A photographic manifesto

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I believe it’s very important to have a sense of purpose as a photographer. If it’s not clear exactly why you’re photographing, or what the aim of your output is, you run the risk of not only making weak images, but not knowing they’re weak, or even worse, not being able to step up and move on. However, only you can decide exactly what that purpose or aim is; and in the past couple of years since starting this site, I’ve realized two things: firstly, you’re going to evolve, so don’t be afraid to say ‘my objective has changed’; secondly, you’re not going to satisfy everybody (and some of those people are bound to be extremely rude and vocal about it, but really have nothing more than hot air). The latter is easy to rationalise but difficult to accept if you care about your work.

In 2010, I thought frankly that I’d both hit a brick wall creatively and technically; as a result, I landed up hanging up the camera for about six months. This was partially due to work, but I think the semi-forced break was actually a good thing because it forced me to start again and reassess what it is I was shooting, and why. Until that point, I’d pretty much chosen a topic or subject and then gone out and saturated myself with it – watches, wildlife, reportage. Or gone to a place and photographed everything that I thought was photographable – and been a pack mule for ten kilograms of Nikon’s finest in the process. In hindsight, my work lacked focus or had too much focus: balance was missing.

The reason I’m writing this article is because I recently received a message from a flickr contact who thought the little essay I posted on my flickr profile page encapsulated the gestalt of photography for him quite neatly. The problem is, I didn’t quite have the heart to say a) that was written a while ago, and b) I’m not sure I entirely see things that way anymore. I’m sure part of that is simply own to an increase in my own experience as a photographer, plus the switch from being an amateur and hobbyist to being a professional; mind you, nothing fundamentally changed in the way I shot at the start, but I did find there started a slow but increasing schism between personal and professional work.

However, any professional reading this who is still passionate about photography will agree with me that not often do our personal creative preferences intersect with those requested by the client; we are always therefore going to be subject to this internal conflict. Yet we cannot abandon our personal drive entirely, because if we do, we run the risk of losing what gives us a creative edge in the first place. It’s the old situation of ‘we hired you because we liked your portfolio, now can you shoot something totally different?’ The only situation I think is sustainable over the long term is to ensure that you have clear goals for both, and only permit crossover when it’s not going to be detrimental to either. In fact, there are photographs I take for my own personal enjoyment or experimentation that I’m happy with – for now – but will probably never show anybody; it’s not that the material is sensitive or explicit, it’s just that I’m not necessarily comfortable with sharing it because I don’t entirely understand it yet.

So here goes: thirteen-something years since I started, and two and a half years into this professional gig, here’s my photographic philosophy: professional and personal.

Professional

  • There are no excuses for not delivering. I must always be prepared for contingencies – be it light, time, equipment failure or something else.
  • The purpose of commercial photography is to portray the subject in the most flattering manner possible. To make the best images, I need to understand the subject so I understand what to look for, what to capture, and which angles/ perspectives work best. I also need to continually refine my technical skills – lighting, processing, printing, output, etc.
  • Try to translate the business objectives of the client into photographic and stylistic objectives; if the client does well, they’ll probably have you back again.
  • I personally will try to avoid compositing images, but accept that in certain situations there is no choice. If I have to do it, I will at least do it in the most realistic manner possible.
  • Any postprocessing must be believable, of high quality, and as close to pixel perfect if possible. I may post process documentary assignments, but I will not change any of the contents of the image in the interests of integrity. I will not overdo the processing.
  • Ultimately, my job is to at least deliver what the client wants, and preferably more; however, if there’s a conflict between what I think is best and what the client thinks is best, they win.
  • I will do my best to educate clients about the profession, what is possible, what isn’t possible, and aesthetics.
  • I won’t take jobs that I know will be a serious conflict of aesthetics, working styles, professionalism or fees. No party will be happy and the result will be a disaster.
  • But I also won’t decline jobs just because they’re not super exciting: it’s important to remember that the industry is unpredictable, and being able to do this reasonably successfully for a living is already something to be thankful for. All opportunities must be given serious consideration.
  • I will actively look for and accept jobs that give me full creative control, and strive to go the extra mile and do my best in those – both to deliver what I believe pushes the game a level higher for me, as well as the best of what is technically possible.
  • I will not compete on price, both in the long term interests of the industry and to ensure that I do not set up an unsustainable business model.
  • Finally, a new one for 2014: I will seek some sort of sustainable balance rather than working myself to death…

Personal

  • Never settle with an image that has less than 4 out of 4 things
  • Always continue to tighten my curation: that’s the only way to up your game.
  • Aesthetics are personal. So long as I’m happy with the output, who cares what anybody else thinks?
  • Always push the limits of what can be done, where it can be done, to what level of quality it can be done, and how it can be done.
  • Try to photograph subjects that interest you on some level beyond photographically and aesthetically to develop a connection to the subject, and hopefully a stronger image. But don’t walk past and ignore a visually great scene because the subject doesn’t speak to you on an emotional level.
  • Look for something out of the ordinary, in the ordinary – it can be order in disorder, disorder in order, juxtaposition in spatial position or something else. There has to be a ‘why’ to each image, otherwise it’s just a snapshot.
  • Aesthetic considerations alone can be a why, though not always.
  • Attempt to understand other forms of art in an attempt to understand how human psychology is affected by various stimuli, visual and non-visual; photography is a one-way conversation – or perhaps an oration or performance – you must therefore understand your audience to improve your performance.
  • Always keep practicing, but don’t force yourself to shoot if uninspired – that’s a waste of shutter cycles and curation time.
  • The moment a style or subject or something starts to get boring, move on and shoot something else. Concentrate on whatever intuitively feels interesting and let your visual style evolve to meet it. You won’t lose the ability to produce your previous work, though you might find it less multidimensional or satisfying.
  • Look before you shoot; photography is really about seeing – not necessarily recording.

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Only The Clouds Are Truly Free

The headline image I’ve chosen to illustrate this post is from Cuba; firstly, I thought it might be appropriate given the idea of any kind of manifesto, but more importantly, I think it currently represents the kind of photographic direction I want to go in personally: on first impressions, it is definitely a photograph, though the image might have been created using other media; it doesn’t necessarily have spatial cues, or it has slightly confusing ones; tonal control is present throughout the entire image; there’s plenty of detail to hold attention in an Ultraprint, but more importantly, there’s an idea there which is both strong and open to some interpretation. There is a rigid order in the buildings above, but the decay suggests a system or society that perhaps isn’t working quite perfectly; the men – generic people – underneath it are both proud but somewhat oppressed (notice their postures); there are hints of modernity (air conditioning) but a lot of colourful veneer hiding something with no substance (empty windows/ facades). Freedom – the sky and clouds – are as far away as possible from the people; out of reach. To some, such an image may appear flat and boring, but like Only The Clouds Are Truly Free (above), these are images that are intentionally meant to be visually curious but encouraging and rewarding of further contemplation.

Now, do you know why you shoot? MT

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Limited edition Ultraprints of these images and others are available from mingthein.gallery

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Comments

  1. Always appreciate your perspective, drive and artistic skills. Makes one realize the importance of community, regardless how tightly connected or not. More flesh than metal.

  2. Thanks for the insightful post – intentions can change as well. I have in mind Leibovitz’s exhibition in SG where personal family snapshots were shown alongside her commercial and more artsy(?) landscape work. Sometimes there’s room for serendipity in how we work.

  3. Hi Ming, thank you for this post, you have made some very valuable points. Im curious about one fact; and perhaps I missed it, but anyway here’s my question to you:

    The image taken in Cuba, why did you take the shot? Were you deliberately seeking to highlight the points you illustrated in this post or did you see an interesting image and then take the shot, sharing your interpretation with us later on?

    I’m a bit of both, really, when I photograph. On the one hand I freelance as a reporter and will take images to support an article I’m writing; but mostly my photography is for pleasure – I take a shot, leaving the interpretation up to the viewer.

    • I chose this photograph to match the point I was trying to make in the post. Travelling to Cuba from Asia just to make a photograph for a free blog post is rather silly…

  4. Larry Kincaid says:

    Another thought provoking essay, as usual backed up with excellent examples from your own work and thinking. You have me thinking about “curation” now, something that has bothered me a lot but has so far not gotten enough attention. As I went through it, I realized that I needed to recommend your site to a friend of mine I just saw again last night, who just acquired a new camera and is off and running again. No need to say what’s great about your site, it gets mentioned all the time. So, let me point out two other outstanding features of your site: the interesting and informative comments from your readers. This can be seen on this blog as well as all the others. To put it the other way, boring, uninformed participants, then there goes the blog. Obviously, it’s working the other way around: the nature and quality of your blog attracts the right people. Certainly for me. And last but not least, since you mentioned it, hardly ever any trolls to deal with. I don’t know if it’s because you filter them out very quickly–you should–or they just go somewhere else. Nothing can kill a web site faster than an attack by trolls. So, highly valuable blog you have created, one to recommend to others, which may explain why it’s grown so quickly. I also look forward to seeing you innovate with ways to make the blog economically self-sustaining and, yes, profitable. Everyone benefits from this as well.

  5. Ok, so you’ve changed the planet with your manifesto. I just bought a Sony A7r, what is the best lens to have for my trip to Estonia? 😛

    If I only concentrate on the first 2 bullets in ‘Personal’ my world becomes a better place.

    Maybe your technical and business acumen is your competitive advantage, but, what separates a ‘Ming Thein’ from other ‘commercial contractors’? Would defining/refining your ‘signature’ be useful to reach the next level?

    • Sadly, the answer is no. Most of the time clients do not really give you much room to manoeuvre stylistically simply because they either have some preconception of what they want (right or wrong), want you to copy something else, or have a set style guide. If anything, it’s probably the opposite. I’d make more money if I just took every job and shot everything the way the client wanted it – but I wouldn’t have a style at all.

      • That was the only omission I thought, and to have you describe it so is indeed sad (and important) to anyone considering the profession.

      • Shooting things the way the clients want is the essence of business, no? This is not to set aside the value of educating clients, recommending better solutions than what the client envisioned, and the like, but ultimately if it’s a paid service there has to be delivering what clients want contained in the mix. A natural tension then with creating a brand, and in photography it lands up almost all the time as a personal brand. Conceptually the brand development creates or “should” create more value in the long run but meanwhile we turn down some clients and projects and start pushing back on other clients’ requests in order to try to maintain standards consistent with the brand. And is part of the brand to be rather easy for clients to work with, and readily responsive to their requests, or is it to be more exclusive and unaccommodating?
        I think regretfully that indeed, some clients don’t appreciate the people / businesses that supply their needs at all.
        Relationship seems preferable on some days, but has relationship, say even in business community, become all but roadkill under the wheels of contemporary culture (with intense competition, commoditization, meritocracy, and transactional mindsets)?

        • Yes and no – there’s some business that still gets done on strength of relationship, but I’m very aware of that and do my best not to abuse that privilege: if anything, I’ll work harder to go the extra mile to make sure that the trust is justified. But yes, there are companies/clients/individuals who are happy to just turn around and pick the cheapest person regardless.

  6. Michael Matthews says:

    Applause to the final item under “Professional”. Otherwise the rest are at risk.

  7. Ironic translation there of Saint-Exupéry on the mural in your Cuba image?
    ‘Non se ve bien sino con el corazón. Lo esencial es invisible a los ojos’: ‘It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.’ (French original ‘On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.’ from Le Petit Prince).

    I guess you meant us to notice this!!

  8. I like the “professional” manifesto. Wish more people thought this way, not just in terms of photography but in terms of life!

    One thing which struck me while reading this: a fundamental difference between the two photos chosen. When I first saw the “Only the clouds are truly free” shot a while back I “got it” instantly, or near enough. The message got across instantly, and didn’t need any explanation bar the title. That in my book is an unqualified success in terms of the “message”.

    The Cuba picture, though, didn’t resonate in the same way, even after reading your comment on it. Technically it’s awesome, of course, but I didn’t see any particular message and even after reading your explanation of it, I was closer to “ah, uh-huh” than “ah!”. This then leads to the question: did the photo fail to communicate its message to me, or was I not open enough to it? To me, the “clouds” shot is great because it says so much with so few elements; the Cuba shot seems to say less with more. But again, this could be down to a difference in thinking styles. I don’t want that to sound like a criticism, though, more an observation.

    Your first line here – “I believe it’s very important to have a sense of purpose as a photographer” – is interesting. I half agree and half disagree. I think it’s important to have a non-stop drive to improve, but I find that “purpose” can get in the way of “discovery” if you’re not careful; you can be so fixated on the “purpose” that your mind tunes out anything that isn’t related to that “purpose” and thus you miss amazing shots that are right in front of you. I find that letting go of control is a necessary element in getting interesting photos.

    Great read though, as per usual!

  9. Clear, erudite and inspiring. A lot of what is in your manifesto will be in my list of photographic resolution and ambition for the coming year Ming!

  10. To have a sense of purpose as a photographer one must first have a sense of purpose as a person.

  11. The big difference between an amateur and the professional is that the professional gets paid for their work. More than anything, for me, is that Ming shares his experience and passion. Meanwhile, we are all learning through this stimulating conversation, Ming included.

  12. Kathleen Bowers says:

    It’s always a good time to reassess why and how we do what we do. Thank you for lighting the way!

  13. DynaSynergy says:

    i might not fully understand what your approach is in deciding what to photograph or value some of your pics but i appreciate the gems that you produce. i simply love your great pics!

  14. Kristian Wannebo says:

    “.. because I don’t entirely understand it yet.”

    As an observer I find with all arts (including photography), but more obviously in poetry, that when you (¿think you?) fully understand a piece of art, it looses it’s magic – or most of it.

    As for the creator’s point of view, I think a work may sometimes be deeper and perhaps really worth sharing if he/she keeps coming back to it not yet wholly understanding it.

    (Of course, “entirely understand” can have different meanings …)

  15. A well scripted manifesto. Bookmarked; I shall come back to this again thanks.

  16. I really enjoyed this article, Ming — it’s a good example of the kind of writing that makes this site unique and valuable. In many ways, knowing who and what you are as a photographer makes everything else downstream so much easier, from equipment selection, to subjects, to editing. The trick is to figure out who you really are, instead of falling prey to the latest trend, like “I’m a film photographer,” which is usually GAS disguised as philosophy.

    I know I’ve said this elsewhere, but it bears repeating. One of the most valuable lessons from the masterclass I took from you happened even before I stepped foot in San Francisco, and that was the portfolio editing. There’s nothing like trying to pick just 10 images that say who you are as a photographer to make you think really hard about it. I think I must have struggled with that question at least a month before the actual classes. In the end, I ended up picking what I thought was a simple theme, but that theme turned out to have deeper implications for what I’m trying to do with my work than I had thought. I guess part of the process is to learn to trust your intuition too.

    That Cuba picture is fantastic. I can’t believe I haven’t seen it before now. I agree with Linden that it has your fingerprints all over it.

    • Thanks Andre. I’m pretty sure it’s the same advice I gave you guys on the workshops: start with knowing what your objective is, then let everything else fall into place. The challenge comes when you’ve got multiple (and potentially quite conflicting) objectives.

      10 images to your objective: picking a portfolio should always have an overarching aim: it might be to show your best landscapes, it might be to define your creative development, or it might be to sell work to a client. But the curation matters…

  17. What are the “Four things”?

    The link you have (currently) posted brings up a “404” error.

    (Is that what I should be striving for??)

    😉

    Thanks for another great post,
    Mark

  18. A great manifesto.

    The Cuban image is a classic example of one that I would instantly recognise as ‘Ming Thein’, just as much as I knew instantly that the latest cover of Time magazine sports a portrait by Dan Winters.

    The composition is a strong clue, colours, depth of field (you so often don’t use DoF to emphasise subject – something you have taught me is a strength), tone and so on too. But I think a very strong style cue has evolved around metering. At first glance it looks like ‘metering for the highlights’, yet there is really good dynamic range. To put it crudely, there is often more ‘darkness’ in your photographs. Many would have pulled up the men in the shadows by a stop or so, compressing dynamic range but making it feel closer to the personal experience of the scene. To put it another way, our brains tend to meter the people – especially, as in this case – if they are close to our vantage point, and therefore the buildings beyond would look bright. But you have emphasised your subject – the architectural composition of colour, geometry and texture – by having the foreground men dropped below where our eyes would meter them, even if the metering of the scene is ‘true’ in your image.

    I like the look. (Not sure I am describing it that well, or if I’m missing the idea a bit, but I do like the look).

    • Thank you. Actually, our brains ‘meter’ for whatever we’re looking at – but usually that’s people because we are instantly attracted to human elements in a scene. The really tricky part is usually the rest isn’t blown out; this is a challenge to represent adequately in a photograph because our brains/eyes scan the scene continuously; you can’t do that in a photograph because your output tonal range is fixed.

    • Unless the animate object is the center of attention; there is no need to closely identify that object, to the contrary. Personally, I find that an animate object in most pictures adds interest by just being there; even if shadowy, or especially if shadowy. In both photos, the people are turned away and are not easily identifiable, as I think it should be. Otherwise, what would be the focal point of the photo?

  19. nice capture

  20. Wonderful read Ming! With regards to:

    There are photographs I take for my own personal enjoyment or experimentation that I’m happy with – for now – but will probably never show anybody; it’s not that the material is sensitive or explicit, it’s just that I’m not necessarily comfortable with sharing it because I don’t entirely understand it yet.

    Hopefully we can see some of these over time, You will be the only one that knows you don’t entirely understand them yet. 🙂 🙂

    I re-read the manifesto on your flickr page. I like the part about learning. I just re-watched your videos this week and a lot of fresh material to consider. I realized I need to ETTR more after seeing your raw files in the videos… After re-watching EP5 and Monochrome Masterclass I realize how much my processing has evolved and needs to further evolve….

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  1. […] have previously written about various personal approaches to photography – manifestoes or beliefs or aspirations or aims if you will. I’ve written about why we photograph and the […]

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