On Assignment Photoessay: Abstraction in the machine

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Today’s photoessay is something a little different: the curated results from an assignment last year where I had an open creative brief; I was to document and photograph everything and anything at the given locations. The client was a heavy engineering/ construction company with everything going on from schools to subways to airports; it was both one of the most interesting assignments I’ve undertaken as well as one of the most satisfying – and simultaneously challenging.

Some of these images will be part of the larger exhibition in Hong Kong in June, so if you’re around, please come and say hello.

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Those of you in the audience involved in creative industries of any sort will know how rare an open brief is; it’s something to be treasured and at the same time very careful with. On one hand, it’s the chance to go crazy and try everything you’ve wanted – but at the risk of producing something far too out of expectations, which would not be good. At the same time, being careful or safe is a waste of an opportunity. In short: you really, really don’t want to screw up. Hence the balancing act: my solution was to think about end usage cases and try to make the images as broadly applicable as possible, but at the same time aesthetically satisfying and consistent in style.

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This set isn’t representative of the whole assignment or majority of images by any stretch, but I think they’re reflective of my current creative state of mind and what I produce when it all comes together – I’m very pleased with these because they straddle the line between documentary, product and abstracted art. Some were shot under controlled conditions (tripod etc.) but most were run and gun grabbed between documentary or formal architectural stills. The subject matter caught my eye because of color, form or shadow – or all three – and I composed by broad perspective (‘wide’/’normal’/’tele’) inclusion first, deciding which elements were of interest, which additional ones were required for balance or context, and then picking a focal length to suit. I suppose in that sense they were instinctive, which is not a term I can generally apply to my commercial work (‘planned’ comes to mind).

My thanks to the client (who is in the audience) for the confidence and opportunity! MT

I used a Nikon D800E, D810, AFS 24-120/4 VR and AFS 80-400/4.5-5.6 VR lenses and processed with the ‘commercial’ style described in Making Outstanding Images Ep.5: Processing For Style.

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Turn the mood and style up to 11: the Hanoi Cinematic Masterclass in association with Zeiss (21-26 July and 28 July-2 August inclusive) is now open for registration – click here to book and for more information.


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Having spent several years at heavy construction sites well, I would not pay anything to these shots 🙂 But knowing your other shots I can 100% say that it’s not your fault, they should have supported you better 🙂 When we call a photographer to our projects, we tell him/her to stay at our site for 3 days. First 1-2 days we walk around together, doing nothing but site seeing. It’s only last 1-2 days when he/she takes photos. Then, the photographer can understand what’s going on and “soul” of the site.

    • I think you’re missing the point entirely – these are not the whole story by any means…and I was shooting up to four sites a day. On top of that, it’s rather presumptuous to judge whether these images satisfy the client’s needs without even knowing what the brief was to begin with. I would not expect to be paid by a construction company to make pictures of cars but that wouldn’t be the same for an auto manufacturer. 🙂

  2. Lovely shots Ming.

  3. Love your creativity of interesting photographs from seemingly nothing special, in non special light. I find this very inspiring.

  4. I adore the one with the broom. Apart from the pure visual aspect many conotations come to mind.

  5. Felix Leyer says:

    Incredible, these photographs, simply brilliant!!

  6. Lucy March says:

    Terrific set, Ming. — I hope you post more from that shoot. Hats off to the person to the person who had the good sense to give you an open brief.

  7. one of my favorite sets of yours – this is where your eyes shine.

    btw, which stores in KL can you recommend for getting olympus gear? i need small accessories (e.g. eyecups) for my m43 system so need a comprehensive store that might carry stock

  8. Third one from top with the steel girders is wonderful. As a heavy machinery engineer myself this set hits home nicely. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Daniel Boyd says:

    Beautiful work, Ming. In the last image, the plane, was it part of the story or was it unintentional? If I just look at this image at an exhibition, I would think that it is intentional. Tell the story from the materials on the ground making it all the way to the ultimate functional form, a flying machine.

    • Definitely part of the story – it was shot to document construction on a new phase at the airport, and we had one going through ever couple of minutes…

  10. Len harrison says:

    Suject you would not think could make art but these images pull it off. Great stuff.

  11. Color, form, shade, and contrast. I hope the client was both pleased and surprised. Outstanding work!

  12. Simply superb. Thank you for sharing.

  13. Great pictures Ming! Not too sure if it’s because you have improved or that I have gotten more used to your style, but these are the first set of urban(?)/non-nature landscapes that I was able to somehow connect with.

  14. Ming,

    This is a wonderful set. Really enjoyable to see and excellent in every way. – Eric

  15. great stuff.
    texture for days and sharp as all get out.

  16. I really want to do something like this. I’ve few ideas but you need to know the people who know some other people who will be interested.
    Nice photographs.



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