Photographic aspirations, part two: reality, and getting there

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Light at the end of the tunnel: but it’s a long climb, and are you going up, or down?

Reality often isn’t as glamorous as the dream.

In the first part of this essay, we explored the dissonance between the photographer we are, the photographer we think we want to be, and the photographer we actually want to be; today, we’ll wrap up by looking at how you can get there.

Before actually getting there and experiencing the destination, it’s nearly impossible to say whether you’ll actually like it or not; worse if the destination is something individual – like a career, or a particular lifestyle, somewhere few or no people have ever been, or something full of lies and myths like being a Hollywood superstar. Not being one of those Hollywood superstar types, all I can say is that if you really want something badly enough, there’s almost always some way to get it – legitimate or not. (We are of course going to discuss only legitimate means of achieving goals here.) If decide you cannot live without that shiny new Superflex Pro-200 and f1.0 zoom, then you’d probably be willing to subsist on nothing but ramen for a year, sell your car and timeshare out your cat.

Personally, what I did know was that I didn’t like being a corporate type, and I needed to do something creative. Whether that was photograph, something else or some combination thereof would be impossible to say until I actually tried it. The trouble is, the more you experience, it also seems the less you know. I was convinced this industry was straightforward back when I first tried to turn pro in 2005; I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong. By the time Attempt Number Four rolled around last year, I was seriously starting to question the long-term viability of the whole thing. But at this point, I was so invested into this – mainly in terms of turning my back on my previous career (at least in this country, which is a very small place at the top) in a very permanent way, that I had – and still have – no choice but to make it work.

In reality, this means turning over every stone, knocking on every door, taking every opportunity even if you know it’s unlikely anything will come of it, and eating humble pie; because if you don’t, you might well kick yourself for it later. The trouble is hindsight is 20/20, and foresight is pretty much blind. It means working a lot harder than you think you ever could (let alone did in the past) and still going to bed at night questioning whether you did enough to try to secure that job or deliver that pitch or follow up on that lead. With some time and experience, I’ve developed a much better sense of what will fly and what will turn out to be a waste of time, but even so, it’s a lot of effort. Some things work, some things don’t. Take this site for instance: it was born because I felt I needed a bigger online presence to give my professional work credibility. Turns out it’s taken on a life of its own.

Without turning this into a motivational essay, there are a few things I’ve found worked for me – perhaps the will help you in some way, too. And of course it applies to anything, even outside photography.

  • Be clear about your end goal.
  • Before you start doing anything, spend some time thinking and planning; common sense isn’t common.
  • Break big things down into small pieces. This way, no task seems too impossible or massive.
  • Be systematic: sometimes the key to making something work is small and easily missed.
  • Do everything you possibly can; and try it again if the first outcome isn’t clear.
  • Timing matters.
  • Start while the enthusiasm is high: it’ll often carry you through the tough bits. Maintaining it can be tough, so make the most of it.
  • What doesn’t work gives you information: look past the failure and formulate a new plan of attack.
  • Keep trying: society is what I like to think of as double-damning: if you try 99 times, fail, then die or give up, you’re an idiot who never knew when to quit. If you succeed on the 100th attempt, that’s determination and hard work. Before you give up, make sure you know you’ve done absolutely everything you possibly can.
  • If you find yourself asking why you’re doing something, try to remember how it fits into the grand plan: if it doesn’t, then it’s a legitimate question and you might want to stop.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The worst that can happen is the other person says no, and you’re no worse off than before.
  • It helps if you have somebody who believes in you: they don’t have to do it all the time, just long enough for you to shore up your own confidence when things aren’t quite going to plan.
  • Here’s the really controversial one: expect to fail. Plan to succeed. And don’t leave yourself a plan B: this makes it too easy to throw in the towel before you really get going.

In every single one of my previous attempts, I can identify one or more of the above list that I didn’t do. I strongly believe in the philosophy of doing something to the best of one’s ability or not at all; it’s not worth living with the ‘what-if’s’ and regrets otherwise. I don’t compromise. It’s probably not healthy, but I can say with confidence that I’ve always done the best job I’ve known how to do at the time.

Let’s bring this back into the realm of photography: for most, the goal is not to be world famous, or have your images on the cover of National Geographic, or even have books published; it’s almost always about being somewhere between stages two and three on the stages of creative evolution of a photographer. That is: you want to be able to see, and translate that into an image that’s strong enough that a viewer can see and appreciate what you saw at the time. Note how this actually doesn’t involve too much creativity: you don’t have to worry about product/ prop arrangement, lighting setups, etc. It’s often no more than preserving a moment.

To do this, we need a few things. Firstly, there’s some degree of understanding of basic photographic principles; this is what the shutter and aperture do, how various combinations of both affect output etc. in addition to understanding all of the nomenclature – in practical terms, what’s does what and what means what. This is relatively easy to pick up from various sources, and only has to be deep enough so you can move on to the second part, which is being able to control your camera. Together, these form the basis of the technical portion of photography, and can be made as simple or as complex as you like – think of it as learning how to drive. One needs to know the rules of the road, the basic laws of physics, and how to operate their vehicle. Whether it’s a moped or a Formula One car, the fundamentals don’t change that much.

All of those things are relatively easy to learn because they’re governed by simple physical rules that don’t change and have no exceptions: 1/100s is 1/100s is 1/100s. It isn’t right or wrong, it just is. If you go to f2 from f2.8, you have to double your shutter speed to maintain the same exposure. That never changes, irrespective of camera or location or photographer or film or digital. Much tougher is learning the artistic rules of the game: the trouble is, there are none; at least none that are hard and fast and universal. For every single ‘don’t do’ rule you might read in a beginner’s photography book – don’t put the subject out of focus, for instance – I can think of several examples of famous photographs that work precisely because they violate that particular rule. To some extent, the same is true when the technical affects the aesthetic – for instance, exposure is a creative choice, not a technical one. N, N+1, N-1 are all correct depending on what final effect you want to achieve.

I’m going to bring everything together now: you need to know the rules in order to break them. In order to make images that work, you need to know what you like, why you like it, and how to replicate it. And none of this is possible without practice; it’s certainly possible without guidance, but it’s a very, very long process, and requires a lot of determination and patience. My photographic technique is by and large self taught, but it’s taken me 13 years to get where I am now – I have no doubt that if I taught somebody with a moderate amount of talent and a large amount of dedication one-on-one for three months, they’d reach and surpass my skill level. If you want to shortcut the learning process, find yourself a good teacher (if you consider me a good teacher, I do have a couple of places left for the current Email School of Photography intake, and the European workshops in Sept/Oct of this year) – objective, consistent and critical feedback is the key to correcting mistakes and putting yourself in the position to ask the right kinds of questions of the creative portion of your work – but above all, keep going and don’t give up. MT

____________

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Comments

  1. I want this: “That is: you want to be able to see, and translate that into an image that’s strong enough that a viewer can see and appreciate what you saw at the time. Note how this actually doesn’t involve too much creativity: you don’t have to worry about product/ prop arrangement, lighting setups, etc. It’s often no more than preserving a moment.”

    BUT am this: “gear masturbator” and “-1 imagination”

    will this: “I do have, Email School of Photography intake” or “European workshops in Sept/Oct of this year”

    give or translate to this: “they’d reach and surpass my skill level.” ?

    • It all depends on your objectives. I can’t help you if you don’t know where you want to get to at the end :)

      • Too bad… because am really at a lost at defining them (objectives). I know I want to be able to do consistently as you put it “That is: you want to be able to see, and translate that into an image that’s strong enough that a viewer can see and appreciate what you saw at the time.” enough to part with their money in exchange for it. and am at a lost as how to achieve that.

        • Telling you what to photograph would rather defeat the point of discovering your own vision, don’t you think? I can certainly show you what I see and how I capture it – you may or may not agree with that, but at least we have a starting point – the workshops are the best forum for those. However, to develop long term, you need to at least have an idea of the kind of images you like; this way, you (or I, or somebody else) can decompose those to fundamental common properties you can use as a starting point. Not having an opinion or preference makes it impossible to make any sort of creative decision at all.

          • You are right, “Not having an opinion or preference makes it impossible to make any sort of creative decision at all.” – my predicament exactly. Thank you for the insight and for defining how to start on resolving them. Hmmm…

  2. Great, inspirational post Ming! I really enjoy your blog, Michelle

  3. David Babsky says:

    “..If you go to f2 from f2.8, you have to double your shutter speed to maintain the same exposure..” ..may I suggest “..double the period that the shutter’s open..”?

  4. andygemmell says:

    Good old demand and a persons capability to supply within their chosen photography genre, along with expectations of lifestyle will be the platform all of these points will live on. Get better at what you do, you’ll create some demand and be comfortable or even improve margins. All whilst maintaining quality.

    • ‘Better’ is quite a blanket term. Better at marketing, certainly. Better at the photographic portion – certainly, though this seems to be a lower and lower priority for closing most deals these days.

  5. Tom Liles says:

    …they’d reach and surpass my skill level.

    Mmm. This was the only line that didn’t feel right in the article. Swap “would” for “might” and it makes sense. But reaching then surpassing being an “if, then” proposition? This is too modest.

    Excellent diptych.
    [these articles]

  6. Michael Tapes Design says:

    How does he find all of these pictures :>)

  7. Michael Matthews says:

    “What doesn’t work gives you information: look past the failure and formulate a new plan of attack.”

    Precisely. Evolution does it to modify species. The approach is passive and takes forever. It sometimes leads in odd directions.

    Artillery gunners, more focused, lobbed one over, one under, calibrated the difference, then hit the target. Modern weapons guidance systems run the same calculations continuously, almost instantaneously, and achieve a deadly high success rate.

    Error and recalculation are necessary components, just as much as targets and intent. Serendipity will get you only so far.

    • Contrast detect autofocus actually does the same thing, too…

    • Tom Liles says:

      Binary search…

      One of the first things the mathematics dept. taught us engineers. Computer programmers like it to. But for me it was the ancient Greeks who take the biscuit for using a version of it to calculate pi. And they had a few things to say re: the approach to life, too!

  8. Wonderful articles Ming. Life is full of choices and doing. One’s best should be our guiding constant. Thanks.

  9. Gerard Hilinski says:

    Wickedly thought provoking! Thanks for sharing your insights.

  10. ” I strongly believe in the philosophy of doing something to the best of one’s ability or not at all; it’s not worth living with the ‘what-if’s’ and regrets otherwise. I don’t compromise. It’s probably not healthy, but I can say with confidence that I’ve always done the best job I’ve known how to do at the time.” – that is the best part for me !
    Thank you for such great and inspirational article!

    • My pleasure.

    • Yup, this is definitely how I run my life….which probably explains why I don’t actually DO very much! Seriously though, I would rather people admitted they, for whatever reason, can’t do a thing, up front, than take it on and half-ass it, causing you to have to go back to square one but with less time/money/resource to rectify the situation. I certainly wish the tradesmen I have had dealings with adhered to this!

  11. Exceptional article, especially taken in conjunction with your 101 in yesterday’s Daily Post; it’s all too easy to overlook the fundamentals (or never even consider them) when you’re chasing the bigger picture.

  12. Hi Ming,
    I can highly recommend your E-Mail school. It is like a professional training plan for sports. Beginning with an analysis where the personal weaknesses and strengths are and setting your personal goals, 10 “workout sessions” are following – and I failed in 3. Yes, it is challenging, but similar to sports you have to leave the comfort zone. For me personally it improved my photography very much and helped to establish my wedding business. (which was my goal).
    Many thanks

    http://www.heiter-bis-wolkig.info/blog

    Stefan and Katrin

  13. Hi Ming

    Very well put, very insightful, thank you! I’ve come across / live with most of your bullet points daily, weekly in my work. Worth taking them with and going through them from time to time. However, and if you allow me .. The real problem i’ve found, and now im getting outside the succeeding as a photographer individually, and much more in the general, career scheme of things – the real problem is that the more you live and grow by this exact list, the more you are likely to encounter others (colleagues) who get confused, “fight for their bullet list”, see you as a threat, start excluding and pulling you down .. This then can and often creates denial of sort and questions around the value of reaching the destination (the journey is a different matter), especially if there are alternatives to go to.

    This is my experience where i am and what i saw in ove 20 yrs of practice. Just a thought to share ..

    Warmest,
    Ilko

  14. Great posts; you are as skilled a writer as you are a photographer — admire you for both. I’m in India, so can’t attend your classes, but your writings / photographs are hugely inspiring. Can’t thank you enough for the constant flow of thoughts and inspiration.

    subroto mukerji, new delhi

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  1. […] Interesting two-part essay from Ming Thein about photographic aspirations (part 1, part 2). […]

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