Ming Thein: Leaving the Corporate World for the Streets of Kuala Lumpur

Ming Thein is a commercial photographer from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; he specialises in watches, architecture and food, and shares his knowledge through workshops and his photography blog. He spent many years in the corporate world – last serving as a senior director at a private equity firm and McDonalds  – before quitting to turn his passion into a career. He was trained as a physicist and earned a Masters degree from Oxford University, graduating at age 16. Eric Kim interviewed him to find out about his photography philosophy, technical approach and future projects.

Q: Great pleasure to have you, Ming. To start off, introduce yourself to the readers of the Leica blog. Where are you from and why is photography a passion for you?

A: Thank you. You’re already starting with the hard questions! I was born in Malaysia, grew up in Australia and New Zealand, went to university in England, stayed there to work for several years, and finally returned to Malaysia in 2005 with The Boston Consulting Group. Not very photographic, I know. Photography came into play in a big way in 2003. I had a bit of money to indulge what had been a lifelong curiosity up until that point; moreover, digital was accessible and the learning curve was steep, which was great for an impatient person like myself. I was one of those who took advantage of the first wave of affordable DSLRs. I’d have brief but continual dalliances with film along the way, though – in 2004, 2005-6, 2008, and again now in late 2012. I’m a creative person, and the lack of anything of this sort in my day job was frustrating me. Photography relieved that: you are always creating, with very visible results. And you are the sole limitation, not your boss or colleagues. It’s a very meritocratic, satisfying sort of challenge. I guess that became ingrained somewhere along the way, and now I just enjoy the whole process of making images and, of course, looking at them. But the thing that gives me the biggest kick is seeing other people enjoy the images, too. It’s even better when they’re paying clients!

Q: You have a fantastic blog that is filled with equipment reviews, tutorials on street photography, post processing, and some of your personal thoughts. The way I see it, all of your posts are very in-depth, meaningful, and personal. Of course this must take a lot of time. Considering that you shoot photography commercially full-time for a living, how do you find time to blog and why is it important to you?

A: My blog contains over 400 posts and 750,000 words and I started writing it in February 2012. Let’s just say I don’t sleep much. I think product education is important: my business is selling a complex, subjective product. Though I don’t think clients read much of what I write, having a web presence does give you credibility. I enjoy writing, teaching and sharing my knowledge, and the web is a great conduit for that. I used to be Editor of a photography magazine here, however, there was so much politics around what we could and couldn’t say (not to mention a lack of competent writers/photographers) due to advertisers, that I pulled out because I couldn’t be objective. Not having that limitation, plus a big audience, means that I am in a position to hopefully make things better all round: education for clients to prevent erosion of professional rates, more savvy consumers, and better product. There are several examples, already, of where me being vocal online helped fix problems in a popular product. The final, and by no means least important part is that it lets me get in touch with a whole bunch of like-minded people. I’ve got friends everywhere now it seems, which is great. I make an effort to reply to each and every single email, message and comment I get – on busy days, this can be over 500(!) – but I think it’s just polite to reply if somebody takes the time to write to you. You’d be surprised, but this is not the case for a surprising number of websites and businesses. Go figure…

Q: You have a plethora of cameras, yet the one that you seem to use the most is your Leica. What do you think is unique about using a rangefinder, especially in street photography, that you enjoy doing?

A: Yes and no. I always use the most suitable tool for the job. The Leicas I use for reportage and photojournalism because they’re fast and unobtrusive. I can actually focus faster with the rangefinder than an AF/SLR. I’m always adjusting focus as I go, and then just giving it a tweak when I bring the camera to my eye to make things perfect. What I like about it is that you go full manual, and you know the results will be the same with every shot. It’s easy to check settings, and there are no distractions. You don’t worry about AF picking the wrong thing. It’s also just a nice feeling object, and something I can also appreciate from a design standpoint (one of the other things I do is design consulting for both layout work and product – specifically watches.). Sometimes I forget which button has been programmed to do what with the others. I have seven cameras I use on a regular basis.

Q: You live in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia yet you do quite a big of traveling internationally to teach classes and shoot commercial assignments. What do you think makes Kuala Lumpur a unique place to photograph, especially when it comes to street photography?

A: The mix of cultures and its intermediate development status. You can walk a kilometre or two and go from high-end boutiques selling $10,000 handbags and $100,000 watches to places that look like immigrant ghettos – plenty of colour, contrast and that slightly edgy feeling. Plus Malaysians love to take photographs, so it’s a very photography-friendly city unlike say, London.

Q: Your street photographs tend to have a certain “look” in terms of your post processing and they have a certain technical perfection which I see in your commercial work. This leads me to a question, how do you find your commercial work to influence your personal work and vice versa?

A: I think you need both. The precision required for commercial work drives discipline in personal work, and the creativity and experimentation from personal work stops you from growing stagnant commercially. The challenge is making time for both! As for my “look” – it’s entirely intentional. I want my images to have a certain style, to give the viewer a particular emotion or feeling when viewed. I change this to suit client needs for commercial work, but my personal work tends to go through phases as I develop or experiment with various techniques. To achieve this, I have a very strong workflow after the fact: all of my cameras have custom calibrated colour profiles, which are preloaded into Adobe Camera Raw. I use a universal RAW converter because it allows me to have both consistent controls/workflow, as well as consistency of output.

Q: One of the dreams that many photographers have is turning their passion into a living. How did you manage to do this and what are some challenges that you have faced, and what advice would you give to anyone else interested in pursuing photography as a full-time career?

A: It’s not as easy as it looks. I’ve done paid assignments on and off since 2004, when work permitted. This is the fourth time I’ve tried to turn pro; the first time I wasn’t mature enough and didn’t understand the industry, the second time I didn’t specialise, the third time I was too specialised and didn’t realise that photojournalism simply doesn’t pay, especially in this part of the world, and we’re at try number four right now. I suppose if I’d kept going and failed, people would say I’m an idiot and foolish. But, now it seems to be working and people think I’m successful. Haha.

I didn’t leave corporate until I had a number of things in place: at the end of 2011, I was invited to join Getty Images, I had some partnership collaborations in the works with Leica Asia, and several assignments lined up with high profile clients I’d been courting for some time. I thought it was now or never; any later and the risk becomes far too large. Fortunately my wife was very supportive. I think she knew that I’d be much happier as a photographer, even with the enormous pay cut.

As for advice, all I can say is don’t give up, on both the commercial and artistic front. You never know where you break is going to come from. At the same time, you should never let yourself stagnate artistically. Being practiced, ready and confident helps a lot. Also, be sure that it is what you want: there will be big compromises and a lot of hard work involved. I now work far  longer hours (at least 14-16 hours a day, every day) than I ever did even as a management consultant, but the difference is, it doesn’t feel like work because I enjoy what I do.

Q: When you are shooting in the streets, it seems that your way of working is to not disturb the scene and, instead, capture candid moments. How do you find your way of working in shooting street photography to be a reflection of your personality?

A: It’s the question of quantum physics! (Joking.) Seriously though, do you want to record the action as an observer, or do you want to influence it as a part of the photograph? I spent some time as a photojournalist and my aim is for authenticity and natural-ness, so I try to preserve the integrity of a scene and be as stealthy as possible. I know your forte is getting up close and personal, and I really admire your courage, but it doesn’t suit my style of photography or personality. I like to document and celebrate those little slices of life that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Q: You have taught workshops all around the world, and you also do private lessons. What is your teaching philosophy and how do you think that photographers can best improve their photography?

A: It’s hands on – it has to be. You have to experiment to know what works and what doesn’t, and have the good habits like watching your edges, shot discipline etc. ingrained into your subconscious. The only way to do this is practice! There are so many things I’ve adopted along the way in my own shooting process that when I listed them out for an article on the things I look for when I shoot, I was surprised that we could actually process all of that in the short instant of looking through the finder . . . but clearly, we manage somehow. Fundamentally though, photographers have to understand what makes a good image, and be able to deconstruct the elements and use them in their own work. I tried to answer the question “what makes an outstanding image?” in a short, pithy article, but it ennded up being a two-part, 5,000 word monster (already published). There is simply no simple answer. But if you look at enough images, and try to replicate them along the path of figuring out what your style is, then keep iterating the process – I think you’re moving along the right path.

Q: In the history of photography, Asian photographers tend to be under-represented (besides the likes of Araki and Moriyama). Yet this seems like this is changing, as the Asian community of photographers is becoming much more visible. Considering that you live and work mostly in Asia, how do you see Asian photography changing and evolving?

A: The impression I get is that there are a lot more hobbyists as a percentage of the population than in other parts of the world. I don’t know why this is. But at the same time, there are a lot fewer true pros – probably about the same number of shutter-pushers-for-hire, though. I think this has a lot to do with the old psychology drummed into us by earlier generations: photography is not a profession in the same sense as engineering, accounting, law or medicine. Part of it is because of money and perceived status, part of it is because it’s much more difficult to explain an artistic discipline. I know my own parents weren’t exactly enthusiastic the first time I told them I wanted to be a photographer; fortunately they’ve come around to it now. (The exhibitions and recognition didn’t do any harm, either!)

I hope with continued education and social media that the profession will evolve to a point that the photographer becomes properly valued, and not just another commodity supplier to be squeezed. Some of the big companies, camera brands included, I’ve dealt with are guilty of this, too, which is a big shame. Without skilled, aspirational and visible pros, the desire for people to take up a camera and put up with the mediocre results of the early learning stages is going to be a lot lower. But we pros have to do our part in educating the consumer and the client. There are pros who deliver consistently high artistic and technical quality all the time and have the skills, knowledge and experience to deal with a variety of situations, and then there are people who charge you to aim the camera and press the button. They are not the same. This struggle is something that the remaining bastions of the industry are acutely aware of, and we are working hard to change it by being as visible and vocal as possible.

Q: What are some projects that you are currently working on, and what do you wish to accomplish with them?

A: Professional work goes on. The aim there is always to grow: get more creative freedom, larger projects, and more clients. I’d rather do more conceptual, complicated work than quantity, but it’s quantity that pays the bills. So we do what we can to keep things interesting, like developing our lighting techniques etc.

As for my personal work . . . that’s a tough question. I think one’s own style and techniques are always evolving. I want to shoot less (part of it is due to time) but think more before I do. I’m actually going to pick up film again. This is to improve my discipline, push up the quality ratio even further, and also to see if there’s anything I’ve missed from a processing/aesthetic point of view. To change the output, you need to change the thought process, and picking up a rangefinder or auto-whiz film SLR isn’t going to do that. I need to change the way I work. I’ve recently picked up a vintage Nikon F2 Titan, and am looking into a Hasselblad 500cm. The next problem is finding a good lab here in Kuala Lumpur. They all seem to have died out in the last five years. Heck, even finding film is tough. And the irony of using my DSLR for slide/negative copy work isn’t lost, either.

Q: I have some technical questions for you. It seems that within the community of street photographers there are two camps: those who like to shoot wide open all the time, and others who prefer to set a relatively high f-stop (like f/8) and use zone focusing. Which technique do you find yourself using more and why?

A: Both and neither. I believe there is a such a thing as too much bokeh. Having the right amount of isolation is far more important than having none, or lots of it. I want just enough to enhance separation of my subject from the background, but not so much that I lose the context of the background. Of course, there are situations in which this isn’t possible. Under very low light, I’d rather shoot wide open than not get a photograph. And I enjoy using compacts too because they’re so discrete and unobtrusive; you have zero depth of field control there. I think, though, that if you can make a strong image with everything in focus, then shallow depth of field becomes another tool you have at your disposal if you choose to use it. I do know that some street photographers always shoot stopped down to minimise focusing lag, but with practice you can zone focus at large apertures, too.

Q: When you travel and approach a new place to photograph, how do you strive to take unique images that aren’t just the typical clichés – in say New York and Tokyo? And where would you say that your best work has been done in?

A: I think you need to look for three things to make a good image: interesting light, an interesting and clear subject, and finally, strong composition. And for a bonus fourth point, an idea. The viewer should be able to see what you saw in your mind when you put your eye to the finder. To make an image that says “Tokyo” without looking overtly like Tokyo requires you to work that context into the background or subject. Even if an image is cliched, you can still do a different take on it and back that up with perfect execution. The results matter as much as the idea, because it’s what people see.

I like think my best work is my most recent, which in this case means Tokyo. I’m very pleased with this set, actually. That said, I do also find the older, more textured parts of the world – Europe, for instance – very conducive to photography because there are just so many subjects, backdrops and stages to work with – all of which have the context built in.

Q: Who is one photographer (contemporary) that you admire and that you would recommend to other photographers to check out?

A: Tough to pick one. I try to look at a huge number of images to keep things interesting and get inspiration from a variety of sources. I’m going to instead list the photographers I admire, and why:

Sebastião Salgado - a master of light, composition and capturing the idea

Alex Majoli – for his early work with compacts which resulted in the use of huge amounts of empty darkness to reinforce what remains behind in the highlights

Wong Kar-Wai (cinematographer) – for his use of lighting to create mood in cinema

Norbert Rosing and Paul Nicklen – for their wildlife work under challenging arctic conditions

David Doubilet – for his underwater work

Annie Leibovitz – for her conceptual work

Ansel Adams – for his tonal mastery

Henri Cartier-Bresson – for his timing

René Magritte (painter) – for his mastery of subtle lighting, and amazing clouds

Q: Any last words you would like to mention and who would you like to give a shout out to?

A: Absolutely! Firstly, a big thank you to my clients, supporters and readers thus far; without you, I’d never have made the leap to where I am now. (If I’ve left anybody out, it’s not personal!) Nadiah Wan, my wife, muse and biggest fan and grounder; Darren Chang at Autodetailer, who nudged me over the edge to begin with; Wesley Wong at Giclee Art, my print master; Philip Ong, my bad influence; John Hodges, who encouraged me to stick with photography even when my photos were making people blind; Gordon Hurden, my mentor and a damned fine illustrator who taught me all I know about Photoshop; Shaun Thein, my brother and sometimes assistant; Steven Holtzman at Maitres Du Temps, who believed in me from the start enough to make me their exclusive photographer; Ian Skellern, my friend and representation in Switzerland; Robert-Jan Broer at Fratellowatches; the team at Jaeger Le-Coultre; finally, George Wong, Sunil Kaul, Matthieu Musnier and Gracia Yap at Leica Camera Asia.

Thank you for your time, Ming!

- Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Ming and view his work, visit his blog, professional portfolio, and Flickr stream. He can also be found on Facebook. To inquire about his upcoming workshops or his personalised programs, email him at mingthein@gmail.com.