Photoessay: Shadows and details

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Texture is shadows, and shadows are texture: at the micro level, surface irregularities are thrown into relief and colors are intensified. This latter effect is an interesting property of raked lighting: since the pits in the surface structure of an object are in shadow, the overall reflected luminosity is lower. However, there are also small portions that appear brighter because some light may reflect off surfaces at precisely the right angle. End result: microcontrast is higher, colors are deeper/richer and textures are made to appear more real (if such a thing is possible). I love old buildings like these because they are perfect subjects for this kind of light: some surfaces are rendered smooth by centuries of paint; others by centuries of wear; and still others show the marks of etching of pollution etc. It’s an interesting study in color, form and texture…MT

This series was shot with a Hasselblad H5D-50C, and H6D-50c, various lenses and post processed with Photoshop and Lightroom Workflow III.

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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. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Oh dear – only just saw this article, and it’s a year old and already buried in comments. My apologies for not chiming in earlier, Ming – I don’t know how I missed it, but I do enjoy digging through past postings because there’s always so much to learn from your work.
    This is a subject dear to my heart (mind? – whatever!) – I live in a “heritage precinct”, and this is the ideal way to capture the essence of many of the local buildings. It takes time and patience – planning – and of course “the eye”, because otherwise we’d never notice the photo opps these buildings present us with. I’m not sure how you manage to go to a city in another country and return with such a rich harvest, but I imagine the explanation for that is because you are a much better photographer than I am.
    Notwithstanding that – I have three targets in mind – one which will yield a single shot, I suspect, and I have to wait till the sun starts to return to the northern hemisphere for their spring, before I will be able to capture the exact shadow line I require for the shot – another, barely 20 metres from my front door, which is a very good example of the first two or three sentences of your article, because it has an ageing stone wall on my side of the building that throws up an extraordinary texture for a few seconds just after the sun passes directly overhead – and the other, a large older building which should yield a range of photos as I study it in more depth.
    Yet in another group I belong to, I am told we need to venture further afield to take any “interesting photographs” or “good shots”, because we are too familiar with our own local environment and never find anything worth shooting. ????????????????

    • No problem. That idea of having to venture – either the supporters have shot so much of their own local environment that any and all possibilities have been exhausted (unlikely, but possible) or they need to stop seeing with bias (not easy…)

  2. Beautiful!

  3. EnPassant says:

    I do very much like the warm sidelight in the first photos in this set and how it brings out the texture and different shades of light.

    However as good as they are I see these mostly as a kind of photographic studies similar to the sketches artists may do for training or preparation for the real artwork.

    But sometimes although the original intention may have been another and even successfully achieved an even better photo can hide inside a good photo.

    That I think is the case with photo number 12, or the second from the bottom. While it may have been photographed because of the shadows I would crop away one third of the image.

    First crop the right side so we no longer see the tiles but only their shadow.
    Secondly crop the top of the picture cutting away that brownish structure left in the top right corner.
    And finally crop out the dark shadow at the bottom as it steals the attention and doesn’t belong to the final composition.

    What is left is no longer so much a study of shadows, although they are an important part, but a kind of associative puzzle photo that is much more concentrated on the essential elements and therefore more pleasing to the mind.

    Now, if you don’t agree with me I think you should study the photo in detail and try to analyse what you actually see and why the photo cropped to my instructions is good. Also what the photo is about can be described with one word! Which one? I said it was a PUZZLE photo!
    You could of course also present the photo cropped as I described and ask them how they interpret what they see and what word we are looking for that could be the name of this photo.

    • “However as good as they are I see these mostly as a kind of photographic studies similar to the sketches artists may do for training or preparation for the real artwork.”
      Of course: every image is a study of that kind because there is always a different/better composition to a stronger idea…

      Crop: It doesn’t work because you cut the window frame and have too much empty open space at the bottom. The recursive blocks are required to form the intended structure and ‘puzzle’ – without it, it’s too empty.

      • EnPassant says:

        As to the crop it is difficult to describe in words. The window frame on the left will definitely not be cropped away. But of course all of the window frame on the right will be cropped away.

        The photo with the black border is 653×800 pixels and roughly 628×777 pixels big without the black border. My crop (from the photo without black border) is -46 pixels from the top, -108 pixels from the bottom and -97 pixels from the right side (give or take a pixel or two!).

        While I agree that for the photo You intended the composition is good. And having something filling up an otherwise empty corner generally can be a good rule. So I am not saying your photo as you composed it is wrong in any way.

        What I am trying to say that inside is another photo of a different kind that while still well composed is less about composition and all about CONTENT.

        Yes, the wall on the right side may seem empty. But because of the shadow it is cut in half and not dominating as there are several other big surfaces in different shades with similar size, including the ground. Best way to see it is simply to do the crop and look at the new image rather than trying to imagine it looking at the original image.

        Actually these big sufaces look like separate puzzle pieces. However that was not exactly what I meant when I wrote the cropped photo is like a puzzle. Maybe I should have written riddle instead. Although now that it was brought to my intention I kind of like that a photo partly looking like a puzzle also can be a puzzle (to be solved)!

        I think the reason I see this differently is that I have looked not only at photos but also studied classical paintings. And what fascinated me are all the details that can be included in paintings showing a scenery of some kind, mostly with people included.

        Those details are not there just for decoration or compositional reasons. They are there to to give a message to those who are able to read the painting. Sometimes the artist with his painting could send a message that was so subtle that those who commissioned it would not understand it but others would. As open critic of those in rule cold be the same as a death sentence.

        Also, to understand my way of thinking my background as a chessplayer is important. EnPassant is a move in the game of chess. I am no longer active but played a lot (and unlike a certain youtuber who brag about being school champion I have an international rating and have once played in the master elite group (just below the championship group) in the national competiton of my country among other things.) and before I got interested in photography (which still was more than 30 years ago).

        Except for normal games there are also chess studies and problems that are composed to be solved. For somebody not knowing about the rules setting up the pieces randomly on the chessboard in a way that look attractive may look good. But for a chessplayer it looks horrible with pieces set up in positions against the rules of the game.
        Also the position must make sense. In a problem that usually means there is one first move that will result in winning the game in a prescribed number of moves. The second rule of such problems is that only pieces that have influence on the solution should be included in the problem. If a piece can be taken away without changing the solution it doesn’t belong on the board.

        Translated to photography that means a photo where all the important elements interact in different ways with each other (excluding less important things like plain walls that are more like a backdrop or the squares of the chessboard) and distracting parts not belonging and adding to the scene being cropped away.

        So what I am saying is that the original photo is a nice study. But cropped to its bare essentials as I propose it becomes a photo with a message!
        At least one that I can read, although I understand others who have not trained their eyes to analyse images in depth at first can’t understand what I am talking about, as if I was talking som strange language.

        Many of those old paintings can of course only be understood by experts. But fortunately there are both books and tv-programs about art that explain what is hidden inside the image. I would recommend anyone interested in images to learn more about older paintings from different times as that knowledge could improve some photos so that they are not just well composed and beautiful but also make sense in some way.

        While it may be difficult to analyse the content of an image if one is not accustomed to it the guiding I can give for your cropped image is to look at all the details of the image and try to imagine what they look like rather than what they exactly are and compare them. Then think about what they all represent. The solution I see and think about when looking at the cropped photo is an English verb. (Actually I can think of two different English words with similar meaning. So both would be accepted as the correct answer!) That is the hint I can give. But if you don’t like (or have time, which I understand) solving riddles you could maybe ask some who like such a challenge.

  4. Larry Kincaid says:

    As a set, to me at least, this is one of your best ones yet. Could be the color as well as the shadows and light. Most importantly, they remind me and reinforce the principle that the light comes first and what it is doing, then what it is doing to what objects you may be interested in. One result here is that it–light and shadows you’ve selected–make the objects themselves more interesting and often simply beautiful. They’d make beautiful, large prints for a wall. I was struck by a more recent essay you posted about your 50 versus 100 MB cameras, something like “natural color that the eyes see versus color that is more pleasing.” That stung quite a bit. Over-saturated color drives me crazy; it’s embedded in all the digital televisions, in the US to make American football games look more pleasing. Most people don’t know that there’s a setting that allows you to desaturate the color, one used to be labeled something like “old color movies.” What I heard years ago was that Fuji asked professional landscape/wildlife photographers to help them develop a new positive slide film to compete with Kodachrome. They all said “make it as natural as possible, what the human eye actually sees in the real world” (early Fuji color film looked cartoonish). When they came back they showed them the slide film they developed for that purpose along with another one with greater saturation, soon to be called “Velvia.” The majority said they liked the new Velvia better, in spite of what they said earlier. The rest is history. We now expect nature images to be well saturated. I agree with you that more natural color is better to begin with, but also because the saturation and vividness can be increased later if desired. To the question: I downloaded some of the images from the Leica site made by guest photographers with their new Leica M10. The color on the ones from Cuba were quite bold and saturated, with great natural light. Pleasing, as you said, but too saturated. So, I downloaded the jpg’s that were posted and tried to desaturate them in photoshop. I was shocked to discover how little I could change the saturation level downward. But this was the jpg file. Does this mean that the raw file would normally be less saturated, if not “natural” as you put it, and hence available for whatever level of saturation you might want? I hate the idea that the photographer is going to get stuck with over saturated digital images only. Am I right on both counts: you cannot do much with original oversaturated jpg’s, and the raws would still arrive without that problem?

    • Thanks – saturation can also be relative, not absolute: if you’ve got a lot of highly saturated colors competing with each other, of course they’re going to have to be more saturated to stand out…but if the entire palette is subtle, this often isn’t necessary.

      JPEGs have everything baked in and only have 8 bits of information at best – assuming there is minimal compression. Raw files should be quite easily desaturateable.

  5. Going to Prague in march(for the first time), and I’m planning to burn through some film. Perhaps Ektar would be the way to go?

    • I did it with Provia before, which in hindsight landed up being a bit too cool. (You can see some results here). But you’re right, Ektar’s warm tones would probably be a better fit for the color palette of the city.

  6. John Brady says:

    Ming, it was your architectural images which originally brought me to your site and I always love these postings. (Although I would love to see more Verticality!). This is a great set.

    #4 is pornographic 🙂

    #6 is beautiful.

    Re #7, I’m guessing you waited until the shadow on the left partly crossed the plasterwork? I can’t believe that’s by accident…

  7. Rich Southgate says:

    A very interesting post Ming and beautifully processed images as always. Since purchasing your Photoshop Workflow video, and using LAB mode in Photoshop more often, I find that the quality (and realism) of shadow detail in my images has improved significantly.

  8. Junaid Rahim says:

    You always seem to enjoy Prague Ming – brings out some stunning stuff 🙂

    I think Prague (along with Tokyo) is a city you visit enough over the years to see how your ‘eye’ evolves as you shoot.

  9. Truly beautiful photographs. Period.

  10. Bill Walter says:

    You’ve done a great job of bringing the shadows to a perfect level. Just enough to still decipher some detail. As usual the framing is right on. This is a nice set that is very easy on the eyes.

  11. Roger Wojahn says:

    Great set!

  12. Fabulous compositions and lighting.

  13. Very nice set Ming. Its interesting to see how your published subject matter has changed over the years. But is that a case of right tool for the subject or right subject for the tool? You’ve certainly covered a broad spectrum over the years and It would be interesting to see what you consider are your all time favourite/strongest images.

  14. Wolfgang Fleschurz says:

    wonderful Pictures – thank you !

  15. litwinchukphotography says:

    Very nice photos.

  16. light and shadow are in rendez-vous !


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