Shooting for yourself, part one

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Personal work – you could never sell this commercially. But it doesn’t make it any less compelling as an image.

There’s a limit to how long you can make a title and still keep things punchy; what I really wanted it to say was ‘the difference between pros and amateurs: shooting for yourself vs shooting for pay’ or something along those lines. There was a period in late February/ early March of this year where I did pretty much no photography at all for a couple of weeks. I wrote it off as time spent recharging, but the reality is that I think I experienced yet another large shift in mindset – I’m noticing a couple of personal trends, neither of which make me particularly happy:

  1. I don’t shoot much outside commercial jobs…
  2. …and when I do, there’s an ever-increasing stylistic gulf between the commercial output and my personal work.
  3. This is making work, well, feel very much like work rather than creative expression

I’m sure every commercial photographer goes through this at some point or other; it feels like I’m entering a dangerous zone because once you write off any of your output as ‘not representative of me’, then you’re starting to slide down the slippery slope of – I don’t want to call it not caring, but perhaps not going the extra mile. And from there, it’s most certainly a short hop into the not caring pool. Once you enter, I think you can pretty much forget about leaving – though you’ll still be able to make a living from it, I think your professional development hits a brick wall: you really have to continue pushing that extra bit to both keep the gap between personal and paid work small, as well as ensure that you don’t stagnate creatively and get overtaken (which will result in you not being able to make a living from it).

Of course, the tough part is when you have clients that go ‘We all love your work, but the market is still quite conventional, so can we do the industry standard X?’ Don’t get me wrong; though I’m grateful for the work, it does feel a bit like a slap in the face: it just feels odd being hired to do something that doesn’t feel like you.

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Personal work – exploration of abstract form. Ditto the comment above.

And here’s the other big gap between amateurs and pros: amateurs shoot for themselves. They receive no income for their work, but neither are they under any obligation to produce something to meet the expectations of others. Pros have to straddle both lines: being amateurs to ensure their creative development continues, and meeting the expectations of others even if they’re completely different to their own. There’s a bit of hyprocisy here too: I’ve frequently been asked to show a portfolio that’s ‘something different’, or invited to bid because they’ve seen my unconventional work, yet when I do so, clients inevitably ask to see the ‘more commercial’ work. If I get hired, it’s always the standard stuff that gets used. All we can do is try our best to work in an extra shot or two. In some ways, that makes me feel quite schizophrenic.

It’s this that makes it much easier for an amateur to pursue artistic purity: they only have to please themselves. The tough part of being an amateur is keeping the motivation and discipline going to keep pushing and keep working, even when there’s no obvious reward. In that sense, I suppose this site is a good example of being in both camps: I write because I want to, and because I only have to satisfy myself – but the corollary is that it isn’t a paid job, and when there’s other, more profitable things I could be doing, it’s tough to justify. Yet I do feel a heavy degree of expectation on the part of the readers to maintain the standard and output. All I can say at this point is enjoy it while it lasts; if I can’t find a long term solution, I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this.

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Commercial work. Not an intuitive composition for me; had to think about it and force it to work.

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This one, in the same location, jumped straight out at me.

To be continued. MT 


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  1. Your style reminds me of Judith Turner’s photos of architecture, that are not necessarily about architecture. I printed an impressive book of hers in photogravure (Jon Goodman’s studio) – the book was published by Vincent Fitzgerald & Co. Kafka “Parables and Pieces.” She has other work published in trade book as well. I love your blog. It’s such a treat.

  2. When all is said and done, is it really much different from the rest of us who spend 40 (or so) hours a week doing something other than personal photography, and then their spare time shooting for fun ? Whether those 40 hours are spent doing photography to satisfy a client, programming a computer, or bagging groceries ?

    • Yes and no – firstly, there’s no way you can run a small business and be successful on just 40 hours a week, and secondly, when your hobby turns into your job, the lines blur considerably…

  3. I think Ming both can work together, when I first looked at your site I saw the Pro work thought yeah that’s good but others do similar. I then saw the Flickr link and checked it out and then realised this guy has a passion for photography. That would if I was a company CEO and was looking for a photographer win me over hands down. It now makes me when I want a good read go straight to your site. I also appreciate that you cover all cameras as I also love Leica but don’t believe they are only ones who make great gear. Cheers Ian

    • You’ll probably find it all looks similar after a while because that’s what clients want – difficult to inject originality when the one with the chequebook overrules…

  4. Hello Ming,
    Never forget that some of the world’s finest & most enduring art & music was created
    through payed commissions from Kings & Popes.
    Your images, whether commercial or personal are INSPIRING; so ironically your disquiet is liberating the rest of we mortals & serving a great purpose! – however I do feel your pain as I am encountering it in my own work as a CGI artist.
    Please allow my strange analogy-
    I wonder if photography is akin to fishing, & photographers are fishermen of light. In many ways you have to let go & wait for the fish to come to you- if you control every aspect of the hunt, or the struggle, it is like shooting fish in a barrel- the challenge evaporates, there is no satisfaction in landing the catch. Perhaps that is the pleasure & energy to be found in personal work, like your street images- they are ‘wild’ catch.
    Go ‘wild’ man!

    • Haha – well, I need to find some kings and popes to pay for my photography…

      Fishing vs photography: it’t the planned vs the unplanned, I think.

  5. Here is a metaphor – “I want to produce only blue light” versus “I am the rainbow”.

  6. If you view yourself as the master of more than one style rather than bound by “artistic integrity” (whatever that means!) I don’t think schizophrenia will intervene. I don’t think you wear the same clothes to all venues, do you? and that does not compromise your sartorial integrity, does it? Maybe someone is a great novelist, but would they write letters to their family in the same style as their novels? I think not, nor will one or the other be less enjoyable, I hope. I suggest that if there is a straitjacket perhaps it is of your own making, out of some mistaken constraints you want to impose on reality.

    • A person generally wears the style of clothes they’re more comfortable with. You might change those to suit the occasion, but they aren’t really that comfortable for you, and it shows; the wearer just looks a little out of place. It’s the same with photography.

  7. Hi Ming!, another great article to read and great comments from the readers. Here’s my 2 cents, I did budget planning for almost 10 years in various forms and capacities for several departments. I came in with an IT education and got thrown doing budgeting. At first I didn’t like one bit of it. It’s too dull, I started with collecting inputs from different departments and compiling them into a report. After awhile, I moved up and started discussing and deliberating those inputs from the other departments. I still couldn’t find pleasure in doing it. But by god, even if I hated it, I will ensure that I did my work to the best of my abilities.

    After a couple of years of doing it, I started to get a “feel” of the job. I tweaked the system so that it became a bit more efficient, I changed the reporting so that, it gives more relevant information and easier reading, I ensured that my officers follows exactly the system that I put in place so that the reporting can be done fast and accurately. The final product, the budget planning report was entirely mine (of course with the effort of the team).

    Now looking back, I realised that even though the report was just merely another kind of document in the organisation, but I managed to put my personality into it. The end product was “just a financial report” but the processes, the system and the environment that I created was entirely my own.

    So, the point is that, I started with not liking my job and I still think the report is “just another financial report” but I found great pleasure in creating it. So, it might be in your case, that the work is just another work, but maybe you can find the process creating it to be fulfilling.

    By the way, the level and quality of discourse in the comment threads is beyond what is normal for a photoblog. Your style of writing certainly pulls in more “serious” photographers and maybe artists.

    • I did just that when I was still in corporate; it was the only way to stay sane. But ultimately…it still wasn’t satisfying. I guess there are levels, and thresholds, and where one’s personal cutoff lies depends on how passionate you are about the ‘non-job’.

      As for the quality of comments and discussion on this particular thread (and earlier ones), I can only say I’m grateful to my readers!

  8. I don’t really buy it – that there is compromise … there is always wiggle room for expression … just maybe not as much as you would like … but its there if you look for it.

    • I don’t disagree that it exists. But the narrower the corridor gets on one side because of past work portfolios and client expectations, the harder it becomes to do anything too different without being shown the door – especially in a conservative environment that’s tough to break into in the first place. The question is one of balance rather than polarity or duality.

  9. Guido Bee says:

    Ming, great stuff. This plus some of the best philosophical narrative I’ve seen anywhere on the ‘net lately: particularly from Paul, Rev. Heng Sure, Utz, Kristian, and JBrierly. A pleasure to read and some real food for thought.
    Like a lot of you / us, it seems we work (put our minds and our art in nuetral) for the bread ($$’s) and live for the opportunity to make our art “our way”.
    I can identify with the copy / advertising writers. As a resource planner I find it easier to provide the “boss” with the “one version” of the facts; he may not like it / them, but usually does not take the initiative to alter the text. After sometimes heated discussions all will be quiet, and then later the recommended text seems to come back in conversations or presentations when it can be made to sound like it is his idea. All very frustrating, but then I just can go home and shoot my pictures, my way on my schedule. No customer to please.
    Just last night my wife and I were talking about whether I would take a job shooting for a major magazine (this was very much a “what if” type discussion), and I told her I would not take that kind of position because it depended too much on making things to other peoples’ ideas of what the subject should be treated like. Also, too much of the time would be spent trying to talk someone into understanding “why” a particular view or treatment of the subject is the “best way to see / present it”. My preference is to let the picture / image stand alone; if it cannot stand by itself, then it is not the product of a good day in the field. If you like it, fine; if you do not, that’s fine, too. I just don’t need that kind of subjectivity determining what food is no my kids’ table tonight. I guess I’ll be a slave on one level, and practice my art on another. Is this why there are “starving artists”?
    All the best, and thanks for your blog.

    • I think the reason artists starve is because we care too much to compromise. That results in pure, high quality work, but also an inability to work well with other people…which is what one needs to be successful.

  10. A very brave article Ming and one that I think is faced by all creatives in a commercial industry. I work in application design and there are two branches in this industry: Work for the cool young agencies who produce highly creative work on the very frontier of design, lots of awards and very little pay OR work for the consultancies and get pushed out to large corporates where you design something with mass use and appeal but usually creatively limiting and constricting… money in the bank though.

    I’ve done both and find that when working for a consultancy you have to keep pushing yourself and your creativity day to day to get what you can of yourself into the job, that’s why they hired you in the first place, right? Clients sometimes need convincing but there’s a reason why creative thinking and output is appealing. If you can go ahead and prove that what you’ve created works then you will sometimes win the battle and it’s incredibly rewarding. Exhausting, but rewarding.

    An old manager used to say (a little cheesy mind): Sometimes minor evolutions on what’s out there can slowly push you towards revolutionary change.

    I think generally you can’t push a commercial client to the far edge (there are some great exceptions) but you can slowly tease in some more creativity over time.

    • Actually when I worked for a consultancy we did the same things all the time but just *pretended* that they were new and fresh…there was a serious lack of integrity to the work that left me deeply unsatisfied. You can’t really pretend in creative work; it’s just too difficult because the output IS very much personal.

  11. Love the opening images in B&W. Can empathize with you Ming. For 20 years I worked as a pro shooter and rarely shot for pleasure. After retiring, I had a total sabbatical. Now I shoot strictly for pleasure.

    The question is can you compartmentalize your art from commerce? Left brain from right? Fear or freedom?

  12. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Well, it’s a sad world we live in, where commercial customers who can afford to pay for the artist’s work are (with maybe a few exceptions) much more conservative than private customers who mostly can’t afford to.

    Allow me to add a few illustrations…

    Olle Holmberg:
    (from “286 sätt att tänka” – 286 ways of thinking, translated from Swedish from memory)
    The artist: “I’ll give you paintings, stories, beauty instead of bread.”
    The people: “We will give you reputation and fame instead of bread.”

    Tove Jansson:
    (in a comic strip about the Moomins where she makes fun of society, translated from memory)
    “Hi, I’ve got my hobby as a job, collecting shells on the beach.”
    “Well, then it has become just work.”
    “You can’t choose anymore, you have to take all.”

    I have a strong suspicion, that most discussions of the so called enigmatic smile of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa are futile.
    I believe it is Da Vinci’s own ironic smile at his audience.
    (I once saw it in the Louvre, behind security glass with an armed guard beside. The tourists were taking pictures wildly with flashes on, not understanding that the flash’s reflection in the glass cage would hide the picture.)

    Shostakovich had to write some of his symphonies in a way to appease Stalin and you can hear his ironic smile within, though Stalin et al were probably incapable of hearing it.

    Two Hungarian painters (relatives) told me, when I visited them in the 70:s, that the state paid them an adequate salary. The rate at which they had to deliver paintings was OK, but just too high to give them time to develop as artists.

    A friend of my mother’s, Priska von Martin, a German sculptor, in order to sustain herself during the war resigned herself to make pottery people needed and bought – for all that it was beautiful pottery. After the war she still made beautiful art.
    – – –

    Allow me, Ming, to wish you good luck in finding your way through this wood, and if I may say so, your art (which I have long enjoyed both as photography and writing) – and you – most certainly deserve to.

    Maybe you have read it Ming, I have a guess you might find this a good read – if you find time to read..:
    The House of Intellect by Jacques Barzun (1959)
    (He thoroughly criticizes institutions that are supposed to support art and science.
    Comments I can agree with:
    “..takes on the whole intellectual — or pseudo-intellectual — world, attacking it for its betrayal of Intellect.”
    “Devastating examination of the presumptions of ‘Intellect’ in opposition to–and often in collusion with–intelligence, art, politics…”)

    • Thank you for the little quotes and anecdotes. I’ll look up the Barzun book, sounds like interesting reading.

      I think today we’d have ‘I love your Mona Lisa, but could we have something a bit larger, finished within six months, and oh, one of your competitors has offered to do it at half the price – we really like your style, so could you just copy him?’

      None of that made sense, but that’s the gist of a typical client negotiation condensed into two lines.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        And when the client gets the result, quite probably he finds out that it was not really what he wanted after all.
        “..six months..” sounds a bit like Leonardo’s time, I guess he could well have met exactly those clients.
        Are you sure you did not mean six days?

  13. The dichotomy between work and personal pleasure is ever with us in one way or another. Generally in the first we are creating, developing, enabling someone else’s vision, which by its nature relates to a specific situation and circumstances. In the other we are giving flight to our own vision, which may in part relate to our paid work but usually is not bound or restricted by it. It is frustrating when others do not appreciate, i.e. choose, the images we like most or show our skills at their best, but that is often the case because they have a different agenda, which we are not a party to.

    I think it is possible to maintain two ways of working as long as you can effectively differentiate them for yourself. When you do commercial work accept that clients may sometimes chose the same old thing but this shouldn’t stop you from continuing to throw in the more creative pieces. Every so often they may choose something you hadn’t expected them to choose but don’t expect it and don’t take it personally. It is not about your images it is about them; what they feel comfortable choosing, what they think the consumer wants and the list goes on. They are a seething mass of contradictions not unlike many a reader trying to decide what camera and lens to buy. That is probably not a bad analogy for the situation. They can’t decide so they stick with the safe and steady option or like last years with a different subject. It also means they don’t like your work.

    That said, I have always been fascinated with the commercial work you have shown us simply because it is so different from what I see on a regular basis. It has certainly made me reconsider what I look for and look at even in shooting landscape. There are more photographers photographing so many areas that I am gun shy of opening a portfolio of XXX because it will not hold my attention. It becomes all too similar. Your work makes me look at things afresh.

    I’m not sure you should always expect your professional development to keep pace with your personal development. It didn’t along the many, many years in my profession. Perhaps my personal involvement progress as quickly as it did because of that. Professional development was a sure measured growth; personal was a great rush because it could be.

    I’m sure it was the lament of Michelangelo when asked to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel knowing Julius ll would be there telling him he liked this but didn’t like that. People know who Michelangelo is but I had to Google because I couldn’t remember the pope’s name.

    I would be not alone among your readers to realize how valuable your site is to photographers everywhere but we also understand the need for paid employment. Perhaps some of the previously discussed options could be revisited.

    Regardless of your decision, thank you for what you have done.

    • This isn’t so much about what pays and what doesn’t as figuring out how to keep clients happy, but at the same time keep yourself differentiated enough so there are clients in the first place – the irony of course being that if you show the same work, you won’t stand out, but you’ll also rarely if ever get hired for the more edgy work. It just all feels a bit…well, hypocritical. I suppose eventually the styles will merge; one can only hope that it’s somewhere in the middle.

  14. Hi Ming,

    For what it’s worth, this has been bouncing around the net for the last few years …

    [Have you considered portrait photography?]

    • Yes, but it’s not really my thing…

      • It’s worth checking out the link … it’s written by an [apparently] successful photographer who is doing things her way.

        Another thought: perhaps it’s only the ‘people’ orientated styles of commercial photography such as portrait / fashion / wedding where an artistic photographer is appreciated by the client. There is less room for artistic input in the commercial photography of objects.

  15. Have been following your site for a couple of months now. On the first visit, I saw a couple of pictures and started reading some articles.
    What you said relative to the readers’ expectations is right to the point, at least for me: you raised the bar, and of course once this happened, this sets the level for anything to come. Good news is, you meet that — which is why I check your site multiple times a day, curious to see what is to come next. Still I am tempted to say this is only your fault ;-).
    Your work is very inspiring to me, from the creative aspect very much so and surprisingly (to me, before I got here) from a technical perspective as well. Thank you so much for that!
    BTW, something similar same happened to me in my profession. I had computers as a huge hobby. Now since I have been in the IT industry for quite a couple of years, it’s not my hobby anymore, even if abstraction levels of the tasks are quite different. Many many hours per week made me want something else in the little remaining time. I fully agree, though, that keeping your profession as a hobby will help the quality of your daytime job.

  16. I also like he first two “personal” shots a lot (btw: the first link seems not to be working). Don’t see a reason though why they shouldn’t be sellable per se – not to a furniture manufacturer or stair architect perhaps, but as a print for an art collector, why not?

    • Totally different audience – ‘art’ is rather unpredictable. I suppose if you find one influential person who likes your work, then you’re set…otherwise, nada.

  17. Some random thoughts on solving the commercial marketplace/artist’s studio dilemma. Offered in appreciation for your devoted efforts at sharing with us fans your travels into the blend of art and technology that is contemporary photography.

    Take it back to basics: light is a constant, and a gift, an unchanging source of wonder. The quality camera- boxes arrive in endless supply, fine tools that require craft to operate, no matter what scene they are pointed towards, no matter what quality of dark and light they record. So regardless of designation between amateur or professional, the photographer’s skill progresses each time he/she considers, adjusts, shoots and develops the image. Skills learned on commercial jobs can only enhance the non-commercial photo-making experiences.

    Two hands, the left one feeds the body, the right one feeds the spirit; two eyes, one sees with a client’s vision, the other keeps taste and standards in view. Behind the duality, one mind that delights in “writing with light,” and savors the satisfaction of sharing emotional truth, artistic sensibility and turning craft into bread at the same time. Ultimately the entire process is a gift and often if not always magical.

    • I’m wondering if this duality is going to be the source of schizophrenia, or worse, seeing things in a very commercial way as opposed to your own vision. Clients aren’t always creatively inclined; most of the time, it’s the opposite. We try as artists to educate, but a lot of the time, even though what we have in mind might be more attractive, there’s years of preconditioning to overcome.

  18. Personally your abstract work and searching for patterns, leading lines and geometry is what I like about your photography (that could also be the math geek in me 🙂 ). I remember last yr making a comment on an article about getting bored with commercial work vs. creativity. Your response at the time was the challenge of the variation in the commercial work is what kept you going. Somehow that needs to come back into what you do.

    Also you have to treat yourself as a small business and most of them fail in the first couple of years – you are only one year in, so its best to try and persevere and see where it takes you 🙂

    • The large jobs tend to be very repetitive, unfortunately. Variety is a bad thing in that case.

      As for small businesses…the more interesting question would be whether they fail because of financial reasons, or creative/ motivational ones.

      • From my experiences small business fail due to a lack of a solid business plan and in general not maintaining enough of a level of cash flow. But as it progresses innovation and mid-long term planning to staying ahead is key. In a more ‘arty’ scenario I would translate it as follows: maintain the current commercial style so to maintain cash flow and make a living. At the same time try and as you say free style and experiment, even if the client does not like it.

        This may serve you well in the mid term. Everything runs in fads – no doubt a change in fashion/trend will occur. You can try and influence that by showing different stuff to clients in addition to the status quo (even if they don’t use it, they can be influenced for future jobs) or maybe you already have some work to show if I client see something else that works (you may unwittingly have experimented with already with the style).

        You maybe too avant garde for now but it maybe just what is required in a yr or two 😉

        • Well, let’s hope that’s the case…

          I suspected as much re. cashflow. I have a finance/accounting background, so it’s not unfamiliar to me. I did make sure I had a reasonable buffer before starting out…

          • Ming, I would have been incredibly surprised if you hadn’t had a planned buffer, you seem a clever guy 😉 . Only other thing would be to expand by diversifying your business I.e either things like video or more tedious stuff like wedding photography or the such…..

            • Diversification is good for cash flow, bad for your image/ branding and just downright confusing for artistic integrity. Still, you’re absolutely right – the key is to choose the right things to go into…

              • Cash is king… you options.

                • Yes it does, but the sole pursuit of it at the expense of other aspects of one’s personality can have serious consequences. There are certain country-states that are the wealthiest (and most materialistic) in Asia, but they are also winning the polls as unhappiest and unfriendliest…

  19. Ming, just had to say that the stair angles shot is utterly beautiful in my view.

    And of course to thank you for continuing with this blog with such a high quality of content, despite how tough it must be to cram it all in. The online photographic community will be much the poorer if you stop writing. Perhaps some balance could be found (once a week or sumfin? Once a week would be infinitely preferable to nothing at all)

  20. Being a human in an urbanscape
    opportunity cost will set in on and off
    and the above question arise out of normal consciousness
    diversion path ahead will remain as economic value exist
    a dilemma all serious photographer encounter
    …at this very moment
    …your wife and future family members will feel secure as basic needs fulfilled (your works far-reaching open another new opportunity)
    …when your age touched 60+
    …head a cultural non governmental organization (your age command respect and retro-works speaks volume to train young minds)
    …what they call it…a legacy or masterpieces or a life well-worth living or successful or productivity or…never-mind, just words.

  21. This actually came as a surprise to me. You spend years learning composition, lighting, techniques and whatnot, and finally you are good enough to actually charge money. You brave yourself for the job, go in guns ablazing, ready to tackle the world, feeling like the king of the world. And then, the editor says:

    “I want a basic headshot. ”

    And that’s it. Screw everything you learned. You snap away four, maybe five diffrent images, incorporating any creativity you can. And then the editor takes the one you absolutely hate, and that’s it.

    I’ve found out that doing events might be the closest to a creative process you can get in the world of photography. Love those.

    • So true. Which perhaps is why those without that much skill do just fine, and the rest of us are frustrated and competing to charge enough to keep afloat after gearing up with the best tools that money can buy, assuming that the clients can tell the difference. (Most of the time, sadly, they can’t.) I don’t think shooting anything where you are reactive (most of the photographic process, subject etc outside your control) is anywhere near as creative as when you control precisely everything – neither one is easy to do right, but I think the latter is much more satisfying when it works precisely because everything is in your control, and your control only.

    • Tom Liles says:

      Hello Heikki

      Your post really gave me a wry laugh so I wanted to say “good one!” And this:

      And then the editor takes the one you absolutely hate

      Perfect. Here’s a lovely nugget from John Ford. Have you ever seen a film of his called HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY? Excellent picture and beautifully shot: if you like photos you’ll like HOW GREEN… Anyway, there’s a scene in it where a village priest [one of the main characters] is watching on as the woman he loves walks away with her newly wedded husband, the priest has just married them. As the party moves away, the troubled priest is outlined next to a tree on the cemetery grounds outside his old stone church. Very strong iconic shot. John Ford took it in quite an avant garde way. A righthand man, or some such person, had said to him “John, that’s beautifully done. But you know they might not go for it back at the Studio. So let’s shoot a reserve shot [a more normal shot] for insurance.” Ford turns to him and says “No.” “Why John?” And Ford replied: ’cause they’ll f–king use it.

      I think John Ford figured it out. Don’t give them the choice.
      [And if you must, then only give them the illusion of choice]

      P/S I get a similar thing, to a degree, in my work. I write advertising slogans—my Bosses always choose the worst one. The most cliche, banal, done to death stuff. I try to do like John Ford above. It works 50-50 so far.
      [that’s to say, sometimes they won’t pick any and say “do it again.” But I’ll take 50-50 over 100% doggerel]

      • Glad to entertain. Alltough, it’s a terrible feeling seeing something published which tells absolutely nothing about you work. But the you understand this, being in advertising. 🙂 I have a friend in your line of business, and some days she is all but ready to commit a suicide using a butter knife!


        I haven’t seen the movie. But this reminds me of Ridley Scott and Andrei Tarkowsky. Tarkowsky was just plain crazy. In Stalker, he cut every other flower from the ground to create a perfect composition. Only to later shoot the actors waist up. Scott on the other hand tore down the whole Blade Runner set, which had been in the works, to my recollection, 6 months or so. Many of the staff quit that day.

        The problem about not playing it safe is a hard one though. Any image in a paper is an image to the masses. Everyone has to get it, not just the academics or the artists. You just have to do one or two safe bets, even if they are boring and terrible. If you don’t… well, they might make you do a reshoot. But more likely, they just won’t call anymore.

        I think photographs are not a medium easily compared to the movies. Well except a gallery, in which photog carries all the financial risks. And theres the problem. Fundamentally, a photograph has to produce money to a corporate client. And certain norms just won’t ever be crossed. No matter what. Especially so, in a news paper.

        Oh, Ming: I find it to be the opposite. I love reactive compositions and happenings. Sometimes, but rarely, I can capture a glimpse of the mood, and record it. I feel like I live only to photograph those moments. And I love the chaos of it all, when you really have no clue what will happen next.

        • Tom Liles says:

          Hello again Heikki

          Yes I understand very well. The most depressing thing about advertising — the heresy that NO ONE on the gravy train wants to hear — is that it doesn’t work [and hasn’t done for a very long time]. I’m sure you friend has told you this too. You may encourage someone to buy something they were already interested in; but going from zero to sale? Spending 5% of your profits on advertising does not boost the bottom line by 10~15%. This was the raison d’etre for advertising in the first place, not an art project, not “doing something interesting”, not creating interest, sales. But mention this simple premise and these simple metrics [which were invented by marketers] to a contemporary marketing man and they lose their marbles. Really, it’s like watching the human version of a kernel panic. Ming mentioned having to be schizophrenic to continue on his current route. Marketing men are the same [for different reasons]. Massive cognitive dissonance [squaring real world results with those that they purport] is very necessary. How many Zara ads have you ever seen? [None because their ad budget is 0 EUR]. Ever remember seeing a Starbucks ad in a magazine, on TV? Where did you first hear about Google? was it an ad? These are recently successful [in big corporate terms] huge brands and rely almost no, in Zara’s case precisely none, advertising. So ads are obviously not what builds a business [sales].

          You can see why they don’t let me anywhere near clients [who often have the same opinions by the way].

          Why advertising doesn’t really work — or when it does work, why it worked — is a complex matter. Besides the point, in some ways. But I certainly don’t know the full answer. As a copywriter, though, I can give you an interesting nugget: a very literate adult may be able to store up to 10,000 words in their brain; but their working vocabulary [what you routinely use and can remember] is, at best, about 2,000 words. The working vocabulary mostly works like a zero sum game: when you add to it, you lose a word less used [it gets relegated to the 10,000 word deep data dump, i.e., forgotten to all intents and purposes]. Now, here’s the line: a typical supermarket, for example, stocks about 30,000 brand names on its shelves. That’s 30,000 proper nouns in your face. Fancy dumping half of your working vocabulary to remember just a fraction of that? And this occurrence, of course, is not just when you visit a supermarket. It’s all around, all the time. We live in utter advertising saturation. Under an ocean of jingles, slogans and brand names. There is NO WAY your brain will be able to process all this information so it does the only thing it can: switch off. Ignore. This is the reason why you can’t remember a single ad you passed on your way to work, and you walked passed hundreds, trust me. You can’t properly recall a single commercial that was shown on the TV between segments of a show, you sat right there in front of the telly and watched them but try and name even two CMs from a show you saw last night. We screen it all out. You probably couldn’t name which brand of credit card went with the line some things are priceless… for everything else there’s…

          Was it Visa or Mastercard [checking on the internet would only prove my point]?

          In fact marketers hail the above campaign as an example of great success. Yes, it was a memorable ad. And useless as advertising. We all remember the ad; and no-one remembers the brand name. Is there anything more anti-thetical to the thing? The marketers sold the ad, not their advertiser [the client].


          I’m actually surprised I don’t get more a frosty reception around here, as I’m the guy who writes words all over photographers’ beautifully made images. 9 times out of 10 these images really do say it all—the picture painting many more words than I could add. Often words that we don’t have words for 🙂 . Just put the brand name on there, at the most, and perfecto. But my handlers want words all over the image, so words is what they get. Graphic designers and photographers are often quite prickly with us copywriters because of that. And vice-versa. Everyone always has an opinion what the line should be, what a title should be, and so on. When you rip it to pieces and put what it should be, they’re never happy (we all fall in love with our own ideas. That’s why the quickest way, by the by, to get an OK for anything is to let the rubber-stamper think it was their idea).

          Interesting story about R.Scott and Tarkowsky. I’m a massive film fan so enjoyed that. I think they were riding out the last wave of freedom afforded directors by Hollywood [it goes: Studio System –> Auteurs –> and now back to something more like the Studio system again i.e., control –> freedom –> control]. Michael Cimino destroyed director’s power almost single handed. Just like Ace said in CASINO, “that was the last time they let street guys like us run anything again..”
          [switch street guys for directors]

          I was really interested to hear that, in fact, that photography is not easily compared to film. But both are visual mediums [I actually think most film critics are terrible critics as they tend to be products of English Lit. etc., studies and insist on judging films as though they were works of literature, i.e., they bang on about story and characters and arcs throughout their reviews, with little to no attention to photography, compositions, framing, lighting, and so on]. So anyway, please tell me more about that [if you feel like it!]

          If you don’t… well, they might make you do a reshoot. But more likely, they just won’t call anymore

          Can really sympathize with this. Every photographer on our books is self-employed, with all the risks and returns that that entails. Most of them are easily cajoled into surrendering whatever they might have wanted to do with a shoot via the above leverage. Times are not super tough, but certainly not easy…
          When it comes to the crunch, whether the clients understand the technique and artistry involved in a certain shot—if it’s advertising, there’s only one set of eyes that matters, the general public’s. And I think we can all be sure it’s neither here nor there to [the majority of] them how an image was made, assuming we can even get them to look at it in the first place. As you rightly say, I have the same problem with copy.

          I don’t know how Ming approaches his commercial photos — or yourself Heikki — but when I have to create a line for an ad [for someone’s product] job number one is: learn the product inside out. I want to know absolutely everything. My background helps there because there’s no telling me that something would be difficult or hard to understand so “we don’t have to give you that info,” I won’t take no for an answer [doesn’t mean I always get I what I ask for]. After job one, I can compare to other rival products. Learn them too. Now, at last I’m ready to write something. I always ignore what’s been done before [copy], how, etc. I’m not bothered about the chance of repetition. Don’t care about that. I’m just going to write the strongest most forceful copy possible, that focuses on one and only one idea, no exceptions. That line may be tailored to the ad, but usually not [I never say this to handlers or client as they’d ask me to rewrite something “more in tune,” I just make sure they never see the line in isolation — always on the ad, where it should be — and when I do that and I don’t say anything about my process, they always assume I have tailored the line to the ad]. I’m not great at copywriting [I’m just an engineer, after all!]. Realistically I’m just a mezzo-mezzo, run-of-the-mill writer. But they haven’t fired me yet: I get more good results than bad. And this job lets me live in Tokyo [my wife’s home town and where she wants to be]. So it’s all good.

          And! my boss has a pristine Leica M-E, which never gets used, and I know he’ll be bored of showing off in a year or so. I’m cultivating him and this camera slowly but surely—in that year or so’s time, I’m waiting for the moment I can causally say, “oh, Yuichi, you know your old M-E, it’s so out of date now… hey, would you mind if I went out and took a few snaps with it for a couple of days?…”

          He’d never notice I didn’t return it 😀

          P/S in flagrant contravention of my self-imposed long-comment abstinence here, aren’t I? Sorry to you too Heikki m(. .)m

          • I don’t use advertising either 🙂 and the reason why I specialise in such an eclectic collection of subjects is because those things independently are also my passions…I was a watch enthusiast before I ever photographed one (or even seriously picked up a camera, for that matter).

            • Tom Liles says:

              PR, though, Ming works just fine. All those brands I mentioned above [and many other smart ones] rely on it entirely. So please continue on with yours. The NY Times piece was great [I mean it was a great piece and also a great piece of PR]. As many more of those as you can. I’d recommend the Guardian [UK], the FT weekend—its supplements are always well done [you’ve definitely got a story for the “How to Spend It” magazine]; otherwise most things published by Conde Nast. The other big one, and more category-centric target, would be WDD [Women’s Wear Daily]. Anyone who’s anyone in Apparel / Accessories reads that. Tons of apparel makers make watches, etc., too and have dedicated ad campaigns for them. You might snag a client there…

            • Tom Liles says:

              That was “WWD,” and “you might snag a right client there.”

  22. Tom Liles says:

    As a small cog in the evil advertising-industrial complex, I can understand Ming’s predicament. I haven’t seen it firsthand but many product photographers we had on the books disappear, fade away, what-have-you: some got left behind in the trends [which are not just about images Ming, I’m sure you know you have to play politics and the networking game] some went on to other things and some really went on to other things [like quitting photography as a job]. You’ll work it out Ming. I’m sure your community will chip in with thoughts advice here below the line. We’re all behind you. My two pennies:

    1) You could force yourself to have what linguists call a gestalt shift: just redefine commercial work as art and believe it [“but it’s not!” invalidates any claim that the necessary gestalt shift has happened]. Then carry on as you were. Or,
    2) Give up [what you currently define as] commercial work.

    You can do the math, but in the case of (2) [and that you wished to continue earning a living from photos] you’d have to seriously monetize this site and be like a content provider, or — and I stress or — go all out artist and have gallery showings and sell your prints. I’m sure you might do the latter already, but this then would be all you’d do. While your site certainly shouldn’t be monetized in the artist case, the site is itself still crucially important to you. Though as an all out artist you’d have to change it. No more words, save your name but even that isn’t a given, for a start [boo hiss]. As an artist, the more believers [and in turn converts] you have, the stronger would be your, well, in literature they call it the hyper-protected cooperative principle. What’s that? Well you’ll have to switch author and reader for “artist” and “viewer”; literature for “art” and text for “photo” but read the third paragraph [it’s very short, all over in a few seconds]. Art is religious in nature. That’s plain. As an artist, this place would be your church, holy book, message and dogma all in one; with us, your ever growing congregation, as proof that you are an artist whose works are valuable and “worth it” [the all important thing if you want to eat three times a day off the back of them].

    I think you’re an artist Ming. But you can still choose (1) or (2).

    One of the great artists — and most successful commercial photographers — Edward Steichen for your tea break.

    • I think there’s a bit too much pretension and salesmanship in #2 – perhaps it’s because I don’t personally believe I’m there yet. I want to be an artist, but I think I’ve still got some creative development to go before I get anywhere near to earning that. In the meantime, the commercial work keeps things going…I just have to find the right clients, somehow.

      • Tom Liles says:

        It goes without saying we’re all pulling for you Ming. Be zen about it though—there is no physical law of the universe that ensures we get what we want, would like, or even need. You’re doing pretty well to have the anxieties you have [I know you know that].

        I’m a Chemical Engineer [just a BEng, but still, I’m proud of it], I’ve also been lucky enough to have had an extra dollop of very niche and valuable [and expensive] education in nuclear science for my previous job, which I loved, in the [UK] nuclear industry [I specialized in radiation instruments and detectors]. I won’t bore you with the story, but as you know I live in Japan and work in advertising now [I’m a copywriter]. I gulp every morning when I go work. That’s me swallowing my pride. I quite like copywriting, but it’s not on the same level. What I’d consider “my level.” I used to work with very smart people in an intellectually challenging and rewarding job. And we did something that mattered [provide electricity for a whole county, and beyond]. It wasn’t all roses, there was plenty of mundane, annoying stuff, too. But overall, it was a pleasure [and it was special, not many people have seen, will ever be able to see, the things I’ve seen]. Now I have to take aimless waffle-ridden meetings with people who have trouble doing simple mental arithmetic, about nothing much in particular and which go on for hours on end. Nothing we do matters, and to really rub the salt in: this is the polar opposite of what every single advertising exec, planner and marketer thinks. Not one of them can understand what I used to do, try as I might to explain a few basics to them when they ask, and they can’t rate what they don’t understand so, to top it all off, I’m bottom of the heap. But not in terms of pay—and that’s why I continue to do my gulp each morning.

        And I’m OK with surrendering what I considered “my reputation.” Since getting married and having kids, I think about it less and less. I’m almost at the point where it’s neither here nor there to me. Which, do you think, gives more pleasure: adulation from art-school / business college colleagues that I know what directional dose-equivalent is, and how to measure it, that I know IRR’99 and ADR or that I read ICRP annals and double check against Karlsruhe data, or that I’m interested in the latest Canberra tech. specs for gamma spectrographs; that or, seeing my daughter dressed in her school uniform for the first day of kindergarten, beaming. No brainer. Who cares what payed for the school and uniform (as long as it’s legal). Or whether I was fulfilled when I did it. This is starting to sound like “Ming, you should have kids!” Sorry, I’ll stop here, I have no idea where I was going. Maybe something about having a reason to do what you do. Anyway, ah yes…

        A third penny:

        After having a think about it over my post-sushi green tea earlier: I think you could exploit your writing skills, your previous editorial experience, your workshops, your audience, your bio and your skill set by writing/making a book. You’re the best judge of what kind of book [I assume photography, but that doesn’t have to be taken literally] and what it should be about. I don’t know what everyone else thinks, but I’d buy one. No question. This’d be a modest commercial endeavor to supplement the coffers and build your name value; the first attempt probably wouldn’t make much money but its purpose would really be to persuade the publishing company to go for a second, then a third and so on. So you only need to sell enough. I don’t how many users you have now, but say 10% of us bought your book [through the site, etc] would that be a workable number? So, there it is, I think a book would be good. We’re after those right clients and the more routes we create toward the probability of you and them crossing paths, the better. The internet is good, you’re on that, you’re building there; but I’m sure you’re savvy to the benefits of real physical books on the shelf in a bookstore, with your name written on them. Even if none of this worked [commercially], it’d be nice for those around you—a physical thing you can give to friends and family. I bet you they are all proud as punch of you; with a book of yours they could have on a shelf, I guarantee you they’d be happy. Visitors to their houses would never hear [see] the end of it 🙂

        You obviously like penning your thoughts, have interesting things to say. Might be a good stop-gap?

        OK, I think I’ve been over-commenting recently — certainly writing too much — so I’ll leave it here and maybe cool off on the streams of consciousness. As I said a few days back, I have to rigorously edit and censor myself all day [advertising copy has to be tight tight tight] so just letting it flow is very relaxing. But it’s also selfish of me and since you always try to reply to everything, not fair.

        Will not be a nuisance to you [for a while] Ming. m(. .)m

        • Thanks for the detailed thoughts. And I’m envious of both your sushi and the green tea that followed, but not enough to move into advertising. Certainly not in my part of the world. Maybe the drive comes from not having something else more important to do…who knows how having family might shift that. Both kids and a book have been on my mind for some time, though the economics of the latter vs the time required to make it happen are not very well balanced.

          • Ming, it sounds like you are at a crossroads… exciting, and daunting. Thank you (as always) for opening yourself up to your readers/viewers and sharing with us. As everyone has said, we’re behind you 100%.

            (I also want to thank Tom Liles and others for their insights… I’m learning a lot from this site, not only about photography!)

            “Both kids and a book have been on my mind for some time”… I’m working on both — well, a dissertation not (yet) a book, and a five-year-old. As a parent and a writer, I constantly have to let go of my inclination to perfectionism. Otherwise I am miserable, because I can never be the parent or writer (not to mention spouse) I wish to be. That’s ok. On the other hand, parenting and writing enrich each other in ways that I had no idea would be possible. So you never know.

            Not that I’m saying have a child. Just that… once you find what you want to do next, it might mean a little compromise, but hopefully there will be joy in the whole.

            As for economics vs artistry, I totally understand. When I wrote or edited others’ words for a living I came to dislike writing intensely. Writing for myself is much more rewarding. But even if I were a solely creative (not academic) writer, I would still have to sell my words… nothing is immune to the market, as you know well.

            • Tom Liles says:

              Well, I’m touched by that thank you Anodyne—so thank you 🙂

              When I wrote or edited others’ words for a living I came to dislike writing intensely

              Seconded. Wholeheartedly. There’s a lovely George Orwell line in his essay BOOKS VS CIGARETTES:

              Nothing turns one off books more than working in a bookshop

              I don’t think this just counts for books!

              I obviously know about copyediting [and obviously don’t do any for my posts here!] and I can attest to everyone reading that it is quite a draining enterprise. Rarely “fun.” Unless you are gifted. You have to be razor-sharp all the time—you’re the guy that corrects everyone’s mistakes, so must be immune to making them yourself. You find yourself the only one who has precisely no excuse for missing something. That constant level of concentration and expectation is hard to bear. At least, I found so, anyway.

              Though there is the pleasure of going through someone’s writing with a red pen! 😀

              • I often used purple, to soften the blow! 🙂

                Your perspective on priorities is great, Tom. And like you, I would buy a book by Ming in a heartbeat.

                best to you and your family,
                Rachel (anodyne)

                • Tom Liles says:

                  Haha. Very considerate of you Rachel 🙂

                  Yes, likewise—all the best to you and yours. I have a daughter (3) a son (1.5) and a baby due in July; we’d love more but our first and second were caesarians, so the doctors and me [I hate writing “and I” when we’re the subjects, it sounds so telephone voicey] so… the doctors and me 🙂 think we should draw a line under it at three. There is adoption if we really would like to have more. Family is what brought me here in a roundabout way. I picked up photos as a hobby end of last year, beginning of this: I just wanted to be able to get competent, interesting pictures of the kids and produce decent prints. I’m still working on competent and interesting… I think it might take me a while!

                  What’s been surprising is how my picture taking very quickly sprawled out into all sorts of stuff [and how quickly I wanted more equipment]. I can’t say there’s some convenient subject I go for [nature, architecture, etc] though I tend to go for nature, architecture, etc. I think these objects are perhaps just symbols that point to the thing I want. Why I’m even bothered about capturing an image of that, and what on earth I think I could achieve with one, is beyond me. I don’t think about it; problem solved. The only human subjects I’m really interested in [photographing] qua human subjects are my wife and kids. My wife runs a mile when I appear with a camera in hand 🙂 She has some sense. So I shoot my kids quite a bit. But, frankly, I have about three times the number of shots of other stuff. I think this suggests that the reasons I thought I picked it up were not the real reasons I picked it up. And, OK. But I’m still going for competent and interesting. Mainly interesting. Ok, to be honest. I don’t care about competent or interesting… I want, well I don’t know what I want and I have a feeling I won’t until I see it. My mini motto for this photo boom is: I’m clueless, but hopefully taking more photos will solve the problem.

                  A book by Ming would help!
                  [and that doesn’t mean a “how to” book]

                  Alright then Rachel, thanks for talking with me. See you around the way!

            • It’s not so much of a crossroads as future planning. I could continue this way for a bit longer, but eventually the artistic and commercial sides would be at war. I just want to make this sustainable as I’m rather enjoying my job these days…

  23. “All I can say at this point is enjoy it while it lasts; if I can’t find a long term solution, I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this.”

    I’m thankful and really enjoy the way you share your knowledge and vision through your writings and images. Underneath it all is a strong presence of striving for integrity and quality: something today’s world really needs in my opinion.
    I hope you’ll find your way eventually.

  24. Philip Millenbah says:

    Ming, you do great work regardless of who the end viewer is be they a person who follows your blog or a commercial client. My wife is a painter/graphic designer and I asked her about your concern. She said that she liked doing art regardless of who was using it or would be viewing it so to her there would be fun and creativity in doing either commercial or personal “art”. Maybe you can still find some fun in the commercial work? Do the commercial work and by all means keep making the money and doing so guilt free. I am a city planner and when I get into moods as you describe, I call them “receptor” periods. During these times my mind seems to be coming to terms with new information or ideas and I know that some time soon something interesting will come out being in that mode. Maybe this is happening to you right now. It is actually a good thing and nothing to lament. Finally, because you are so generous with your time and knowledge you have people like me who are learning from you. You are a teacher and a good one. There is definitely integrity in that and something you should feel good about (although as you posted recently, you are not sure how to monetize that activity).

    Wishing you the best,

    • Thanks Phil. If not given some creative latitude on a job, I do try to shoot some personal B-roll which I’ll usually include in the hopes that the client will use it or prefer that style next time, but it’s rare that we even have time for that – ah well…

    • …when I get into moods as you describe, I call them “receptor” periods. During these times my mind seems to be coming to terms with new information or ideas and I know that some time soon something interesting will come out being in that mode.”

      There’s much valuable advice and insight in all of the comments on this piece, but this remark by Phil particularly hits home with me. I find after periods like this I often emerge with very creative ideas about how to approach problems and where to go next; thus I’ve learned to accept the process and the tension and frustration that can accompany it. I believe it’s a normal part of learning and growing. Not all the answers appear immediately.

      And so I’m also not surprised you’d feel as you do after the last two weeks you’ve had (if only because of too much travel and not enough sleep!) with all the places and people and ideas you’ve been exposed to along the way. Something’s brewing; it may be the conflict you describe, the personal/integrity vs. commercial/financial conundrum – or it could be something completely different that you haven’t recognized yet (maybe you want to move to SF?).

      As far as your work goes, I find your commercial work as interesting as any other. Regardless of any restrictions a client may place on you, you still bring your own style to what you do, and those images are enlightening as well.

      In any event, you’ve provided a fabulous resource this year for me to observe and learn from, and thank you for that.

      • You’re both welcome and right: something is brewing, but I can’t put my finger on what yet. But I thought it might be interesting for my readers to get an insight into the practical/ philosophical life of a pro…

  25. Perfect topic, Ming. I got out of a growing commercial photographic services business (wedding, events, table top, copy work, etc), because I hated chasing the buck to put food on the table and there was always someone more experienced and deeper pockets. Turns out, there still are those someones, but I’ve changed. I built a career elsewhere and found a way to keep a photography business that did not need to feed my children.

    • The problem is, I think I have an obsessive personality. I don’t compromise on anything unless I absolutely have to. Having two jobs would be a compromise…and internally extremely troubling.

  26. “All I can say at this point is enjoy it while it lasts; if I can’t find a long term solution, I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this.”

    Ming, I’m amazed at what you’ve done so far and the level of output in your articles. I don’t know how you do it. My job is pretty heavy and I couldn’t imagine having a blog of your calibre “on the side”….
    Personally I find your artistic/personal work far more interesting than in your, more predictable commercial shot example….. but I can see why the commercial shot is more “saleable” and requested by companies etc.
    Your horology work is however interesting and far more artistic to my eyes as compared to the majority of the other work I see in magazines and billboards. If I were in charge of advertising for Breitling etc, I’d be calling you.
    None of this rambling of course helps solve your dilemma, but just some of my humble thoughts.

    • Well, just have to hold on long enough to get a lucky break – that’s the tricky part…one hopes that after some degree of establishment personal style is what you get known for. Except then it’s also what’s expected and you can’t really develop without alienating clients’ expectations…and round and round we go.

      • One thing I’ve learned from graphic design is that when I’m presenting ideas to clients, I might hold back on the expected ideas and try to push the ideas that are more creative, or my own style. If those bomb, I have the expected concepts in the back pocket. I’m not sure you can do the same, but this works for me more often than you’d think. The other thing I’d ask is are you seeking out clients that are open to different ideas?

        • I seek out as much as I can in conservative Asia. But if it’s too left-field, then they think you’ve missed the point completely rather than taken initiative. Oddly even though we often help the agencies do the creative and conceptual work for them, we’re not really recognized for it. I had a client that thought making ‘a few shots for ads like these (points to international magazine ads for a big fashion brand)’ would be easy. Then when I tried to ask about style and brand image, I was told that it was the job of the photographer. Nevermind – on top of this, I got questioned in my quote for props required for the ideas they eventually liked…needless to say I did not get the job. What’s interesting is that this client is an international jewelry brand whose cheapest products are five figures…yet they appear to have no brand management and cannot afford to pay $100 for props. The sadder thing is that this is normal in Malaysia – go figure.

          • There is a particular mindset in Malaysia…. I see it whenever I go back. It can be both amusing and sad. I see people spend thousands on a Tag or Rolex. Instead of getting the battery on the Tag changed at a proper service centre you have it done for 8 ringgit by the local street vendor and then wonder why it leaks later…. there is a certain reluctance to spend money where its needed. I can only imagine that this mindset carries over to how many businesses are run and what you encounter.

  27. Good article Ming, and I love those photos. Amateur here, who’s learning (hopefully) from each photo he looks at. Some year or two ago, a colleague of mine got into stock photography. I thought about that for 5 minutes or so, but didn’t like the idea that everything I would look at would turn my eyes into revolving dollar symbols. Still I take way too many photos just for stories on my blog, I should maybe separate the personal diary from photos which I think are possibly worth showing.

  28. Another deep look into the photographers head. Thanks ming for sharing. One, that title still works for me; so your admittance of that struggle to come up with titles speaks volumes of your character. I would like to say the same about personal pictures. Your commercial work is very ‘pretty’ like a Hollywood pretty (I hope that statement doesn’t come off too candid, rude or insensitive). But when it placed next to your personal work, the commercial work begins to lose its soul and character. Your personal work speaks volumes about you and the person you are and want to be. For this reason, I find your personal work to be so much more creative and revealing of who you are. Thank you for sharing these too. I look forward to seeing more of your personal work as you post them.

    • andygemmell says:

      Jason, that is coming from someone not assessing Ming’s work with commercial means in mind. The issue, fork in the road, conundrum, etc….Ming gets that very feedback yet it does not pay his bills.

      I personally think you need to make a decision about what type of photography can you apply, outside your “bread and butter”, which could take you in a different direction commercially. Start the process and see where it takes you. I am not a professional photographer, but love photography. Having run my own business for over 15 years I know the realities of what doing if for a living would mean. Apart from the commercial aspects I know I’d have to be passionate “enough” about the subject matter and more importantly how I applied it (artistic style).

      As an example if I were to become a wedding photographer I would dictate my approach and style. I’d do what the client asked but only within the boundaries of my eye and expression. Then i’d back it that to work and start the commercial process on it’s way. Even this would become a bit mundane but it doesn’t matter… can shoot landscapes to your hearts content and even those photographers would have those days.

      Botton line Ming, if you are truely finding this fork in the road is becoming more evident it’s up to you….get out of the commercial comfort zone and applying all your efforts here. Try different avenues, spend the next 6 months doing it and seeing where some changes in commercial take you. You’ll obviously maintain the “bread and butter” but build around it.

      • Makes perfect sense. I think there’s a binary outcome to this, though: one either breaks out and becomes successful in his or her own style, or crashes and burns.

        • I’m not sure it’s a binary outcome. I’m a web designer and I do commercial work and personal work. You do the commercial work to pay the bills and personal work to answer the creativity that lives inside you. While I often experience cognitive dissonance doing commercial work, at some point you just have to accept the middle road. I’ve become ok with the occasional “Man this job sucks” situation to allow to me to pay the bills and support other fun aspects of my life (like photography).

          • Who Knows. Perhaps it is perfectly possible to play on both sides of the fence; as Morgan suggests. Commercial work and personal work are different pants. You don’t wear the same pants everyday. Some days you wear jeans, others you wear a suit. And during that time, we are all faced with the ‘grass is greener on the other side’ scenario. So this conflict between personal work and commercial work rages on. At the end of the year, all of us will have had plenty of opportunities to wear many different kinds of pants – And the pants we don’t wear get donated to the Salvation Army. This leads us to face the dilemma of how to balance commercial and personal work?

    • Not at all. I do what the client wants to the highest quality possible, and then add as much of my own vision into it as I can. That amount of vision varies. Personal work contains much more feeling, nuance, experimentation and is heavily influenced by how you feel on the day; to some extent it lacks that degree of consistency that commercial work has, and perhaps it’s this subtle rhythm that makes it more interesting. I mix it up on the site – sometimes it’s personal, sometimes it’s commercial.

  29. I’m in the process of just finishing reading the “Autobiography of Ansel Adams”. I had no idea how much he actually contributed to photography as an art. The book also shows how Mr. Adams struggled with these same issues throughout his life. Balancing the creative work that he was so passionate about with the kind of work that payed the bills. I also didn’t know just how much non-artistic commercial work he had done. The book is still completely relevant.
    Anyway, if by some rare chance you have not yet read it, I can’t recommend it too highly. It is an inspiration and a guide as to how one can approach the choices you are describing and still come out having done hugh amounts of good for the Art and his own creativity. He also gives some vignettes of the other great photographers of the twentieth century and how they each dealt with these thorny issue too.
    I wish I could be more effective at describing how closely it parallels your discussion, but since I can’t, just get a copy and read it!
    BTW, as usual, love the “non-commercial” pictures you posted and do enjoy it while it lasts.

    • It’s sitting on my bookshelf 🙂 The sad reality is that the majority profitable commercial photographers are not artists. A small handful are. And the artists aren’t profitable until after they die…one has to pick.

  30. Wonderful Article Ming! I still see you cranking out amazing personal stuff and that picture of the buildings is gorgeous even if it was commercial. 😉

  31. Some definitions say amateurs go on unpaid basis but from what I see, this is not the case. Many weekend warriors, who are considered amateurs (or semi-pro?), are making good side income with paid assignments.

    Now back to the topic – I find that the place that Instagram is actually a pretty good place for expressions. It’s casual yet allows creativity.

    • Those weekend warriors are invariably shooting events or weddings, not commercial work. And the quality of the output can vary heavily.

      Instagram uses filters that make the processing decisions for you, restrict things to a few narrow choices, and completely remove any sort of control over the process. How is this allowing creativity? If anything it’s simply homogenizing all images – good and bad – behind a layer of overprocessing.

      • Well, events and weddings are still paid jobs over the weekend. So amateurs still get paid.

        As for instagram – I find that the restrictions forces me to think (my Instagram link is on my previous reply, click on my name). I don’t use Instagram like what most other people do, a scene or camwhore pic with filter. I don’t like it that way. I use it for abstracts, and I do my best to hunt abstracts that fit the frame, and where the filters make it look more dramatic.

        I think it really depends on what you want with creativity – full control? or limited control that forces you to think? I’m fine with both, just that Instagram is always with me because my phone is with me.

        I photograph Food and Interior by profession, and when I’m not doing work I would be photographing figurines, and occasional interiors or scenes, and of course also photos of my lunch / dinner of which I still photograph it to as close to commercial grade as possible. 🙂

        • You could always use the phone without instagram…I frequently use compacts for the same reason – the challenge of having some restrictions, but also the liberation of not carrying a gazillion pounds of gear.

  32. An old photographer once explained to me that, at some stage in a pro’s life, he will come to a fork in the road. One says ‘lots of cash’ this way’ and the other says ‘your artistic integrity this way. Most, unfortunately go the first way. You can hardly blame them, but few of them seem to recognise that they have made the choice. They still maintain a pretense of art while pumping out work for the masses.

    • That’s a good one.

    • The problem is that the artistic integrity way isn’t really sustainable because it doesn’t pay…so perhaps ultimately there really isn’t any choice at all. Either that or one has to be a bit schizophrenic.

      • I suspect that it is sustainable for a very few photographers. There are a few that I can think of who appear to be able to have both. Michael Kenna is one that springs to mind.

      • Ming I would have to disagree with your premise of “that the artistic integrity way isn’t really sustainable because it doesn’t pay”. A lot depends on ones choice of location, techniques, marketing, proven printing methods and a willingness to lay it on the line. I have found that the further one gets away from what is accepted by the masses the better off one is. I have maintained a fine art photography gallery specializing in platinum/palladium, silver gelatin and bromoil prints for 13 years now and the last commercial job I did was back in 2000. It is also imperative that you surround yourself with people willing to go their with you.

        • Which basically means it’s time to move. Where I live, people wanting to buy prints means they’ll pay for the cost of the printing; you’re the one enjoying the privilege of having your image hung. Yeah right…

          • I was actually going to point this out. There’s a reason that (in the US) startups flock to the Bay Area and actors flock to LA — you can set up any kind of business anywhere, but sometimes the success (or, at least, sustainability) of that business depends on being in the right place. Sometimes the supplier has to seek out the demand.

            I mean, you don’t want to be a gangsta rapper trying to make a living in the bible belt, right? That’s a situation where your artistic values are almost exactly at odds with your likelihood of commercial success. But on the flip side, there’s a long history of gangsta rap coming out of LA.

            I think this post last year by Jeremy Cowart demonstrates a situation where the photographer was in the right situation for commercial clients to appreciate his artistic vision:

            And here’s Zack Arias on seeking out demand (particularly in the context of fashion photography):

            • I’m not sure moving to Switzerland is going to help things that much, but I get your point. I’ve just had another brainwave that might solve things…

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