Turning pro: Six months in

Well, give or take a week or so, at any rate. As those of you who’ve been reading this site from the beginning know, I’d made the decision to be a full time photography/ creative professional sometime back in 2005; I subsequently spent the next seven years building up the courage to do it. In addition to sharing my knowledge, creating something a serious thinking photographer might like to read, and connecting with the global photographic community in general, a good portion of the objective of this site was to chronicle my journey as a photographer for others thinking of following the same path, or those who might like to live a little vicariously. This is where things like the On Assignment series of posts come into play.

It was pretty clear to me that to make things work – i.e. be able to pay the bills – I’d have to spread myself around a bit, and work on the logic of ‘a bit from many places’. Despite what it might appear, this site has not been my primary focus, and can never be; it’s simply impossible for me to write from the perspective I do if I’m not a photographer first and a blogger second. This means that whilst I’ll try to accommodate requests for gear reviews, particular topics etc – it might be a while before they hit the internet because I have to find time to do them, and find a slot in the posting schedule to put them up. Reviews of equipment are limited to what I can get loaned to me (if I think it’s worthwhile evaluating, i.e. I may consider buying it because as a tool, it does something my current gear does not) or what I buy in the course of my work. I’m not going to start reviewing Canon gear, for instance, because it simply does not make sense from a workflow point of view. By the time I get up to speed with it, I’ll have invested a huge amount of time, effort and money, and still not be as good as the established users out there.

I also don’t write daily, though thanks to the wonders of scheduled posting, you do get new content every day. That’s because I don’t have a fixed chunk of time every day, and writing – like any other creative pursuit – comes in fits and starts. I might do six articles in one particularly productive day, then nothing for a week. And yes, like a magazine, I have an editorial schedule and I also make sure I don’t repeat myself or cover something from the same angle somebody else has already done. (When you actually read this, I’ll be in Japan doing the pre-workshop reccie before I start teaching tomorrow.)

On the whole though, it’s been pretty exciting. And time has flown by. Yes, there have been boring moments, slightly bleak moments where the pipeline looks empty and the crystal ball cloudy – I’ve since come to realize that’s normal for every creative – on the whole, I’ve had a ball of a time. Even the people around me say I’m much smilier than when I worked for the man. Right now I’m just grateful that I can wake up in the morning, do something I enjoy, and make a living in the process. I don’t know how long this will continue, given the current state of the creative industry – especially in Malaysia – but I suppose it makes one appreciate it all the more.

I also want to say a big thank you to my supporters and readers; without you, I wouldn’t have written, or continue to write, and in the process push my thinking, understanding and experimentation even further; so in a way, giving back has helped me to grow creatively. Thank you also to my students of the Email School, workshop participants, DVD supporters and downloaders – what you contribute in reality isn’t money, but the freedom of time to enable me to create.

In true post-consulting style, I’ve also prepared a little dissection and analysis. MT

Things that worked out like I planned

  • Commercial work around my areas of specialization – watches, food, architecture.
  • Teaching and teaching-related activities have formed a nontrivial chunk of my income.
  • People like to read gear reviews.
  • I’m happier.
  • …and that’s about it.

Things that didn’t

  • The local market here for photography is tough: both very price sensitive, and quality-indifferent.
  • I’m not doing as much architecture, food and watch work as I thought; the commercial-type stuff has been getting more and more prevalent.
  • Payment collection is absolutely terrible, and difficult. The larger the company, the slower and more difficult.
  • I miss photojournalism.
  • The traffic volumes I have now. That said, I think I’ve reached a natural barrier: my audience is pretty specific, and definitely your more serious sort of photographer; I don’t know how many of them are out there worldwide, speak English, and would be interested in reading what I’ve written.
  • A lot of the smaller companies in the US and Europe who make interesting specialist gear have no interest in having their stuff reviewed, even if you are pushing a serious amount of traffic through their target markets (about 60% of my readers). I didn’t even get a reply from a lot of the companies I emailed – this is both rather disappointing and shortsighted on their part.

Things I completely didn’t expect

  • The friendliness, openness and civility of the international photo community. I’ve made a lot of great friends in the course of both working professionally and running the site, and it’s completely different to what the DPReview forums might have you expecting.
  • I’m working far longer hours than when I had an office – and I thought that was bad. These days, 14-16 hour days are normal. 7 days a week. But you know what, it doesn’t feel like work half the time.
  • Sometimes saying no to a bad client is the right thing to do. It feels odd at first to walk away from a job you have the capacity to do, but avoiding pain and having that veto power and control was one of the things I wanted over corporate. So I’d better learnt to make the most of it, I suppose. Happiness is now achievable.
  • Shooting full time for work doesn’t make you more creative. When there are clients on the line, unless they’re very, very good clients, you tend to be more conservative, if anything. This tends to limit the quality of your output somewhat. It’s tough to be creative on demand. And to make things worse, you don’t always feel like going out to do your own personal work afterwards – I almost have to force myself on some days. It’s not always easy to find inspiration for articles, or material for reviews. I think I’ve exhausted all of the places to shoot in Kuala Lumpur.
  • I didn’t think there’d be that many people interested in my Photoshop workflow…

Where to next?

  • I think the biggest change will be for me professionally: I need to differentiate myself from other offerings by going beyond photography into other creative spaces like video, design, copywriting, branding, layout etc – these are things I already do, but not in a widely publicized way. And I think having a consistent feel to all of your creative work is definitely a big value add for any potential client. Plus, it of course diversifies my income streams.
  • There’s an iPad app in the works. Not only will it feature some brand new content specific to the platform, but it will also let you read your favorite blog daily and search the archives in a much more meaningful way. And to go with it, there will be small video tutorial segments along with ‘request an answer’ type functionality – no more waiting for DVDs in the mail!
  • At the first year anniversary of this site, I plan to collate and publish the more interesting and time-independent posts into an ebook. I notice that a lot of questions asked have already been answered in detail in other posts, which says to me either people are lazy, or my indexing is rubbish – probably the latter. Plus it’s a shame to go to all that effort and just have things lost in the ether. According to WordPress, there’s over 400 posts and 600,000 words of content on the site – that’s the equivalent of three or four thick paperback books. I might even print a few if the demand is there.
  • I will continue to remain brand agnostic – using the best tool for the job – but in the interests of full disclosure, I have and will continue to work with Leica, Olympus, Shriro (Carl Zeiss, Profoto and Gitzo) and several other local partners.
  • Trying to figure out a better search/ indexing feature for the site.
  • More workshops! This time, I’ll go where you want me to, not where I think might be interesting. Big difference.

____________

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

Comments

  1. Keep it up man, you’re an inspiration for the rest of us who wish they had the stones to chuck our jobs and dive in full-time!

  2. Ming. It’s very inspiring to read your thoughts about this adventure of yours. I found your site because of the (great) RX100 review so I guess it’s good to post reviews every now and then even if it’s not the main purpose of the blog. I found a world of fabulous pictures that I visit every day. I do understand why people are interested in your workflow. You are so meticulous and so many of your images have a certain pop or mood to them. I have now purchased the RX100 and it’s obvious that you have put in many hours on some pictures because OOC they look nothing like yours.

    • Thanks Eddie – yes, the reviews drive traffic, but I don’t enjoy doing them so much because they take away from the purpose of the site – and there are a million other sites doing reviews.

      That’s the myth: I don’t spend hours on a picture unless it’s a commercial product shot and has to be pixel perfect. I spend at most two or three minutes; frequently even less than that. It’s all in the workflow – perhaps you need one of my Photoshop workflow DVDs? :)

      • I said some, not all. I love how on one of your pictures (don’t remember which) someone commented along the lines of “The image really pops with insanelyexpensivecamera and insanelyexpensivelens” and you basically answered “it’s because I spent the time”.

        I could definitely have use for the DVD. But if I put any more free time into photography my wife will kill me. It’s easier spending time at work on your site, hehe.

        • Haha – well, at web sizes – anything shot and processed with a degree of care will look good. Perhaps I should stop captioning the images with the camera used :)

          And I know the feeling…

  3. Congrats on 6 months Ming!

    Here’s a question for you: where do you go for creative inspiration, when you need to “sharpen the saw?”

  4. Jorge Balarin says:

    Hi Ming !

    It is nice to know that you are happy and enjoying your life as a photographer. Best wishes, Jorge.

  5. Ming –
    I would like to reiterate most of what greycoopers wrote, although you strike me as the sort of man who knows how to pace himself such that burnout will not enter into the equation.
    Thanks so much for your efforts and education. They are much appreciated.
    Joe

    • Thanks Joe. I’ll stop when it stops being interesting to me – so far, I’ve been shooting and writing for the better part of 11 years. Still going strong, and I feel I can still go further…

  6. Well I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your musings over the last 6 months and been more interested in your articles than your gear reviews :) . It does not surprise me that in some ways your are being stifled for creativity with client work. Also that you have to diversify into a broader role than simply photography is also not surprising and necessary to survive i think…..

    Hopefully still in a good position in 6 months, though i see teaching really becoming important to survive….

    • Phew, somebody out there reads the other stuff! :D

      There are definitely down periods for commercial work. I have a few regular clients, but I do need to find other ways to balance things out. And I enjoy teaching, which is a bonus :)

  7. The e-book work can be lucrative. It will take a while to grow it and some up-front money to set it up correctly; however, as you add more quality e-books it will turn into a growing income stream. Check out what Dave duChemin has done. You have your own writing style and approach to photography that has already attracted many of us. There are people around who can help you use social media to expand your customer base. You might also explore hooking up with some of the brick-and-mortar publishing companies for longer books, like New Riders or Peachpit.

    Above all, do not underestimate yourself. You have a natural affinity for connecting with your audience through your writing. That’s rare. And even more important, you actually have something to say.

  8. Great blog and nice to see that it worked for you.

    It’s weird that some companies still spend thousands of dollars for print advertising but are so reserved when a blog asks to review one of their products. The common customer will barely notice an advertising in a magazine, but he’ll be interested in a product that he reads about on a blog written by a person he trusts and respects. Companies still doesn’t seem to realize this opportunity.

    What you say about payments of big companies is so true. I’ve worked fifteen years ago here in Germany in a photostudio and it was the same. We had families who couldn’t effort to pay their child or wedding shooting at once so we offered them to pay it after in rates – without any contract … just based on trust. Most of them never disapointed us. When they couldn’t pay one month they felt very sorry and it was no problem for us since we knew they would do next month.
    But companies on the other side, even some of the biggest in the world or some government related never cared about paying. We had to contact and write them for months until we got the money – it’s horrible. But never dare to don’t pay those on date…then you’ve a lawyer in your neck within days.

    • Thanks Leif. Yes, it’s weird and sad – but hopefully this will change in time. Some companies realize it, some don’t. I have enough to do not to have to bother with the ones that don’t (and oddly these tend to be a lot of the smaller, internet-only businesses – go figure.)

      I’m pretty sure big companies survive on free ‘borrowed’ credit from the little people. We just have to make sure we’re liquid else it’s too easy to go under waiting for three months for payment…one of the few good things about wedding photography (and individual private clients), I suppose.

  9. I don’t know how you do it Ming, all the writing, all the photographing, all the working, all the post-processing and all the rest… Plain amazing! Keep on doing what you love doing, and all the pieces will fall into their places. Chapeau!

  10. Hi Ming and congratulations on your milestone!
    Your blog is one of my staple go-to reads every day, thank you so much for sharing.
    I do have one request though. You images are stunning and, personally, I would like a little more information below each one in addition to camera and lens. In particular, shutter speed, aperture and iso. That information can teach us a lot about how you shoot particular images and why they come out so well. Would you consider adding this to your images?
    Many thanks once more.

  11. Your blog is the first thing I look at each morning, it is that good! It is such a pleasure to read.

  12. What I like most about your site.

    Your clarity and honesty in discussing cameras and lenses and your willingness to share your professional and personal photography with us. The number and variety of photographs you present. The watches – much macro photography focuses on insects and plants but few photographers take us into a quite different realm.

    I think you are very wise to focus on the equipment that you use and how you use it.

    You write for people who take photographs and present a much better balance of words and pictures. Some sites talk well but we are photographers first and seeing is often more important for our understanding. I read carefully but the combination of words and pictures works better for me and I imagine most of your readers/viewers

    Stay brand agnostic. I believe many people these days will have more than one system available to them that they will use in different situations. However as my eyesight continues its decline I doubt I will find too much time for manual lenses despite the quality of pictures I have managed to take with Zeiss lenses.

    I certainly think you should follow the eBook path. I, like many others, I imagine find it very convenient to pay and download a variety of books on a variety of topics which I keep on my laptop and refer to when I am out in the field.

    In terms of workshops, go where you think is interesting too for you should also be stimulating your own creativity. If you are happy, enjoying what you are doing then our experience as readers will continue to grow.

    Thank you for a continually interesting and stimulating website.

  13. My tablet and PC home page is blog.mingthein.com !
    Not a day goes by without a read… Your articles stimulate the mind and make me think about shooting, workflow and post-processing. Really, congrats on the great work and being true to what you believe.

    One sidepoint – If you are considering an iOS app, please can you consider one or Android as well.

  14. First of all let me say congratulations; within just a few weeks your website made it into my RSS feed and is now almost daily reading for me. I love your photos; I am impressed by the balance you strike between discussing the technology and the actual benefit in using it in your reviews (not many people can do that); and I also enjoy the information on methods, technique etc. Well photographed, well written, well thought-out, with a clear and very effective layout your website is both useful and entertaining. I wish you even more success over the next half year.

    What I would find very useful though is a better way of accessing information. Because of all the photos the front page can take a while to load, as do the other pages. If I wanted to find a review that means waiting a few seconds for the front page, clicking on “Reviews” and then waiting a few more seconds, only to then get the full articles of the recent reviews, which again take a while to browse. A better search feature alone will not address this as it would only help when you know exactly what you are looking for. So my suggestion would be to switch many of the “overview” pages to a shorter list of article teasers in the first instance and then perhaps consider creating browseable/searchable lists, for instance using faceted browsing or similar. There is already such a wealth of information here it can be difficult to find what you are looking for and I am sure I will have missed loads. Should you ever want a usability tester or more suggestions, let me know as I have some experience in this area.

    Anyway, congrats again – I look forward to the next six months and beyond!
    Torsten

    • Thanks Torsten!

      I too would love a better search feature, but I’m limited to what wordpress gives me – which is rubbish. Working on the indexing – it looks like I might just have to create a master list of all post at some point.

      As for the main page – I’m happy with the way it is because it puts the latest stuff front and center – what I wish I could get the damn thing to do was just display one image and say 200 words – again, it appears to be a wordpress limitation, rather annoyingly. Sorry about that!

  15. Richard T says:

    Congrats on your success Ming! Like many others, I too thought you’d been around much longer. Only in recent weeks I suddenly noticed a bunch of links/recommendations to your site. Ever since you’re site has been in my RSS feed, thanks for all the efforts you’re putting in.

    • Haha, I think it’s too early to call it success yet, but I’m still here – so it’s all good so far.

      I’ve been photographing much longer, but only writing seriously online for six months. There was a brief, abortive blog around 2009, and I was editor/ writer for a local photography magazine from 2005-2010, but I don’t think that made it out of Malaysia.

  16. I come by your site every day and I really enjoy the work you put in!

  17. alan cheong says:

    Price sensitivity is pure economics. If you live in Malaysia, you earn Ringgit and you spend Ringgit. Same applies to the other countries. If you start charging US dollars to a Brit or European, your prices may seem a tad cheap but it will be “totally out of range” for a South East Asian (Hongkies and Japs are excluded due to their high cost of living). In Rome, do what the romans do, means you charge US$ in the USA and Malaysian Ringgit (not the equivalent to the US$) when it’s conducted in Malaysia. If you find the currency too low, it’s not your customers fault but whoever the head honcho who decides on the exchange rates. There is a price range for every country and every segment. If you sell at Bentley’s price, you cannot expect to move Ford quantities.

    • Not true at all: people are happy to pay the same absolute amount for equipment, but not for education. If you want world-class education, you should be willing to pay for it else it isn’t fair value to the provider. I’m happy to work elsewhere (and do) if I’m not valued in my own country. It’s not about moving volume, this isn’t a scale business; it’s about finding people to work with who appreciate your skill.

      • alan cheong says:

        There is a big difference between “goods price” and “services price”. Goods (physical items) prices are “about the same” but are affected by taxes. Services prices are very dependent on the currency. For a example, a plumber may charge you US$100 for a job in the USA but a plumber in Malaysia certainly won’t charge you RM320 (US$100 X 3.2) for the same job in Malaysia. Of course, you may decide you still want to charge RM320 (whilst the market rate is RM100) but the number of customers willing to pay that is far fewer (Bentley prices, Bentley volume). So by charging premium prices and to conclude that “The local market here for photography is tough: both very price sensitive, and quality-indifferent.” may possibly be the wrong conclusion.

        Even for physical goods, there are still variations in prices. Check out the Big Mac prices in US, Malaysia, China & Indonesia. (http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/eco_big_mac_ind-economy-big-mac-index) McDonalds would never say “if you want world class food, you have to pay for it” to consumers in those countries. But it’s probably the wrong item to compare a Big Mac to a Bentley.

        • Yes, but my tools cost the same regardless of where I live – a D4 in KL costs what a D4 in the USA does. I’m qualified at an international level, so I serve international clients. If the locals either don’t want or recognize that, I’ll go elsewhere – supply and demand.

          And you’re talking to the wrong person about Big Macs, I was a Senior Director at McD Malaysia immediately before turning pro. :)

  18. I had no idea you were just 6 months old as a pro! Your work is great so I assumed you mus’ve been a photographer since 1988 or something.

    I found your website through the D600 review, so gear reviews are a big part of attracting new readers. Doing a Canon 6D and next-gen Leica M review before other websites might be another window for you.

    Your 400 articles are a little too much to wade through. If you create a page and list them in intermediate/advanced categories and subjects like lighting /composition/color that will make it easier for new readers to find what they want (I had to accomplish this by scanning through dozens of pages on your blog). Tags don’t seem to work too well.

    • Great Job! Photos are amazing and blog is awesome!!!

    • 6 months as a full time pro. I’ve been shooting paid assignments on and off (time permitting) for the last eight years. So I’m not exactly a newbie at this.

      I only review what I use, because I have to buy almost all of it, and I don’t have time to do otherwise (and frankly, gear is just gear – it’s the sack of meat behind the camera that makes the difference). Canon in my country isn’t particularly pleasant to deal with, and their system doesn’t work for me – so that one’s out.

      Leica M should be before the end of October, I believe.

  19. Congratulations on a significant milestone. The web is awash with mediocre output, much of it a regurgitation of the same material doing the rounds. So it is very gratifying to wake up each day to a fresh original post from you – though I worry that your prodigious output might cause you to burn out. Thank you for your well balanced and considered writing, and for producing “the thinking man’s photo-blog”. Wishing you every success in the future.

    • Thanks! Don’t worry, once I run low on time or material, I’ll have no choice but to cut back to a slightly less frequent schedule – reality is that paying work has to come first, the site comes second.

  20. Ming just 6 months in you’ve made an impact and have become a ‘name’ in the online photo community. Your production and work ethic is amazing I don’t know when you find time to sleep. I’m looking forward to doing a workshop and meeting you when you come to San Francisco.

    • I’m not sure about that, John – but thanks for the compliments all the same.

      Sleep? Pah. You don’t need that with a coffee IV…but stabilizers become critical :P

  21. i agree with joseph!

  22. Hi Ming Thein,

    I’m a big fan of your work, and I’m glad things have turned out well – amazing that you had the courage to go professional! Here’s wishing you all the best in the future!

    Here’s hoping you give a workshop in Singapore in the future. I’d love to attend.

    • Thanks – Singapore is a possibility but not high on the priority list as there wasn’t a lot of demand for the reader meetups (or in the ‘where to next’ poll) – it seems that people in this part of the world would rather spend their money on gear than education :)

      • Aww, maybe I’ll have to make a trip up to KL then!

        But yes, I do agree that the obsession generally is gear over technique. Which is rather sad – although I must confess to be guilty of gearlust rather often!

        • Well, I’ll be teaching in Europe/ USA next year too, so I might be able to come closer to you.

          Gear is fun but it’s a tool. I might enjoy writing more with a nice pen, but fundamentally it doesn’t change what I have to say from if I use a biro.

  23. Shubh Mohan says:

    I think you are doing a great job. Keep it up.

  24. You are doing a GREAT job!
    Keep it up!
    We really appreciate your input.
    Joseph

Trackbacks

  1. [...] post about turning pro six months in. I have no desire to be a “pro” photographer reliant on pleasing clients; I already do [...]

  2. [...] Well, give or take a week or so, at any rate. As those of you who’ve been reading this site from the beginning know, I’d made the decision to be a full time photography/ creative professional sometime back in 2005; I subsequently spent the next seven years building up the courage to do it. In addition to sharing my knowledge, creating something a serious thinking photographer might like to read, and connecting with the global photographic community in general, a good portion of the objective of this site was to chronicle my journey as a photographer for others thinking of following the same path, or those who might like to live a little vicariously. This is where things like the On Assignment series of posts come into play.  [...]

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