On Assignment: shooting a car

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It’s been a little while since I’ve done one of these – partially because of respect for client embargos, partially because my recent assignments have been so hectic that I haven’t had time to pause for breath let alone b-roll; however, I’m hoping to rectify that today with a report from one of my larger recent shoots. In Malaysia, Nissan is phasing out the current 2013 Teana to make way for the all-new 2014 model. I was brought in originally with the intention of consulting on the 2014 campaign creative direction and shoot for the new car, however, at the last moment I got roped into the final campaign for the current car, too. And that shoot will be the subject of today’s post.

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Dear Client: a little advice from your photographer

Some weeks back, I had a little Monty Python moment – specifically bringing to mind the sketch mentioning “shrubbery”. A potential client called:

“Hello, is this Ming Thein, the photographer?”
“Yes, what can I do for you?”
“How much do you charge for…a photography?”
“Sorry, but you’ll have to be a bit more specific before I can quote you – different types of photography require different amounts of work, so the cost will vary. What type of images do you need exactly?”
commercial photography.”
This last line was said in a semi-whispered voice, as though commercial photography is a dirty word. Needless to say, I did not get any more details than that; on pressing them they said they would email me.

Clients like this worry me, not because they don’t know what they want, but because their expectations are probably so different from reality that you will never be able to satisfy them. Past experience makes my alarm bells trigger. It’s not because I’m not confident of doing the job; the problem is that in not having dealt with professional photographers before and being influenced solely by popular preconceptions, such clients typically expect the impossible for next to nothing, and that photoshop fixes all flaws. Typically, what happens is neither photographer nor client gets what they want out of the engagement and both parties go away harbouring a little unhealthy resentment.

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Workers of heavy metal – a combined On Assignment Film Diaries Photoessay, part two

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The second portion of this photoessay concludes (part one is here) with a plenty of images and couple of final thoughts: firstly, another huge thank you to the client for giving me this opportunity – he’s a reader of this site too – very rarely do professional and personal creative goals mesh with such rewarding results. Secondly, I think there are a couple of things I need to look for in future assignments: it’s a bit abstract, but basically one needs to have a subject with potential and a client who’ll trust you enough to let you run with it – without either, the ensuing images will always be a compromise. MT

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Workers of heavy metal – a combined On Assignment Film Diaries Photoessay, part one

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The welder.

If ever I had a dream assignment, this has got to have been one of them. (And the job isn’t quite finished yet; there are a few other outstanding items that need to be taken care of.) Imagine being presented with a scene of near-infinite photographic opportunity by a client who says ‘I hired you because I like your work, and I don’t want to restrict your artistic vision – so go ahead and shoot as you see fit.’ Then throw in the ability to shoot with the system(s) of your choice – including film – and a couple of good lunches to boot. And a chauffeured 7-series to and from the location. I swear a) I’m not joking, and b) this doesn’t happen often, but hey: if it did, we certainly wouldn’t be able to appreciate it.

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On Assignment: architecture by night

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Sometimes, one is given some pretty sweet assignments. Quite near the top of that list is a commission to photograph beautiful buildings by one of the country’s – arguably the world’s, too – leading architects with the rare thing of a completely open creative brief. This is the position I found myself in a couple of months ago, camera bag in one hand, Mother Of All (somewhat portable) Tripods in the other, and sheaf of permission letters and permits from Hijjas Kasturi Associates tucked away safe inside the camera bag just in case.

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On Assignment: Retouching, and the difference between amateurs and pros…

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Maitres du Temps Chapter Three in white gold. (Larger version) There are panels at 6 and 12 that drop down into the dial and retract to uncover day/night and second time zone indicators; there’s a moonphase indicator at 4.30, date at 2 and small seconds at 8. Like all watches designed and made by famous independent ACHI members – this one is the offspring of Kari Voutilainen and Andreas Strehler – if you have to ask the price…

An image like this requires a surprising amount of work: I’ve already talked about the mechanics of lighting horological images in this three-part series (beginning here). To be honest, I originally intended to photograph the set up and other b-roll for another on-assignment post, but the simple reality is that I’m usually so busy on the shoot that I just don’t have the time. Instead, I’m going to talk about the amount of work that goes in behind the scenes.

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On Assignment: 150 portraits in 3 days


One of the more ‘interesting’ recent assignments I had* was a series of corporate portraits – by series, I mean 150, with full makeup and retouching. We had 150 to do over the course of three days – which isn’t a particularly punishing schedule, but when you have to work around the subjects’ schedules, then time tends to contract into mad rushes interspersed by soporific periods of inactivity while waiting. Made worse was the fact that there was no formal scheduling – the subjects were consultants. The real challenge wasn’t so much the shooting as getting all of the subjects to turn up at all: between egos, vanity, laziness and general contempt of management in some cases, my poor client – the management – had fun trying to cajole, threaten and bribe them into showing up. In the end, I think we got about 110 of the total, with about 15-20 being on leave or at other locations, and the rest simply refusing to cooperate. It’s amazing how such educated people can sometimes be so incredibly difficult…

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Packing for the USA

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On the road again.

One of the conundrums I always face before a trip of any sort is the question of what gear to bring. It isn’t so much of a problem if I’m on assignment, because what I need is dictated by the brief of the job, but it’s a completely different story when I’m teaching, or worse, travelling for myself. I suppose it’s a problem faced by anybody who’s got more than one complete set of gear. There was a time when I used to simply take every (or nearly every) lens I owned – whilst this would ensure that you’d never miss an opportunity, it’s also a great way to rack up chiropractor bills and ensure that you really don’t enjoy your trip. Lugging everything from place to place becomes a chore, and taking photographs turns into a burden rather than a joy.

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Why we photograph

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One of my reasons to photograph: because I see beauty of form in the mundane I want to share. I’m sure the man on the bicycle has passed by this building enough times that he didn’t pay it a second moment’s notice, though. Hasselblad 501C, 120/4 CF T* on Delta 100

This post is a continuation of the previous essay on the image making process. It’s a question I’ve often asked myself; rationale being that if I could understand the triggers that drove me to take an image in the first place – or perhaps not so much what drew my eyes to the scene, but held them there – I’d be able to make a more conscious effort at being aware of these things, and thus make even stronger images.

Firstly, let me say that personally, photography is almost a compulsive addiction. It something that I always feel I need to do; I get anxious if there’s any possibility of an interesting moment or scene going observed but unrecorded. I’m constantly looking out the window if the light’s nice – something I’ve got to be careful of doing too often, because non-photographers will think you’re just being rude. As a result, there’s almost always one or more cameras on my person, usually only separable by surgery. The funny thing is, even though I’ll see a huge variety of scenes, I don’t feel compelled to have a camera that can capture all of them; I’ll get jittery if I have no camera, but I’ll be perfectly happy with just 28mm – even though I’m seeing things at 200mm or beyond.

This leads me to wonder if it’s the image itself, or the production of the image that is what keeps me going: it could really be either, or both. Hell, I enjoy a good camera as much as the next guy – there’s no reason not to – but it isn’t the endgame, either. A good photograph is satisfying irrespective of the tool used to make it; but yes, I admit there’s more pleasure in getting it out of something that’s enjoyable to use – that way you enjoy both the image and the process. Undoubtedly there are people who photograph simply because they like cameras – and there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever.

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Rant on: Paypal woes, shy subjects and travel today

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Royal lake at dawn, Yangon.

As of late last night, I just returned from four days in Yangon, Myanmar. Firstly, I apologize for any and all delays in replying email and messages; the internet was barely usable and it seemed that only iOS devices could access WordPress (but only the comments).

Slow internet I can live with. But what came next surprised and angered me. It seems that Myanmar – along with North Korea and Cuba – is on the list of countries sanctioned by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control and The Bank of England. If you try to access your Paypal account from one of these countries, it will be suspended and you will be forced to go through a lengthy and inconvenient process to reactivate it in order to access the funds in your account. Not only that, if you try to access it again, your account will be permanently closed and the funds seized. There are many, many problems here:

  • My account is with Paypal Malaysia, registered in Singapore. These controls do not apply as funds held here are not subject to either US or UK oversight. I am not a US citizen or green card holder and am not under the ageis of that  government.
  • To reactivate your account, you have to prove your ID (fine) and that “the funds are not being used for the benefit of persons or organizations in Myanmar”. How the hell do you prove that if you’re an ordinary tourist who needs to pay for their hotel via Agoda, or air tickets, or something? I have a reasonably easy to find profile online and – obviously – this site, along with citations elsewhere, and I’m still being required to provide additional proof.
  • Within Paypal, the left and right hands are obviously not talking to each other – I’ve gotten emails from four different departments asking for different documents and informing me that my account will continue to be suspended until I provide said documents – it’s not clear who is handling what, and nobody on the phone can seem to tell me, either.
  • Customer service is a joke – it just doesn’t exist. And I’m supposed to be “a valued business customer” – all I know is that between international client payments, royalties, workshop payments, DVD sales I’ve had at least six figures go through there in the last year – which surely must be above average – and they’re still taking 24-48 hours just to reply to enquiries, let alone reactivate the account. Apparently it’s 48 hours to review documents, 48 hours to reply to you when you want to confirm the type of document they need, and another 48 hours to review again. In the intervening period, they’re happy to hold on to your money, deny you access and collect the interest.
  • It’s month end. I’ve got a number of automated royalty payments incoming which are now lost in the ether; Paypal doesn’t let you accept funds, either. And of course being automated, the remitting agencies won’t try again if the money is rejected; they’ll just keep it.
  • Closing somebody’s account and seizing funds without just cause or jurisdiction is simply illegal and unethical.
  • Of course, none of this would have happened if they’d simply told you what the countries on the banned list were and what the consequences might be before you tried to access your account.

Needless to say, if anybody knows of an easy online alternative to Paypal for accepting and sending money internationally, I’m voting with my wallet and taking my business elsewhere. It’s not the first time, either; if you don’t complain regularly, it seems they take their own sweet time releasing funds to your bank account – up to two weeks in the past – no doubt accumulating healthy overnight interest in the process. The company is a disgrace and operates without care or service for its customers or any ethics whatsoever.

I’m going to stop here and skip over Air Asia – uncleaned airplanes, inedible food, horrible-smelling air in the cabin being pumped in through the ducts, inhumane seat pitches and very little to no discounts over full price carriers once you factor everything else in, but have to use them because there are no seats left elsewhere – before I give myself a headache.

Yangon itself was quite pleasant: non-stop sunshine, warm (30C+) temperatures during the day – but relatively low humidity – cool evenings, and pedestrian-friendly. Lots of dust, though, and little to do after the sun goes down. For the most part, the Burmese seem to absolutely hate having their picture taken. Even with years of practiced stealth, almost never could I get a shot off without them noticing; in most cases, turning away or hiding their faces with something, too. I don’t know if it’s religious/ cultural or a hangover of something more sinister, but it certainly was photographically frustrating.

The city seems to have its fair share of tourist touts, too – from little kids who force things into your pockets then insist you have to pay them because you took their goods, to other little kids who force you to buy their plastic bags to store your shoes before you enter a temple or pagoda at an exorbitant price, to ‘monks’ who follow you around until you donate – that cannot possibly be part of the buddhist way – to the usual gamut of taxi ripoffs and ‘tourist-only’ fees. Hell, it costs US$60 to rent a sim card at the airport – and you have no choice because your mobile won’t roam. There’s no way I look local, so I just had to endure the hassling. It’s a shame, really, because the majority of regular Burmese are actually very warm and friendly people.

I’m off to hassle Paypal again once I’ve caught up with several hundred emails. As for images…when I get around to it…MT


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


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