Working with difficult subjects

_8511685 copy
Negative space in pastel

…Or, “how to shoot without inspiration”.

Pessimistic? Depressing? I’d see it as the opposite: this line of thinking wouldn’t even exist if that was the case. We’d have packed up the camera and gone home otherwise. But sometimes: we’re either masochistic, or working pros*, and we want/need/must make an image. Example: you’ve finally manage to scrape together the leave and spousal permission for a photography trip…and it rains all week, or worse, it’s overcast and rain is threatened but not implicit. It’s Alanis Morissette’s updated Ironic. Or you sign up for a job that turns out to have quite different subjects in reality to what the client claims; or the model arrives and let’s say heavy photoshop is probably insufficient and one should consider illustration. Consider today’s post not quite a tale of woe, not quite an instruction manual, not quite a catalog of humour, but perhaps a little of all three. What all situations have in common though is that some (well, quite a lot) of creativity managed to squeeze out images the client and photographer were happy with, but at the time – all early in my career – they were the cause of a lot of stress…

*Arguably, the former group also includes the latter.

_5015694 copy

The incomplete building
Early on in my career, I was commissioned to photograph a building – a mix of a redeveloped structure connected with a new one, and supposedly complete. It was anything but – the ground level landscaping wasn’t done, the lobbies still had boards up everywhere, not all finishes were installed, and there was still a mix of scaffolding and cranes in place on several of the external walls. From the architect’s point of view, the building may have been complete, but certainly not in a formally photographable state. Some images on the list were never obtainable: e.g. “night view with all lights on, no signage” – at no point prior to leasing out did they ever have all internal lights installed and turned on, and when they did, the new tenants took very prominent signage and logos that covered the only elevation that didn’t immediately back onto another building. In the end, I shot closeups, details, vignettes, went back much later to complete the job with signage in (and no scaffolds/ cradles) – delivered what I could, and didn’t chase the balance of payment because I couldn’t deliver the brief. In hindsight, it wasn’t worth the amount of work put in – probably weeks of shooting time in total), but at least I can say what they wanted wasn’t physically possible.

_8016322-2 copy

The hand model…with self-harm scars
This particular client’s PR agency insisted on selecting the talent; I normally have no issue with this as they have a better idea of who they are looking for, and matching personalities accordingly. It’s generally the best possible arrangement for both sides. Unless, the job involved hand/arm modelling, and the model had extremely prominent self-harm scarification along the arm that would be facing the camera. I can only assume the client knew beforehand, but I was simply told “cannot fix in Photoshop ah?” Well, yes, but given the capture resolution and the size they wanted to print it – it turned out to be the better part of a day’s work to make the textures seamless and convincing. Skin is not a simple patch job; there is subtle variation in tone, pore size, hairs etc. that we don’t consciously notice until they are incorrect or not present. And no, the image shown hasn’t been retouched; I’m sure some of you experts could probably have taken care of it in a fraction of the time it took me. But for somebody who normally retouches watches or buildings – this came as a rather big challenge. All I could do is get the bones of the shot right, and then take some illustration classes later…

_7058382 copy

The diner that wanted to be haute cuisine
This client had no agency or creative lead; it was a small setup where owner/chef did everything themselves; unfortunately this extended to plating. Whilst the food tasted great – ‘hearty’, is perhaps the best way to describe it (as well as the conceptual origin of the eventual shot you see here) – it certainly wasn’t beautiful, and would never be. Not only did the chef not really have the experience with plating to make it work, but the nature of the food itself wasn’t really suited to that kind of presentation. In the end, I suggested something else – think of the attributes you’d want in fried chicken – and shot them here, with a hint of oblique backlight kicker to make the moist, juicy steam pop.

_8071034 copy//

The watches that needed perfect macros
I give this client credit for having ambitions far above their price point, but take it away for at the time having a designer that lacked a single shred of originality. Unfortunately, almost every single model was an identifiable homage to something else from a mainstream high end brand – but with just enough changes to avoid legal risk. Unfortunately, not all of these designs translate well to lower cost/quality production, and in a lot of cases, the tradeoffs were very obvious. Closeups were out of the question most of the time because the product just wouldn’t hold up to that kind of scrutiny – it would need so much photoshop they’d be better off using renderings. Cue the shallow depth of field, strategic lighting, and the kicker: props with particulate matter to camouflage both surface waviness and hide assembly dust and scratches. I eventually dropped this client because the retouching time and costs were far higher than the capture side; it was neither fun not particularly profitable.

When the portrait subject asks you to make them look like ‘a real dictator’
For obvious reasons, I can’t show the accompanying image – but I was commissioned once by a famous politician here to shoot two portraits: one for a campaign, and one for personal entertainment. No problem; as with all political commissions, payment was made immediately, and in cash. The subject had a lot of nice locations at their disposal, and were themselves not difficult to look at. The first portrait was a very contemplative, serious, pensive (etc) – the kinds of things you’d want somebody to have when looking after your constituency; call it gravitas. The second one was a curveball. When they started with “I’ve got a bit of strange request…” I was half expecting to have to Clorox my eyeballs after some kinky boudoir shoot, but it turned out much worse: they wanted to be shot with a rather oddball collection of memorabilia from all sorts of world ‘leaders’ (included were both Bush Jr, Churchill, Rameses…and Pol Pot, Hitler, Saddam etc). I don’t know if it was meant to imply something by association or otherwise, but the…demonic expression they instantly took on when asked to suggest how they would like to pose was perhaps a larger clue. The large print requested afterwards sealed the deal. I believe this individual may still be in office, too…

_8017104 copy

Make our restaurant look busier!
Chicken (or in this case, duck) and egg: a new place needs publicity to be busy, but you want to convey popularity in the opening publicity material. In some images, we focused on the interior…in others, we got all their staff to occupy each table sequentially with different clothes, move around a bit for anonymity, then blend multiple exposures into something happening. As with the majority of F&B outlets run by people who think they can simply set up and expect hungry people to pour in…it didn’t survive more than six months. Too bad, as the food was pretty good.

_8049495 copy

The family sedan
My brief for this product was something along the lines of ‘strong, sporty, and “feel the successful (sic)”. For a low-midrange family sedan, this is difficult as it’s engineered with just two things in mind: the headline spec sheet and production economy. Everything else is secondary – the impression of solidity, sportiness and luxury simply can’t be there if you have to build them to a price. That aside, the standard catalog front/ back/ side views were completed; I suggested trying something a bit lower key, a bit moodier, and to highlight the details – this was rejected in favour of copying stock images BMW used five years earlier. Ironically, the launch images for the (at the time new) Mercedes S class released a few months after this were precisely in this style: dark, moody and tonally rich, which was presumably the kind of car they wanted to aspire to.

_8B36808 copy

The surprise model
It’s almost a photographic cliche to photograph female models at a workshop – to the point that sometimes I don’t know if the participants go for the learning or the eye candy. I was pretty sure it would degrade into the usual free for all once the subjects came out, so I started with an unlikely one: a Vermeer-style still life quickly lifted from the refreshments table. Given we were working in a bright conference hall with light coming in every which way, the end result was all the more surprising – a single light, very hard modifier, high speed sync and a tablecloth draped and then pegged over a pair of light stands. Voila, Holland, 1767…

Moral of the story: choose your clients carefully; it’s as much a partnership and two way creative fit as it is a job. And if the outcome of the job isn’t good, then you’re unlikely to get another. Worse, if you accept a job that’s a creative compromise (assuming you have a choice) – there’s a higher chance of being called on to do something similar in the future, which will be even further from where you actually want to go. When you’re working for yourself, it’s very difficult to say no because you know precisely how much impact it’s going to have on your bottom line; sometimes we must learn to do it for the good of ourselves and our clients. But if you have accepted, be a professional: don’t back out, get creative, and do your damnedest. MT


Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop videos, and the individual 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 unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved


  1. Love reading these kinds of stories. Thanks!

  2. Bill Giokas says:

    When I was a photo assistant in NYC a models agent called because it was raining and wanted to know if the shoot was still on !We
    were shooting indoor at the studio! The model was a male and he didn’t want to get his hair wet!

    • Oy vey. Weather, sadly, is almost never a reason to cancel – you’d be surprised how many clients expect me to work miracles with architecture and rain…(hint: blue hour is your only friend).

  3. Thanks for a dose of reality about what many of us perceive to be a constantly glamorous job.

  4. Frans Richard says:

    Like they say, ‘Keep smiling, it could always be worse!’ 😉
    Wonderful story and great images. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  5. War stories like this are always fun. Kept waiting for the “drizzling landscape in Scotland”, but no. Oh well, must try harder next time!

  6. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    This is where a lot of very good “amateur” photographers shudder – shrug their shoulders – and walk. Better to be a “prosumer” than a “pro” on a bad day – wives excluded (and children too – LOL), nobody’s going to tell you what you can or can’t do.

    In your case, Ming, the story seems to have a happy ending. You now have international status, standing, recognition – loyal clients (that’s a rarity these days) – and a devoted following (me, for example!)

    Despite the horrid details of the background to these shots, they are all outstanding photography, Ming. Thanks once again for sharing them – sorry you had to put up with so much, to take them.

    • I agree about the prosumer/ amateur part: definitely less painful than being a pro some days.

      I have to approach these situations as a learning challenge: how can I get something interesting out of very little? Anything else is simply depressing…

  7. Nice images, as always. I think being able to extract an attractive image out of a grim day is the ace card of the larger formats.

    As for rain, some places are quite photogenic in the rain. Just not where I happen to live (when we say “it’s grim up North,” we are being pretty literal). Somewhere like Hong Kong or Singapore, on the other hand, when a multitude of colourful umbrellas pop out as soon as the rain starts, make for great subjects.

    • Actually in the tropics it’s not so much rain as a solid cubic mass of falling water…there are simply so few images under these conditions, pretty much anything is interesting!

  8. One of the best I’ve read, the insight into your strategy and dashes of humour made this a really enjoyable read (with a value-add message). Thanks!


  1. […] Source: Working with difficult subjects […]

%d bloggers like this: