On Assignment: the TBM breakthrough

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Today’s post is about a job I did at the start of January – the world’s premier maker of tunnel-boring machines, Herrenknecht (there are actually quite a surprising number) hired me to document the operation and breakthrough of their first variable-density boring machine*, which happened to be at work underneath Kuala Lumpur as part of the greater Klang Valley subway/ mass transit project. Up til this point, we have a pretty pathetic train system and monorail that doesn’t cover more than 3-4km; we don’t have a unified public transport system which combine with poor traffic management creates legendary jams**.

*Kuala Lumpur has a mix of rock and clay underneath it; you need a special machine to bore through both simultaneously – the machines for rock are too slow with clay and it also clogs the outlet ducting, and the machines for clay simply won’t cut rock.

**In the past, it has taken me up to 2 hours to travel the 1.5km from home to office at the wrong time. If you’re wondering why I didn’t just walk, try doing that in 35 C heat, 80+% humidity and the business suits that you’re expected to wear – not that clothes mean you’re any more or less competent at doing an office job…

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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?”
“A…
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

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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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On Assignment: back to the hospital

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This hospital has turned into one of my regular clients – I went back for another couple of shoots. Incrementally, we’re working our way through the departments and refreshing their image banks. I’m also hoping to shoot live surgery at some point in the future, but no idea if that’s going to be cleared by their board or not – there are so many things that might be unacceptable both from a hygiene point of view – you can’t autoclave a camera – as well as privacy etc. Still, it’ll be an interesting experience. At least light shouldn’t be a problem, given those fantastically bright operating theatre fixtures. (Side fact: one of the reasons why I didn’t go to med school was because I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. But oddly enough, operating a camera makes me focus on shooting and completely ignore everything else – the resultant being that I’m happy to shoot in places which I’d never even think about visiting ordinarily.)

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But, I digress. With this post, I wanted to talk a bit about lighting on location. Hospital lighting in the wards tends to be uniform, flat and uninteresting: fluorescent tubes, more fluorescent tubes, and yet more…you get the picture. If you’re lucky, they might even be color matched. Fortunately, to keep patients feeling comfortable with the ambience, most of the time they’re at least daylight-balanced tubes (this is important, because it means you don’t have to gel your flashes to balance out ambient).

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A typical scene involves some equipment, a doctor/ technician, and a patient. And the interaction is what we’re trying to capture, along with some sense of context, along with a bit of ‘ooh, look at the fancy machine’. This means that lighting is a bit of a challenge because you’ve got to have a nice diffuse source to make the humans look good, as well as something a bit punchier and more directional to give the machines some depth and dimensionality. On top of all of this, there often isn’t that much room in which to set things up, and ceilings aren’t that high. Oh, and it’s also a working hospital, so time is very much of the essence.

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Composite shot – the glass was far too reflective and dark (it was a sleep lab, after all) so I had to shoot one of the monitoring post, another one of the computer screen, and a third inside the sleep lab itself from approximately the same angle of view of the operator and line of sight.

The setup I go with is a pair of speedlights on stands with umbrellas; either shoot-through (for the primary light on the humans) or bounced reflector (for the machines). Sometimes I’ll add a third speedlight as a catchlight or to brighten up the background a bit. For the most part, Nikon’s CLS/ iTTL system works pretty well, though the background speedlights sometimes don’t trigger due to being out of the line of sight. But a little tweak to position and usually all is well again. I was considering radio triggers, but then I was told that they weren’t allowed in the hospital as they might interfere with critical equipment such as pacemakers and life support machines (!) – probably best not tried, then. MT

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Setup. This room was luxuriously huge.

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This one, not so much.

I don’t quite remember what I shot what with, but a typical loadout for this kind of job goes:
Bodies: Nikon D800E (primary), Nikon D700 (secondary; now D600); Sony RX100 (B-roll)
Lenses: Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon, Nikon AFS 28/1.8 G, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar, Nikon AFS 85/1.8 G, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar (sometimes).
Lighting: 4x Nikon SB900s and plenty of batteries; shoot-through and reflective umbrellas; stands.
Support: Manfrotto 1052BACs for the lights, and a Gitzo GT5562 GTS Systematic with Manfrotto Hydrostat head for the camera.

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On Assignment: concert photojournalism

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Tompi. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

I recently played the role of official photographer for a producer friend’s concert – it was a moderately large affair featuring a good number of famous local musicians. The nice thing about this event was that it was large enough to have professional acts, decent lighting and good organization, but not so large that I didn’t have access to everything – and I mean everything, including the stage itself during the performance*.

*One thing a good concert photographer should never do is interfere with the act; so even though the stage might be open to you, one should never get between the performers and the audience unless it’s absolutely necessary, and even then only for the shortest possible period of time. Oh, and remember that the shutter sound carries quite clearly through any microphones that have been placed near equipment.

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Through the legs. Nikon D700, 28/1.8G

Although I’m not normally a huge fan of the types of music being played, I have to say this was one of the more enjoyable events I’ve attended and shot; I guess I’d be the restless type of concertgoer who’s only happy with a camera in hand and backstage pass – not so much to meet the artists, but to shoot. Although it’s the first photojournalism assignment I’ve done in quite some time – and the first concert assignment in many years. (In 2005/6 I was the house photographer at one of the jazz clubs in Kuala Lumpur, but I eventually stopped because I wasn’t getting enough sleep after gigs and before work the next day.) This job made me realize just how much I missed photojournalism.

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Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

There were a number of photographers there from other local/ national media and international agencies; the locals were mostly using midrange APS-C bodies, kit lenses and off-brand flashes; you could tell the major agencies by their standard issue pro bodies and f2.8 zooms. Interestingly, the proliferation of lower end cameras amongst media/ newsmen – at least in Malaysia – has been getting increasingly common as these organizations seek to cut cots. I can understand the bodies passing the threshold of sufficiency and being capable of producing great results in the hands of any competent photographer, but the use of slow kit zooms just hamstrings the ability to create a picture that preserves the ambient light and feel of the scene without resorting to a flash.

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In the moment. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

From experience, I know that when wearing my photojournalism hat, the lighter you can go, the better. I was carrying my D700/ MB-D10, 28/1.8 G and 85/1.8 G for close distance coverage; the OM-D and 100-300 rode shotgun for more reach. (I was also carrying the 12/2 and 45/1.8 as backup in case the D700 developed a problem, plus an SB900 for balanced fill which I didn’t land up using. My motto is go light, but not so light that you have no insurance when it comes to equipment failure.) Many of you will know that the new Nikon 28/1.8 G has proven itself to be a very capable lens even on the demanding sensor of the D800E; I’m pleased to report that both the 28 and 85 f1.8 G lenses performed flawlessly on the D700, both in terms of focusing accuracy and optical performance. The 85/1.8 G does exhibit some moderate flare with strongly backlit point sources (the hood makes almost no difference here), but I personally don’t mind it as I feel that it adds to that atmosphere and pictorial value of the image somewhat.

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Keyboards. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

The big surprise of the night was the OM-D and 100-300 combination, however. I didn’t use AF-C; most of the time careful timing, a short burst and the extended depth of field for a given FOV due to the smaller sensor was enough. It’s rather counterintuitive for DSLR shooters, but I find that with the OM-D, just depressing the shutter all the way down and trusting the camera’s AF system yields a considerably higher hit rate than using AF-C, or worse, AF-Tracking. The 100-300 delivered excellent optical performance, even out to the 300mm limit; due to the lighting conditions I was working wide open the whole time. The lens did hunt somewhat above 200mm, but so long as I was in the ballpark, focusing was reasonably fast.

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Blue note. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

So far, no surprises – I’d shot with the 100-300 in good light conditions, and been pleased with the results. The OM-D, on the other hand, seems to excel under tricky mixed-light or strong-color situations; to get a sufficiently high shutter speed – I was in the 1/45-1/60s region most of the time, at 300-400mm equivalent – I was solidly in the ISO 3200 to ISO 6400 band. In all honesty, I don’t feel the files were noticeably more noisy than the D700 for a given ISO; the only place where the smaller sensor made itself known was in dynamic range – the D700 had probably two stops extra on the OM-D. I can definitely see where the 75/1.8 would be useful though – 100mm was a bit long at times, and the extra 2 1/3 stops (probably more in transmission) would have pushed image quality even higher still.

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Strumming out. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

All in all, a very satisfying nights’ work. Come work delivery time, the litmus test is always the client; I’m happy to say that this one passed with flying colors. “I can’t stop looking at the pictures, they’re amazing!” was the text message I got a few days after delivery. So, anybody else need a concert photographer? MT

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

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One – Ramli Sarip. Nikon D700, 85/1.8 G

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This is what rockers do. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

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The loud pedal. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

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Thank you to my band. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

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The hair. Nikon D700, 85/1.8 G

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Olympus OM-D, 100-300

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Backstage with the fans. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

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