Managing the creative commercial populist disconnect

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What a mouthful of a title. It should really also have the subtitle “what pays isn’t always what’s popular or what I want to shoot” – but that would have exceeded the string length for post titles, run off onto three lines on the title, and completely ruined the front page design aesthetic of the site.

But I think there’s really no simple or concise way to express it. What sells/ what clients pay for is not always what is popular with the viewing public; in fact, it’s usually completely uncorrelated since the commercial side of things seldom elicits an emotional response in the way personal photographs do. And on top of that, what photographers actually enjoy photographing is seldom what pays – sometimes also because the nature of the subject matter means that it has no commercial value in the first place. So, as a commercial photographer, what do we do?

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The images in this post are a mixture of what I consider to be amongst my best recent work at the time of writing; it’s difficult to say exactly what the absolute best is, simply because that’s a subjective question, and I’d like to think I’m continually improving. There are also commercial images that have either had high value or high client appreciation – I know both of those are equally nebuluous, but bear with me here. Finally, I’ve also taken the most popular images on flickr by number of favorites.

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I personally find the commercial images a bit too stiff, formal and regular; that’s what the client wanted, but other than portraying things in a corporate-safe and clean manner, I think the images are too safe. Perhaps that’s the nature of the local market. Fortuantely, there is one exception to this – the workers of heavy metal (photoessays parts one and two) – that work I also found to be amongst my most personally satisfying. But clients like that certainly don’t come along every day. Let’s look at it a different way: you wouldn’t hang an advertising photo on your wall at home, would you?

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By a similar token, photographs of gear, kittens and other random things might be popular online, but they have no commercial value: they don’t sell prints, nor do they even sell gear. They’re just voyeuristic, in a sense. But yet there must be some value there, otherwise people wouldn’t take the time and effort to view, share and ensure proliferation of the images. This is a disconnect in itself: how can something be popular but worthless*? Perhaps it’s the emotional connection – think family photos and moments – we’ll hang these, but other than the perfectly lit, made-up, politically-correct, contrived simulation of family life with angelic kids in a huge, modern, clean suburban house with parents out of a fashion spread, it doesn’t exist in the commercial world. Reality, it seems, is not aspirational.

*I’m not talking about photographic merit, though I believe frequently these kinds of images are lacking in that department, too. I certainly don’t think my most popular work on Flickr is my best, or even representative of what I shoot.

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We then move on to the world of fine art photography: there’s commercial value, but what sells and fetches high prices (discussed not so long ago below the line in one of the other threads) certainly isn’t what’s necessarily popular. That market is made by those with skin in the game: you buy something, hype it up, then sell and make a profit. It has almost nothing to do with artistic merit – it just needs a good story to sell. In an ideal world, what works – both aesthetically and commercially – as fine art does so on the strength of the idea of the creator; here, personal and professional work must merge.

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One notch down from that, we have smaller scale art – think print sales. Here, the disconnect widens: because we’re not talking about single pieces, the evaluation is somewhat more democratic; what people like, and what’s considered to be a strong/ impactful image is not necessarily what they’d also hang in their living room. Whilst I love Salgado’s work, I don’t think I’d like to wake up every morning to polio-stricken orphans in Africa. People who hang images have been found to prefer anything with strongly positive emotional connotations: landscapes, sunrises, flowers – or at best subjects that are aesthetically pleasing but neutral – e.g. abstract architectural geometry. This of course may or may not be what one enjoys photographing.

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Taking things off on a slight tangent, we have this site: it’s all about photography, and ultimately, about the creation of better images. However, the posts that are the most popular – often by an order of magnitude or more – are those about equipment. Granted, the primary constituents of readership for the philosophical posts are not really the same demographic as the reviews, but it’s interesting to see that they too get caught up in the excitement. And needless to say: those who comment/ shout the loudest on the gear reviews are not the kind of people who attend workshops – if you think that some minute item on the spec sheet is going to dramatically improve your images, there’s something very wrong here**.

**In fact, most of my workshop participants are surprised by just how equipment-agnostic the syllabus is: all you need is a wide and a tele; doesn’t matter what it’s attached to.

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If you’ve noticed a large range of variety – in subject matter, style, etc. between the images – that’s because there is. Fortunately, there’s a bit of overlap, but not by much. Closing that gap is something I debate about: would it be better try and sell the work I enjoy producing, or focus more on producing work that sells? I honestly don’t know if there’s a right answer to this question; there are advantages and disadvantages of both approaches. Needless to say, the commercial work has to be popular to be successful; as much as the client has the final say, their veto is affected very much by the response of their target market. Having some separation between personal and professional work means having other creative influences to draw on to produce something different, having the benefit of psychological separation between work and life, but on the flipside, possibly feeling frustrated or held back. Making it all one and the same makes things simpler, but at the same time, can take the fun out of it. In fact, it’s already happened to me: I no longer shoot watches for fun.

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Personally, I’m increasingly enjoying photographing abstracts and still life; in some ways, that ties into the product photography I do; even if the techniques might cross over, the subject matter certainly doesn’t. Does the experimentation help with production of better images across the board? I’m pretty sure it does; but photographing urban street furniture, toilet bowls, piles of garbage, random lamps etc. is not going to pay the bills – at best, I might be able to sell a few prints. I can’t even put this stuff in the portfolio.

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Perhaps it really boils down to being a question of balance, as well as ‘magic time^’ – as a professional photographer, one has to have a strong enough portfolio of the kinds of images that sell work; these images have to be unique enough that they stand out from the competition; and the only way to do that is to maintain your creative edge and keep experimenting. But you can’t do it on a job, because that would be at best risky and unprofessional, and at worst, a disaster. So you have to find time to shoot for yourself in a way that might perhaps have some tangential application to your commercial work; and needless to say, there have to be compromises made for popular tastes – unless you are an artist and willing to subsist of ramen.

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^Consulting-speak for the hours that are required to make something happen that the client isn’t billed for, or is billed for but are impossible to exist on the calendar due to petty considerations like sleep etc.

Maybe that’s the endgame: one’s personal work has to be the advanced force recon team, and the professional work is the infantry. There’s always a bit of lag, and information from one influences the path of the other – but ultimately, both generally need to go in the same direction. Unless you’re schitzophrenic, of course. MT

For those professionals in the audience, I’d be curious to hear: does your personal work match your professional work? Or does it diverge enormously? How do you stay sharp? Please leave your thoughts in a comment below…


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  1. I’m curious about your system for using the D800 as a slide scanner. I duped all my old slides using a Nikon ES-1, 60mm micro and D800. I really need a Develop preset for Lightroom to bring them closer in colour and contrast to the originals. I also have a Nikon Coolscan 5000. The files look about the same but are far quicker to “scan” with the D800.

    • Color negative is tricky; B&W still needs a little dodging and burning afterwards – nothing more than you’d do in the darkroom normally – and color slide is actually fairly good straight out of the box.

  2. I very much hope you’re sucessful with option 3. But, then, we might lose your voice – one of the few “thinking photographers”. There is so much gear reviews (even enjoyable and well done) out there, but not a lot of reflection on “being a photographer nowadays”. So, in a selfish way, I hope that you’ll hang out there in the open for quite some time to come 😉 Or, go for 3) and please do still continue your blog.

    Maybe, you could finally start to monetise your blog just a bit. Ask people to give 12 US$/year (or 20 US$ for two years or 50 US$ which includes one 7×5 print in a mat). If they do that, they get rid of the nagging “please do support…” sign that comes up every time they are on the site. So, it would be a soft pay-wall – students and other non-earners could still read your blog with a bit of a nuissance and every self-respecting photo enthusiast would hand over the 20 US$ (or 50 US$ incl. the print)
    All the best

    • Ideally, I’d like to find a way not to have the paywall because it obstructs new eyeballs, and tiering the content is rather difficult to manage on the back end. I’d much prefer to make and sell things people find useful – like tutorial videos and fine art prints 🙂

  3. avatarinstructordesintesis says:

    Reblogueó esto en concienciauniversalccd.

  4. Making your hobby you profession always brings along the danger of losing your enthusiasm. If you’re going down that road, you’re an adventurer. After a while of being bewildered that you actually can make a living off what you love to do, you become better and better at it and all the perks lose their spell. All of a sudden you realise that all of your additional skills or even your refined vision might be a bit over the top for almost all of your clients. So, adventurous people like yourself begin setting up yet another exciting venture like a blog, like workshops, possibly some consulting for camera or imaging companies…. Sometimes, I have to admit, those quite successful artists/craftsmen might ask for too much. Probably even “the one percent” of superstars in the art world have to deal with gallery owners that ask for more of the stuff, that sold so nicely at the last auction. Their ex-wife’s lawyer doesn’t want to discuss their creative sabattical, he just wants money for this public boarding school in Switzerland for your son (despite him loathing the alps)…

    So, you have three options:
    1) Become even fricking more excellent in your professional niche – Rolex CEO begging for your images, flying you in to Switzerland
    2) Continue your solid professional work, accept the decent money and play a bit on the side
    3) Have enough funds to start your journey as an artist who is not producing for a market but for himself / the necessity of doing art and hope for the best.


    • Haha, it’s funny how familiar that first paragraph sounds…

      1) Sometimes, but then you do run the risk of getting bored shooting the same thing all the time. I’d actually rather have the variety; that definitely helps to keep things fresh
      2) A solid option. I gotta find a new hobby.
      3) And this is more like the way it’s going now…

      *I cleaned up your post as per your request.

    • One more possible dimension: you seem to have plenty of ideas about marketing and what kind of photos really sell high-end/professional products (I wouldn’t bet on your style for selling cereal). Have you tried packaging that? Surely not every prospective client has a CD that does not like his/her job outsourced (or is perhaps smart enough to accept and even invest in high quality advice). A combination of carefully scoped marketing advice (how to deliver the intended message) and photography sounds like a higher value added offering, and probably more rewarding than producing signature McThein images. Actually it sounds much like the heavy metal dream engagement you keep mentioning, but might pay a little extra.

  5. Many interesting philosophical questions here Ming. I am a software engineer by profession. What I see is that there are many engineers who fancy photography as a hobby. I think for many of us its good for our daily profession as it challenges our creativity.
    I think the dilemma you as a professional photographer experience is that there is a gap between what you enjoy shooting and what your customers demand from you. In many ways this is down to the question of art versus kitsch, and the fact that the Swiss clock maker need your craftsmanship (read kitsch). An artistic abstract shot of a clock will not sell any clocks..

    So in the end, you, me and everybody else are paid for our craftsmanship whatever that might be, and then we need to charge our batteries and find joy in doing something different. For a software engineer the balance is easy, I work on software problems at least 40 hours a week, then I spend as many hours my family and weather allows in the weekend. You on your side need to shoot and write for at least 40 hours a day, and then you have the weekends to relax with the fun part, it being the F2 Titan or your Hasselblad. Shooting film is about what I call “slow photography” and from that comes art. Using a DSLR for a living is probably something else.

    • Right on the money. The stuff that sells is often the kitsch – but what I find people like to look at isn’t. Taking the example of watch collectors – they prefer the art rather than the kitsch, and there are protracted moaning sessions when a new product is released that looks boring – because the photos are flat – and this is in turn because the manufacturer demanded it be so. I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened; it’s one of the reasons I’m choosing not to shoot that many watches these days.

      It’s more like shooting, writing and managing clients for 100 hours a week, which doesn’t leave much time for yourself after fulfilling family commitments. But hey, even if that means a roll a week through the ‘Blad – that roll often gives me far more satisfaction than the rest of the week’s work. Or perhaps I just need to find another hobby 🙂

  6. It sounds like you are trying to develop a strategy without defining (or communicating to the audience) clear goals. From between the lines I can read the following:
    – Do enjoyable shooting and make pictures you like
    – Earn money
    – Become popular (in terms of public demand for the images)
    – Improve your skills
    – Balance all of the above

    From a reader’s perspective these seem rather generic objectives (“have a successful career at something fun”) and hardly enough to justify the workload. It is clear that you think photography contributes something good to the society (at least more than the average corporate job), so there are probably underlying motivations. If the dream is clear, then priorities are easier to find. Benchmarking with other pros on narrower dilemmas is probably more feasible, but the readers are curious 😉

    • Yes and no; it does sound vague, but I have very specific definitions of what ‘good images’ are; ‘a good client’ is; how much is ‘enough money’; what’s the threshold for popularity etc. Right now there is no balance; it’s go hell for leather on everything.

      The bigger question is how does one balance making images that people will hire you to make because your work stands out, but at the same time continue to develop your own skills so that you keep improving…even though the images you’re hired to make (and spend most of your time doing) are somewhat soul destroying.

      Benchmarking with other pros has actually proven nearly impossible – they simply won’t tell you, haven’t found the answer, or consciously give the impression that ‘it’s so darn easy, you must be an idiot!’ 🙂

      • I can empathise with your “soul destroying” description, but for what it’s worth, the way I deal with that is not to get hung up on the subject matter! Instead, you can find joy in the process (both technical and social) that is required to complete the assignment to your and your client’s mutual satisfaction. Indeed, the more mundane or flat-out unattractive the subject matter, the more deeply you will need to dig into your toolbox to get a satisfactory result. Doing so successfully can be a buzz in itself.

  7. David Grossi says:

    Ming, on this website I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photo that I don’t like. Yes, some more than others, but none that I could say I disliked. In my opinion, your commercial photos are just as interesting/intriguing/fun-to-look-at as the “art” photos. That’s the thing.

    • I’m sure there must be a few if you look hard enough – it’s highly subjective after all, but I am flattered 🙂

      It’s also because I don’t post the standard boring stuff – I do shoot it, I’m just not that proud of it.

  8. Ming, I have always enjoyed your posts, especially the ones that get me thinking. This is one of those times and your thoughts here apply to any artist – writing, painting, photography, music, the like. You inspired me and my comments, like your desired title, are far too long to fit here, so I wrote it where it would fit: Thanks for all you do for the photographic community, you have inspired me.

  9. That shot with the tress really reminds me of the film Blow up!

  10. To be a photographer, you need to enjoy the process whether its the technical challenge of a product shoot, interacting with people for portraits, or the capturing of fleeting moments in Nature. Too many photographers try to be all things to all clients/public/curators/etc.. If what you like is weddings (including video, for example), but feel compelled to offer other services such as studio work, find a partner or create a co-op with others who enjoy the most what you enjoy the least. If you don’t get satisfaction out of the process, there are alot of better ways to either make a living and/or spend your leisure time and money.

  11. Ming, I think the point you raise here is one that extends across all fields of artist endeavor. All of the great classical composers had stuff they wrote at the request of paying patrons for performance at things like grand balls, and beyond that many of the works never saw the light of day. Their greatest compositions that they wrote while living off those paid gigs were often ignored in their day. What we recognize now as enduring masterpieces by some of the towering greats of literature were neither popular nor profitable at the time. Many of these writers we now recognize as the best of the best kept food on the table by writing “pot boilers” as they were referred to. Painting and the fine arts were no different. So there has always been this disconnect between what is popular, what is good, and what sells. Rare is the person in the art world (and I consider photography art) who gets paid well doing what they love exactly as they like to do it.

    • Perhaps the solution is to fake one’s death, then start again with a new identity as one’s publicist (and inheritor) 🙂

      • Michael Matthews says:

        That is genius. It also allows you to go on working on personal stuff, with the discovery every decade or so of a hitherto unseen treasure trove of unpublished work. At feverish prices.

  12. Aha! So that’s how you do those wonderful shots of watches. Seems doable for the average joe photographer…;)

    • I was sub-average Joe at one point, so yes. If one cares to learn and put in the effort…anything is possible.

    • Kamal, Hi. I actually wrote an amazing comment to you last night, on my 2009 MBP with the schizo Snow Leopard era Safari that will often refresh pages of its own accord for no good reason, completely randomly. It’s like playing Russian Roulette. The social media answer to THE DEER HUNTER. Anyway, there I was tapping a couple of lines, my new Tom 2.0 slimmed down commenting gestalt, and whoompf, it all disappeared into the ether [the ethernet?]. Grrr.

      Another version for you [now that I’ve cooled down, I was ready to break something from then up until about an hour ago…]

      There’s more to those MT watch shots than a casual glance gives credit for. I have tried, and tried, in my own poor imitation of MT way [highest form of flattery Ming] to take a few photos of my watch, for an experiment and to try and learn something along the way. Here’s what I found:

      1) Light position is CRITICAL. When you’re that close up minor changes really are major changes; and often you don’t see that until you’ve got the photo on your PC and up on a big panel, and it’s too late. Literally, you shift that beam a few mills this way or that, you’ve got a different picture.
      2) Light definition, in practice, is not as simple as that above setup would suggest. Try and get a controlled highlight like Ming can. It’s not simple. I suspect Ming might employ double diffusion, and more difficult tricks than that, but I couldn’t say because I can’t touch his technique. Like not even in the same star system—so what would I know. Go to MT’s Flickr stream, pick a watch shot; study the highlights he’s puts on the watch face. Try and make one. It’s hard.
      3) The agony and at the ecstasy of metallic surfaces. The great thing is they reflect everything predictably; the horrid thing is they reflect everything…
      5) Getting a watch to sit right. Really, this perhaps caused me the most stress. Remember (1), now picture your reaction when you’ve finally got the effer to sit right, you tip toe backward, gently put your eye to the finder, the watch sags a mill or five…
      6) Getting a watch to sit right, without the camera seeing any of the stuff that gets the watch to sit right

      The list goes on…

      But as MT says, and I trust him, if we put the work in, answers and good pictures will come. I’m trying my heart out.

      • 1) Yep!
        2) Nope. Just very careful positioning…and gobos cut to match the watch shape.
        3) This is why I tape up all the logos.
        4) I spend up to an hour cleaning before I shoot. Then for a normal job, half a day cleaning up dust in PS. My files are perfectly clean at the pixel level…with the D800E.
        5) 6) It doesn’t have to be shot straight, it just has to be lit in the right orientation.

        Try writing your posts in mail or text edit then copying and pasting…I think things are going crazy because you’re not using your iPhone as usual 🙂

  13. Andrew Peverini says:

    I followed the flickr link for your first architecture image and under the flickr caption you mentioned that you had “scanned” the picture from Fuji Acros with a Nikon D800E. This really intrigued me because scanning film has been very expensive and hasn’t resulted in pictures with very high resolution. I have access to a Nikon D800 and was wondering how “scanning” film with a digital camera works and if it is better than using a scanner, say a Nikon Coolscan V ED? Thanks for your articles and your beautiful photographs!

    • I’ve got access to an Imacon Flextight and have done an A-B test between the two methods. I have a custom built rig which I’m in the process of bringing to market via the website. Speed aside, the D800E actually produces a more flexible file to work with – especially for typical ‘darkroom’ manipulations like dodging and burning.

  14. You have an unusually sharp psychological acumen. It will serve you well in the future, as it probably has in the past.
    Curious: How much did you delve into psychology in your university years?

    • I’m a physicist by training; from the UK, which doesn’t have a liberal arts system. I audited some psychology lectures, but for the most part it’s been observation and self-study out of curiosity.

      • Interesting perspective by starting in Physics. I had a discussion with my wife last night about the same. I learned photography first from my father who has a PhD in Physics and later started in Physics only to change to business and accounting after two years. My comment to my wife was that I believe the result was I learned the science of photography before learning the art. I think that is backwards from most artists. While black and white photography is clearly physics and chemistry, the digital age has removed some of that, but not all.

        • Actually, I think if anything an understanding of the underlying ‘how it works’ is more important now than ever – especially when the output isn’t quite what you expect due to some complex interaction of some parts of the (very complex) system. You’ve got optics, mechanics, electronics, printing, psychology and biology interacting to produce an intentional effect…sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

  15. One thing I have found is that it is tough to get a straight answer out of other professional photographers. Quite often I hear that someone is doing quite well, and very busy, but then find out they have trouble pulling in work. I’ve also heard a few state that they only photographed what they liked, but other than a few living on trust funds, or the very famous, it’s just not reality. There was an interesting lawsuit a few years ago against a famous fashion photographer; in the process of the lawsuit, the financial status became published, and everyone was surprised that he was not running a profitable photography operation. This summer I talked to one of the best advertising photographers in the world, and even he told me that he ran into a tough time a couple years ago. The interesting part there is that he re-invented himself as a portrait photographer, and is now bringing in very regular high end work. While I would like to state I am doing fantastically well with my commercial work, the reality of the moment is that a shoulder injury has adversely impacted the amount of work I can do; if it was not for re-licensing, some tutoring and training, and my side job of writing financial articles, then I would really be struggling.

    The reason to give these examples, is to show that professional photographers will not always tell you what is going on in their world. This is not to suggest that anyone is lying, though there is definitely a large portion of information left out of conversations. As a group, it is important to present an air of success and confidence. Our clients need to have confidence in us, so anything that may cause doubt gets left out of conversations. Even when talking to other photographers, many of us will be wary of competition, and avoid any suggestion of problems. So I hope you get some good and honest answers to this post, though I think quite a bit of information may be left out of the conversation. As I read this posting, it surprised me a little how honestly you presented your work experiences, so I’ll try to be as open as possible in my response.

    In general it has often been a case of a client choosing a “safer” image over what may sometimes be considered as a more “photographic” image. The items that go into a portfolio are often outtakes from shoots, or they are done outside of the constraints of a shoot. Just as musicians must practice, I find that I need to practice. I carry a camera nearly all the time, though I don’t always pop a camera out of the bag to capture an image. Quite often the random practice images lead towards further exploration, and in some instances those explorations lead to portfolio images. Other times the portfolio images can be random captures, what I sometimes call one-hit-wonders. I’m in the process of reviewing many older images, and finding some that I overlooked before, because at the time I felt they did not show enough of a production quality. To me that is the real key with some images that have big impact with potential clients; certain images need to show that every element was controlled. Those are not always the most playful or enjoyable of images, but as a commercial photographer the images selected by clients need to have that engagement. I still mix in some images that are more playful, though when I ask other photographers, those playful images can often garner the most criticism. While it would be a blast to have images of cats throughout my portfolio, there simply is no viable commercial reason for me to do that.

    Fine art is the other realm for me, despite that it has never done better than break-even. I enjoy the no limits aspect of fine art photography, which is why I continue. It can impress some potential clients with my abilities, but I do not include any fine art photography in my commercial portfolio. I am currently exhibiting some Polaroid manipulations as part of an alternative photography group exhibit; none of those images would easily fit into a commercial ad campaign or corporate imaging brief. In a way it is more of a challenge than commercial work, though not quite as rewarding as personal work. Even in the fine art world, there is a difference between prints that may sell, and work that could possibly attract the attention of a museum, book publisher, or gallery. I’ve been fortunate to make it into a few books, some prestigious exhibits, and even once into a museum, which is probably why I keep doing this.

    • Great input, Gordon – thanks! It’s like the whole discussion about rates – it just doesn’t happen; the omerta is something that I think hampers the industry. Transparency would at least prevent the mess that comes about from people of similar ability being wildly different on price, and savvy clients playing them off against each other.

      As for transparency: you can be sure you’re not going to get an illusion here – it would defeat the point of me writing at all! This is not an easy job, by any stretch of the imagination. There are simply so many moving parts required to make things work. Success is as much about perception as it is about the ability to deliver; just because you have money does not mean you can produce good images – there are many ‘famous’ wedding photographers in Malaysia who fall into that category. Similarly, just because you have not been hired doesn’t mean you cannot deliver the goods.

      Portfolios: I often have this problem where a client likes a particular aspect of your work and hires you for that, but asks for something completely different. Something which you know creatively is a disaster, but you have to do it anyway. And then they’re unhappy, you’re unhappy, and the whole thing goes sour. What I can never understand is why they hire you for one thing but get you to do another…and expect different results. You wouldn’t go to McDonalds for sushi…

      I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: education and transparency are simply the only way to go forth and benefit everybody – us, clients, the public – sustainably. I’m certainly trying to do my part.

  16. You really hit the nail on the head in describing the gap between what is in commercial demand, and what tends to be personally fun and interesting. One only needs to take a look at the top sellers on any stock photography site to find dozens of generic shots of people shaking hands against a white backdrop or skyscraper… where are all the lattes and kittens?
    In answer to your question: to date, overlap between my personal and professional work is minimal. Recreationally, I like to photograph aircraft, which I have at times been paid for, but it’s a very small niche with some extremely well qualified players (think ex-fighter pilots, 747 captains, etc). Commercially I mostly photograph people, usually in their work environment.
    As you said, despite this gap (and in an effort to close it), I also find it very important to take the time to photograph just for the heck of it, and flex the creative muscles in a different direction from the way work does.

    • The reason for that is simple: the people buying are not the same as the people who look and like but don’t break out their wallets. And often those spending are spending on behalf of a company that has certain expectations/ preconceptions that have to be met – nothing changes.

      I’d love to photograph airplanes too, but lack of access is a problem…have to settle for watches instead haha.

  17. Ming, I’ve always wanted to ask you: where do you go for your coaching? You’re obviously very introspective about your work (ie. you think pretty hard about why an image of yours may or may not work) but sometimes, an outside, experienced perspective can see things that we’re too close to see.

    • Good question. I guess I absorb a good quantity through general osmosis, but I don’t have a specific mentor or tutor at the moment. I’ve been looking for one, but I think it’s as much luck and serendipity as it is conscious searching…

      I fully agree that sometimes we need a bit of distance in order to have objectivity…

  18. Ron Scubadiver says:

    A friend who has helped me a lot with my photography recently investigated making here images available for stock photography. She was disappointed to find that stock agencies wanted everything in focus. The creamy bokeh we prize isn’t what the masses react to when that image is pasted on a loaf of bread or whatever.

    Actually you have hit on several different areas here, Ming. Masses, vs art, vs paying clients, vs what we want to do on our own time covers a bunch of real estate. My experiences as a scuba diver have taught me there are about 10 underwater photographers in the world that are any good, and thousands who are having fun making photographs under water that nobody wants to look at. It is almost as bad for the bird photographers. If the species is rare and the image is sharp, they don’t care about anything else. A lot of it is the simple economics of supply and demand. There are lots of nature photographers (who don’t want to deal with the issues involved in photographing people that is the major source of income for pro photographers) and not that many viewers who want to look at it. There is a lot of stuff out there other than nature and people, but somehow not that many photographers ever tune into that channel.

    But, if the masses don’t pay, what difference does it make what they want to look at? Either do it for paying clients or do it for yourself. If one can avoid the trap the documentary nature photographers fall into, it might be salable as art. Of course that could lead to a process where one modifies their style according to what sells and what does not. For me the joy is in having fun, and doing something different when I get an idea.


  1. […] the audience matter?defining ‘art’, reduxoriginality is dead: or is it?managing the creative commercial populist disconnectwhy photography satisfiesabstract thoughts on abstract photographythe line between art […]

  2. […] for several videos; but found that creativity-for-pay was pretty much an oxymoron (sounds familiar? Read this essay.). He struck out on his own to shoot as he pleased, with the vision of creating an elegy to the […]

  3. […]  However, Ming’s philosophical side has also inspired me.  Ming’s latest post – Managing the creative commercial populist disconnect (what pays isn’t always what’s popular or what I want to shoot), has inspired that side […]

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