Discussion points: Influences

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From the series ‘Only The Clouds are Truly Free’, inspired by the work of Magritte

Following on from the previous article on finding inspiration – it makes sense to throw another question out to the audience – who are your inspirations? Hopefully, you might find something you’ve not seen before. The more I’ve been asked this question, the more I’ve found myself allowing increased weight to non-photographic themes: creativity is a fluid, difficult-to-define thing, and sources can be pretty much anything: other photographers; artists in different media; music; a season; muses; objects; locations; even (ahem) hardware.

I’ll go first, after the jump. MT

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Photoessay: Saul and Edward

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As a very much non-American, Chicago tends to evoke a few things in my imagination every time I visit: gangster hits in back alleys with fire escape stairs and Art Deco building rear entrances; Ayn Rand’s The FountainheadEdward Hopper’s Nighthawks painting (which coincidentally is in the Art Institute of Chicago, though I’ve not seen it in person), and to a lesser extent, Saul Leiter’s splashes of color sandwiched between glass. I suppose it must be curious to a local which of the many cultural references make it across the international divide, and how few of them are sporting…

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Repost: What influences your photography?

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Hanoi. Nikon D700, 85/1.4G

What follows is a repost of an original article from early 2012: it’s a necessary prelude to what comes tomorrow, so for those who’ve read it – bear with me; for those who haven’t, enjoy.

A random thought struck me while driving today (it seems to happen often, but then again with Malaysian traffic, I do spend a lot of time in the car): what are my conscious and unconscious photographic influences, and how do they affect my images look?

I think this is a topic worth exploring because it’s useful to analyze how you think as a photographer, because it will both consciously help you to identify potential shots sooner, as well as tap into other sources of influence you might not have previously considered. As sacrificial guinea pig, I’ll go first.

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Personal evolution: changes in style

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This essay is a loose continuation of the previous article on Ignorance, fear and photographic freedoms in Malaysia; increasing paranoia and protection of perceived rights. It’s just the latest driver in the evolution of my photographic style over the last couple of years. There are two reasons for writing this essay: firstly, as an exercise in self-reflection and analysis, and secondly, to help my readers understand the effect of environmental factors on one’s photography. Actually, a good place to observe this trending is on my Flickr stream; there are lots of images dating from several years ago, in mostly chronological order, and it’s regularly updated.

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2007. No way I’d be able to shoot that today; I tried using an RX100 two months ago and was confronted by security – this shot was with a D200 and 70-200VR.

Restrictions in subject

The aforementioned limitations on where I can shoot have forced me to revisit the easy places – cityscapes, street photography, and any abstracts I can get from public property. One of my favorite subjects – geometric architectural abstracts with human elements for scale – is now pretty much a no-go. I’m even trying out minimalist landscapes and general abstracts now; though the subjects aren’t as strong, it is forcing me to pay even closer attention to the strength of my compositions. An image with an abstract subject must be very strong indeed to stand on its own, because you’re effectively removing one of the four fundamental must-haves – leaving you only with light, composition and the idea.

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A preference for physically smaller cameras

Many years of intensive laptop use (I blame this entirely on consulting), air travel and simply carting around far too much junk are now starting to take their toll on my back and neck; I simply can’t carry around as much as I used to without feeling sore after a couple of hours. I even use a roller bag on assignment now, where previously I’d have made do with a backpack for better mobility.

Although I’ve always had a compact camera for as long as I can remember, my preference has always been for larger sensors due to the benefits in image quality. It is only recently that technological evolution has permitted the quality of small sensors to reach and surpass the point of sufficiency for the majority of applications. Of course, the image quality from larger sensors has improved by a similar margin; the bigger the better continues to hold true in situations where ultimate image quality is paramount. Of course, there are restrictions involved: mostly around lenses and depth of field control. On the former, there are few high quality fast telephoto equivalents in fixed-lens compacts – Micro Four Thirds is a nice exception – which shifts one’s shooting style to prefer wider perspectives.

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Less bokeh, more context

A general lack of depth of field control on smaller formats forces you to avoid relying on bokeh as a crutch to save what would be an otherwise boring image – I see this as a very good thing, because the focus returns to light, strength of composition and overall balance. Depth of field control is a nice bonus when you do have it – I find I can now precisely control just how much context I want in a shot. Conversely, I also find that I’m making a lot more compositions that work with or without shallow depth of field; this can sometimes lead to paralysis by choice.

Although I think this shift in shooting style was brought on largely by my increased use of small-sensor cameras, I think it’s also a related consequence to an increasingly commercial mindset to my images; clients usually want to have more of the overall scene in focus.

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2012 – I was on holiday, but it looks pretty darn commercial to me.

The shift from personal work to commercial work

This is a change that’s been a double-edged sword for me. Although it has forced me to up my game when it comes to lighting control and compositional variety, the fairly conservative nature of all of the industries I cover mean that there are generally accepted styles and norms, and a very low client appetite for something different. I’ve noticed the majority of my work now trending towards a very standardized, clean-looking style – I feel the unconventional angles and compositions that used to be my hallmark eroding somewhat.

There’s now a definite trending of my personal work towards the commercial style; it’s almost as though I’m almost unconsciously avoiding the grit of reality. I’m taking a lot more time to set up a shot that previously, paying more attention to potential still lifes and lighting control. Needless to say, I’m doing very little to no reportage these days – a friend’s wedding I recently attended brought home just how out of practice I was. (I suppose it didn’t really help that I chose to use two manual focus lenses that are known to be rife with field curvature.) At least I’m still continuing to put my individual stamp on color; if anything, I’m even more picky about it, because color accuracy is absolutely critical for product work.

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2012. Shot RAW, converted with a little curve. That’s all – 30 seconds of work, maximum.

Efficiency in postprocessing

A part of me used to enjoy the Photoshop portion of the workflow – in some ways, it was the place where all the ingredients came together with a little alchemy to make something special. I suppose it’s akin to finding a sculpture in a rough block of marble. To put it bluntly, spending large amounts of time in front of the computer is no longer a preferred activity for me. Perhaps it’s due to the time spent on keeping this site running; then again, it’s more likely to be the D800E: the enormity of the files place huge demands on my computer and slow down the whole process by a factor of two or three. And when you’ve got a lot of images to process, this can make a huge difference in one’s tolerance. Furthermore, time spent on postprocessing is effectively dead time: you can’t do anything revenue-generating, or lead-generating, so it makes sense to keep it to a minimum. And when you work freelance for yourself, these two things are what keeps you afloat. (That, and debt collection.)

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2012. Almost zero postprocessing – just dust removal.

Practically, instead of visualizing the physically impossible, getting a good base image to work from and then spending time on it in Photoshop, I’m now trying to do everything I can in-camera to minimize the amount of postprocessing. Granted, there will be some things that have to be done post-capture, but the more you can get right the first time, the faster your workflow can be. This has always been the case for commercial work – I’ve always believed that if you have to do heavy postprocessing on an image to make it look right, you’re not really in control of your lighting – but it’s increasingly also becoming the case for my personal work. If it doesn’t look 95% there in the actual scene, I probably won’t bother taking the camera out. It’s one of the main reasons I’m revisiting film.

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Seeking control with consistency

Another upshot of being more commercially-focused with my photography is increased consciousness of elements you’re changing in order to be able to replicate the shot later. This is especially true with watch photography where you might have several models of the same type where you need to have identical or near-identical images for catalogs etc; you might not be able to shoot them on the same day, but the lighting had better damn well be identical. (There are, of course, postprocessing tricks to get around this and make up for any small differences.)

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From cinematic to natural

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to do is create a very natural-looking image from a natural, human perspective and still have it appear unique and arresting; I suppose having mastered the cinematic, perceptual color style and growing bored of it, I’m being masochistic and forcing myself to take on a new challenge. Or perhaps it’s a consequence of heightened color-awareness due to increased commercial work; or maybe even because small-sensor cameras do not lend themselves well to cinematic work: you need extensive depth of field control for that.

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This site

Reviews require images, and I simply don’t have the time or budget to be able to travel somewhere new every time I want to get to know a camera; similarly, I can’t take the risk of using something untested on a commercial job, and even if I do, I frequently can’t release the images due to licensing agreements. So this means that whatever I shoot for a review has to be located relatively nearby; being nearby and having reviewed hundreds of cameras and lenses in my past life as a magazine editor means that I cannot avoid revisiting the same places multiple times. The tough part here is avoiding repetition: you don’t want to see the same test images as the last review, nor do I want to produce something boring; it is after all also my personal work. I am thus forced to revisit familiar places with eyes for a different image and composition every time; it gets increasingly difficult, but I think it’s also forced me to open my mind to different subjects and angles. In short: I am forced to experiment, and in experimenting, evolve my skill set.

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Workshops and articles are the complete opposite to reviews: they rely on repetition and consistency. I have to have enough understanding of both the shooting process and my thought process to be able to give an objective account and description of the mostly qualitative elements involved. In a workshop, I have to be able to structure and demonstrate the techniques I use when I shoot. The trouble is, there are a lot of them which may be minor variations on a few major themes, and you may need to use one or several in any given situation. How does one decide what is a conscious technique choice, and what is a fundamental skill that runs on autopilot in the background of a photographer’s brain? It’s not easy to find a balance – too basic and you appear patronizing, and too complex and your students get frustrated or confused.

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I’ve always found photography to be fascinating because it involves mastery of both quantitative and qualitative skills: there is only one correct exposure to get a certain luminance value in your image, but how you decide what that luminance value should be is an entire matter altogether. This of course is just one of the hundreds of tools a photographer has at their disposal; the evolution of style is a process that requires one to continually test, evaluate (objectively, but with a consistent level of personal and artistic bias) and experiment. I have no idea what or how I’ll be shooting a year from now, but I’m almost certain there will be value in repeating this evaluation exercise. MT


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

What influences your photography?

A random thought struck me while driving today (it seems to happen often, but then again with Malaysian traffic, I do spend a lot of time in the car): what are my conscious and unconscious photographic influences, and how do they affect my images look?

I think this is a topic worth exploring because it’s useful to analyze how you think as a photographer, because it will both consciously help you to identify potential shots sooner, as well as tap into other sources of influence you might not have previously considered. As sacrificial guinea pig, I’ll go first.

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Hanoi. Nikon D700, 85/1.4G

1. Cinema.
I love dramatic lighting, shots with huge expanses and a small bit of human context, tight crops, 16:9 and wider aspect ratios, creamy smooth foreground (contextual?) and background bokeh, spectacular lens flare, and facial emotion. And let’s not forget the influence of color tone, too. It’s all about setting a mood or feeling for the image, rather than conveying a specific story. But it’s easy to get too carried away; a close shot of a facial expression might work in cinema because you’ve got the establishing shots before and after to give context; there’s a flow of events that requires that one detail element to be complete. If you don’t have enough background context, a standalone still is rather weak and hard to place. Where I find the cinematic style does work very well is when you’ve got a series or sequence of images.

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Surprise at goodbye, London. Leica M8, 35/2 ASPH

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Loiterers, London. Leica M8, Zeiss ZM 21/2.8

2. Classical photojournalism.
There’s power in emotion here; criticality of timing; and frequently, only monochromatic, moody images because technology of the time couldn’t do better. You exposed for the subject and let the rest of the tonal range fall wherever it might. I’m avoiding the look because I prefer the cinematic feeling, but not the critical principles.

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You’ve probably seen this shot before – it’s one of my all time favorites, and my interpretation of a Salgado.
The scavenger, Canacona Beach, Goa, India. Leica M8, 50/1.4 ASPH

3. Sebastiao Salgado.
Salgado’s work is characterized by emotion, location, and wonderful tonal processing; in some ways he showed the world what HDR was by dodging and burning away in the darkroom long before digital. And not to mention, he didn’t overdo it or make it unnatural. If only he’d used color once or twice.

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Perhaps what Ansel might have shot today, if he were still alive. City Hall, London. Leica M8, Zeiss ZM 21/2.8

4. Ansel Adams.
If you’re looking for technical perfection in an image, Ansel comes pretty darn close. Large formats. Tripods. Super fine grained films, and optimal developers; platinum and selenium toning. It’s the equivalent of shooting raw with a medium format digital camera at optimal apertures and individually adjusting each image in the RAW converter before printing it off a RIP-optimized 16 bit TIFF from a printer with, oh, I don’t know, say 16 different ink tanks. But it looks spectacular.

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In Rothko we Rust (complete with signature). Jaya Shipyard, Singapore. Panasonic TZ3

5. Rothko.
The modernist abstract painter isn’t somebody I’ve consciously followed; I’ve seen his paintings here and there, but it’s the simple geometry of color and strength of line that makes his compositions compelling. Lately I’ve been shooting quite a lot of architectural abstracts where this dominates; it’s not a style that works all the time though, because it’s heavily subject-driven.

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I have a huge white soft spot for clouds. Leica V-Lux 3

6. Rene Magritte.
It’s the low-angled evening light and the clouds. They get me every time. There’s nothing more to say, really.

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Inspection tour, Jaya Shipyard, Singapore. Ricoh GR-Digital I

7. Alex Majoli.
Early on, Majoli was noted for using only a brace of compact cameras to document and nothing else – his style is dark and moody; perhaps a reflection of his personality, or more likely a way of overcoming the limitations of the equipment by exposing only for the highlights (first ensuring the subject is in the highlight zone, of course) then disregarding the rest. He taught me two things: firstly, there are workarounds to every equipment limitation that might actually yield very interesting results; secondly, if the composition is strong enough, you don’t need to rely on extreme perspective or bokeh as a crutch.

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Mount Yotei wears a hat, Hokkaido, Japan. Nikon D700, Zeiss 2/100 Makro-Planar

8. Hiroshige.
He makes me see things in layers – and not in the photoshop kind of way.

9. Dr. House.
A character from a TV series? Yes. My wife often tells me I’m very much like him: morose, intense, slightly damaged, and very, very focused on getting it right – usually at the expense of other things. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. When I’m shooting, I go into the zone and everything else becomes peripheral; you notice a lot of small details that normally pass you by. I think pushing yourself, pushing your creativity, trying new things, and seeking tangential inspiration are precisely what keeps things moving. The problem, unfortunately, is convincing your clients.

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I believe it’s called a chocolate dial. Jaeger Le-Coultre Master Ultra Thin 1833. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G Micro.

10. My subject.
As obvious as this seems, I think it’s either second nature or ignored. If you’re conscious of your subject, you’re probably going to try and present it in a natural looking way. Or maybe an unnatural contextual juxtaposition, if discordant photography is your style. I think either is fine – and I do both. The former when I’m trying to encapsulate a story in a moment; I try to look for all of the elements to put into the same frame. The latter when I’m trying to be ironic, or when the story itself is in the juxtaposition.

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I can’t figure out why, but shots like this seem to be acceptable with an iPhone – maybe it’s a property of the medium. Also, I smell a little Magritte on the wind here.

11. My equipment.
I’m not afraid to admit that different gear makes me shoot differently: there are some things you can do with certain cameras that you can’t with others. I’ll never attempt all-in-focus compressed perspectives with an SLR, because I know you just can’t do it without running out of DOF (or shutter speed as a consequence of stopping down for more DOF). But you can very easily do it with a compact superzoom, because 300mm equivalent is really something like 50mm and at f5.6 and nearly infinity, it’s all going to be in focus anyway. Or, the opposite – shallow DOF cinematic wide-angle work with a compact. Different tools for different things – and I’ll pick my tool depending on both what I anticipate shooting, and the style I want to try out on the day. I’ve shot an entire job for a shipyard client on the compact Panasonic TZ3; they thought I was using the D2H and 70-200/2.8 slung over my shoulder. In reality, I managed to produce work that I never could have done with the SLR – and they were very happy with the result.

Have you figured out what influences the way you shoot? MT