Most popular posts

Popular posts


Reasonable or expensive, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

I love the following quote:

“Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him. “It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.” So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”

“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.

“B-b-but, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”

To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.” (Source)

There is always a point in ones photography career that you will be told that you are too expensive and that they can easily find somebody else to do it cheaper. Designers hear that a lot too. It becomes more common when the financial markets are in a squeeze.

Getting to stay at a 5 star resort for the price of a 4 star will still be too expensive for someone on a 3 star budget.

What do you do? Take it or leave it, it is your choice. Emerging photographers, wanting to get a break, may take it. Established ones with a slow month may also take it. The ones with a strong belief in their self worth will turn it down. Or do you barter?

Bartering seems to be on the rise and can be a much better option. First of all you get to keep you marked value. If you price yourself very low, your reputation for low price will exceed you.It will be easier to scale Mount Everest than to raise your rates. Reap what you sow as they say.

The market will always have an average rate, some will price themselves slightly above, others below. What you can charge depends on your perceived market value. Quality has always commanded price. Rolls Royce will not have a “70% off regular price” end-of-year sale. They wouldn’t even think that thought. Why? Because that would destroy their perceived market value.

Since a majority of people perceive photography to be a mere click on the shutter, they often believe they can almost do it themselves or correct it by using Photoshop if they did not get it right in the first place. The tree branch in the background, no worries, I will photoshop it. The reflection of the crew in the building. Don’t mind them, they all disappear with my magic wand. Also disappearing is the notion of time. A simple step to the side, re-compose and crop out the branch and tell your crew to take cover, would save you tremendous time spent on Photoshop work. Why increase your workload when you don’t need?

What happened to the craft of photography? Once, when we loaded sheets or rolls of film into the cameras, testing the light setup with polaroids, the client understood that the material spent cost money. The more experienced photographer, the less “waste” of film and polaroids, the less money spent.

Digital photography changed that. It doesn’t cost you more to shoot another frame and check the light on the screen, but you still save time on using an experienced photographer. It is always easy when you know what you are doing. That’s why clients often ask to see that you have already done a similar shot to what they want. Reassurance.

What also hasn’t changed is the fact that you will soon be carrying far more equipment around than before. In addition to lights and light modifiers, laptops and tethered cameras are the the norm. It is a costly business to invest in, especially with the innovation rate of technology. 2 years to recoup investment cost as you constantly upgrade camera bodies and computers.

As for your lights, they should be optimized for digital photography in terms of stable colour temperature, lenses should be the top of the range as they affect image quality, cameras adequate to handle the demand of art buyers (medium format is more or less the standard for advertising work) and computer systems with plenty of backup storage to handle the file sizes you are working on. Are you seeing the spinning wheel when working in Photoshop then your computer system is not fast enough.

Once you start putting figures next to the equipment list, the sum can be more than you really want to know.

That is the investment cost for your business. Your daily business expenses, including staff salary, comes on top of this.

Bottom line, photography business is like any business; a business.

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ProPak (No, it is not a flash)

Convention Centre, Phu My Hung, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Convention Centre, Phu My Hung, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I decided to pay a visit to the packaging fair, ProPak, held in Phu My Hung. After the arrival of the international convention centre, more conventions are available then ever.

It also gave me the chance to take the new bridge and road that links district 7 with district 2. A great motorbike ride indeed and I got sunburned arms to show as I didn’t mind the heat when I had the wind blowing in my face. I keep forgetting how strong the sun is here in Vietnam. No wonder the supermarket stock up on factor 120 suncream.

Phu My bridge, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Phu My bridge, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Back to the beginning, why attend a packaging event in the first place?

Simply because it interests me. Prior moving to Vietnam I used to work for Bagshawe Leahy in London. Bagshawe Leahy specialized in corporate identity work and packaging design. At the time I was working for them, I worked mainly on packaging design projects. In light of that, attending a convention on packaging makes perfect sense.

First impression, hats off to Du Pont Vietnam for setting the standard in good presentation design. Their booth was informative, well laid out and engaged the visitors. There were others that were good, but all in all, Du Pont is the one that I remember the best. Unfortunately, the majority of exhibitors did not reach that level. It is sad to see that even in 2010 there are companies that think conventions are a great way to hire girls to show off legs when displaying their products.

What did catch my attention was the use of corporate videos, especially informative ones. I believe we are all curious by nature, and I prefer to learn something new everyday. So to be able to get an easy to understand explanation on how things work, the various production processes on display became interesting and engaging. Compare that to the booth with the lone sales person more interested in checking emails on the laptop, hoping potential clients will drop by. Why would I engage with him? He is clearly occupied with catching up on his work, not really seeing this as a great opportunity to do some pr for his company. This is where the company fails on getting maximum return on investment. They have spent a large sum of money to be present at this fair, they have invested in getting some promotional material on the walls and some hand outs produced only to have a member of staff that is too focused on catching up with existing work and not having the time to promote the business.

It is a sharp contrast to the Du Pont experience where I was approached after perusing the booth’s information stands. Not immediately, but following similar retail practices where they let the customer walk around the aisles and get an overview before approaching. It is all about the timing. Not too fast and not too slow and then, engagement. This is where I meet your company, through your booth staffs and I form a first impression. Friendly greetings are always great and genuine smiles. It makes a world of difference, especially when the staffs present are knowledgeable and willing to share information even though they can clearly see that you are not a genuine buyer.

These days, it is not only about the instant sale and short term profit, it is about long term marketing. Do you want your company to be remembered and mentioned? Maybe the visitor to your stand is not your customer, but within the visitor’s network there are potential ones? Wouldn’t it be better to let your visitors do your networking for you? Du Pont is not a client of mine and they are not paying me to write about them, but I chose to do just so. As a single person blogging about them, I will probably not have much impact, but consider having more people blogging about your products and you can soon think about the famous Rice and Chess story.

Continue that thought and my neurons gave me: “Video killed the radio star”.

Those corporate videos engage spectators on a different level. Yes, you can have your big prints drawing attention, but booth space is expensive, and there is a limit to how many prints you can display. Slideshow can be an option, but video really shines by providing content to keep your visitors at your stand for longer. After passing too many stands that shared the same visual language either using stock photography or similar image styles/treatment (…and sadly pixelated images due to low resolution of source file), the “educational video with a science aspect” stopped me in my tracks. Here I could suddenly see how the whole process took place inside a plant, recycling bottles and removing their labels. Video was simply the best solution to get this process across. I watched it to the end.

Now that most dslr’s are coming with built in video, there is a change in the photography community. The ones embracing the change and running with video as well as stills and the ones that stick to what they know best, photography. Since the market has so many videographers available, will corporate videos be the next “gold rush”? Unlike stock photography, a corporate video has to take place at a physical location belong to the company. Putting together a corporate video mixing stock footage of various competitors will not earn you trust. In that respect, more commissioned work will be available.

That should be good news, as commissioned work seems to yield better income than stock photography after the micro stock revolution.

Stock images can sometimes be good to use, but other times, especially when representing your business, you would probably wish you commissioned photography instead of experiencing something like this.

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The make over

New website versus old website

New website versus old website

Sometimes a make over can be a good thing. The old website had served its purpose well, but it did not reflect our latest work. The first site was built out of need and within a very short time frame. I had left my art director job after six years and was now about to embark on a new adventure by opening up a commercial photography studio. I built the first site the “old school” way, with frames and tables, had no time to learn enough about css. The portfolio took the longest time to organise. It was divided into two sections, commercial work and editorial work. Very simple, but that was all the work I managed to present at that point. A simple contact button in the corner lead to a contact page with an image of our studio as well as contact details. Our online presence was ready. We were open for business.


Establishing goals

I always knew that at some point I would need to update the site and for that, quite a few coffee breaks at cafe’s with pen and paper was needed. Yes, pen and paper. Design the old fashioned way. Prior to the design phase I had spent quite some time online doing research. I found various offerings for photographers, but most of the time, it involved flash based systems and they are slow to load here in Vietnam. The last thing I want is a potential client to give up due to excessive loading speed. I knew I needed something without the use of flash and built by using css and not by frames. By setting myself goals, I could get a better understanding of the design requirements.

With the research done, then it was time to start the design phase, sketching out layouts on paper, modifying the design by crossing over items. When it got too messy, re-draw the page again and then continue. Sounds tedious you may say, but not as tedious as it would be by trying to sketch on the computer. I can go through ideas faster on paper than on the screen. Once you get behind the keyboard, you easily start spending more time tweaking the design instead of working rapidly through rough ideas. Hence the paper and pen approach first. It actually saves time.

Website blueprint

Website blueprint

Once I had created the blueprint, I spent 2 days averaging 17-18 hours each to build the whole new site. A professional web designer could probably create it in less time, but then I would not have the creative challenge and satisfaction of building something from scratch. Disclaimer one, I did have a professional web designer friend of mine check the code afterwards and he helped to install the contact form. Disclaimer two, the company that hired me in the first place to come to Vietnam did also web development and I ended up working as a project manager on some of the web projects so I am familiar with Dreamweaver and html.

I have always believed it is better to make use of existing services than trying to recreate the wheel, especially when it comes to anything internet related. I have experienced first hand the efforts going into software development and I do not have the time nor the resources to do something advanced as that. My passion stays with photography. That’s where I want to spend my time. I really do like what Modernista does for their corporate website. It is not for any company, but they embrace the idea of using the net to the fullest.

The new site continues using Issuu for portfolio presentation and links to our frequently used online social networking sites are displayed under the about section and a Facebook fan button has been added to the contact section.

However, the most important difference from the first to the second site is the portfolio section itself. Over one year and a half our studio have managed to build up a substantial amount of work and we have now divided into 8 portfolio sections instead of the previous 2. A big thank you to all our clients who have made this journey possible. It’s been a great year and a half and I truly believe this year of the Tiger will be equally good.

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Technorati verification

When you create your first website, you want people to find it and the same goes with blogs. So as part of submitting, Technorati wants to make sure I am who I am by inserting a bit of code 8CMQKY9SJSVW in a blog post to ensure that my listing will continue to the next step. So here goes.

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Project Charity

The charity project is something that has been on and off. First time we started it, was around 2003. We found 5 different, privately run orphanages and visited them. We interviewed and photographed, went back home and wrote articles about them that were then posted online on a now forgotten portal site. However, the years they were up, they generated interest and gifts for the orphanages.

The stories we were told back then, are stories that we can never forget. It seems that in this world, no matter how hard you think you have had it, there is always someone who has had a harder life.

What can you do when you are few hours old and are being left outside an unknown house…

The people who care for the orphans have put tremendous effort and love into their operations, no matter how poor they are themselves.

You open up your own house, sell all your furniture so you can support more children and give up your own privacy just for the sake of helping others…

You meet these people face to face and leave humbled.

After setting up my photography studio again, the orphanage project kept coming back in my mind. Still the same concept; visit, document and raise awareness. I added some self imposed rules, only to bring a camera and a lens, maybe a reflector, but that’s about it. Back to basic photography.

My plan this time is to visit 8-10 orphanages and create enough visual imagery for a book and an exhibition in order to raise both awareness and funds for them.

The project is trotting slowly along, I have been to 4 already together with a journalist friend of mine who helps with the interviews.

All the places that we have visited are more or less unknown to the general public. There are quite a few organisations, NGO’s that are internationally funded and staffed with both ex-pats and locals, but we are not including them as they already are receiving exposure. Our aim is to help the ones that even with US$ 10 extra, makes a huge difference.

Below are some samples from the recent visits.

Orphanage Project

Orphanage Project

Orphanage Project

Orphanage Project

Orphanage Project

Orphanage Project

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The streets of Saigon

Walkabouts. I miss living in London as Saigon does not appreciate pedestrians in the same manner. I walked a lot more before. These days, a regular gym routine is needed to stay in shape.

However, there are few moments of bliss to be enjoyed on the streets of Saigon and Tet is one of them. The streets are deserted and at noontime there are even less movement as people enjoy their lunch and being Tet, their games.

Despite the reduced number of motorbikes, people still manage to have bike accidents.The statistics are shocking.

Motorbike accident

Abandoned motorbike on the road

Ask any ex-pat living here for more than a few years, and they all have their traffic tales from hell to tell. I once was told about a friend of a friend that went down only to be run over by the bike that came behind. He was wearing a helmet and survived as the wheel went over his head.

At least he was wearing a helmet and had it secured. There is a reason why the traffic police asked for better clarification in the laws regarding wearing a helmet and to specifically add the part of securing the strap. To see adults riding their bikes at full speed, suddenly slamming their brakes after going over a small bump as their helmet is now rolling on the street behind them, turning their bikes and going the wrong way only to place the helmet back on again without securing it.

What kind of logic is this? Probably the same that is applied at night when motorbikes are coming at full speed down unlit alleyways without their headlights on. I am being told they are saving the light bulb as their main reason. I changed my lightbulb once or twice in 7 years on my bike and that cost me less than 10.000 Vietnamese Dong each time (1 US$=18.500 VND). A life can be really cheap these days.

No entry road sign

No entry road sign in front of a wooden wall.

Back to the walkabout. Light at noontime is often avoided by photographers as it is too harsh, but sometimes it can create interesting opportunities. It is refreshing to walk around, only camera and lens, no other light modifiers and work with what you got. It is all out there, the only difference is how you see it. Different photographer, different vision. That’s what I love about photography, part technique and craft, part the way you see, the art of composition. As they say, know the rules and when to break them.

The text and numbers on the image below belongs to various concrete suppliers. This is how they advertise themselves around the city. Almost any wall will have one or more of these tags. They must employ a team of taggers as every new rise will have them plastered on within a week.

Wall with lettering

Wall tagged by local concrete providers.

Another common sign that you can easily spot around is the mobile petrol station, see image below.

Mobile petrol station

A mobile petrol station.

The second version have a bit of Josef Muller-Brockmann influence.

Mobile petrol station alternate version

Mobile petrol station alternate version.

Another street sign is this repair shop. The stack of tires signals the presence of a repair station/garage. Functional design.

Motorbike repair station

Stacked tires indicate a motorbike repair shop.

A walk like this was much needed break from the routine. I have a charity project running with the same principle, only camera and lens, work with what you got. Maybe I bring a reflector. It is good to go back to basic, you often end up being more creative when on a shoe string budget so to speak.

I think of it as duality and balance. With my work I do commercial (advertising) and editorial work. I go from corporate boardrooms to restaurants photographing food. I will be in studio doing products and still life to be on location photographing models. I am blessed to be able to have variety in my assignments and that variety I truly enjoy.

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Never say never…

Two kinds of assignments that I constantly turn down, events and weddings. Why, you may ask, especially as in Vietnam wedding photography is a big business. The Sky’s the limit. If you can afford it, you flaunt it.

I digress. The reason why is “know thy limits”. I believe there are quite a few capable photographers that already do several events a week. They have the experience and skill set to do it well. It is an area that I don’t want to enter. Weddings too. Wedding photography is a discipline on it’s own. The typical wedding studio here in Vietnam employs so many staff. It’s a big operation.

You can see them take turn at the popular locations. They shoot more or less matching scenarios. Poses practiced and well rehearsed. They have different packages on offer, starting from low to sky high.

We used a similar studio for our own wedding album. Did so many clothes changes in a day. Did not want to do a location shoot. Too shy for that. Wedding couples always gather small crowds. Especially around Notre Dame church, downtown Saigon.

Anyway. We got an enquiry and we politely thanked them and said no as we felt they would be better served elsewhere.

Normally that would be the end of the story but they asked us to reconsider. We still thought it was in their best interest to still decline. Then, upon arrival, they showed up at our studio, telling us that they really liked our work and they still wanted us to shoot for them. How can you say no to a request like that. We couldn’t. Too humbled.

So we did our first wedding session. Our way.

Our first wedding session

Our first wedding session

Our first wedding session

Our first wedding session

Our first wedding session

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Photography, Recommended

“The ‘Net is a waste of time, and that’s exactly what’s right about it.” William Gibson

Spook Country by William Gibson

Spook Country by William Gibson

Spook country by William Gibson. Gibson has always been one of my favourite authors, mostly due to the way he incorporate technology into his novels. I cannot recall where I read it but someone once said that for immediate news read the papers but for future change, read contemporary  novels. They are picking up the undercurrent of change before it hits the main stream media. I always liked that thought. The main stream media has no longer got the luxury of time. Look at CNN for instance. They only report what they see. If an incident take place it takes a long time before you will get deeper facts but already by then they have had hundred plus of updates to their news bulletin. I rather watch national geographic than CNN. Contemporary novels over main stream media. Last, but not least, industry blogs and social networks.

With William Gibsons novels readers are expecting the latest in technology applied in an realistic manner. I read an interview with William Gibson where he said readers suggested the interaction between the book and the Internet. Hyperlinks embedded. To that he replied that he’s already doing that. Try googling some of the references and you get to another level of the book. Let your neurons fire, a thought leads to another and more. Before you know it, you have taken a mental road trip, discovering tidbits you didn’t know before. It’s a ride well worth taking similar to the long forgotten Sunday stroll.  Discoveries can be a good thing. Wired did so here in this interview.

However, the current obsession about new technology advances and the rumours of new gadgets before they are launched can take it’s toll and distract focus no matter how much anti shake you put on.

Before the digital revolution, you bought a camera body and stocked up with prime lenses. Glass has always been an investment. The camera body would almost last a lifetime. If the shutter played up, you replaced it and it was good as new. The capture media was the film itself, and you always had access to the latest in film technology.

With digital, your camera body starts to become obsolete the moment you buy it. Every new camera upgrade creates something better, but unlike buying a new roll of film, you have to buy a whole new camera. Suddenly having access to the latest technology became very expensive. In that context, suggestions of camera systems with upgradable sensors make sense from a consumer point of view. For medium format systems you can upgrade the back, but then you also get tempted to upgrade the body too when they have a new and improved model available.

Unless you have unlimited funds available, there is a point where you use what you got in the best way you can. Want that panorama image, try stitching. Only got one flash, start bouncing light with reflectors and mirrors. Don’t let the equipment you want to have put you off shooting in the first place.

Do we need the 60 million pixels? Someone said that with so many pixels you have a lot of lee way when you crop the image. To me it sounds a bit sloppy. I’m old fashioned in that sense that I prefer to crop in camera than after. Why? One example, when I was working as an art director and the editor brought me the images from a beauty session I could only see the full face shots and not the detail shots of the eye and lips. I asked for the missing images only to be told that we could crop from the full headshot. Yes, we can do a crop but it’s a lazy option and not a creative one. You will not get the same quality and feel from a crop that you get with a close up macro shot. With the macro shot you get to play with depth of field and you can create different angles. Why would I use the same image three times when I can have three different and more compelling images. Of course I ordered a re-shoot of the session and made sure that every consequent session had individual shots and not just one headshot.

Quality always matter.

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Health, Photography

“It’s simple, if it jiggles, it’s fat.” Arnold Schwarzenegger

Book cover of Arnold Swarzenegger's book "The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding"

Book cover of Arnold Swarzenegger's book "The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding"

An encyclopedia on body building by Arnold Schwarzenegger himself may at first glance see completely unrelated to the art of photography. Shouldn’t a photographer focus on improving the portfolio and expanding the business? Of course, keeping your portfolio up to date is an important aspect as well as showing it to your intended audience. However, there are more pieces to the puzzle.

I remember reading various pieces of advice given by other photographers to newly graduates and my overall impression was that they were mostly negative ones. Ranging from prepare to struggle and get a part time job to the one that stuck in my mind: “Remember to floss your teeth on a regular basis.”

What on earth has flossing your teeth got to do with photography? According to the photographer, keeping your teeth in pristine shape made you less susceptible to high dentist bills that you cannot afford as an emerging photographer. Hence the advice, floss and save money.

So following that train of thought I can easily say that by exercising you keep yourself fit, feel more positive and have in general more energy leading to better productivity. You simply get more done.

But you don’t need Arnold to tell you that you may say. Well, you do. When you start out in photography you seek out your masters. Your idols. You want to learn from the best. Why? The best in the game have only made it there through a combination of talent, stamina, luck and mostly hard work. They have likely been there, done that and you can learn from their experience.

When I got myself to set aside time for training I thought at first I would not have time for it, but I have made time for it. Once in the routine, I want to make sure that I spend that time effectively. As Arnold writes, people have different goals, some wants to build their bodies over the years while others may only want to get fit in the most effective way. Knowing the difference between the exercises will increase the efficiency of that workout in the same way as having the technical knowledge enables you to create the images that you envision.

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Photography, Recommended

52 weeks = 52 books = New Year resolution

This is the first blog post for Studio MadsMonsen and I thought it would be good to end the old year with a new year resolution. I got the inspiration from http://52on52.blogspot.com/ and the first book that I finished is well fitting for any photographer:

Book cover of Annie Leibovitz's book "At Work"

It was an interesting read, but you get more anecdotes from it than technical knowledge. This is not a book of Annie Leibovitz’s techniques, however, I found her thoughts on the switch from colour transparencies to colour negatives and then to digital interesting. Digital technology has come a long way, but a lot of the old, analogue techniques are getting lost.

I smiled when I read about the Polaroid pre-tests and when the pre-test was finally there, it was difficult to re-create that on film, especially when working with people. I agree, these days you do your pre-tests on your digital system and you still have a usable file to work with as opposed to a Polaroid that needs to be scanned. Don’t get me wrong, I do love polaroids, I am very happy for the revival project of Polaroid film (http://www.the-impossible-project.com/) but when you have a 31 million pixels RAW file or more versus a 6×7 Polaroid print, the RAW file will give you a better quality. Digressing. I found the book worthwhile reading and I admire Annie Leibovitz’s work. Full disclosure. So with that, Happy New Year and 51 more books awaiting, yay!

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