Ming Thein needs no introduction. His website is one of the most interesting stops for anyone interested in photography and I feel Ming has one of the most consistent styles out there. Ming is also an educator whose articles are insightful and very clear. We met in Oberkochen during a Zeiss press launch and Ming has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his vision of photography, the web and personal improvement. Ming also shares multiple links to highly recommended resources.
Thank you, Ming !
[Pascal] Do you consider yourself more a blogger, a photographer or both ?[Ming Thein] I am a photographer. I make a living primarily from commissioned shoots from clients, with some teaching thrown in. I resent being known as a blogger because that tends to have a lot of negative professional connotations and the implication that advertising plays a role in both your objectivity and your income, which for me is not true. I write because I enjoy writing and educate because somebody has to remind people the purpose of cameras is not bragging rights; they are tools for making images. The images have and always come first.
[Pascal] How does that affect your vision of photography ?[Ming Thein] Technology is an enabler, not the endgame. If there is something we can do to get better image quality that allows for a different viewing experience in the form or a larger print or better clarity under more challenging circumstances, then the more the better. But it should never get in the way of the vision and the idea of the photographer.
Personally, I know what my output will look like before I hit the shutter. This is important, because like cooking, you need to know what ingredients to buy (the raw capture material) and what tools you need (the cameras) to be able to cook a certain dish and present it a certain way…
[Pascal] You are one of these people who manage to create a distinctive style in your coverage of different subjects. Is that instinctive or do you train for that?[Ming Thein] I don’t have any formal photography training, but at this point more than 15 years of intense and continuous experimentation. My background is scientific which means experimentation is generally done in as systematic a way as possible; this continues feedback loop is important for the learning process. I would say the early part of any result derives from emulation; you figure out what is distinctive about the images that you find attractive and then seek to replicate it. As you photograph more, those differences become more pronounced and consistent – that’s style. I then spent quite a bit of time trying to distill these elements of style into a few distinct groups and methods – ‘how to shoot cinematic’ is one of the things I most frequently get asked. The problem is, it isn’t a simple answer and requires both conscious capture and conscious processing – e.g.
Even then, there are a lot of differences from situation to situation that are difficult to cover comprehensively since every image is different.
[Pascal] How did you train your eye ?[Ming Thein] Practice, looking at a lot of other people’s photographs with the aim of trying to objectively assess ‘is this a good/memorable image’ – without the bias of subject and photographer fame, if applicable. There is no substitute to continually shooting and framing and always having your ‘seeing eyes’ on.
[Pascal] What do think makes a good photograph, one with lasting impact on others ?[Ming Thein] I’ve covered this in a lot of detail here:
There are the aesthetic/technical properties, which are covered above, and the human ones, which aren’t. I think it boils down to having some sort of emotional impact on the audience. Whether this is because they have a personal connection to the subject or because it’s of historical significance or something else is another matter; in general, you remember images you care about. This may or may not be something we can consciously control as photographers beyond subjects of obvious significance (e.g. historical).
[Pascal] What would you tell a photographer with a little bit of experience trying to become someone with a strong vision ?[Ming Thein] You have to start by being observant. We are not button pushers or technicians; we are really observers. In order to capture something, you have to be able to see it. We must therefore always be aware of our environment, the direction, quality and amount of light, the potential subject elements around us etc. The next thing is actually consistency in workflow – the whole process really has to be done the same way otherwise the result will always be different; if you don’t use a timer, how do you know if your egg has been boiled for six or eight minutes?
[Pascal] You have dedicated a lot of time and effort to Ultraprints. What’s behind the concept ?[Ming Thein] Transparency. We have high-resolution ‘retina’ displays for computers and phones that make the content pop because we no longer see the screen grid; we are supposed to see the image first and then the medium second. People understand that concept, but there seems to have been a lot of skepticism to applying it to printing – probably because of a lack of imagination. Our ‘retina’ screens are anywhere up to 500+ PPI. The difference to a conventional 144/200PPI screen is marked. It’s the same with prints: few people have the shot discipline to maximise pixel quality; I’ve seen files from hundreds of photographers. This outputs at 300-360PPI. If you double that, with optimal pixel quality, the experience is quite different – you now have the same continuity of tone (even for subjects of limited spatial resolution). The limits of vision are anywhere from 700-1000PPI depending on age at minimum viewing distance, so we no longer perceive the medium – just the image. It is also the only way to get that information density (i.e. the full output of a high-resolution modern camera) onto a reasonable sized output.
[Pascal] Do you think printing is important in today’s connected world ?[Ming Thein] Yes, because again: it’s the only way to view all of the captured information at once. If I asked you to judge a book after reading three pages, you’d think I was mad. Yet that’s what most people do with images: view 1000px wide online, which is barely 2% area of the original image, at best.
[Pascal] When you are in front of a scene, do you envision it as a print or do you have multiple scenarios in mind ?[Ming Thein] I envision it as a print unless the client tells me it’s for online use – in which case you have to think of what’s going to get lost in translation. Not everything prints well, and not everything works with low resolution – very high frequency or tonally subtle subjects suffer badly without sufficient information to carry the idea.