The relationship between talent, creativity and experience

Let’s start with some semantics:

Talent: is your innate ability to do something – it’s inborn, and for the purposes of this essay, you can’t change it. It’s fixed. Think of it as your starting point; you also can’t lose it.

Creativity: in the photographic context centers around your ability to construct a unique composition from a given scene. It’s a continuum; the more different your composition to anything that’s come before, the more creative you are. This applies for both the elements you can control (e.g. studio lighting, flashes, focal length/ perspective etc) and the ones you can’t – the subject, for instance. The amount of creativity a person has is generally fixed; however, unlike talent, you can train yourself to be more creative.

Experience: is the knowledge you gain from having done something (or something related and relevant) before – for instance, if you’ve used a fire before, you know it’s hot and you won’t put your hand into it because it hurts. In a photographic context, it could be something as simple as knowing that telephoto lenses work better for wildlife photography than wide angles, or it could be as subtle as choosing a thick carbon-fiber monopod over a thinner steel one for its rigidity and vibration damping properties to enable as low a shutter speed as possible. This is the biggest area of opportunity for all photographers.

It’s easier to understand where I’m going next if you have a baseline: I’ll use myself as a guinea pig, and score out of 10; 10 being the best and 0 being poke-your-eyes-out-with-a-stick bad.

Ming, in 2003 (Brand-new, wet-behind-the-ears hobby photographer. Doesn’t know the first thing about shutter speeds, finds aperture numbering confusing, and can’t figure out the whole perspective thing.) Here’s an early shot:

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Random abstract.

At the time, I thought this was actually one of my better ones. Shocking, huh? I think nobody would question an assessment of Talent = 0. Creativity – hmm, harder to judge; it obviously isn’t really a standard shot, but at the same time…execution is lacking. I’ll be generous and say this merits a 5 on the creativity scale. It does tell us something about the experience rating, though: had I known better, I wouldn’t have overexposed, and I’d have used a tripod. I’d probably also have selected a more suitable exposure combination commensurate to the effect I was trying to achieve. Let’s give experience another zero.

Fast forward a bit to today.

Ming, in 2012 (Getty Images member, Nikon Professional Services UK member, Leica Camera-sponsored, veteran of countless pro shoots, etc…I’ll stop blowing my own horn now 😉

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Jaeger Le-Coultre Gyrotourbillon 2 escapement

I don’t think anybody would argue that this is an easy shot to produce. It requires advance knowledge and mastery of a) lighting; b) composition and visual balance; c) being able to see the unique in something not immediately visible or obvious (the frame covers approximately 12x8mm); d) post processing; e) familiarity with the subject itself; f) the ability to get one’s equipment to deliver exactly what is required.

So what’s changed in the last nine years? My talent remains the same: it can’t change, and it’s approximately still zero. My creativity has definitely improved; I’m both trying different things and executing them so that they manage to communicate my initial vision – that shot was supposed to give the impression of an x-ray view into the heart of a complex machine, which this particular watch absolutely is.

But the biggest improvement is experience: in the last nine years, I’ve shot more than half a million frames – some in the course of getting the shot for a particular assignment or location; some out of pure experimentation; and some just in the course of capturing and recording life as I see it. But each one of those frames has given me the benefit of being able to refine my skills incrementally more. Although the laws of diminishing returns definitely kicked in a long time ago, I’m told there’s still some progress going on. The way I shoot now is not the same as the way I shot even a year or two ago.

Shooting lots is one thing – but remembering what you’ve learned is even more important, otherwise you’ll hit diminishing returns pretty early on in the process. There are many times where I’ll do experiments concentrating on one particular aim only – for instance, refining my x-ray processing technique – and ignoring the other elements. Or perhaps it might be to master the use of lighting very small reflective objects at close distances. I probably won’t keep any of these experiments because compositionally they don’t work (and that wasn’t the point) – but it’s the experience and knowledge that’s important. And then when I *do* need to put it all together – the above shot, for instance – then I have confidence that my techniques and experience will let me pull it off.

There is no substitute for experience. There’s plenty of evidence to support that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to master something – give or take a little depending on whether you do it continuously (benefit of not forgetting between sessions and having to backtrack or repeat) and your intellect. This means one task, continuously, for three years or more. And that’s why there were a) so few master photographers in the film days (practice cost a lot of time and money, and there was a delay between taking the shot and getting feedback, during which it was easy to forget what you tried) – and b) lots of ‘new talent’ emerging today.

Which brings us to the conclusion of this article: I’m often asked what is the one best tip I can give to an aspiring photographer: practice, practice, practice. I still do it, and I’m still learning. MT


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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

The ideal camera

I’m going to disappoint you upfront: it doesn’t exist, at least not yet. But what if we did a hypothetical – yet realistic – exercise to see what a product like this would look like?

First disclaimer: I, and a group of partners, were very close to building this – but we were let down partway through by a key technology partner, and found funding challenging – despite the continuing growth of the photographic industry, especially at the advanced amateur and entry-professional segments. Alas, it never materialized. In any case, the idea has matured a bit since then, both through the benefit of time, and ideas gleaned from intervening new product releases.

Second disclaimer: This is what I would like as a photographer, and may not necessarily apply to everybody.

I’m not going to suggest a 100-megapixel, 25fps, point-and-shoot sized body with a full frame sensor, and built in 10-600/1.4 zoom. That’s stupid, and the preserve of equipment masturbators on camera forums who don’t actually use their equipment.

Right now, I use four systems: full frame Leica M digital, for photojournalism, reportage, portraiture and travel work; full frame Nikon FX for extreme low light, macro and controlled lighting work; Micro Four Thirds for personal work/ carry where photography isn’t the primary objective of the outing, and where anything larger might be obtrusive; and finally, a number of compacts for social documentary use. I’ve never been told by a client that I have insufficient resolution; and I’ve delivered images as small as 5MP before. Why? Because I’m a stickler for practicing shot discipline; that means even though I’m ‘only’ giving you 5MP, they’re 5 extremely clean MP at the pixel level, well exposed, perfectly focused, not posterized, and will print cleanly at A2. More MP – say 18 from the M9 – just means you can make larger prints before fine detail breaks down at close inspection distances. That’s all. I’ve only come up against the low light limits of the Nikon system once – and that was photographing a wedding in near darkness (only candles) in rural Nepal; but I was still able to get good quality images with ISO 12,800 and f1.4 glass. I don’t need ISO 512,000.

Let’s take the best parts of each system, and see what our bastard-camera would look like:

1. Sensor size: This is a tough one, actually. There are times when I want a smaller sensor for more DOF (think very compressed perspectives) – I will often use a compact for this. There are times I want a larger sensor for even shallower DOF for a given field of view – this is the main attraction of systems like the Leica S2. Let’s go with full frame, because we can always have a 2x crop factor (it’s easier to multiply out than 1.5x, and when you want a smaller sensor it’s generally because you need more reach or more DOF and more reach.)

2. Sensor spec: 48MP. Whoa, really? What happened to I don’t need huge MP, you’re wondering? Simple: pixel binning. 48 million photo sites – with RGB + Luminance values coming from individual photo sites, would mean amazing detail, fantastically accurate color, and low noise. Output file resolution of 12MP – but actual pixel detail of 12MP. With this technique and today’s sensor architecture, I don’t think it’d be a problem to get a clean ISO 12,800 file. And that’s enough for me. Add a Bayer algorithm mode to give a 12MP crop, and that takes care of my telephoto/ compressed perspective/ high DOF needs.

3. Speed: Doesn’t have to be fast – 5fps is plenty. I work just fine with the single-shot M9-P; most of the time bursts are for stability rather than action.

4. Video modes: I don’t use it, but I do like to experiment – so perhaps a 1080P/ variable frame rate mode would be nice, with full manual controls, of course. But no rolling shutter!

5. Autofocus: Let’s take the best there is now and match it: CAM3500FX in the Nikon D700 is eerily psychic at tracking moving subjects; however, it could use more frame coverage – expand the points to cover out to say 80% of the frame linearly, and we’re in business.

6. Firmware features: Lots of scope for customization: I don’t mind going through a lengthy setup process to ensure the camera does exactly what I want. I want to be able to hide things in menus and reassign all of my buttons, and have custom modes that set all camera behavior – including base exposure parameters – at once. And of course the ability to remember, save and transfer to another camera body.

7. Lenses: AF, fast aperture – at least f2, preferably f1.4. Useable wide open, of course. Physical aperture rings. I don’t need zooms, or extreme focal lengths; 18-24-28-35-50-85-200 and a short tele macro (maybe the 200 could double as a macro) will do me just fine. It could even be reduced to 24-50-85 in a pinch, so long as one of those was a 1:1 macro with capability to take a bellows or extension tubes.

8. Body: Robust, thick-gauge metal (tactility is important) and weather sealed; plenty of sensible physical controls; an optical viewfinder or excellent EVF – I think the new Sony OLED unit in the NEX-7 or 5N is about the minimum. But I much prefer the enormous, bright finder of say the Leica S2. I think M9-size is about perfect; big enough to have some heft and solidity, sufficient space to house all of those controls, and (yes, I’m shallow – or at least some clients are) impressively professional-looking. That would have to have an EVF to maintain the body thinness and accurate framing. If it’s an optical finder, we could probably make it small-SLR size – I don’t see why a full frame sensor won’t fit inside a D7000-sized body; the flange distance is FX-sized, and there were film SLRs of similar dimensions. Ergonomic comfort is very, very important – especially if you’re going to use it for 12 hours a day (or sometimes even more). Plenty of sticky rubber and thumb/ finger hooks, please. Buttons big enough to use with gloves, and wheels/ switches that don’t move unless you want them to – think locking buttons or very stiff detents.

9. Other considerations: File format: Compressed 16-bit DNG. It’s future proof, past-proof, and easy to handle and archive. Don’t bother with JPEG because I don’t use it. Live view would be nice, but not critical; it can be useful for awkward angles but is greatly enhanced by a swivel screen (which frankly I hate because they’re flimsy and compromise body integrity). A vertical grip is nice, but not necessary. What is necessary is a high magnification, high-eyepoint (I, and a lot of other photographers, are poorly sighted thanks to plenty of shooting into bright point light sources and so need to wear glasses) and with a nice big rubber eyecup. A high-resolution, color-accurate LCD is important for review. Most important is operating speed – menus and such – the camera should never feel laggy. This is the #1 reason why I’ve given up on a piece of equipment in the past.

Okay, so who’s going to make me one of these things? MT

More D800 autofocus observations

After a couple more days of testing, I’ve got more observations on the D800’s autofocus system:

1. I think we’re reaching the limits of accuracy for CAM3500FX, and in fact, any phase detect based AF system. There are just too many parts that have to be precisely perpendicular and in exact alignment to achieve focus accuracy – the AF sub mirror assembly, the AF sensor itself, and the main imaging sensor. If any of these is out of plane by a few microns, then you’re going to see some softness. We’re now getting enough resolution that the planarity of the lens mount relative to the sensor becomes an issue – to say nothing of perfect alignment of optical elements. I believe there was an article posted a while back on the Luminous Landscape about shimming a sensor and how much resolution improved by both on-center and especially in the corners of the frame.

2. Future AF systems will have to be hybrid – i.e. use some form of contrast detect or phase detect embedded into the imaging sensor in order to work around these limitations. It doesn’t however solve the problem of mount planarity or lens element alignment.

3. There are some things you can do as a photographer to counter these limitations, chief of which is use live view for critical focusing, or stop down – or better yet, both. Live view eliminates problems of AF sensor/ sub mirror alignment. Stopping down covers slight sensor misalignment with depth of field.

4. AF fine tune is an absolute must to get the most out of the AF system.

5. Bad news for manual focus fans. I did my mirror alignment and calibration this morning – it was almost perfect from factory, which is a first; however, my joy died after removing the focusing screen. The focusing screen in the D800 is a different size to anything Nikon has yet produced. Worse still, it’s the largest one I’ve ever seen, so you can’t even cut something down to fit – it’ll just drop out. This is a real shame; I can only hope a third party produces replacement screens for MF aficionados.

6. Finally, lenses you thought were fantastic on the previous 12MP FX cameras may now only be mediocre or average on the D800 – you have been warned. MT

POTD: New car obsession

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New car obsession. Nikon D800, 28-300VR

On a photographic note: the T stop of the 28-300 is much lower than the f stops would suggest, requiring higher ISO. If you want to know the difference between the two, I suggest you come back later for today’s article 🙂 What you can’t see art this size is that this was shot at ISO 1400 – yes, there’s some fine grain if you look at 100%, but guess what – it could have been ISO 50 for all intents and purposes on the web. Downsizing large images (even if noisy at the pixel level) averages out the luminance noise and leaves you with a much cleaner print than you might think.

A mark of today’s blind consumer society: I was attending the launch for the new BMW 3 series locally; overheard was a conversation between two other customers:

Person 1: “It’s so huge inside!”
Person 2: “Really? Doesn’t seem much bigger than the old one to me.”
Person 1: “But it must be, the salesman said so!”

There’s a moral to this story: firstly, don’t believe everything you read or hear: go and verify it with your own eyes, especially if you’re going to be spending your own hard earned money on it – more so these days, since inflation seems to have had a very visible effect on the pricing of goods. Or maybe it’s the aspiring middle class, or both. If something is fit for your purpose, then go ahead and disregard what others – especially those with a clear bias, like salespeople – are trying to tell you. That’s the whole benefit of choice! Remember: this applies equally to anything, be it luxury cars or cameras. 🙂 MT

A quick note on Nikon D800 autofocus…

Up to this point, I’d been shooting the camera with the same autofocus settings I used on the D3 and D700 – which share the same CAM3500FX AF module. I think I just discovered why the AF system doesn’t seem to be as precise as before.

Previously, I used single point AF-S for static subjects, and 51-point dynamic 3D tracking AF-C for everything else. I could lock on with the center point, focus and recompose, and everything would be fine. It seemed like a good starting point for the D800.

Turns out I was wrong. Single point AF-C is MUCH more accurate and slightly faster than 51-point dynamic 3D. It’s solved a good number of my AF issues. Remains to try it out tonight when the light gets low to see if performance is improved under those conditions too. MT


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


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

A couple more Nikon D800 images, and some commentary

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Shadows. Nikon D800, 28-300VR

One of the big questions that’s been running around the internet is whether the D800 can replace medium format – the answer isn’t quite as simple as you might think. Firstly, the resolution is definitely there to compete with the lower pixel count options – and even more so once the D800E joins the fray. However, a very large part of the medium format ‘look’ is a product of the interaction between lenses, sensor size (i.e. angle of view) and tonal response of the sensor. Remember that almost all medium format sensors are CCDs, which have a very different – and less linear – tonal response to CMOS sensors. For comparison at the 35mm/FX size, the D700 and D800 both have a different tonal palette to the CCD-based Leica M9. Undoubtedly the look is different already due to no other factors.

However, once you consider the angle of view vs DOF equation, then things look different again – it’s similar to the difference between APSC and full frame – for a given angle of view and aperture, you’re going to have ever decreasing depth of field (and quicker transitions between in-focus and out of focus areas) with the larger sensors.

Some of the other things which have been of concern to shooters – like having enough light and decent support – are nothing new in the medium format world, especially to users of very high resolution backs like the IQ180 or H4D-MS; this is perhaps why a lot of people are crying ‘so what?’. Even so, good support pays off for both medium and smaller formats – even compact shooters have something to gain. The tradeoff is always weight and flexibility.

A quick note on color reproduction: the D800 has the most accurate color I’ve ever seen. This seems to be corroborated by the recent batch of DXOMark tests, which rank the D800 first (!). Most cameras have trouble accurately reproducing the blue-green-cyan tone of glass reflections (due to UV transmission/ reflection issues) – but the D800 required only minimal corrections. Furthermore, the very fine repeating patterns between the squares on the textured floor panels do not show visible moire, but plenty of detail. It’s also worth noting that nothing is blown out, and I crushed the shadows for the visual effect – there weren’t any blocked up blacks, either.

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The look. Nikon D800, 28-300VR

Again, I was very pleased with the quarter tone reproduction quality here. I’m actually finding that for a lot of images – especially those with less contrast – you need to apply a curve with a very long, shallow shadow tail in order to get the right ‘look’. This is undoubtedly due to the D800’s huge dynamic range at low ISOs. As for detail, you can see the weave in the man’s shirt and my reflection in his glasses.

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Bike traffic. Nikon D800, 28-300VR

This shot was a test in many ways – extreme highlights and shadows; lots of fine detail; tonality of B&W conversions. The short answer is, the camera passes. The image (which looks much better on a large monitor at full size, by the way) retains good detail even into the extreme corners, despite being shot with the weakest end of the 28-300VR, and has nice rich quarter and half tones, which make for a good B&W image.

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The reader and the thinker. Nikon D800, 28-300VR

This portrait is a little deceptive, because there was a lot less light than it appears – 1/125s at ISO 1800, f5.6 and 150mm. Yet the camera held on to shadow details well – with remarkably little noise, I might add – and I can read the text in the newspaper at full size. I don’t think the files make as outright punch B&W conversions as say the Leica M9-P, but black and white conversions from the D800 seem to have a unique signature of their own – perhaps best characterized by subtle tonal gradations and deep shadow detail. In short, I like what I’m seeing, but I’m going to need to adapt the processing style a little to get the most out of it. MT

Reader photo critique: Temples

Leica M9

Today is the second in the series of my reader’s image critiques. This images comes from Hilmar.

Once again, I’ll break down the assessment into three categories – composition, technique and other; the other category deals with things such as lighting, timing, subject opportunity, etc. Photography is subjective, so I won’t give points or scores.

The body of the composition follows classical rule of thirds division – 2/3 sky, 1/3 subject/ foreground. However, the intrusion into the sky of the tree at left both breaks up the monotony of the solid block of color, but also creates a bit of an imbalance, despite sitting neatly in the notch between the left hand temple and foliage. Lateral balance is good, with the architectural detailing mirrored somewhat in the plants and trees, as well as being roughly symmetric about the middle (again, except for the tree at left). It is a pleasing composition, but not a particularly strong or dynamic one.

However, the biggest question I’m left wondering is: what is the subject? The temple? Which temple? The tree? The sky? The scene in general?

The last point bridges into technique: clearly this image was shot with a wide angle lens; remember one of the golden rules of photography: select your perspective, THEN only select your focal length. I suspect that this shot was composed in reverse: get in whatever you wanted to get into the frame with the lens you’ve got. Although there is clearly perspective distortion and keystoning present caused by the perspective, there’s no clear foreground-background separation – which means the dynamic potential of the lens could have further been maximized. Yes, it would have resulted in a significant change in composition (as is the norm when moving the camera slightly with all wide angle lenses). However, it’s important to remember that the end goal isn’t to ‘get the scene in’ but to create a representative image which contains the key elements you wish to capture – in effect, the essence of the scene – not necessarily the entire scene.

I want to talk a bit about post processing. In a scene with challenging dynamic range, you’ve got three options: expose for highlights and lose shadows; expose for shadows and lose highlights; finally, HDR and retain all or nearly all tonal information. In my mind, only the former approach works well here; exposing for shadows would have resulted in a very washed-out image, with white sky (and lots of seemingly blank space). HDR looks unnatural, and should be avoided unless there’s no other way of retaining the desired tonal information – and even then, used with great care. In a nutshell: the exposure here is bang on, and the photographer deserves commendation for that. However, I feel a little more shadow detail could have been extracted through judicious use of ACR or the shadow/ highlight tool.

How would I have framed this shot with the same equipment? Assuming the key elements of the scene are sky, temple and tree (i.e. natural context/ setting), I’d have gone closer to the temple at left to place it in the foreground and lower half of the image; shot in portrait orientation and placed the tree silhouetted against the sky in the upper half.

In conclusion
One important takeaway here: choose your perspective then only compose, not the other way around.


Reader photo critique: KL Skyline

Canon 5D Mark II, Zeiss ZE 2/28 Distagon

By popular request, I’m now accepting an image or two from readers to critique every month. Today’s image was submitted by Aizuddin Danian, a friend and fellow photographer here in Malaysia. I’m going to go easy on him and say he’s in the keen amateur category; otherwise the assessment criteria would be much harsher 🙂

I’ll break down the assessment into three categories – composition, technique and other; the other category deals with things such as lighting, timing, subject opportunity, etc. Photography is subjective, so I won’t give points or scores.

The main subject here is obviously the KL tower, dominating center frame. A diminishing row of buildings to the right of the tower, including the Petronas Twin Towers, creates a nice flowing dynamic to the edge of the frame. Unfortunately, it feels like this never quite gets to finish and is artificially truncated on the right hand side. The left side, is empty; there is nothing to balance out the right hand wedge of buildings. It doesn’t help that the last two buildings are dark colored and seem to blend into the background. Then there’s the intrusive pointy building at the bottom left edge of the frame – again, it’s intrusive and distracting. The composition overall is simply not balanced; something that could have easily been fixed by watching the edges of the frame – shifting the camera right and down a little would have helped immensely here.

I was told a 3-frame HDR technique was used for this shot – it’s fairly obvious, actually; you can’t get overlaps in luminance values without using it. There are also visible haloes around the darker buildings, which is not particularly pleasing and gives the impression of buildings masked out and pasted onto a background. The same can be said for the mountains in the background: they just don’t look like that in real life. I have never been a fan of HDR for scenes of normal contrast – I believe this scene could have been properly exposed for with a single frame and careful processing – and anything more tends to look very, very unnatural. The simple reality of HDR is that the display medium of a photograph is not capable of more than about six or seven stops (a good print) or perhaps eight to nine stops (LCD monitor) – by its very nature, trying to display fifteen stops is simply going to look odd. The other weakness of HDR images is that they tend to look flat, with no particularly strong contrasts leading the eye to the subject; I feel this image looks flat overall, and could be fixed with some judicious curve use combined with strategic dodge and burn. A couple of very obvious dust spots should also be removed.

When shooting architectural subjects – cityscapes included – care should be taken to ensure that building verticals do in fact look vertical; either by aligning the camera properly, or using a perspective control lens. This avoids keystoning (note buildings at edges; they have a pronounced lean). One exception is extreme perspectives, where leaning buildings/ tilting edges are acceptable as they create a strong visual dynamic.

HDR is not the only thing contributing to the overall flatness of the image; it’s also the time it was shot. By the lack of shadows or dynamic lighting (but obvious contrast in the sky), it’s fairly clear the image was shot around noon or thereabouts. It’s a bad time to shoot buildings because there isn’t enough tangential light to provide detail on the facades; when there are many buildings it also doesn’t create enough shadows to isolate one from the other. This shot at sunset or sunrise would be considerably more arresting.

In conclusion
Bluntly: it is a flat, ordinary shot; but there are several very simple fixes that would have turned this into a decent image.
1. Watch your edges.
2. Don’t HDR.
3. Watch the lighting: shooting at noon is like using direct flash only for your subject.


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