Commercial work vs personal work vs experimentation vs development

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This shot was the result of creative white balance use, and getting up early because I wanted to try it. Nikon D700, 28-300VR

One thing I’ve noticed since turning to photography full time is that the amount of personal work I do has greatly reduced. It’s not because I don’t have time to do it – on the contrary, I should have plenty more opportunities to sneak out and shoot for half an hour or an hour here and there – I think it’s because I’m starting to fall into the trap of complacency. Or perhaps I’m reaching a photographic saturation point of sorts.

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This shot was the result of experimenting with large amounts of blu-tack to keep the watch in place for the shot. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G Micro

I definitely still enjoy shooting, and I still feel the same rush when I nail the frame – what I’m missing is the feeling of wanting to go out and do it in the first place. I think a large part of it is because once you start running your own business, there are always more things you can be doing on the development front – either sending out feelers to potential new clients, following up on existing ones, or doing post processing from jobs past. And that doesn’t count this blog, either.

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Up to this point, I’d never used dinner plates as props for watch photography before. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G Micro

It’s odd, but equipment choice paralysis also seems to be a contributing factor. I’ve now got three systems – Nikon FX, Leica M and Micro 4/3 – each for a specific purpose, but also each with enough lenses to make a general purpose kit that I can comfortably go out and shoot anything with, be it an assignment or a holiday at the beach. And that doesn’t count the various compact cameras, either. Sometimes I honestly stand in front of the equipment cabinet before going out and feel plagued by indecision – even if I pick a system, which lens(es) should it go with? What do I anticipate shooting? What kind of look or style am I going for?

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Divisive symmetry. One of those experiments. Nikon D3

Constantly planning shots and thinking about the end result does make you a more conscious and prepared photographer, but it also means that to some extent you’re either paralyzed by indecision, or micromanaging everything in your control to the point that it doesn’t become fun anymore. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is the feeling that you definitely have the wrong piece of equipment on you, but the right one is sitting in the cabinet at home. (At that point, the best thing you can do is figure out what you can do with what you’ve got and just shoot, but that’s an entire post on its own for another day).

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The ephemeral missing sushi. One of my favorite near misses – even though nothing is in focus, you can make out enough of the shot to know that there should be something between the fingers and on it’s way to the diner’s mouth. To my eyes, the blurriness of it all actually helps to reinforce the implied surrealism. Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini, Panasonic 20/1.7 G

So what’s the upshot of all of this? Well, not doing as much personal work means that that the times you do shoot are mostly bridled by the requirements of your clients, and frequently do not result in you pushing the creative envelope – especially if you have conservative clients. The importance of photography for yourself is that it gives you time to experiment and develop your style and technique; without it, it’s too easy to stagnate into a creative rut and consequently land up being unproductive, or worse, uncompetitive. Not having an end client to please takes the pressure off you, and leaves you free to try things that you might not have time to do while on assignment, especially if time is tight and shot list is long – which it almost always is.

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It was extremely dark, and empty – there were no people to fill the frame and provide context, motion and life – I didn’t even know if the shot would work technically, let alone aesthetically. I’m very pleased with the result, though. Leica M9-P, 50/1.4 ASPH

Inevitably, the early results of any experiment result in failure, or at best, partial success. Whilst this may not be acceptable in a client scenario, it’s a crucial part of the learning and development process – if you succeeded at something straight away, chances are you will develop that style far less that somebody who has to work at it. The reasons is down to understanding: assuming we don’t give up, humans understand things by doing them; the more times you have to try something, the more parameters you have to change, the more complete a picture you will be able to build up of how things work. This in turn results in better control over the end result, which of course culminates in better output.

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Same with this shot – one of those surreal, but fun experiments that came to mind after passing by the gorilla for sale in a store window. Leica M9-P, Zeiss 28/2.8 Biogon

Without this experimentation, one stagnates creatively; it’s actually very obvious in the work of various ‘famous’ wedding photographers in this country. Many of them revert to the same portfolio of five or ten compositions and apply them to every shoot – which has several consequences; firstly, they are increasingly pigeonholed into a particular style or look, and that’s what clients expect; secondly, they can’t take the risk of doings something else because of client rejection; finally, they can’t break out of that way of seeing because they’ve been doing it for so long, and the creative process has atrophied. It’s a dangerous cycle.

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Reflections – another experiment. By this point in the shoot (shooting a launch gallery for the Leica V-Lux 3) – I’d had a whole card full of standard shots, but nothing different and interesting – there wasn’t any clean water in sight for a neat reflection, so had to try and make do.

What I always find interesting – and inspiring – is the work of serious amateurs; Flickr is one of the best places to see this. Whilst there are a good number of pros on the site (myself included), it’s also home to a lot of people who fall into the former category. Serious amateurs are in an enviable position – one I didn’t appreciate myself until recently – most of the time, they have the skills to be able to make the shot they want, the lack of pressure to execute it, and the lack of cynicism that stops them from trying things that might fail in the first place. The result is that browsing uploads from my contacts shows me a wide cross section of work; some of it really quite excellent and inspiring; some of it utter rubbish; however, the most interesting to me are the experiments that are near misses, or clearly out of style for the individual: you can almost see how the compositional mind of the photographer works, trying to adapt their old way of seeing to a new style. It’s almost like seeing how something is made.

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If I hadn’t brought the D-Lux 5 along, and packed the light panels on a whim, then this series wouldn’t have happened, and I wouldn’t have known that it’s very possible to make commercial-grade food images with a compact.

I often get ideas through looking at other people’s images, period – especially of places I’ve been before, or things I’ve shot before. This gives you the ability to see things through the eyes of another person – and find what you might have missed from your own perspective, which in turn makes you want to go out and shoot again to try and perfect your vision once more, and capture the essence of that particular subject…

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Making do with the relatively slow f2.8 aperture of the 28/2.8 ASPH and the limited low light capabilities of the M9-P resulted in long shutter speeds, and the slight softening which lead to this rather surreal image – and the hidden gorilla in the shadows.

Creativity is an iterative process; one that must be built on, nurtured, and continuously pursued. Without it, it’s impossible to develop as a photographer. At the same time, it can’t be forced – something that a lot of people (our government included) don’t seem to understand; you can’t just throw time and money at it and hope that new ideas sprout. It doesn’t work that way – the inspiration, or the ‘ah ha!’ spark has to be there in the first place. The tough part is creating an environment for yourself in which you feel inspired and inclined to experiment. Stress, expectations and tight schedules aren’t conducive for creativity. But over-relaxation and laziness isn’t, either. It’s a tough balance, this one. And that’s one of the reasons why from now on, I’m going to make sure there are a couple of days a month – usually tacked on to the end of location-based assignments – which permit me to go off, explore and experiment. I highly recommend it. MT

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  1. I loved this article. I’ve recently resorted to smaller sensor cameras to ‘try’ to become more creative. Sure the bigger guns still ultimately offer higher IQ, but nothing close for portability and breaking your back! However, I’m still unhappy with what flashes m43 has to offer. Something a simple rotation or more rotation can resolve, also on the X2! I still think this is one area as far as gear related issues m43 is behind in the big boys club… anyways, NOT about the gear, so I keep telling myself!
    If you have no objections in the future, perhaps you tell us how you landed certain clients or jobs, or what lead up to them. Sure, it might be your industry secret, you could just hint at aspects of it ;p

    • Thank you, Po-Ming. I think subconsciously we treat smaller cameras as being ‘less serious’, with the attendant loosening of photographic inhibitions. I tried out the FL50R and FL500R not long ago for the OM-D, and was pretty impressed – but wireless flash control didn’t feel as robust or reliably metered as my SB900s. I think I’ll need to do a bit more testing before forming a definitive opinion, though.

      There’s no industry secret to obtaining work, it’s a relationship business – that’s it. I see plenty of excellent photographers who are struggling, and plenty of incredibly crap ones raking in the dollars – the only consistent point is the successful ones are well connected.

      • That’s true, and in all industries I think! Perhaps some insight just about you then, maybe that’s an article worth writing and us wanting to read! 🙂

        I used owe a D700 as well and a collection of lenses, and have since committed over to Canon. However, I still keep all SB900s I have. SU-4 mode is very useful (powerful in fact), but Canon’s latest 600EX RT is also very good now but without an SU-4 option, but a moot point.

        • Haha. I’ll write it once I’ve figured it out…I don’t think that’s going to be anytime soon!

          Surprised the new canon flashes have no SU4 mode. You need a separate controller to use the radio trigger function. It’s one of the best features of the Nikon system, you can use the SB900s with anything.

  2. Strangely enough I hit a creative spurt when I discovered your site (through the 43rumors website when they published your OM-D review) as I’ve been looking at the same photos from the same sources/websites over and over and nothing new has inspired me.

    The photos you take are pretty varied, and it keeps it interesting for me to visit often to look at new things in the way you’ve composed and processed them.

    There are times when I get lazy and revert to the same process in which I know I will get a decent shot, so in my mind I have to actively remind myself to get the safe shot and try something new. This is when I discover a type of image that excites me and I start trying that out as well, looking for creative ways to compose photos.

    Also, how I wish I had your dilemma of having multiple systems and not knowing which one to bring out on a shoot!

    • Haha, thanks! I do the same – looking through other people’s work to get inspired, or picking a piece of gear that hasn’t been used in a while…

  3. I laughed (sympathetically) as I read your article, Ming. Particularly the ‘indecision’ factor that has apparently crept in….There have been two recent family events that I would have normally been expected to photograph. Instead, I let my wife do each of them. By not bringing a camera at all, I really cleared my palate, so to speak. The editing fell to me, however, and the end result pleased everyone attending these gatherings (books were made). So, one suggestion I have when in a rut, is to collaborate with another shooter, perhaps one in a similar trough. Even if you do not shoot a frame (unlikely) you will be doing something fun with no expectations or pressure. Have a partner invariably starts a dialogue, which leads to renewal…., lately, taking just one camera and one lens when prowling the City of Angels has proved to do the trick…. Jeffrey Sklan, Los Angeles .

    • That’s an interesting idea…those events which you’re expected or obligated to shoot at are the worst, in my opinion. I just feel miserable and like people are expecting me to work whilst everybody else has fun…

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