B&H Creator of the Week: Ming Thein

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Photographer, physicist, philosopher, horologist—these are just a few of the many facets that define the indefatigable Ming Thein. Armed with a camera since age 16, his photographic career has spanned a wide range of subjects and an even more impressive reach. His extensive musings on photography, as catalogued on his eponymous blog, amount to more than 1,800 articles, two million words, 200 hours of educational video, a hundred thousand comments, and an enviable recommended gear list, leading us to invite him to contribute as our latest B&H Creator of the Week.

Above photograph © KH Yeo, all other photographs © Ming Thein

By means of introduction, we recently asked Thein to respond to a few questions about his photography, horology, and other aspects of his impressive career. In the days to come, keep your eyes on B&H's social media channels for even more great content. As he points out himself at the end of this story—the best is yet to come!

Name: Ming Thein

Where are you based? Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Primary websites: https://blog.mingthein.com, https://ming.watch

Portfolio: https://www.mingthein.photography/

Please list your most important social feeds:

Jill Waterman: How long have you been making pictures, and what was your primary focus when you first picked up photography?

Ming Thein: Since university days; easily 18 years now. At first it was for a teenager to record the experience of growing up for posterity and a time when he might be able to make sense of it, it then became an escape valve from work that could be taken in small bites when time allowed, and later still a way to create a personal experience in a hobby I couldn't afford at the time—watches. All this happened in the first two years of seriously picking up a camera. Before that, just the usual family and vacation snapshots and the admonition of "stop wasting film on pictures with no people in them!"

What is your educational background, in photography and other studies, and how have you applied these studies to your current business and career?

Photographic is easy: zero, I'm self taught. Other than that, I have a masters' degree in theoretical physics from Oxford and some accounting training. Ironically, I've done far more teaching in photography than classroom-sitting. The physics degree has been mostly useless except when trying to impress people enough to get an interview during my corporate days. Some very small elements helped when I was working with Carl Zeiss during development of the Otus and Milvus lenses, though. I hated accounting with a passion, but if you don't understand cash flow, you can't make a business run, be it photography or anything else.

Did you have a role model or someone who inspired your vision at the start of your career?

Honestly, no. I had a bunch of bosses and colleagues I absolutely didn't want to be, and that pushed me toward doing my own thing. But I did have a neighbor / mentor, Gordon Hurden, who is less of a photographer and more of a very talented professional illustrator, and who taught me everything I know about Adobe Photoshop. He was also incredibly generous with his time and lens collection….

In addition to your passion for image making and cameras, you are equally passionate about horology and watches, leading you to become a watchmaker. Based on your knowledge of both fields, do you find there are specific qualities or characteristics these two disciplines share?

Yes and no. Cameras are a tool to make images; mechanical watches aren't really a tool to tell the time but an art form in themselves. This differentiation means that while both share elements of mechanical precision, tactile quality, design detail (hopefully), and so on—they ultimately have quite different purposes. It means that cameras that prioritize design over image-making ability end up being expensive and unpopular when new, but highly desirable much later when people realize that the experience of handling the object is just as important as the result (and this actually makes it much more enjoyable to get the result), but a watch has to appeal to the senses right from one's first impressions.

You have an extremely content-rich website/blog and social media feeds. Generally speaking, how much time do you spend cultivating these platforms?

Honestly, too much. I have just put the website on hiatus after 8.5 years, and more than 1,800 articles, two million words, three dead keyboards, 200 hours of educational video, a hundred thousand comments, and just shy of 30 million visitors. That's a full-time job for a team in itself—but I was also shooting professionally, holding senior industry positions, teaching, and building a watch company at the same time. There eventually weren't enough hours in a day and I had to prioritize. Intravenous coffee was no longer working, and I also felt I'd said everything I wanted to say.

Do you keep to a specific schedule or timeframe for working on your blog and social media feeds, or have any tips for streamlining this process?

When I was doing it actively, I had a three-month buffer of posts written up, an editorial schedule of topics/titles to write, and an image queue for this and other social media. Twice daily clearance of comments, DMs and email, and a good chunk of at least one day a week to just write. That doesn't count actually shooting the content for these posts. A tip? Don't set unrealistic expectations, the Internet is very entitled.

Your Instagram feed is full of graphic compositions and details of watches and other shiny metal surfaces. Do you select images to publish on this platform with those qualities in mind?

No, IG is low maintenance and very much stream-of-consciousness for me. It's curated into groups of three because of the format, and I post our watches around when we launch of course, but that's about it. I'll avoid longer aspect ratios because it doesn't allow anything more than 4:3 vertically, but for the most part, I just post what I'm shooting at that point in time.

Your website features a "Camerapedia" page, where you comment on each item, and give it a rating from 1 to 10. With the understanding that this is a very subjective practice, how long do you generally need to spend testing an item to arrive at a numeric rating?

I stopped updating this page some time ago. It was taking too long, hardware was getting increasingly nuanced, and it also tended to bring out the worst kind of trolls. Nobody likes to wake up to entitled demands or bricks in their inbox every day. I find that to really understand a complex piece of hardware properly, even for your own specific needs and way of working—never mind anybody else's—it takes at least a few thousand deliberate frames. And then you have to cross-check for anomalous results and sample variation….

Do you have an all-time favorite camera? If so, what makes it your favorite?

No. Despite the impression people get, I'm not a reviewer or gear hog; the image comes first, and the rest is just a tool to get there. My favorite equipment is what does the job reliably and unobstructively, and this changes with creative intent and from image to image. It wouldn't and can't be the same for a studio watch image versus a documentary one, for instance—and though some things have a wider usage envelope than others—e.g., a Swiss Army knife—it would be incredibly naïve for somebody to think there was really a full one-size-fits-all.

How about a favorite lens, or a preferred focal length?

As above. Actually, I'll reinforce this by adding that even though I'm incredibly biased toward the Zeiss Otus series because I was involved in their development (and they're extremely capable lenses)—I don't use them often because they're just not the right tool most of the time. I've shot as much of my paid professional work with a consumer grade 24-120mm as medium format, and there are iPhone and large format images in my portfolio. It should be about the image.

And what about lighting? Lights are not included in your recommended gear list; is there any specific type of artificial lighting you favor, or does it always depend on circumstances?

Actually, they are—I recently moved from Nikon SB900s to Godox AD400s, since I no longer shoot watches on location and can have a permanent studio setup.

All of my watch images, and a good deal of the other product images—even on location—are shot with flashes or larger packs, and a lot of lo-fi stuff like Perspex and cardboard. A watch is a tiny reflective hodgepodge to shoot, and if you're not controlling the ambient environment you're going to end up with something horrible. Unlike a lot of other photographers in this particular specialty, I don't believe in compositing: what you see in one of my watch images is what you would see with your eyes if you stood in the camera position and I turned the lights on. I do everything in a single shot without cutouts or Photoshop work (as can also be seen in the BTS video and images).

Do you have a favorite lighting technique for working with a small still life object such as a watch? If so, please describe it.

This isn't a simple question to answer. In essence, start with knowing where you want your primary source, and for a watch, construct the reflection—not the lighting. The watch itself is almost always highly reflective and, therefore, you need to control the ambient environment.

In addition to being a prolific image maker, you are equally prolific as a writer. Do you find there to be any crossover or correspondence between the act of writing and that of making images?

Creativity isn't limited to one medium—sometimes an idea is best expressed as an image and can't really be described well with words, sometimes the opposite. It's just a case of choosing the right medium and practicing sufficiently to be prolific with the tools. Interestingly, nobody ever says "great article, what keyboard do you use?"

You've formed relationships with several different photo and technology companies as a consultant or advisor, and you even spent a year working as chief of strategy for Hasselblad. Can you share any insights about what goes on behind the scenes in developing gear or product branding that might be of interest to photographers?

Closer to two years, actually, and a year before that as a Hasselblad ambassador. I was also on the board of advisors of DJI, who became the parent company of Hasselblad at the time.

I can't speak for what goes on in other companies, but I do know we tried to make the best products we could from a technical perspective, as well as usability and coherence. What I worked on specifically came to light as the second-generation FW for the Hasselblad X1D with electronic shutter, and some of the new lenses; the rest, like the Hasselblad 907X, is only coming to market now. The challenge is really figuring out what people need as opposed to what they think they need, then showing them how it's even better than what they wanted. It helps if a camera company actually has a working photographer in their ranks, but they also have to understand the engineering and economics to see where an optimal balance can be achieved.

Based on your extensive experience with and knowledge of photo gear, is there any one technological change or advance to cameras that's at the top of your wish list?

It isn't technical; we're way past the point of sufficiency for everybody but a small handful of people with very specific requirements. It's a UI/UX thing: none of this has been really rethought other than in the iPhone. There's a lot of "stuff" most people don't need to be concerned with, and cameras have gone toward "more complex is better" rather than "how do we make the whole experience more enjoyable?" This includes not just interface but also materials, tactility, ergonomics. A camera doesn't have to look like a traditional expectation of a camera. If anything, given technological maturity and market saturation, camera brands need to be more experimental to give people a reason to buy. Twenty percent more pixels and a pet smile beauty retouch scene mode isn't it.

Is there any emerging technology for photography or imaging that you'd be particularly excited to try out?

No, the limitation isn't the tech. I can make the images I want, and there's still envelope left to explore.

Is there any one photo shoot or creative project that's your all-time favorite? Please give us some backstory about what makes it so memorable to you.

It's always the next one—whatever that might be. If you think you've reached a peak already, then you might as well stop. The world has enough visual "meh" as it is, thanks to social media and a lack of understanding of curation.

Another facet of your career is teaching photography workshops. While most workshop programs are currently on hold, do you plan to continue teaching once it is safe to do so? If so, how can photographers learn about these opportunities?

The workshops were put on hold because I had about six jobs, not because of travel restrictions—this happened a couple of years back. I simply don't have the time anymore, unfortunately.

You recently announced that your website and your writing are going into retirement, with the current site remaining intact as an archive. With this in mind, do you have future plans or anything on the horizon that you'd like to share?

Since the middle of 2018, the majority of my efforts have been concentrated on building the watch brand. I serve as designer and photographer, both of which are full-time jobs in themselves. This is a long-term endeavor involving more than 20 people and something much more scalable than a one-man photography business—at least until they invent cloning. In the past three years, we've already released 16 models, won major international awards, and consistently trade at a significant premium on secondary markets because of demand. I am implementing everything I've wanted to do previously in the camera hardware business, but wasn't allowed to do. Focusing on the product and the customer experience rather than the marketing fluff seems to be working. Even though the team has done a lot in a short space of time, I think we've barely started. I know there are at least three times as many projects on the board as we've released, and I'm nowhere close to running out of ideas. As I said before: I always believe the best is yet to come.

Do you have any questions for Ming Thein, our B&H Creator of the Week? Please ask them in the Comments section, below.

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