Mouth-watering images: the principle behind Ming Thein’s food photography
Ming Thein is a true professional behind the camera, even though he found his vocation rather late. After receiving a master’s degree in physics when he was only 16, and followed by a successful career in business, Ming Thein became a full-time photographer in 2011.
Today, 26-year old Ming Thein likes to spend time eating – and taking photographs of food for his clients. Ming lives in his native Malaysia and praises the country’s “unbelievable diversity of dishes.” That variety also applies to his choice of equipment. From Ming Thein’s many lenses, he uses his ZEISS Makro-Planar T* 2/100 and ZEISS Distagon T* 2/28 most frequently in his food photography.
It is often said that food is art. And so food photography must be art as well, evoking emotions through light, shadows, reflections and transparency. Far from contradicting this view, Ming Thein qualifies it: “In my opinion there is too much focus on food as art. For me, it’s rather simple: I take pictures of products for my clients, and I have to make sure the product looks good. Three things are important: you have to understand the product, you have to know who the picture’s target audience is, and you have to try to internalize the goals of the client. Since the motif is food, you also clearly want to evoke a reaction. Whoever sees the image should think: “I would really love to eat that sometime!” In my view, that’s what it comes down to. I’m not trying to conjure up complex, deep feelings with my images.”
One of his favorite pictures shows a very simple “meal” of three apples. Each apple on the wooden table is a different size and color — yellow, green and red. The fruits are reflected on the polished surface. It is a test image, taken with the ZEISS Makro-Planar T* 2/100. For Ming Thein, the picture makes a photographic statement. “This photograph has that unique allure that can only come from an apple. It conjures up certain emotions, has a certain mood. Similar examples can be found in art. Think of the paintings by the Dutch masters and how they worked with light.” Ming Thein goes a step further. “Ultimately, a professional photographer needs to make something visible that is not immediately obvious in the image, and thereby introduces the viewer to a new perspective.”
So it turns out that Ming Thein’s photography is art after all – but the kind of art that should whet your appetite for his clients’ products. For a high-end sushi restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, for example, he photographed a series of images to bring out the special character of each dish. What makes this chef special is that he does not write menus. And the diner does not choose a dish, but is served whatever is fresh – the specialty of the day. “In photographing these four pieces of sushi, the challenge is that sushi is always served raw. So the freshness of the fish had to be palpable in this image. In this picture, this is partly achieved through color, and partly through the detail. The surface of the fish also has to create an effect: it’s a bit shiny, a bit moist. Getting that effect requires the very conscious use of light, because a certain transparency of the fish should be visible.”
When creating this image it was particularly difficult to render the sushi’s pleasant colors and its texture at the same time. To achieve this, Ming Thein depended on the features of the ZEISS Makro-Planar T* 2/100. “ZEISS lenses are so good because their color rendition is so close to reality. In this image you can also see the strong micro contrast.” ZEISS lenses’ color features benefit Ming Thein more than just for individual images; they also make things easier for him during post processing. On assignments he often uses different camera systems for the same image series (Nikon F, Hasselblad V, Leica M). He uses corresponding ZEISS lenses on all systems, and the color rendition still stays the same. “When I resort to different cameras during a shooting, I am 100% certain while taking the picture that everything will look just the same. And that saves me a lot of time in post-production.”
Ming Thein has developed his own unique style in food photography, which he describes as “fresh, new, cinematic, picturesque.” As a contract photographer, he must also adapt his own personal signature to the clients’ wishes and their products. For the next image, which shows scallop sashimi with fresh herbs, the client was not an upscale four-star restaurant but an ambitious Japanese restaurant chain. “The goal of this client was to prove that customers could eat ‘all of these things’, even if the restaurant was not a gourmet restaurant. For such assignments, I have less creative freedom as a photographer. It’s more about bulk and less about staging each individual picture. By contrast, with sophisticated chefs, sometimes I, the photographer, get into a discussion with them, and it becomes a creative process. Right from the beginning I try to understand what the chef has prepared for me and how he made it. In this way, exquisite food can become art. And in our role as photographers, we also create art. The best part is that these two art forms can be combined.” Such a creative process is less common during a commercial shoot, or missing completely. The client defines what he wants, an agency does the preparations, and the photographer is responsible for the execution – completing it with full professionalism, of course, but not employing one’s creative energies.
Ming Thein has the following expectations about his equipment: it should be a tool that the photographer can rely on in every situation, and it should be a tool that helps to create an image from the photographer’s view of things, without having to think too much about the actual tool. Another reason why Ming Thein likes to grab ZEISS lenses first from among his many other lenses is this: “I must admit that I have a particular fondness for the sharpness and color rendition of ZEISS lenses. They deliver such intense images that are both realistic and very appealing at the same time.”
For Ming Thein’s restaurant chain assignment, the job was to photograph dishes as they came out of the kitchen. Hardly anything was arranged or staged. “The challenge in photographing food for the mass market is to make people interested without changing too much. You can’t raise unrealistic expectations through the pictures that could cause people to be disappointed later on. As a photographer I therefore work first and foremost with light and perspective. In this case, I used the ZEISS Distagon T* 2/28 because the client wanted to show a particular vantage point. With the T* 2/28, I can also focus at short distances. Even at a short distance, it has very good optical characteristics. This way the meal still appears natural.”
The next picture was created during an assignment for a lifestyle magazine. This time, Ming Thein’s pictures did not accompany an article about finished meals, but about native fruits. One of these fruits is the mangosteen, practically unknown in Europe. The mangosteen tree originally comes from the Malay Peninsula, but today it is planted all over Southeast Asia. The fruit itself has a reputation for being very healthy, and it has a pleasant, sour taste. The bowl of mangosteens was part of an image series. Ming Thein’s goal was to give every single fruit its own photographic character. “I photographed each motif in this series with another type of light, a different perspective and a different focal point.” When asked, however, how the taste of the mangosteen fits into his chosen photographic approach, Ming Thein hesitates at first. The key, he says, is the visual language. “I think the mood of this picture reflects the character of the fruit very well: a bit mysterious, but at the same time complex and shimmering. That the mangosteens themselves are not clearly defined emphasizes this aspect very well.”
A dessert normally rounds off a menu. For this reason, our introduction to Ming Thein’s food photography concludes with a picture of macaroons and other French sweets – served in the same Japanese restaurant chain mentioned earlier. Here, too, Ming Thein’s signature as a pragmatist shines through. If there is one thing he excels at it, is this: he understands how to give such a vivid impression of the restaurant’s full range of desserts that you immediately have an appetite for the colorful cakes. “For these images I worked with background light and, as with the fish, with the ZEISS Distagon T* 2/28 in order to ensure a consistent style. You can focus very well at short distances with the T* 2/28. You can get very close, but it’s not macro photography. It’s more about taking close-ups with a different perspective.”
Ming Thein is not only a photographer and gourmet, but also someone who likes to share his knowledge about food. For this reason, he came up with the idea to organize several workshops in partnership with a local distribution partner of ZEISS in Kuala Lumpur. The “ZEISS Food Photography Master Classes” were held in 2012. “We wanted to do something different in a field of photography in which everyone normally works with models. The basic idea of the workshops is, first, to experience what it is like to take pictures of really good food; and secondly, to work with ZEISS lenses. I want to pass on to others something from the intuition that I have developed from photographing food.” Although food photography is mainly a “job” for Ming Thein, the artist within him is always present. And this is not only true for food, but also for watches and architecture, his two other important focus areas.
About Ming Thein
Ming Thein has always been a high-flyer. At the age of 16, he completed his masters’ degree in physics at the University of Oxford. Thereafter, he embarked on a successful business career in Great Britain and Asia, holding management positions in strategy and finance for international companies. Only in 2011 did he decide to make photography – a passion for many years – his career. Since then he has been working as a contract photographer for well-known international clients, particularly in the field of watches, food and architecture. His photography blog www.mingthein.com attracts around 600,000 readers a month.