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SmugMug Films: Fantasy Storytelling by Ben Von Wong

Today marks the release of our first installment of SmugMug Films with a spotlight on creative portrait photographer Benjamin Von Wong. Watch it now and subscribe to get first access to future episodes:

Two years ago, Montreal/Toronto-based photographer Benjamin Wong was a mining engineer who took pictures on the side. In 2012, he quit his engineering career and threw himself into photography full time. He’s now an award-winning photographer admired for his “epic, surreal, fantasy storytelling.” Today with the official launch of Ben’s spotlight in SmugMug Films, he’s shared more details about himself, his background, and exactly how he crafted those exquisite angel wings.

1. How did you get your start in photography?

I had a job at a mine in Nevada (USA) when my girlfriend at the time broke up with me. I figured if I didn’t find a hobby, I’d go crazy. The idea to take pictures of the stars came to me, so I went to Walmart and bought my first point-and-shoot camera. I didn’t do very well, so the next chance I had, I drove to the next city over and bought my first DSLR.

I brought that camera around to everything. But the first time I got paid to shoot an event was a very significant part of my mentality shift.

Another photographer asked whether I would be interested in shooting an event for pharmaceutical students. It was $250 for five hours of shooting. At the time, I wasn’t actually geared up for shooting events. I had an 18-200. I borrowed a flash from a friend. I basically had a flash, a slow zoom lens, and a model clause to make myself look more professional.

At the end of the day, what was special about this event was my realization that I could earn money doing what I love. And that’s when I really got into it. I bought a bunch of new equipment. Got business cards made right away.

Shooting events was fun, but it wasn’t a passion, so I quit the events business and launched myself into creative portraiture. My creative portraiture grew, and I started the Von Wong brand in 2010. The next biggest transition was when I quit my day job. I woke up one morning and said I know I’m not going to do engineering for the rest of my life. So in 2012, I quit. Having the financial support of my mining engineering career helped me make that leap.

2. How has your photography changed since you first started?

Shortly after I picked up my first camera, I started a 365 project and planned to take a picture a day for an entire year. But instead of doing self-portraits, I wanted to take portraits of other people. The motivation behind the project was to grow and learn, but I soon realized I didn’t have time. I was working 10 hours a day at my engineering job. Every day I’d get up, go to work, spend the day thinking about a concept, get home, set up my lights, eat, shoot the concept, edit it, and post it. I’d be up until 2 or 3 in the morning, then I’d have to go to work the next day. It was exhausting. I set a milestone for myself of 100 days, and when I hit it, I shifted gears toward doing larger productions. I started putting more emphasis into cool locations and people, and making each shoot really count.

3. How do you choose your locations and find help for these large productions?

I travel for people, not places. I stay on people’s sofas and do what they do, so I connect with the people.

And I pull together resources significantly from social media. As I’ve invested in meeting my fans and giving back to them, that’s grown into a powerhouse in the sense that I can go to any country in the world, say, “Hey guys, I’m in town, let’s hang out,” and most of the time someone replies.

I usually go to a place with a certain intention or starting point, and it grows. I have a spark of inspiration—location, a model, a cool studio, a performer — there’s always one single point around which everything ignites and from that point forward, everything else needs to be found. Someone knows some place who knows something. It’s about staying open to possibilities and opportunities.

The fallen angel shoot I did with you guys is a great example of this. I was actually looking for an opportunity to go on vacation, and Kelly Zak had reached out to me through Facebook for a critique — and we ended up chatting about shoot ideas. I said I’ve always wanted to create a fallen angel, and she said, “If you come to Florida, there’s fallen angels for you!” I figured I better get on a flight.

Right before Florida, I’d been traveling around a lot. Kelly was caught up with school work. So when I landed, we didn’t have much planned, so we went scouting right away. The first place she drove me to was this amazing, magical-looking forest. Which is funny because for the Floridians it’s probably the most common tree they have, a Spanish oak tree, I think. For me, it was so magical.

Given the beauty of the location, I thought, “Why don’t we increase the concept?” Have two fallen angels, and a bunch of mystical creatures. One thing led to another, and Kelly started enlisting classmates in the film school. We had costume designers, makeup artists. I started asking fans through social media if they’d like to be a part of it. And the whole thing took off from there.

We pulled this entire shoot together in about eight days. We had a good time, and we basically became a family for about a week.

4. How did you make those fantastic wings in so short a time?

The wings were made out of a type of plastic you use for packaging. We just cut it up and layered it. The broken wings were filed down using razor blades. Then we took charcoal and blackened the edges, each wing tip individually. The whole thing was put together using hot glue. Kelly did the research, looking up cosplay tutorials on how people would strap on wings. Since I wanted the angels to be topless, this meant they couldn’t wear a harness or anything. So they had to come up with a creative solution, which ended up being clear bra straps.

5. What are some of your best in-front-of-the-lens tips for special effects?

Birthday sparklers for light trails. Flour for snow. Smoke bombs for portable smoke. Cloth/Vaseline on the lens to create foreground texture in your image. Water guns for portable rain. That’s all I can think of off the top of my head!

6. You attribute a lot of your success to having a great social network and being able to find what you need within it. How were you able to build such a vast network?

Slowly but surely. That’s really what I did. There’s no big success trick other than continuously uploading content.

Before I was doing behind-the-scenes blog posts, I was posting a new photo every day while I had my day job. Day after day of putting out new content. And my shoots are extremely social in the sense that people like to hang out and be a part of them. So at the end of the day, I would always tag all the people who got involved, which helped disseminate information. Then add on the behind-the-scenes videos and that’s ongoing social-media exposure. After I quit my job and traveled for a couple months, I started building my international exposure, which allowed me to start feeding my blog. Every week I would put out a new blog post. Lots and lots of work. I started doing workshops and speaking engagements. Any time somebody asked to do an interview, I would do it. Really just nonstop trying to build this network.

There was no massive unannounced peak—no surprise where it felt like okay, I’ve made it, and it started snowballing. It’s always been very consistent growth. And the minute I stop posting, the minute I stop sharing, then everything stops.

7. What social channels have been the most successful for you?

Facebook, hands down. I use Twitter. YouTube is the best for videos. I’ve used Flickr. I’ve used all of those, but I don’t think anything’s really come out of those channels. It’s really been Facebook for me.

8. You are very involved with all aspects of your shoots. How do you find time to do all the social outreach as well?

I think people overestimate the amount of time I spend on the computer editing. I think I spend on average only ten to twenty hours of editing a week. A bulk of the effort that’s allocated to a shoot really takes place in the preproduction, production and social aspects of it. The actual shoot and postproduction becomes just a single step on the way.I work so much through collaborations, and I came to the conclusion that if I wasn’t going to be making a video, if I wasn’t going to be making a blog post, then I wouldn’t be giving back what people were giving to me. If I wanted people to look at that work and broaden its reach, it was worth it to do big, elaborate projects but fewer of them as opposed to many small projects that wouldn’t have all that extra media support. A lot of effort goes into making an interesting blog post or following up with the creative content.

9. Has the social reach of your shoots ever surprised you?

Yes, a shoot that I did last year. In September, my agent, Suzy Johnston + Associates, received an e-mail from a woman who was terminally ill, asking if there was any possibility of getting a photoshoot and if I’d be able to photograph her in a way that made her feel beautiful and healthy.

I was leaving in a few weeks to go to Seattle for creativeLive, and she was on a time clock because with each passing week she was getting weaker and more frail. We had to make it work quickly. I gave her a call the next day, and in about 10 days we got makeup, hair, and location together. It was her first photoshoot ever.

Afterward, I wrote a blog post about it. I really wrote it more for her than for anybody else. I wanted to create a nice little memory for her. The Internet picked it up, and it became one of my more popular posts of the year, which was, for me, a very big surprise.

Through this experience, what really struck me was that I could not only inspire, and teach about the process, but on top of that, I could create images that matter, that can touch people. These images were created to bring my fan’s dreams to life, but I felt so alive, too. Doing something that matters makes all the difference. That’s something I would like to incorporate more in my work this year.

10. Have you ever been stumped for inspiration?

It happens to me just as much as it happens to anyone. You can’t always be inspired. You have to keep growing and putting things together even when not inspired, so make plans and follow through with them. Do I always feel inspired? No, but setting the wheels in motion and filling the time when nothing is happening, that’s important. Give yourself something to do.

11. What advice would you give to a photographer who was just getting started?

In the artistic and creative world, the biggest thing you have to fear is yourself. If you stop feeling inspired or you stop feeling motivated to do whatever it is you’ve decided to do, then you’re going to lose ground, you’re going to lose traction. No matter how great your business plan is, if you don’t want to do it anymore, everything will come crashing down.

My relative success has been a combination of the journey, the sharing, the inspiration, and the work, but not any one thing would have made it go as far as it has. You really have to make sure you love what you do. No one wants “mediocre.” They don’t want a Jack of all trades. They want “special.” They want the “best” at one single thing. And the only way you can be the best is to love what you do.

You only have one life. Make the most of it.

Find Ben online:

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