Photoessay: Cityscape Tokyo

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The more you visit a city, the more your impressions change; that initial freshness and impact wears off into a sort of routine of the favourite places you like to visit while you’re there. Layered on top of this are the changes to the place itself, since no city is static – least of all somewhere like Tokyo. The latest instalment in the Cityscape series of retrospective curations has taken the longest to put together simply because I’ve got so many images from this place, from (at least) annual visits spanning the last 12 years. I realise that most of the early impressions no longer resonate with me as much as images shot in say the last four or five years, at most. This is the Tokyo I have in my mind now – one of density, activity, anonymity, details – but it won’t be the Tokyo I remember next year as I’m actually here at the moment with my family, and for the first time, our four year old – new memories are being made, new impressions formed, and it’s still too new to know what will stick. MT

Shot over a long, long period of time with a wide variety of equipment. Mostly processed with PS Workflow III.

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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 unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved


  1. Casey Bryant says:

    The incremental growth of motion in the images is excellent. By the end, it’s dizzying and disorienting : ) Perhaps this is the experience of Tokyo you were trying to make? Excellent stuff, Ming.

    • As a place I’ve always found Tokyo on that edge: the constant change and motion is amazing if you’re in the right mood? Or as you say – dizzying and disorienting if you’re not. But I admit that I quite like that beyond that there’s a zen when the world starts to flow around you and you’re the proverbial calm observer…

  2. Dirk De Paepe says:

    I have the firm impression that the colors are a bit more saturated in this series, than I’m used to see in your pictures, Ming. How come? Is it a false idea?
    BTW, as always, I find these exquisite images, showing me two things: the character of the city and (I guess) the character of MT. I am often thinking how I (most of the time) recognize your pictures immediately. The choice of subjects is one reason, the composition is another. And the color treatment is a third for sure. But here, there’s a slight shift in saturation, I think. We know there’s a tendency for highly saturated pictures amongst many photographers – at the cost of realism, IMO, so I’m not joining them. In city shots, I even tend to lower vivacity (I’m not sure if this is the right term in English, but you’ll know what I mean, since it’s right next to saturation in PS). It creates a bit more grayish tints, which picture the mood of a city in our countries better than too lively colors.

    • Not false, adjusted for the subject matter – there’s a certain vibrancy and life in Tokyo that you only get with reinforcement of the intense and varied colors, and the spatially dense overlay of it all…I haven’t boosted saturation so much as not reduced it. That said, I am 99% sure it wouldn’t feel the same with my normal color treatment; too restrained, too ‘normal’. 🙂

      • Dirk De Paepe says:

        I was already expecting this answer. The last years, I don’t travel that much, but I indeed have experienced totally different and more lively colors in countries that are situated a lot more south than were I live. Your reply gives me important info in regard to the “mood” of Tokyo and I find it as such very valuable. The thing is that I revolt a bit those pictures that try to make streets “shine”, that in reality have very subdued tones (like where I live). This sobriety has its own beauty IMO, with its variety in subtle nuances.

        • Actually…Tokyo is *really like this* – which is hard to express otherwise…

          • Dirk De Paepe says:

            That’s how I understood it, Ming. That’s why your approach is all the more valuable to me. 😉
            What I describe counts for the cities close to where I live. I see from your pictures that Tokyo has different light.d

  3. Great images, Ming. Now that you’re there with family, I bet we’ll see a different view from you. BTW, if your 4 year old is a fan of Studio Ghibli films, visiting the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka is a special treat. Even for adults! We loved it.

  4. Great set of captures! You employ great technique in balancing contrast. I have a bad tendency to lift everything in post (which you warned against in your HDR article.)

    I’ve been there six times the past four years and I share your sentiments. Shame that as the de facto tour guide I don’t have the time to absorb the environment and shoot with more purpose. Introducing people to Senso-ji and the Shibuya Crossing for the nth-time I don’t even bother taking out the lens cap at times.

    • Thanks – I still do HDR, but using a single frame and taking care so that we don’t have tonal overlaps (which is what makes things look weird).

      Even if you’re revisiting the familiar, finding something new can be an interesting challenge – even if we don’t shoot it. The yields decrease, but at least there’s enough change in the environment itself that it keeps the mind somewhat fresh…

  5. Michael Hanson says:

    I’ve visited many of the cities you have photographed, and your Tokyo photos are definitely the most spot on in regards to capturing the feel of exploring the city (but of course, that feel is subjective). Always great images. You should publish a book someday of your Tokyo work.

  6. Beautiful images to my eyes. Thank you!

  7. Wayne Melia says:

    Excellent as usual because, as usual, the photos capture and express the emotion of your reaction to the scenes in front of you.

  8. Kristian Wannebo says:

    At least for me who hasn’t visited any city of that (horizontal and vertical) size!
    ( Photos from New York – that first growing-upwards icon – make that city seem like a village in comparison.)

    A place to feel lost in for a first time visitor.
    For someone living there I suppose it’s much of a question of finding one’s own collection of cosy corners.

    I’d be interested in your 4 year old’s impression, but I suppose Kuala Lumpur isn’t too far off…
    – – –

    A great photo series!
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Actually, NYC felt easier to get lost in for me. But maybe that’s familiarity – I know Tokyo pretty much as well as I know Kuala Lumpur. (And Kuala Lumpur is definitely smaller by about 4x the number of people, if not the physical area, and much harder to navigate thanks to our abysmal public transport).

      The four year old…let me see what she shot (a lot of the time, she was too busy being distracted and sensorily overloaded…)

  9. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I love the night shots, Ming – your photography is quite literally “extraordinary” – out of the ordinary!

  10. I never like your black and white pictures because they are too dark for me. But your color pictures are beautiful. They are full of life.

    • It’s very much a state of mind/mood thing. I agree the monochromes are bleak, and intentionally so; I make sure that when I use color, the color is necessary to the overall success of the image…

  11. Vernon Szalacha says:

    I’ve always loved the cityscapes you do.

  12. Thank you for showing.

  13. The slanting on the last, Park image… very, very nice!

  14. You’re in Tokyo now? Well, if a tall-ish English guy carrying either an OMD-EM5 (with a Canon FD lens via adaptor) and/or a DP0 Quattro happens to approach you to say hello and express his appreciation of your blog and educational materials, that would be me…if I happen to be in the same part of Tokyo and can pick you out among the millions of people!

    • I was, but home now. These were shot over the last few years though. I probably escaped stealthily with a stroller and three year old as camouflage…that, and a taped up Z7 is quite inconspicuous 😉

  15. Having also been to Tokyo a few times, I try to reconcile where the photos were taken, so far I can only identify 3 (Asakusa, Shibuya crossing and Ginza). Is it possible to give some hints? 🙂

  16. beau reportage.
    Bravo !!!

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