Photoessay: People of Tokyo II

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As usual, it is impossible not to be in a place like Tokyo and do at least some street photography; the very difference in the way people act and the things they do already attracts our attention because it breaks the pattern which we’re used to seeing. Furthermore, Japan’s tolerance for photography in general as a society and the close proximity in which people usually find themselves makes things even easier. It is however impossible to avoid people on phones: I still think this is the ‘hat-and-newspaper’ of the 21st century; just as life-documenting photographers eighty years ago could not avoid that cliche – which now seems quaint to us – we are locked into the era of the cellphone. It is harder to find somebody not using one. I’ve always said the best street work should be pretty close to documentary in nature, though much more personal in significance. If phones are the nature of reality today, so be it. That of course doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty else going on. I did get a feeling of longing and melancholy I didn’t observe the last time I was there; the usual conspicuous isolation was even stronger on this visit. A sign of the times for society, perhaps? MT

This series was shot with a Leica Q 116, Nikon D5500 and 55-200/4-5.6 DX VR II, Sony A7RII and Zeiss 2.8/21 Loxia and 1.8/85 Batis lenses and post processed with The Monochrome Masterclass workflow. You can also look over my shoulder at the underlying postprocessing in the Weekly Photoshop Workflow series.

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


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


  1. What I enjoy about your work is the kindness you show your subjects. Buildings, landscapes and people have a simple grandeur. In that way one can spy the photographer behind the lens, with his eye towards a gravitas that is rare today, who then captures a kind of classical space and look even in the mundane. A very fine Tokyo set.

    Wonder what you would do in a jocular vein?

    I’d also like to hear more from your viewers and yourself on why a certain favorite image fascinates. Attn: Gearheads now that Ming has settled on basic medium format. (“Switch” to Hasselblad by the way has lost its many comments due to a glitch.)

    Perhaps I could start this ball rolling with Japanese Lunch above. There’s the symmetry that strikes the foreground and the vanishing point behind the crowd that fuses with the faded nameless modern buildings. The silent dialogue of the two businessmen and the third surprise angle, the only talker but on his phone and the only one delighted. Young, modern, spikey in a 1950’s crowd of aging passersby. Is that the power of black & white? Partly, certainly. Then distractions bleached out and highlights almost blown where in color well, odd pastels like a shabby green tinted sky in drugstore prints would be cringeworthy.

    What does the photographer say? Was it B&W originally? The foreground triangle, a conscious decision to wait for the elements to slide into place? Would you have dodged out La Tuque in the old days? Why did you not blow out the sky adding more contrast to the bleached buildings? Blown highlights have a long history in early photography before digital. The rule of thumb then a bit of pure white and deep black somewhere for reference, casting a broad light on all the delicate shades of grey. In general today for monochrome agree or disagree?

    A very likable image Ming, that has geometry and ritual while commenting on big city people. Street theatre. Thanks.

    • Thanks Alan. (‘the switch’ comments are still there – at least they are visible here 🙂

      Jocular – well, I suppose it would be more Monty Python than The Simpsons if that helps.

      Personally, I prefer order and formalism and a sort of deliberate composition; I think some could find that cold or sterile. It’s a controlled sort of tonal palette, composition and extra bits (or not) are left out unless they add something. Everything starts as color – that is the advantage of digital – but I do know upfront if I intend to convert it to monochrome or not; some images and ideas simply do not work in one or the other, and in the Lunch – the impression that this is merely the latest in a series of lunches that has been going on as almost a tradition is something that can only be conveyed when the distraction of color is removed. I don’t mind overexposure so long as the transition to overexposure is smooth/gradual and not abrupt – this way it doesn’t call attention to itself. To me, the smoothness of these highlight transitions has long been the strength of film, only to be challenged by today’s extreme dynamic range cameras in the last couple of years…

      • Good to know your intent before taking the shot. The use of monochrome for Lunch certainly enhances the idea of one in a long series of lunches, but I found the geometry more emphasized including the 3 bowls, as well as the abstract nature of human communication in a cityscape fading away.

        Of course your images show your keen concentration on the essentials of composition. Indeed I think that you usually produce an image where the viewer cannot add or subtract any element or wouldn’t want to. That gives your images a timeless or permanent quality. I suppose this is the background and sometimes the whole form for any great photograph or painting. There’s more when it comes to people and portraits like bringing a character or a fleeting moment to life. Or demonstrating an unconscious cycle or event. Any favorite painters by the way?

        Hope we’ll see more studies like Sigma’s President on these pages. And your darling baby girl growing up. Congratulations to you and your wife.

  2. The picture of the gentleman lending a hand to the fallen man, the umbrella and the crosswalk, I really enjoy those two images

  3. Brett Patching says:

    Wonderful, coherent set Ming!! Every photo is great.

  4. Carlos Polk says:

    I miss the captions… Excellent Photoessay.
    Highest Regards,

  5. rjllane says:

    Wonderful tonality in this series. And I like the sense of motion that is conveyed – the subjects never look to be static, even if they are seated. Part of them is is motion. Perhaps this is a part of life in Tokyo?

    🙂 … MomentsForZen (Richard)

    P.S., The B&W images are set off nicely by the simple frame. In simple terms (if possible), how do you create these frames with the text and add the combination to an image of arbitrary size? I would appreciate any advice you could share. Have the best of days!

    • Thank you – that was the intention. Nothing ever stays still for very long…

      The frame is an action in PS – resize image, expand canvas, add text, save. It’s the only solution I found to a) add a watermark without interfering with the contents of the image itself, b) isolate the image from the page, and c) look distinctive 🙂

      • Thank-you for sharing your knowledge as well as your photographs. I shall still wonder how app developers are able to adjust their frames (including text in some – like yours) to work with images of varying size.

        I must also compliment you on your unbelievable attention to your readers – you read and respond to so many comments.

        I hope that you have a fun, photo-filled day.

        🙂 … MomentsForZen (Richard)

        • Mine is actually fixed – so the whole page scales. Much easier that way 🙂

          No question it’s going to be photo-filled today, my brother is getting married…

  6. These are beautiful! I especially like the one where there is the one woman looking back.
    Street Photography amazes me, but personally, it is a hard genre for me to explore. I always feel like I’m invading people’s space. Even at events with friends I don’t feel that comfortable. As someone said in the comment before mine, these are phenomenal!

    • Thanks – I think it need not be an intrusion of space if you seek permission…

    • John Brady says:

      I also feel a bit awkward doing street photography for the same reason and I suppose the wider the lens, the closer you need to be. The shot of the woman with the hat taken with the Loxia 21mm must have been very close indeed! A fantastic set and as usual I’m a sucker for your BW images. Thanks for sharing.

      • Thanks John. Tilt screens help both with maintaining the right camera height to keep verticals vertical and also with stealth…

  7. Love the guy eating (ramen?)

    Speaking of food, any restaurant tips? I have a couple written down, but I’m always looking for reccomendations.

  8. Ming, a very interesting mini-portfolio. My preferred images are the ones of the girl in the crowd looking back and begs the question “why?”; the gentleman standing by the pillar with the umbrella and suitcase has an amusing pose (I bet he saw you coming and thought “this will get his attention”; and the image of the two men eating at the table and the expression on the face of the guy on the right really had me laughing. How many of us have looked at some food and had the same feelings? “What on earth is this?”

    Michiel, in response to your comment about the light in image #1, I believe this is natural. There is strong directional light hitting the pavement and there would be enough reflection to illuminate and fill in the subject’s face. You can see this in many parts of the image, the man’s hand, the woman who is not in direct sunlight still retains detail. I could be wrong, of course, but I’m not seeing evidence of localised control.

    • Michiel953 says:

      On closer inspection, I think you’re right Terry. A combination of bright and highly reflective surfaces and strong directional sunlight probably, although some emphasizing that effect in post might play a role as well.

      I like it; lots to see here!

    • Thanks Terry – not just the pavement; Tokyo is full of naturally reflective sources…

  9. Philip Brindle says:

    Mr. Thein, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, ideas and photographs, I find your work very inspiring, your style and composition skills are second to none… Best wishes, thanks again…

  10. Michiel953 says:

    Great series (most of them 😉 ); should be called “The light and the moment”. That’s what it is all about, IMHO.

    • Of course – taken as given, I guess (and not with bothering without). 🙂

      • Michiel953 says:

        I beg to disagree. Both light and moment are never given; they have to be seen and chosen…

        • Sorry, miscommunication: ‘given’ in the sense that we do not take the photo in the first place if those elements are not present…

          • Michiel953 says:

            Ahh, yes of course. I once said somewhere (didn’t get the round of applause I was expecting) that many photo’s should not have been taken in the first place, or binned after only a cursory glance…

            • That’s the pre-shot curation. Gets better the more you shoot (providing of course you also do regular and objective curation afterwards 🙂 )

  11. gnarlydognews says:

    again, your “human” photography is much more appealing to me than the industrial. There is a certain flavor of clinical tho and with high precision focusing that makes them different from the typical street photography “shooting from the hip” Nice work, indeed.

  12. richard majchrzak says:

    the first photo..the face….it’s lightening up….

    • ?

      • Michiel953 says:

        I guess what Richard (Polish?) is trying to say is (a question from me as well) “How did you get the light on the face?” The rest of the scene is contre-jour, fill-in flash it certainly is not and I can’t see a ray of light searching for his face.

        Enlighten us Ming!

      • richard majchrzak says:

        what i mean is: the person is back-lit. the face should be the same grey as the hand. Instead face is very bright. either reflection (then 10 out of 10 for planning and waiting and intuition) or pp.just wondering…
        and : my surname is Polish, i grew up in Germany , West 🙂 in the fifties and sixties etc

  13. Anatoly Loshmanov says:

    Very impressive result.
    B and W looks appropriate to the story.
    Difficult to keep “color palette” under dramatically changing light condition.

  14. On some of the photos you seemed to be close to the subject. Do you ask them if it’s OK to take their picture before you shoot?

    • Yes and no – some didn’t notice, those who did agreed 🙂

      • Michiel953 says:

        In my experience for that sort of shot it’s not the asking that keeps you on the civilised side of humanity, it’s the blending in and not hiding your camera or your intentions. Just have your camera sitting on the table, play with it, look around, that sort of thing, gauge reactions. The decide whether to shoot or not.

        • Can’t hide with a Hasselblad! 🙂

          • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

            I`ve seen somewhere a guy shooting in the streets with handheld Mamiya RB67, immagine that! On the opposite side “of street shooting sidewalk” I recall the streets of Bogota in Colombia, some 40 years ago with the guys working in street shoting ways. It often seem as if he was greeting you lifting his hand up until you realized that he held a really small half frame camera. While passing you, he handed a scrap of paper with address on it where you could some hour later fetch a contact print of it! or order an enlagement. Those were the days, my friend, I thought they never end.

            • Actually, I find the response to the old V Hasselblad much more positive to a big black DSLR…it must be the whole vintage factor. The usual question I get is ‘can you still get film for that thing?’ 🙂

  15. Very clear and crisp photos, esp. for street photography. I was in Des Moines, IA, over the weekend and used a similar setup—the Sony A7RII and Zeiss Batis 85 1.2. I love the Batis, but this is the first time I did some street photography with it, and I missed as many shots because of slow autofocus as I got. Did you have a similar experience with that combination?

    • Thanks. Yes, I found the A7RII’s AF not very accurate or fast for this kind of work. Low hit rate or tripod and trap focus for me.

  16. Awesomeness!!! I adore this set! Phenomenal job once again!

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