20 Stories, part V

Continued from Part IV

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Above and Beyond

I am used to having two kinds of clients: the first type tends to want things that have already been done before; they don’t want to take risks because previous photographers might have over promised and under delivered, or they lack the imagination to see something that hasn’t been done before. Or they simply are unwilling to pay for creativity over duplication. These are the kind of shoots that never go into your portfolio because it’s not the kind of work you want to be known for, but we pros have to do because they put food on the table and keep us in business; hopefully for long enough to get the chance to work on a project where we have full creative control and feel the pressure of our own limitations. It’s the kind of project where the client is willing to seriously consider your crazy ideas and trust your ability to deliver them.

My introduction to Koenigsegg came through Hasselblad and DJI. I suggested to Christian (von Koenigsegg) that we combine a bit of everybody’s technology: long exposures on a moving car to show dynamism and suggest a journey; high speed flash to freeze the car to make it distinct; very large prints and expansive compositions to fully use the camera’s resolution – and then top it off with an aerial perspective by putting the H6D on DJI’s largest aircraft. Execution would be tricky as there were a lot of moving pieces to coordinate and a very small window in which ambient daylight would be sufficient to see the surroundings, but not so much as to overpower the car’s lights. It would require a long exposure and a stable aerial platform. Honestly, I wasn’t 100% sure we could pull it off – and there was a backup documentary shoot within the factory to detail the construction process for the times of day where ambient light wasn’t suitable for the outdoor car sequences.

In the end, the shoot only produced five images – each one requiring a couple of hours of setup, test positioning for car, lighting and aircraft. We had to have a coordinator in touch with air traffic control and override codes from DJI HQ to allow us to fly as the Koenigsegg test track was on the edges of a live airfield. In the end I landed up triggering the lights manually with the trigger in one hand, a radio in my ear to direct the driver, and an ipad with the camera gimbal controls in the other – with the pilot next to me. The only time I’d had to do multitask more heavily was during another automotive shoot – a TV commercial where we added a crane car and crane operator to the mix.

I always feel mentally fried at the end of these shoots – but in the good kind of way where you know you’ve pushed your limits, the team’s limits, the hardware’s limits, and come out with something really unique. I’m just grateful there are still clients like this giving us photographers the chance to keep pushing.

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Meanwhile, backstage…

There is a jazz club in Kuala Lumpur I used to frequent first as a music lover, and later as a photographer when I wanted something a bit more challenging to turn my lens to. And in the late days of film/ early days of CCD, the typical lighting environment of such an establishment proved to be challenging indeed. More so since we were restricted to available light, and the AF systems of the day weren’t that good. You also had to pick your shots carefully to avoid noisily disrupting the performance, too – I remember my F2 and D2H sounding like various types of heavy artillery and getting dirty looks from nearby audience members.

Technological advances helped us hugely in the proceeding years; we gained several stops in sensitivity along with better color; more sensitive autofocus; better and faster lenses; and much quieter shutters. I was able to make decent images with the Micro Four Thirds gear thanks to fast lenses, stabilization, accurate AF and most importantly: the ability to get closer and time frames at critical moments without disrupting the performance thanks to the silent (electronic) shutter.

This of course cannot be done with a DSLR because the mirror still has to cycle, though the moving parts can be made fairly silent (and the current generation does very well here – to the point that some Nikons can be set to only cycle the mirror back down when you release the shutter). But of course being part of Hasselblad, I revisited this and had to wonder what if we could bring medium format image quality to these kinds of shooting scenarios?

As it turns out, it was both technically challenging as well as difficult to convince the team that there would be sufficient value to such an effort for the X1D. There would be significant limitations – an 0.3s readout time leading to rolling shutter, some color drift at the upper ISO limits, and the risk of people buying third party lenses over native ones. I’d always believed options and opening up a system are more of a draw (and thus commercial success) than closing it off; if you have the option to try something with much lower initial risk and cost – just buying a body and an adaptor – you’re more likely to do so. And more likely still to invest in some native lenses after you’re happy with core factors like image quality. On top of that, it allows your system to offer solutions that you might not find economical to provide directly – I’m glad it eventually happened, if only for selfish reasons such as mounting the Otuses (this story’s image was shot with the X1D and Zeiss 1.4/85 Otus) or Voigtlander APO-Lanthars.

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Near the end of the rainbow

There is a saying that a successful result in anything is almost always due to a combination of preparedness and opportunity. This is especially true of landscape photography, where as much as you can plan your seasons and locations, macro weather is very much down to your luck on the day and being in the right place at the right time – and in very rapidly changing weather situations, having the camera set up in the right way.

Iceland is one of those bucket list locations for landscapists both because of its unspoiled remoteness and the variety of its quality of light; the latitude of the place means interestingly directional shadows that are frequently reinforced by clouds acting as gobos to highlight certain portions of the landscape. Unlike other places, there’s often only a single layer of cloud and nothing but clear blue sky above – making the intensity almost like an enormous spotlight. In short: the kind of thing landscape dreams are made of.

We were driving between locations when this view presented itself – I could see the cloud window opening slowly and the first hints of a rainbow forming at the edges of that local microburst, but pulling over in Iceland is not so simple – most roads do not have a paved shoulder (or any form of shoulder) and you are basically in a lava field once you get off the tarmac. Fortunately, we were in the middle of nowhere (which is basically all of Iceland except in Reykjavik) and there were no cars for miles, so we just stopped. My assistant kept a lookout in both directions as I quickly grabbed the camera and shot out the driver’s side window. The gap in the clouds opened a little wider than what you see here, but this frame has the most intense rainbow color and better balance towards the bottom edge; in a large reproduction you can also make out hints of sun highlighting a farmstead in the distance that gives a sense of scale to the backing mountains.

Every time I photograph these subjects I’m acutely aware that I’m never going to get anything better than what a dedicated local photographer of significantly less talent will manage, if for the simple reason that there is a much higher chance of them seeing the same subject at peak light – and as we all know, light is the differentiating factor. The only thing we can do is keep honing our skills until we’re better – more consistent in execution and ability to maximize our hardware’s potential; more imaginative in seeing, faster at responding and distilling the essential frame.

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Exit to the right

My photographic journey started with watches, and largely also comes full circle with watches, too. I began to photograph because that was the only way I could really experience and preserve impressions without the resources required for ownership; I was fortunate enough to be adopted by the online collectors’ communities at the time (long before the days of social media, we had forums and message boards). In the process, I met some amazing people I’m still friends and business partners with today. Not only did I start photographing by photographing watches, I also started professional work by shooting for some of the brands; eventually, this became my mainstay – and I am grateful to have diversified out to other subjects before most of this market collapsed thanks to ever-improving CG renders.

Though I have been fortunate enough to eventually start collecting the pieces I’d lusted after for years, the same attention spent in finding unique details to photograph inevitably also lead to finding things I didn’t like and elements that I felt would bother me. It is probably no surprise that the desire to design and make my own watches started near day one and has never really left. If anything, it got stronger and my increasing understanding of light has only resulted in the design demands getting increasingly complex; after all, the arrangement of elements in a watch is no different to a photographic composition: you must still be able to read them in the intended order, and this means understanding how the human brain processes color, contrast and shape.

In 2014, serendipitous discussions and meeting (in some cases re-meeting) the right production partners and investors made this dream possible; we had two years of false starts and steep learning curves before eventually finding our feet and launching MING Watches in August 2017, to a reception we could not have dreamed of, let alone hoped for.

It’s now two years later, and though I’m now selective in my assignment choices due to time constraints and don’t photograph watches for other parties anymore (for obvious reasons), I still spend a lot of time shooting our own products. I find it is both liberating not to be constrained by corporate culture and an established ‘look’, and frightening to have to give each product family something different but retain your brand’s visual DNA. Who else would let you photograph in ultraviolet, or extremely low key, or extremely abstract and avoid those typically boring straight-on catalog shots? We are both the easiest and hardest client I have worked for. I have done the most experimentation and the most ‘safe shots’ – you never know which media might want want or how it might be used.

It has been anything from an easy journey. We set out with very different commercial objectives to the ones we are working with now, and though we are now dreaming bigger – we are also having to spend bigger without any increases in funding. On top of that, the definition of a ‘major project’ for me has gone from months to years and the quantum of production costs up an order of magnitude. I personally have gone from almost instant gratification in my output to working on the successor to a product before we launch – this is a very strange feeling since what’s old to you is barely a newborn to everybody else outside the circle.

I realise the image presented is something rather strange and out of character for me for several reasons: firstly, it’s chaotic; secondly, it’s cut in awkward places; thirdly, the body language and expressions of the subjects seem rather incongruent – but in this particular composition, I think all of that works together to focus your attention in the interaction going on between me and my COO in the middle of the image. The final (and dead) giveaway is that I’m in the shot – so who did the shooting?

Turns out interval timers and wireless flash triggers are useful things, both of which were used here. There are a couple of other good photographers in the founding group, but that was also a non-option since they too would need to be in the image. I actually like the random almost Japanese-street-photography-style chaos of this image – I won’t call it a composition since that implies a degree of deliberation beyond the capabilities of a self-timer – but the result even seems oddly appropriate given the personality of our brand (and founders) and the nature of new businesses.

I am now left in the happy position of being able to pursue creativity on multiple fronts, each of which leads to inspiration in others – photography, for instance, really drives home the point about constructing your reflection of your subject rather than just the light. This in turn manifests during the design process where we start to consider what materials must be use where, and which elements should be concave or convex (or flat). Like photograph again, there remains a tangible satisfaction in being able to see and handle a finished product; this is something very few jobs outside manufacturing can offer. Working in three dimensions forces me to consider the visuals when they are depicted in two; this often causes me to see the same thing in potential compositions, leading to a preference for extended depth of field and an intuition towards more heavily geometric subjects.

I now shoot less on a time basis but with a much higher yield and more fluidity; for the first time in a long time I feel not just hardware agnostic completely indifferent. I can think solely in terms of composition, which is creatively liberating: you see something, your experience and instinct tell you how to capture it, and you move on to the next composition or frame or whatever else you happen to need to do. I can even work with a camera JPEG. But – one has to bear the pain of going full circle before you can get there. All I can say is, keep pushing, it’s worth it. MT

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First published in Medium Format Magazine, June 2019. Reproduced with permission.

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Comments

  1. Fabían Fabrega says:

    Please post more stories like these. They are truly inspiring.

  2. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Ming, I think there’s a typo in this phrase – “eventually, this because my mainstay”. I think you meant to say “became”, but auto correct derailed you. Maybe you’d like to correct it yourself? (It’s in the first paragraph of the section headed “Exit to the right”).

    Makes me wonder what will happen when AI takes over driving our cars!

  3. Your Koenigsegg shots are really epic! They left me speechless!

    • Thanks! At the time – nothing like that had ever been done before. I’m pretty sure we were the first to combine long exposure aerial with motion and high speed flash…

  4. Congratulations for winning the Horological Revelation prize at the GPHG award.

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