On the value of having a muse

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Starburst. Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini, Panasonic 20/1.7

This has been another one of those tricky articles to write – mainly because a lot of self-reflection went into it, and as we all know, it’s very difficult to do that and remain objective. The essays is illustrated with images that are representative of experiments that worked – things I was inspired to try with various muses, and in turn learned something from.

What is a muse? In its purest form, a muse is perhaps best defined as something that triggers inspiration in an artistic or creative sense. It doesn’t have to be an inanimate object; most artists’ muses tend to be people; in fact, most artists tend to land up romantically involved with their muses. Creativity is impossible to separate from inspiration, and inspiration is a very close bedfellow of attachment – attachment to an idea. (I know this sounds like Inception, but bear with me here.*)

*On an unrelated note, that movie contains one of the most spectacular dining rooms I’ve ever seen – from a design and architectural point of view. And I suspect it would be pretty cool as both a photographic subject and backdrop, too.

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Floating head. Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini, 14-42 kit lens

This attachment can take many forms. From a specifically artistic point of view, the main one is to try and capture the essence of the subject in the artist’s work; in fact, an extremely challenging muse is probably the best thing an artist can have, because no matter how hard they try, they will never feel as though they’ve done the subject justice – and this is what drives the growth of creativity. It’s not so much attachment to the subject per se, as an obsession with the desire to capture the subject in a medium or object other than the subject itself – which is in itself doomed to failure, because the more one understands about a subject, the more one realizes that it’s impossible to reproduce it in another medium – especially if the subject is something live and changing, like a person.

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Prague sunset. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

So in effect, muses are necessary stimulants to creativity. There are a few things that make a good muse: complexity and multidimensionality is one; ease of access is another (you never know when an idea might strike, and you just have to try something out); finally, some sort of flux or dynamism is another – which is why most muses tend to be things that offer infinitely variable possibilities – for instance, Ansel Adams and Yosemite – or a person.

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Journey ending. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

Having a muse is also an admission of the artist to imperfection – at least in their own minds. If the artist was happy with their work, they’d finish one piece of art – take one photograph – feel like they’ve nailed the shot, and then never look at the subject again. By trying to photograph something repeatedly, it says both that there’s perhaps more to capture than is possible in a single frame, as well as all of the past frames being insufficient or incomplete in some way.

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Vienna at Christmas. Leica M9-P, 50/1.4 ASPH

A person may have many muses. You might, for instance, be inspired by a particular place or location; an object, and a person. Most of mine fall into the latter two categories, though the objects tend to be somewhat short-lived. I’ll start with the easy one – objects. I tend to accumulate objects of design. I have a huge weakness for things which have unique (but functional) design elements; things made of unusual or highly tactile materials and textures; and things that just look good. Past random acquisitions include a miniature fountain pen with no clip; a vase with a hole so impractically small that you would be hard pressed to fit even a single flower stem in it, but an incredibly unique texture; and fifteen stuffed polar bears.** And of course there are the watches, too.

**You may have already seen these make cameo appearances in various camera tests. Their white fur is an excellent test subject for highlight tonality, microcontrast, and of course fine detail reproduction.

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Bob. Nikon D700, Voigtlander 20/3.5

Most of these objects will be the subjects of several photo sessions, or until I’m happy with at least one or two of the images I’ve captured. After that, they don’t change, so they don’t really serve much of a challenge photographically; however they litter my apartment as monuments to my design curiosity. But by far the biggest guilty pleasure of mine are cameras and lenses; yes, they are technical tools used to capture an image. But different cameras also force you to shoot differently and think about composition in different ways; a great example is a compact, or a monochrome-only camera. The former removes the crutch of bokeh, and forces you to rely on subject differentiation solely via framing and light; the latter forces you to see luminance, texture and shadow, rather than contrasts in color. Both are refreshing, and mastery helps you improve overall as a photographer.

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Red vase and erstwhile contents. Nikon D5100, 60/2.8 G Micro

Then there’s the difference between rangefinders and SLRs – viewing and focusing method aside, I find the biggest difference is that a rangefinder forces you to focus more on your subject – you can’t see what’s in focus and what isn’t; you can’t frame precisely. Shot properly, both of those things subconsciously make you concentrate more on ensuring that the subject itself is the most immediately obvious thing in the frame, and the primary composition is so strong that whatever might be in the edges or out of focus areas of the frame become secondary, and do not detract from the subject. A new camera makes you want to go out and shoot with it, too – and that motivation is often enough to make you get images you wouldn’t otherwise have managed if you’d either stayed at home or not bothered to experiment with.

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A Parisian cliche. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH. I don’t think I would even have attempted this with a big black DSLR.

Japan is also a source of endless inspiration for me – perhaps because the place is just so different from anywhere else in the world, especially the old world of Europe where I used to live, and the developing world of South-East Asia where I now live. I step off the plane and feel excited – those very differences that pervade every aspect of daily life force you to approach subjects with fresh eyes and curiosity; you take experimental risks and try things you normally wouldn’t at home or on a commercial shoot, where risk might equal loss of a client. I think every photographer needs these creative trips on a semi-regular basis as a way of forcing your eyes not to take things for granted, especially when back home. Seeing something done differently overseas tends to make you wonder what’s normal – it is of course all relative – but perhaps enough for you to find a worthwhile frame in the course of your daily life you might have otherwise ignored.

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Waiting for the train, Sapporo. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

My biggest muse, by far, is my long-suffering wife. She is crash test dummy for new equipment and technique, a partner in crime for experimentation, and a handy anonymous body when an empty scene happens to need one to complete the frame. (She isn’t that patient, though, which also forces me to hone my instinctive composition and technical skills – the less one has to think about something, the faster one works.) And as a person, I find her endlessly fascinating*** – which means that there are always facets of her personality that I’m trying to capture; regardless of whether I do or not, I’ll always feel there’s something left over the next hill – and that motivates me to keep shooting.

***I suppose if this wasn’t the case, then I probably married the wrong person. Perhaps there’s a photographic metaphor in this – maybe in choice of camera or choice of subject – but that remains another topic for another day.

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Medusa sleeps. Leica X1

Conversely, there are places I visit frequently with a camera – either as part of testing, or because I always have a camera of some sort on me – I will take some photos, but nothing in the location compels me to return. These I do not consider to be muses because they don’t inspire me; I just happen to be there and see something.

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Bukit Bintang reflections. Apple iPhone 4

I highly recommend you find your own muse; it doesn’t have to be a person, or even a fellow photographer (my wife doesn’t really have any interest in taking pictures, and she is almost always surprised by the way the images turn out – despite having participated instrumentally in their creation). Rather, your muse is a reflection of you as a photographer – what is it that fascinates you? What inspires you? What makes you want to create? Finding and understanding that is a hugely important step to unlocking your creativity. MT

This post was brought to you by Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography – learn exactly what you want to learn, when you want to learn it. Muses not included, but I’m always happy to talk psychology to figure out what drives you. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook!


  1. This might be the best article I have read on photography. I kept having to go back and reread paragraphs because I was getting lost in my head with ideas that the article inspired. I just found your blog today. I will be back often. Thank you for helping me past my 6 month long creative block!

    • Thanks Dan! Glad you enjoyed it. Have a look through the archives (there are 250+ articles there) and share it with your friends please!

  2. Great article, I was wondering if you have found different aspect ratios, like those in M43 camera and dslr influence how you frame? I personally always find it’s more difficult to express the dynamics of a scene, the feeling of speed or exaggerated perspective in 4:3 aspect ratio. But 4:3 seems to be a great aspect ratio for portraits.

    BTW, having a fresh perspective in everyday life seems rather difficult, that’s where I found Doisneau amazing.

    • They do, but I think it’s ingrained at a subconscious level now so I don’t really think about it. Or rather, I look at the scene and roughly know how much frame I’ve got to play with, and just work around that. I certainly think that 3:2 isn’t that useful for portraits because there’s too much empty space – unless you like whole body shots, I suppose. I find 16:9 is great for giving more context to a scene, or providing more isolation – perhaps it’s because our eyes are set horizontally and provide a similar natural field of view…I think this is a great topic for a future article. Thanks for the idea!

  3. It IS a Parisian cliche, but it’s your version, and it’s fine.
    If you’re in Paris, you’re sort of obligated to take that picture at least once.
    I took it several times. πŸ™‚

    • πŸ™‚ You know what they say about practice.

      • I got really really good at it.

        Also practiced Parisian umbrellas in the rain, Parisian boy and girl holding hands, Parisian looking sad while drinking wine, and several other completely original concepts.

        Probably Doisneau or HCB did them better, but these are mine, and I like them.

        Plus, I’m pretty sure I used a much more expensive camera than those two guys. πŸ™‚

        • How about Parisians kissing on the boulevards, or walking purposefully with scarf and baguette? πŸ™‚

          The old joke is that HCB only had one lens because he couldn’t afford another one – with current Leica prices, I can see why! πŸ™‚

  4. Paul H. Buch says:

    You should have ended your article after this passage:

    “And as a person, I find her endlessly fascinating*** – which means that there are always facets of her personality that I’m trying to capture; regardless of whether I do or not, I’ll always feel there’s something left over the next hill – and that motivates me to keep shooting.”

  5. Hi Ming, I’ve been following your blog for a little while (found it via a comment you left on TOP, I think). First class images and writing!

    I’ve mentioned your blog on a couple of other blogs, including ‘The Landscapist’ (Mark Hobson).

  6. wjlonien says:

    Great article Ming, and wonderful photos! Thanks for sharing – just linked to it from my page.


  1. […] that is both a source of never-ending variation (and thus images – there’s a reason why muses are almost always people) and challenge: how can you ever be sure you’ve fully and accurately represented the […]

  2. […] article from Ming Thein on the value of having a muse – including several photos of his beautiful wife, and taken with cheap and smallish cameras […]

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