Blending fantasy and reality

The artist’s life is often filled with unexpected turns. Benjamin Von Wong was working on what he thought would be a long career in engineering until his life moved in a surprising direction. Self-taught in photography, Von Wong now creates conceptual photographs with intricate details. He captures popular behind-the-scenes videos of his creative process. He owes much of his visibility in the photography community to social media, but the foundation of his success lies in his creativity and passion for his craft. Here, Von Wong talks about photography, his use of special effects, and how, in just five years, he's built a thriving business with the help of social media. Tell us about your influences growing up and how they led you from engineering to photography.

Von Wong: My dad is an aeronautical engineer and we moved around a lot due to his job. My parents believed it would be good for me and my younger sister to see the world and be exposed to a variety of cultures. Our family lived in several countries over the years, including China, the United States, and Canada, and I attended 13 different schools. I had a broad set of interests, in things both highly technical and also artistic. I was good at math, and at age 16 settled on a major in mining engineering. What was the turning point for you in moving from engineering to photography full time?

Von Wong: I stumbled into photography. I was living in Nevada, working as an engineer, but I was not happy or fulfilled. I bought a point-and-shoot camera and took pictures of the stars at night. It felt comfortable and rewarding. I joined a photo club to learn more and began taking pictures of local events. Six months later, with a Nikon D300, I got my first paid photography gig and realized I could make money doing something I really loved.

Eventually, I started posting behind-the-scenes videos of my work on YouTube. The videos got a lot of attention, and I developed a loyal following. That’s when I left the engineering world and devoted myself 100% to photography. How did you start your social media presence?

Von Wong: It really began with my behind-the-scenes videos. I wanted to participate in a video competition organized by Fstoppers, so I created a video on the reasons to use flour instead of smoke to accent light in photos; that video garnered 5,000 views. At the time, the behind-the-scenes video culture was just starting. I realized the importance of posting regularly and focusing on creating unique content. Today, due to my individual perspective and content, I have well over one million views on my YouTube channel. The views for one of my average videos hover around the 5,000 mark, but my more successful ones have hit more than 50,000 views. How important is social media to you and your business?

Von Wong: Maintaining my social media engagement is a significant part of my job as a photographer. My own social network consists of more than 35,000 Facebook fans, 10,000 Twitter followers, 20,000 YouTube subscribers, and a blog that attracts more than 30,000 views a month. I frequently provide photography tips, insights, and experiences over social media, and my personal relationship with followers has resulted in a well-connected, enthusiastic audience. One of my recommendations for new photographers: Don’t think of social media as a chore. If you're doing what you love, then sharing the process of how you create and why you're creating, it becomes natural. Like me, people like to talk about the things they love. Those are often the things people find worth listening to, worth sharing, and worth "liking.”

For instance, I launched my first international collaboration “Von Wong does Europe.” It was crowd-funded by fans and friends with the help of several social networks. I collaborated with a variety of artists throughout Europe such as pyrotechnicians, underwater film crews, and paraplegic Olympians. My photographs, articles, and photos made it onto social networks and blogs such as DIYPhotography, Fstoppers, and Prophoto. How do you bring different concepts into your images and what draws people to them?

Von Wong: I love new and extreme experiences and it just seems logical to combine those elements into my work. For me, my work tells a story with an image—still or moving—and that image always has a purpose. I try to grab the attention of audiences through fantastical concepts and compelling compositions. That’s where my experience in art, painting, and music come together. And, bringing in special effects, such as pyrotechnics, can take an image to a whole new level. My goal is to evoke powerful emotions and a genuine interest in what is happening in the image. Whether it is a wine-and-cheese pharmaceutical event for a corporate client, or a culture video pioneered by another client, I’m always ready to roll and create a unique perspective on the event. I consider images well made when they evoke feeling in a person, when they're powerful enough to grab someone’s attention. I want them to stare, appreciate, and question for an instant: What exactly is going on? As their eyes travel through the images, details slowly reveal themselves. In essence, the images create themselves according to who is viewing them. What was your most challenging shoot and why?

Von Wong: Among the most challenging shoots was the one with the demons emerging from the water. I suspended a Nikon D4 over a swimming pool with a jib and a tether. I also had four black lights rigged above the water to light my subjects. It was extremely tricky in terms of lighting, framing, and the models themselves. I worked alongside a terrific makeup artist to bring the models to life in low light. I had never done something like this, and I put the low-light capabilities of the Nikon D4 to the test. do you use Adobe software to enhance your work and keep it exciting?

Von Wong: I moved to Adobe Creative Cloud as soon as it was available. I have access to Adobe Photoshop CC and Photoshop Lightroom, the applications I use daily, as well as new applications such as Adobe Muse CC for creating interactive websites. And for the behind-the-scenes videos I create, I can also tap into Adobe Premiere Pro CC and After Effects CC. The applications all work well together and have similar interfaces, so I live in a technology universe that’s completely interconnected and familiar. Describe a favorite image, what grabs you about it, and how you created the result.

Von Wong: I favor the artist portrait of Chester Van Bommel that I created. It’s one of the images I spent the most time on. I took it in an abandoned Chamber of Commerce in Belgium. What I like aboutCreativity is that it’s very difficult to figure out which parts of the image are real and which are not. The image took me about a month to build. I started by importing images into Lightroom and stitched 12 images together using the Merge to Panorama function. From there, I brought the images to life by lighting up the bulbs and adding the door at the end of the hall to provide depth. I created the bird by using separate pieces of wood shot at home and slowly stitching them together layer by layer. From there, I added curves and contracts to make everything blend together seamlessly. You have been actively teaching workshops. What makes your training sessions different?

Von Wong: For up-and-coming photographers, I go to great lengths in my Master Class workshops to put together cool locations, models, costumes, equipment, and other elements, so participants have the chance to pull off the shots the same way I do. I provide students with a hands-on, holistic take on creating an epic, conceptual photo shoot, from initial idea to final retouching and everything in between. Attendees learn about photography, but at the end they’ve also created extremely high-quality images for their portfolios. What’s next for you?

Von Wong: I am always traveling and trying new things while building my commercial business. I want to maintain the surreal feeling of my current images, but scale them up to build a continuous series, rather than single stories. I’m also thinking of tying together various media—in particular, still and motion photography. This would be similar to what I did on this short film featuring Benjen Stark with still photography incorporated into it. For now, I’m concentrating on continuing to blur the lines between reality and fantasy, and helping others learn to do the same.

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