Does the audience matter?

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Work like this, I produce for myself and myself only: I don’t care if anybody else likes it; frankly, I wasn’t even going to upload or share it, but it got accidentally included in a batch. I know it certainly has zero commercial potential. Perhaps that makes it amongst the purest images I create?

Here’s a sticky question I’ve been battling with for a few months: does it matter what other people think of my images? Although it may sound rather egotistical, I think it’s actually a very valid consideration from several standpoints: that of the hobbyist/ amateur; that of the commercial/ professional, and that of the artist. And I’m pretty sure the answer is different for each one. I’m not even going to try and answer the question of what one should do if you fall into all three categories…I suppose it requires a healthy dose of schizophrenia.

I’m going to address the easiest one first: the commercial photographer. Quite simply, if you make a living from selling your images, then there’s no question you need to produce things your clients are pleased with. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself out of an income and a job in short order. A secondary, but no less important consideration is that the public – specifically the target audience of the client – also likes the work; without that, they won’t hire you – probably. There are exceptions to this; the main one being where the audience accepts what they’re given, and it’s you client’s job to push the envelope and produce something different for then. In that case, only the client matters. So: think of the masses, but “the client always comes first”.

If only it was that simple: I’ve deliberately left out two considerations: whether you as the photographer like the work, and how that affects the overall dynamics. I suspect the reality is that most photographers don’t like their professional work that much; I for one know that my personal work and commercial output diverge considerably, to the point that I can’t sell the former. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like the latter; though it’s rare that my artistic vision and that of the clients coincide. (Here’s a good example.)

It gets even more complicated: if you don’t like your own work, chances are you’re not going to be pushing the envelope much, and that in turn hampers your commercial viability: it’s the tricky seesaw of trying to balance personal and professional drives. I really don’t have an answer for this one; so far, maintaining some degree of separation has been the best solution for me. Until one reaches the level of having people hire you specifically for your work and giving you full creative freedom, I think this is a problem that all photographers-for-pay are going to have to deal with.

If you’re a hobbyist/ amateur, I think you’re perhaps in the best position: you have a choice. Shoot for yourself – and don’t show anybody what you produce – or shoot for an audience and produce things that the popular viewer (your non-photographer friends, family etc) enjoys looking at, then wait for the compliments to roll in – or unpaid weddings, birthdays and other events.

At which point, you’ll probably wish you never asked for an opinion. That’s okay, you can always still have the option of shooting for yourself and yourself only; it really doesn’t matter what you produce since you won’t have to convince anybody else of its worth: just yourself, so you can continue to justify spending all that time and money on equipment and photography. Fortunately, the justification is a simple one: are you happy with the image or not, before and independently of showing anybody else?

Of course, if you care enough to continue shooting purely for yourself, it’s a reasonable assumption that you might also want to improve (if you’re at the level of being able to consistently create what you envision – see the stages of creative evolution – then this might not apply). In that case, seek the opinions – notice the plural – of more experienced photographers, whose work you respect and admire, and more importantly, can be objective critics; this is not somebody who’s going to feel threatened by you. Peers are probably out: they probably lack the experience and you might well land up going up against them in a competition or something*. I do recognize that there are a very large number of people who fall into this category; hence the workshops, Email School and videos.

*Never underestimate the impact of ego and personal interest in these things.

I’ve long held the belief that the best place to be photographically is that of the moneyed amateur: you have no commercial/ financial pressure to please a client and thus sell work; at the same time you have the resources to pursue and experiment with the kind of things you want to photograph. You are probably successful independently in life, and are basically unwilling to take s*** from anybody: you’ll photograph what you want, how you want, thank you very much.

The only things separating this kind of photographer from the artist (you may also want to have a look at this article on the line between art and ordinary photography) are intention and audience; I suppose commercialism can be lumped into this to a lesser extent, too. Assuming you first have the skill to produce what you intend to, with the message you intend to, then the only difference between artist and amateur is a question of audience. If you are producing work for yourself, the piece doesn’t have to have an intended message for a preselected group of people; there’s no question that you – the sole audience – would be happy with the work, if not, you’ll just do it again.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to tell a group of people something – then whether they get it or not matters; I think this is tied to execution. Whether they like it or not is quite another matter; they don’t have to. They just have to understand your intended message. In fact, the reason it doesn’t matter is down to the old adage of ‘all PR is good PR’ – controversy generates debate, which generates awareness, which in the end helps an artist’s success – there’s bound to be somebody who likes it, and the more people who see the work, the higher the chances of that one liker seeing it. I actually suspect that more controversial an artist is – photographic or otherwise – the more likely they are to be successful; just look at Guersky and Rhein II – it sold for a small fortune, and here we are talking about it now. How many of you are a) going to look it up, b) keep thinking about it, and even c) try to reproduce it – that’s a successful image, even if taken in isolation it isn’t that interesting. Guersky probably doesn’t care what we think – in the end, he won anyway.

I’ve been accused of producing images which lack ‘soul’ and ‘the stamp of the photographer’ (see the comments on this photoessay). At first, it bothered me. I suspect that was the commercial side of me speaking; the need to please the audience – i.e. the site readers – and keep my nearly-perfect batting average intact. I got a bit defensive, then worried about the fact that I might well be missing something legitimate; obtaining examples changed my mind. The kind of work that was alleged to ‘have soul’ is not the kind of work I want to produce at all; it’s the complete opposite of the way I see the world, and my personal intentions. Given that the kind of work – urban reportage, I’d call it – has zero commercial value whatsoever, and that I do it solely for my own personal satisfaction, the opinions of others ultimately do not matter.

Here, I wear the hat of the amateur: I must produce work I am personally happy with, and nothing else. If nothing, I look back on that whole episode now – with the benefit of hindsight of course – as a question, waver and affirmation of my intentions: when I shoot for myself, I am an artist and nothing else. I have no other motivations than that which are purely selfish: I want to be happy with my work. I produce, and am producing, work that pleases me; if not, I delete/ discard it and try again. I produce work that my clients are happy with. And increasingly, I’m able to produce work that falls into both categories – that is the ultimate goal. MT


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  1. Peter Boender says:

    I’m actually rather surprised I don’t read any comments on Guersky and Rhein II. Personally I had never heard of the photographer (artist?) and the picture. So I certainly fell into your a) and b) category. I must say, I’m shocked! Not that I’m in any way positioned to act as the (art?) world’s litmus test, but am I alone in thinking this is a very mundane picture? The photographer even admits to digitally altering the picture (a fact that newspaper photographers and editors get fired over), as justification for his “vision”. It does absolutely nothing for me, I just think it’s very bland *]. Now that is totally unimportant to the world (and paradoxically I do like a painter artist such as Mondriaan), but it does drive me deeper in your b) category. How can it be this is the world’s most expensive picture? We’re not talking pocket change here, but a healthy 4 point 3 MILLION dollars! I am aghast! In what world are we living in? In which world is the artist living in? What is the context that somebody is willing to pay that kind of money? Isn’t it all hyperbole? The modern day emperor’s clothes? I’m at a loss of further words…

    *] Growing up on the very banks of the very same river, and having this as an almost daily view in my childhood, probably doesn’t help me to muster an appreciative view…

    • You’re not alone. I’m pretty sure this discussion passed in the comments previously – what is art in a commercial sense is not defined by the artist or by artistic purity, but by having the right connections and some self-interest on the part of your promoter. Envision this: you’re wealthy and have the right circle of friends who also want to be seen as being wealthy and discerning and trendy. You ‘discover’ an artist, buy a huge number of his (cheap) early pieces, then promote him to the hilt, let the laws of supply and demand take over, and his work becomes expensive and scarce. You then sell your collection and make a fortune. Rinse and repeat.

      Now, would an art collector please do the same for me?

  2. There are times when doing corporate work that I have run into a (often very overworked) marketing guy, who wanted me to come up with the ideas. On those projects, the target audience was the first consideration. I’ve also experienced the polar opposite, with an art director showing me a magazine page, and wanting my technical skills to dissect an image, and make an image as close as possible to that magazine page. In many cases, the client will define the target audience, and it’s easy to tell when it is the client before the target audience. I think corporate imaging provides more challenges in this regard. In the world of advertising, the agency has worked out how they want the campaign to proceed, and the photographer is more of a problem solver in that team of people.

    I’m no so sure I can ever call walk-around images a hobby. Most of the time they are practice of one sort. Prior to being a commercial photographer, I did photography for my fine art and illustration images, mostly as reference material. More recently I have exhibited numerous times photographic images as fine art. I’m not really sure why I still do photography for fine art, other than it allows my ideas to flow from me, and after this many years I see more as a camera. Unfortunately I still remain more of an artist with a camera, than I do purely as a photographer.

    As to the implied question of which audience: the juror of an exhibit must be stopped in his tracks long enough to select an image; the gallery visitors need to be stopped long enough to engage with an image; the client needs to be impressed enough to ask for more; the art director and ad agency need to want to bring you in for other projects. Beyond all of them, our mom’s are likely to enjoy many of our images, and our pets will be the most reluctant viewers of our images. 😉

    • Sounds pretty familiar to my experience, Gordon.

      So long as we’re photographing anything, we’re always practicing. Maybe that’s our blessing and our curse: we’re never really off the clock. It just seems more like work at some times than others.

  3. It’s funny you’ve written this article because I’ve recently questioned whether I should shoot for me or to shoot and post with the general public in mind. I am new to photography and I’ve always posted pictures on Flickr to get an idea as to whether I am doing something right or wrong. I’ve realized that HDR pictures get more attention than non HDR pictures, even when the subject matter or difficulty of composition is not very challenging. I’ve moved away from HDR and have seen interest in my pictures drop. That is understandable, however, since the fast pace scrolling of our current internet experience gives little time to actually stop and see something interesting in a picture that is not over-saturated with colors. If there is anything I learned from commenting on pictures posted on the web is that shiny objects, whether on a computer screen or on a deserted landscape, will always attract more attention.

    • Flickr is NOT a good litmus test to decide if an image is good or not. A few things are popular there: HDR, bokeh, cats, babies, sunsets, flash pictures. Notice this says NOTHING about composition or content…

      • But Flickr is probably still the best image hosting site(?) I’ve been using smugmug and about to leave and join Flickr. As a community probably still the best, at least you can still find a few groups which suit your interest….

  4. All this and no discussion of the happy snap-shooter, instagrammer, family photo world? No discussion of porn? Erotica? The Japanese photo-book culture? Photography as the veil of signs?

    Art comes, maybe, from unreasonable conflicts. Some artists eschew the market, others couldn’t create without it.

    Go for it Ming! The advances in digital technology over the past few years, and which you handle with such mastery, open unknown vistas.

    Also, no outward links, it seems, but try googling “cezanne’s doubt” for a fantastic essay on the creative process and the great painter.

    • Nope, I don’t feel qualified to discuss any of those – so I won’t stick my foot in my mouth or do something obviously stupid by trying. I know when I’m out of my depth 🙂

      Outward links work just fine – they just have to be moderated first; it’s a WordPress automation to limit spam.

  5. Hey Min,
    Your shots are a reflection of you. You consider yourself a scientist, hence your shots look scientific in nature. Your choice of subject matter, your framing (that almost ALWAYS include a play with basic angular shapes), your treatment (straight, never really seen anything slightly blurry or grainy from you)……
    That’s your Vision of the world. Now I have one and your critics have one. I think the problem is when people like your critics impose their Vision (that’s probably opposite to yours) on your work. Well, then…of course they won’t like it.
    I think everyone should respect each other’s Vison of the world, try to put things in the photographer’s perspective and not push their own…………..

  6. John Satan Teflonik says:

    Did not read the wordy text, but to me this is your most interesting image yet.

    • I can’t resist:

      John, text does tend to be wordy; there’s no gentle way to put it. I’m sorry. You stick to the pictures and leave the wordy text for the rest of us. Probably best.

      Joking aside, that was a tightly written article, John—what are you on about? You wouldn’t know, because you didn’t read, but Ming went from personal doubt via dealing with critique to artistic ambition to commercial responsibility and all the way to brushing up against the rasion d’etre for photography… In less than 1500 words (1382 to be precise). Not easy.

      You try it.
      (and give it away for free afterward)

  7. Dan and Ming’s exchange said most of what needed to be said.

    When it comes to commercial: you do what the customer says, unless you know he’s wrong and you have the weight to swing it your way; otherwise you do what he says. Same in copywriting.

    I’m skeptical of anyone saying they only take pictures for themselves, and then they have a shared repository (public or restricted) of images somewhere. I’m not being adversarial at all. I say that line all the time; and it’s a red-faced lie. It’s “for us” in the sense that we gain a good feeling from other people looking at our work, acknowledging it (and “acknowledge” is intended in a very, very wide ranging way: from verbal to non-verbal, positive to negative, even just the bare act of witnessing of a photograph is enough to qualify as acknowledgement).
    To be philosophically authentic to “only for me,” you’d have to be a nihilist par excellenc, and then we can all ask “what use has a nihilist for productive endeavors like photography?”

    Does the audience matter?


    But at the same time, f— the audience.

    • And those last three lines are the perpetual artist’s paradox 🙂

      • Percolating down through the ages to us 🙂

        I’m persuaded that this is the terminus of it, and further attempts to resolve just take us further away from the truth. We’re already there. Without this paradox there can be no dynamism. This paradox — the tension in being one thing, but two at the same time — is like an engine. I was going to say “which drives everything forward,” but there is no forward and back—both are equally good syntheses of two opposing movements (both are relative terms). There is only “evolution,” I suppose. Though that lays bare my opinion that the universe is inherently teleologic.

        I could’ve attacked this from a physical point of view and borrowed J.A Wheeler:

        Does the audience matter?

        Absolutely yes. Without an observer, there is nothing to close the ontologic circuit, and nothing can exist (because there is no observer to actualize wave functions, etc).

        That pretty much puts it bed, I think.

        • puts it *to bed

          I should be off myself!

        • “Without an observer, there is nothing to close the ontologic circuit, and nothing can exist”. Hmmm, that’s an interesting statement because according to one belief system, Colossians 1:16-17 provides the observer…. I’ll keep the non-photography digression [very] short but I just happened to find your comment quite interesting!

          • Tom Liles says:

            Hi there Thomas,

            I’m a highly heretical member of that belief system, a doubter, like my and your namesake, but I believe. In my view, the Bible is like a psychological confession, and in that sense it is the word of God [because I think God is part of us all and expressed through, and isomorphic to, our unconscious and conscious, and these in turn are implicitly linked with physical reality as I hinted at above, and will speak a little more to below). But again, I need to take care to stress that there is not much traditional about my take, or my worldview. I’m nominally a Roman Catholic, but there’s not much dogma I can live with; though at the same time, I love the relative absolutist stance and outright refute anything absolute relativist. Anyway, it goes without saying [as all people who wheel that phrase out, here’s me saying it] that I can see the connection you saw, and I agree. And by the by, I don’t think there’s any need to be shy about faith. It’s a sad state of affairs when confessing one’s faith is akin to farting in an elevator or burping at the table. I cherish honesty and think there is no more virtuous act than being honest without a thought to the consequences—being true to oneself. I have faith, and I will say it. And I’m not scared of naysayers, who have much the weaker philosophical and scientific position in my estimation.

            Like many scientists, I came to my beliefs through science. I think the deeper anyone searches into the fantastic nature of our physical world — the more we try to understand it — the closer we get to the less concretely objective things about it; things that more equivocally rational people refuse to accept. Below is a short note about space, that should reveal how things are not as concrete as rationalists unwilling to drill any further into nature would like to admit [I think it’s just status quo bias in many people’s case—being comfortable with well-worn answers that don’t go all the way].

            So. Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages…

            No, no 🙂

            At one time space was considered to be “ether,” like a fluid, a quasi-material substance, that physical objects were thought to swim through like fish do water. Since the great man, Einstein, gave us Relativity, nothing remains of material space; it became like a tensor field. Although permeated by vacuum energy, these things are just contained by space and not equivalent to it. Space has instead become a mathematical abstraction — the tensor field — which confers relative attributes like location, direction, orientation, distance, linear and angular velocity, and geometry on physical objects and energy fields. Because space as abstracted from its contents has no observable effect on anything, it isn’t “physical” in the usual sense.
            From a philosophical standpoint, saying that space is immaterial and abstract amounts to saying it is mental. That’s to say, to some extent, it’s composed of mind rather than matter. Although that idea runs against the grain of science taught at school, that everyone remembers and wants to cling to, it is consistent with our best theories of the big and small: Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. In Relativity space and time are bound up in an abstract mathematical manifold called “space-time.” In QM, matter is characterized in terms of immaterial wave functions that are physically actualized by interactions of a similarly immaterial nature.
            As Bishop Berkeley wrote centuries ago, reality is ultimately perceptual; and from the ensuing debate between Hume and Kant, perception conforms to mental categories—categories like “space” and “time.” So rather than being purely objective and physical in a materialistic sense (and useful to the scientific method), space has a subjective aspect reflecting the profoundly mental nature of reality.

            I believe there is only one thing, God; but that the one thing is self-evidently a multiplicity (as we are). There can be no “outside” our reality, and the entire system is self-refexive—self-actualizing (things need to be observed to exist; but the observer is the thing itself, ultimately, c.f., what we just talked about with space). Reality’s point is teleologic –> so, self-computing, and bound somewhere. Again, there is no “outside” so this destination is entirely self-decided. Not determinism. Not in-determinism. Self determinism. And done so real-time: no past-present-future; from our view only “now,” from God’s (but still us) one frozen perfect instant encompassing everything (all the nows). I don’t have it down. I don’t know what I’m talking about—I have no answers, only questions; and this is the mechanism of reality itself. Our minds, the matter, the energy, is all part of this thing. Ever turning, ever computing the answer. And ever observing itself (making itself exist). In its entirety, we might call it (us, the atoms, the energy) the immanent mind of God.

            And now, for lunch! 🙂

            • It’s a sad state of affairs when confessing one’s faith is akin to farting in an elevator or burping at the table.

              Wow! The condition is sad but you hit it so succinctly, spot-on, and colorfully-put to boot, that I’m tempted to fall off my chair laughing at the same time as crying. Thanks 🙂

            • Kristian Wannebo says:


              The way you write this makes me think that you might be interested in one of my favourite books:
              “Mr God, this is Anna” by Fynn.

              It’s about a very young girl who is very much alive and about how she explores the world (very much with a scientific and philosophic mind) and there often finds parallells to her relation to God.

              She once (somewhere between 5 and 8 years of age) asks God to help her to ask real questions.


    • Ha, great last 3 sentences Tom. My thoughts exactly!

      We all have egos that need massaging and if the audience doesn’t like an image then obviously the problem lies with them 🙂

  8. serialphotographer says:

    You have a great eye for a picture

  9. Hi Ming,
    The photograph accompanying this piece is exceptional. As a frequent visitor of your site and also regular dweller of your past articles and photos – I must say you have improved quite a lot – especially in your post processing. Your latest photos have a very pleasant and natural look to them.

    500px is all about people liking other peoples work and in my opinion it is actually contributing towards production of very plastic/over processed style photos. The popular page of 500px is full of highly done up photos which I personally dont like and dont aspire to produce. 1 of my highly done up (almost crass) HDR photo got the most hits – I was surprised then and still am (actually horrified that I put that photo against my name). Another favorite of the general public is night photos with milky way and candy colored sky – honestly I have never seen green, purple and pink in night sky…

    Over the past few months – especially after watching your videos – I’m consciously trying to make the actual photo do the talking rather than the bit done on them afterwards. I’m liking my own work now more than ever – even though I’m not so sure how well it would go down with the general audience.


  10. Hey Ming, great job with this image. Really really like the texture on the leaves. Is there a chance you can share your sharpening workflow?

    • Not much to share. With the new AA-filterless cameras, if you nail focus and have zero camera shake, you don’t need to sharpen at all most of the time. I don’t sharpen the D800E, GR, or CFV-39 output. (This image was shot with a GR).

      • Thanks for the info. However, you always shoot raw so how is this possible, are the raw images straight from the camera this sharp? And what happens if you use a camera that has an AA filter (like most of them do)?

        • Yes, they are that sharp. It depends on your shot discipline, lenses and technique. Most people aren’t getting anywhere near the maximum potential out of their cameras.

          I do need to sharpen if there’s an AA filter, but again you need to start off with the highest acuity possible, which goes back to shot discipline. Then use a high amount and very small radius.

          • Thanks for the prompt reply. Very good news if such contrast, clarity and sharpness can be achieved from non ouch-level priced gear. A “maximum potential out of your camera” article might be a good suggestion, especially if it is focused on how to establish each sensor’s sweet spot when It comes to the DR.

            So, a global adjustment of high amount and very small radius is usually enough for APSC cameras with a AA filter? No additional selective sharpening required? Not trying to be a pain I am just really impressed by your results.

            They are a true inspiration to try harder with whatever one has and nothing more, sincere congratulations for that.

  11. Hi Ming,
    Excellent post! I’d argue that the audience always matters, when it comes to art, whether the audience is yourself, your peers or your friends and family. It is completely up to the artist or photographer in regards to which one of these groups takes priority.

    There was a popular painter in the states named Thomas Kincade. On the one hand, he was a mass market commercial success, perhaps loved by the masses. On the other hand, he was perhaps looked upon negatively by the elite art critics. I personally may not be a big fan of his art, but did its popularity make it any less noteworthy…?

    I completely agree with the last paragraph of your posting. If you do anything in life, you should try to do work that you are proud of, first and foremost. If you can do work that is appreciated by not only yourself and your clients, that is icing on the cake and perhaps how “immortal” images are made.

    The question is: which audience do you personally allow to “push you” in terms of improving your own work? I’d argue that constructive criticism, whether internal or external is always of value and of motivation to try to “get it right” or improve.

    • I agree, if you extend the definition of ‘audience’ to include yourself – problem is, that sometimes feels a bit schizophrenic. Needless to say, self-critique/ objective viewing and your own standards coming first should be paramount; the tough part is being fully objective. It’s nearly impossible and one tends to sway in one direction or the other.

      Kincade: I don’t at all like his work; the question is whether he does, or he’s just pushing it out the door because it makes a lot of money. I think that’s probably more telling about whether it’s art or not.

      • Kincade died in April 2012. I recall a lot of criticism about his efforts to achieve high-volume sales, and various business and production practices that were perhaps a consequence.

        • Assuming total revenue is the same, surely the perception associated with low volume, high value, would be preferable? At least it would be to me.

      • Objectivity is extremely difficult. I told my friends recently that I simply got tired of culling/looking at my own shots, because I was struggling to be objective. Which angle, which shot, what minor adjustments can I make to improve the shot? That being said, I don’t know if the goal should be to be objective, which may be impossible.

        Perhaps the goal should be to be more “self aware”…? As an example, if I like all the shots I take, then I’m definitely not setting the bar high enough? My friend put it a little bit better, simply, which shot would I be happy with hanging on the wall?

        I recently went to Zion National Park in Utah in early January (I highly recommend it, if you come back to the States…). In going through hundreds of shots, I finally managed to pick a handful of shots, which converted well in black and white. I asked for my friends feedback (before advising my own opinions on the shots), and they suggested a few minor improvements I could make. I was heartened when their suggestions (not influenced by mine), matched my own thinking. Now, not everyone like the same shots, but I received enough feedback to affirm that I was on the right track.

        I guess my point is that the relationship with the audience does not need to be adversarial (e.g. “f” the audience). It can be a learning experience, if done correctly… Or perhaps I’m not tortured enough to be an artist?

        • I don’t think we can be entirely objective; preferences will enter into it. We just hope that attachment doesn’t cloud our judgement too badly. Self awareness is good: what do you like, and why?

          No point in trying to satisfy an audience that diverges too much from your own preferences; that will lead to torture.

  12. Thats a great pic!!!
    Funny my eyes must have been playing tricks on me this morning or it”s just real strong coffee I’m having but i thought for at least 20 seconds it was material floating, thought to myself WoW!!!! thats cool how it was then I looked closer and noticed it was plants…now it looks like leaves floating without the stems..VERY COOL IDEA.

  13. Beautiful image.

    My wife once said something along the lines of, “I think you see things in some of your pictures that no one else sees.” I was troubled by that for a while and as a result I started going down @Saturnine Zero’s “positive reinforcement” road, but then I realized she was right, and that sometimes it’s OK if something speaks to me and me alone. I’ve never been able to figure out what other people see – or don’t see – in my work.

    Thanks very much for this post!

    • That’s not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s a very good thing: if you’re seeing the same things as everybody else, then perhaps it’s time to rethink the way you see…

      • serialphotographer says:

        Ming I meant this as a compliment I have dropped by your site often and have always found your images pleasing. To be honest I never read the narrative attached to this I merely saw the image which prompted my comment it is superb.

        I have glanced at it now and you raise the age old question and to be fair hit most of the issues in a insightful way. I shoot in the main for me and whilst I appreciate viewers commenting on my images I really don’t care if they do or not. I’ve never been desperate to have my blog win awards hence its never had nor will it, any reference to the usual places folk generally ask to vote for.

        Your professional work is outstanding and date I say you are a master at watch imagery.

        I love to see both sides of your talents and still enjoy the blade shots as it echoes for me on a personal level. I might add that you may have reawakened my desire to get another , although I haven’t taken the plunge yet mainly through yet another itch which is the Ricoh gr ! Too many cameras too little time 🙂

  14. The lead photograph is exceptional and very beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.

    In the work that we create for ourselves, we must try to ignore all the noise; all comments “good” and “bad”. We may consider a suggestion here and there, but ultimately must learn to trust our own eyes and listen to our own heart. If we hold true to an honest and sophisticated vision (this must be developed to the maximum extent possible) we stand a chance to create a body of work that is unique, cohesive and exceptional.

    In the words of Charles Webster Hawthorne:

    “The world is waiting for men with vision – it is not interested in mere pictures”

    • Thank you.

      Unique, cohesive and exceptional is one thing – not going broke while doing it (and thus being able to complete it) is quite another. 🙂

      • I appreciate the conflict that you describe. I was referring to the portion of our art that we create for ourselves, not the commission work that must be more “accessible” for clients and our commercial customer base.

  15. I think your topology types of photographic endeavor is too limited: the “commercial” needs to be opened up: product photography, fashion, architectural all would be work for hire. But there’s photojournalism, documentary and travel where the brief is more open ended. There are also “celebrity” photographers who have been able to define their own terms when doing commercial work – especially fashion – and some of them have operated both in commerce and fine art – Avdeon and Penn obviously but also Anne Liebowitz. Silgado and Nick Brandt occupy zones of fine art/documentary and journalism. Of course, fine art photographers could be assumed to be working for money, but on spec. (“Fine Art” sounds so dated.)

    I would think Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky would be especially interesting to you. You have the superb technique.

    I would also say that something that distinguishes the gifted amateur from artist may be that the artist needs to be seen or felt so at one point.

    I believe Brassai used to give his pictures away outside Paris landmarks because he couldn’t find buyers.

    Finally, poverty of means can bring richness of results, so the impoverished amateur is not all that disadvantaged. “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.”

    • True, there are various stops along the continuum. The number of celebrity photographers can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And even they still have to satisfy clients – I doubt they have 100% free reign, which throws absolutely pure art out of the window again.

      Not a fan of Gursky, but Wall’s work is interesting. Question is, how did they make it big?

      I disagree with your distinction between amateurs and artists: artists do it because are compelled to; amateurs just feel like it sometimes. Both probably want to be seen, but it’s not make or break for either.

      • After posting, I started thinking about Vivian Maier. Who was of course, an amateur but also a very great artist. Pure art is often mixed with commerce if the artist must sell his or her work to survive or to get it seen: e.g. Mozart (actually, he really like making money). I suspect that complete independence from the market may be pernicious. Oh, also there’s the “society photographer”, like Cecil Beaton or Karsh, and, in a way Mapplethorpe. Anyway, love your blog, love your work and as far as “fine art” I think you should totally go for it. Does doing something like that create problems for you with your commercial clients – as in effecting your “brand?”

        • If we never saw Maier’s work, we wouldn’t know she was an artist. Yet if she created for money, I don’t think the work would have the same degree of purity and integrity. Ironic, isn’t it?

          My clients hire me because I can give them what they need, not because I do other things as well. I suppose being successful at fine art would only serve as positive reinforcement, if it made any difference at all for most of them.

  16. As an amateur I am in a position where I can take/create what I want and do. I like to show some of my images for others to look at, for their own enjoyment, feedback, critique,etc. One of the things I really like is when one of my photographs triggers somebody in such a way that they offer up an anecdote of their own – this tells me that, on some level, my picture has ‘worked’. As you will realise yourself, viewing photographs is very much about what the viewer brings to the piece (I refer here to pure imagery without supporting text).
    I suspect that everyone viewing this post will have 1000s of images on their hard drives which have never been seen by another person – what good are they if nobody else seems them? – when we look at these ‘non-showers’ do we enjoy the aesthetics or do we simply remember the diary aspect of image making or our technical prowess at getting it just right?

    (on this image, I really like the way the ribbed texture of the leaves is picked up in the slats in the background, but I find the top left light patch a little too strong as it pulls my eye straight away).

  17. Hi Ming, I don’t know about “zero commercial potential” – I’m sure if you did a print of it you’d find a decent number of buyers. Wish I could come to Melbourne, but can’t. Another time…

  18. Great post Ming. I love: “I’ve long held the belief that the best place to be photographically is that of the moneyed amateur: you have no commercial/ financial pressure to please a client and thus sell work; at the same time you have the resources to pursue and experiment with the kind of things you want to photograph.” I think that’s me and I know how lucky I am in that respect. Does not mean I don’t strive to improve though. I think your post has helped me realise this. Thanks.

  19. BOOM! This is a cracker Ming! The metallic quality of the leaves; superb! light, colour, composition, concept, its all here. As good as anything I have seen of yours. (You’ll understand why I connect so strongly to this image if you click my link) However I see beyond bias. This is a strong image because your ego is splayed across it, the composition is far from formal but it works so well! This is you knowing what YOU want and making it. I want to see more!

    Ego is not a dirty word, you need to embrace it. If you can’t challenge yourself with you work, who the hell to you expect to challenge with it. When your confident, and completely comfortable with your practice you’re at your most vulnerable. It only when your taking hits, being questioned and prodded that you discover your true strengths and weaknesses.

    I bough my first OK camera less than a year ago, a Nikon P7100 ( it was on sale and I figured if I could learn what all those dials and buttons did I would get some sense of the fundamentals, I still like it for this reason) I discovered your site when looking for something a little better and bought the GR based on your review ( I like it lots). i kept coming back to your site because of essays like this. Thank you! After pouring over photographic sites in pursuit of knowledge, this is one of the few that really does explore critical analysis beyond a f**king sensor.

    I have basically dropped my chisels, paint brushes pens etc after over a decade of intensive practice, regular exhibits, working in galleries , in the peak of my print practice having over 20 works on paper purchased by National Gallery of Australia. Now I simply carry at least one camera with me where ever I go. Why? I want to. It feels right. I listen to my ego and ignore dubious reactions from my friends, contemporaries, family, wife/mother of my children. “photography! boring..anyone can take a photo”.” pffft… photography is as challenging and legitimate as any art form. I honestly didn’t feel it was that much of a shift. (although there have been some intense late night art discussions with my better half ) I’m an image maker, photography makes perfect sense.

    At first this was a very private pursuit, Only I knew exactly what my intentions where. ‘I’m gonna drop everything and replace it with this” ( it was like I was seeing another woman!) I Have never looked back, and now the only questions I get is when I’m going to have a show. To which I answer “I’m not thinking about that now” I’m a beginner when it comes to photography, but I have the benefit of considering colour, form,composition and concept for a good part of my life.

    The more I explore photography the more I discover its separation from art. This is a good thing. Like music or literature so is photography, do we feel the need to label it art ? I think of what I do as pure photography.
    Photography can be a tool to simply create a pure and sincere image. The immediate act of viewing a composition and recording it, removes layers of superficial surface, and contemplation, leaving a raw and direct record of a personal vision. When you make a painting, drawing etc.. you can chop and edit the scene, with photography you are forced to negotiate with whats in front of you, this is a huge degree of separation. Not only is it a different way of recording, its a completely different way of seeing.

    I only make personal work. I photograph close and within my immediate surroundings, because it is constant. There are no intended themes or motives besides creating a composition. Everything has potential to be recorded in this sense, each image contributes to a whole. I treat my photographic practice as one continuous work.
    The work is not profound, nor is it informative. All I will say is that this is the single most important individual record that I will make from my life. It is a record of my enthusiasm to see and create images. Each image is important to me only because I chose to record it. As my photography is a personal record, I can discard the the viewer. As a personal record it is something. as art it is not.
    Art in relation to my work is an empty, decorative label that I have no intention of pursuing. The goal is simple; to attempt to view my world with a naive eye and record it with a trained one.

    • Thank you. Hardware aside, the only way to improve the pictorial content of an image – beyond the basics – is to think seriously about why we are doing it in the first place; what are we trying to say? What are we trying to communicate?

      Pure art is ego: it has to be. Not everything that’s painted and framed – or photographed – qualifies; when it’s done for somebody else, if you have no creative control, you are merely a craftsman. When it’s done for yourself, then it’s art. The two are never the same; I suppose that’s something all of us have to rationalise and separate. I find it easier to do this by keeping subjects separate, and to some extent, the gear, too; it creates a psychological division between work and art. Despite how it might appear with the enormous number of images I post, the vast majority of what I shoot is never shown. It is for my satisfaction/ experimentation/ documentation and that alone; I don’t care if nobody sees it. Maybe some elements will make it into published work; maybe not. Does it matter? I don’t think so. It is creation for the sake of creation.

      Bringing this around full circle: I created this site for the reasons you mention. Nobody talks about the image, the whys, the motivations. Gear gear gear. Boring. This site is ego. Is it art? Probably not, but it is unique, and focused/ pure in intention.

      I’ve been with the same mistress for the last 13 years. Since she predates my wife, the wife understands… 🙂

      • Haha, My wife is very supportive, as long as I can justify it with some rational.

        What is unique to photography is the subject is very much the medium. This is not the case with other forms of image making, where medium such as paint charcoal etc.. is used to express the subject or to create one from thin air.
        With commercial work you can manipulate the scene, with lighting, set design, directing and posing the subject, giving you control of the medium, thus directing the concept. Artists such as Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman or Thomas Ruff for example, tend to use commercial photography methods, for this very reason; to control every single nuance of the shot. I feel that a lot of work by these artist fall somewhere between photography and painting/sculpture or digital art. The photography element of such work is a means to give the image a sense of spontaneity or reality. This is art in the traditional sense as all elements are controlled by the creator.
        This is where I build those separations between art & photography and where photography falls into its own. With personal work you are usually at the mercy of your surroundings It’s easy to get bogged down in concept. It’s important to not over think what you are trying to say especially in photography as the result can come across as didactic and literal.
        As long as you know how to treat the subject, ambiguity is strength in personal work and a far more interesting method of conveying a concept. It also opens far more possibilities. The consistencies lie in the fact that it is very hard to remove ones photographic signature, (your image above shows this) regardless of the camera used or format. This is often more than enough to tie things together. I find the most appealing aspect of photography is when i walk out the door, I am not sure what I will find, sometimes its beyond your expectations other time it falls behind. This element of spontaneity defines photographys strength as a medium, nothing comes close.

        • If your personal work doesn’t use commercial techniques – and even if you do, you’re limited to what you have available – creating something to photograph is harder than just creating the image directly – you can still walk away if the pieces don’t come together the way you want them to. That is the final role of the photographer: he/she is the conscious excluder; think of it as cropping reality in both spatial and temporal dimensions, I suppose.

          • This is true, most of us are limited by resources, however this relative to what is being achieved in today;s multi-million dollar art studios. Many of the big artists today are simply project managers or art directors. Anything can be achieved if you can hire a team of technical geniuses or “assistants” to do your bidding. Its not like Jeff Wall locks himself in a room for a few years to stitch together those huge images. I don’t have a problem with it, as this has always been the case (Rodin had a team of 90 highly skilled sculptures building his works) I just don’t think its photography in the traditional sense of the word. The works may make you feel like your actually there, but the truth is the place never really existed. This is more akin to painting. (I think Jeff Wall would be the first to agree) Its all about vision. These are not crops of reality they are high end productions, visions constructed from the ground up, reality doesn’t really enter the picture.

      • Peter Boender says:

        We’ve had previous discussions about art on your blog, but I keep having difficulty with this notion (and in some twisted way I understand what you want to say): “when it’s done for somebody else, if you have no creative control, you are merely a craftsman. When it’s done for yourself, then it’s art.”
        Now consider, for instance, the “Mona Lisa”… Would you not regard it as art?

        • There’s a slightly finer gradation than that: if it’s done for somebody else but you’re given creative control, then you can still be an artist. But if it’s done ‘to spec’, abandon hope all ye who enter…

  20. I’m starting a new venture this year with my photographic pursuits. I’m in the moneyed amateur corner :-). I am very fortunate to have been able to try different camera’s, do some travel and enjoy photography as an enthusiast. Though I’m going to test myself out this year and see if my work finds an audience. I shoot for myself and if I feel it makes the grade I’m going to include into my print business (selling large black & white “prints only” or “framed” limited edition images). Apart from the images the success of this will come down to marketing and positioning. Do I have a particular client in mind? Well yes in terms of demographic (i.e. people willing to look for art and in that sense look for a connection AND willing to pay for it) but no in the sense of pleasing “anyone in-particular” artistically. The images will just have to stand on their own in that sense.

    So the common trap (apart from being ill prepared when it comes to marketing and business development) here is the artist possibly over rating their own work OR not being ready for people to NOT buy or even have an interest in their work. After 17 years in sales and marketing that’s fine. I’m ready for that. But I’m not going to die wondering could my work have found a broader audience. Not for the sake of it, nor for the money, but can it be a genuine emotional piece of art that people may value. I’m about to find out and have no delusions that it this may amount to nothing more than a small side business that eventually might be more work than it’s worth!!

    • I wish you all the best with this – the more photographers are out there, the more awareness the art has as a whole, and the better it is for everybody. Individual tastes vary; you wouldn’t want to be mass anyway – I don’t think cannibalisation exists in print sales. I personally believe the toughest part of the print business is connecting with the audience in person – this is especially critical because there’s no way any digital image has anywhere near the impact of a print.

      • Andy Gemmell says:

        Thanks Ming. If it is no fun trying this then I won’t be persisting with it!

        “I personally believe the toughest part of the print business is connecting with the audience in person – this is especially critical because there’s no way any digital image has anywhere near the impact of a print.”

        Absolutely agree. Have someone from the industry helping with this part of the process. To be honest it’s the fun part.

        The web and mobile devices make all our images one big collage in a sense. I just feel making a concerted effort to make an image and take these to print is really “completing” the process. From picking up the camera to enjoying the emotions ongoing in a print. When only dealing with the web, it’s a post and then you just go back to look and see if someone “liked” it or you don’t even do that!! There has to be more to it…at least for me anyway…and that’s what’s important.

        • Contrary to what the ‘social marketing experts’ and PR directors think, if there isn’t more than web likes, then it’s not worth a damn thing. It doesn’t translate into money or any other tangible commercial value. I bet a zillion people like Bugatti, but that’s not going to be representative of the potential customer base at all.

  21. “I’ve long held the belief that the best place to be photographically is that of the moneyed amateur: you have no commercial/ financial pressure to please a client and thus sell work; at the same time you have the resources to pursue and experiment with the kind of things you want to photograph. You are probably successful independently in life, and are basically unwilling to take s*** from anybody: you’ll photograph what you want, how you want, thank you very much.”

    I completely concur and look forward to improving my work – for myself. 🙂

    Thanks for another terrific piece, Ming!

    • A pleasure, Roger!

    • I agree with this as well. Although I do also have a “client” – my fiance, to whom I have to provide suitable photos and who also “pays” me, not financially, but in indulgence of 4 am starts on holidays and mysterious boxes turning up without any explanation of cost and, oddly no receipt anywhere in sight.

  22. Saturnine Zero says:

    This is topic is really relevant to everyone pursuing photography as more than just a means to document memories.

    Shooting for money is one thing, whoever pays needs to be happy. But for personal work there is a real danger for people that showing their work to friends and family, flickr groups etc will get them addicted to that positive reinforcement, the overjustification effect. Deadly! Their motivation will become purely that positive feedback, warranted or not, and the intrinsic enjoyment of image making will be displaced.

    I try to shoot only for myself and avoid this trap as much as possible. I only show about 4 people anything I shoot on a regular basis.

    But at some point we want to know that our images are “good,” that we are applying our knowledge and efforts effectively. I think that is where showing someone who is knowledgeable and has no emotional involvement in the images comes in, to get assessment. I’m nowhere near that stage yet.

    • There’s nothing wrong with encouragement. But I agree, encouraging the production of crap does nothing but breed mediocrity – which then percolates down through the rest of society, which is why there’s this popular misconception that excessive bokeh and hipstagram filters are a good thing – even if they don’t fit the subject, theme or artistic motive (if there is even one to begin with).

  23. I have been looking for frames like your image above thinking that perhaps interesting subjects are a crutch very much like excessive bokeh. I think you have a very unique style that shines through out your work. I also much prefer the clean style, technical detail and artistic balance found in your images.

    • Thanks Eric. We definitely still need subjects – but the image should transcend the subject; to make an ordinary image of an exceptional subject is pretty poor – but the other way around is special.

  24. NeutraL-GreY says:

    I find that image to be immensely pleasing. I think it’s because it is such simple thing that would otherwise be ignored? I don’t really know, but I like it. I have been trying to capture stuff like this lately.


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