A Photographers Interview with Kevin G. Wong

Please tell us about yourself as a person and as a photographer. Where did you grow up and what sparked your desire to photograph? Were you active with the photography department in high school? Where are you living now?

I grew up in Princeton Junction, NJ, not too far from the university, and am actually back in my hometown after being out in SoCal this past year. Definitely couldn’t complain about the beautiful weather, beaches, and bikinis, but getting away from all the brush fires and having actual seasons again will be nice. The first time I actually picked up a camera was in high school for the b+w darkroom course that was offered. I’m glad that back then digital photography was still in its infancy, since the magic of the darkroom is really what got me hooked on photography. With all the time that I spent in that windowless room after school, I’m surprised the janitors never locked me in.

Can you describe the defining moment or image that made you want to become a photographer?

Watching my first print appear in the developer pretty much started my love affair with photography. It was a pretty unimpressive photo in itself, but just seeing it appear before my eyes was just so cool.

What was the first camera you ever owned and how did you come across it? Was it a hand-me-down, purchased at a garage sale, found on the side of the road?

My first camera was a hand-me-down Nikomat FT3 from my dad that he had picked up on his travels when he was in college.

Kevin G. Wong

What was your first paid photography job? Did you enjoy it? Were you scared? Did you make any mistakes?

My first paid assignment was for a medical college in NYC that was working with inner city high school students, introducing them to the basic sciences in the medical school curriculum. I had to shoot their closing ceremonies and presentations in this massively dark conference room. That was pretty challenging, working without any assistants and only one portable flash unit. Definitely had some underexposed frames, but overall the client was happy with the results, and I gained a lot from the experience.

How did you decide to make photography more than a hobby? If photography is your full time job, how did you make that decision? What was your backup plan if the photography career didn’t take off? Any regrets? If you are not a full time photographer, what is stopping you? What is your full time job? Any plans to become a full time photographer in the future?

I had just finished my first year of law school when I decided to make photography something more than just a hobby. Despite all the work, I really did enjoy my law classes, but I realized I didn’t have the passion that my fellow 1L’s did, and found myself wanting to read up on more photo stuff than case studies. Everyone thought I was crazy, but I tested the waters a bit during that summer off instead of looking for clerking positions by submitting some of my photos to local galleries and competitions. That met with some success, and after several group gallery exhibitions and some positive feedback, I started thinking about how to make photography as my profession a reality. I guess I always assumed that law would be my backup plan if things didn’t work out with photography, but to be honest, once I made the decision to withdraw from law school, I kind of banned any mindset of “what if things don’t work out.” I think it’s sort of a decision that you have to jump into right from the start, because if you don’t and you allow yourself to question your decision…it’s definitely a challenging profession that can give you just as many ulcers as the guy on Wall Street, and all too many easy outs to just hang up your dreams and take a safer, more secure job.

What was the last straw, the final decision maker to make you go digital? What do you miss about film?

I fully embraced digital as it was rolling out. It’s just so much more efficient and helped me develop my skills much faster than shooting film. Other than being able to make my own prints in the darkroom, I actually don’t miss film much at all. Well, I do miss Polaroids…

What is the hardest part of the job when shooting for a client? What is the hardest part of the job when shooting for yourself?

kgw_kaitlynClients always have a vision of what product they expect you to deliver. Being able to have them clearly articulate and define what that vision is to you before you pick up a camera is probably the hardest thing, since they really don’t always know how to explain what it is they want. Then there’s always the problem of communicating to them what you’re actually capable of producing, given the circumstances or budget. Shooting projects for myself is always fun, since it’s self-defined, but I find that my interests vary so much, and I want to experiment with so many different techniques that sometimes it’s hard to complete a project. More often than not, I’ll have several ongoing projects in various stages, and yet very few of them see the light of day since I either don’t have the time or get bored of the projects before I finish them.

Do you try to help others learn about photography? If so, please explain how.

I’m always open to helping others but to be honest, I feel like I have many things to learn myself. There are so many disciplines in photography, each with it’s own unique skill sets which take years of experience to truly master.

What and/or who inspires you in life and photography and why?

I’m inspired by people who set high goals for themselves, do what they say they’re going to do, and succeed…people like Lance Armstrong, and Chase Jarvis. I think by setting the bar high to begin with, knowing full well that your definition of success will be difficult to achieve…it prevents you from becoming too complacent with your quality of work and forces you to always strive to improve.

Do you consider yourself an artist first before thinking about the job ahead of you?

In the sense that I’m pretty self-critical about my work and am neurotic about trying to get nothing but the best possible product out the door, then yes.

What is the best advice you would give a photographer just starting out?

I consider myself just starting out…and welcome anyone who can give me some advice. ? If there’s any one thing, don’t be afraid to experiment. And set out with the assumption that most of your experimental stuff will probably be crap…don’t waste time in Photoshop trying to polish a turd.

Kevin G. WongThe key to creativity is…

…keeping busy with people and activities other than just photography.

What is your favorite camera that you have used or owned? What camera and lens combination do you use most of the time when photographing for a client? What about when photographing for yourself?

I used to have a large format 4×5 Cambo which was really fun to shoot (tho not as much fun to lug around). Nowadays I shoot a Nikon D200 with pretty much a 24-70mm permanently attached. Itching to switch up to a full format body to avoid the crop factor (although I’m not complaining when I’m using my 70-200mm) but I’m waiting for the 2010 models to roll out. If I’m just doing location scouting, I’ll travel light and just pack my 18-200mm.

What is your favorite time of day to shoot outdoors?

Time doesn’t really matter to me as much as the weather, although night photography has that allure of seeing the world during what can be, a quieter, more self-reflective time.

Kevin G. WongHow do you deal with rejection of your work, losing a job, not making a sale or a negative comment?

Rejection is inevitable in any job, so I just use it as more motivation to get the next assignment or sale. Negative comments can sting, but you can’t do much other than to put your feelings aside and see how the photos can be improved. Last time I checked I wasn’t being hailed as the next Richard Avedon or Ansel Adams.

Do you prefer RAW or JPG and why? If RAW, would you prefer a system that uses the DNG RAW format?

RAW all the time, because it affords much more flexibility in post and space is fairly cheap. Standardizing on a RAW format would definitely help.

How do you protect your camera when not in use? When traveling? When on the way to a job? What if it rains?

If I’m not shooting, the camera stays in the Lowepro case to keep the dust off. Pelican cases are good if you’re traveling by plane, but they can be kind of hefty to lug around otherwise, unless of course you’ve got a handy assistant. Plastic bags can be fashioned into a cheap cover for rainy days, and lens hoods help as well, not to mention skylight filters. All I can say is get insurance to cover your gear.

Do you clean the CCD yourself or send it away somewhere? If you send it away, where to and how much does it cost?

I send any maintenance or repairs to Nikon.

I recently started a project called 5511 where a client pays $5 for a 5 minute photo shoot when 1 artificial light is used and they receive 1 digital photo. Is this something you would be interested in trying? For me it is something fun and challenging. What are you thoughts on that?

I like the idea, but do you vary the lighting placement or is the project more Becher-esque in approach? How many frames do you usually get off in that 5 minute window? And are you coaxing a response from the sitters or do you let them just do whatever comes naturally? Interesting start for a project.

What music sparks your creativity? Do you listen to that when shooting a job? Do you listen to music at all? Do you listen to what the client likes?

Music itself doesn’t spark my creativity per se, but I love watching music videos for creative inspiration. Not inspired by any one particular band or singer, but I must admit I did like a lot of elements in Britney Spears’ “Circus” video. On a shoot, I stream Pandora and let the model/client control the playlist.

What is your favorite band? Movie? Book? Museum? Website? Who is your favorite photographer? Artist?

Third Eye Blind, tho listening to more Marie Digby and Angie Mattson lately. Gattaca. The Fountainhead. ICP. Way too many to list, but Chase Jarvis’ blog, Strobist, A Photo Editor, and Livebooks’ Resolve blog are pretty regular reads. Again, too many photographers to list, but I’m a big fan of Warwick Saint, Michael Creagh, and Jean-Baptiste Mondino. As for artists, I like Georges Braque and Richard Serra.

Kevin G. WongWhat is your favorite photograph you’ve ever taken?

My favorite is the one I’ve got in my mind and have yet to take.

What is your favorite photograph from another photographer?

I don’t think I can even answer this question, but I like a lot of the campaigns that Mario Testino has shot. If I had to pick a single image, I guess that would be Avedon’s “Dovima with Elephants.”

Is there something you always ask yourself or think just before you push the shutter button?

Is it worth “wasting a frame” on? Guess I still tend to shoot as if I were shooting film.

If you could take your art in any direction without fear of failure or rejection, where would it lead? What new thing would you try?

Playing with lighting setups is always worthwhile. Joe McNally goes nuts with his portable speedlights, but all that light gives him a lot of setups to try and experiment with. I’m currently trying to extend my own lighting options through the combined use of modifiers and other props to give strong directional lighting that lend graphical elements to my photos.

Kevin G. Wong

Anything you would like to add for our readers?

Guess that would be: you’re only as good as your last photo.

View more photographs by Kevin G. Wong: kevingwong.com, twitter.com/kgwphotography

Thank you for reading the interview. This interview was presented to the photographer with questions asked by me and submissions from other photographers. The photographer is asked to answer only what he/she is comfortable with. If you would like to contribute to future interviews, please submit your your questions to me on Twitter, Facebook or on the Interview intro blog post, What would you ask a photographer?. Thank you for reading and enjoy the interview.

Some questions supplied from the following Twitter users:
@pjtaylorphoto, @ishootinraw @donkeymaster

Some questions supplied from the following Facebook users:
Brian Walter, Faylin Myhre, Leslie DeLorean, Patrick Connor

New Jersey Photographer

Thank you for reading the Scott Wyden Imagery blog. I am a Manalapan, New Jersey Photographer sharing my passion for photography any way I can. I am also the Community & Blog Wrangler at Photocrati, teaching other photographers on how to increase business with their website.

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