Balance and composition beyond photography

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A combination of arts and senses in the appreciation: the feeling of weight; the design, composition and balance of visual elements; the subtle sound of the movement and even the sensation of temperature when you pick it up. Yet I doubt few will home in on any single one of these elements – but if you did, and only looked at the design for typography or prose, for instance, you might find quite a lot lacking…

I have a little hypothesis which I think many of you will appreciate. It’s somewhat off topic, so those of you expecting a how-to or review may want to skip today’s post. The creative person is not limited to one field: often, they have interests in other subject matter, and will try to apply themselves in a similar fashion. Musicians who enjoy photography or painting; chefs who sing; singers who cook. And often one tends to be not only good at the other, but there’s also a translation of style of sorts between the different disciplines, too. I can’t cook, or play music, but I do appreciate those two skills and can comment to some degree, in the same way that I can comment on design work which I do in addition to photography. And like my photography, people have noted my design work tends to be balanced, precise, and structured, but not necessarily simple…

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Off topic: hobbies and photographers

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It seems that a lot of my other photographically-inclined friends and students share the same few passions – watches/ horology, cars, cigars, food/ wine, travel, and to some extent, hi-fi. It could be because serious photographers tend to be mostly male (no sexism intended, but 90% of my reader demographic and students are male) and these are male pursuits; however, the funny thing is that a good number of the ladies in the 10% share these interests, too. I’m not counting casual or passing fancies here – I’m only including people serious enough to devote a meaningful chunk of time and income towards these hobbies. Even so, the numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of just a few pursuits*.

*My point of view could however be biased by the demographic of my readers; I suppose if I surveyed those who lived in countries with strong anti-smoking laws, expensive car operating costs, and reasonable public transport – sounds like the UK – we’d find that cigars and cars drop off the list.

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Workshop photoessay: first of the Carl Zeiss food photography masterclasses

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Last Saturday saw the first of the Carl Zeiss food photography masterclasses for this year, held at Hanare under chef Kenny Yew. The participants were mostly professionals from other genres of photography – weddings, pets, video, portraits. In attendance was also Philip Ong from Shriro, the Asia-Pacific representatives for Carl Zeiss, Profoto and Gitzo. I normally avoid using conventional flashes for this kind of work because of the heat; however, as the distances were small, and base ISO on a DSLR a lot higher than a MF camera, we had plenty of light to work with and the strobes were run at close to minimum power most of the time. The large softbox wasn’t much of a surprise, but served as a nice substitute for window light; more interesting was the little ProBox, which is a beamsplitter-cum-diffuser device that fits over the end of the head to provide a very even cube of light. I suppose it’s designed for product photography, but I can see it being useful for food as an alternative to my usual LED panels; it felt very intuitive to set up and use.

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What did surprise me was that all of the participants were shooting Micro Four Thirds – and not just that, all Olympus cameras! I was the only one working off a Nikon D800E and tripod. Good thing we had a F-M43 adaptor – not surprisingly, the 2/50 Makro-Planar and 2/28 Distagon work very well on the smaller format (I guess I should know, because I use them myself on the OM-D for food photography too).

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A good lunch was enjoyed by all – the menu included a number of seasonal specialities freshly-delivered from Japan the previous day, including ayu (river sweetfish), anago (conger eel), pumpkin and of course various kinds of sushi fish – apparently autumn is the best season for the firmer white fish such as yellowtail, as they’re just starting to put on the pre-winter fat.

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Note that I’m not in any of the shots because I was either shooting, demonstrating or talking…images from this set with a Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon, 2/50 Makro-Planar and 2/100 Makro-Planar with lighting by Profoto.

The next workshop will be on the 6th of October at Bistro a Table, SS14, Petaling Jaya. Please send me an emailif you would like more details or to reserve a place. There are also more details in this post.

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

Announcing the Carl Zeiss Food Photography Masterclasses 2012!

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I’m pleased to announce my latest workshop – I’ve been invited by the Carl Zeiss representatives in Kuala Lumpur to host a series of workshops. We decided to do something different:

  • Gourmet food: check. Tasting menus and private spaces at some of the best restaurants in Kuala Lumpur; for the foodies alone, this is worth most of the price of entry.
  • Photography: check. I’ll be running a food photography masterclass at each of these; we’ve adapted the menu to cater for both gourmets and photographers, and photographer-gourmets. Food is one of my passions; I take it almost as seriously as photography. 😉
  • Gear: check. In addition to there being Carl Zeiss lenses for all mounts for the participants to demo, we’ve also got Profoto to take care of the lighting, and Gitzo to take care of the tripods.
  • Buy a lens and get RM350 off the workshop fee! If you own a lens, bring it along and get RM200 off.
  • There will be three sessions in Kuala Lumpur, on 8 September, 6 October and 11 November.
  • Limited to just 10 places per session. Call 03 7874 9872 ext 293 to book, or send me an email.
  • In a nutshell, each participant gets their own multi-course tasting menu; a Profoto light setup (either individual or shared, depending on the size of the room), a choice of Zeiss glass and a tripod (if you want it). All you have to do is bring your camera and stomach…MT

Edit: A lot of people have asked if you get to eat the food: of course! That’s half the experience – each person gets a multicourse tasting menu prepared for the occasion, which is meant to be photographed and eaten. (Or eaten and photographed, if you’re too hungry.)


Enter our August 2012 competition – Compact Challenge – here!

If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via Paypal (; Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography – learn exactly what you want to learn, when you want to learn it or learn how to achieve a similar look with our Photoshop workflow DVDs.  You can also get your gear from via this referral link.  Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Photoessay: portrait of a chef – Fergus Henderson

Perhaps best known for his use of offal, bones, tails and other normally discarded parts of the animal, chef Fergus Henderson is one of the innovators of modern cuisine. His dishes are derivatives of traditional British food, usually paired with French wines. However, perhaps the most impressive thing about him is that he’s actually an excellent trained architect (from no other institution than the AA) but one day decided he preferred food – and despite being awarded a Michelin star for St. John restaurant in 2009, he was entirely self taught as a chef and has never worked in anybody else’s kitchen.

Henderson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1996, and has since undergone deep brain stimulation therapy which supposedly has increased his mobility in the kitchen – however, watching him work it’s clear that he wields most implements with difficulty (and in some cases, it’s just too dangerous) and relies on his deputy. However, when you talk to him, it’s clear that his disability has not diminished his ability, talent or passion for food – if anything, it’s enhanced it. He’s an animated, engaging speaker with a dry sense of humor and a disarming smile. I had the honor of running a food photography class with him once; it remains one of the most inspiring experiences of my photographic career to date.

All I can say is that I have enormous respect for the man, and his bone marrow and parsley salad (which he describes in strangely architectural terms) was quite excellent, too. MT

This series shot with a Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE and Leica D-Lux 5 Titanium.

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Enter the August 2012 competition: Compact Challenge – here!

If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via Paypal (; Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography – learn exactly what you want to learn, when you want to learn it or our Photoshop workflow DVDs.  You can also get your gear from via this referral link.  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 Flickr group!

Photoessay: Pedro Miguel Schiaffino from Malabar, Lima

I had the opportunity recently to do some teaching (food photography, not cooking of course) with noted Peruvian chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino from Ristorante Malabar, Lima at the World Gourmet Summit in Singapore. First off – he’s one of the nicest people I’ve met, with completely zero ego; that’s pretty darn unusual for a chef. Secondly, he has a hugely infectious enthusiasm for the native foods of Peru, most of which he has to trek into the jungle to find. Pedro says he trains locals to recognize edible plants and roots, but they subsequently tend to leave for food distributors who can pay more; to this he shrugs, and rationalizes it against anything that raises awareness of his country’s produce and helps the locals find regular employment being a good thing. As I said, one of the nicest people I’ve met. Oh, and he makes the most amazing ceviche, too. Enjoy, vicariously. MT

This set shot with a Leica S2 and 75/2.5 Summarit (people photos) and a Leica D-Lux 5 (food photos.)

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Ceviche, with a domestic Peruvian speciality algae – the green blobs. Difficult to describe the taste; a little like a gelatinized gherkin but not as sour.

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What looks like rocks…

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…are actually Peruvian root vegetables, meticulously tourneed, and covered in a local edible river clay mix that the natives use to aid digestion. Although the clay itself tastes like…well, dirt, it lends an interesting semi-roasted texture to the skin of the vegetables. I’m sure it probably gives you your RDI for most minerals, too.

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In their natural habitat, with sous-vided lamb finished on the pan. Pedro blends modern techniques – sous vide for instance – with traditional ingredients, like the clay.

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Dessert. Pisco sour sorbet, stewed melon and various flowers.

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Talking with the students after the meal.

Shooting professionally with the Olympus OM-D E-M5

Rice. Olympus OM-D and Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit

I had an interesting food assignment recently, which was challenging for several reasons – not least the location:

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Doesn’t look so bad? Look again:

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Turns out this particular client’s restaurant wasn’t ready; the assignment was concept food for the menu, website and marketing materials for a new local chain. So they borrowed the (primitive) kitchen of another friend, who happened to run a small cafe in an office-building-cum-training-center-cum-community-college. The only place they had for me to shoot that was both close to the kitchen and powered (for the lights) was literally off to the side of a hallway! I’ve never thought of photography as performance art before, but judging by the crowds that stopped by to rubberneck throughout the two days, I should probably have charged admission. To be honest though, I was more worried about people tripping over the cables or moving lights, or worse still, equipment going missing. (Fortunately, none of that happened – thanks in no small part to the wonders of duct tape.)

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Setup shot – Apple iPhone 4

In the past, I would have done this shoot with a Nikon FX body, macro lens, tilt-shift, and a few speedlights and umbrellas. After much experimentation with LED panels for both casual work and teaching – I’ve come to the conclusion they’re a much better option for food photography, both enabling you to see straight away the light effects, plus minimize the effects of heat on food – especially important with things like ice cream or raw fish.

I don’t have any questions about the image quality of the OM-D – at base ISO, it’s better than the D700 – but what did concern me was the client reaction to me using a ‘small’ camera, given their expectations and my rates. I even packed a D700 and full set of lenses just in case. However, so far those concerns have been completely unfounded. I’ve mixed in a number of images from the OM-D with a recent submission to a watch client, and they haven’t said anything negative (the bulk of the job was shot with a D800E; the OM-D images were upsized to 25MP) – however, they didn’t see me shoot as I wasn’t working on location.

Fortunately those fears turned out to be unfounded. There was no negative reaction from the client to the camera or image quality. (Though to be on the safe side, I added the HLD-6 to bulk things out a bit – and give me some more battery life.) In fact, I have to say I’m extremely impressed with the color reproduction of the OM-D – after shooting a WhiBal card under the LED panels to lock in the white balance, the images needed almost zero color correction in ACR – this is something I’ve never experienced before. I think the combination of high CRI LED panels and the OM-D for food photography is a revelation, and not having to do extensive color rebalancing work to achieve perfect color saves a huge amount of processing time afterwards. The extended DOF for a given FOV/ aperture combination helped too; f8 was about as low as I could go with the LED panels and still manage 1/90s or so at base ISO. I did bring a tripod along – my shiny new Gitzo GT1542 Traveller which I haven’t had a chance to use yet – but didn’t need it due to the image stabilization and reasonably high shutter speeds.

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More rice. Olympus OM-D and Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit

A note on the gear used – one OM-D body with HLD-6; the Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit for the majority of the shots, with the Voigtlander 25/0.95 (the near focus ability is extremely useful for food photography, but I’m not so enamored with the wide open performance – review coming soon) for the wider shots; I brought the 12/2 and 45/1.8 just in case, but didn’t land up using either. A D700, 24/1.4, 60/2.8 G Macro and 85/2.8 PCE rode shotgun as backup. In future, I think I’m just going to bring a pair of OM-D bodies and save a lot of space and weight. Battery life on the OM-D was pretty good – not as good as the Nikons (the D700 usually gets me around 700-800 shots per charge with the commander flash firing, or 1000+ with no flash; the D800E is good for 2000+) – but a respectable 650-700 per charge with heavy chimping. One slightly concerning behavior I did see with the OM-D was an occasional lockup – it seems that if I review and zoom in fairly soon after taking the shot, the camera sometimes freezes on zooming out again. Popping the battery from the grip is the only way to solve this. I only see this behavior with the battery grip, and it’s not always repeatable. Hmm. Fortunately, it doesn’t eat shots or corrupt things. I will be following up with Olympus in due course…probably after I’m done processing this assignment, and after next week’s assignment in Geneva.

All in all – a positive experience. I was surprised by how much less fatiguing using the OM-D is for studio work; I always thought I didn’t really notice the weight of a full sized DSLR, but I guess it turns out I do. Even with the HLD-6 and heaviest Voigtlander 25/0.95 – it weighs in at just over 1kg instead of the 1.6kg or so for a D700/D800 and 85 PCE; more if I’m using the vertical grip for those cameras.

Now, time to decide if my second body should be black or silver…MT

A note for all of those complaining my previous images were over sharpened – I think I’ve fixed the problem, but please let me know if they still look off. I can’t do anything about the images already in the system, so there may still be a few that I post in the future that appear a little over sharpened.


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

Photoessay: Bruno Menard at Forlino

I was in Singapore recently to run a few food photography 101 sessions under Leica at the World Gourmet Summit. One of the perks of the job was getting to enjoy the samples. In this case, by 3* Michelin chef Bruno Menard, who formerly ran L’Osier in Tokyo – widely thought to be the best restaurant in Japan at the time. I ran a very basic setup for the participants with a couple of small LED video lights, a Leica D-Lux 5 compact and some modified settings (optimized for food work); I shot tethered and showed the results instantly on a HDTV via HDMI out. There was a little PS work done to the images afterwards (i.e. for this set) but for the most part, the D-Lux 5 makes a surprisingly excellent little food camera – especially when there’s enough light around. MT

Images shot with a Leica D-Lux 5.

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Photoessay: This little piggy

At Chinese weddings all over the world, the groom traditionally has to bring an offering of a roast suckling pig to the house of his bride-to-be on the morning of the tea ceremony, after which the couple is considered officially married by the community. I recently attended the wedding of one of my cousins – how could one not bring a camera (or two)?

This series shot with a Nikon D700, D3x, 24/1.4 G and 85/1.4 G lenses. You’re probably wondering why I didn’t use the D800; I didn’t have an AF solution at this point, and it isn’t really suited to being a photojournalism camera. The D3x had the 24/1.4 on it and the 85 was on the D700. MT

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POTD: Dessert

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Pisco sour sorbet, poached melon and a jelly I don’t remember decorated with local nuts and flowers. By chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino of Ristorante Malabar, Lima, Peru. Leica D-Lux 5 and two LED panels.*

*One of the reasons I switched to LED panels for food photography is the matter of dessert: there’s no way you can photograph ice cream with halogens or flashes without getting more than say three or four frames before visible melting sets in. And this obviously isn’t good, though a hint of melting actually helps the viewer know that it is in fact ice cream, and not say, mashed potatoes masquerading as ice cream.** One of the most refreshing, palate-cleansing deserts I’ve eaten – a perk of running a food photography workshop in conjunction with his culinary class…

**Food photography in-joke: mashed potato is actually quite frequently used to substitute for ice cream, for this very reason. MT