Photoessay: melancholy and longing in Hanoi

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Words and thoughts flow from left to right, at least for those who think and read and write in western languages – a glance to the left in an image is an acknowledgement of origin, or perhaps one of longing depending on the expression of the protagonist. In the east, it might be interpreted as looking ahead in anticipation; except the expressions say otherwise. I have no idea why so many of my images from the Hanoi Cinematic Masterclass were of people looking melancholy and to the left, but there you go – perhaps there was something missing, or perhaps it was my subconscious curating something I wasn’t aware of at the time. MT

This set was shot with various equipment including an E-M5 II, 5DSR, Zeiss Otus 85, Zeiss Otus 55 and Contax Zeiss 100-300 using the Cinematic technique in Outstanding Images Ep.4 and processed with Outstanding Images Ep.5. You can also look over my shoulder at the underlying postprocessing in the Weekly Photoshop Workflow series. _5R04005 copy


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The Singapore Architectural Masterclass from 1-7 July 2016 is now open for booking. Click here for more details and to book.


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. Bill Walter says:

    I really like these. Melancholy and Longing is certainly a fitting description of the faces here. However, I think “Anticipation” could also work with these. On the first 9, it looks like these people are awaiting news of some kind, and they are not particularly optimistic about what they will hear. It’s amazing that you found so many folks with a similar look of thoughtful concern.

    • Thanks Bill. You’re probably right about anticipation, though I don’t think I’d be anticipating bad news but rather dreading it! 🙂

      There were a lot of people with this kind of look – I wonder if there was something more widespread going on at the time I didn’t know about…

  2. Melancholy these images might well be …..they’re also amazingly thoughful and beautifully shot! Much appreciated : ) Trees

  3. Richard P. says:

    Hi Ming, I just love your cinematic style. You take what would likely be a very mundane shot (if shot by an amateur) and make it so interesting to look at, and look at, and … 🙂 and the lighting, the tones, just amazing.
    Ps. Any ideas when we may see some of your recent Australian Outback work – any samplers?

    Richard P.

    • Thanks Richard. Probably in a few months – once the shoot is done, the processing is complete, the client is happy and I’ve had some sitting time to determine my picks…

      • I’ve been wondering – what determines what you post and use from a shoot that is paid for by a client? Do you have specific clauses in the contract of work? Are there standard rights that do not require stating in a contract? etc.

        🙂 … MomentsForZen (Richard)

        • Unless the client specifies full exclusivity, I always have a clause in the license to permit use in a no competing personal and professional portfolio – which includes this site.

  4. The idea that looking to the left can have an entirely different connotation among people who read left-to-right vs. those who read right-to-left had never occured to me. I guess that speaks to an insular upbringing and impoverished world view on my part. Just wanted to say thanks for that insight.

  5. I very much enjoyed looking at this set and reading the article about your cinematic style. Your ability to analyse this style is extraordinary – most artists of note develop specific styes, but few can describe the characteristics that define these styles. And then there is your ability to take these shots – some aspects of them require great skill and timing.

    As far as the style is concerned, I find the perspective of being at eye level or below to be particularly important. As per studio or cienmatic shots / footage, this viewpoint provides us with a sense of being part of the scene and of having a personal relationship with the subject. Thank-you for sharing all of this with us.

    It is also interesting that you are comfortable with having a finite set of styles. Many other artists feel like they are in a rut when they settle on a small number of styles, and work hard to break away from these styles!

    🙂 … MomentsForZen (Richard)

    • Thanks. You’re also right about camera height – the reason it’s important is because it’s the only control to put subject and foreground/ background into the same horizontal line through a narrow frame; subtly changing camera pitch can also emphasize or deemphasize a subject relative to background by putting it above or below.

      Multiple styles – well, I think my set is probably diverse enough that it’s hard to get bored 🙂

  6. Dirk De Paepe says:

    This work is pretty exceptional for you, Ming. It’s the people and their emotion that are at the center of the story. IMO human emotion is the most interesting possible subject in photography, since it’s infinite. You’ll understand that I aplause with all my might to this evolution. As usual, the images are absolutely great, but this time the subject is even greater. And IMHO, the subject is the most important element of the picture.
    We want more!
    P.S. Most photographers take that kind of pictures with very shallow dof. Still the few shots here with larger dof, again IMO, have even more story in them.

    • Thanks Dirk!

      Shallow DOF/ cinematic: it isn’t that simple; contrary to what you might think, these weren’t all wide open. It’s about balancing foreground/ background/ quality of light with shallowness of DOF and identifiable backgrounds; there usually isn’t very much wiggle room when you’re shooting candids. I do agree that many just have the lens wide open without thought to the other elements, though I can assure you this isn’t the case…

      • Dirk De Paepe says:

        I deliberately mentioned “shallow DOF” instead of “wide open”, because I didn’t doubt for a second that you chose aperture in regard to dof and dof in regard to your story (couldn’t be otherwise). Like I always do, or try to do. 🙂 Still, larger dof allows for more story. That’s my point. But then again, sometimes, you wan’t just one item in the picture, like in picture one here. It’s all about stimulating the spectator to wonder what this guy might be thinking, what his emotions are. As many interpretations as spectators. But pictures 7 and 8 are my favorits, since there’s more story.

        • Agreed – and sometimes you simply have no choice, for instance if subject and background are quite close, or near infinity, or both…

  7. I like your reflection, theme and pictures very much, thanks for sharing the post, Ming!!

  8. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    E-M5 II, 5DSR?. Strange bedfellows quality like.
    As to the title, it`s your choice of course but some others would fit too like: pensive, moody, reflective, wistful. The most famous example is Durers engraving “Melencolia” a nearly impossible challenge to reinterpret it photografically due to all symbolism elements in it. Well, it could be staged.

    • No staging here 🙂

      Actually not so strange – crop factor, reach, tilting screen and adaptors make the EM5II better suited to tele cinematic work than the 5DSR, plus the whole thing just lands up being more stealthy.

  9. stunning pics and I am so looking forward to visiting here

  10. Your cinematic stuff is always so damn excellent. I love the use of depth of field to separate the subjects. It’s not to “OMG BOKEH”, but there still is some great bokeh(if that made any sense, well balanced is probably a better word)

  11. My apologies should have been word not work… have a lovely day, cheers.

  12. That’s an interesting point where one work can alter the minds visual conclusion. I do agree here with Shreedhar, but a loosely set

    of photos.

  13. Never mind the title, strong series!

  14. Except the shot of a woman in a cab, other shots have persons that are thoughtful. To call them Melancholic is bit too strong a description.

    • In your mind, what differentiates the two?

      • Melacholy suggests sadness, whilst thoughtful suggests a neutral emotion, neither sad nor happy. That is my interpretation of these two descriptions. In almost all of the photographs, I feel that the subjects are lost in thought and that they have a touch of sadness about them. Hence, I think that you have used an appropriate title.

        🙂 … MmentsForZen (Richard)

  15. Great Series. Visited Hanoi a couple of weeks ago. Love the place.

  16. Thank you for this interesting and visually impressive set. I don’t smoke but the scene with sitting smoker is one I find particularly, readily immersive.


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