Photoessay: Dark Porto

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‘Sinister’ is perhaps the best description for the undercurrent that you feel when walking through the old town of Porto at night or under a cloudy sky; it’s as though the dilapidation and decay is hiding a sort of madness or mania – the anguish of knowing that survival is not assured, or that one’s best days are perhaps past. Color speaks of faded glory and perhaps a bit of whimsy/ nostalgia – but monochrome does much better in conveying the weight and ominosity…MT

This series was shot with a Hasselblad H5D-50c, various lenses, a Leica Q 116 and post processed with the Monochrome Masterclass workflow.

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Masterclass Prague (September 2016) is open for booking.


Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


More info on Hasselblad cameras and lenses can be found here.


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


  1. I have some sort of mixture and admiration for anyone who can shoot architecture or landscape and make a good photograph. Interesting to see some quite deep shadows in the first few, something photography in recent years has shied away from like it were an open sore rather than a difficult situation that can yield good pictures if you can work it. I was even bemused by finding out that many photographers on one large forum almost never use fill flash, and even prefer to shoot in slightly overcast conditions as there are fewer hard shadows to deal with. On another note, one question: how did you shoot directly into the sun for the lighthouse shot? It’s crystal clear and well exposed.

    • Without shadows, we have no way of expressing spatial relationships, relative brightness/contrast and texture. Shadows are essential.

      Lighthouse: expose for the lighthouse. Huge dynamic range is one of the strengths of medium format…

      • No PP trickery then? Impressive lack of flare from the sun, any top tips on that? Thanks!

        • No, you can’t easily remove flare in post without there being obvious color (or lack of) artefacts…

          • Sorry I replied with more haste than thought. Flare I guess is a product of the lens, mainly the front glass and/or filter, is this simply showing where money is well spent with good coatings and good glass? Re. exposing for the lighthouse, can you elaborate? If you were to spot-meter the side of the lighthouse facing us and use those settings, presumably it would give medium shades with the background now very bright? In which case have you taken this metering and darkened a couple of stops to hit the right exposure but keeping the shadow on the lighthouse? Sorry if this seems a bit simplistic, I looked at this photo and thought, “I wish I could balance the exposure of a shot like that, but how?”, it’s not suitable for a hint of fill flash to reduce the contrast range. This is where I wondered if some PP had been used, or just a good solid original image.

            • Short answer: you can’t PP what isn’t there, so the original image has to be solid. A much simpler way to expose with modern cameras is simply get everything you can – i.e. perfect ETTR; no excuses since pretty much everything has a histogram and overexposure warning, and this subject isn’t going anywhere 🙂

              Of course, it’s possible that you still land up falling short because your camera simply doesn’t have the dynamic range; the Hasselblad used here has 15+ stops in practice, and it’s rare that anything ever clips…

              • Thanks for the explanation. I shoot old film cameras so some of this is new (like ETTR), but basically sounds like you’re still exposing for the lowlights and developing for the highlights, I think. Film and no PP (for me, less of a purist and more that I’m just a hobbyist) means I try hard to get good results first time and so the reason for my questions. Hmm, maybe I am a purist… Thanks again!

                • No, I’m exposing to the point where my highlights just clip – regardless of final exposure intention or how much dynamic range there is in the scene. I’ll still do this if it’s low contrast and low key. This is simply to capture the most information possible – there is least noise in the highlights of digital sensors, and the most possible tonal gradations as higher bits have more levels to allocate luminance and color. You can downsample afterwards without penalty, but not the reverse.

      • Exactly what I was thinking with pictures number 3, 4 and 7. I would love to have that dynamic range!
        And with the overall set: I would love to have that capability…

  2. Martin Fritter says:

    An interesting (well to me anyway) issue with high ISO cameras shooting there is, when shooting in low light, a “day for night” look. The cameras see at night better than humans, so it doesn’t actually look like real darkness. Too much detail in the shadows? Surely has something to do with ETTR?

  3. Ming — As usual, fine job. Like them all. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be the last one — I like the shadow looming over the dining table. Shadows are powerful compositional elements that truly add mystery and help to draw the viewer’s attention. The dynamic range of the Hasselblad H5D-50 is clearly excellent with nice shadow detail and texture, further enhancing the attention draw. One can see that each image will print nicely with shadow detail retained. The ability to lug such a heavy camera around is one of the blessings of your age — do as much as you can, while you can! Regards, Frank

    • Thanks Frank – yes, they did print well.

      As for the weight problem: solved with the X1D, same image quality 🙂

      • The X1D at least reduced the weight and bulk volume of the body. But, like all other mirrorless cameras, the lenses are still just about the same size as they were with an optical viewfinder. Only way to reduce the lens bulk substantially is to go to a smaller sensor (aps-c or even m4:3) but anyone shooting medium format is looking for superb quality and control of depth of field. Good thing is you should have many years where you should be able and don’t mind carrying the set and certainly the image quality is a huge return on your efforts. Best wishes for you, Ming.

        • Actually, not really – the 45/3.5 for the X is about half the size and weight of the 50/3.5 for the H…and filters are 67 instead of 77.

  4. Patrick says:

    Just back from Porto, a truly magnificent city full of colors, textures,endless elevations with architecture that takes advantage of it all. Porto has kept its past character history and traditions. There is a reason it is a world heritage site. The pulse of the city was vibrant, and the community were putting a new face on life there without ignoring or destroying the old ways. Would go back in a heart beat.

  5. richard majchrzak says:

    tastes are different ….strange…they do not speak too much to me, ‘xept the first one , may be…

  6. These work superbly well Ming, (possibly you recall I live in Porto, although equally, you have a lot of followers and commenters, so probably not!)

    I love the snaking wall leading the eye to the Dom Luís I Bridge

    If you were here at this time of the year, you’d have to go out at night or every shot would be crammed full of tourists 🙂

    There’s something erie and compelling about image 12 (I think it’s twelve, my fingers stop at 10, the one with the 2 blury figures) the perspective shift of the reflection compared to the size of camper van thingamy, one can invent ones own back story to that!

    To reiterate what I always say when you post about Porto, it’s quite the photographical gold mine for certain shots!

    I’m starting to wonder about your keeper percentage from your (iirc) relatively short time here?

    Perhaps we’ve seen more from Porto than Lisboa?

    • Thanks Adam. The time of year was chosen for a reason!

      I can’t put my finger on why #12 works either, but it was one of the few in the set (and elsewhere) that was shot with my non-dominant eye instead as an experiment; I suppose there is something a bit more intuitive about the composition and less ‘measured’, perhaps?

      Keeper rate was higher for Lisbon. I haven’t posted all of them yet 🙂

  7. Michael says:

    A little heavy on the ominosity slider. Maybe.

  8. Dear Ming,
    These pictures are Rad. Clearly your finest. Not that your others were anything less than excellent. But these take it up a notch. To the world of art. This is where I try and shoot myself, sometimes, alas not a much as I hope for, achieving similar results. This is the level where I trade art. I sell both, my stuff and others’ art – very successfully for large sums whilst most photographers and artists share of a declining market.

    At this level, there is always a market. Personally, I have to beat customers off with a stick as I only show stuff that can (when luckily can get there ) qualify as art at this level.

    Someone above put it better than I can. These picture convey true mood, atmosphere emotion, depth and the what have you. Qualities that may inspire you, but really have no bearing on the subject matter. Inigkeit (SP?) is the word.

    Please keep it going. If I get a bigger house to put more stuff in, I would want a copy of the clothes line picture for my wall.

    All the best,

    • Thank you. Want help me sell said art? 🙂

      • Dear Ming,

        With your permission, will show them around. A “Big Law” firm. With lots of CPAs.

        My time is pressed right now, with my day job – CFO and Chief Investment Officer and my own shooting – which due to the silly day job, have to turn much of it away. I am working to retire to just selling art and commissioned art. Will keep you informed.

        In the interim, as stated, will show your stuff around. If anyone interested here will direct them to you.

        All the best,

        PS: This round is truly art. I would ask, whom is a buyer for this stuff and get hold of them.

        Thanks for the continued effort on your part.


        • Thanks Lary – understood on time constraints, and yes, of course you have permission (and commission) to show them around – and any others you might feel suitable (there are more of other genres here, too).

  9. bill walter says:

    This is one of your best sets ever. Every photo has depth and a ominous mood, and your b&w conversions are great as always. I like Frank’s remark regarding an album cover. Any of these would serve well as an album cover! Nice work, Ming.

  10. Thanks Ming – we loved Porto when we visited for the first time a few years ago. It felt like the one city in the world untouched by the machine of global commercialism or the brush of disney tourism. Your photos conjure up that feeling of comfortable age.

  11. Great photography! But, at least for me, not nearly as sinister as you characterize it. There are many other such towns in Europe, where “old” is part of their history – nothing to be afraid of or to worry about.

    • It’s an atmosphere, Rudolf – I agree that there are older, more decaying places, but the feeling was somehow just…different.

  12. Heraldo Botelho says:

    Excellent description! Being of Portuguese extraction and having visited Portugal, I couldn’t agree more with your feelings about Porto. There’s something of past, sad, lost in the past about the Portuguese soul. I had exact the same feeling walking at night in the Chiado, in Lisbon, passing by a small bar, with tiles (“azulejos”) on the walls, illuminated by an eerie light – same type of bars I’v seen in the past in small towns in Brazil. That you can feel this way the atmosphere of the city, means half a way to being able to capture with your camera. It’s also a nice lesson on how photography, frequently, requires to penetrate the soul of the subject. Master class!

  13. Great series, Ming! I’ve never been to Porto but it conveyes the atmosphere very well. It reminds me a lot of Genoa that has a similar historic old town.

  14. Gary Morris says:

    Good eye on all… the lighthouse image is a perfect 10!

  15. Nice shots, Ming. I find the first shot the darkest, reminds me of a Dead Can Dance album cover.

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