Interview: Ming Thein


  Ming Thein, Photographer.


Ming Thein, Photographer.

MT has been one of my inspirations in photography. In my opinion, his style is analytic, and accurate. His handling of color, more precisely White Balance is spot on and the rendition of his images is extremely realistic. Besides that, he is a prolific writer when it comes to his blog (which he updates twice a week), he actively engages with the audience and he not only reviews equipment from time to time but he also opinion and philosophy articles that are really worth reading, in an age were internet is flooded by photographers with more skills for copy-cat blogging than for photography itself. 
Said that, enjoy the interview!



1) Tell us little bit about yourself, where have you grown up and in what context, what’s your formal education?

I was born in Malaysia, lived in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and now back in Malaysia again. Part of that was due to my father's job, part of that was for education and work. I'm a physicist and accountant by training and spent 10 years in corporate - mostly strategy and private equity - before deciding I got tired of not seeing any tangible output and doing something irrational like attempting photography as a career.


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2) What was the trigger for you to grab the camera for the first time and start with photography?

The desire to capture some passing elements of life like university and friends. Up til that point, my parents had always taken pictures of various life events; I'd wanted to do the same when I was on my own. Digital came and experimentation was free; curiosity took over, I suppose - both for the process and the differences in the way the camera saw compared to what I saw. I got really serious when I developed an interest for watches; since I found the stuff I liked I couldn't afford, I became active in various online communities, made some generous friends, and collected images instead. The rest is history, I suppose.


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3) Nowadays Internet is full of photographers/bloggers that don’t offer too much of a novelty when it comes to content. In the other hand, your site grew up to more than a million readers in less than 6 months after its launch. What was your formula for success? 

It depends much on your definition of success: if it's monetization, I've failed miserably. I want to keep my editorial integrity so I don't accept paid ads or product placement/ endorsement, which is how most of the other sites keep afloat. There is no honesty in reviewing something you were paid to say was good. Readership, on the other hand, is something different - I don't think there's any shortcut other than a lot of hard work in both generating unique and regular content, as well as engaging directly with your audience through comments/ email etc. It's grown to the point where it takes 4-5 hours a day for me just to deal with the email and comments; generating content is even more. At some point I will have to seriously revaluate priorities because this is becoming more than a full time job, but not giving the returns of one. And it's not my full time job either...


There is no honesty in reviewing something you were paid to say was good. Readership, on the other hand, is something different - I don’t think there’s any shortcut other than a lot of hard work.
— MT

4) Name 3 photographers that have influenced your work so far.

I don't think I could limit it to just three - there are so many for so many reasons, but not one whose style or work I've though 'I have to shoot like this 100%'. Let's see: Cartier-Bresson for timing; Ansel Adams for tonal control; Nick Brandt for doing it right and showing how much of a difference the output makes; Vivian Maier for carrying on even though nobody saw the images; Capa for getting out there and putting his ass on the line for the image; Salgado's early work for emotion and visual punch (though I think he lost it in later work; it's almost become a caricature of itself); Peter Lik for his marketing machine (but not the images). There are painters like Rene Magritte too - he had awesome clouds; the Old Masters for their quality of light, and the surrealists and impressionists for their alternative interpretations of reality.



5) Unfortunately, there is a lot of detractors when it comes to consider Photography an art. What are your arguments to support the opposite? 

At one point, I'm sure painting and metalwork were not art either. Art grows out of refinement of a craft to the point that it goes beyond fulfilling a need, and the creator feels this deep drive to do it - if only for themselves. An individual can only really decide what art is for you not on an absolute level.


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An individual can only really decide what art is for you not on an absolute level.
— MT

6) I had the privilege of getting to see your ultraprints and the amount of details is just plain huge. Tell us about a little bit of the process and how you came with the idea and how did you engineer that amazing type of printing.

Thank you. Ultraprints lay down real detail at 720 PPI and a very wide colour gamut. This is twice the resolution of a Retina display, and under high magnification the Retina displays actually look much coarser. I was never quite happy with prints because I always felt I was looking at dots on paper and seeing both dots and paper and not so much the image, idea or scene behind it; I wanted to get that transparency back. The whole process is one where the print stage changes the image as little as possible - so it isn't going to harm a good image or help a bad one. We modified drivers, printer hardware and tested a wide variety of papers extensively; it's a process of constant improvement. The hardware modifications were the main step. However: the process is only as good as what goes in, so you really do need to start with perfect files of many pixels to get out results like that; shot discipline and processing workflow play an enormous part in achieving this. I'm resolution limited on a D810 at 10x15", and the difference between that and say double the size is very, very obvious - even though we're still above the 'conventional wisdom' of 300 PPI.


Ultraprints lay down real detail at 720 PPI and a very wide colour gamut. This is twice the resolution of a Retina display.
— MT

7) We’ve talked in person some time back about your future with photography, and you stated that sometimes you don’t see yourself doing the same thing in the long term. Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years? Any plan to jump to another discipline similar to photography?

I honestly have no idea. The main reason is the market itself - both commercial and teaching - is changing and saturating so quickly whilst simultaneously seeming to degenerate into a pricing contest that the reality is this may not be sustainable economically. People want more and more for free - this is just impossible. I suppose I'll know when the time comes and responsibilities take priority again. But the passion and drive to make images remains strong.



8) Last question: I know you have an very extensive archive of images, but, what is the photograph that represents you the best and the one that you like the most? (send me the flick links so I can illustrate)

I believe it's always going to be the next one  - otherwise, why keep shooting?

thanks for your time mt!


Wide-angle, normal telephoto and long focal distance.



We have three basic divisions when it comes to classify the different focal lenghts: wide angle lens, normal lens and telephoto lens. They can render the same given subject in a completely different way, altering significantly the message and the mood of the picture, having each type of focal length its own characteristics and pros & cons.


 My partners in crime.

My partners in crime.


Starting from the shortest focal length (which can go from 11mm in the upcoming full-frame Canon 11-24 f/4 lens up to 35mm) the wide angle lenses are what can I considered "contextual". While they cover a wider field of view (the Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8G cover of field of 114 degrees of view) allowing us to "get more in the frame", composing a photograph even at 24mm is not an easy task as we have to choose a strong primary subject that is interacting with its context, and balanced with possible secondary subjects and its environment. Distortion known as barrel distortion is a common problem as well with ultra wide angles, as the image tends to distort in two situations: when your horizon is not balanced and when you have subjects on the edges of the frame. Aside from the aforementioned issues which can be solved by proper composition and by perspective correction in post-processing, they are excellent options to use for architecture or landscape, normally requiring less aperture to get a closer hyperfocal distance. 


 Burj Khalifa, Dubai Nikon D800, Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8G @ 19mm f/11  If the camera hadn't have been properly aligned with the horizon, the shot would have came up completely distorted, with the Burj Khalifa appearing to fall outwards or inwards.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai
Nikon D800, Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8G @ 19mm f/11

If the camera hadn't have been properly aligned with the horizon, the shot would have came up completely distorted, with the Burj Khalifa appearing to fall outwards or inwards.


The normal focal distance, which is comprised between 45mm and 55mm is the standard, is the closest to what our eyes can see regarding compression and perspective. 50mm has been the weapon of choice of legends of photojournalism like Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and other beasts of the mid 20th century, being widely used for street photography as well. I personally consider that is the lens that has to be used when somebody is starting to dig into the world of photography: a fixed lens that makes you walk in and out of the subject in order to compose, never too close but never too far, wide enough to get a rich context around a given subject, cheap and with an aperture wide enough to get good low light performance and good bokeh (a Nikkor 50mm  f/1.4D is $330 USD aprox. and a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D is only $100 USD aprox., both of them brand new). When I started to work with full frame cameras, the only lens that I had available was a Nikkor 50 f/1.8D which I still have and use from time to time, and helped me a lot to struggle and train my creativeness by not having a zoom lens. Even nowadays, most of the shoots that I take with my Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8G are taken in a range of between 45mm and 55mm. Almost having any distortion at all, lenses in this range are something that you should think about seriously if you are thinking to jump into full frame and you don't have enough money to buy a "normal" f/2.8 zoom.


 Nikon D800 - Nikkor 50mm f/1-8D  The magic of the 50mm lens: not far enough to be considered cold but not close enough to get beaten up by mad subjects.

Nikon D800 - Nikkor 50mm f/1-8D 
The magic of the 50mm lens: not far enough to be considered cold but not close enough to get beaten up by mad subjects.


Last but not the least, we have the telephoto lenses. They are quite useful for subject isolation and for its compression. Their hyperfocal distance is far (if you get to have one that can reach infinity) and thin. Significant mention is to be given to the lenses ranging 85mm f/1.8-1.4-1.2 (Canon), as they are the weapon of choice of portrait photography: it's non-existent distortion makes them the perfect option for flattering images and they normally bring a signature bokeh to the image. As I said before, compression while using longer focal distance is in the agenda, being particularly effective in landscape photography. Oposite to the barrel distortion found in wide angle lenses, they can suffer of pincushion distortion, which is also fixable in post-processing.

 Dhanaulti, India Nikon D800 - Nikkor 80-200 2.8D @ 80mm  Compression, one of the caracteristics of  the long telephoto lenses renders 4 layers of hills in this image.

Dhanaulti, India
Nikon D800 - Nikkor 80-200 2.8D @ 80mm

Compression, one of the caracteristics of  the long telephoto lenses renders 4 layers of hills in this image.


As I said before, each type of focal length has its personality, its usage, its drawbacks and its unique strengths. And our choice of focal length does not only have to do with the situation we want to photograph, but as strong or even stronger with our own photographic personality.

Good image hunting!

Leo

PS: In the next posts, I'll cover with examples what is Compression, Barrel Distortion, Pincushion Distortion and Hyperfocal length.

To HDR or not to HDR... (that's the question).


  Outskirts of Dehradun - India  Nikon D800 - Nikkor 14-24 2.8  No HDR has been used to produce this image; just a nice dose of post-processing that took more time than stacking 5, 7 or 9 HDR images but came up with a more natural finish.


Outskirts of Dehradun - India

Nikon D800 - Nikkor 14-24 2.8

No HDR has been used to produce this image; just a nice dose of post-processing that took more time than stacking 5, 7 or 9 HDR images but came up with a more natural finish.


HDR (High Dynamic Range) is one of the latest trends in photography but as the post-processing itself (read this article), the art of merging several exposures into one to expand the dynamic range has been around since the 19th century. It re-emerged thanks to the popular work of photographers like Trey Ratclliff and others, as well as the increase of processing power of cameras and computers alike. Like all upcoming trends in any art, is natural to see an often overuse of technique to the point where some images have what I like to call a "Chernobyl Radioactive" look with seldom constructive critique. Personally, HDR was something I used to do once upon a time and stopped using frequently as I learned how to use post-processing techniques make use of one frame only, due to the fact that HDR is quite time consuming when the intention is to develop a natural looking photograph.

   Which this is not the case. I over-processed three images in Photomatix Pro, and this is the result (which by the way, was not far from the default output image). A more natural looking image requires not to use pre-sets and fine tuning the sliders and more post-processing in ACR/Lightroom.


Which this is not the case. I over-processed three images in Photomatix Pro, and this is the result (which by the way, was not far from the default output image). A more natural looking image requires not to use pre-sets and fine tuning the sliders and more post-processing in ACR/Lightroom.


Now, if in most cases we can achieve a natural looking exposure that makes use of our camera's entire dynamic range, when is HDR useful? 

TOOLS & USES OF HDR

Let's name some situations where IMHO, HDR is useful:

Architectural Photography (Interior): If we want to specialize in doing interior photography for real state companies, HDR could be an incredible tool as interiors have an extremely wide dynamic range of light. Again, is important to take care of not overusing the effect.

Architectural Photography (Exterior): If we would like to take a photograph of a building against a sunset, most probably even the camera with the greatest dynamic range (nowadays the Nikon D810) will fall short with only one frame. 

The use of HDR applies as well to anything that we consider short of our required dynamic range for an image. If you wonder what is the limit where the image goes from being a well done job to become radioactive rubbish, is up to the viewer and the photographer. Even though there is a generalized view of how a natural image has to look like, is strongly subjective.

   A 5 image stack processed in Photomatix Pro. Still HDR but looks natural.


A 5 image stack processed in Photomatix Pro. Still HDR but looks natural.


Regarding the tools, there are several options nowadays in the market. We have the one I mentioned, Photomatix Pro, which has a very simple interface and some presets (which personally I never use). It is sold for $119 in its full version. The other two main options that are out there are Nik Software HDR and Topaz HDR. Last but not the least, we can make use of Photoshop and layers and masking to stack and merge all the exposures into one.

No matter what method do we use, it is highly advisable to sharpen the images as the process itself takes away clarity and sharpening, leaving most of times a flat result that lacks of contrast. The method I always preferred is to use is Unsharp Mask in Photoshop, but there are several options available to do so in the Nik Software bundles and Topaz bundles to increase sharpening and microcontrast.

  Down to Como Lake   Nikkon D810 - Nikkor 24

Down to Como Lake
Nikkon D810 - Nikkor 24


The choice of using HDR or not is yours: like cameras, techniques and software, is just a tool. What matters is your idea, how valid is it to your eyes and the viewers of the photograph and how strong your impact is.

Leo Gemetro