Photoessay: domestic minimalism

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I’m going to start by making two seemingly unrelated statements. 1. It is difficult, if not impossible, to turn ‘off’ your photographic eye once it has been turned on. 2. You will never get a better shot than a local. How are they related? Firstly, if you stay in a place long enough, you get to see it under all kinds of lighting conditions; this can make a huge difference to the presentation of the subject. The chance of your visit intersecting with the optimal (or most interesting) light is slim; a skilled photographer can close the gap somewhat through compositional ability, but you can’t add shadows afterwards. Secondly, we spend more time than anybody else in our own usual domestic circles of orbit – home, work, car, commute etc. It is easy to become immune to this and walk past a potentially interesting scene because we dismiss it offhand as ‘seen it before’. Not walking past and being compelled to stop and take a closer look is what differentiates the serious photographer from the casual one: I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve randomly taken a shot of something inside my own home because the light on that particular day of the year happens to be coming from the right direction and it isn’t overcast. And it’s almost always a fast opportunistic grab, which means whatever is to hand – since even I don’t walk around the apartment with a camera, that means my iPhone. It’s a good practice exercise I can heartily recommend to anybody. Enjoy!

MT Images shot with an iPhone 6 Plus and processed with PS Workflow II – you can open JPEGs in ACR too, if you right click and select the appropriate option in Bridge. IMG_8044b copy Escape

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A reflection of curvature

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Level up

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Invoking the piano

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Hour of drunkenness

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Invertebrates need clothes too


Prints from this series are available on request here


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


  1. Thank you very much – very inspiring 🙂
    I haven’t realised there are so many interesting themes around!
    I’ll have to start looking around 🙂

  2. “Reflection of curvature” is stunning.

  3. This article got me to thinking: if we can get shots like this from an iPhone, and they will look fine on a 21 inch macbook (like mine; the pictures I take with my iPhone 6 plus look fine fullscreen on it), then we are – as you’ve been saying for a while, correctly – way past the point of sufficiency. The question is, though, is it now the responsibility of the hardware (i.e. the display medium) to catch up?

    I know that the newer iPads and macs are getting better and better in terms of display, but if an iPhone shot looks OK on it, is there any point in displaying a picture from the 5DR or the Sony whatsit (the 42mp thing they brought out)? Printing is a different question, and as I almost never print it’s not something I feel qualified to talk about. But on even the best displays, it’s not easy to tell an iPhone picture from one shot with a megapixel-monster unless you go in to 100%.

    Of course as megapixels sell cameras, we’ll probably never see and end to the “mine’s bigger than yours” wars, but surely now the time has come to focus on the display side of things?

    • You’re absolutely spot on. Yes, the display medium hasn’t caught up – we’re getting there with retina displays and the like, but when I pushed the idea for printing – I got laughed at. Ironic, no?

      The giveaway for sensor size isn’t depth of field, or acuity, or resolution. It’s actually dynamic range and tonal differentiation. If you have fewer spatial locations and fewer luminance levels, you can’t have the same degree of continuity – even when downsampled.

      I still think – for the moment – printing is the only way to go.

  4. Ming, I’m really fascinated by “Invoking the Piano”. Quite how you envisaged “flattening” objects on three different planes to produce this very evocative 2D image is beyond me. How did you come across it? The leg has absolutely to be there, too, as post processing it out leaves a decidedly unbalanced image. For me, this one stands out from you many superb images as it depicts something that doesn’t really exist. It was all in your mind. What a wonderful work of modern art!

    • Thanks Terry. I tend to squint at things with one eye – that removes stereoscopic vision and flattens things into two dimensions. Sometimes a curve or shadow catches your eye, then you squint, move around a bit, and see if you can execute it…

  5. fuyoh! first class! sifu.
    regards, ken

  6. You’ve been popping away with the iPhone for at least five years, now, with striking success. Consider the “leaf with dew on the playground” shot (IMG_0926b copy) dated November 2010. Many of the iPhone shots you’ve posted over the past year or so have been indistinguishable from those made with other cameras when seen online, their intended venue. Keep it up!

    • Thanks Mike. It goes to show that at typical uses – web, even moderate prints – even camera phones have more than passed sufficiency, and the limitation is the operator. In some ways, they’ve surpassed ‘proper’ cameras too – the processing power is quite amazing, and goes a long way for making up for sensor deficiencies. That said, there’s still plenty of mediocre stuff out there which can be attributed to shot discipline, being unaware of tap to focus/expose etc…so in a way, no matter how good the hardware gets, we’re still back to education.

  7. Martin Fritter says:

    I like these very much. Saul Leiter spent 20 years working in a three or four block radius.

  8. Great pictures! Any thoughts on whether there is any difference between the 6s and the 6s Plus camera wise,,,? Is the stabilizer worth it? (Just asking cause the Plus version is quite huge…) Thanks…

    • Not tried either 6S version, but the regular 6 and 6 Plus are very different – my wife has the smaller one, and the camera quality isn’t close to the Plus. I suspect it’s not just because the stabiliser is very effective, but sensor performance falls off quickly once you get more than a stop or two over base ISO. Looking at EXIF data, it seems the 6 Plus rarely climbs above base – even when very dark. There’s some trick software processing going on here, too. I bought the 6 Plus initially on the basis of battery life and screen size for ebook reading, but I’d buy it again and add the camera to that list.

  9. Looking at the photo with the Gulf gas pump, it works, it looks great…why? What is it about these types of photos that can make something so plain look so good? Serious questions!

    • That’s a good question. I looked at the scene myself for a bit while pumping gas and couldn’t figure out why it was appealing to me; I shot it anyway. Viewing it in two dimensions simplifies things somewhat: there’s a distinct left-right dynamic, solid zones delineated by color and shadow, clear variations in texture, a strong subject in color and size, and little details that a) balance off, like the upper left light patch, or b) add visual interest like the shadow of the pump curl or the red shadow of the bucket on the blue pump. I think it’s a deceptively simple composition that gives back with closer inspection…

  10. I love posts like this. It’s like being down to earth. I believe that a creative person, no matter what camera he or she is using, can always produce a good shot. That is because that person sees things differently about the subject. 🙂 That’s what you are doing. 🙂

  11. …you are absolutely can find fascinating images anywhere…recently in a salon waiting for an intimate concert to begin…framing the singer…and looking up and seeing a kaleidoscope of shadows of tree branches…up and along the wall…thank you for reminding us that everything we see has never been quite seen before…

  12. Would that be a series 7 chair in the 7th picture ?

    • Hah! I’m glad somebody got the subtle reference 🙂 I was wondering if it might have been too obscure.

      • Well, to be fair, I only noticed when I was about to ask about the chair. At that point, I figured the link was unlikely to be coincidental. So yeah, I guess it was pretty obscure :-p Which does beg the question: should we revisit every post in search of more ?

        Jokes aside, I just love that chair: elegant and simple design, with excellent ergonomics. Perhaps a Danish (or Scandinavian) thing, as I equally adore the PH 50/5 pendant lamp (and the doo-wop, and …) ?

        • Well, I throw in a reference here and there; sometimes deliberate, sometimes because that just happens to be the subject. But I think your time may be better spent doing other things 🙂

          My favourite classical chair is actually the Healy Supporto, but I’ve not been able to find one that I can afford or that’s in decent condition. The closest modern equivalent in function/comfort is the Herman Miller Setu, I think. I use one of those for quite a number of hours every day, and it’s superb.

  13. Looks amazing quality like. Is iPhone6s or plus just as good as Ricoh GR, if so under what conditions? I have the latter and think of getting the former.

  14. Dirk De Paepe says:

    From time to time, you publish minimalistic shots like these. Personally, I believe you’re “at full strenght'” in this discipline. As a matter of fact, it’s shots like those that made me follow you, Ming. How one can tell a story with only putting a few elements in the right place and time. Photography at its strongest!

  15. All wonderful photographs but I especially like #3, the one shot through the underside of an umbrella ! Very inspiring…and a great incentive to learn how to ‘see’ better !

  16. Wonderful images Ming!

  17. With an eye and technique like you possess, who needs paint and wood?

    • Not to ben dense, but I’m afraid I don’t understand…

      • Jaap Veldman says:

        Though not my comment,I interprete it as:
        One can paint on wood.
        You already paint with a camera so don’t need the paint and wood
        So it looks like a compliment.
        (then I agree)

        But what’s ben dense?
        My English might not sufficient
        It was a typo
        Or you are better in cryptic remarks than I am 🙂

        • No, you might be right. I just couldn’t understand it at the time – blame it on a slow brain the morning after handling a 7 month old who didn’t want to sleep that night…

      • It seems that many who attempt to produce, create or translate art using many mediums (paint and wood for instance) fall short. For me, beauty and art are communicated to us in many forms and in many ways. Your technique serves your ‘eye’ which for me surpasses most of what is called art.

        • The media itself (actually, today’s article is oddly apropos) often adds something to the mood or impression beyond the literal; it forces the artist to make interpretative compromises and use his or her imagination. Surely that cannot be a bad thing. Similarly, with photography, you are also forced to interpret in two dimensions instead of three – that spatial overlap often creates interesting results by itself. It’s good and bad: we can’t hide behind a novel medium, but we are somewhat restricted to directly translated interpretations of the physical world. Spatial liberties cannot be taken, we can only find alternative perspectives…

  18. My domus is not so minimalist. Quite the mess right now actually. 😉

    • Think of it as pre-shot curation – I don’t show you the mess. Notice the ceiling and corner shots? 😉

      • I could lie and say it was all due to fixing 150 year old plaster walls in prep for repainting. But that’s a minor part of the mess. I should deaccession curate some lesser treasures to the prestigious sidewalk recycling collection.

        • “the prestigious sidewalk recycling collection” – Haha!

          In all seriousness, there’s probably a photographic project in there somewhere.

          • You should see what some people throw out in Boston on trash days. Especially in the fancier neighborhoods, like Beacon Hill, there can be nice furniture. Fortunately, I don’t need any, because you never know if there might be bedbugs hiding in the wood joints or the upholstery (unless it’s below freezing which kills the little parasites).

            • And termites…

              • Yes, you probably have lots more of those than we do in New England, where winters are too cold for termites. The Formosan termite has become a problem in Louisiana. But it and native species are mostly limited to the Southern US, so far.

                Carpenter ants (genus Camponotus) are more of a problem to buildings here in the Northern US. These burrow into wood for housing their colonies, not for food like termites do.Generally, they don’t get transmitted by furniture, though larger sticks like firewood or recycled timber can house a colony of carpenter ants, and introduce them to humans’ domestic life in a nasty way.

                We use Camponotus as a model organism for an Introductory Biology lab course at Harvard U. teaching PCR because they are easy to find outside in the warm months, and ants often carry a parasitic bacteria you can test by looking for the bacterial DNA.

                Sorry, way off track, but hopefully interesting.

  19. gnarlydognews says:

    >>…. shot with an iPhone 6 Plus

    • That’s probably why people aren’t interested. I didn’t use something more exotic 🙂

      • We all expect you to be walking round the house with the 645z and A7RII strapped on. This is a real disappointment.

        • Jaap Veldman says:

          We all expect you to know Ming sold his 645Z ages ago.
          I suppose you also expect him to switch diapers while balancing a tripod on his head.

          So, with that out of the way, please read this essay carefully again.
          You should’t be disappointed.
          There’s a lot to learn for you.

          This world would be less of a mess when everybody used his Iphone properly.

          So take out your Iphone now and make this world a better place!

      • Frans Richard says:

        People? Or gearheads? 😉
        I think these are all very nice images, an inspiration for more experimentation with iPhone photography.
        Thanks for posting! 🙂

  20. Love it all, especially the coat hangers…

    Thanks, Ming


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