting conditions.

  32. Rudolf O. Friederich says:

    Very impressive series in every respect! It will be interesting to see you working some of these files in the Weekly Photoshop Episode.

  33. Great set Ming! Makes me regret not having shot Thaipusam while I was still in Malaysia.

  34. Wow! Fantastic work! Enjoyed every image as always! I really appreciate how you elaborated on shooting MF. I think today’s FF sensors are catching up with MF sensors. I can’t wait what Nikon has in-store for the D810 replacement, which I strongly think the D810 STILL can dominate with today’s high-end professional cameras.

    • Thanks Robert – FF sensors caught up and passed the bottom end of CCD-based MF; but remember that with Sony driving sensor development, whatever underlying technology goes into the FF sensors also makes it to MF – and with the 50MP and 100MP CMOS units, the gap has opened up again. Even for the ‘cheaper’ 50MP unit, only the 5DSR comes close in resolution, but not dynamic range, color or pixel acuity – you need to drop back to the D810 for that, which brings back the tangible resolution difference and it still lags in DR (slightly) and color (noticeably). I agree that the D810 is still the best overall balance though.

  35. Gorgeous images. Definitely shows the 3d pop superiority of those captures vs. your previous 645z and blad500 images.

    • Thanks – can you really see the difference between the other MF captures? A lot of the Hasselblad 501 images were shot on earlier versions of the digital back (and some on the CFV-50C, which is essentially identical to the digital guts of the H5D-50C).


  1. […] series was shot with a Hasselblad H5D-50C, and H6D-50c, various lenses and post processed with The Monochrome Masterclass […]

  2. […] was shot with various cameras and lenses including a Canon 100D, Hasselblad 501CM/CVF-50c and H5D-50C, and H6D-50c, various lenses and post processed with The Monochrome Masterclass […]

  3. […] series was shot with a Hasselblad H5D-50C, HC 24, 50 and 100mm lenses and post processed with Photoshop and Lightroom Workflow […]

  4. […] series was shot with a Hasselblad H5D-50C, and H6D-50c, various lenses and post processed with Photoshop and Lightroom Workflow […]

  5. […] series was shot with a Hasselblad H5D-50C, HC 24, 50 and 100mm lenses and post processed with Photoshop and Lightroom Workflow […]

  6. […] series was shot with a Hasselblad H5D-50C, HC 24, 50 and 100mm lenses and post processed with Photoshop and Lightroom Workflow […]

  7. […] series was shot with a Hasselblad H5D-50C, HC 24, 50 and 100mm lenses and post processed with Photoshop and Lightroom Workflow […]

  8. […] feel. From an execution/ equipment standpoint, I think this assignment was tougher than my first documentary assignment with the H system – Thaipusam 2016 – mainly because the brief was tighter, light levels much lower in some places, and […]

  9. […] with a Hasselblad H5D-50C and 28, 100 and 50mm lenses except for one image, which was shot with a Leica Q. Postprocessing was […]

  10. […] in this series were shot with the H5D-50c, 50/3.5 II and 100/2.2 lenses, and post processed with the Monochrome Masterclass workflow. […]

  11. […] of people who commented and emailed me after the previous recent posts on medium format (here, here) – there’s quite a lot of curiosity and more medium format shooters here than I […]

  12. […] – there’s still something about the larger format. That was cemented home after the last shoot with the H5D-50c under extremely challenging conditions. I guess I should come to the point: somewhere in the last year or so, ‘next level’ in […]

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