Psychologist, philosopher, tinker, spy

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Borrowing the title reference from the John le Carre novel and (later) movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – I think nicely encapsulates the multitude of hats the modern photographer must be comfortable wearing in order to be a producer of compelling images. I’ve said before that photography is both a dialog between photographer and audience and that the process of photographing is really an exercise in curating and excluding elements of the world according to one’s own personal biases, then sharing the results with an audience such that they might be interpreted in the desired way. The technical process of capture, and the creative one of composition, are no more than enablers to that translation: the capture allows recording and sharing; composition is arrangement with the intention of direction and influence over the audience. The whole photographic process – vision, composition, capture, presentation, viewing – is really simultaneously as much and as little as the sharing of an idea inspired by already extant objects.

In this essay, I’m not so much trying to pigeonhole photography into a series of objective tasks as trying to figure out what it is we need to do in order to make more impactful images. The challenge for most people tends to be getting over the perception that one has to aim the camera at one’s intended target and hit the button – and beyond that, know which buttons must be hit, and beyond that further – follow a series of prescribed rules to achieve a predictable result. There is simply no such thingThe whole idea of fixed photographic laws of composition or process – rule of thirds, for instance, or always expose to the right – is simply nonsensical. How can we put a restriction on creative interpretation and communication of an idea that should always result in the desired outcome, when the idea itself is fluid?

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Beyond being clear about what it is we want to communicate, and mastering the necessary toolkit  – in a way, The Four Things* but expanded to include familiarity with the technical operator portion – I’ve always felt that photography has required much more of the practitioner in order for one to excel. I suppose the same can be said of many jobs – anything that deals with humans benefits from an understanding of psychology since the outcome is contingent on other humans. However, the outcome in an extremely subjective field such as marketing or photography or entertainment is much more heavily skewed towards understanding one’s audience.

*Note that The Four Things is not a set of rules: it’s necessarily vague and subject-independent. It’s a logical guideline and mnemonic to the psychology of seeing more than anything: one can’t have an image at all without light, there are only a few ways in which an object can break camouflage with its background, and one must know what the subject is to arrange the scene around it – etc.

Mere understanding of the audience isn’t enough, though. You have to be able to know which buttons to push to get the desired response – and I don’t mean this in a manipulative sort of way, but something more fundamental. For instance, we respond more strongly to a red object on a black background than a grey one – for reasons of pattern recognition and the way our optical senses are wired. Our eyes follow lines, and expect something inside a frame. These are almost hard coded rules of vision that apply to all people; call it operating logic or whatever you wish. One level higher than that, there are psychological rules that are not so much the result of our visual cortex as societal conditioning and collective social memory; this includes pattern recognition of familiar objects such as people, trees, cars, etc. It is somewhat contextual and dependent on the individual and society in question, but there are still commonalities across the globe, and certainly for the majority of audiences. One level higher than this, we reach the a much more specific contextual bias – the specific associations of the subject may not necessarily resonate with more than a small audience that has a personal connection to said subject beyond the genus or category. A photograph of your child will always mean more to you than one of somebody else’s  – even if the latter may be technically better and aesthetically preferable.

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Assuming we now understand the way in which visual elements will be interpreted – we must now wear the philosopher hat. I think the very best images are ones in which the audience is drawn into providing some interpretation and thought of their own – contemplation increases active share of mind, and in turn provokes memorability. This means that a photograph must either be a very profound statement of some kind, or a question – not every image is capable of this, of course. But if we don’t even ask the question as the creator – there’s simply no way we can take one step further to translate that idea into an interpretation consisting of visual elements. Since most of the time there isn’t even a direct translation, we must be open to metaphor and allegory to cover the bases; individual subjects should be considered both as specific and generic, i.e. a person in a photograph might represent that individual, or the expression/emotion they portray, or simply the idea of an interchangeable human – or all three.

Since we don’t always have the luxury of moving things around to perfect positions – this process is usually bidirectional. We fixate on one key anchor element and then build a story or philosophy around it whilst looking for other relevant elements; or we may be inspired by what’s in front of us to curate a story from the scene and eliminate other irrelevant elements. The two result in the same thing, but one is additive and one is distillatory – and both approaches can be equally fruitful.

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However, both methods of composition are contingent one one key thing: we must be observant. Hyper observant, in fact – you cannot create a considered and deliberate question or statement around something if you did not see it; but what you didn’t see can certainly ruin your idea if it turns out to be the first thing that’s noticed by your audience! Though it is physically impossible to notice and register everything in a scene – and it isn’t always required since it may be rendered invisible by depth of field or exposure or resolution anyway – we merely need to be more observant than the majority of our audience. We should be the ones noticing more in the scene and our images; that way, we can be sure that the idea translates without distraction. We can share a vision of the world that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Here the photographer must wear the hat of spy: we are always looking, always observant, and always asking the question of ‘is there something interesting going on here?’

The last role is a bit out of order to the title, and I admit that simply so I could fit the literary reference. Firstly, the tinker is the one messing around with the gear to try and make things work in a pinch – jury rigging ND filters from sunglasses, cinematic foreground from bottles etc. But more importantly, the tinker is the experimenter: we can’t always be sure of what the outcome might be, but if we don’t try it, we’ll definitely never know. The process of experimentation is an iterative one: to break from our literal interpretation of the world, and tendency to follow our eyes’ normal perspective – we have to try different things, like reflection, height, perspective change, motion, exposure differences etc. Eventually, these alternative ways of seeing become something we can previsualize – so in a sense we are expanding our ability to envision what a scene might look like, or how an idea might be better conveyed from a perspective that we might not be able to natively see – but can instead imagine. If we leave behind the process of experimentation, then we simply make the same pictures again and again – they might get technically better, or aesthetically more refined, but our way of seeing the world doesn’t change – and there’s only so many new worlds you can see before you run out of things to shoot.

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Perhaps the process of continual improvement as a photographer doesn’t necessarily appeal to all – that’s fine, too; if you’ve found that you can make images you’re fully happy with, then you’re reached a nirvana most of us can only ever dream of. I always believe there’s something more that one can add to an image – at least from a philosophical perspective, if not also a wimmelbilding one. Perhaps this malcontent is bad for one’s own personal happiness, but I’ve always found that other non-creative pursuits tend to result in a dead end pretty quickly; there’s only so many things you can collect, buy or use before the consumption becomes too much, and with too little return. It’s only in creating something that we both understand ourselves better, and can find an unending source of satisfaction. M (not 007).


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  1. May I add a quotation by the genius of black and white films like Touch of evil or Citizen Kane:
    During dailies of The Immortal Story, Orson Welles turned to his cinematographer Willy Kurant, ASC, AIC, and said, “A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.”
    Poetry in the picture is very important to me, the main goal I strive after. And the best thing about it, just like about music is that you can`t describe it. Either it resonates with you or it doesn`t matter.

    • Well put!

      • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

        To be contructive I vote for pict 3 and 5.
        bobbygsstuff said that pict 3 had something of Blade Runner in it. Add monsoon rain to it and there`ll be something about it. Bizzare enough this sci-fi movie has a very poetic touch to it. At least my opinion.

        • Yes poetic and sentimental and dark too. That’s what has made it a classic. But was it just sci-fi? Aren’t we all living in our own illusory world until we die and realize why so many writers in the spiritual field have said, “Mankind is asleep.”
          We like to sleep during the dark time of the day, the period Ming The in chooses for some of his finest B&W images.
          Oddly mankind wakes up by following Ralph Waldo Emerson’s suggestion, “Tap Within.” OR Rajinder Singh’s “if you don’t meditate you go without.” You remain asleep… asleep to our full potentials. MING’s Idea of Man series tries, I think, to look at mankind in this illusory world. Best seen on display in Leica Gallery in Chicago.

          • Thanks – though a lot of the time I also work at high noon and expose darker; the effect is the same, but there are actually people 🙂

        • If there was monsoon rain in 3, you wouldn’t see much of the other building actually 🙂

  2. Severbal of your shots remind me of the dark sci-fi movie Blade Runner version 1. Particular image 3 out of building g with roof overhang. Any second a hover craft will appear.

  3. In my work, the “audience” is secondary, and usually limited to me, myself, and I. After all, I am trying to tickle a deep-seated itch that I have. More important IMO is the “process” itself of taking photographs, the state of mind it induces, with the resulting photos more of a byproduct. At least that is how it began. I find that attention to (and complete extension in) the process itself (to the exclusion, if possible, of witnessing) creates clarity and lucidity; over time I find the photos themselves have also improved. It is my belief that we can’t realize more than what “is,” but with full immersion in the process, we perhaps can grasp the extent of what is and convey that impression. Just my two cents.

    • L. Ron Hubbard says:

      I have feelings very similar to yours. Process is a HUGE part of why I make photographs. So important that I lost interest in digital photography and returned back to film, giving me a much more tactile experience. Every part of shooting film elicits a response deep inside me for reasons not entirely clear. I guess I like touching tangible objects rather than creating virtual ones such as computer files. In the past 5 years, I have developed by hand close to 1000 rolls of film and even to this day, the feeling of opening up the tank, pulling out the reel, and unwinding the wet, freshly developed film, gives me an intense, near primal joy. The pause between snapping the photo and developing (usually days, sometimes weeks or even months), along with the pause between developing the film & scanning it for visual evaluation, adds another dimension of anticipation. For some, the immediacy of digital is a detriment, not an advantage.

      Anyway, I thought your reply about process was very interesting.

      • Haptics generally refers to anything we can touch and feel, but we all know that we are also touched and moved by ideas and especially emotions, so I like to think that haptics extends to mental and spiritual realms as well. For me “process” is not so much about the haptics of touch as it is about “seeing,” where it is not WHAT is seen that is important, but the act of seeing itself. We know that the eye cannot see itself, but not everyone is aware that “seeing” can see itself seeing, which is what I was trying to express in my first comment. We can rest our mind within the process of seeing and, as mentioned, clarity and lucidity are the result. Resting our mind in that way amounts (analogically) to having access to special 3D glasses or a lens for viewing the world, and IMO the resulting photographs can reflect this.

      • I actually find I make my best images when the process becomes intuitive or automatic or far less ‘heavy’ than the seeing and composing – then, I’m ‘in the zone’ and don’t really think consciously about anything other than the view through the finder. Personally, I find that if I have to allocate mental resources to remembering which button and knob does what, then I just have less left over to devote to composition.

    • At a more detached level, I think we’re actually saying the same thing: the result still influences the way the audience thinks, even if that audience is limited to just you. But you perhaps think a bit less consciously about it to prevent potential unproductive effects, though.

      • I believe we are saying the same thing, because, aside from having to make a living (which also can be a significant driving factor), the only thing I am aware of that cuts through the fog of inertia is the clarity of being suspended in the moment, unencumbered by extraneous thoughts and doubts. Resting the mind in the process of seeing is like putting our nose to a pure oxygen vent, the unique freshness of the present moment.


  1. […] of all action: rather, it’s a very short but somewhat elastic period of time in which we must observe, notice and isolate some action or event or subject of interest to us, know the reason behind that […]

  2. […] of all action: rather, it’s a very short but somewhat elastic period of time in which we must observe, notice and isolate some action or event or subject of interest to us, know the reason behind that […]

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