Photoessay: Random household objects in monochrome

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The hand

In an ideal world, the art of seeing and composition should be independent of one’s surroundings, subjects or location. Or at very least, one should attempt it. Even though it’s almost always easier for us to previsualize compositions when we are in an unfamiliar or new environment – that which is different always stands out the most – it’s good practice to see what can be found closer to home. I like to give myself this challenge on a fairly regular basis to keep things fresh; after all, if you can find a new and compelling image in a very familiar situation, it’s all the more likely you’ll be able to make one when you’re on assignment or travelling.

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Time for a drink

This set was not strictly shot in my own house, but is rather composed of a mixture of images shot in domestic settings. I focus on light, texture, form and detail. Notice color is excluded here – if you have it and it works in concert with your subject and directing the eyes of your audience, great; if not, then you need to be able to see and work in monochrome. Ultimately, photography is nothing more than this – regardless of subject. The ability to see and previsualize is far more important than the technical part – more on this in a future essay.

In the meantime, enjoy the images. MT

Shot with a wide mixture of formats, media and equipment. There’s everything from M4/3 to medium format film in here.

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Sofa I

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Sofa II

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The plug

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The rack

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In need of illumination

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Throne I

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Throne II


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  1. Dirk De Paepe says:

    Hey Ming, essays like this are amongst the most valuable of all your publications to me. Analysing what makes each picture stand out is absolutely inspirational. Back to basics of subject, composition and light. I guess that’s why I prefer this to be in B&W. Great work!

  2. Actually, I like all of these. Maybe they should be called “Etudes,” as in musical studies designed to perfect some aspect of technique. In the hands of a genius like Chopin, the technical difficulties themselves become the architecture of expression. Or “Preludes,” an introduction to a greater work that may or may not exist.

    Actually, many photographers did beautiful studies of the household quotidian.

  3. That is a nice exercise and challenging too. Very nice images, I like a number of them but most specially Sofa II and Throne II.

  4. mosswings says:

    I look at these and keep thinking that you’re channeling Group f64. Love the glove shot, though.

  5. There’s a film noir feel to the first couple of pics, 🙂

  6. Kristian Wannebo says:

    This is interesting also as an excercize for the amateur viewer.
    ( Allow me to give a time lapse view: )

    My first impression:
    That I can understand (what you recently mentioned, Ming) that some viewers find some of your compositions cold.
    But a few of the photos were alive.
    My second impression:
    After a while some of the “cold” photos started to come alive, as I became aware of some of the intricacies in their compositions.
    They all (their composition and tonality) held my eyes quite long, hindering me from coming to some conclusion.

    I find “The hand” (and “Sofa I”) the most abstract, and good as such.
    I find “In need of illumination” and “Throne I” struggling between the abstract and the concrete, (but I can’t really say why, maybe they are – referring to your comment – “too cold and structured”, and maybe somewhat contrived).

    Personally, I prefer the amalgamation of form and content – although I can enjoy even a good Mondrian (as an extreme example) for a while.

    The glove holding the reflecting glass and the corkscrew among the more essential kitchen utilities (illustrating man’s everlasting thirst) add humour as content.
    But they also, I think, lessen the impact of the tiles with their reflections and of the shadows (in “Hanging”).

    “Time for a drink” and “Throne II” tell stories about the inhabitants.
    “The rack” and “Loops” come alive through the living shadows and the tiled wall with it’s texture contrasting with geometry.

    But then (among the “pure” compositions) two stand out: “Untitled” and “Wood”.
    “Wood”, in my mind, qualifies for hanging some time on a wall. (Referring to Tom’s comment, here I find the “impression of stairs”, or maybe the “impression of lofty woodwork”.)
    These two grow on me, whilst the others slowly fade (in comparison).
    I think because of the clarity of the idea, of the subject and of the composition (shapes in “Untitled”, angles in “Wood”); content and form blend naturally and harmoniously.
    ( Partly because the subject isn’t chosen for any special effect, and that there is nothing contrived about the composition.)

    • Thank you for the feedback. I’m now finding that the compositions I personally like are those that have layers: the obvious, to attract your eye, the less obvious to keep you looking, usually with an implied story or unusualness of some sort, and the final layer is that little something that keeps your eyes wandering around the frame, taking in the details – think of it as immersiveness, perhaps…

      • Kristian Wannebo says:


        Though words are rather inadequate, as I found (again) when commenting, I think I know what you mean.
        And I agree.
        You have shown us such photos stronger than the ones in this essay. Perhaps the Amsterdam bridge with shadow and a Crescent of sky through structures of concrete.

        But I have seen art and photographs that grow on me only by the strength of composition and colour with a motif that is rather commonplace.
        As do some of the photos you have shown us, I remember e.g. one with only a not too ruffled sea.

  7. Simple objects and yet beautifully presented.

  8. Son of Sharecroppers says:

    I like most of these a very great deal. I believe that art is more impressive if the artist makes the mundane beautiful.

  9. Kathleen says:

    So much fun! Wonderful texture, tone, shape, form. Inspirational. Thanks!

  10. This is how i know I’m not that good a photographer. I don’t have the imagination or inclination to make random objects in my home look this interesting! Great set. 🙂

  11. Don’t take too seriously, but this sort of exercise is so annoying. Why? Because the shots you can make of household items are so darned good that it makes me scratch my head. On my last photo-outing, I tried the technique of looking thru my viewfinder until it looked like a Ming Thein shot, then hit the shutter release 😉 That worked sometimes.

    But seriously, it’s a great technique. Sometimes I just put myself in my bathroom and try to take 10 different shots

  12. Nice set Ming, A lot of my favorite photo’s are shot in and around the home (or other people’s) I find that familiar is not only a good test for seeing, you can capture a personal (and if done well) transferable sentiment..These types of domestic images can interesting, even by simply making the viewer consider or reflect on their own personal space. The voyeuristic aspect holds much appeal as these can be the most candid of images. Here is a great example of domestic photography by Motoyuki Daifu. Highly candid but a great example of the “human zoo”

    • Not my home actually, which is perhaps why I could ‘see’ things. (I wished I lived in a cool house in the jungle with a swimming pool, but I don’t!)

      Motoyuki: what a strange way of describing his subjects…I cannot say the images really work for me – aesthetically they’re a bit stark/harsh – but the idea is solid, I think.

  13. plevyadophy says:

    Inspirational. Supports an idea I have had for some time but have done nothing about. Thanks.

  14. Escher and Throne II are impressive images. While there can be a deeper interest in the ordinary, as Warhol and others have taught us, the remaining images in this series lack a subject. I appreciate the concept and the exercise, but delving into the ordinary for inspiration need not yield ordinary images. Throne I is just a toilet. In Need of Illumination – just a bad draftsman’s lamp. Untitled (with sink and faucet) is, however, a nice composition in shape and texture.
    My sense is that even in Escher, I want to reduce the subject of steps to the shape of steps. The image is too much the realism of stairs, when I sense you were going for the impression of stairs. How you would process the image to achieve this effect would be up to you.
    Truthfully, I can find both fault and inspiration in each image, but I sense that in shots like Throne II and Sofa II there is more soul. Even though Throne II was more serendipitous, while Sofa II was very carefully conceived and executed.
    In the end, you made me think about it, and as such, it was successful. Thank you.

  15. I will have to give this a shot! Wonderful idea.

    • Thanks Eric.

      • I have been working on negative space. The Sofa I and Sofa II images are extremely helpful. Would the rack and the plug count as still lifes? Or what would you call them? Only curious because I really like the photos and am looking for a way to describe them. They are still but you do not have full control of their placement and light (assuming you are using sun light).

        • I think they’re all pretty much still lifes since they’re static, rearrangable objects at will…you might not have full control, but you could theoretically light as you pleased.

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