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

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The welder.

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

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The client is a local heavy-engineering company that supplies heat exchanger assemblies, process vessels and other pressure equipment to power stations, chemical manufacturers and oil and gas concerns; they were in need of a new corporate profile, and images which showed a few things: the intensely manual and specialized (but at the same time, physically immense) nature of the work, the precision of the outcome, and the pride of the team behind it. also being involved in the creation of the final materials meant that I had a lot of creative freedom with the imagery; there’s a mix of clean, cinematic corporate stuff and a more artistic component strongly influenced by Salgado’s Workers. What takes place in the factory is undoubtedly industrial manufacturing, but having spent a good amount of time there, I can say there’s equal components of megineering and art involved. This is very much something I wanted to capture and convey in my images. In the end, I landed up with a mixture of classical documentary images of people, and abstract art in metal. I think it covered both worlds nicely.

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Let’s start with the obvious: it’s a very hazardous environment to work in; there are arc welders, sparks, grinders, heavy objects, hot objects, things to get your fingers caught in, cranes moving overhead, sharp bits of metal (a careless step resulted in a cut boot; I’m just glad I was wearing thick leather ones) and various chemical hazards. I had a chaperone at all times for my own safety, and I definitely felt better with than without. You of course have to be careful where you place anything, and not leave any optical elements exposed for longer than necessary – the dust in the air could potentially be very harmful to lenses and sensors, especially if inadvertently polished in while trying to clean something. I even worked out of a top-loading bag (a Billingham 555) to avoid having to open a roller suitcase on the floor where things might fall into it or it might get tripped over. It also has the benefit of being able to be moved quickly if it’s in the way.

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Since I typed this at the normal speed, you can probably conclude that I didn’t lose any fingers. The only minor injury I sustained was when carelessly collapsing my tripod, I clipped a finger between two of the leg locks – let me tell you, the leg locks on a Gitzo 5 series are seriously chunky…and painful. That aside, my equipment performed flawlessly. What did I bring? Over the course of several sessions, I was carrying varying combinations of:

  • Hasselblad system – 501C, 50/4 CF FLE, 80/2.8 CF, 120/4 CF lenses (this was before my digital back or 150mm arrived; I’d definitely have liked a bit more working room between me and some of the hotter areas than the 120 could give). Also a cable release, my Voigtlander VC-Meter II and three film magazines – one loaded with 100, one loaded with something faster (400 or 800) and a spare.
  • Film: started off with Delta 100 and 400 (and pushed 400), with some Fuji Acros
  • Nikon system – D800E, 24-120/4 VR, 85/1.8, Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon, Zeiss 2/100 Makro-Planar and a couple of SB900s (you never know when you might need them)
  • Olympus system – OM-D and either the 60/2.8 Macro or 75/1.8
  • The aforementioned Gitzo GT5562 6x carbon systematic tripod and my usual Manfrotto 410 geared head.

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Interestingly, this was the first assignment where I seriously shot film – that is to say, with intention for final client delivery and output. The first session was done with me duplicating every single film image with digital ‘insurance’ from the D800E – just in case – but after seeing the results, I was happy to do most of the remaining B&W work on film. I admit that I was very nervous right up to the ‘scanning’ (again with the D800E) step – at that point, you’re very conscious that there’s only one copy of your image anywhere in existence, and all changes are destructive. There are no backups, do-overs or redevelopments. Even if you shoot two on the same roll, if you mess up developing, you’re going to toast both of them. I can’t imagine how pros did it back in the day, but in hindsight, I suppose shooting duplicates on alternate backs could be an option (though a really good way to screw something up when forget the dark slide, or remove it before putting the back on the camera). It’s also worth noting that the vast majority of the final selected B&W set was shot with the Hasselblad, with the color images from the OM-D. The D800E’s real role was as scanner…

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There isn’t a lot to say about the digital gear: the D800E is a workhorse with known (and exceedingly high) capabilities; the OM-D and 75/1.8 notably performing beyond expectations. The 75/1.8 was a loan unit from Olympus (along with the final production E-P5 at the time); I landed up purchasing my own after this shoot – and yes, I got the black one. Aside from the combination delivering the goods optically and working intuitively as usual (there’s a reason why the OM-D is still my travel camera of choice) – it allowed me to frame tight without getting too close, which as you can imagine is very important in a hazardous environment.

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I think more importantly though, my client was pleased with the outcome from the film cameras; more so than digital, and surprisingly, the visual difference  between the two media was instantly visible, too. (Two large prints on baryta probably didn’t do any harm either.) In fact, he landed up buying a vintage Hasselblad of his own shortly afterwards – though more to admire as a piece of art and engineering rather than shoot in anger with. This very much reaffirms my philosophy of using the right tool for the job, and also makes me wonder if there’s a market for B&W work done specifically on film and film only. I suppose weddings would be an obvious application, but then we run into the ‘local mentality bias’: if you shoot weddings, you simply don’t get taken seriously as a commercial photographer. Sad, because doing a wedding well is actually exceedingly challenging, and also immensely rewarding. I have one final session at the factory, and I’m very much looking forward to using the CFV-39…it’s probably about as close to a practical-application A-B comparison as I’m likely to get. MT

To be continued in part two…


One last seat has opened up for the Prague workshop (2-5 Oct) due to a participant’s conflicting work commitments. Now available at the special price of $1,900 instead of $2,150!For full details and to make a booking, click here. Thanks! MT


Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.


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


  1. Thanks for continuing to inform on your film experiences.

    Query….any progress commercializing your film scanning rig?

    • Progress yes; happy progress no. The finishing quality of the ‘final’ prototype was terrible. I can’t sell something this bad, and that costs this much to make. We’re looking for another solution.

  2. These rich, black and white photographs complement this subject matter beautifully. I especially like the first and last one. Congratulations and good luck with your upcoming show.

  3. Definitely one of my favorite series of yours. In fact, I like it so much that I decided to buy my own vintage Hasselblad. Will use it mostly for portrait work where its applicable, and of course for more personal work. Great stuff Ming! I’m glad that I live in Tokyo so that I can buy lots of film with no hassle though, haha.

  4. Reblogged this on Γεωργία Μπούρδα.

  5. Very much enjoyed this photo essay. As far as the “how did we do it in the film days” question goes, the answer from my own past experience of shooting for a newspaper is that first, I shot as much film as the publisher would let me get away with (the secret, at the independently owned weekly I shot for, was to be very aware of what I intended to run color and what I intended to run b&w, push the color bill as high as I figured I could go without pushback but make sure for quality purposes that it was focused on color-printed work, then shoot the rest on b&w where we were not shackled by having to outsource processing). The next stage involved swearing very loudly if anything got exposed/damaged/trashed-in-processing etc. And I rounded out the job by getting to work with editing what I had. And we still had a very attractive result at the end, which helped the publisher to get steadily more relaxed over time about the color processing bill. I think the reality is that there was an element of “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” with lost film.

    • “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” Haha – you’re right, but I don’t think we could get away with that now. There really are no excuses especially when your competition isn’t facing the same constraints…

  6. just love this set…. really fantastic!

  7. Stephen King says:

    This is awesome Ming…might be my favorite set of yours.

  8. Dwaine Dibbly says:

    1. I love this series! Do you anticipate ever being able to make prints available? (Or does the client own the rights?)
    2. Can’t wait to see part two.
    3. Off-topic, but since you mentioned the OM-D, I am hoping that you will get a chance to test & publish a review on the E-M1.

  9. Diego Defilippi says:

    I Really like these photos.
    I really like industrial enovironments: old factories, steel, iron, sparks and everything related to the metal workin’ process.
    My father is an appassionate in working with metal, he has a little but cool, personal workshop where he is used to forge, bend, solder metal. He and his work are my first source of inspiration. Unfortunatley he is a bit shy so I have to trick a little bit in order to take shots.
    I uploaded one of them in the last B&W competition…BTW… I don’t want to annoy people..just to say…well done.
    I really appreciate the subject, the tecnique and the shots, obviously.
    I quite envy you for the opportunity.. 🙂
    Well done Ming…can’t wait to read part II.

    • Thanks Diego! I’d have thought your father would be used to you photographing him by now; can’t convince mine to take up metalworking unfortunately! 🙂

  10. What a wonderful series, Ming! I have worked on numerous annual reports for industrial companies as a writer and I miss the creative part a lot! The first photo – the welder – I see the format is a bit different than the rest. Is it cropping? or did you use a different camera? Which? Thanks a lot! Looking forward to part 2.

  11. Okay, film geek question. You pushed Acros… what time/temp/developer/ISO?

  12. HomoSapiensWannaBe says:

    I love your work, especially the B&W. I am in a camera club and regularly refer members to your site to see what good B&W looks like. One of our members just moved to Kuala Lumpur and I told her to be sure and check out one of your courses. I am also familiar with industrial settings and how dark and low-key they often look. I hate to be odd man out here, because as much as I like the actual images, this series struck me as overall too dark and murky looking. Just my 2 cents, for what it’s worth. Regardless, no hard feelings I hope, especially given how subjective much of this really is. I look forward to part 2!

    • Thanks, a different point of view is always appreciated. Photography is highly subjective anyway, making it impossible to please everybody – I’d be worried if nobody liked the set! I rarely offer courses in KL because people here would rather buy gear than education – it’s a local mentality, I think. Not much point in trying to teach those who don’t want to learn…

  13. You allude to “scanning” again with the D800E. Are you copying the negatives with your D800E? If so what sort of set-up are you using?

  14. Congratulations, Ming. This is astounding B&W work. My personal favourite is “The Welder”. It’s very universal in its appeal. You can easily imagine it was shot in outer space…

    • Thanks Kees!

      • Nice photos, thanks for sharing. Salagado for sure, but also Margaret Bourke-White, who I didn’t know much about until I picked up a1972 book of her photos at a used book store (what a blessing they still exist here). Edited by Sean Callahan, NY Graphic Society. Early in her career she managed to find a way to fight the intense heat and otherwise low light conditions to take some of the first shots inside the Otis Steel Company in Cleveland in 1928 and a a year later inside the Ford Motor Company in 1929. With some kind of (to us) gigantic view camera. Heat affected everything, intense light from 200 ton ladles with molten steel and obscured shadows that she use magnesium flares to light up just enough. She also documented early Soviet industrial plants before WWII. Top of the empire state building as it was being built, photos of skyscraper steel that reminds me of some of your b&w photos as well, all the way to bombing mission in WWII and high altitude flights in B52s after WWII. All printed in beautiful b&w that still holds up today. That’s what amazes me about the “ancients” and their equipment, the quality “in spite of.” Really makes you wish some of the whining about shortcomings in the latest digital, “modern miracles” would cease. Complaining about location of on-off switches and so forth. I once saw a photo magazine editor say that they wanted original photographs that were not derivative of former photographers. Then you look at the magazine and see one derivative after another . . . . but alas, not all! Still room for originality. So, from the above discussion, should we assume that you don’t have a Leica M Monocrhom to try out in these situations? Not that it matches film, but as an alternative to Nikon and Olympus. If not, perhaps you could share you best guess at how it would under those conditions.

        • My long answer disappeared before I could post it. In short, I answered my own question by rereading your May 2012 comparison of the M and D800. Very thorough. Seems like what is left is ease of use and other qualities of the Nikon 800 versus the range finder Leica MM in the setting in which you were doing your work. Any further comment on the differences? And yes, I’m still thinking about buying the MM . . . a year later it’s actually available to buy now.

          • I just can’t justify the MM from a business point of view – the camera costs a fortune, is a very specialized tool and clients seldom ask for B&W; it has limited and expensive focal lengths available; doesn’t play nice with my speedlights; on top of that, it won’t also let me shoot color at the same time if I need to – so I’d still have to carry the D800E. A used digital back for the Hasselblad cost significantly less and delivers better quality in both color AND black and white.

        • I’ll be sure to check out her work, thanks for the heads up.

          Originality: is there really anything original that isn’t at least a remote derivation of something else? I’m not sure anymore. As time passes it’s going to get even harder to find something original simply because there have been more people and more experimentation. At very least, the execution should be of high quality.

          No, I can’t justify buying an M Monocrhom. The tonality still doesn’t match film, the camera itself resolves less (and obviously doesn’t offer color) than the digital back I picked up, not to mention costing more than the back AND most of the Hasselblad system. Why would I want to pay more for worse results?

          • From what I can tell by recently published photographs available in the US, one could make quite a career in photography today by specializing in “gratuitously blurred, broken smudged dolls with torn clothes, swinging upside down from an old noose in a condemned, partially destroyed former mental institution.” Kidding, but just barely. But alas, broken dolls also go back to the 1930s experimentation, so it’s only the combination of all of the above components that is original. Well, not really if I can already provide an almost complete description of the photo, black and white, of course. Too serious a comment to be very funny however. What’s fortunate is that it’s still possible to see an entirely new, different photo of the Eiffel Tower and many others as well. One wonders how a good photographer can still do that.

            • I just take solace in the fact that these days, published absolutely doesn’t necessarily mean paid for 🙂

              As for the Eiffel tower – we can try, but how far can we go before the image is so far removed that the casual observer can’t identify the subject? Probably not that far, and in any case, we wouldn’t want to defeat the point of making the image in the first place…

  15. What a great series of shots. Can’t wait for part 2.

    Also, I know you addressed many issues on how you worked with the film in the comments, but a separate Film Diary piece that combines some of the aesthetic and technical decisions you made would be wonderful.

    Finally, I’m hesitant to ask this because it comes up all the time, but I’m paying USD 15/roll for scans so here goes: Do you have an approximate date for making your scanning rig available and can you give a ball park figure on what it might cost? (No use waiting if it’s not affordable).

    Regardless, thanks for the inspiring posts.

    • Thanks Jim. The assignment was shot some time ago, so I’m not sure how much of the detail I remember – I’ll try to keep this in mind for future articles, though.

      Scanning rig: still refining the design. Final prototype round hopefully in the next couple of weeks. It’s proving a lot more expensive, complex and time consuming than I expected to get the quality up to the standards I want. Short answer though: within the next two months, and in the US$180 ballpark, including workflow video and express shipping (+/- depending on a few things like shipping and raw material cost variances). It’s got to make economic sense for all – so I think 12 rolls is pretty reasonable; it’s what I’d shoot in a busy couple of days 🙂

  16. I used to shoot annual reports for corporations a couple of times a year. 2 Hasselblads ( CM & ELM ) with 40mm ( loved it! ), 50mm, 80mm,120 macro, and 250mm. Minolta color temperature meter and 2-2400ws power packs with 6 light heads. The most important piece of equipment was my Polaroid back for the Hasselblad. Without that, I could have gone out of business! I used to spend $ 1000. a month on Polaroid film! Clients mostly wanted color chromes so the color temperature had to be right on. If I ever screwed up a shot ( once in a while ), the client never found out about it. I would only submit my best shots. On most shots, I would bracket 3 shots in 1/2 stop increments ( chromes ). And, if it was a very important shot, I would pop in an extra back and do the same bracket.
    Now, I mostly do available light ( or darkness ) and much of the stuff is crap because they want quantity over quality. How many shots can you do in one day? is the standard question. Good enough is always good enough is the corporate motto of most companies.

    • Still hunting for a 40 CFE IF to restore some semblance of wide angle with the digital back, but the price is eye watering. I might just try one of the FLE versions and see if that’s acceptable.

      Polaroids in 120 are impossible to get here; and I haven’t been able to get a back, either. Digital will have to suffice…

      Did you have to use some clever array of filters if you needed to mix strobe and ambient?

      I’m glad to say that this assignment still proves that there are some clients out there who appreciate the art and quality beyond quantity! 🙂

      • Yes, I bought a whole slew of decamired ( I think that was the name ) filters in increments from .5 to 40. These were gelatin ( very fragile but very pure ). On the filters used most often, 40magenta ( for fluorescent tubes ) and tunsten to daylight and vice versa, I’d buy a glass that fit my 40mm. Then I’d use step down rings for other lenses. After a while, I bought a Hasselblad compendium lens shade with a filter slot. Then I could buy good quality plastic filters in roughly 12x18mm, that lasted alot longer than the gelatins. Mixed light sources were a pain in the neck. Sometimes I even carried rolls ( 1 meter x 10 meters ) of gels in tungsten and daylight. I’d cover the windows! Those shoots were rather lengthy in set up alone.
        Finally, towards the end of Polaroid, I used to use my Nikon D1 tethered to my laptop as a Polaroid preview. I had it calibrated so I knew what I would eventually get shooting with my 4 x 5 Linhof. It also saved me alot of money.
        Boy do we have it easy now!

        • Ouch, that sounds painful indeed. The only way to look at it is we spend a lot less time now, but clients also pay a lot less per image…

      • Unlike the single focus ring 40mm FLE IF lens, I believe that the older FLE 40mm lenses all have a second helicoid for the floating elements so that you have to manually set both focus rings to matching distances. Seems like that would be very annoying and error prone. Also, a fabulous wide angle lens used with a crop digital sensor, making it not wide anymore just seems like such a missed opportunity.

        • I’m used to it with the 50 FLE; it’s the optical design which gives me pause because I believe the IF has a different formula.

          Not too big a difference between film and digital – horizontal FOV change is only 1.1x, so 40mm > 44mm.

  17. Great assignment, a favorite subject of mine. Back in the “old days” I always shot with two cameras, and in the case of medium format, multiple backs with color and b&w films. ALWAYS processed some film locally as a sanity check, so I could reshoot if necessary before flying to the next venue.

    The invention of polaroid backs for 35mm and 120 cameras really helped as well.

  18. Sergey Landesman says:

    Hi Ming!
    And again great series of shots I love it! Easy can make a very good exhibition anywhere in the world.

  19. Absolutely love this set, I’ve been admiring it ever since you uploaded it to Flickr. Very Salgado, and at the same time, very you. My yardstick for film processing too; I have to know exactly what you do in post to get them looking so good!

    The other day I got my first compliment from a non-photographer friend about how nice the tones are in a Delta 100 shot I took (this one, for anyone that’s interested (Facebook compression and damaged negative, sorry!)). It’s nice to know ordinary people (not just us obsessive weirdos ;)) can tell the difference and still appreciate film in the Hipstagram age 🙂

    • Thanks Todd. Glad somebody was enjoying them!

      Salgado’s ‘Workers’ was definitely my inspiration here; but at the same time I didn’t want to go to his lengths of dodging and burning as I feel that sometimes it’s a bit too much.

      As for development recipes – I guess I got lucky! My go-to at the moment for Acros 100 is 10min in Ilford DDX 1+8, 26C solution (ambient tapwater in Kuala Lumpur) with a 5 sec agitation every 30 seconds – or 10 sec every minute. Copy neg with a D800E and my prototype-rig, then an automated action in PS. A tiny bit of dodging and burning clean up, dust removal, and that’s it. Actually, takes far less time per ‘portfolio grade’ image than trying to achieve anywhere near the same tonality with digital only…

    • Tom Liles says:

      Todd, that photo = so so good

      • Thanks Tom, too kind (and nice to hear from you again!) 🙂 I suspect you know the spot rather well: a li’l old beach the locals call “Camber Sands” 😀

        Ming: I’m still getting my negs processed at a local lab (or should I say /the/ local lab–the very last one) and scanning via a scanner (no adjustments applied at the scanning stage, I’d prefer to do them in Photoshop), so it’s the automated action that interests me. I’m at a stage where I can usually get what I want or close to it, but each frame requires its own curve; a single setting that works or is 98% of the way there every time eludes me.

        Regarding emulating film tonality with digital, the D800E and OM-D B&Ws you’ve Flickr’d recently are your best yet in that regard IMO. I thought the Kuala Lumpur architectual abstracts were film scans with your usual D800E EXIF until I checked the tags!

        • You will still need to do a bit of individual work to each file even if you get the ‘95% curve’ – there is no one-size-fits-all setting, and there never was; skilled printers would do a lot dodging and burning of negatives to get the required local density. Good news is that you can do the same very quickly in PS, and usually in no more than a couple of passes.

          D800E/ OM-D B&Ws: thank you. I’m trying to get there, but the highlights are what’s still eluding me. As for the EXIF – the aspect ratio of the frame will probably be a bigger giveaway; most of my film work is square 😉

          (Ironically, the images that are actually EXIF-tagged with ‘Hasselblad’ are NOT square; they’re rectangles shot with the digital back…)

          • Indeed. It’s a digital age misunderstanding that every film type is effectively a filter that has only one look, and that negative and print are the one and the same; that’s how it’s represented in apps and presets, so it’s all many people know. Looking forward to your film scanning video to further my education on processing negatives in Photoshop.

            Well, you had me fooled. I thought they were aspect ratio F6 x Delta Something 🙂

            • Absolutely not – and the idea that a particular film ‘looks’ a particular way is only really true of slide films; even then, you can always really mess up or cross process things if you want a different image. B&W film, on the other hand, might have a typical native response curve, but the final contrast map, grain etc. are all a function of the developing method.

              F6 and 135 negatives in general don’t have the crispiness of digital or even 120 film…they have what I think of as a more ‘organic’ feel.

              • Speaking of messing up slide film, I bought a copy of the latest VSCO Film (04: Slide Film) presets for ACR recently; sacrilege around here I know, but I was in a post processing rut and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Let’s just say, I don’t think they’d be to your taste… 🙂

                • Hah! Well, if they really replicated what film did, I’d probably be the first one to use them. The problem is that they don’t, because they can’t; a digital sensor does not respond to light in the same way as film.

              • Tom Liles says:

                I’m just going to elbow in here right in the middle of your conversation fellas:

                Was reading an interview with some photographer called “Araki” — anyone heard of him? 🙂 — yesterday and he cut right to the quick of it in one phrase:

                digital photography has a dry brightness

                He went on to rap about silver gelatin prints and of course film, in his own words:

                “Humidity and darkness are very important elements in photography, so you have to be careful with digital cameras because they sort of kill those elements, I say. I, too, use them, sort of recording things in everyday life for fun, though.

                Photography needs to be sentimental. That dry brightness that digital cameras create, that’s not sentimental at all. Colors created with the three primary colors have a very simple impact, but there’s a melancholy at the same time. Colors don’t turn out the way you want them to be, that’s what so good about them.

                I would probably push him on the colors, that didn’t make total sense to me — though the bit about film colors not matching reality and that bit being bad: totally agree — but this “organic” feeling we all get from film, 135 in particular, I think the opposition of his phrase “dry brightness” with ideas of humidity and darkness in the images—that nails it pretty good.

                Interview was from 2006!

                • Tom Liles says:

                  *not being bad

                  Sorry, got iPhoned there

                  • Interesting. I see what he’s saying, and in fact, since 2006, sentimental inaccuracy to counteract dry brightness has become mainstream. Connoisseurs might not like Hipstagram filters, but they’re an attempt at putting back what Araki-san says is missing. Was the interview in English or Japanese? I love the term “dry brightness” 🙂

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      It was an English translation of a Japanese interview. I don’t think Nobuyoshi Araki speaks English… and this said I can’t get a google hit on the interview searching for it in Japanese [how smug is that]. But yeah, good phrase wasn’t it. I don’t even like Araki, but hats off to him—he definitely is not clueless. In fact a master. So I listen to people like that, even if I don’t rate their work.

                      Now I have a good six months of intensive photography under my belt I feel superior enough to have a bellyache about Instagram. The most damming thing about it is how small it makes us look: the public have most certainly voted in favor of it, are blown away by pictures on it, images made with it; and completely “meh” about what we’d call proper pictures. Are they the heathens?



                    • I don’t know. I don’t think they get a say since they don’t pay for us to create images anyway.

                    • Indeed. The lo-fi look has become symptomatic of a wider dumbing down of photography, I think.

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      I’m torn on this Todd and Ming. If you’re not, in some small part [emphasis that this doesn’t have to be the entire reason], if you’re not making images for public appreciation and acclaim—then I really wonder if you’re genuine.

                      And with that thought: who’s to say what the majority of the public want at any point in time, is wrong?

                    • Depends on your definition of ‘public’ – I am absolutely making images for clients, and 99% of the time, they commission them for the public. So I suppose in a way that’s true. But of my personal work, I don’t really give two hoots about what anybody else thinks; in fact, I don’t even show a lot of it. And just because I do show some of it doesn’t mean that I produced it for that purpose, either.

                      Here’s why I have a problem with producing things for public appreciation and acclaim: you will lose your own personality, because somebody else will dictate your likes and dislikes; that will not be consistent, and in the end, there’s no sense of style or consistency. It’s like design by consortium, or big corporate management: ordinary.

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      Here’s why I have a problem with producing things for public appreciation and acclaim: you will lose your own personality, because somebody else will dictate your likes and dislikes; that will not be consistent, and in the end, there’s no sense of style or consistency. It’s like design by consortium, or big corporate management: ordinary

                      That was very interesting. Thanks, MT.

                      So you make personal images for an audience of one [the right way to do it, and I’m the same—though not even in the same image making galaxy as you]. Then what? I think we’re in Li Mu Bai territory again –> the camera and pictures become peripheral to what it is you’re really up to. The subject shifts and the dialog continues…

                      But at the stage where photography was the subject [the topic/the enterprise/the endeavor]; wasn’t it best expressed by being out in the World and affirmed by others. I think the converse: this is actually the strongest statement of your personality and existence that there is. Like Kant’s things in themselves, with an audience of one for the images—who’s to say they, and you, even exist?

                      [this doesn’t contradict photographs being intentionally made for you and your enjoyment at the time of capture; no, I think this is the well balanced synthesis from which good work comes]

                    • What is the definition of existence in the first place? To quote a line from The Matrix: “What is ‘real’? How do you define ‘real’? If by ‘real’ you mean what you can see or hear or smell or taste or touch, then ‘real’ is nothing more than electrical impulses in your brain.”

                      Hey, wait a minute: isn’t that precisely what digital photography is too?

                      Yes, we’re in Li Mu Bai territory again. When I make images for me, make them because I want to preserve that *instantaneous representation of my perceived reality*. Nothing more and nothing less. Whether my perception matches that of anybody else is another question entirely, of course.

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      Still can’t remember that flaw in its reasoning, highlighted by the pigeons… But I have remembered that I haven’t remembered, Jeff and Ming. As I said then: just give it a decade or so and the thought will pop back into my head while I’m cotton budding my ear or stirring sugar into a coffee or something.

                      Just on Morpheus’s line there though—-very solipsistic. And that was his point, perhaps. But I say he’s only some fraction of one there. There’s no reality without others [and you might recall the original Matrix that machines built was populated by one, free to do whatever; and how that ended. For everyone reading, I don’t take THE MATRIX, the film and its characters, this seriously. I’m just playing along!]. The terminus [another fictional term], the grasp of “real” is when we can synthesize and coincidently be singular, self, independent and at the same time other and connected. Not part way between; a new level which incorporates both; is and isn’t both at the same time. This view is the dynamic philosophy of Hegel: the closest I think anyone has gotten to being able to say it without going mad or their head exploding or the matrix grinding to a halt 🙂

                      But yes, I agree. What you wrote, what Morpheus said, does sound a lot like photography doesn’t it. It might be embarrassing for some photogs to think about, be seen thinking about, or just be plain boring to them… doesn’t change the fact that the analogy works.

                      In fact it is not photography specifically, is it. Photography and cameras just employ and direct the behavior of the physical world [which we’ve studied and learnt to use in our limited way]. We’re really just making a general point about reality and how it works. I’m confident I could make all the arguments made here without cameras and photography, but some other arbitrary real world endeavor. Baking a cake for example. It’s this isomorphic property of reality and our minds which should give pause in itself.

                      Mind-matter. Not distinct, disparate things.

                    • There’s the gem of an idea here:

                      Quantum mechanics uncertainty perception reality lack of certainty.

                      There, I did it with pointy brackets, and since I haven’t seen two black cats walk past, I can assume that there are no glitches in the matrix 🙂

                      If we don’t think about it – ‘it’ being reality, and by extension, its representations – what do we do when we photograph, exactly? Our images become no more than visual diarrhoea.

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      Now enough of this and back to Workers of Heavy Metal

                      OHSA says ear protection is definitely advised
                      [boom boom!]

                      Trivia: the loudest heavy metal band out there?



                • I seem to recall that Araki is not a big fan of digital photography; Ironically I think his high contrast style would work pretty well with most of the current digitals, though not sure if the highlight rolloff would be the same.

                  ‘Dry brightness’ sums it up pretty well though…the look I’m after is best surmised by ‘tonal richness’.

                  • Tom Liles says:

                    It’s “verisimilitude” for me.

                    Looks like the truth. And because of that, feels uncomfortable and untrue.

                    • Clarity again: close enough to make your brain think it’s the truth, but not close enough to actually be it?

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      Yes. It gets philosophical from herein, as we have to treat what’s meant by truth. Maybe it’s a bit early in the morning for all that, so the short version:

                      For me reality and truth are reflexive. Self-affirming—see observation phenomena in QM for more well worn examples. See Bishop Berkeley for a more philosophical treatment. See J.A. Wheeler for a mix of the two. Things, to be things, need observers and to be observed—and they observe in return. This is information exchange. At the physical level, photons are these information carriers/transmitters [I can’t be specific with a noun for what photons do because there is no such thing as a “photon”; photons are just a scientific model to explain physical effects]. So there is an ontological bond there. Reality and the content of “truth” are bound in this.

                      I hope we all see the parallels with photography in the above. Photography is a metaphor for the fabric of reality itself, life itself.

                      So, in my opinion, photography is best done by trying to achieve verisimilitude. By being simultaneously true and not true –> it points to, is a symbol for, the real thing [reality]. Reminds and encourages us to face it.

                    • That’s deep.

                      So, make images evocative rather than accurate, but through ‘negative’ means – suggestion of what’s missing – rather than the elements that are included?

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      I just don’t know. I listen to you and Gordon and Chrisitian and Roger and Todd and Jeff and Andre and Peter and Larry and Michael and Jason and Plevyadophy and Iskabibble and Mr Babsky and Wolfgang and Eric and Ron and Jack and every single one of us on here to try and figure it out. Plus take pictures along the way 🙂

                      a) I take a picture of something. It points to an object. Everyone agrees that object was real, there, because I got a picture of it. It could be a picture of me in a mirror [I don’t choose that quip lightly: EVERY photographer goes for these pictures; it is not a trivial coincidence, in my opinion]

                      b) A photon exists as an indeterminate wave-function. Some clever physicist’s measuring device looks at that photon and its wave-function collapses –> we observe a photon and note its existence.
                      [it doesn’t have to be measuring anything: this process is happening every planck second in the universe –> all the matter and energy “looking at itself” and conjuring itself into reality. Planck seconds are a bad concept and I use the term to be quick and dirty and get a point across—but personally, they just invite the question “so what happens between the ticks?”]

                      The similarity between (a) and (b) is plain to me. So that’s why I think photography is a metaphor for reality. And so its best expression is likewise: as “true” as possible. The rests follows naturally, if the former was achieved?

                      As I say, though—I’m just clutching at straws here. I haven’t a clue! 🙂

                    • A) I agree: it could be a picture of a picture, even. There is no real segregation between an image and reality once you remove the ability for multiple people to perceive it simultaneously from multiple dimensions with their own biological sensory apparatus.

                      B) The problem with the photons and their collapsing wave functions that the overall implication is that reality isn’t even real – and everybody will perceive something differently because measuring things at the quantum level – which is the fundamental essence of photography and light – changes the very thing which is perceived (ie measured).

                      I promise I’m working on that article on quantum mechanics and photography, really.

                    • You know you’ve entered interesting territory when WordPress runs out of Reply buttons. 🙂 Ming’s description of suggestion through the act of exclusion is what I’ve always thought good art does. The ambiguity invites the viewer into the work and makes it all the more powerful and personal because the viewer has to use their own imagination and experience to fill in the gaps. Another interesting way I’ve heard this phrased is that the photograph is the answer, like the number “42” in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. What the question is, depends on the viewer, and the questions that the photo provokes are what makes the photograph interesting (or not).

                      What Tom says — that a photo holds a tension between real and false — is what I think gives a photo its unique power among the arts (except maybe for moviemaking), because you know what’s in the photo was real at some point. Sure, it may be manipulated beyond recognition, but someone exposed that film or sensor to some photons that bounced off some real object. But how that physical reality is manipulated to something unreal, but still references the real thing, is unique to photography.

                      Arnold Newman’s portrait of Stravinsky is a great example of that, and I don’t only bring it up because Tom and I have been discussing it elsewhere. That portrait was done in a cramped apartment of a mutual acquaintance of theirs, but he turned it into a kind of abstract composition. Yet, when we look at it, we know it’s a real room with a real piano, but we are forced to juxtapose those two different things together mentally and visually. I hope I don’t sound like a pretentious art history windbag, but it’s hard to explain.

                      BTW, Tom, I agree with you that his portrait of IM Pei (the one where he’s peeking through a slot) is the photographic equivalent of a one-liner joke, and is an entirely lesser achievement than the Stravinsky portrait, which says so much more about the subject than as the butt of a joke.

                    • Well, I can still hit reply, so I think we’re still on the road 🙂

                      That portrait of Stravinsky is fantastic. Very abstract yet structured in the same way music is; there’s no real dimensional cues but enough for the viewer to come to their own conclusions to scale and spatial relationship. And the lid of the piano looks – at least to me – much like a music note…

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      Ok, come on then guys, huddle in to the cypher and let’s philosophize and ruminate and break WordPress’s back 🙂

                      Andre, yeah I’m subscribed to the “purposefully incomplete/slightly vague image” theory. Gordon explained it to me quite well months ago, talking about his education in illustration and painting. Where I would like to humbly put my hand up and ask teacher a question is:-

                      The theory says we should leave things out because who knows how people will fill that in and that’s what’s interesting, engaging, etc., then I say: if that’s the case, that you don’t know where they’ll go with it, what you chose to leave out had almost no bearing on it whatsoever [if you can’t know how they’ll run with the image, then you couldn’t have known what was the right thing to leave out –> any effect the image had in this respect has zilch to do with you, and therefore zilch with what you decided to leave out].

                      This said I’m still subscribed. Like creativity within bounds/limits, I’m sure the artist has to master the image and be aware of the boundaries of how people will react to certain things being, or not being, there. People feel like their mind ran away with them, at the same time it was a planned liberation by the artist. And at the same time, neither of them knew the exact course the sojourn would take.

                      Roger had a line that images are like Rorschach tests. And I think there’s something to that. Early psychoanalysts found a similar thing—what they thought were meaningful start points to association games, turned out to be for nought: patients just honed in on their neuroses and fixations starting from any topic whatsoever. Just a feature of the human psyche, most likely.

                      So there’s this tension between control and freedom.

                      Again, all I see, here again, is a mirror of reality itself. The laws of physics are just a constraint on unabashed freedom [and with lawlessness, it all falls down] which make meaning and process possible. But without the freedom, nothing dynamic ever happens and there is total stasis, death. In the same way, perhaps, for an artwork to deliver satisfying meaning, these two elements are critical.

                      Oh crikey, that’s lunch and my colleague has tapped me on the shoulder: we’re off for some Italian!

                      Arriverdci 😀

                    • Photography HAS to be a mirror of reality: it’s based on it. But like a mirror, something is always lost in the reflection.

        • Tom Liles says:

          If that was Camber Sands in the summer, and you managed to park your car: you deserve more applause for that than the photo! 🙂

          I’m joking, the photo is still the better and lasting feat. Seriously looked like professional fashion photography to me. I think there’s a perfume brand somewhere waiting to pay you for images like that. The left hand side is screaming for an elegant typeface and tasteful message.

          Eau d’Delta
          a fragrance by Todd

          • Haha! Lonely hearts time: Two budding photographers, one a copywriter, seek perfumer…

            It was Camber Sands in early August, but weather was typical and, thus, the beach deserted 🙂

            • Tom Liles says:

              Seek filthy rich perfumer, Todd.

              Come on, I’ve got lenses and bodies and tripod heads and computers and monitors and scanners and tons and tons and tons and TONS of film to buy. Someone’s got to pay for it all!
              /catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror 😦

  20. Great article! I love shooting people doing manual work, it is really fascinating. And welding and grinding always provide for interesting images.
    Also, people in their work or hobby environment make for great portraits.

  21. Great work!! I really like the ones from the Hassy…there’s texture that give it a certain depth…the third last is my favourite! If only you can sell that as a print…

  22. Sounds like a dream job when you know you can deliver the goods. Congratulations on a job done extremely well. I really enjoyed this series and looking forward to part 2.

    I personally would like to see more wedding photographers who are comfortable shooting on film. Although not clear about how it would be done, nor know of a photographer willing to give up their negatives –> I have this fantasy where I’m printing my own wedding photos in my hand built dark room many decades after I’m married.

    • Thanks.

      Here’s the trouble with weddings and film: risk. I think nobody now wants to take the risk especially when there’s no excuse for not delivering; your client will just say ‘you should have gone digital’. I admit even for this job, I shot digital as insurance.

      • Iskabibble says:

        Take your game up a notch. Pros shot film all the time and made it work, without the benefit of any digital back up.

        Which film did you use? Was there enough light to use Acros?

        I’m in industrial locations all the time and sneak shots every now and then with my pocket camera. To have free access would be wonderful. Many plants have strict security about that.

        • Well, given that it was the first commercial assignment I’d shot on film in a long time, I didn’t want to take risks. Delivering what you promise is large part of being professional, too; regardless of how you get there. 🙂

          Mixture of films – Delta 100/400 for the first round, Acros at N or N+2 for the second (I hadn’t used Acros enough the first time for me to be confident/ familiar with how it would behave under various circumstances).

          Somehow all of these industrial sites have copious amounts of opportunity; I wonder if it actually has anything to do with the ‘forbidden fruit’ nature of access…

    • Tom Liles says:

      Is a forgiving wife part of the fantasy Jason? 😀

  23. Really lovely collection Ming, and I especially like the look of the darker tones. If only more corporate portfolios looked half this good. Could you say more about your Acros push process? Are there any examples you’ve posted online?

    • Thanks Andre. Acros push – all I do is add about 130% to the development time and halve the agitation frequency; this gives me about another two stops. These were all pushed in that manner:
      _8035943 copy
      _8035836 copy
      _8035940 copy
      _8035924 copy
      _8035862 copy

      • Thanks Ming. The dark- to mid-tones look very nice and rich considering it was pushed 2 stops, but with only about 1 stop of extra development. I would not have guessed that they were pushed.

        • If you compare the negatives with Acros exposed and developed at ISO 100, the crushing of shadow tones and limitation of dynamic range is actually pretty obvious; that said I think it’s still excellent overall – but that’s more a consequence of the film than anything else…

  24. Utterly and totally inspirational! How often do clients ask us to deliver exactly what we would choose on our most creative day?! The work is absolutely stellar in every regard. This may be my personal favorite portfolio of yours ever, Ming. Congratulations. I know you’re not much of a drinker but I think a glass of bubbly is in order! Bravo!! (And, as a guy who shot film and worked in the darkroom for many years, it’s nice to hear the twinge of fear in your notes regarding the uniqueness and singularity of the medium. Bold stuff, to be sure!)

    • Thanks Roger – undoubtedly the degree of freedom afforded to me by the client and openness to experimentation helped. Also happened to have a couple of those days where I just felt I inspired and found images everywhere I turned…

      As for the champagne – I can appreciate a virtual glass. Cheers!

  25. Voigtlander VC-Meter II? Intrigued by your use of this meter. Care to expand.

    • Not much to say; it’s just a normal incident averaging meter with about a 45 degree field of view. Stick it on the camera, take a light reading – which averages the field of view to middle gray – transfer the settings to the camera and adjust exposure to taste.

  26. Tom Liles says:

    Picture #2 is great. But for abstracts from this assignment I’ll take the yellow/red Rothko homage.

    Back to number two though: all it needs is James Bond to walk in from camera right. Boom! Der der dunn, Der der dunn, de-derdle-de-de… Bow diddley ow dow dow, Bow diddley ow dow dow…

  27. Very nice photos Ming as always – I can understand your client and even his purchase of a Hassy system. About weddings: I think the brothers Wright from L.A. specialized in that – they do it entirely on film. See for their blog.

  28. Into a bit of my world. 😉 I have not been doing as much industrial stuff lately, but I can completely relate to the (potentially) hazardous environments. Working out of a bag and traveling lighter can help to quickly get good images, without being any intrusion. I have caught my fingers a couple times on Manfrotto leg clamps, and it is supremely painful. I’ve never had any injury related to an industrial location, though I was once nearly eaten alive by giant mosquitos in the Houston Ship Channel. 😀

    Be careful when you edit images for final delivery. Some obvious things to avoid are lack of eye protection, or improper safety procedures amongst workers. You don’t want to show images that show bad work habits.

    Just to throw this in there, since I rarely compliment others on their images, that last image is incredibly good. Perhaps that one, or a very similar shot, may become the cover. Well done.

    • Thanks Gordon. The client has the whole batch, so it’s up to them to decide which images to use – the OHSA stuff is less of an issue here, admittedly.

      That said, they were pretty strict on where I could go and having to wear appropriate safety gear…

      • Tom Liles says:

        I was thinking about this exchange between Gordon and yourself, Ming.

        As you might remember: I spent a good amount of time working in and around a nuclear reactor, on a power station. Very high security site; and not just security, the safety levels are on a different plane to chemical process plants where I’ve also spent a lot of time. To gain access to the inside of a nuclear plant, you not only need goverment sanctioned security clearance, but extensive training and qualifications just to walk through the door of some areas.

        I have it all (and the nature of my job meant I even had clearance for the control room, which you might imagine: is very heavily guarded and more restricted than the reactor building). Of course the security service and general personnel on site all know me.

        I’m not good at photos — and economically couldn’t do the following even if I wanted to — but I thought it will be interesting to photograph the life of a nuclear plant. Especially the people that man them—they are the most interesting bit, I think.

        I’m not sure film would be a good choice of capture medium for me though 🙂

        • Oh, absolutely. That would be a VERY interesting opportunity, especially if you have a fairly advanced understanding of what’s going on so you are aware of all the process and technical nuances, too.

          Film would probably be fine so long as it’s a low ISO and you were in and out fairly fast. But digital might be a better bet. 😛

          • Tom Liles says:

            Yes, quite fizzy around the reactor, Ming [well, the heat exchange equipment and spent fuel route, actually]. I’m not sure how sensitive film is wavelengths below 400~350nm, but we all know it clouds for wavelengths a factor of thirty+ smaller than that [x-rays].

            Hasselblad are always going on about the moon missions—but what film did the astronauts load into their cameras, I wonder? PLENTY fizzy out there in the dead of space 🙂 A cosmologist by training, Ming, I know you know this better than me!

            • If you’re using UV film…

              I believe the Hasselblads were shielded; leatherette replaced with metal. Kodak TMAX inside, if I’m not mistaken.

            • It is not well documented, nor well known, but certain types of radiation will damage digital imaging sensors. Camera gear that has flown often can succumb to cumulative exposure. Of course a reactor facility should be well shielded, unless you are talking about going to Fukushima.

              • Tom Liles says:

                Tons of photogs here are scrabbling over themselves to go to Fukushima, actually. It’ll probably be the new “contrasty black and white shot of sad looking Japanese people” that everyone, Japanese people especially, seems to take over here.

                When we moved back to Japan beginning of last year, I was coming off a two year spell as the guy in charge of radiation instruments/detectors (big, very big, and small) on my station. I was offered and was considering work in Fukushima as a sub-contractor for Tepco, also working for Canberra Industries (big gamma spec producer).

                I went back into advertising instead.

                • It’s probably a good thing you didn’t go back to Fukushima. You wouldn’t be able to shoot film (or have any more children, if all of those conspiracy theories and stories of coverups are true)…

              • I’d imagine the kind of radiation that would do visible damage to a camera sensor within a shooting session would also do even more damage to a human during the same time period?

                • Tom Liles says:

                  Yes Ming, just to give you a feel: victims of Hiroshima, exposed to an uncontrolled, unshielded fission reaction got in the region of 400 rad (we think). Now, 100 rad (1Gy) of radiation exposure, 1 Sv of dose, would most probably kill you (radiation sickness). 400 rad, you are toast.

                  400 rads raises the temperature of one gram of water… less than 0.001 Celsius (1 rad is a 100 ergs if you want to check). Less than a thousandth of a degree. An imperceptible amount of heat. But the ionizing radiation dose would annihilate you.

                  This highlights the enormous difference between different modes of energy transfer (a calorie of heat wouldn’t hurt you). Thermal energy diffuses quite uniformly through a material and temperature rises more readily. Ionizing radiation focuses in on a particular electron or nucleon and delivers a local concentrated burst, statistically insignificant when we consider the mind boggling number of the particles in the total of the material.

                  So I think, depending on the radiation, if it was degrading your equipment you’d be in trouble. If it was giving a perceptible heat increase—you’d be glowing!

                  In all seriousness though: this is why Duane and Peter and Roger will probably have to keep dose records (back calculated from airtime) as they can accumulate quite a dose up there where the cosmic radiation is stronger. Astronauts are on another level. I saw a really interesting microscope pic of the helmets of the some of the first astronauts to space walk… The before and after was startling –> went from pristine metal plane to a pepper pot. Just riddled with microscopic holes where all that energetic stuff had fizzed straight through 😮

                  Thank God for our magnetic poles!!

                  • That makes sense. But: uh oh, I was a consultant for three years. I flew an average of 100-110 sectors a year. 😮

                    I think I’d better go have myself checked for microsopic holes!

              • Tom Liles says:

                That’s interesting Gordon. Would you have any links?

                It’s funny because radiation instruments and camera sensors have a lot in common—the basic premise, I mean. And there are solid state (semi-conductor, e.g., silicon) detectors as well as the energy compensated GM tubes, ion chambers, gas flow detectors, etc. The solid state instruments use doped silicon, just like cameras. A German maker called “Thermo” do a nice line of these.

                The Navy uses a special kind of plastic for dose meters for their submariners. The reactors in nuclear subs kick out a lot more neutron radiation because of the fission geometry (I can’t attempt to explain that any deeper here; and I’ve forgotten half of it—and you know what I’m like with stuff that’s still current!) and the way those dose meters work is the neutron literally degrade the plastic (you get bore tracks) in a measurable and correlated way: so, so many tracks and so deep a track, models to so many sieverts. A post-hoc calc though; if you get a big dose—you wouldn’t know until well after the fact with these ones. Best we can do, as neutrons are tough (hard to detect) and instruments that measure neutron doserates in real time are physically HUGE. Those guys Thermo do make a handheld solution, but the price would make even Leica blush.

                So, I’m curious to know what it is that the radiation kills in digital cameras. But I take the fact it happens as a given, without a doubt. Radiation is just the transmission of energy through space. If that energy is absorbed by a physical substance, then we’d expect the surplus energy to affect which energy bands electrons were in, even alter the molecular or atomic structure of that substance (break chemical or polar bonds; scatter particles). Polarizing filters on cameras are no different; all that energy they absorb from one polarization of photons has to go somewhere. Some of it gets dissipated as heat. Some as molecular structure change, i.e., chemical degradation. In plain speak the polarizer starts to fall apart.

                But don’t worry Gordon: I won’t be going to Fukushima, and none of my digital babies are falling apart any time soon 🙂

                • That makes sense, given that a concentrated, collimated light beam re-focused by some more collimating optics onto one tiny spot multiplies the intensity of the beam significantly – more than enough to toast things.

  29. darkasana says:

    Congratulations on getting the job and nice work too! The images are full of depth and feeling (of course). Lot’s of grit…

  30. Ah.. I understand thoae feeling when the client appreciate your art and give total freedom to express, I had few chances to do that as well.

    Ming, just wondering, being a solo and carrying 3 system at the same time, how did you manage to change between camera, lenses, setting tripod, while crucially need to capture the moment. Or perhaps you brought along an assistan?

    • No assistant. I’m used to it, but this was also not a time-pressured shoot so I had time to plan the shot and set up. I of course wouldn’t use three systems and a tripod on a photojournalism assignment.


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