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Interview with Benjamin Von Wong

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Benjamin Von Wong is a photographer based in Montreal, Canada. Visit his website here.

PetaPixel: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Benjamin Von Wong: Hah, where to begin. I’m a 25-year-old Chinese Canadian who’s been to thirteen different schools in three different countries, in three different languages. I grew up in a loving family that believed that experiencing the world was a must, had the opportunity to try all sorts of things, from playing violin for 10 years, to getting a black belt in taekwondo, to graduating from Mining Engineering in 2008. I pick up hobbies sporadically, from parkour to bartending, painting to paintball. Photography is one of the more recent hobbies that I picked up that happened to stick just a little longer!

PP: How did you first get into photography?

BVW: Well, believe it or not, it happened quite randomly. In the fall of 2007, I was working in a gold mine in the middle of the deserts of Nevada, and a girl broke up with me. I figured that if I didn’t find a new hobby I’d go mad. I decided that I wanted to learn how to take photographs of the stars, so I headed off to the closest Wal-Mart and bought my first point and shoot. That was in November 2007.

PP: You seem to use a lot of different equipment in your shoots. Can you give us a rundown of the cameras, lenses and accessories you use the most?

BVW: My main camera for the last two years has been my trusty Nikon D700. I still remember switching from a D300 to the full frame sensor of the D700… it was mind blowing. I look forward to one day having a medium format, but for now I’ve just received my D800E. On occasion, I will also use a D7000 for that extra 1.5x crop factor but for now the D7000 is mainly my video camera!

Lens-wise I use whichever lens happens to be the most appropriate for the given situation. I own a Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8, 24-70 f/2.8, 70-200 f/2.8 as well as the latest 85 f/1.4G (which I’ve had great fun using).

Lighting-wise, I’m a huge fan of the Paul C Buff line. I have 3x White Lightnings and 2x Einsteins, as well as the Alien Bee ring flash. I love the Cybersyncs (more reliable than my PocketWizards) and I’m a huge fan of their foldable light mods. They’re cheap and have amazing customer service. Despite having to pay a pretty big difference in shipping since I’m located in Canada, I haven’t found anything better in terms of price/quality ratio.

I also have a bunch of speedlights, Nikon and Lumopro, that I use for little highlights when doing my mass photoshoots. They’re great for adding little focal points of light.

Finally, in terms of accessories made by small independent companies that I use very often I’d definitely recommend you check out:

Custom SLR camera strap: Most comfortable camera strap I’ve ever come across with a built in Arca-Swiss/RC2 compatible base plate!

NastyClamps: For attaching just about anything from speedlights, to microphones, to GoPro.

Undfind: The most stylish photography fanny pack you’ll find.

Sirui Tripod: Carbon fiber, light, super compact, extremely well built. It’s a small Canadian brand that makes great products. Lovinpix.com sponsored one to me during my Von Wong does Europe tour and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Most recently, I’ve been experimenting with video gear and blending that with photography using a Kessler Crane and an Ikan D5 monitor on one of my more recent BTS of water demons.

Lately, I’ve tried to feature products that I use in my shoots so if you follow my blog or YouTube channel you can get a quick peak into what equipment I use, when and why! :)

PP: It seems like you never run out of striking photo shoots and creative ideas, where do you draw your inspiration from?

BVW: From life. From the world. From meeting people. From the people around me. I think the fantasy and epic aspect comes from never having grown up, from still seeing the world with heroes and villains, but it’s definitely those I meet in life that inspire me and move me. I recently wrote an article about inspiration for the german magazine Kwerfeldein.de. There is also the English version on my blog.

PP: You’ve worked with everyone from Paralympic athletes to leather designers to pyrotechnicians. What’s it been like getting to meet, photograph and work with such a diverse and talented group of individuals?

BVW: It’s amazing. I think that it is the aspect of photography I enjoy the most: having the opportunity to meet all these talented people that I would never have the opportunity to meet otherwise. Photography to me is like that excuse to talk with people. It’s a link to connect with just about anyone with a creative bone in his or her body! As someone who loves to try new things this is also a great way to experience new things.

PP: How do you go about connecting with these people? Do they typically get in touch with you or is it the other way around?

BVW: It goes both ways I suppose. Either I meet them in person, are recommended by a friend or it comes from posting sporadic insanities on Facebook such as: “Anyone know where I can find a flamethrower in Montreal?” It’s crazy what you can find through friends of friends.

I also enjoy going to events that are a little out of the ordinary to meet people, whether it’s a Victorian picnic or a jam session in the park. Whatever’s different is bound to have interesting people!

PP: Do you have a favorite photo shoot? Or is that like asking a parent to pick their favorite child?

BVW: No favorites there… I actually don’t tend to look back at my own photographs except to tell the stories of how they were shot. I’m always looking forward at the next project rather than backwards to show what I’ve done. I have shoots that I’m proud of, but more often than not I’m focused on beating whatever I’ve done in the past.

If I had to pick some of my favorites, I really like my fight scene creation of the band The Agonist and my collaboration with pyrotechnician Andrey Das. They are two of my recent favorites.

PP: You seem to enjoy making behind the scenes videos, several of which have gotten quite a bit of attention. How much of a role do you think those videos have played in advancing your photography career?

BVW: I am not certain how much these videos have actually helped my “career”… they have definitely helped me gain popularity and visibility in the online photography community, but have yet to bring me any direct business or income. I’ve earned less than $100 out of the 30 or so BTS videos that I’ve put out with the help of a variety of videographers! On the flip side though, my visibility has allowed me to do insane project such as crowdfund my latest Von Wong does Europe tour.

I think what’s fun about creating BTS videos is that you become empowered to inspire and give back to those around you. As a self-taught photographer, I feel that it is my duty to give back to the community. In addition, I think that it is important to feature a little of the talent that help me make my projects possible. Since these are mostly creative projects, it’s important to feature the people around me making all of this possible! There is a lot of work that happens behind the scenes that you don’t see and these videos allow me to share with you all the hard work that went into creating them!

PP: Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

BVW: Go out there and shoot. I meet people everyday that have brilliant ideas that never take the time to actually make their ideas happen because they’re too complicated. They don’t know where to start or they don’t think it’s worth it. They come up with brilliant ideas and talk themselves out of doing them.

You will fail, I can guarantee that. Whether it’s failing at organizing a shoot, or accidentally shooting in JPEG instead of RAW, or forgetting a memory card or a battery, or arriving on a location only to find out that it’s closed. Making mistakes is part of learning. So now that you’ve accepted the very real possibility of failing a few times before succeeding, go ahead and get out there and fail… so that you can succeed!

PP: Now that you’ve become pretty well known and respected in photography circles, where do you go from here?

BVW: Haha, thanks! I think that I still have ways to go. I still have problems considering myself as a professional photographer… I think that my work can still use a lot more refining and improvement!

As far as lighting goes, one of the things I really would like to work towards is experimenting with a variety of lighting companies. Profoto is definitely a brand of flash I’d like to get using but unfortunately is still out of my price range. Perhaps one day they’d be down to sponsoring me :)

From an organization perspective, I would like my shoots to be a little more organized. I’d like to be able to learn how to produce a more consistent series of images. Currently, I’m able to tell a fantastic story in a single photograph but consistently making multiple shots showcasing a single storyline is challenging for me.

From a team building perspective I’m still missing some critical team members. I still remain essentially a one-man team, and each time I shoot it comes down to hunting for a bunch of independents. Finding the right team is huge on my list of priorities but it’s not something you can really rush!

From a presentation point of view, I find that I really need to work on talking in front of a camera! My behind the scenes also need some refining and I’m definitely hoping to build a solid team around me but it’s quite tough finding people to constantly work for free! Consequently I’ve been doing a lot of the more recent video edits on my own.

Speaking of video, I’m beginning to direct a bunch of music videos here and there and that’s been also a huge learning curve in not only learning how to use the gear but lighting, framing, storyboarding, etc…

Finally throwing this all together into a presentable blog format is something I’m still working on!

The list of things to do is pretty much endless!

PP: Any final thoughts for the PetaPixel readers?

BVW: Keep following the articles that pop up in petapixel. There are loads of interesting articles that can help inspire you, but don’t forget to get out there and put that inspiration to good use!

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