Photoessay: Nautical still life

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Captain’s table, with a view

Earlier this year, I was commissioned to shoot a documentary set for the International Lutheran Seamans’ Mission; an organisation that has stations around the world tending to the spiritual and more pedestrian needs of seafarers. I thought the brief was interesting – follow and document one of their mission leaders, on vessels of various sizes ranging from small wooden fishing boats to new 1000ft container ships – whilst interacting with the seafarers and looking for interesting vignettes. That will be the subject of a future On Assignment – the client has not yet published the annual report it was commissioned for.

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Loading the port I

Today’s photoessay is a little precursor to that and perhaps what could be considered a few personal observations on the job – little still lifes, vignettes and a certain poetry and art in the abstract. It reflected the beginnings of my visual shift at the time, and curated with a little hindsight (“thinking time)”, I think makes for a strong set. Enjoy! MT

This series was shot with a Nikon D4 and AFS 24-140/4 VR. Seawater, weather and a general need for mobility (including jumping between shuttle boats in open sea at one point) meant that a single lens solution was the ideal. Processing was done with the techniques covered in the Processing for Style workshop video.

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Bridge view

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So much Lego

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Escape from the engine room

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Tool kit

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I have yet to meet one who does not…

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Loading the port II

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Marina interlude I – the contrast

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Abstract dock furniture I

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Abstract dock furniture II

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Marina interlude II – calm and clean

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180 Buffer

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Large details

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Drips – together with the first image, my personal favourites.


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  1. Nice series and I like the use of color. However, I love the Toolkit image. What artistry of design in that workspace!

  2. Pete Johnson says:

    Hi Ming, I have been following your website almost as long as you have had it and just looking at your images has influenced my “growth” in photography greatly. I take great pleasure in your ability to see things “differently” and it has opened up a whole new way of seeing the potential in a scene to bring out different emotions that varying perspectives contribute to. Thank you , Pete.

  3. Ming

    Nice set. Like a lot of your images they abstract very well – I only have to remove my glasses to check this. I’m going to swim against the tide as ‘Escape from the engine room’ is my favorite out of this bunch. If you forget the title there are all sorts of scenarios you can imagine for it.


  4. A very nice set and a very refreshing as I have never lived in a coastal town and don’t particularly like being in a boat.Difficult to pick a favourite as all are very good , but yes the first is in a league of it’s own . Your images put the things in quite a new perspective for me . hopefully whenever next i am on ship or boat , I will enjoy it …your shift in visual perspective along with your new love for landscapes brings us a far more variety of stunning images to learn from …

  5. Hi Ming, Agreed, the last and first pictures are great, The first one gives me the impression of the home away from home, or “my home is where I hang my hat” in the fact that although we are looking at an empty table there is still the feeling that this space is very familiar to someone. Bascially without raving on too much about respresentational semiotics. We see the captian even though he’s not there. An achievement beyond the obvious aesthetics of the image. Well done.

  6. splendid set, sifu.
    everything you touch (shoot) turns to gold!

  7. Lucy March says:

    A particularly wonderful set, Ming! I spend a lot of time on the water in the New York City, often passing by the big container ships as I paddle. Many thanks for letting me see them from another angle and with your keen eye for color and abstraction.

  8. You certainly nudge every one of those 16MP pixels in precisely the right direction. Already had three of these in my favorites file; now have added a fourth.

  9. NO matter what you say, or do all is BRILLIANT !

  10. Words fail me on that first one Ming. Fantastic, but tinged with pain and confusion from the out of focus, non-nautical, still-life on the table. Incredible reversal of normal expectations. The view is so pitch-perfect. Love it.

    • Thanks Jonathan! I felt a similar way when seeing it in person – the whole tableau just looked so discordant and conflicted. It had to be shot 🙂

  11. Gerner Christensen says:

    Captains Table, Bridge View, Bow and Drips are my picks from the stunning work here. It is quite interesting how this set shows the possibilities we have shooting in industrial zones. The presence of rusty iron and patine steel really makes a photographic opportunity to make fine art images.

    When I still was young and had my Mamiya 7II, Pentax 645NII and Contax Aria film cameras I often when to the local harbor and shot away. The B&W prints from films like Kodak Technical Pan still hands around my house and still impresses with a super fine grain contrast and rich tonal scale.

    Ming you caught all the elements in this wonderful set.

    • Thanks Gerner. I’ve always loved shooting in industrial areas because of the enormous amount of abstraction possible with those unexpected colours and textures. Too bad most harbours are now high security zones…

  12. Absolutely a stunning set of pictures of this subject, possible one of the best I have seen, compositition, colour and expressiveness are all in place.

  13. I really like that set. Very nice compositions. Some seem simple at first glance but upon closer inspection they are really strong.

    “Tether” put a smile on my face because Hamburg is such a beautiful city and Leverkusen is a town next to my hometown Cologne. 🙂

  14. Nautical, but nice. 😉 (I know, silly play on words)

    Nice set of images. I get to photograph ships for a few clients, and I never get tired of those projects. Always get to meet nice people in shipping industry.

    Curious on the one camera and one lens approach, did you carry a back-up camera, or back-up lens?

  15. Very enjoyable, good variety of detail vs big picture, mechanical versus human, texture, color. What is the structure in the drip photo? This reminds me, time for me to get going on the Mississippi lock-and-dam part of a Mississippi River personal project. One of the local lock-and-dam units has public tours and an attached museum, so one can get a close view of the mechanical processes involved.

    • Thanks. The structure in the background of ‘drip’ is the stern end of a huge container ship – this is probably an overflow valve or something.

  16. Wonderful Set Ming! Excellent!

  17. That first shot is really clean and the best of the set to me.

  18. Did you use any supplemental lighting for fill?

  19. Lovely and a very strong set indeed, Ming! The first image is really striking, and feels different (yet the same) for you. I have no idea why. I’m looking forward to when you can release the rest of the set.

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