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Ming Thein : Interview with the Master

Today’s interview features a special guest, a mentor and certainly one of the best photographers out there in today’s world : Ming Thein. Ming Thein has always been one of our influencers here at Photograph IO with his transparent but evocative style of photography. He’s also one of the main driving reasons that pushed us […]

Today’s interview features a special guest, a mentor and certainly one of the best photographers out there in today’s world : Ming Thein. Ming Thein has always been one of our influencers here at Photograph IO with his transparent but evocative style of photography. He’s also one of the main driving reasons that pushed us to start this blog. Let’s begin this interview ūüôā

Ming Thein
Ming Thein

Photograph IO : Hi Ming!

Ming Thein : Hello!

Photograph IO : To begin this interview, can you please start by introducing yourself and what you do for our readers who may not know your blog?

Ming Thein :¬†Hello there. Thank you for having me. I am a photographer first, a philosopher/writer second, a commercial photographer third, a teacher fourth and a blogger a distant fifth. My commercial work centers around product and corporate documentary. Much like hardware – the Internet is merely another tool for the former; I run which is perhaps one of the few photography sites that puts images and ‘the why’ first, and reviews second. In another life I was in consulting and private equity, but found the ethics questionable at best and the lack of concrete output extremely frustrating. So against better advice, I quit and here I am today. I photograph because I’m compelled to do so, and because I feel there’s something in being able to capture and present the transient, the uncommon, and the unseen in the mundane. Is it art? Who knows.

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Photograph IO : Thanks! Can you tell us a bit about how you got into photography?

Ming Thein : Simple answer: I always wanted to try it, and did so seriously when digital became (somewhat) affordable with a very limited fully automated point and shoot. The desire for more control and better results snowballed into a journey of learning that continues to this day. I would say I seriously began photography as a consequence of an interest in mechanical devices and specifically watches; not being able to afford any of the pieces I liked, I got involved in the online communities, met some very generous people, and photographed their collections instead.

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Photograph IO : And yet today you still specialize in watch photography! Ming, how would you define your photography style (or rather styles) in general?

Ming Thein :¬†Yes and no. I shoot less of that now because honestly, there are only so many ways you can photograph a watch, and it gets a bit repetitive. Stylistically, I’d say I aim for minimalist, formal and transparent with natural/ plausible color and tone.

Photograph IO : What gear do you currently use?

Ming Thein :¬†What I use specifically is irrelevant because it is merely a tool to an intended creative result. I have been accused of changing systems frequently and being equipment-centric, but that’s merely because the tools do not do the job so I have to keep looking. I use the equipment which gives me the most control and transparency across the largest shooting envelope with the added requirement of resolution for large and high resolution printing; for the time being that’s a D810, PCE and Zeiss Otus lenses, and a really good tripod and head (RRS with Arca-Swiss Cube) – I can’t stress the importance of the final item enough. A tripod forces you to slow down, think, and raises image quality no end.

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Photograph IO : Great! You often talk about the importance of technique versus gear on your blog. Can you elaborate on that, and what are some of the most important things photographers often overlook when it comes to technique?

Ming Thein :¬†Garbage in, garbage out. Light, subject, composition and idea are the first and foremost elements that the audience sees. They are the elements that make or break an image. None of those things have anything to do with hardware! The hardware is therefore nothing but a ¬†tool: it either lets you make the image, easily, or not. If it doesn’t, then you’re using the wrong tool. There is far too much obsession these days with equipment for bragging rights as though it’s going to make a bad composition anything more than a bad composition with a large file taken with an expensive camera. Spending more money on equipment because the results are not what you expect or envision almost never yields dividends unless you can specifically identify where your equipment is restricting you and how the new gear will resolve that. Conversely, if you understand light, composition, and how to make your subject stand out, then those principles apply regardless of hardware; if you can make a strong image with a medium format rig you can do so with an iPhone and vice versa. Perspective is perspective and light is light. Photography is not cameras.

Technique mistakes are numerous. Most of them revolve around poor light, unclear subjects, and edge distractions. If you cannot resolve these, then the shot discipline, image quality and technical stuff becomes irrelevant. The latter can be overlooked if the former is strong enough, but not the other way around. There are really so many possible pitfalls that I don’t think we have time or space to cover them here – I’ve written a previous article on this, though.

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Photograph IO :¬†Great response. Since subject and idea aren’t things that can really be taught, do you have some composition and lighting tips? I remember somewhere on your blog where you said that exposure directly affects composition by shifting weight onto different parts of the image.

Ming Thein :¬†Everything starts with light. No light, no photograph; if you have great light any pedestrian subject can be arresting, but if you have uninteresting, unflattering or boring light the subject becomes somewhat irrelevant. Composition isn’t something that can be distilled down into a set of rules; it’s fluid and really needs to take into account both the subject, it’s context, and what you are trying to say about them both. I tried to distill this down into a relatively simple article, but honestly there’s so much to it that it took four videos!

Light affects composition because it simply affects what is visible and what is obvious. If you can’t see it because it doesn’t stand out from the (for example, dark) background, it doesn’t matter whether you cut it off or not. Different if it’s visually prominent…

Photograph IO : Thank you Ming. Although you are now quasi-famous in the photography and blogging world yourself, who are some of your own inspirational people and role models that have influenced you?

Ming Thein :¬†I can hardly claim to be famous, but I’d say my work has been inspired by quite a lot of other photographers and artists – Rene Magritte, the surrealist painter, for his clouds and colour palette; HC-B for his sense of timing; Ansel Adams and Nick Brandt for their tonality; the impressionist and modernist painters for their distillation of subjects into their fundamental forms. There are probably quite a few others in their own ways, but those are the ones that immediately come to mind…

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Photograph IO : Having formerly shot film, how would you describe your experience with it and why did you stop shooting film? Is digital clearly the advantage these days?

Ming Thein :¬†The myth that film is good training is not true. Digital offers instant feedback and is much better as a learning/ teaching tool. The other myth that different films have different ‘looks’ is only partially true – colour films have their tonal response pretty much locked in, but B&W films do not – they are heavily dependent on development method and chemistry. What film does offer is some degree of consistency if you either have a disciplined process or good lab; that’s not always viable in every part of the world. It also forces you to previsualize the shot better because you don’t get any feedback afterwards, and there’s always the psychological factor of each press costing money. Until very recently, B&W film especially also offered much better tonal control than digital especially in the highlights; I shot film because I wanted to learn exactly what was going on and how I could translate this to digital. Having done that – there’s no workflow or tonality advantage, but I do still very rarely use the Hasselblad because a given angle of view renders differently on 6×6 than 36×24 (or 24×24 cropped) – you need a much longer focal length, which has different depth of field properties. In colour accuracy, resolution and workflow/practicality, digital still holds the advantage. Only one of my clients has ever chosen film over digital, and that was for documentary/industrial portraiture. It simply isn’t practical if you’re shooting hundreds of product images to be delivered fully retouched next week.

Photograph IO :¬†Thank you, some very nice explanations in here. Let’s now move on to another subject. What is the role of post-processing in photography and what importance does it have?

Ming Thein :¬†Postprocessing is to improve the presentation of an image, not fix fundamental deficiencies in composition. There may also be things you can’t do in-camera (e.g. local adjustments, non-native aspect ratios). It also lets you impart a personal style and consistency across multiple cameras; you can’t tell a client ‘sorry, the colour is off because I used two different cameras’. Retouching is of course a mainstay of commercial work, though it shouldn’t be about changing lighting especially if you’re in a controlled-light environment. There’s an immense amount of adjustment possible, but less is definitely more. And even less is best when it comes to documentary work. Personally, I try to make my workflow as fast as possible because computer time is not shooting; also, if there’s that much that requires fixing, the image is probably not that great to begin with.

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Photograph IO :¬†Therefore you strive to get everything right in camera! Honestly I’d say that you are a master both in the field and in the darkroom. Could describe a bit your photographic workflow from shooting all the way up to delivery?

Ming Thein :¬†Well, definitely as much as possible – you can’t ‘fix it afterwards’, that’s a recipe for slow slippage into mediocrity. I’m not sure about the mastery part; there’s still a lot for me to learn.

For a client job, I’ll first clearly define shots/objectives, then if possible do a quick reccie to determine what hardware I need and angles. Where possible I work off a tripod or with controlled light to maximise image quality. I’m always shooting lossless raw and processing each file individually via ACR/PS (PS Workflow II is the exact process I use:¬† ). I’m very conscious of shutter speeds if handheld, optimum apertures if not. For commissioned work, I’ll keep everything because clients often ask for ‘just in case’; the selections are done with the client – usually on site approval so there are no changes of mind or misunderstandings later. Files stay in whatever format the client wants first, and then it’s digital delivery.¬†I’ll then archive everything in three places.¬†If I’m printing, the workflow is no different other than the files go to my print master and we will print test proofs to fine tune colour to the last notch.

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Photograph IO : Thanks. You are known for being a die-hard Photoshop user among a now Lightroom dominated world. What application would you personally recommend to beginners and to experts and why?

Ming Thein :¬†Still Photoshop. I started in the pre-LR, pre-Bridge era; Photoshop wasn’t even CC at that point. You had Elements and full fat Photoshop. LR was supposed to be complete for photographers¬†but leaves out proper control over dodging and burning! Actions that must be sequential to get a specific sort of tonality ¬†– e.g. curves then¬†dodge and burn then¬†another curve or gradient, for example – are not; the commands are added up and a curve up cancels a curve down, even if there’s a dodge and burn in the middle. Except – you cannot do multiple curves, you cannot use LAB mode to retain colours, and for the more advanced user, you need to use PS for retouching anyway. So why use multiple applications? I have spent a lot of time trying to make LR work (from LR 2 until now) because a workflow for that program is probably my most-requested video; I’ve not been able to because of these limitations. The results do not look as good and take much longer to achieve.

Photograph IO : Often, people leave their shots in their computers and never do anything else after, if not for the occasional upload. However, you regularly talk about the importance of printing. Tell us about it.

Ming Thein :¬†With today’s cameras, there’s actually no other way to view the entire information contained in an image at once: even the highest resolution displays will downsize/ deinterpolate and lose some subtlety in both tonality and detail, which translates to a reduction in overall clarity. It’s like the difference between a CD and FM radio, in that sense. Something processed or mastered for the lower fidelity medium is never going to be able to convey as much nuance as something that also takes the output medium into account and uses it strengths. There’s one other very important consideration: you can never be quite sure whether everybody is viewing the same thing on different screens because of calibration and gamut issues.

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Photograph IO : What is something every photographer should know/use/do but only a few actually do, and why?

Ming Thein :¬†As for a really good tripod and head, and Photoshop (instead of say JPEG or Lightroom). It’s all about control and having the tools when you need them. You only have to buy one good tripod and head; that technology hasn’t fundamentally changed for the last fifty years. Photoshop may appear expensive (though not on the subscription bundle) and you use it for every image – that’s far better value than any lens of a comparable price unless you only own one, which is unlikely.

Photograph IO :¬†Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years in today’s photographic industry?

Ming Thein :¬†No idea. Things are changing so fast and flavour of the month is now flavour of the day, so it’s impossible to say. Still in it somewhere, I hope!

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Photograph IO :¬†Thank you. Is there anything else you’ like to focus about in the interview?

Ming Thein : Not that I can think of, other than stressing the importance of practice, experimentation, creativity and working to an output (ideally printing because it remains for the moment the only medium that can display the whole information contained in an image) in producing strong images; equipment is just a tool.

Photograph IO : Thanks a lot for your time, Ming. You had some truly great things to say.

Ming Thein : You too.


Ming Thein is a commercial and fine art photographer who runs which has a 1000+ article archive, offers a full range of teaching and instructional videos via and runs the occasional workshop. He was formerly of the finance industry and graduated from Oxford with a degree in physics at 16.

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