Ming Tein

Pho­tog­ra­pher

HWM (Singapore) - - Think - BY ALVIN SOON

We’ve read on your blog that this has been your most suc­cess­ful at­tempt at be­com­ing a pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher. What has made the dif­fer­ence? I think there were a lot of things that made a dif­fer­ence. I had to make this work, cou­pled with other bits and pieces which hap­pened to go my way; I made some con­tacts at the end of 2011 which were very help­ful. One of the things I never stopped do­ing when I was work­ing a cor­po­rate job was I would go shoot com­mer­cial as­sign­ments on and off, it was just that those jobs took a back seat to my pro­fes­sional work.

If you don’t en­joy what you do, es­pe­cially given the amount of time we spend at the of­fice th­ese days, I think there’s a bit of a prob­lem. So I guess that re­al­iza­tion dawned on me. The amount of time I was spend­ing at my cor­po­rate job just wasn’t worth the dis­sat­is­fac­tion or the pay. And here we are. What are the ma­jor chal­lenges fac­ing pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers to­day? If you’re a pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher you have to make a liv­ing out of it. The prob­lem we face now in this com­mer­cial re­al­ity is that clients are not pay­ing. So­cial me­dia and pro­lif­er­a­tion of dig­i­tal cam­eras is ba­si­cally killing pro­fes­sional photography; you end up hav­ing peo­ple say­ing that they can take photographs with an iPhone and In­sta­gram.

There’s no ap­pre­ci­a­tion for how dif­fi­cult some of th­ese shots ac­tu­ally are, and as a re­sult it’s tricky to jus­tify your price. Most of the time, pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers are seen as noth­ing more than con­trac­tors. Never mind the fact that it’s not a sim­ple pro­cess­driven thing, there’s an artis­tic el­e­ment as well. And if you don’t get that right, the whole thing can turn out to be a dis­as­ter.

But the re­al­ity is, be­ing a pho­tog­ra­pher th­ese days isn’t so much about tak­ing pic­tures – there are three fac­tors. One, it seems to be how well you mar­ket your­self, and two, it seems to be about how many use­ful con­tacts you can make, and three, there has to be other in­come apart from photography, be­cause com­mer­cial work and the com­mer­cial mar­ket is dy­ing.

I think the one place where pro­fes­sion­als can sur­vive is by pick­ing a niche and be­com­ing very good at it, and that’s what I’ve done per­son­ally. But even so, we’re fac­ing an up­hill strug­gle. And in­creas­ingly we have to find other ways of di­ver­si­fy­ing our in­come. So what kind of ad­vice would you give a young per­son who’s look­ing to be­come a pho­tog­ra­pher? As­sum­ing that I haven’t put you off com­pletely al­ready – put it this way, it took me four at­tempts to get it right and even now I’m kind of barely hang­ing on. I’m not sure that I’m go­ing to be do­ing this in another year, sim­ply be­cause I have no idea what di­rec­tion the mar­ket is go­ing to go in. But the re­al­ity is that there could be a huge gap be­tween what you make out of photography, and what you could make out of do­ing some­thing else is. I prob­a­bly make a third of what I did pre­vi­ously, the rea­son why I do it is be­cause I can’t stand do­ing any­thing else. Patho­log­i­cally I just need to take photographs; that’s just me.

But if you’re com­ing into it now, I’d say pick a niche, be­come very good at it, and then even if you’re very good at it, your con­tacts are go­ing to mat­ter more.

If I’d just bought a cam­era and said I was go­ing to be a pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher, I would be kid­ding my­self. Be­cause in or­der to get work you ei­ther start do­ing it for free or you do it for cheap. And peo­ple get into this spi­ral where you start com­pet­ing on price and be­fore you know it, you’re just killing your­self, be­cause you go to work 30 days a month, and then you’re flat out. And you can’t work 30 days a month any­way be­cause you have to take into ac­count post-pro­cess­ing time; you have to take into ac­count ad­min­is­tra­tive stuff like chas­ing pay­ments and things like that.

You know I don’t think peo­ple con­sider this; one day of shoot­ing time is backed up by four or five days of other stuff. For ev­ery day I shoot, there are four or five days of back­end work; whether it’s pro­duc­tion meet­ings, or it’s post-pro­cess­ing, all those kinds of things. It’s not as sim­ple as peo­ple think it is.

And there’s the whole other is­sue of run­ning a small busi­ness. The num­ber one thing that kills most small busi­nesses is cash-flow. Peo­ple fail to take into ac­count that you’re not go­ing to get paid the day you do your work or even the day you de­liver it. It’s prob­a­bly go­ing to be a good two to three months be­fore you’re see­ing cash. So if you can’t sur­vive that then you’ve got a bit of a prob­lem. What is the dif­fer­ence to you be­tween a good pho­to­graph and a great one? I think it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that photography is sub­jec­tive, so what you like may not be the same as what I like and there’s no right and there’s no wrong. The next thing to re­mem­ber is that it’s a two-part di­a­logue as well. It’s not just you; it’s also the per­son view­ing.

There are only four ba­sic things you need to make a great pho­to­graph. One is in­ter­est­ing light, which means good qual­ity light that’s di­rec­tional, helps to high­light the sub­ject and isn’t flat, isn’t bor­ing. You need to have a clear sub­ject, if you don’t know what the photo is about, then no­body look­ing at it will know what it’s about.

You need to have some aes­thetic sense of com­po­si­tion, lay­ing el­e­ments out in your sub­ject in such a way that firstly it’s aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing, and se­condly, that it makes sense from a story-telling point of view. And that’s not so easy, be­cause a lot of the time you’re not fully in con­trol of ev­ery­thing, which means you’ve got a lot of mov­ing pieces. Where most peo­ple fail is that they’re very fo­cused on one thing and that one thing ends up be­ing smack-bang in the mid­dle of your frame, and ev­ery­thing else kind of falls by the way­side.

The last thing I think is the tough­est thing to get right, and it’s also the most im­por­tant; it’s what I like to think of as the idea. If you shoot some­thing and you show me the pho­to­graph, am I see­ing the same thing you were see­ing when you shot it? There’s got to be a con­cept, or a cer­tain feel­ing that you’re try­ing to project. And if you have those four things, it’s fairly cer­tain you’re go­ing to get a good im­age out of it.

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