Beyond ‘literal’ photography

_8B37775-83-4 copy
The diver

When is a photograph not a strictly a photograph?

This is a little question that I’ve bumped up against now and again with increasing frequency as I produce personal work that’s less literal and more abstract. I think at simplest, what we have here is a continuum from ‘straight’ untouched images of literal objects that happen to be taken from an unusual vantage with unusual light that contributes to them feeling abstracted, surreal or both, to the opposite end where there is so much manipulation going on that we are no longer sure that what we are looking at can be classified as photography instead of mixed-media art. Some ‘conceptual’ commercial work can fall into this latter category, too. What is clear is that none of these images are in any way attempting to represent themselves as transparent photojournalism. The question that I’d like to address is not so much the definition of photography as at what point we must start to unburden ourselves of conventional notions of image-making and really start trying the crazy stuff.

A0001661 copy
Night rider

Why is it even important? Well, I think it’s more to do with state of mind than anything else: if you really throw out the rule book, then the creative possibilities expand massively. This is not at all easy to do, given how much time and effort we generally spend perfecting our photographic ‘craftsmanship’ – which is really quite rigid and narrow, if you think about it. There is a definition for good exposure, good focus, good composition, and even when those roles are broken, most of the time it is so the image and its contents remain instantly recognisable and identifiable as literal objects. There is no mistaking a man for a tree, for instance; Dali can continue to rest in peace. Of late I’ve been increasingly thinking that whilst mastering all of these controls can leave one with a very competent image, we soon run out of possible composition options when faced with situations and scenes that are physically constrained by man to begin with. There are really not that many compositional structures that work for a given perspective* – shoot enough and you’ll see what I mean; it’s very easy to fall into a habit of pattern recognition and not try anything beyond that.

*To be a subject of a future article, but proving rather difficult to illustrate in a universal way.

_8B12149-57 alternate copy
Seeing the forest from the trees

Even factoring in luck, gesture and storytelling – where something truly unexpected, unique and serendipitous occurs – it’s exceedingly difficult to make a truly one-off image. I think we’re actually seeing that proven today as the more images are taken under every possible imaginable condition and the total number of images in popular circulation rises, there are fewer standouts – why? Because even though a given single image may be unique, it’s not necessarily recognisably different without close study. And the more images get shot and shared, the harder it’s going to get – just think of images taken around famous landmarks; it is nearly impossible not to capture something that’s been done before. Historically, famous images in the earlier days of photography were just that because they often captured and immortalised something that had never been done before; allowing an extremely transient moment to be studied and appreciated by a wide audience at leisure.

_8B12411-3 copy
Dawn to dusk

We still have that opportunity today; the only difference is the source material must now come from within our imaginations, stimulated by observations from the real world, and translated with a little help from technology. Without this, I suspect we ourselves will get disillusioned and cease to make images in the long run. Regular readers will know that I’m not a fan of the tone mapped HDR that rose to popularity in the early days of digital photography; ostensibly to overcome dynamic range limitations of early cameras, but eventually turned up to eleven to recreate something akin to an acid trip (without the negative effects). Regular readers will also know I’ve never been a fan of digital effect filters for the simple reason that they tend to outsource a large portion of the creative work to the programmer, and worse, the effect itself almost always distracts from the subject and composition of the image. So how is what I’m saying now any different?

_1M00282 copy
The dreamer

What hasn’t changed is that each individual image should still be processed to best present the intended idea; whether that’s a filter or something else is of course down to that specific idea and its creator. I still don’t personally believe in filter or HDR use for the simple reason that neither technique helps to convey any of my ideas, though they may of course work for other people. I have been skirting the edges a bit with multiple exposures, overlays and strange curves; of course none of these things are even remotely new in themselves, but personally – it’s a whole new world for me. Anatomy of the Quotidian was my first serious attempt at this.

H51-B0010392-404 copy
Just your average forest

Not only has the rulebook gone out the window, the more I find I try to keep to the existing visual sensibilities of what looks good/ balance/ attractive but within the new framework of what’s possible, the stranger the results get. I don’t know what this is anymore; in my mind it’s no longer photography in the strict definition of the term since none of the results are really straight out of camera, nor are they possible without some significant manipulation – and in some cases, digital-only effects like changes to layer blending properties that have no real analog equivalents. I have to admit that the whole thing has left me a little uncomfortable and often returning quickly to my preconceived ideas of what precise photography should be – perhaps unfairly and incorrectly.

A0001504 copy
Past and present

If anything, this may be because most of my work has revolved around observation: finding a subject or scene of interest and then expanding my observation to what surrounds it to try to build a story with the available elements; even when on assignment I work much the same way, except the initial list of subjects is pre-curated down somewhat based on the overall objectives and deliverables for the job. Rarely do I initiate a concept or project from scratch and shoot purely to that objective without any other restricting factors; partially it’s a consequence of having always worked and being trained that way, and partially it’s because so much of photography published is of the literal, conventional type – devoid of any further derivation beyond translation to a visible image.

H51-B0008511 copy
The divide, from Over Australia

Moving beyond that, then, is going to require much, much tighter definition and previsualisation of the idea and the end visual far in advance of capture, to ensure that we capture the right material to make the end goal – all the more critical that the end goal must be assembled from constituent parts with sufficient overlaps to ensure continuity. The images used to illustrate this post were deliberately chosen because they were conceived before they were shot – and only came together with the right raw material. They are photographic derivatives rather than photographs; everything from mild curve use and retoning to multiple images to hardware glitches, color filters over lights to merged images from different times, to stitching errors and serious sensor overloads and clipping/recovery. It’s a brave new world. What do you want to say? MT


Images in this post are available as Ultraprints on request here


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. A problem I have with most modern art is that yes, it’s creative and explorative, but the artists haven’t bothered to master their craft before moving on to another idea. Historically important artists, who sometimes defined entire new genres, certainly explored and tried out new things, but also perfected their vision and the technical skills to execute it.

    Accidents and isolated experiments may yield cool results, but I think it’s worth considering how much potential the underlying idea has and whether it’s worth developing further. Looking at the images here – what would you say?

    • I agree with you, for two reasons: the language has to be sufficiently mature to express an idea clearly, which speaks to the developing art part. On the other hand, I think exploring variations around a theme is a necessary part of developing that language – defining the edges, so to speak.

  2. Jeff Chester says:

    Lost in the Aesthetic Forest already? Lots of maps and guides available, some

    perhaps better than others

  3. Ming
    I do not have any direct answers or comments to the questions you raised, however for me, I think that the originality/recognition argument is quite separate to the questions of what is a photograph and the nature of abstraction.

    For me abstraction is always saying something true about the subject, for example expressionism is true to mood or feel even if it is missing a lot of detailed information. Surreal, conceptual or constructed images are clearly trying to show/create something that is not real or could not have been experienced.

    So is your intent is to express something that you feel is true to the subject, scene or mood?
    Or, do you want to change what is experienced and create something else/new/’better’?

    This is independent to image style, which may be how most would attribute levels of abstraction or creation, a typical process versus outcome argument. A reflection on water can look very graphically surreal yet be completely truthful to the nature of the water surface and the reflected subject even with distortions. Similarly you can virtually change seasons or light quality captured with processing and produce an image that many would think was totally natural.

    • Well put – though there are I think some combinations of style/presentation (surrealism?) that either aren’t possible or don’t work, which limits potential interpretations somewhat.

  4. Another thoughtful post. Thanks!
    I think that there are two important standards by which to judge this question:
    1. Are we claiming documentary authenticity? If yes, as a journalist does, then standards of “no manipulation” apply. (I don’t want to debate them here, just note the implicit covenant between the photographer and the viewer that requires them.)
    2. For all other photography, there is just one issue: Is the work good? What makes a “good” photograph will never be finally decided. But, there is a rather large set of criteria worth considering: compelling, poignant, striking, thought-provoking, shocking, comforting, perspective-shifting, narratively powerful, conveying of the human condition and surely many more, etc. usw.…
    And all of these applied to the idea, light, color, gesture, composition, choice of subject etc.
    Whether the resulting work still qualifies as “photography” is a mere technical question. If I hand-colorize a silver halide print, scan it in, photoshop it and then silkscreen print it on shag carpeting, does that still qualify as photography? No holds barred on technique, I say.
    I would, however, forbid one adjective from the list of criteria that qualifies an image as “good”: innovative. To quote Jonathan Ives (Apple): “‘Different’ and ‘new’ is relatively easy. Doing something that’s genuinely better is very hard.” So, just because an image is innovative, doesn’t necessary make it “good”.
    And here’s the crux, as you already mentioned: so many great images have already been taken. So, yes, we want to create something new. But, I think it a fool’s errand to aim for innovation. Rather, aim for good (according to one or more of the above criteria), and innovation will come.
    Perhaps it comes down to this: innovation (for the sake of innovation) seems mostly narcissistic, since it is driven by seeking to distinguish ourselves from others. Creating “good” photos is about pursuing artistic ideas that come from the heart, mind, and soul and that get better through hard work and practice. At the end of the day, the public will say “wow, that’s a great work” and the critics may even herald us for our innovation.
    And, by the way, I return almost daily to your website because I enjoy your reflections on your journey to becoming better. And, the hard work appears in the images. I say this not to flatter, but to say that I find confirmation of my comments in your photos and site.

    • “Is the work good? What makes a “good” photograph will never be finally decided.”
      Tell mea bout it – there is no absolute here, which is precisely the thing that makes photography interesting (and never-ending).

      I think we will eventually move on from the traditional concept of photography being a direct ‘measurement of light distribution’ – though where exactly this goes, I don’t know.

      “Creating “good” photos is about pursuing artistic ideas that come from the heart, mind, and soul and that get better through hard work and practice.”

      “At the end of the day, the public will say “wow, that’s a great work” and the critics may even herald us for our innovation.”
      This I’m not so sure about; I keep remembering how most of the ‘great’ artwork today was mostly ignored, derided or just misunderstood in the past…granted, that absorption time is probably faster now thanks to the speed of information sharing, but it might also mean that there isn’t enough sitting time for the world to catch up. 🙂

  5. Jim Austin (not the pro photographer who posts here sometimes) says:

    I think the question, “what is photography?” and “When is it no longer photography?” are the least interesting thing considered here, in a very thoughtful essay. I mean, who really cares what you call your work? Who really cares what other photographers or photo-critics think?

    Here are my thoughts:

    * The best photography has always aimed to help us see the world in new ways. So, show it to us in new ways. This can be done in many different ways (an image can, eg, provoke thought about social issues), but since it’s a visual medium, literal “seeing” is almost always important. The constraint, then, is to produce work that can be mapped back onto something recognizable so that people can relate it to the world; otherwise, anything goes.

    * Consider that cameras are designed to mimic the human eye, more or less. When you set the controls in conventional ways, you get an image that’s similar to what our eyes see. But that’s a design choice on the part of camera-makers. Our eye/brain system has certain technology; we see what they let us see. Cameras, though, aren’t limited to that (although in some respects of course they are much more limited). If you design them right, you can make cameras that can see different wavelengths, different size scales, with different geometries, and so on. The only thing definitive about our visual plumbing is that it’s OUR visual plumbing. Another thing to play with (via the images we produce, not eye surgery).

    — Summing up these two points, in my opinion anything you do in-camera is fair game. That doesn’t mean it works, but it’s fair game.

    An aside, am I the only one who is sometimes transfixed by images that are, in the conventional sense, the most pedestrian and least technically accomplished? I was in a New York liquor store this past summer, hiding out from a deluge (rain). It turned out there was a whiskey tasting in progress, and I snapped a pic of the woman behind the counter with a bunch of whiskey bottles in front of her. I pulled out my iPhone. I cut off the top half of her head, and there was something odd about the perspective. She had a weird, uncomfortable look on her face. In post I did just one thing: I desaturated until it was almost black and white, giving it a slightly vintage, old-time snapshot-ty look. One of my favorite shots of the last year. I think this might be something that’s missing from recent discussions about technical prowess and the imperfections of historically important images–two things, actually: Sometimes imperfection is a virtue, and photography has a stochastic element: Sometimes accidents are more important than technique–and I don’t just mean being present and ready for world-altering opportunities.

    * Post-processing is powerful, but it’s too easy. Like you said, outsourcing too much creativity to the programmers. No matter how good you get at Lightroom and Photoshop, if you rely on it too much, it’s like the photography equivalent of Guitar Hero. It’s not that you’re cheating–that doesn’t worry me at all; those rules are self-imposed anyway–it’s that any moron willing to pay $9.95 can push the same sliders you can. Maybe that can have a certain post-postmodern, ironic charm, but that doesn’t go far artistically. Which is to say, if e want to start to do really interesting things in post, we need to get back to film and learn about chemistry, or improve our coding skills.

    I hope that this is at least slightly coherent.


    • Makes a lot of sense to me! I want to spend as little time behind a computer as possible – and all of my workflow has been focused on doing just that; enough to finish the translation of the idea/vision and nothing more than that. You can’t rearrange something convincingly in post, and if you can, perhaps your true calling is in illustration. I know mine definitely isn’t, hence – behind the viewfinder again.

      The real challenge is trying to rewire one’s brain to imagine or visualise beyond the immediately visible; that has to be trained/taught and practiced before one can coherently express anything – much like leaning to express in a new language, I guess.

      • Jim Austin (not the pro photographer who posts here sometimes) says:

        >>The real challenge is trying to rewire one’s brain to imagine or visualise beyond the immediately visible; that has to be trained/taught and practiced before one can coherently express anything – much like leaning to express in a new language, I guess.<<

        I think–possibly–some people are just born seeing the world differently than other people. But not me. But that's good in a way: It means that doing the art expands our own minds and perceptions. Going back to your essay again, it breaks the habit of the habitual.

        Good insights, huh? Unfortunately, in this as in so many things, my thoughts are well ahead of my achievements.

        • How about shooting a few rolls of film? Shake things up a bit…

        • Agreed; and that’s what makes photography interesting: the individual and varied point of view. The filter might be something physical (e.g. colourblindness) or something intellectual (e.g. subject bias).

          “…my thoughts are well ahead of my achievements.”
          I’d argue it’s impossible for it to be the other way around: you wouldn’t know if you’ve achieved something! 🙂

  6. Love this article Ming…thanks. Off topic; any plans to give us gear-heads some Ming-Love on any of the new gear? I know the air is pretty clean up there on Mt Hasselblad 😉 but perhaps you might see your way clear to descend a bit and provide some us mortals some commentary and perspective on the Ultra fast 4K monster that is the E-M1MKII or the Hi-Rez A99MKII? Please… 😉

    • EM1II is a possible, because we’ll probably be upgrading our video gear. A99 probably not since I’d have to buy lenses (and the camera, and take a huge loss on resale just for a review…)

      • Well the price just went up 2,071 ringgits on the RX1RMKII and the A7RMKII hasn’t come down much at all. So hopefully the A99MKII will hold better too. Only time will tell. Gold and real estate camera gear is not 😉

  7. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    LOL – just as well you have a polite audience, Ming – I’ve seen rabid discussions of issues like this in the photographic magazines & forums, over the years.
    Rule 1 – avoid people with “opinions” – they don’t respect yours, and they trumpet theirs – in the process, they stifle sensible discussion.
    Rule 2 – there are no “rules”, apart from that – we are free spirits and we are free to do whatever we choose. If someone else doesn’t like our images, that’s their prerogative – as long as they obey the golden rule, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything”.
    gnarlydognews draws attention to the fact clients will require photographers to produce photos to their requirements, limiting the scope for artistry. One can always slip in a few variations, in case the photographer has seen something the client hadn’t thought of – perhaps, on seeing it, the client might prefer it, or realise he wants something different from his original idea.
    I am looking forward to some of your future work, taking a different tack, Ming. This is not the first of your articles in which I detect a creative spirit, trying to find a new direction. Even if you just do something like that for your own personal amusement. It’s liberating – I’ve been doing it for some years, and the main downside is that I am rather shy about sharing the results with other people – but I certainly enjoy it, and it’s taught me a great deal which is useful (also) when taking more conventional photos.

    • Well, I switched careers because the creative bit had to get out. 🙂

      As for clients: we do sometimes get lucky and have great clients that hire you specifically because of what you can do, and in return are willing to give you full creative reign…those are the jobs that remind us why we’re in this business (and also tend to produce the most satisfying results for both photographer and client). Sadly, not very often though…more common is ‘copy this for our product/service’ etc. which doesn’t always fit, but they are determined to have a carbon duplicate anyway. Unsurprisingly, a reshoot is often required…

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        I know only too horribly well how that can feel, Ming – I recently shot over a hundred macro shots of a jewelry collection for production of a catalogue. I did have some “free reign” in choosing backdrops for it, but it really did become tedious about 2/3rds of the way through.

      • Going back to my college art history class, I think the old masters also had to paint portraits on commission in order to eat and buy their materials. So you and your audience are in good company (chuckle).

        • All of them did; the assumption that all they did was great masterpieces for rich patrons is almost entirely untrue…perhaps it’s a case of the audience having to catch up to fully appreciate the work?

          • You’re absolutely right … Usually (if not always) the wide spread recognition was posthumous. The internet is a mixed blessing for today’s artist and audience alike (exposure vs saturation, appreciation vs trolling). Take from it what you want.

  8. There are composers, conductors and musicians. We switch between these roles at an irregular rate. It is the composers who breaks new ground, and who are pilloried by the majority for having done so.

  9. gnarlydognews says:

    as a commercial photographer I could not afford to experiment too much as my clients required a “record” of their creations (buildings). I am no longer a professional architectural photographer and I don’t have to play “by the rules” of perfection (ultra sharp) anymore; I am free to express the feelings I experience while photographing.
    My style has changed, the so-called IQ (what a misnomer!) has lowered but my work has so much more feel and passion in it.
    Once I discovered that I can allow myself to think there is more than technical perfection to photography my heart followed.
    I am much more proud of my images now than I was ever before…

    • I agree: and it’s one of the reasons I think there’s got to be some difference between one’s personal and professional work; also the reason I think the best place to be is moneyed amateur…

      • Ming, I’m not so sure that the best place to be is moneyed amateur. What value is anything when money is no object and one can afford it? Where’s the drive, the impetus, to produce good work from the constraints of the equipment that one has, and when it certainly isn’t the best available? Better kit helps, yes, if one has the skill, expertise, and artistic values to put into practise. Something which you do exceptionally well. Doesn’t the adage still apply, it is the photographer and not the camera?

        It was good to see your “lighter” side in images 1, 2, and 6. Not what we normally see from you. More, please!

        • It isn’t the equipment that’s the constraint; it’s almost always the photographer. It’s just nice to know that it isn’t your hardware or client (and you’ve got the resources to go places and do things like hire helicopters and the like)… 🙂

        • Terry, I am with you. I have seen the most inspiring work produced by average equipment and sometimes in locations not far away from home (not exotic countries). The essence however remains the same: vision and an insightful mind that no expensive camera can give you.

        • Having money is not about being able to buy gear, it’s about having freedom and time to devote to one’s passions. Many a great artist “bought” this luxury by living in impoverished squalor, because pursuing his/her artistic vision was more compelling than having even food on the table every day.
          I nevertheless agree that limitations can provide structure.


  1. […] can therefore never hope to live up to the idea, and the photograph becomes nothing more than a literal interpretation of the subject – with no capability to influence the thinking of its audience beyond that bestowed upon it […]

%d bloggers like this: