Passion and frustration

I’ll begin by saying that this is a difficult post for me to write for many reasons. Over the course of the last month or so, you – my valued readers – have hopefully seen some of my work and passion, and even more hopefully learned something from the articles and how-to’s.

I started this site for several reasons. Firstly, I wanted to share my knowledge; secondly, I want my work to reach a greater audience – although every true artist would (and often does) work without pay or acknowledgement, sometimes the egotistical part of us does value recognition. Thirdly, there are sites aimed at amateurs, at professionals, at particular user groups…but I find the level of content not really that advanced, or too equipment-focused, or not balanced between pure image sharing, learning and techniques/ equipment. Photography is all of these things. Finally, I want to figure out a way to spend more time doing photography-related things, and less time in the corporate world.

The reality of commercial photography these days is that there are plenty of talented people out there; more so now that people have discovered skills thanks to the ever-lowering barriers to accessibility. This is further compounded by the effects of social media (yes, I know I’m benefitting too). Curiously though, although the overall standard for images has raised thanks to the proliferation of photographers, the business community attaches less and less value to it – meaning to say bluntly that there really isn’t any money in the business (with a few very rare exceptions) because corporate buyers are both spoiled for choice and frankly can’t tell the difference most of the time. Those that can are served by long-standing relationships with existing photographers.

What does this mean? ‘Professionals’ are usually scratching a living and unable to have the freedom to develop and improve because that requires time and money; they’re short of the former because they need to do more jobs to get enough of the latter. ‘Amateurs’ have all of the equipment, for the most part act outwardly like professionals, but when the crunch hits, usually can’t quite deliver. The people who are truly pushing are either those aforementioned professionals with long-standing commercial relationships – think Annie Leibowitz and the like – or serious amateurs whose living costs are supported by a day job. I know for a fact that almost all of my professional photography friends do not make a living from selling pictures or photo work. Think about this for a minute: if professional photographers aren’t valued, who’s going to drive the image creation of the future? How are companies going to find the ever-better visual content demanded but not support the people they rely on to create it? I don’t think they’ve given any thought to that; bottom lines are all that matters.

I’m not complaining; far from it. The shift in photography market dynamics has opened up other opportunities that would have been previously unsustainable or commercially unworkable. But the reality for me is that I have to choose between my passion and my day job – which is both mutually exclusive, and nowhere near a fair contest.

Maintaining this blog – creating articles, photographing and keeping myself up to date and pushing the envelope to deliver content that you’d want to read – takes time. A lot of it. Somewhere in the region of 20-30 hours per week, actually – that’s almost a full time job in itself. Actually, it is a full time job if you think about how much more productive you are when you both don’t have to take breaks and can produce everything by yourself – and the topic is something you’re an expert on.

At some point, I’m going to have to decide which path I take going forward – I no longer have the time or ability to maintain both. It’s a tough choice, though – because one path is nothing but uncertainty (except perhaps certain poverty) and the other is the diametric opposite of anything creative. I suppose everybody who is intensely passionate about something, and that something is not their day job, faces this dilemma eventually. What I wonder is how many people regret not trying – and how many people try, but never manage to make it work and just give up eventually. Society likes to talk about determination leading to success – but we also call people fools who try repeatedly but never succeed.

So I’m going to do three things now:

1. Ask for your opinions and thoughts – please leave a comment on this post

2. Ask you to share – use the social media buttons; email links to articles you like; link my blog. (It’s still ad free, and in order to keep it that way I need to traffic to try out some of the other exciting ideas I have planned – which can only work if I have a big enough readership).

3. Shamelessly, if you’ve enjoyed reading or viewing or have learned something, please consider a donation via PayPal (mingthein@gmail.com) – however large or small, it does help me to continue providing content and art for you all to enjoy. It’s not just the time cost; there are hosting costs, equipment costs, travel costs…the list goes on. The more resources I have, the better content I can create.

Finally – thank you all for your continued support! MT

Comments

  1. Glad you took the jump Ming! As I read this almost a year from the date you last responded, I am thinking you already have noticed that this was the better choice. :) Appreciate your very honest expose. Do remind yourself that this is more of an art than anything and of course, one can practice a lot, but some gifted ones are just that, gifted ones and you are one of them. It would have been an utter shame if you had stopped shooting and blogging. Please continue doing the great work you do.

  2. Hi Ming Thein,

    I don’t really have any suggestions for you, as I’m wondering about the same questions myself. All I can say is that as a tech journalist, a camera reviewer and someone who loves photography, you give me the impression of someone who really knows his stuff, both in technique and craft, and can honestly deliver the goods. I used to run a ‘pro-blog’ for about three years myself and it ate up a lot of my time, so I understand the challenges you’re facing. But with your wealth of knowledge and ability to write, I just feel it would be a shame if you stopped shooting and sharing.

    All the best.

    • I took the jump at the end of last month. It got to the point where April and May became so busy/ booked that I’d have to cancel a lot of work if I didn’t resign. However, I’m not seeing anything new past mid May, so the pipeline needs some work. I hope it’s not just a temporary anomaly.

      Why did you stop writing?

      • I’m still writing, just not on that blog I used to run – it was a mix of my interests and life situations changing. Right now I write on a tech website for my full-time job and have a personal blog where I write for fun.

        Good for you – I do hope your jump works out well for you. I have quite a few friends who run their own businesses, and there are always ups and downs, but most of them tell me they have never regretted it.

  3. socaltyger says:

    I just found your blog today via the D800 review. I’ve spent the last few hours reading your posts and have really enjoyed them. I hope you continue this passion of yours. I too was at a crossroad myself between the safe corporate career of 10years and chasing this passion of photography. I’ve chosen the path of the starving artist route lol. It is a financial change of lifestyle and a short term sacrifice, but I am immensely enjoying the discovery that comes with it. =)

    I hope you continue to share your passion with all of us. I’ll do my part and share your insightful reviews on my social network.

    • Thank you for your support! Glad to hear I’m not alone – and that it’s working out for you. Some recent events have pretty much helped me to make up my mind…all will be revealed soon. Regardless, I’m very much enjoying writing regularly again and interacting with the photography world at large – so please keep coming back! :)

  4. Thank you for the explanation, Alan.

  5. Hilmar ('- Hilmo -' on flickr) says:

    Alan, did you start a new job as a photographer or did you stay in the same business you had been working in before?

    • alan cheong says:

      Hi Hilmar, I was trained as an accountant and was a CFO when I quit. Then I went into e-commerce. I am still a toddler in photography

  6. alan cheong says:

    Here’s my 2 cents worth (opinion is such cheap commodity because everyone has loads of supply and simply no demand)

    I used to work in the corporate world for more than 10 years. My goal was to climb the corporate ladder …there must be a pot of gold up there. Along the way, the salary paid for the mortgage, the car, simple luxuries but nothing really fancy. a safe path but hardly exciting. fast forward, i reached the 2nd highest rung of the ladder and to my disappointment, there’s no pot of gold there. there was more responsibility and more stress.

    Due to a strange turn of events, I was unemployed for 9 months. I toyed with the idea of doing something I like rather than looking for another job. Firstly I seek out where the money is in the field that i was going to and once i saw where the money was, i just went for it. now i ended up doing what i like and have been well rewarded for it (sometimes in a month i make what i used to earn in 3 years as a salaried worker). the first half year was tough. i had to take risks i wasn’t accustomed to as an employee. i burned my midnight oil and have paid my dues and i was focused, determined and persistent. i came to a bridge and had to ask myself… am i going forward? or am i turning back? looking back, i was glad i crossed the bridge and didn’t turn back.

    someone once told me, when you seem to be lost or at a cross road, it’s because you don’t have a goal. you don’t know what you really want and you don’t know where you want to go. If you know where you are going, then you are not lost.

    here’s some pointers –
    1. passion alone is not going to feed you. money does. so you need to seek where the money is in photography (seek and you shall find). Once you found it, just go for it. Are there well to do photogs? how did they do it? what do they do? is the sum of money you are looking at, worth it?

    2. you get what you focus on. if you think about the difficulties, the competition, the undeserving photogs who are making money… then that’s what you get. focusing on those will not make you money but confuses and discourages you. focus on what will make you $$$$ and stop worrying about the rest.

    3. eventually, the most essential skill that will make you money is the ability to sell….to sell yourself, your service, your photos, your workshops etc. so it makes sense to spend some time in improving that skill.

    I see you have 2 outstanding talent. The ability to express yourself well and the ability to make excellent pictures. If you only had either of those, you would have been successful. But since you have both, now it’s much easier. It not a question of whether success can happen but whether you can believe it can happen. As for me, I believed.

    • Hi Alan,

      Thank you very much for sharing your story – #2 and #3 are great tips. I’ve always been risk averse…that’s the hump I need to get over. Not passion, not figuring out where to make money, not finding a niche. It’ll come. Thanks again!

  7. Steve Wilson says:

    Like most people, I chose the day job. I have never regretted it, but I think it also depends on what exactly your day job is. If it is a boring dead-end, then for me, at least, I can’t do it no matter how much it pays. But if it gives you something to learn and grow with over the years and is interesting, then it can be very rewarding.

    I love photography and it is a serious passion for me, but I also have the fear that if I am spending all my time doing photography for others rather than for myself I may lose this passion and it will become “work”.

    Ultimately, I think it is a question of how unappealing and unrewarding the non-photographic job opportunities are.

    • Thanks for the insight. I’d say the answer is pretty unappealing. I’ve had a decent run in the corporate world, and am in the top strata, but I just don’t see myself in any of the positions long term – higher up, laterally or otherwise. Creativity is not encouraged (in fact, actively discouraged). At least with the photographic opportunities you can start by taking everything that comes your way, and gradually move to picking only the jobs you want to do. Or maybe I’m deluding myself.

  8. Hilmar, it was a combination of factors i suppose, just like any good success story is.

    Patience, perseverance, hard work, sacrifices, friends and family who would help him out when he was desperate. It wasn’t easy, i’m sure. In fact, of his original partners, i think only one fellow still remains on the job.

    From what i gather, photo pros of his ilk — the events type rather than the PJ or reportage type — rely heavily on word of mouth for referrals. He gets one job right, a few wedding or corporate canvasses hanging on the right walls that catch the right eye, then people inquire, “Who did this? can i have his number?” and it all snowballs from there.

    Not everyone is going to make it, but invariably some do.

  9. John W. Ishii says:

    I have been a photo journalist for many years working for AFP, AP, Wall Street Journal etc. As a REAL photojournalist I know the definition of a photojournalist and its a title to be earned not taken simply. Its sad that in Malaysia wedding photographers and travel photographers have taken our profession and have bastardized it. Unless you have your work published in international periodicals one can not be considered a photojournalist. Local news paper photographers are more or less camera men taking simple snappy’s.
    The point is your right that there are so many hacks out there especially in Malaysia that simply taking a half 6 workshop or watching Youtube is going make you a pro shooter. So called wedding photojournalist is a absolute JOKE! There is no wedding that’s news worthy that going to make the front page of any news paper unless somebody dies or its a celeb. Guys going out taking shots in Bukit Bingtang are now called Street Photographers, what the hell is that? And then charge RM1400 to show you how! Just because you gotta Leica makes you a so called street photographer bullshit on that.
    Your not a photojournalist un less you have front cover published images in leading news media period.
    So here’s my suggestion, get out of the business and do something that makes $$$ and this is my opinion only not an argument. Let the pro’s do the photojournalism.

    • Thanks for your thoughts – I’m honored to have a big name like you comment on my humble site. I agree with you; it’s quite pathetic what passes for editorial grade here: perhaps it’s because people do not pay to be shown bad things. And weddings aren’t newsworthy; it should be called ‘documentary style’ or something rather than wedding PJ.

      On the other hand, I don’t believe all is dead commercially in the photography space. Hobbyists still want to learn, and they need good teachers. Commercial product work still has to be done, and it’s ongoing; do I think PJ makes money? No. I tried, and did shoot freelance for newspapers and agencies in the UK. Photography these days is much more than images. The question becomes ultimately what mix of diversity one needs to make a living out of it. MT

  10. Ming, very interesting thoughts. I absolutely agree that you have to make a decision and can’t do both jobs. Aizuddin Danian, after reading your very interesting story I’m wondering how your cousin managed to be successful eventually. Can you please explain?

  11. Great post. I totally understand where you are, being in a very similar situation right now. I’ll never understand why many people’s most valuable work doesn’t get paid, while they get paid for mediocre boring work (e.g. the great photographer who must flip burgers to make ends meet). It’s a tragedy. Everybody loves beautiful pictures, but nobody wants to pay photographers; meanwhile the bankers who crashed the world’s economy are paid millions. It makes no sense.

    • Thank you. I think it’s because the work you consider valuable is also very personal…and since art is subject to interpretation, not everybody’s idea of value is going to be the same. I totally agree on your last point. The trouble is that because it’s difficult to put a value on creativity, nobody does it – yet outright thievery and incompetence are tied to the equity markets, and seemingly everybody and his dog these days has some opinion on stock picks.

  12. Mike Hohman says:

    Perhaps you have already done so, but if not, have a read through Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. It’s only an hour or two of your time. And don’t forget, you’ve got to be you. Be true to yourself.

    Looking forward to watching the Ming story unfold, however it goes…

  13. Though I found this site quite recently, I would be sad not to see your pictures and read your thoughts in the future as well. I hope you’ll find a balance between the day job and your passion. (My G+ and Twitter followers see this as well. :) )

    • Thank you, Olli. I think once you reach a certain stage of day job, there really isn’t much time to do anything else with much seriousness. And I’ve reached that fork in the road…

  14. To answer your question, i’ll share with you a story, a true one, close to me because it involves family, and about photography.

    My cousin is a really smart guy. Scholarship offers for university allowed him the choice of any place in the world. He took one, studied well and came back with a spanking shiny degree. But he told his parents, he wanted to open a photo studio. His parents weren’t too happy and wondered if he would make a living. Their arguments mirrored the ones you made above. He persisted, and strung together a few friends and opened his business.

    He became the photographic equivalent of a swiss-army knife. He did events, weddings, corporates. He did portfolio stuff. He did stock. He struggled, partially because he wasn’t very good, couldn’t sell very well (shy boy), and charged a pittance because he felt guilty (!!!!) asking for more. He and his crew did my wedding 3 odd years ago. 3 days of full day shooting + video + post-processing and only charged RM1.5k. I got 3 high-grade photobooks, a couple of large wall canvasses and a DVD with all photos and a 10 minute wedding video. Where he got his margins from, i don’t know. I asked him later about it, he said it’s because its a dog eat dog world in the business with non-existent margins; some full time photogs he knows flip burgers at a Ramli stall by night to make ends meet.

    You can probably tell how this story is headed by now. 3 years on and tons of struggle later, he is still at it, and doing quite well by the looks of things. His studio has grown (a shop lot), B-grade celebrities visit him for their portfolios, he doesn’t have to charge RM1.5k anymore for wedding shoots due to his reputation, and he has done some pretty fun stuff recently including scuba theme weddings with underwater shooting. He travels the world now for pre-wedding shoots (it’s all the rage now), he recently got married, has his own house, a kid, etc etc etc.

    I would hesitate to read your crystal ball, Ming. But what you’re able to do now is a far cry from what my cousin could do when he started; he was far less capable than you (and honestly, still is, comparing his images with yours), skill and experience wise, but he took the plunge anyways (despite having options).

    I think the message is “to take a plunge”, that “leap of faith” is not something you can plan for with great detail. You want to decide: to take the safe route but boring route or to take the unsafe but creative/interesting/passion route. Neither choice is bad, honestly.

    I know that doesn’t help much but consider this — if you are passionate about something, you can always make things work out with a little bit of elbow grease and an empty tummy a few nights a week. And once things work out, then life becomes a buffet.

    • Thanks for the advice and the story, buddy. It seems that if you care enough about anything, and you’re willing to put in the hard work – then a little faith might well be all it takes to see it through. I still haven’t made a decision, but I’m going to have to – and pretty darn soon. I suppose at the end of the day, you only get one life. And regrets aren’t things you can change later.

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