Photography on the brain

_8B13983-4 copy
Obsession is when you find something new to photograph even while sitting on the can in your own house, which you’ve done every morning for the last five years.

There are few subtle but distinct divisions in what one would classify as interests: curiosity, enthusiasm, passion, and finally, obsession. Curiosity gets you in; enthusiasm keeps you going; the line to passion is a bit harder to define, but obsession is simple: you’re thinking about it 24/7. I think for most activities, obsession is probably one step away from certifiable madness and some sort of institutionalisation. But I’d actually argue that it’s necessary to even have a sniff of success given the current state of the industry.

The vast majority of people who consider themselves photographers probably fall somewhere between being enthusiastic and passionate. You definitely think about making an image, carrying a camera, and probably keeping somewhat up to date with various news from around the industry. You set time aside to photograph because it satisfies you at some higher level*, or because you like the way your cameras make you look – or the way other people look at you with your cameras**. You might even dedicate large chunks of time or income to it, and go on trips with the sole intention of doing nothing but photographing; this is probably the point at which it turns into passion. Believe it or not, that’s going further than most professionals – we almost never have the time to do that kind of photography, and even if we did, we’d probably be out looking for another job rather than being economically unproductive.

*Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and all that. I am no longer a consultant and was never a psychologist, but I know as a photographer that a cameraphone sits somewhere at the bottom, and Otii and medium format at the top.
**Don’t laugh. I know more than one person who selects hardware based on how it complements their image and wardrobe, and no, they’re not women.

Put another way, enthusiasm makes you try something new. Passion makes you try it again and again until you’re happy with the results. And obsession is when even if something is perfect to most educated/ informed people, you still aren’t happy – and think you can do better. By definition, only a small minority can be successful – famous, remembered, different, rich etc – take your pick. By extension, you cannot therefore be in the majority of people who undertake that activity – that means passion isn’t enough. Passion might get you up for sunrise or maintain a blog with a post a week, but obsession is what makes you post every day for three years despite some of the really nasty comments you get, haul the heavy tripod everywhere and actually use it, carry three lenses of the same focal length because you can envision uses for the differences in character, or test five bodies for a review to make sure sample variation isn’t the cause behind an observation. It’s where you delete all your 4s because you know you’ve made 5s in the past.

Bottom line: there are lots of people willing to go far. You have to go further, and last longer. And even then, there’s no guarantee of success.

Even that isn’t so important, though. I don’t shoot or write or post because I want to be wealthy or famous; I would have stayed in my previous job if that was the case. I do it because I have to; to the point that I was always having to choose between photography and everything else. I did it and do it because I have an insatiable drive to see what the next frame looks, or whether an idea is translatable into a photograph. I make photographs which I never show and write things which nobody else will ever read; that doesn’t actually bother me in the slightest. But it does bother me when I’m accused of doing it for attention, as a well-known proprietor of another site recently insinuated. There really is no need for jealousy; there’s plenty of space on the internet to coexist in peace and mutual exclusivity.

I don’t consider any of this a blessing, though – the need to make an image gets in the way of just about everything. I complete a shoot several times in my head before actually even getting on the ground, because I want to make sure that I have the best lighting solution for every possible angle. I make lists weeks or months in advance and then revise them continually right up to the eleventh hour. On more than one occasion, I distinctly remember dreaming about not just shooting, but preparing for a shoot. And I also remember some distinctly uncomfortable nightmares in which something always went agonisingly wrong.

Even while awake, my first thoughts on anything or any place or anybody are always around ‘what am I going to see, how can I best capture this, and how should I prepare?’ Even if it’s a social event, or a trip to run some errands, there is an agony over what hardware to bring, and knowing that every choice will be a compromise of some sort. I might not Ultraprint everything, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to – if only to see what it looks like printed. The desire to be prepared all the time, just in case you see something is actually the source of much mental anguish. It isn’t the same as the dilettante carrying 12-500mm in zooms; I know exactly what I’d use each for, and I can frame to my satisfaction with any focal length (except the cursed 35mm). That I suppose is the only thing that prevents full paralysis.

I’m actually more than a bit worried for the day when I can’t shoot, or really run out of subjects in the city where I live; there have been periods of late in the last few months where I’ve gone for extended periods of time (at least by my standards) of not shooting, or worse, not making an image I’m happy with. Undoubtedly a lot of this is due to family demands and increasing expectations of my own work, more of it is due to admin and general overheads, but there is definitely a part of me that misses shooting hundreds of frames a day and experiencing that little thrill of discovery with every one. Surely I cannot be alone in this?

Perhaps, in a very strange roundabout way, the conclusion I’m coming to is that I need a holiday. To take pictures. MT


Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography. You can also support the site by purchasing from B&H and Amazon – thanks!

We are also on Facebook and there is a curated reader Flickr pool.

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


  1. Absolutely love this. So simple and so beautiful!

  2. you explained the difference between passion and obsession exquisitely. i often teeter between the two in a sort of dual personality disorder. cheers for a great read

  3. Very relatable. I know that my own expectations are way higher than others would have for my work.

  4. I can relate, Ming. As many here do, no doubt.

  5. Mark Rustad says:

    The good news here is that you are still “looking up”…take hope!

  6. What do you mean by “the cursed 35mm”?

    • Martin Fritter says:

      Well, MT hates 35mm in full frame. I agree, it is kind of banal. I shoot a lot with a Leica M6 and decided to try one – the little Voigtlander Nokton – and behold, it is the perfect lens for a .72 M – if you wear glasses (I think 100% of photographers do). Now, if one is experiencing some sort of block, I suggest creating an impediment – for example using a focal length you don’t like. For musicians, practicing in awkward keys. And so on.

    • 35mm is my least favorite focal length. It just doesn’t work for me, regardless of format. I think it has something to do with the way it renders.

  7. jimaustin says:

    MT, when you conclude you need a holiday to take pictures, I get the sense you are referring to something deeper than TIME. I think you are getting to the SOUL, and how we nourish it as people. Those self-timer moments of relaxation, in the middle of a frenzied day are what nourish my soul.

    • Huh: good point. Perhaps that’s what’s missing…

      • jimaustin says:

        Maybe, maybe not 🙂 . Up to you. “Often he passes a corner, saying to himself, ‘There is a picture here’; and if he cannot find it, considers himself the insensitive one. He can look day after day — and one day the picture is visible! Nothing has changed except himself; although, to be fair, sometimes he had to wait till the light performed the magic.” ~ Minor White

  8. When one questions his artistic practice is either the feeling of a plateau and need of change in their approach or being overwhelmed by other responsibilities. Writers call it the syndrome of white page, photographers buy a new camera and/or try to learn new techniques, change their routine and try new genre (I call it the photographer’s white page). Both end up frustrated as they are not good in the new stuff (can’t write, take average or poor pictures, etc). Resilience is the key to success for an artist. I work with artists and writers. That is my profession. I’ve seen what you are going through. Go back to your old tools. New tools are not the response to your état d’âme. As writers have to write everyday, photographer should Take pictures everyday. Evolving is sometimes doing the same thing over and over (real obsession) and never get tired of it. H-C Bresson did use the same camera, negative and lenses all his life and looked for one and only thing: the decisive moment. That made him who he became. Lartigue was not recognize until age of 69 and he was a photographer all his life. Both were magnificent artists and were both absolutely average technically. They were able to make an image that talks to us. To all generations.
    What do you see in your pictures? Continue looking for that same idea.
    My question for you is: do you always leave the door open while sitting on the can?

  9. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. As another commenter said, your work – both writing and images – are an inspiration to your audience. While I haven’t noticed an image from the vantage point you mentioned in this post, I have seen one from my own shower. While my camera is weather sealed, I think it’d be best to shoot that one with the water turned off and clothing put on.

    While you surely don’t need travel suggestions, I just returned from a trip to Iceland and would love to see what you might do with the opportunities there. That country might be as far from your home as one could get, but at least it would allow you to get away. Best wishes for some time off, in any case. A vacation would seem to be well deserved; you are about as prolific in your writing and shooting as anyone I’m aware of. And I am grateful for it!

    • 🙂

      As for Iceland, I can’t help but feel it’s been overshot of late, and your opportunities are somewhat dictated by accessibility – which means you see the same photo of that come shaped mountain and watefall because there’s probably no physical way to get to the other side of it…

  10. Bill Walter says:

    Ming, your article got me thinking. The remark about taking photos while “on the can” in your house reminded me that interesting photos can be taken in many common everyday situations that are not usually associated with photography. At the grocery store, at church, at the doctor’s office, in a library, at a car repair shop, in a movie theatre, in a restaurant, etc. Photographers who are obsessed have probably taken photos in all these situations and more. It’s a good way to recharge ones creativity. I think your article shed some interesting light on human nature.

    • Absolutely. And you may well find more interesting images with less ‘serious’ equipment – a phone, for instance – because we think/feel different when using it, and people aren’t as intimidated and respond differently too…

  11. Why am I cursed with an obssession for photography?!? If I applied as much energy to making money I’d be a billionaire.

  12. Love your epistles….. and yes possibly a holiday….with your little one and if you must a small camera to capture the joys of witnessing a constantly fresh perspective on our universe developing. : )) Trees

  13. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Don’t laugh. I know more than one person who selects hardware based on how it complements their image and wardrobe, and no, they’re not women- well Ming, my favorite is asking what photographers and women have in common ?- of course their love for bags!
    As to obsession, my god, this was more even acute before picture taking smartphones, never leave home without a camera, just in case the would be once in a life pict, always on the look for light and angles and so on. Now in the digital era the problem for me, and I`m not taking many pictures, is that I still take too many and curate too little. Fortunately I reached such an advanced age that decided to limit myself to few statements on a subject. For example I have three four pictures that for me personally is a reflection of a country and so on. Mon Dieu, there`s a french photo magasine called Chasseur d`images, the title says a lot.

  14. Ming, love you post, you have described myself to a T. 🙂 My wife and I are fortunate enough to travels the States full time in our RV. We’ve been doing this for 9 years now. Our main focus every day is photography, that is all I think about day and night. Like you I just had a nightmare ironically 2 nights ago that I was photographing the Popemobile and my camera was in self timer, then Mup and all kinds of other crazy settings… I was in a panic to say the least! It’s nice to see that there are other neurotic photographers out there too!
    Thanks for sharing that great post, it really put a big smile on my face, Mark

  15. Kenny Younger says:

    Ming, do you think you always had this obsession with photography? Or do you think it evolved into an obsession over time? If the latter, how did that happen?

    I tend to be a periodic, temporary obsessor. I’m also very naturally curious (thanks mom and dad!). I find something challenging, complex, and mysterious enough that I dive very deep until, I guess, some part of my brain says, “You’ve mastered this well enough.” I never really move on from it entirely, but the motivation dies and I’m no longer obsessed.

    Something seems different about photography, though. Perhaps it’s just such a long endeavor to get to “mastery”, whether that’s even possible in practice. Perhaps because it’s truly impossible to master that it keeps one obsessed?

    • I think it evolved over time. I have a binary and perhaps addictive personality – I either do something to the nth degree, or not at all. And as you say: we never really master it, so long as there are no obvious limits or restrictions, we keep going…

  16. I think plenty of us readers here find ourselves obsessing (to the point of dreaming about photography–be it shot execution, planning, gear choice or something of the ilk). When I find myself in this space, I know personally I need to take a step back. For myself, I’ve found obsession more than likely drives me away from reality a bit too much. I end up neglecting things far more important (e.g. family, work, sleep…ugh) for the sake of something that in the grand picture is a shallow personal gain. I’m hoping you don’t find yourself here like I have.

    That all being said, your words definitively are an inspiration for us readers. So take back all I said and add “keep it up the great work!”. 😛

  17. Haha @ that image caption!

  18. Thanks for the post – I always feel like I’m not getting even close to my potential due to lack of time and focus, and this reminds me that a balanced approach is probably better (especially since the money comes from elsewhere). If you ever find the time (fingers crossed), try taking a short vacation to do something different; preferably an intense activity that doesn’t allow shooting or thinking about that missing camera. Evenings dedicated to family and you’re all set for a short disconnect 🙂

  19. Jon Bush says:

    Hi Ming…as I was lying in bed at 5:30 this morning thinking about how I was going to edit shots from a photo shoot yesterday, I decided to check my email and then quickly landed in this article…how timely. Thanks so much for revealing the many phases of our “condition” (and yours is far more advanced than mine!) in your usual eloquent manner. A very enjoyable read to start the day…but do take some time off and recharge the batteries (not literally, leave the batteries at home)!

    BTW, the passionate photographer takes the shot that leads this article with their mobile phone camera, an obsessed photographer takes it with their Hasselblad H5D-50C. Come on, you’re among friends…which did you use? 🙂

  20. Richard P. says:

    All batteries need to be recharged at some point, enjoy a well earned break! Passion and obsession are nothing without talent. You obviously have all 3.
    Cheers Richard

    • I have the first two, but the third is frequently in question…

      • Richard P. says:

        Ha! Add humility to the mix as well! Seriously, I think your work/site/accomplishments are a testimony to your very significant talent. Yes, folks can debate if specific works of yours speaks to them (art is absolutely subjective), but anybody claiming you don’t have talent is simply wrong and is motivated by mean-spiritedness and jealousy – and should simply be ignored. For the number of styles you work in and images you take, there must be something for everybody – my personal favorites are your landscapes and cityscapes. Anyways a holiday away from that negative energy is always good!

        • Thanks Richard. I don’t think one can determine if you have anything more than dedication – art is probably just the result of doing something because you have an inescapable drive simply just to do it 🙂

  21. Great article Ming, I truly enjoyed it. Your daily posts are among the first things I read in the morning and I’m following your curated Flickr Group on a daily basis. Hang in there, you are an inspiration to many of us. Take care! Rudy.

  22. I appreciate your passion, insights, and talent very much Ming. Please keep it up for all of us out here who value the depth of your knowledge and beautiful ‘obsession.’ It helps us stoke the embers of our own love of the art of photography.

  23. Very amusing blogpost. Thanks!

  24. do go on vacation. Can’t wait to see the visional fall-out 🙂

  25. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    And then, one day, Cartier-Bresson put down his camera. And went back to drawing and painting.

    I loved the article Ming. Especially Maslow’s hierarchy.

    Few photographers achieve “greatness” as Cartier-Bresson did, but millions take good photos. The professional photographers should thank the intervention of divine providence for preventing all those millions out there from trying to make a living out of photography.

    And we should all be grateful for the way those who know something the rest of us may not, are happy to roll up their shirt sleeves and write articles like this, sharing their knowledge with everyone else.

    • Greatness is preparedness, talent, and a huge amount of luck. Earlier in the day, the pros did have to thank divine intervention for the lack of amateurs involved, but now I think we’re seeing that eroding – and the profession falling apart except for those willing to do more than the next guy to survive.

      The internet of course just wants more gear 🙂

  26. Always good to clear the mind by taking a break. I think that applies to nearly anything in life. Enjoy your next vacation. 🙂

  27. A perfect summation of the current period in which we live. Yes, a holiday will be a fine things, and a blessing all around. Do it; I need one for similar reasons, and we have planned it; it will happen this time!

    • I keep telling myself the same thing, but inevitably there’s something that somehow gets in the way. I guess I’d better get used to it…

      • Ming, you need to direct the same passion you have for your photography and blog posts into arranging a holiday AND taking it. Just a little rearrangement of priorities, go on, you know you can do it. :D) And just think, you may even surprise yourself that you succeeded. But don’t take a camera or, if you feel you must, just a small compact for capturing memories only. You’ve lived in the UK so you know what we mean by “busman’s holiday”. Totally immerse yourself in the moment and come back fully refreshed. And your family will be pleased, too.

      • Jaap Veldman says:

        Think like Bruce Lee: ” To hell with circumstances. I create opportunities” 🙂

        • Haha. Also possible, but that means being a studio shooter the other 50% of the time – which is not that different to now, I suppose…

%d bloggers like this: