Illusion vs delusion vs reality: commercial photography today

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Perhaps one of the most difficult objects I’ve ever had to light – directionality is needed to show finishing textures, but at the same time, diffusion for the polished surfaces. Reflections are controlled by carefully constructing the ambient environment and positioning of the lights and watch. This is a single image, not a composite.

This article is almost certainly going to not just going to make me unpopular with other photographers, but my clients, too. But it has to be said: I’m crying myself hoarse but nobody seems to be listening. There is a growing disconnect between physical reality and commercial ‘reality’. And if those people bridging the gap don’t say or do something about it – where does it end? As they say, the truth hurts. Read on if you’re masochist.

I’m of course referring to how fake products look in advertising – there’s a very, very thin line between finding the best angle and lighting to represent an object, and portraying an unrealistic and physically unfeasible vision. Let me backtrack: there are three ways to light and photograph an object. The most realistic way – if photography can be though of as having any degree of authenticity in the first place* – is to place the object in a feasible ‘normal use’ setting, perhaps have the target audience interact with it, and then hit the button. The second way is to set up artificial lights around the subject in such a way as to control reflections, texture, etc – this is the optimal method, and requires both some understanding and appreciation of the subject, as well as knowledge and understanding of lighting.

*It is, after all, a very subjective representation of the world by the photographer and in this case the art director and/or client

Both of these methods are physically plausible: you can use your naked eyes and see the same thing, form the same angle, by moving your head around a bit. Even in the studio lighting scenario – if we used continuous lighting, we’d be able to see exactly the same thing as the finished photograph, tone and contrast adjustments aside. Leaving aside retouching – I think removing stray dust and ensuring that the colour accurately represents the actual physical object is fair because it matches intentions and nothing more – I feel this is about as far as we can go and retain some degree of integrity over what the image represents.

The problem is, almost nobody wants to stop at this point. In fact, nine out of ten clients tell me they want their output to look ‘punchier’ or ‘shinier’, to ‘have more pop’, or worse, pull out a magazine ad with a product that’s been photoshopped to within an inch of becoming an illustration. In most advertisements or commercial product photographs, what we see is no longer reality, or even a reasonable facsimile of it. This is because of two things: a lack of education and imagination on the part of the client or art director, and a lack of executional capability on the part of the photographer. Instead of making a product that looks good, then finding an angle and lighting setup that actually makes the product look good, inevitably the shoot resorts to composite lighting** and heavy photoshop. It’s nothing but pathetic mediocrity all round.

**Where the camera position is static, but each face/ facet is lit differently and then blended together in photoshop. This is physically unrealistic because the light spill from one face/ side will affect the others; reflections are natural, and something to be used to define angles and lines, not feared and airbrushed into oblivion. Think of a car advertisement: how many cars have you seen in reality that actually look like that? I’m willing to wager it’s zero.

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The real deal – here you can see the actual lighting setup used. The finished image was taken with a longer lens to project the car onto the plain velvet background. There is an On Assignment post from this shoot that goes into much more detail here.

I believe it is necessary to do things with a bit more integrity; it is much harder (some objects simply do not like to be lit in the way you envision) because you have to get everything right for that one single shot. But the end result is that what the potential customer sees is exactly what they get in reality. And this is infinitely preferable to being disappointed; (better yet if we can make the product look not quite as good as the real thing, but then that would be doing ourselves as photographers a disservice). To photograph with a single fixed lighting setup and one shot only is not easy, because you have to be very conscious of interaction of lights with backgrounds and reflections and everything else – controlling spill and direction is paramount, and often results in lots of odd flags and blockers surrounding both light and objects. In case I haven’t already made it clear, I don’t do composites because I feel there’s something dishonest about them, and as a customer, it isn’t what I’d want to see. There’s no point buying something and either knowing it’ll never look like it does in the ads, or being constantly disappointed because it doesn’t. Very, very few photographers I know work in this way – partially because it isn’t as efficient (and therefore not as profitable) – partially because they don’t have the ability, and mostly because they don’t have the balls to tell the client they’re wrong.

In the long run, not taking the more authentic approach is damaging to client and photographer. The ultimate arbiter of success of an advertisement is the consumer. If the product does not sell because it appears disappointing in person compared to the advertisements, then the client will not prosper, the art director (if they even hired one in the first place) will be blamed by the client, and ultimately the buck stops at the photographer, and they can kiss their reputation and future stream of work goodbye. Nobody wins because everybody wanted to take an easy shortcut.

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Any physical object can be made visually compelling with the right quality of light. Composites not required.  From the photoessay ‘artistic experiments in the home’

There is one large grey area, however. What if the product or service you want to represent requires some sort of back story to make it work? Or has that back story as part of a campaign? Some things that instantly come to mind are the recent set of Louis Vuitton ads by Annie Leibowitz. They do not represent reality at all, nor are the products feasibly depicted, but then again it is clear that they are not meant to – unless you are completely stupid, it’s pretty difficult to misinterpret. The very grey area in the middle is what troubles me: it almost feels like misrepresentation. I sometimes lie awake wondering if one day a very irate customer for a very expensive object might land up suing the photographer for misrepresentation – and if so, it seems that we have very little defence against it. ‘Your honour, the client told me to do it’ is not really an excuse – and without explicit written instructions (again, subjective) there is no way of proving anything.

I suppose one way of looking at the whole situation is that it is no different to the pre-photography days: when things were advertised with illustrations or paintings. There was no ambiguity then: the customer knew that there was no way the car they were going to buy would look like a line drawing. Since then, we’ve passed through reality, to hyperreality, and now are well on our way into the realm of surrealism – except unlike before, I’m not convinced that every consumer knows it. There is this subconscious expectation that what you see is what you are going to get; the number of times I’ve been asked by various non-photographers why the actual product looks nothing like what’s in the photograph is worryingly high. I don’t know whether to be more concerned about the lack of integrity in the work, or the lack of education all around. What happened to normal healthy skepticism? Are we too saturated by media to be able to tell the difference? And surely clients must be able to see this, too.

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How many photographers and clients just take time to look? Isn’t seeing the whole point of being a photographer? Yet it also seems to be the most overlooked aspect of commercial photography today.

You are probably wondering why there are no specific examples of bad work in this article; it would be unfair to single out a photographer or company or client; we are probably all guilty to some degree. But there are some industries that spring to mind as being extremely misrepresentative – fashion/ beauty, automotive, luxury goods. Just look at any advertisement in these sectors. Put on your photographer’s cap. Unfeasible lighting is your first key; the sun only shines from one direction. (I was once shown a very, very bad architectural composite with two suns in the frame and told that they wanted work like that; I resigned the commission immediately.) Then there’s depth of field, and lack of reflections on polished surfaces – especially those that must face other things given then placement of surrounding objects in the scene. Photoshop should be used to enhance the presentation what’s already there, not to make misrepresentations and fix the shortcomings of the photographer or art director.

Now, ask yourself: does this make sense? How can you make a decision on what to buy, whether to buy, based on something that is a falsehood and technically unfeasible? If the company you are buying from is capable of this degree of obfuscation – what else is this saying about their ethics, operating principles and general opinion of their customers, and their faith in their own product? The worst part is that most of these ads are so badly laid out and visually ugly they are offensive to our sense of aesthetics – it can’t even be seen as artistic license anymore, just poor composition and sloppy work.

I’m going to close with a challenge to prospective clients and agencies (those who work with me already know what I think, and agree with me): instead of ‘fixing it in photoshop’, how about spending a bit more time thinking about how to best represent your product in a physically feasible way? If you can’t figure it out, hire a photographer with the experience to do so. Actually listen to their opinion, and look at the output. Your product is probably good enough to sell itself; after all, somebody had to design it and think ‘yes, this is what I want; this looks good’. How about making it stand out by giving it a chance? MT – commercial photographer-at-large and available for hire


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  1. “But there are some industries that spring to mind as being extremely misrepresentative – fashion/ beauty”

    Yep. No woman looks as perfect in real life as the model in a typical fashion shoot or magazine front page. But is anyone REALLY fooled?

  2. D800 Eee says:

    Reminds me of the “slippery slope” situation where personal feelings rule where you take a stand on the slope. However, when this sort of a topic becomes discussed on a forum, it always takes on the tone of law & principles & evangelism, probably because of the act of verbalization. Therefore, there will always be those who argue that you should be at the bottom of the slope because you are already on it anyway, and the right to be at the bottom should be defended–which is entirely true. But this is not what the topic is about, at all. Although, it can be said that if nobody takes a stand on the slope and everybody races to the bottom, the world is likely worse than what it is today (which could be considered bad enough.)

    • Well, everybody has different standards. We pick where we want to be on that slope – or perhaps how low we’re willing to go – and plant stake…

  3. This thread had me chuckling. Fixating on the “single shot” method is just a goal like any other goal. Let’s say your goal is do a single shot of a brand new $300K Ferrari, and you employ $20k worth of monolights, light boxes, and reflectors to achieve the single frame… how realistic is that? Conversely, one could shoot the very same Ferrari with a $30 LED video light, but use 50 frames (moving the light from place to place) to build a composite. Equally “unreal”, right? Or, you could wait for the perfect day to park the same Ferrari under the Buena Vista Disney sunset, and do it that way… which is also a slice of “unreal” time. … which begs the question: how real is it to obsess on perfecting master prints? heh heh heh Lets face it… this job is pure fantasy and always has been.

    • Well, we all have our own approaches. This is mine.

      • 🙂 I’m not disparaging your approach Ming, quite the opposite. Your work is some of the finest in the world. I’m simply calling to attention that our entire industry isn’t reality based, and never has been. A camera is incapable of replicating human vision. Unlike our eyes and grey matter, a camera batch processes millions of pixels from a single fraction of time, in a fixed frame, from a single point of view. Our eyes dart back and forth, zoom in and out, selectively inspect, focus on-the-fly in motion, and dynamically process individual parts of any scene before us, so that our memory recalls the whole of what was, but does it using a myriad of inputs, collectively assembling all the components. That’s somewhat more like how composites work.

        The single frame is unique, because it is the artistic rendering of the scene, forcing one to accept the limitations of scene + camera, or compelling one to alter the scene to suit (adding modifiers- lights, reflectors), or waiting for the scene to offer an alternative look. But in any case, why the single frame without modification stands out in our memory is because of it’s departure from our normal visual perception, and so it’s sort of surprising. It simplifies form. Stand in a dark room with a window opposite you. Your eyes will be able to detect texture and shape in the shadows of the room, as well as shapes and textures in the white sun-lit clouds outside. A camera can only see one or the other, so the single frame will expose for the black sofa (forcing the sky to go pure white), or expose for the clouds (making the room completely black)… or possibly some mix of the two. That visual simplification of form grabs our attention, because in the fixed state of the photo, we can’t perceptively make the blown-out white sky return to normal like we could if we were standing there. And that departure becomes…. art.

        • Sadly, that’s true – but there’s no reason why it has to be that way; clients don’t know any different partially because we don’t educate them.

          As for cameras replicating reality – they can’t, but they can replicate an impression of it. And most of the time, that what I’m try to achieve.

          • Jay Turberville says:

            Yes, but it is a positive (more attractive) impression that you are almost surely striving for. And that impression represents a significant distortion of reality. I think the line that you are drawing is very arbitrary.

            I might easily argue that the composite image is as or more realistic than a single still because we our brains assimilate impressions of things by constantly integrating multiple scanned views. That’s one reason why the new photographer is often surprised that his camera recored something different than what he remembered. His camera recorded one image while his memory and experience of the subject is a composite and integration of many images. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if the composite isn’t the more honest kind of image.

        • plevyadophy says:

          That was so eloquently put.
          I am going to use your description here as my go-to definition/explanation for any future debate I get into on this topic.
          And the level of discussion on this site is always top rate, and your post is an example of that. Thanks

    • I think your observations are right on target.

  4. liramusic says:

    What a complex tread. What could be better… Sometimes I see the photo as a proxy (yet a work of art) for a conversation between two people or two groups that do not know each other. One has this product that they want to sell, and the other is the one who would buy the product. The photo is not the point exactly, though it is a work of art. But the photo is not the conversation at teh start. Oh, we as photographers argue the merits of works of photographic art. But the conversation is actually a proposal: from the product’s inventor the potential buyer of that product. Having said that, ads employ the Association Principle. It then makes the product a proxy item for a concept. It could be a Rolls Royce, or… it could be a anything, a garbage bag or garbage can… Take this a step further, the ad could leave out the product all together! I’ll make this up but let’s say, an ad for orange juice yet never showing orange juice; it could show a young, super sweet, very healthy family looking out the window at a rainy day or maybe a sunrise, but the ad is about orange juice. (We know all this already.) Remember that classic example (from a TED Talks) of an ad for Scotch that never showed any scotch or any drink of any kind at all. Rather, it did show a very peaceful, silhouetted fisherman all alone in golden, predawn light and with some fog. The scotch was sold by proxy. Photos convey ideas by association. The idea with that lonely fisherman sitting back, drifting, was to get back to the good things of life and the simple pleasures. Also, a guy thing, and sort of an age demographic. “You’re a guy, rich enough now to slow way down and go fishing just like that (and not go to work), so buy this scotch.” You never saw the guy drink anything. And no one would drink in the morning.

    All this actually sort of neat; it involves psychology and terrific imagination, also phenomenal photographic skills, but my original post was totally aside from that and was about a photographer and how he or she feels over time. We might as artists be prone to disillusionment. How do we keep up our excitement? Our disillusionment might not be with photography at all but with capitalism. Over time we might feel bad that consumers are somewhat shallow, or should I say the capitalist system has to be about money, not really us or the product. That hurts. We as artists and over time see a much bigger picture, so to speak. Do we get disillusioned and, what reality or cultural commentary do we see and feel? That seems subjective and abstract, yet very interesting to me. Great thread.

    • liramusic says:

      To be polite, I should include my citations 🙂 And I hope my post above was not mistyped too much. I have to work here and so I type quickly. (I won’t write in too often.) These links, I think, become hyperlinks when they post.

      and, point six here is the association principle:

      Click to access FEIST-Advertising.pdf

      Ok, I’m out now. Best wishes.

    • I think the association principle is completely different: it isn’t misrepresenting a product, it’s letting you form your own conclusions. And perhaps the best thing to do when the product itself isn’t that exciting, but rather the idea or the aspiration of it…

  5. Fantastic post, and much appreciated.

    It’s occurred to me that Photoshop composting also makes the image look “flatter”, less like an actual 3D object, because of the implausible shading and rendering when multiple (flat) layers are placed on top of each other, like an animated cartoon. Because of decades of seeing this method in used cartoons, or the cut-n-paste methods of the darkroom era, it looks “fake” even if we can’t see the joining of the layers. But we know they’re there, because things never look that way in nature.

    An actual photograph has a subtle 3D quality that is destroyed once implausible elements are added. The art directors, since they’re used to seeing manipulated images all day long, have become blind to the falseness of the images they’re looking for. The customers, though, may unconsciously associate “dishonest” images with the product itself. This is something the marketing directors need to be careful about; it’s hard to regain a quality image after the public associates it with dishonesty. Think of the discrepancy between the product photos at McDonald’s and the real thing that served at the counter.

    • Thank you. The ‘flatness’ is because the output DR is far less than the input DR, or the natural DR of our eyes. If the lighting is managed properly, this shouldn’t happen – you still need adequate perceptual separation of luminance zones between adjacent physical areas to retain that ‘natural’ appearance. It’s not easy to do right; actually, it’s easier just to light it correctly to begin with – no messing around required.

      I’m now starting to wonder if the predisposal towards these altered images is because the current generation of art directors/ agency people haven’t seen proper lighting to begin with…

  6. Interesting article. Im a architectural and automotive illustrator in England using high end CGI and photography using real backplates and HDRI to to light the CG models. Do you see yourself ever colaborating with CG illustrators to obtain a perfect commercial image- product ,architectural or automotive ? The way we pre vis angles for a client like you did with physical car model had alot of overlap.
    Our worlds like it or not are becomming more homogenous with alot of car and product shots now completely CG although I still prefer photography the control of CGI and photoshopped elements allows clients to tinker too much some times.
    Be good to know your thoughts

    • I’ve certainly considered it, but there’s nobody here at that level of CG to collaborate with. I’d certainly be interested if you are.

      Honestly though, I think a lot of product work is actually better done in CG – sometimes what the clients want is physically impossible because of the materials involved and the way light interacts with those surfaces…

  7. S.Surace says:

    I think you might be trapping yourself somewhat in a false dichotomy regarding the use of software in product photography. There are two issues: one is using composite techniques in order to produce a descriptive photograph which one is unable to light properly in the first place, the other is using composite techniques to go beyond what is doable in a single image.

    To dismiss the use of photoshop in order to try to preserve a sense of integrity or realism in a field like commercial photography seems to go againt what the nature of this field is. Of course an ad for a product can be descriptive, but isn’t the goal of an ad to convey the idea behind a product and to evoke emotions? If you can accomplish that with a beautiful, impeccably executed realistic shot like you do with your watch photography, that is an amazing feat. If you can add to that by using software techniques, even better.

    This is, to me, another argument than the use of photoshop in order to compensate for lack of lighting skills.

    To convey the idea or spirit behind a product or object is a truly challenging and I find it very honorable to be successful in that. It is not about deceiving anyone, it is about communication that which transcends the bare physical properties of a product. This might not be necessary for watches, but it very well might, and the client is the one who decides. This requires him to be visually well educated enough though.

    If you aren’t already familiar with his work, take a look at Eberhard Schuy’s work for inspiration.

    • I actually don’t think it’s either. If people have to PS to make up for lack of lighting skills, that’s one thing; if you have to PS to enhance what’s there, that’s another. Both don’t necessarily mean making the physically impossible: that’s what I’m taking exception to. Simple test: if you can see it with your own eyes, from the right angle, with the right continuous lighting, that’s fine. If you can’t, there’s the problem: you’re trying to sell something that’s impossible to actually buy…

      • S.Surace says:

        Well, your premise is that a commercial photograph should only be a depiction of what you can see with your eyes. I don’t think there is consensus on that. What if it is viewed as an illustration of an idea or concept. Both of those things are not physical or tangible, but I would argue that they can be conveyed with a photograph, sometimes with the help of software techniques.

        The customer is anyway not buying (in most cases, I would say) the product only as a physical object. E.g. people don’t buy cars or watches or other luxury goods for their mere physical objectness, or do they? So how is he mislead?

        What about M.C.Escher’s staircases? If his drawings were ads for a staircase (and an original, never seen before illustration), I would go and buy them for my house. Despite them being physically impossible and despite knowing that, I would buy this brand of staircase purely based on the fact that I like the ingenuity of the designer to think of staircases in a radical, special and eccentric way and because I want my staircases to be designed with this spirit. This is what advertising can also be about, not showing me how a staircase looks when I see it with my eyes. Two different approaches, both aimed at selling a product.

        Now someone lighting an object and then piecing it together face by face as you say is totally different, because while being physically impossible, there is no idea or design behind it, just pure laziness.

      • Jay Turberville says:

        Yes, but who is going to ever purchase a product and view it in studio lighting that has been adjusted “just so”? Nobody. So your image is also depicting something that is effectively impossible to actually buy.

        • It’s physical feasible. Composites are not. But hey, it’s harder to do and not for everybody.

          • Jay Turberville says:

            But why does that matter since nobody actually buying the product will ever view or experience it that way? The image is actually unrealistic even if it is a physically possible image. “Physically possible but unrealistic” seem less desirable to me than “realistic but physically impossible” from the standpoint of ethics. It seems to me that your concern is more oriented around craft and aesthetics than it is ethics.

            • Craft and aesthetics aside, it matters because you CAN experience it that way. I find angles/ light to shoot a watch under by observing it with my eyes. Not imagining some impossible CG composite. But it’s pretty clear you disagree – I’m not stopping you from making composites. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised since your email address suggests that’s all you do – surely paying a little more attention to physical feasibility would result a more realistic, believable CG output…

    • I disagree with the premise that a composite is “for people unable to light something correctly”. How about from a purely business efficiency and economy standpoint? It takes far longer and considerable expense to light for a single frame, and those costs in time and money have to be passed on to the client, or eaten by the photographer. The method of compositing allows for high efficiency of time and equipment costs, which save both the photographer and the client cost. It also allows you to dissect the scene before you into smaller bite size chunks of space, each of which can be “lit correctly” if not “more correctly” then trying to light the whole. At a certain point, one obsessing on perfection would simply run out of available equipment & the space to put it. (goggle Playboy’s Arny Fretag lighting schemes, using 40+ lights) Many times, in composite work, a light will be positioned right in the camera frame, and question becomes: Are you lighting a frame, or lighting a product? If you are working for a client, you should be lighting the product regardless of the frame it resides in, unless the client specifies “single fame only”. 😉

      • It takes longer if you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s faster for me to light it right than to composite and blend convincingly in PS – whether it’s me doing it or a retoucher.

  8. Jim Bob says:

    I don’t see what the problem is here?

    All commercial photography is essentially a lie, but only the littlest of white lie. One which everyone who indulges in it accepts as such. The client, the photographer, the viewer.

    You take a picture of a product it’s idealised because that is what will motivate customers to buy it.

    You take a picture of a model for an editorial, she is photoshopped to have perfect skin and the dress is blow, sticky-taped, fitted, etc. in a way to make it look better then it could ever possibly be in a real life situation. That is because readers must want to look that good and be convinced buying something will do that.

    If there wasn’t a lie to create no commercial photography would exist and no one would have a job doing it. The whole purpose of commercial photography is to lie to someone with a photo.

    If you wanted honesty look to documentary photography, or even art photography in certain circumstances. Commercial photography is a shill and so are commercial photographers. It’s axiomatic to the profession, so why get angry that your lie is slightly more deceptive then the other lie you just told? It’s nightly hypocritical to say my lie is a better more noble lie then someone else’s more successful lie.

    Have you ever really shot a photo for a client that made them or their product look worse then in real life? What difference is there between using one or ten lights? What difference is there between composite and other photoshops technique every single RAW file goes through like sharpening and colour correction? Nothing at the end of things.

    • I think you’re missing the point completely. It doesn’t have to be a lie at all. There IS a difference between something you can feasibly see if you were standing there with your own eyes and continuous light, vs something that’s physically impossible because it’s been composited. You can have that product vs you can NEVER have that product. There’s a big, big difference.

      • In my opinion MT, you are confusing product with representation of product. If I purchase a BMW M3, I will get a BMW M3, but the lighting will not be the same as the photo, because the lighting was a composite. The product, however will still be an M3. Also, it will be very very rare, that my M3 will look the same as a single, non composite photo, because it means I would have to park my car in the very spot you parked, using the very same lighting and conditions, and we all know that wouldn’t happen. Any court would also know this, and so being used is massively unlikely. If you photoshopped a V12 engine in place of the M3’s normal V8, and I purchased thinking it was a V12, then you might have a problem.

  9. Collaborating and negotiating with nincompoops is entirely its own art form.

  10. Gregorio Donikian says:

    One day, some years from now, you will wake up in the morning, take a look at your wife, no make up, just the plain true, and you will understand why this is a good game tu play, just relax and enjoy !


    • Haha! Well, she doesn’t normally wear makeup. So I’m fine there…or maybe that explains my preference for minimal illusion 😉

  11. Every book I have seen about advertising photography, or even product photography, talks about masking, layering and composite images. That seems to be the industry norm and everybody is doing it. That makes it much harder for any one company to decide not to do it. You want to stand out, but not by having blander images than everybody else.
    The news industry, covering newspapers, news magazines, agencies supplying to them etc, have made a very clear stand that only cropping and global brightness and contrast adjustments are allowed. Otherwise the picture becomes illustration and is not news worthy. Righly so. We just have to live with varying levels of illusion. Documentary/news, portraits, glamour, advertising. Only the first is true photographic image of the subject, from then on the standards get laxer and laxer and advertsing is basically just imaginary illustration of a product.

    • It’s done because it’s easy; it’s much harder to light everything in a single frame. I’d always thought that was the way it was done until speaking to a number of photographers and clients.

      • I thought professional photographers had a job to do, as quickly and efficiently as possible. Deliver the final pictures and move to the next project. Amateurs have all the time in the world and never need to get anything ready. No client breathing down their necks. No budget to limit the time and expense possible. Carpenters use chainsaws when they build houses because they are the most efficient way to cut a piece of wood, and compressor nail guns for the same efficiency reason. Is a house better if it is nailed with a manual Stanley and sawed with a hand sharpened jigsaw? On the magazine page only the result matters to the viewers and the lowest total cost to the one who is paying for the ad. Sorry about that. Welcome to reality.

        • There’s some confusion between professionalism, craftsmanship and artisanery, I think.

          Yeah – welcome to reality. Not all of us have to march to the beat of the same corporate drummer; if we did, then there’d be no innovation whatsoever.

  12. liramusic says:

    I apologize for a rambling commentary. I blurred the line from art and its integrity over to the artist. I apologize if it seems to wander too much. There was some half-way decent theme in there somewhere having to do with disillusionment and the soul of both art and the creator of art. That’s all a bit abstract, I do understand. my photography mentor feels that I have a Jack Kerouac feeling. If you ask me to take pictures of trees and I find one on the ground. I find voice in inanimate things. I trip out armed with a nice camera and a forgotten junkyard. I find the effects of a life to be interesting both in art and the artist. I am sorry to carry this out too far here, unless it seems a little interesting.

  13. Very good article Ming. Most professional photographers are, be definition, mediocre. They have no unique vision or extraordinary ability, again by definition,

    As you suggest, “whiz bang” lighting, in an attempt to be eye catching, typically destroys the solid look of an object and looks false. That’s one of my pet peeves. I have the same issue with many of the special effects in films and also with the way ballet dancers are typically lit on stage, for example. All I can say is that by sticking to your guns, and creating images images with more visceral and realistic presence, you will continue to develop a special, and in some ways superior idiom, which some segment of the market will appreciate and pay for.

    • plevyadophy says:

      Hi Mr Kasman,

      I am SO SO SO glad that you said that. Why? Because I have pretty much said the same thing to Ming on a number of occasions in the past. I feel Ming’s pain, and I get the impression from this blog post that there is something of an outpouring of emotion from Ming here, a sense of disillusion.

      Well maybe you and I are hopelessly optimistic romantics, but I really do believe that Ming is one of the best photographers in the world today (and I can only base that judgment on what I see from other famous or well known photog’s published output) and that eventually his aesthetic will be taken on board. Ming has recently hit a milestone of a ridiculously high 10,000,000 visitors to his site,a site that has been going for just a few years. Clearly his work, his teaching, and his ethos is striking a cord with a great many people.

      In time, I firmly believe, a big commercial client and/or an art loving benefactor will adopt Ming and provide for him the rewards and job satisfaction he so richly deserves.

      Hang in their Ming; for us,the wannabes, who need a great example to aspire to and also for the betterment of photography generally.

      Warmest regards,

      • I’m flattered, but you do realise it’s equally – if not more likely – that I’ll just fade into the background noise. Until I can’t, I’ll keep holding on. Sometimes I do feel like I’m a bit trapped: I’ve chosen which side of the fence to be on, I can’t cross back over, so I have no choice but to make it work…

    • I can only hope that will be the case…otherwise I’ll have to find another job.

      • I recall you had once mentioned anticipation of new roles for yourself in a few years, maybe motivated by new challenges, keeping yourself fresh, and all that. I’ll be interested to see what it will look like if and when that day arrives.

        • I think I’ve accepted that I simply cannot do the same thing for a long time; I’ll get bored. So where does this evolution go? No idea; but I feel fine art/ directing is the likely direction at the moment; less commercial work.

          • It’s clear that you have some wonderful intelligence and for that reason alone I’d expect you to move on and to learn more. I hope you will prosper as you go. There’s a bit of a trap, I think, in needing to flee from boredom on the one hand or feel compulsion to find new conquests so I hope that along the way you’ll also obtain some genuine keys to contentment.

            • Thank you – I hope so too! I left corporate because of that lack of creativity and sense that you actually made a tangible product – it seems that I’m now making products, but they’re not what I expected…

  14. Tibor Kadar says:

    I had to come back. The discusssion is great example that ethics and aesthetics are intertwined. Beauty and integrity are not independent. Your problem basically is moral and not aesthetic or artistic. Your final judgment will not be on aesthetic ground also. The discussion is about the limits, and agreeable compromises of art and business and generally life. Who can give us common ground and understanding beyond whining? I do not know.

    • Indeed – there is no way to be objective about any of this, which is the trouble. At least we can accept that all of it is subjective, and we have our own personal boundaries – some of which are movable based on other motivations like the need to survive…

  15. liramusic says:

    How can I not chime in. Great reading here. I had suggested that this thread is the number one thread in all that has ever been written here. Philosophical commentary looks at why we as artists carry on. I jump to music now because I am not a professional photographer. Burn out is real amongst musicians. This thread is a little like the conversations musicians have amongst themselves, though photographers seem more sophisticated. Very fine players (back to musicians) become frustrated. If I were writing a research essay, I’d explore the different ways that artists renew themselves and overcome burnout. I am age fifty five now, yet there was a time long ago when I’d get up at 5am and begin my workout; I’d go non-stop until 7:30am and then take my first break. I’d do cycles of scales and then on to patterns… I think that some musicians retire. Some move away from the action, which is sort of the same idea. Some turn to other ways to express creativity. Some merely joke about it and carry on. Some do turn back time and use some older techniques. Some here mentioned tube amps. I know of tow guitarists who only play on vintage guitars now. I know one photographer who bought a 4×5 camera and writes about that. Some turn to heath, if that seems to make sense. I know of a surgeon, a friend of mine, who, after his marriage broke up, turned to biking and was so obsessed that he would ride a bicycle on snow and ice. I know of a blues musician from New Orleans, my good friend, who bought a vintage motorcycle and a leather, retro helmet with googles. I know of a airline mechanic from NYC whose wife left him and so, he ended up finding a nice person thirty years younger than himself to marry and start a new family… I know of a genius, a blues musician, mathematician, and teacher who became an alcoholic.
    I am not sure yet in my own life what is happening, except I have gone back to school. I take photography courses. I received an award last week for my grades on campus. I took a math course. As a musician who has in my lifetime traveled to twelve countries and done tv work in music, I am slowly loosing my hearing for the last two years. To bring this back around, my own opinion is that these industries will not go away. They will change and continue in different forms. I worry a little bit that life on earth is threatened. Here’s the thing I see. Profit-based systems use up resources and it is not just artists who are threatened but all life on the planet. In that sense, humanity needs photographers now more than ever. It does not matter that much what we do merely for money. It does matter how we feel inside and that we keep going. It matters that we still feel excited to live on and be creative. We adapt.
    “Let them have their tube amps & vintage guitars.”

    • It would seem to me that the risk of burnout is very real indeed. The problem is…if you are truly passionate about what you do, and that turns into a job – where you will almost always certainly be working with people who care far less than you do – how do you stay motivated? How do you not feel like dying a little inside every time you submit a piece of work that you know is a compromise? I never thought this would be a problem; I thought I’d be happy just to be photographing for a living. But the reality seems that it is possible to care far too much, and that isn’t good for you at all. I have to say…photographing doesn’t always make me feel good inside anymore. Perhaps this is a loss of innocence, reality setting in or something else – but something has definitely shifted for me in the last couple, of years. Satisfaction is a lot more elusive than it once was.

      • iskabibble says:

        People in EVERY career deal with this kind of problem all the time. My own chosen career has now become a job. I feel quite different about it compared to when I started, 20 years ago.

        That’s why I’m very glad not to be a pro photographer. The love is always there when you do things for yourself, rather than for the $$$.

        • iskabibble says:

          Correction: I should have said: The love is always there when you do things for yourself, rather than for others. Nothing wrong with making money doing your own thing.

        • People in every career who care about their job deal with it. People for whom it’s just a job do not, because once they leave the office, they shut down. It would seem the solution is to care less…

          • Ahhh, but I think the solution is not to care less and I infer by the way you wrote above that you already inherently know this. In this instant of writing I might compare the healthiness of apathy or shutting down to that of breathing ether. I was only reminded just a few minutes ago, in another conversation, that work is not only meant selfishly for our own selves but is also of course meant for others.

            • You can’t force creativity. And if the spark isn’t there, shutting down happens, and you don’t produce anything at all.

  16. Interesting article Ming.I think at the end of the day, if you take on commercial work there will always be compromise. If you really enjoy something never give it the responsibility of earning your living. That being said If it happens organically and on your own terms then so be it. Once your start chasing the dollar however, mediocrity seeps in. You listen to the wants of your (uneducated) client. There is also tendency to fall into a “style trap” as you learn what sells. Whats worse if you are successful there is little room to really experiment due to work load and commitments, Its my opinion that commercial en-devour for most is a fast track to crystallization. If you are an artist rather than simply “creative” everything you do should build or expand you practice (even commercial work) understanding the benefits to jobs besides $$$ and being able to pick opportunities is a fine balance. Most commercial photography is sh*tty because its a butchered Frankenstein of intention and influence. I believe if you want to be an artist stay away from commercial work not only does it taint your sensibilities, worse.. it brings question to your sincerity. If you want to be a commercial photographer, understand that it is unlikely that you will be embraced by the art world. A lot of “art photography” you see made by commercial photographers is rarely anymore integral than their commercial work. You can’t jam nuanced subtly into a four hour “art” shoot, not even on billboard sized silver gelatin . Art space is a constant, you can’t just jump in and out. Its a total commitment!

    • Well, like everything else, I’d like to believe there’s a workable middle ground somewhere in there – but you may be right. It’s one or the other. And the crossover to being seen as a legitimate artist is perhaps even more difficult than being trying to make a decent living as a professional photographer…

      • iskabibble says:

        Here’s the middle ground: You create a product image that sells a product. A person buys the product (a watch or a Zeiss lens) and is really happy with it. Your image might have been an integral part of getting that transaction to happen. End result: A person who has a new gadget and is really happy.

        No shame in being a part of that process.

        Just a thought.

        • A lot of the time the (potential) buyer goes away feeling disappointed and cheated by the company because the real product looks nothing like the advertised images. I don’t want to be part of that.

    • I believe a great deal of caution would be needed when it comes to seeking to be embraced by the “art world.”

      Who or what is the art world?

      Is it a certain number of people with influence and therewith a kind of “power”?

      If we are true artists then why exactly are we granting the art world so much power over us?? Why exactly are we shaping our art, or the manner in which we earn a livelihood, or both, bending them into forms of acceptance-seeking from those people?

      You have described that one has to render “total commitment” to the art world; which means you have to sell out to the art world just in order to gain it’s or “their” acceptance.

      • This is exactly what I’ve been trying to say: selling out to satisfy the art world carries the same loss of integrity as selling out for commercial. It may or may not pay more, but it’s the same fundamental problem.

        • I think I’m probably in very close agreement with you on this. There is the same fundamental problem.

          If acceptance by the scene demands offerings of total commitment, I’m pandering just to gain that acceptance. Then with total commitment comes the necessity of doing and saying the ‘right’ things just to maintain acceptance and thus maintain my very survival and livelihood — thus even more pandering once I’m in its grips. Dan’s description gave me some clarity and the picture was one of very potently distilled compromise and loss of integrity (wearing a mask.)

  17. Jaime Ramirez says:

    Insightful article on how this industry has changed. The same can be said for many other industries as well. Say for instance, the music industry. Driven by large corporations that spit out music that is contrived and uninspiring. Songs are manipulated by computers and software in the studio that make the singers voice sound completely altered. To make it sound more pleasing in order to sell the music to the general public. You can hear it more in pop music and country here in the States. It’s also done during live performances; i.e. music is pumped in while the performance is lip synced and musicians just play air guitar or drums. It’s all a lie much like the photos in advertisements. You can find examples of this not only in advertising and music but also in the food industry and most of all, politics. Nothings sacred anymore. Eff it! I’m just gonna shoot film from here on out; play my Gibson and buy me a farm.

  18. John Lockwood says:

    I understand your want/need to control end product. Just playing devil’s advocate and offering a different perspective. So I guess you wouldn’t have been a commercial shooter pre-digital?

  19. John Lockwood says:

    An amusing concept: Integrity in Advertising. Do you think marketers want this?

    The easy solution to maintain your reputation and sleep well at night would be to shoot film or deliver raw files. Period. Commercial photogs used to shoot transparency film and hand it to the client. Done.

    Retouching, layout, prepress were not our concern nor responsibility. Somehow, since pixels became our media, it became our job to do all those jobs. For free. Why worry about what a client does with your files after payment?

    • Simple: because your name (and reputation) are attached to them. And nobody else stops to think about the butchering the client (or their agency) has done after you submitted. Sure, you can walk on – but is it really wise to take the risk in what is an image/ reputation business? I don’t think so. Not if you care about your work.

  20. Ming I personally think you are too passionate about photography to be applying your skills and brain in the product photography silo. Nothing is going to change to the extent that will give you that sense of “Ahhh…. Enough of my clients now get it and apply it.” It’s not going to happen because it’s still life in the commercial sense. They can manipulate that but you can’t manipulate someone’s wedding! Unless you are product photographer for the wedding industry :-)!

    I think you need to do something or offer a service where “marketing” is working along side photography but with deep respect for critical photographic elements. This might include being a portrait photographer in journalism, a “good with people” wedding documentary photographer where your input is critical.

    Also re your point about being unrealistic, in my opinion, the marketers don’t care because most consumers are looking for something new to their lives, even if just for fleeting moment in an ad. Take for example McDonalds. We all know the reality here of product shot vs. actual product. But I think people perhaps think “one day I’ll open that box up and it’ll be in there…the photographed burger.” In the meantime they make millions.

    I have thought about, hypothetically, what I’d do if it was in the industry. The answer is make enough money outside of it so I can enjoy it in my way. That is unless there are genuine aspects I’d enjoy like being a journalist, sports photographer, wedding photographer, etc. But even here there are employment challenges and limiting logistical factors that for me make it unattractive.

    If it is at a stage you are that unhappy I do wish you every success in finding that change over. Education does seem to be a strength but as you will know a competitive market. Enjoy the simple things like family, places you visit, your health and your clients who come to you and return to you!

    • I’m not touching wedding photography here with a barge pole because it’s even worse than product – all sorts of horrible crap passes as good (and at very high prices) because the photographer is somebody’s cousin or rubs the right shoulders in society. And the consumer base is even less educated.

      Funny thing is I used to work for McDonalds but had nothing to do with the photography, nor did I have any interest in doing so. Frankly I don’t know why they didn’t just CG the whole damn burger.

      I think longer term I have to shift to fine art to be able to produce what I’m happy with without compromise, assuming I stay in photography at all. Until then, the balance of personal/ commercial/ teaching has to stay. Two of those things enable the third, but I’m back to spending so much time doing things that aren’t so fun that it’s affecting motivation for personal work.

      • iskabibble says:

        I’ve seen some enormously artistic photographers who shoot amazing wedding photographs.

        “And the consumer base is even less educated.”

        Uh….people who get married read your blog.

        • I think wedding/ commercial are two very separate worlds, or at least the market perceives them as such here. Crossing over from one to the other is difficult because you get pigeonholed. I’ve never said doing a wedding properly was easy – it isn’t – but few manage, and it’s just as cutthroat as commercial – if not more so.

          As for people getting married – sure – but they then also send me emails asking if I’d shoot for free or for the exposure or because they like my images but can’t afford it. Forget it. I’ve done enough of that stuff, and gotten nothing whatsoever out of the ‘bargain’.

  21. liramusic says:

    …or how about artistic landscape photography that is hdr and has a velvet-painting look? Or how about the opposite, a genre I call “intentionally-ugly photography” of People mag. Beautiful photos of ordinary landscape, or ugly photos of very attractive people.

    • No money in either…photography still has to be viable as a business. On second thoughts, isn’t the latter how paparazzi make money?

  22. I was actually shopping for a new watch today and found myself googling for amateur (and often downright bad) pictures of the watches to figure out what they actually looked like instead of the official overly Photoshopped photos/illustrations. Kinda sad state of affair.

  23. Martin Fritter says:

    Your product photography is stunning. Have you considered fashion? In haute couture there is lots of room for excellence and lots of money. I could also see you doing portrait commissions as well. As far as I can tell from the ‘net, your technique is nonpariel. I assume you’re also efficient and can work on a deadline.

    Incidentally, it’s ridiculous how awful the camera companies’ images are. The Sigma Merril site is an exception, however. On, let’s see, Zeiss has a nice one too.

    • I came from fashion actually. Couldn’t stand the models and the egos. Product is much less difficult to work with and more controllable.

      As for camera makers…well, there’s not only no money there, but very little innovation, too. And most of them think we’d be happy to work for free for the association. I’ve had several recent and ridiculously insulting offers.

      • iskabibble says:

        Thom Hogan’s recent review of the most recent camera company financial releases was depressing. Continual losses across the camera industry. Every accounting trick in the book is being used to prop up companies like Fujifilm, Olympus, etc. Millions upon millions of dollars being lost every 3 months. Amazing how much value is being shed.

        • Is this the endgame? I’m not so sure. If every camera maker goes under, suddenly demand outstrips supply, and it’s a profitable business again. The whole industry is suffering, but none of them seem to be willing to take the pain necessary to actually make profitable (and desirable) products.

          • iskabibble says:

            Not for the industry. Canon and Nikon still make good profit selling cameras. The rest of the pack are in severe trouble though, with most of their out of industry support crumbling away. Ricoh is the one company that might be able to hang on, as their camera business is just incredibly tiny. Sigma and Leica are probably survivors too.

            • Nikon had single digit margins last year – that’s not good profit at all. Canon in Malaysia lost 40% of its market share – admittedly partially due to management incompetence/ embezzlement and their entire leadership team getting fired as as result. Leica is the only one doing well; they maintain 25%+ net margins (!) consistently. Form your own conclusions about their pricing though…

              • iskabibble says:

                Last quarter, Nikon’s gross margins were 35%. Not too shabby.


                Nikon and Canon are the only makers with a hope of survival now. Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony are in absolutely dire straights.

                • Does that include it’s non-photographic business’s though?

                  • iskabibble says:

                    Nikon has the least non photographic businesses compared to their peers so it is very unlikely that they make up much margin outside of cameras. Certainly not that much to cover single digits if that were the case. Other products would need to be double 35% or more!

                • plevyadophy says:

                  I don’t believe Sony are in dire straights. I wish they were as I can’t stand the company.

                  If you drill down to the narrow analysis of their camera division then yeah then it’s possible to argue that it’s in a bad state. However, if you think of Sony as an imaging electronics company, then in my view, if there’s an all out war in the imaging devices sector then Sony, along with Canon, will DEFINITELY be a survivor. Why do I say so?

                  Well, I say so because Sony, as in the combined Sony Corporation as apposed to just the camera division, has the entire camera market surrounded. They make sensors that sit in nearly every brand and model of camera; they are now making a sensor for medium format cameras; if the dust settles and it turns out the market would much prefer a larger DSLR style camera, Sony have that with the a99 and a77 cameras; if it’s small compact sized large sensor mirrorless that folks want, then Sony have that too (A7, A7R); if the poplace would rather a smaller sensor, they have the NEX cams; and if large sensor fixed lens digital is what you want, Sony have got that in the RX1 cameras; oh, and if you are still not satisfied and would much rather a superzoom type camera, then Sony have that for ya too, in the RX10.

                  So in essence, no matter which way the market goes, Sony have a product there ready and waiting. They also have the advantage of being able to make most of the more expensive components themselves.

                  As I aluded to above, Canon ain’t in trouble and in my view aren’t likely ever to be. They are an out and out imaging company with a great spread; the only company that can take you all the way from capture to display output, and they now even have a fancy pants (read: super expensive) monitor on the market.

                  Panasonic are part of, it is said, the world’s largest electronics group (Matsushita ?). So I reckon they can weather the storm; the group can, out of stubborn pride, continue to throw money at Panasonic camera until such time as things pick up again.

                  Fuji, I think too can pull through given their depth. Did they not boast that one of their X Series cams was made of components sourced ENTIRELY in-house? Or am I mixing them up with another company?

                  Leica, live in a completely different reality from the rest of planet earth so I guess they will be O.K.

                  Sigma, have no need to worry too much about their camera division failling as they have their lenses to fall back on. And if they stick to making niche cams for their niche sensor, I think they will be O.K.

                  The medium format world is ripe for a series of take-over bids, and I am most concerned about Hasselblad; any company that can propose, sanction and then supply that pile of fancy wood adorned Sony cast off junk has definitely run out of ideas and has probably come to the end of the road. They seem to me to be another Kodak (a venerable brand that’s lost its way).

                  All the other companies, including to some degree Nikon (especially if you are partial to reading Thom Hogan’s take on things), are the ones skating on thin, VERY thin ice.

                  Oh by the way, I think, so far at least, Ricoh Pentax are doing the right thing by ignoring the clamour amongst the Pentaxian faithful for a 135 format camera. To my mind, getting in the 135 ring, given who is in the ring already, is not a good idea and the leap from APS-C to 1.3 crop medium format, the 645D, is a huge step up thus creating a much clearer upgrade path than the piecemeal steps from APS-C to 135 to 645D (and it is not as though, like Canon and Nikon, Pentax have not properly supported APS-C; Pentax provide a good and wide range of lenses and focal lengths for their APS-C cams thus making their cams feel more like part of system, so really there is no need for Pentaxians to jump ship until they are ready for the leap to the 645).

                  Just my £€$0.02


                  • Didn’t Sony group just post a $5 billion loss recently?

                    Hasselblad got bought over by a PE company (again). I believe something similar happened to Phase One, too. Why on earth these finance companies think there’s any money in that market is beyond me…

                    • plevyadophy says:

                      The entire Sony group loss THAT much?!! Wow!! That’s good. Maybe there is some justice in this world 🙂

                      As for Phase One, I think they are a far healthier company than Hassy. For a start they were, until the very recent involvement of the PE company, entirely owned by staff and management and they seem to be run by photographers and photography enthusiasts. The PE company bought a stake in Phase not the entire entity, a rather large stake if my memory serves me correctly (something in the order of 49% or so) and Phase owners voted for this to happen so as to raise capital for future projects.

                      Hassy on the other hand, well, I don’t think their thing is that healthy. Just another bunch of finance types juggling numbers around and probably with zero passion or knowledge for/of photography.

                    • Sadly, this is true. I suspect the Sony deals are an attempt by said finance types trying to up their sales figures, PE ratios and leverage the one big asset they have left – brand equity – in a bid to make things look externally rosy before flipping. Too bad what they’re doing is just going to backfire, and badly. Honestly, I question the competence of ANY businessperson who looks at photography and thinks there’s money to be made – the reality is there are much better industries to invest in on the risk/return scale. You do this business because you love it.

                    • What a coincidence – in breaking news, it seems that Hasselblad’s new owners might have finally wised up…

                    • plevyadophy says:

                      Well, maybe just maybe Canon, or whoever else is often cited in the rumour mills as being on the verge of entering medium format, will buy them out. A photographic company buying them would be the best bet.

                      Of all the large sensor cam makers Hassy, by a looooooooooooooooooong way, are the least innovative; they have for too long been living on their reputation (by analogy, a bit like how a big V8 engine builder might live in the past banking on his big engine being more powerful and that of smaller ones whilst everyone else on planet earth has seen, or drives, cars with far smaller engines that deliver just as much, and some times more, bhp and torque whilst the new V8 engines are more fuel effiecient; Hassy remind me of a big old V8 engine)

                    • Won’t be Canon. They paired up with Phase One already.

                      As for the V8 – it’s on the CMOS downsizing regimen with the rest of the world already…

              • Stephen Jones says:

                Fascinating and very relevant article. A few months ago i was contemplating purchasing a new bicycle (as I’m a cyclist and ..well, I just like bicycles!) The manufacturer had put up a photo on their web site which made the bike in question look fantastic. It became my screensaver for weeks. Had the opportunity to see the product in ‘person’ in the one store in Japan that had a demo model. Oh boy! Was I disappointed. The finish of the paint ( beautifully enhanced thanks to the lighting quality in the photo ) was dull and cheap looking for the price. I felt that the photographer had done an excellent job, couldn’t fault him/her for that, but the manufacturer hadn’t. Needless to say, i didn’t buy the product. Your post here made me think deeply about this all over again. I’m left with the feeling that I can no longer trust product images to realistically portray the objects in question but probably I shouldn’t expect them to either. Yet I know well that if had been the photographer on that shoot I’d also have wanted to make those products look as good as possible, as attractive as possible both for the satisfaction of the client and the potential customers .As such I’d probably end up having done the same thing.
                I understand Dan’s point and there is some truth in it, but the harsh reality is that many, many artists don’t have the luxury to ‘stay away’ from commercial work as it isn’t always a choice but often a necessity. many of us find ourselves in that place of conflict between the kind of work we want to do and what we must or are required to do. One can’t always walk away. Being in that workable middle ground as you call it, is often the result of circumstances. but if you are questioning what you are doing as an artist and working in a commercial environment like this, then that is a good thing because it means in fact you haven’t lost your objectivity, creativity or sense of direction.Rather, you are just stepping back from the canvas, looking at it from a fresh angle and re-thinking your next brushstrokes. We all need to do this and more often.

                • I think your experience is pretty typical, sadly – we are in conflict because on one hand, we want to make the product look amazing, but on the other, we don’t want to make it look impossible. There’s only so much you can do if the item in question isn’t that attractive to begin with, and even less if you’re trying to retain some integrity. A tough balance…

                • “many artists don’t have the luxury to ‘stay away’ from commercial work as it isn’t always a choice but often a necessity. many of us find ourselves in that place of conflict between the kind of work we want to do and what we must or are required to do ”

                  Not only artists but also … musicians, architects, computer programmers, chefs, entertainers, … we all have to eat and have somewhere to sleep and clothes to wear!

                  The question we each have to ask ourselves is “To what extent am I going to try to change the world, and to what extent am I going to adapt myself to it?”

  24. korhomme says:

    This is one area where the amateur has the advantage over the professional; if I don’t like it, I don’t photograph it.

    And, to my mind, the watch at the start is disgustingly vulgar. There is nothing about it that appeals to me.

    • It’s an enormous advantage of being an amateur; one that I think most amateurs aren’t aware of because they want to see their images published.

      As for the watch, personal preference.

  25. Just to throw another consideration into the mix – most of the commercial photography you are talking about here is intended to be used in advertising. We already know, whether the photographs in adverts misrepresent products or not, that adverts long ago ceased to be straightforward descriptions of the features and merits of a product; they now employ psychological techniques designed to bypass rational, reasoned decision-making processes and effect individuals on an unconscious or emotional level – this is surely at least as manipulative, if not far more so, than retouching or compositing images to make them look unnaturally aesthetically appealing.

    Whether a watch is photographically misrepresented or not, in many cases the advert the photograph appears in is ultimately attempting to create a mental association between the watch and, say, a famous tennis player. Whether a photograph of hamburger looks like the real deal or not, if the images are used as part of an olympic sponsorship deal, they create a false association with sport and healthiness. Or consider car, beer and deoderant – they frequently employ sexually suggestive imagery and ideas in ways that bear no relation to the products actually being advertised, and that remains the case whether the product photography used is composited or not.

    I guess what I am saying is that advertising is already a dishonest game, and it seems like impossible lighting conditions created in photoshop etc is the least of it. And I wonder – supposing you insist on a certain standard of accurate representation in your commercial work, how much do you then care about how the image is actually used? Should a photographer who insists on creating ‘honest’ images refuse to work with advertisers who deliberately attempt to prompt false subconscious associations in the minds of viewers? It fast starts to look like it is impossible to maintain your integrity and make a buck or two!

    • I can’t control how the images are used, but I can at least try to honor my end of the bargain. A maker of hammers can’t stop a hammer murderer, but they can ensure that they never suggest they be used for that purpose! And there are companies that are worse than others – some are confident enough in their product that no psychological manipulation is required. Others are not intelligent enough to do so. And the worst are those that do it badly (or hire incompetent agencies to do it on their behalf) so that the prospective consumer not just feels manipulated, but obviously so. Unfortunately it seems that there are more and more of tries agencies thriving today – I wonder if it’s because of a lack of better options, or because nobody seems to care anymore?

      Is it impossible to make a living in anything advertising related with integrity? Sadly, I think so. Being intelligent about it and making campaigns that are remembered for beauty or audience engagement (ie making them think) seems to be far less appreciated than just blatant deception or false aspiration. Sad…

  26. Kristian Wannebo says:

    If I may …
    A true story of serious non-realistic advertizing … Enjoy :

    ASSA, a Swedish company well known for their locks, wanted to be better known for their range of screws in the 1960:ies.
    They made a series of five ads, each with an impossible screw with picture plus a “realistic” example from some (unexisting) named company, where the use of this screw led to higher efficiency.
    There was the Z shaped screw (used in manufacture of cupboards – where it was hard to reach with a screwdriver), the Double screw (in an example where many screws were needed), the Bent – 90° – screw (increasing productivity in a frame-making factory), the light weight Cork-screw (made from hard cork from a new variety of Cork Oak and used in an airplane factory) and the Square screw (in some production where vibration tended to make screws unscrew).
    The ads where published with a few days in between in daily papers, and the series ended with a double sized ad with the impossible screws to the left and their real range of screws to the right.
    The campaign had a huge international impact. From all over the world industrial (and other) people asked for specimens of these impossible screws to have on their desks.

    • That’s not a good thing, is it?

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        That is, of course, debatable.
        ( It’s difficult to convey the attitude of this campaign without being able to show the ads.)

        They made a good joke about themselves and about certain types of advertizing – also implying an innovative spirit.
        They found a large – and also serious – audience that way.
        And they showed it how serious they were about providing a comprehensive range of screws for their customers.
        And the known quality of their locks would have implied quality of their screws.
        ( How much this campaign influenced their business I don’t know.)

        I just wanted to make the point that there can be a place for non-realism even in serious advertizing.

        But I certainly agree, that a misuse of tools, as photography, that are supposed to show realism can only lead to a breakdown of the intended communication.

        • I suppose that’s different again: it’s obvious non-realism, to the point that it makes the target audience think; it’s not the same as being just downright misleading.

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            Yes, I think “obvious” is the key word.

            Good advertizing is rare.
            ( And good entertaining – or engaging – advertizing is even rarer.)

            So how does a good photographer attract the little there is.
            Some friends and I once discussed why good initiatives from the minister of culture were so rare.
            We came to the conclusion that this post probably was the least desirable when the governement was formed, so the best were busy elsewhere.
            Perhaps it’s that way with marketing departments …

            And if so, how can a good photographer influence them …

            • I wish I knew how! Most of the time, people are too afraid to take risks and will stick with the same thing they’ve always been doing (or were told to do) because they are afraid to fail – even if the previous results were not what was desired. What I really don’t understand is why people continue to do the same thing but expect a different outcome…nothing is without an element of risk.

              Not all photographers were photographers all of their careers; some of us actually have far more business and strategy experience than the clients we work for. I left the corporate world after having held senior director positions at multinational companies for six years. Most of my clients want to acknowledge that, even when we make it clear we are trying to make them look good, help them succeed and add value by attempting to advise them in other, related ways – for instance how photographic style affects brand image and in turn customer perception and pricing acceptance – they just want the same old straight catalog shots.

              • Kristian Wannebo says:

                Yes, I believe many people are more afraid of making mistakes than they are eager to succeed with something new. And if their bosses aren’t really competent, they also have reason to be that.

                [ Book: The Peter principle. ( Everybody will, sooner or later, be promoted to their level of incompetence …)]

                Perhaps there is a way to be hired by the higher – and hopefully smarter – echelons, maybe by adding the profession of consultancy?

                • plevyadophy says:

                  Hi Kristian,

                  What you describe is what some of us here in the U.K. refer to as “sloping shoulders syndrome”, a syndrome that manifests itself in people not wanting to make any decision that may have a downside so they pass the buck to someone else.

                  This problem doesn’t just exist in photography or in creative circles, I find it to be a universal problem encountered with the police, teaching staff, local government and, the worst of the lot, security officials, basically all professions in all walks of life.

                  I have long ago developed a technique for dealing with “sloping shoulders” whereby I tell officials what I AM GOING TO DO rather than asking them for permission to do it. Here’s an example. I am a photographer who wants to get past a security guard, climb over a fence and take a shot. I NEVER EVER ask for his permission. I first engage in friendly chat, then I TELL HIM WHAT I AM GOING TO DO, whilst making him understand that I have some appreciation for his position, and then I disarm him by giving him what he wants which is ………………. security. So I give him some ID e.g. my driving licence, or bank card, to hold on to. I might even give him my camera bag to hold. And then before he has time to think about what his supervisor might say, I am over the fence taking my pics (all the time acknowledging his existence and giving him reasurring nods that I will be done before his supervisor turns up). And what if the supervisor turns up before I am finished? No worries, I have ways of disarming them too. 🙂

                  I employ a similar technique with local government officials ……………. I TELL THEM, I don’t ask.

                  And if you are wondering, no this technique does not always work but it works more often than it fails.

                  Far too many people are afraid of making a decision and take the safe option of either saying no or pointing you in the direction of their supervisor (who typically, is on leave!!!).

                  How would I employ this technique on a photographic commission? Time permiting, I would do it their way (which I feel is rubbish) and then do it my way, and give them both products. Another way around it would be to do it the way it should be done, and then offer reasurance by offering the client TEN free shoots if my way turns out to be a disaster and a face-to-face apology to the end client. In this way, I am taking away the fear of the underling that making a decision, using their brain, might get them in trouble and I am also shouldering all responsibility (easily done because my shoulders don’t slople 🙂 ) thus saving the face of the ad agency and/or art director.

                  • That’s a great idea. It’s much like carrying an official-looking piece of paper that says ‘give this person official permission to shoot here’ signed with an illegible scrawl and some fancy-sounding title.

                    As for offering the client 10 free shoots – if you did that here, they’d find something to complain about just to get you to work for free. It only works if the other party has a shred of integrity/ honesty, and even if they do, their bosses might not.

                    • plevyadophy says:

                      Yeah, I agree with you.

                      So I guess the qualifier would be “I will give you 10 free shoots, if I (not you the client with a vested interest in whining) feel that the shoot has genuinely gone belly up as a result of my insistence on doing it this way”. Now, the ball is in your court and they have to trust YOUR integrity rather than the other way around.

                      I have used a similar technique when negotiating a new mobile phone contract, and only once was my bluff called (I asked for a massive discount on line rental, refused to sign up to a new contract (as I didnt’ want to be contractually tied to the network ) but instead offered to pay the entire year’s monthly discounted rate payments up front in one lump sum.

                      If you offer the 10 free shoots and whilst doing so whip out your diary and say “right, here, here and here, I am not booked; I can shoot for you on those days if this shoot goes wrong”. I think you’ll find that some clients will be bowled over by your confidence and integrity and will love the safety net you have provided. Only thing is though, as demonstrated by mobile phone example, you have to be prepared for someone to actually call your bluff i.e. you need to have the time available to provide those ten free shoots.

                    • “Genuinely gone belly up” is the tough part to define. Knowing the local market, I’m 100% sure they’ll call my bluff ALL THE TIME.

                  • Kristian Wannebo says:

                    Thanks for the term “sloping shoulders syndrome”, _very_ descriptive!

                    I guess this sits rather deep in modern West-European culture, I wonder if it hasn’t been growing in the last few decades – at least in governement, in Sweden there seems to be so much more inefficiency.

                    Some time ago I heard a high executive in a large company (I think it was it Google) say in an interview, that they had problems with new staff from the traditional European Universities and High schools. Such recruits tended to need too much guidance on what when and how to do their work.

                    With bureaucrats in Germany, where I lived many years, I found it helped a lot to show the attitude of coming to the Expert and kindly (or even humbly) ask him (occasionally her) to solve my problem.
                    In Sweden I find it sufficient to show friendly respect, but you also need to know enough to ask the right questions.

                    • At least they try to solve your problem. In Malaysia, no bureaucrat gets off their butt until you offer to bribe them, or their boss threatens them (for which you have to bribe the boss…)

                • Hah! If anything, the consultants know even less. So much of it is show, so much of it is just telling the client what they want to hear. I was extremely disappointed to learn that there is very little to no intellectual integrity in the business at all – or perhaps that’s just in Asia.

                  • Kristian Wannebo says:

                    I always believed there are two kinds of consultants.
                    One to hire to take the blame for your own reorganizing.
                    One to hire for his/her expertise.
                    ( And I wonder who is paid more …)

                    Plus some number (I guess large where you live, here unknown to me) of self-declared con – as in con men – consultants.
                    Some seem to emerge whenever there is supposed to be a new way of doing things.


                    Suppose you can find (without mentioning “consultant”) a good label/titel/description and reputation for having expertise on how the customers/public interpret the image your client believes it makes of itself?

  27. I would think so. Key is to only show good ones to the public. 😉

  28. All I can say is “Wow, I want one!” Referring to the Starbucks cup of course.
    Can you even take a bad photo?

  29. I can offer an insight into an even crazier industry: Commercial Arch- and productviz based on full CGI. The 2 suns in one image and completely unrealistic shadows reflections, hideous point of views (we need to see everything!!!!) are a given rule in this industry. I worked for 7 years professionally in this business and -if anything- it went from bad to worse. Now, everything fully computer generated is of course fake per definition but rules for composition and plausibility of lighting, reflections etc. should still apply. Only that they don’t for clients and art directors. The industry is also under immense pressure with regards to budget and time and clients will always pick a cheap mediocre quality over a more expensive well thought out visualization. Clients and art directors have a wildly skewed perception of reality (the metal has to be more shiny, but must not reflect anything!) and if we would not -frustratingly- follow their wishes we would not have had any clients left, although there are of course exceptions. Still this business left me so frustrated over time -I could no longer stand the insanity on a daily basis- that I quit this whole affair 1 year ago. I sincerely hope for a turn for the better for commercial CGI and photography but I fear for the worst. For CGI at least mediocrity reigns supreme.

    • It’s turning that way in photography, too. It seems that no matter how much education goes in, corners are always expected to be cut in the name of cost. And the results speak (or don’t speak) for themselves. I don’t know if it’s more concerning that this is the trend, or that nobody can seem to tell the difference (or cares).

  30. liramusic says:

    Not only is this a good thread, it could be the best thread of all the writing that has ever been done in on your site. Very fine narrative.

    • It’s certainly opened up a can of worms and is going to annoy a lot of my clients, I suspect…but perhaps it might also bring new ones. Who knows…

  31. The colour palette in that last shot is awesome! I may just steal that from you..

  32. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Well said, Ming!
    ( I have the impression, that advertising towards industrial customers stays closer to reality.)
    I learnt scepticism of ads early, a toy in a box of cereals was so far from the ad, that I was totally disappointed.
    An old lady I met in Germany said “I must try this new detergent for washing machines, it’s been on television!”

    And incompetent marketing people probably don’t even know where between these extremes their prospective customers are.
    [ PS. Typo, “… it seems that we have very little defines against it.” (End of paragraph under kitchen photo)]

  33. plevyadophy says:


    Deja vu!!

    You may recall that, earlier this year, you and I had a long conversation about this type of thing ………………………. and I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    You said here what needed to be said!!

    And like you, I detest the “two suns technique”, and I am being VERY charitable by elevating to the level of “technique” this way of shooting. As you know, because you have seen some of my output, I am no great photographer but even I avoid cross lighting like the plague because, as you say, there is only one sun. So if a nobody like me gets it, I really don’t understand how it is that photographers on good commissions don’t get it and so called “art” directors don’t get it.

  34. Misterkappa says:

    Nice post, i love it! 🙂

  35. Kathleen Bowers says:

    Sometimes I wonder if too many people prefer virtual reality to that which comes to them through the senses the they were born with coupled with focused attention, which is a very active form of thinking. If you are not blessed with an active and curious mind, perhaps spoon fed fantasy actually feels like ‘the real thing’!

    • That could well be the case. Most people are consumers, not creators; somebody has to define their reality and their fantasy for them.

      • Kathleen Bowers says:

        Lots of room for truth to get lost, forgotten, ignored altogether! Enter the responsible creator?!

  36. Distinguishing between plausible reality and impossible fiction based on light reflections and tonal transitions is an important idea. Google could write the software and label it ‘Google truth’. Then we could just upload a photo and google could tell us if it was crap or not. You have single handedly merged the ideas of ‘truth and beauty’ which for so many centuries have been adversaries. OK, I am being a little facetious, but implausible fiction from possible fiction is a distinction that requires superhuman observational skills.

    • I don’t think they’re adversaries at all: they just require a very rigorous filter at the point of composition/ lighting and later on at the point of culling. And beyond that it requires imagination to see what could feasibly be – but not what could be photoshopped into shape.

  37. I remember when fads came and went, but it seems over-tweaked art is here to stay, whether it be commercial photography, music, or movies (too much bad HDR, CGI, over-use of compression, hyped EQ, Autotune, etc.). Fortunately, it think it makes those who use post-processing tastefully stand out more (or maybe my tastes are just getting old…)

  38. I have often pondered the same…. where does one draw the line between truth and beauty. Beauty is subjective. Art. Truth is supposed to be reality. But we humans do not like photographs for their reality-we are captivated because a photograph freezes a fleeting moment that we recognize- your watch may actually look like that for a split second when he is having dinner in a french restaurant light by multiple overhead low voltage lights as he turns his hand just so. Distinguishing a plausible fiction from an impossible fiction needs to be taught.

    • Bingo: I light as you might see it with the naked eye – if you use modeling preview on my flashes and look through the finder you’ll see 99% of the finished image. But that will never be the case with removed crystals, composite lighting etc – and therein lies the impossible fiction.

  39. iskabibble says:

    One other thing. That watch, on other web sites looks BUTT ugly. Your shot is simply sublime.

  40. Jean-francois says:

    Advertising truth well told! Think fast food. Not wysiwyg at all. Advertising and marketing have an increasingly tenuous link to reality. I guess if your ethics are to low for politics, advertising is your avenue. I worked in the business and gladly have nothing to do with it anymore! Mind you there are smart people in the business and not all sre slease bag, but…

  41. Ming, I agree with your sentiments but I actually don’t think the (end) customer feel misled. I feel they want it like that. Just look how popular Hollywood’s current style of blockbusters is. Meager stories but an orgy of special effects even in the most classical topics.

    I feel I don’t represent the average customer – I have pretty much stopped watching Hollywood’s vomit. But sales numbers tell us that it’s actually what people want.

    I too immediately thought of cars (and Apple products!) when I read your article. But again I don’t think customers feel disappointed when they finally see the real product. They are so hyped up by all the promises and the urge to consume and possess that they actually feel proud that what they spent their money on looks so cool in commercials.


    • Funny thing is I *do* feel the apple product photography represents the product quite well. Cars…well, not so much.

      • There was a feature on Apple’s product photographer not too long ago:

        A few things stand out:

        – the lighting setup (actually, the whole studio, including the view camera!)
        – that Apple’s art direction comes prepared with strong ideas (no surprise there)
        – a largely similar approach to what Ming likes to do, for things that don’t need to be surrealistic

        There’s another popular saying: customers deserve the marketing/photos they get. The final product is a collaboration between photographer and client. If the client doesn’t know what they want, or has bad taste, or whatever else, no one else can give them a great product without the client changing first.

        BTW, Ming, it’s fun to try to pick out your JLC photos on the Web. I have a Reverso from long ago, and it was great to see two disparate interests intersect.

        • The problem is even if the result is as much the client’s direction as the photographer, as the photographer, your name is still attached to it – not the midlevel marketing exec who said ‘shoot it that way’. It can be both a trophy and a stigma. And anonymous corporates do not understand that; you are not an individual and not really remembered for what you do, so the end objective is get it out the door, get your pay check and go home. It’s an easy, but sad and short term mentality. I’ve seen it from both sides of the fence, and rarely do I encounter anybody who actually passionately cares about their work beyond their boss’ stamp of approval.

          • True — it does cut both ways. Is your name publicly attached to those images? With commercial stuff, the photographer usually isn’t named in the ad.

            • Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. I frequently get the option – and increasingly frequently I’m declining because it isn’t the sort of work I want to be associate with or continue producing. I feel that it’s far too easy to get lumped into one category that way.

  42. Postmodernism

  43. David Ogilvy’s motto about advertising was ( and still is ) : “Truth well told”.
    I think this is also true for commercial photography.
    Something like “Product reality well lit”.

  44. 1. The customer wants his product sell-able by your image. Doesn’t care whether it is drawing, carving or photograph; realistic, hyper-realistic or surrealistic. The customer does not care about taste and aesthetics, just wants an impact on the consumer and low cost.
    2. But the customer does care as he is also a consumer of your product: may mix up his own taste with his customers taste regardless its good or bad, tasteful or tasteless. It is not just the impact of the image to the consumer,
    3. So the issue here is getting distilled down to different tastes and aesthetic judgments. The customer, the photographer and the final consumer all have aesthetic decisions and judgments about the image.
    4. There is morale in the aesthetic judgments, which brings about moral responsibility for all of us.

    CONCLUSION: You just go ahead with your educational series. We all need it: improvement in aesthetics and morale.
    And cheer up!

    • 1. Agreed.
      2. And therein lies the confusion: what he likes is usually not the same as what his customers like. I know, because often I’m also in the customer pool (and so are my readers etc.). Result: disconnect. But eventually they come around, and despite the ‘I-told-you-so’ situation, they’ll inevitably hire somebody else to make the images I initially suggested they should be doing. Ah well.
      3. Agreed.
      4. Perhaps that’s taking it a bit too seriously…

  45. Very brave post… I thank you.

  46. iskabibble says:

    What is the make and model of that watch in the first photo? I’d never wear something like that, but your photo sure is beautiful.

  47. iskabibble says:

    Advertising is inherently deceptive. You have to sell your soul to be involved in that work.

  48. Sorry, no constructive comments on the whole article – need to re-read to understand all the nuances, but have to make a comment on some of my favourite work of yours, indeed the work that introduced me to your blog and other work…
    I don’t like making blanket compliments, but in this case:
    Ming, you are the non plus ultra of watch photography. Always have been IMHO.

    • Thank you. The irony is that I do very little of it now – for a few reasons: 1) I’m not Swiss; 2) the detail-oriented, show-parts-of-the-whole style I pioneered is now in vogue (but not very well executed) and my clients have been complaining that I don’t show the whole watch in focus for some time; 3) frankly, I’m tired of it – there’s no creative impulse there anymore partially because of 2) and partially because there are ono;y so many ways you can pose a watch. No matter, time to move on and master something else 🙂

  49. An interesting piece. It’s clear from this article that this is perhaps what irritates you the most. I think, to put as simply as possible, you are working in an entirely different paradigm to commercial photography, while working in commercial photography. I prefer your vision. But when I see an advertisement, especially one for any kind of luxury good or service, any ‘want’, rather than any ‘need’, then I know that what I am being presented is the fantasy of the item or service, it is a representation of the dream.

    I never look at an ad and think the photographer has misled me, because it never occurred to me that anyone would hold the photographer responsible. The photographer doesn’t produce the ad. The agency does, for the client. When I look at an ad, I see what the agency/client wants me to see, and the client is responsible for that.

    The interesting reflection for me living in Hong Kong these past four years, after nearly ten years in London, is that the ‘dream’ or ‘fantasy’ is different in HK compared to the UK. That becomes obvious because the images I see in luxury advertising here make me react somewhere between a loud ‘hah!’ in disbelief, a shaking of my head, or just mild amusement. They achieve the opposite of the desired effect. The ridiculous ad makes me think the brand and the item are ridiculous also. In some cases this has made me dislike products or brands that I previously liked even if I continue to admire the quality and function. Too much cringe.

    But here is the point to that: I’m probably not much like their target market. The fact that so many agencies and clients portray things in the way you suggest is that – prima facie – the approach works in the target markets.

    When I travel to new places, one of the things I like to do fighting jetlag is to watch some local TV, and local ads. Even if I don’t understand the language. The storyline / imagery reveals a lot about local popular culture and taste.

    Pick up a US or UK published magazine and you know instantly which of the two countries it is published it – the combination choices in paper stock, font, images and so on reveal it in an instant.

    Is your aesthetic sense different to the norm in Malaysia?

    When I look at your watch image, it does look like a fantasy to me because I know that it would never look like that on my wrist under any circumstances. Ever. What the image tells me though is that the watch is exquisitely finished, very complex and very detailed. Perhaps I like the aesthetic. Perhaps I don’t. Nothing about the image looks fake, except that it doesn’t look real in a way either. But the fact that the lighting conveys an image that would never equate to one I would see if I owned the watch doesn’t mean the image betrays or misleads. Rather, it conveys the fantasy of the watch. Having seen this image, if I desired the watch, and bought it, and wore it, despite seeing the watch in a different context, to an extent the image of the watch in my mind might be the image of the watch as portrayed by you. The ideal, perhaps.

    As always Ming, a really thought-provoking essay. You write some of the best stuff out there on photography.

    • Let me answer you with a simple question: why have to resort to the deception if you can make the naked product look good – lustworthy – without having to? That’s the part I don’t understand. I show my version to the target audience and receive ‘wow, I want one’ type responses, but the clients choose the most boring shots and wonder why they don’t sell anything. Inevitably the photographer gets blamed. Go figure…

      • That must be very frustrating. I would rather look at your images of these products too. Interestingly, I know that to be the case. Your product reviews have been influential on my own choices, because they are well reasoned, thorough, and blisteringly honest. But… when you photograph the cameras or lenses themselves, they look very desirable. I’m thinking for example of the way you capture the contrasting micro-textures of Leica lenses, Zeiss aperture blades, the chrome and crackle of the Hasselblad V…

        Yes, captured in a desirable way, but honestly, so, I grant you. Which is your point.

        But I think you are putting the cart before the horse when it comes to advertising. Advertisers will present the product in the way they will think it might sell.

        “I suppose one way of looking at the whole situation is that it is no different to the pre-photography days: when things were advertised with illustrations or paintings. There was no ambiguity then: the customer knew that there was no way the car they were going to buy would look like a line drawing. Since then, we’ve passed through reality, to hyperreality, and now are well on our way into the realm of surrealism – except unlike before, I’m not convinced that every consumer knows it.”

        You raise two points here, and you take exception to both:
        1. that advertising imagery has gone full circle to to something you characterise as surreal. It’s starting point was surreal too, more or less. I think for example of those beautiful travel and motoring posters from the ’20s and ’30s. You recognise the sports car or the streamliner. You recognize the exotic location. But they are representations that convey the *feeling* and entice you to want to participate. Realistic looking photography may have done that, and may do it again, but the objective was always to sell the product, and so realistic photography was not the ends in itself, but merely one or a range of possible tools. (But yes, it is a pity, given what you can do photographically, that your approach is not more widely selected).
        2. You feel the surreal approach, when made to look real by implying ‘photograph’, deceives the viewer.

        Ever had the experience when you go to one of those cheaper or mid-priced restaurants when there are beautiful pictures of all the dishes you can choose from. What arrives at your table is nothing like what they showed you in the photo. If its clear they are taking the p*ss, I send the dish back. There is a limit to the caveat “for illustrative purposes only”. If there are 12 prawns in the photo and 4 in the dish, that is not what you are advertising. This is a less subtle deception than the surrealistic one you are taking issue with.

        When I see the Nikon ad with the man on the rocks with huge waves about to crash over him, and he’s staring into it with his DSLR in one hand by his side (clearly photoshopped to hell), I don’t think “wow, this camera is serious”, or whatever they intended. I think this guy is an idiot. He’s about to be washed out to sea, and he’s trying to look cool with his camera rather than flee. The photo is so ridiculous it made me feel Nikon just aren’t serious about making serious cameras – just having idiots pose with them. More effective for me would be an image of a real photographer endorsing the camera, with an awe inspiring sample shot alongside.

        But if it is advertising, then you have to convince them that the image they have chosen is less effective than the realistic one. It is for me. But if so many are using surrealistic images, does it not imply that it is working? It does boggle me that it does. But does also beg that question.

        Best of luck.

        • It’s incredibly frustrating. Desirability + honesty is the way to go. I try very hard to not use composite lighting so that what you see in the photograph is also something you could feasibly see with your naked eyes. I suppose advertisers will eventually come around to that once I start shooting something else – it seems to be a trend.

          There’s ‘showing the best angle’ and there’s deliberately misleading photography – 4 vs 12 prawns is a good example, and it happens far too often for my liking. Worse still, I’m asked to do it far too often. It comes across as two things: firstly, the advertiser doesn’t care, and they think their customers are idiots. When you’re spending disposable, discretionary – and often serious – money, the last thing you want is to be treated as a moron. But hey, they’re not my customers…

          Nikon are a good example of last-generation marketing. It makes no sense to have these ‘lifestyle models’ posing with cameras – I suspect that the real photographers with referral links shift a lot more product than the manufacturers want to acknowledge; even if the resellers are a different matter. I see it every time I pick up a piece of gear; adoption goes in waves. First the OM-Ds, then the Ricoh GR, to a lesser extent the D800s, and now begins the 645Z. But, I’ve yet to have any sensible offer from a camera maker…

        • Quite often trends in techniques used for renderings are more a matter of selling ideas to clients, than they are an indicator of successful practices. Part of this is an illusion of added value through some post processing or “trick”. The HDR trend is (was) one of those recent directions, and in many places the HDR became more of a distraction than an asset. When it comes to real products, or real building, companies are setting themselves up for customer disappointment in presenting unrealistic images. Absolutely we want to show an ideal in many of our images, but that ideal needs to be close to reality.

          Selling fantasy is a different story, but in that the context is often the fantasy, rather than a fantasy product. Done well we find things like Cartier and Chanel campaigns. Done poorly we find images from many PhotoShop “experts” trying to sell workshops to the masses. 😉

  50. Oddly enough, I was thinking automotive photography when I was reading this. Some looks quite realistic and believable, but then again those are usually not the product shots, instead images using automobiles to make some other point. The one that came to mind was a behind-the-scenes look at a truck shoot, though to warn viewers, this is an all composite image development.

    Personally I try to push reality, but indeed most clients want idealized images. Representational images often trump realistic. Of course it is possible to go too far, and end up with a two suns Thomas Kinkaid effect. 😉

    Some of us do “keep it real”, at least as much as possible. Adding reflectors or artificial light in daytime is very common, even in places with very nice daylight conditions. Definitely a big thanks to you for writing this; more of us should be saying this to our clients.

    • I’ve had an architectural client who wanted two suns – I walked. Fill is fine because reflections happen. But compositing with a disaster of a perspective – as butchered by the most incompetent agency I’ve had the misfortune of working with – on a recent job is just sloppy.

      Sadly if we tell our clients that too often, there won’t be any clients left to tell.

  51. Another great and thought provoking article! Thank you. I can appreciate your dedication to more “pure” photography and agree with you from a photographer’s perspective. From a marketing perspective, I believe in using available tools to effectively convince consumers to buy their product. The reality is that it is a very competitive world. Advertising is not about the photography but about appealing to a customer. The photo or illustration, the layout, and the ad copy all combine to convey a specific emotion or mood and attempt to sell their product. So if it’s a surrealistic photo that is chosen, shouldn’t it be up to the consumer to say that this company is either tricking me or decide to check it out? Photoshop is a tool that has opened the realm of almost infinite possibilities but to me is little different to Ansel Adams taking an average photo but applying superior burning/dodging skills to create something that he actually did not see. Is there a difference to you?

    • Actually, it’s not the competition and creation of mood that’s the problem – that has always been the purpose of advertising. It’s the half baked measures that neither look good not achieve any sort of objective institutes and ‘created’ by idiots. Case in point: people hired fresh out of school by luxury goods companies to create campaigns or ads or promotions targeted at the affluent when they have no understanding of the target market, and refuse to listen to anybody who does…

  52. This was a great read!

  53. Hi Ming,

    Great insightful article on the `unprincipled` common practice in the present commercial photography world, thank you for sharing, you are a brave 🙂 man. Like!
    It brings to mind all the `models` with perfect flawless skin and perfectly set teeth appearing in the bulk of adverts these days, but that what the majority public wants to see these days, `perfection`.

    • The commercial world has unwittingly set unattainable standards for both consumers and themselves – it’s a destructive spiral.

  54. So beautiful!

  55. Very educational! Thank you.

  56. Hi Ming.

    This is a very nice product shot! I really like your lighting! May I ask what lens was used? (I’m researching macro lenses for my Nikon D5300, and am always interested in others’ opinions on macro lenses, particularly in terms of sharpness!)

    Thank you,


    Stephen A. Solomon MBA


  57. That is an awesome watch!

    Though I commend your approach and agree with it, surely the extra effort required on your part will make you more expensive than your competition and affect business?

    • Unfortunately, you’re right. Caring less is more profitable, but make one unhappy – and that’s a problem, especially when you choose to be in a business that is in no way about profit anyway. So what do we do?

      • As you always say – education and hope that it makes an impact (eventually)….

        • If anything…it seems to be having the opposite effect. I can only see myself leaving the commercial photography space sooner rather than later.

          • Out of curiosity, if that were to become a necessity for one reason or another, what’s your exit strategy?

            Good article. Unfortunately, the people it needs to reach are the same people who most likely do not use reason as their main decision making process, in addition to being the kinds of people who are unlikely to stumble upon articles such as this in the first place (aside from specifically your prospective clients, I am assuming they generally either do some sort of a background search, which is to say, a few minutes of googling, or are already familiar with you anyway, which also means, that the message has not reached ’em after being in contact with it).
            Unfortunately the same basic principle (regarding something not reaching[not just physically] the audience it actually needs to to change anything) applies to a great many things… not that that’s relevant but it just popped into my head and for some reason I thought it was worth adding to this particular post… and I can no longer remember why I thought that way, but I’ll leave it in just in case – not really in a position to make judgements in that regard anyway, given that I am really quite sleepy.

            • Find another industry as far from photography as possible. Once it’s broken for me, it’s broken.

              • Was more asking about whether or not you have something or other (sort of) lined up. Don’t need to go into specifics, just wondering. You seem like the kind of person to make contingency plans. Could be wrong, though.

                By that response, I’m assuming this site, in combination with your video series and selling of prints, doesn’t really bring in enough money to live on. Either that or it’s simply not stable enough, or something along those lines.

                • I’ve found that if you have contingency plans, you tend to use them at the slightest sign that something might not work out. So, this time, I didn’t make any – it was make it work or nothing. I’m sure at the point of necessity we’ll find something.

                  This site isn’t profitable. Commercial work is, but it’s not always creatively satisfying, either. Selling prints to photographers and not art buyers is my main problem – I simply don’t have access to that market. Videos do make revenue, but they also cost quite a bit to produce – especially when be have to be on location for a week to make one or two. I look at that as an investment…at least for the time being.

              • All of us go through those thoughts at one point or another. The (near) tipping point for me was a challenge on copyrights; I did prevail, but the process made me come close to quitting.

                One thing that will stay strong is the urge to create. Even as I have taken on more writing assignments, I found myself wanting to do more creative imaging projects. The writing, for now, will remain until my shoulder gets better. I just have more passion for photography.

                • I think the reality is that some of is just *have* to shoot; the pain comes when we are asked to produce something that we feel to be a compromise because we know we can do better. Worse still, because we know we can so better and we choose to do this job over something else because we believe it will give us the freedom to do so, but in reality it’s just an illusion. Doing more of the frustrating work doesn’t make me want to shoot my own stuff more; if anything, the opposite. I am pretty sure that if I leave photography again, it’ll be permanent.

                  • What, even personal work?
                    If you leave the business of photography, that’ll basically remove the main source of stress in the matter, and leave you free to do whatever you want for yourself, while professionally doing something unrelated to photography, though ideally still somewhat fulfilling(though admittedly, in practice that may or may not be the case).

                    One of the many reasons I will never even consider getting into the business of photography is because I want to do the work I want to do, rather than the work someone else would want me to do. There have been a few instances where someone has asked me to work on a project with/for them and I’ve gotten paid for it, but I did very much do my own thing, would not have accepted those otherwise. In the very first instance of that, it sort of started out as someone needing specific types of pictures but I still twisted it around for it to be what I wanted to make there, and everyone was happy, apparently, and that was very much supposed to be a run of the mill portrait-and-product-photography type of thing. But in the end I came out with images I was somewhat satisfied with, and with the state of mind that I’d never ever do anything like that again (because I could easily see where my approach could be problematic with more… stubborn… clients). And the last time I did something for a project (and this was an actual project not a commercial shoot of some description) I was asked basically to do what I do, in that particular environment, and I came out with images I was happy with(uploaded 1 image from that to flickr, though I have two or three images I would also like to upload at some point, but various factors that are not related to how much I like the images themselves, deter me[and no, noone is stopping me either]). But I would never do this for a living. If my life depended on it, I’d need to do things I have no interest(and at least in my case, interest is key, it’s the only thing that actually matters) in, and therefore I would never put myself in that position (or at least try to steer my life away from such.. nodal points in the web of possibilities, which shouldn’t be too difficult, with a bit of the old applied logic).
                    What I actually do is study biology (and chemistry) in university and will likely end up working in a biochemistry lab of some description at one point or another. Basically, I have a fairly sizeable interest in science (and just about everything else [un?]fortunately), which means I will likely never have to go through the pain of trying to provide for myself as a commercial photographer, while still being able to produce work for myself.
                    My point is, working as a creative in a commercial field is likely never going to be very satisfying, but one can make work for themselves, while working in an entirely different field that is also interesting/satisfying (I equate the two terms but as far as I can tell, not everyone does) is probably the ideal solution. So that money wouldn’t in any way shape or form influence the actual creative process (it will influence the gear used, et cetera, to an extent, but not necessarily the creative process itself).

                    • It’s probably my personality that’s the problem: do properly, or not at all. And this means that whatever is my primary focus will eat up all time from other things, and that in itself creates conflicts because you get frustrated at not having time and…see my point? Leaving corporate to focus entirely on one thing rather than two was an attempt to resolve this. I certainly wouldn’t go back unless I had no choice.

                      Unfortunately, most clients are stubborn 😛

          • I guess naively looking at it, where is the added value in a world where companies are cutting costs and advertising no doubt is an easy target?

            Also responding to if knowing the gear used matters – my own educational guess on the setup was actually correct (from knowing a bit about watch photography), but am certain I could not achieve the final results, the watch shot above must have been remarkably tricky, all those reflective surfaces….

            • The problem is not that promotion is an easy target – simply if you don’t advertise your product and it looks like crap, nobody will buy it – but people who are in this business sadly lack any sort of creativity or imagination 99% of the time. I suspect it’s because at least in this part of the world, marketing is something you do if you can’t decide what you want to do with your life and have no professional skills elsewhere, which frankly results in scraping the bottom of the barrel and the underside of the lid…

              • Billy Walker says:

                Ming, your post contains truth to a large degree although I personally don’t automatically see anything wrong with a bit of fantasy thrown into an image. My thoughts on 2 suns? Why care if it has 2 suns? Prospective customers will certainly know how many sun’s our planet has. Therefore you’re not leading them down some delusional path to harm.

                You have exceptional photographic skills. Although I do believe that you would be exceptional at whatever field you choose because that is your nature. However… as for the marketing comment: everyone markets themselves on a daily basis.

                People wouldn’t have spouses and/or friends if we didn’t market ourselves. In general, people want to be liked and/or loved and we act in a certain manner unique to us as individuals in order to obtain that feeling. To grow a business the same applies. People do business with people they like. The reality is when dealing with the public you simply must act in a manner that the customer agrees with. This absolutely means that you interact with different people differently because different people like different people. It’s a core feature of the human mind. Otherwise we would all be the same.

                A healthy and growing business needs to market itself. As a photographer you are automatically in the marketing business. Ignore that truth and the likelihood of survival is pretty darn well zero. Dealing with others in life and dealing with customers in particular means that sometimes you may need to create images that may not be your typical work. As long as moral integrity and quality are pursued there is nothing wrong with differing opinions. There is nothing wrong with that concept. Just be of the mind set you are still going to put out a quality product; i.e. the image. A custom car builder cannot build the exact same car despite his/her own preferences. The builder must please the customer in order to stay in business. A photographer creating custom images is no different.

                Despite the apparent thought on marketing in your part of the world you simply need to wrap your head around… marketing. But do it in a way that is not offensive to folks in your area. Or, maybe even more interesting, someone with your obvious skill sets AND intelligence just might be able to forge a path by breaking the so-called rules. A business, photography or otherwise, is either moving forward or moving backwards. As with life businesses are not stagnant; they do not stand still. The lack of marketing almost guarantees the latter. And that will not put food on your table or a roof over your head.

                “…no professional skills…” ? Marketing is the ultimate professional skill! It will provide you with the opportunity to perform beyond your dreams in your chosen field.

                • There is no need to create an illusion of something that doesn’t exist when the actual product or reality has the qualities necessary to sell if properly communicated. This is the part that’s missing. And you can market yourself to be something you’re not, but it will end in disaster because what’s delivered won’t match what’s expected. That’s a sure way to disappointment and no repeat business. As for forging your own path – it only works if you are prepared to take a huge investment risk or lucky enough to get a break. You can be the best at convincing other people to sign on – but ultimately if they decide to revert to ‘copy this’ at the behest of those signing the cheques whom you don’t have access to, then there’s not a lot you can do. I agree that there are professional marketing skills, but finding them is far and few between here.

                  • Billy Walker says:

                    I am not suggesting to market yourself to be something you’re not. That is a path to failure. However, the statement “…no need to create an illusion…” is perhaps a strongly held opinion. I like a bit more reality myself in images but that is also an opinion of mine at the end of the day. It doesn’t automatically make the prospective customer wrong.

                    I do not have your photographic skills. Probably never will. I suspect you do have the photographic skills to please a customer with what the customer feels is appropriate. All I’m saying is there is nothing wrong with that. It’s called building a customer base. Narrow casting a particular market/style can be exceptionally difficult. If an individual is experiencing difficulty with that you are in effect forging your own path. And, as you have stated it takes far more than most are able and/or willing to give it a go.

                    Marketing and sales when done properly is not about “convincing”. You are providing a service the customer needs with your skill sets. If the customer feels it helps sales and it’s not immoral I say go for it IF you have the skill set present to pull it off. Caring professional photographers will work hard to put out quality images. Despite that you will have differences of opinion as to what people like. I don’t believe that I as a photographer should have the last say in an image. The folks buying my skills have the right to decide what they feel is the best way to present their product. Whether I agree or not is not important. What is important is that I work as hard as I can to produce their chosen end result.

                    If this type of an issue occurs frequently aren’t you automatically narrow casting your market by going down your own path? Marketing and business skill sets are exceptionally important if you intend on keeping your doors open. What amounts to strongly held opinions can hinder growth. Creating your own path is extremely difficult as you have stated. Few succeed but if they had not tried they would possibly have not seen success. A business plan needs to recognize what path you wish to go down and then plan accordingly.

                    • I can deliver what the customers want, but it probably won’t help them grow their business because it’s more of the same; safe and unimaginative. And they don’t always come back because the images don’t have the impact they want – despite it being shot exactly to THEIR liking. See the problem? You get pigeonholed into doing work that doesn’t represent you, which in turn attracts the wrong kind of clients, and nobody is quite happy. Marketing won’t solve this.

                      As for business planning, I spent years doing just that before photography. So it isn’t at all foreign to me. The tougher part is balancing what you want to do – which will enable you to go that extra distance to make it work – against what customers want, what they need, and what makes economic sense. The first item is what throws it all out of whack. To me, there’s no point in quitting a good corporate job (with much higher pay and better prospects) to do something you feel passionate about, only to lose that passion because it goes back to just getting paid. Why bother with all the intermediate pain?

                    • Carlos El Sabio says:

                      I would have to observe that we all buy a lot of things because an effective marketing campaign has convinced us that we want it. We get sold things on a daily basis that we don’t need. I would suggest that this is hardly a “service”. That is a notion offered by marketeers to improve their image. I do have to say that as a proponent of market driven economics that salesmen are a good thing, and in terms of helping create jobs and helping grow the economy are providing (allbeit, not intentionally) a very important service.

  58. Great article, Ming and really love the watch image – difficult lighting to achieve such a beautiful effect.
    What equipment was used to capture the image?

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