SmugMug Films: Mastering the Craft Through Education by Scott Kelby

The next episode in the SmugMug Films series focuses on sports photographer and photography education giant, Scott Kelby. Subscribe to the channel now to watch and see future installments as soon as we set them free.

Photographer, teacher, business owner, father: it’s impossible to define Scott Kelby as just one thing—or any combination of titles. His love for photography and bringing the best out of other photographers through teaching goes beyond labels. Between videos, tutorials, shooting, and spending valuable time with his family, he still found time for us to ask him how he does it, and where he started.

What did you do before you became a photographer?

I was a full-time graphic designer. My wife and I had a small design firm that specialized in creating ads and collateral material for ad agencies that were too small to have their own in-house art departments.

If you could give yourself advice when you were just starting out in photography, what would it be?

Don’t worry so much about the gear.

And what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

To listen to the advice of people you trust.

What skills did photography teach you that you’ve successfully applied to other areas of your life?

Be flexible and go with the flow. On a shoot, no matter how precisely you’ve planned things out, things don’t always go as planned, and it’s the exact same thing in business. Being able to change gears and go with the flow to create a successful outcome is something I definitely learned from photography.

Any favorite tools and tricks of the trade?

This year I’ve switched from Nikon to Canon, and I’m really enjoying it an awful lot. I’m a sports shooter, and the Canon EOS 1Dx was just born for sports. I’m honestly surprised I made the switch, but it feels like Canon made that 1Dx just for me.

My favorite lenses are their 70-200mm f/2.8 and their 300mm and 400mm f/2.8. I love my ThinkTank Photo camera bags, and I can’t live without my 15″ MacBook Pro, and my iPad air.

Lightroom has made my post-processing life so much easier, and of course Photoshop is a miracle of modern technology that I can’t live without.

My love affair with lighting continues; most of my gear is Elincrhom, but I’ve been trying out some Profoto stuff that is really cool, and I’m kind of a gear hound so I’m always trying out something new. I know, I know, it’s not about the gear, but it sure is fun to play with.

What was the “aha!” moment that led to you building the Kelby Media education empire?

I think it was realizing that there was no one centralized place for learning about Photoshop all year long. There was a book here, or a website there, but there was no real recognized resource that had it all, and had it in one place. So we set out to do that. It took years of hard work and worry, but eventually things started to fall into place for that dream to become a reality.

What was your biggest challenge to turning the Kelby Media idea into reality?

It was definitely funding. We started with $750. Not $750,000. $750. We were living paycheck to paycheck pretty much.

How much are you still involved with the day-to-day running of the Kelby empire, since it is so large and you’re just one man?

I am 100%, all day, every day, involved in it. Luckily, I have a lot of help (including two full-time assistants), and I’m surrounded by a lot of really great, really motivated, and very talented people. My wife Kalebra handles the business side of things, so I can concentrate on the education side, which makes things a lot easier for me. I still have to get involved in everything from marketing to product development, but thankfully she takes care of everything from HR to accounting to customer service and all the stuff I am so incredibly bad at—and she’s great at—so it works really well.

With so many projects, what’s your key to prioritizing?

Sometimes it gets a bit overwhelming and my wife knows exactly that “look” I get when that happens, and she will literally sit me down with a piece of paper and say, “OK, list everything you have to do ….” And then she’ll tell me exactly which order to do what, and ya know what? She’s always right. She’s kind of my secret weapon. Heck, she’s our company’s secret weapon.

Walk us through a typical day for you.

It usually starts with either meetings or a video shoot. I wind up shooting a lot of videos—everything from reviews to features to business proposals via video to online classes, promos, you name it. Some days that’s all I do all day long. But more often than not, my days are filled with meetings, just like today was, but at 4:00 p.m. I leave because we’re taping an online class on location.

There are also days where we have shoots planned to support my live tour, or a book project, or for marketing, or for one of the 100 things they tell me they need images for. Last week I did location shoots, stills, and video, all day Monday and Tuesday, and then Wednesday I’m back in the office for meetings, and then we broadcast a live show every Wednesday. It’s really never the same routine every day, but two constants are meetings and videos—and hopefully a shoot thrown in there.

We’re astounded by all the things you’ve done and how upbeat and positive you always are. Where do you get all that energy?

I’m a really happy person in general, always have been. I’ve led a very blessed life with an amazing wife, two wonderful children, a job I absolutely love, and I’m surrounded by some of the coolest people I’ve ever met who are pretty positive people themselves, because we’re REALLY careful to hire only the very best—from talent to passion to character. When you’re surrounded by that every day, it’s hard not to be psyched and even harder to wipe the smile off your face.

What do you believe has been key to your successful marketing strategy?

I believe the most important thing we do is let our passion for what we do flow over onto our customers. We love teaching. Our customers can see it in us. They can feel it. They know we’re trying to do something really great for them. They know we’re creating the type of education we want ourselves, and I think they know we use it ourselves—we use our own product. They know we’re for real.

We never set out for that to be our marketing strategy, but it became it because we lived it, and it turned our customers into a giant force of evangelists. We feel very blessed indeed that it happened. I wish I could take credit for it somehow, but it just happened.

You’ve also taken an extremely social approach to your work. Have you gotten new ideas from all this interaction with the photographic community, or have there been any surprises as a result of this ongoing interaction?

I think one of the greatest things that social media has brought to me, besides being able to reach out to an audience, is hearing what they want next. Hearing directly, and unsolicited, exactly where they’re struggling: what they need help with, why they’re stuck, and so on helps me plan what we need to deliver next educationally. And not only what’s next, but how they want it delivered.

This goes beyond social media—it’s why I still teach 24 or so live seminars each year—you have to get there and talk to people one on one to find out where their pulse is really at, what is turning them on, and what they’ve either already conquered or which mountain they need to climb next. Standing in front of 500 photographers and seeing their facial expressions in real time as you teach live on stage is priceless. Nothing replaces that instant, genuine feedback.

If there were similar open collaboration between competitors in today’s photography industry, what cool products/services would you like to see come about that would be impossible without such collaboration between competitors?

I would love to see what a partnership between a big camera company and Apple would bring. I think you see what happens when someone outside photography “rethinks” building a camera. The first thing I think you’d see? The end of f-stops.

You still find time to shoot, too. How? And what’s your favorite thing to shoot when you do?

I really have to make time to shoot. Right now, my favorite thing to shoot is NFL football, and luckily that’s mostly on Sundays and only for around four months. I shoot for a sports news wire service and cover all the home games of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and when they’re on the road, I often wind up shooting with the Atlanta Falcons or Tennessee Titans if I can. I love shooting most sports, everything from motorsports to NBA to major league baseball to NHL hockey.

Kalebra also has a very busy career, so how do you balance having a family and both being so busy?

Luckily, it’s one of the biggest advantages of running your own business. Because of that, my wife and I are able to juggle our schedule to be at every one of the kid’s events at school, including their sporting events and parent–teacher conferences. I’m at every daddy-and-daughter dance, and I clear my schedule for anything that conflicts because our kids, and our time together, is so important to us. We drive and pick up the kids every day from schools; we plan lots of fun, family vacations all year long, and we have well-worn annual passes to Disney World (our favorite quick family getaway).

This all leads to a lot of tricky travel schedules and a lot of red-eye flights so I can be home with the family. If I’m shooting an NFL game on the road, it’s not unusual for me to take an early flight, shoot the 1:00 p.m. game, and then fly home right after the game so I’m home that night with the kids. It’s not exactly “relaxing,” but it’s worth it!

What other things do you do for fun?

I love to travel. The whole family loves it (we started the kids traveling early), so we love to see the world. We also have family travel traditions, like going to Maine each summer to the same little cottages, and our holiday weekend trips to Disney. Those mean a lot to us.

Are you reading anything interesting these days?

Just finishing up a great book on social media by Gary Vanderchuck called Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook. Really great stuff.

Who are your heroes?

My dad is definitely one. He was truly a prince of a man, and an amazing father with a twinkle in his eye like Santa. I have photography heroes like Joe McNally, and my wife would have to certainly be one of my heroes because of the amazing mother she is to our children, while juggling a bunch of plates in the air.

Could you describe a specific event or moment that stands out to you from your career?

I’ve been a football fan for as long as I can remember, and I will never forget walking out of the tunnel at Soldier Field in Chicago before kickoff the day I was shooting my first NFL game. It was a pretty overwhelming thing emotionally as it had been a dream of mine for many years.

Another was when the back door of the small transport plane I was in opened after landing on the deck of a U.S. naval carrier and an FA-18 Hornet taxied right past us just a few feet away. When I stepped onto that deck, it was overwhelming in an entirely different way, but it was a very powerful moment.

Another moment just happened when my son was competing in a nationwide crew-rowing event. For the first time ever he was rowing a single (his own one-man sculling boat rather than an 8-man or 4-man boat), and I was up on a large bridge over the river, not far from the end of the race course. I was shooting with a 400mm lens, and I spotted him and started firing. I was trying to track him as he rowed, and at one point he was just in front of the bridge and I was cheering him on, yelling encouragement down to him, with tears literally streaming down my face, just like they are right now as I write this.

I shot a lot of pro sports but nothing ever hit me like that did. I was literally bursting with pride. Those shots—those really mattered.

SmugMug Films: Extreme Filmmaking by Devin Graham

Today we proudly release the third episode of SmugMug Films featuring YouTube superstar and extreme sports videographer Devin GrahamWatch it now and subscribe to see future installments as soon as they’re live.

Devin Graham has always loved adventure. From traveling with his father to snowboarding with his friends, he’s enjoyed experiencing all life has to offer. Even after two severe injuries, Devin didn’t lose his love for extreme sports; instead, he decided to keep experiencing them–only now from behind the lens, sharing through YouTube the unique, wild, and extreme adventures he discovers all over the world.

Portrait of Devin by Jarvie Digital

How did you get started in film?

I started making videos when I was a little kid. My dad had this huge camera that used VHS tapes that I would borrow, and he was always hesitant about letting me take it because it was the only one we had. I would break them from time to time, but it allowed me learn.

I used Legos to make little stop-motion movies essentially–I hit record really fast and took a picture of a couple things, then I’d stop tape, move the pieces, and take a couple more shots. I’d also make music videos with my siblings.

Once I got to Boy Scouts, I was able to get the cinematography merit badge. We learned how to edit on a turntable, which was very slow editing. Later I volunteered at a cable access studio. After that, my senior high school project required us to make a creative video, so I made a snowboarding video with my friends, and that’s where I learned linear editing, how it’s done today.

If you were filming snowboarding in high school, your interest in extreme and unique adventures must have started early!

Definitely. I got a lot of that from my dad, who was a big outdoors person. He loved camping. He loved hiking. And I’ve always loved extreme sports, especially snowboarding, which I did constantly. I’d go out with all my friends and film us all snowboarding together. Then I’d come home to edit on the computer, so I taught myself how to edit digitally that way–back when computers were really slow and it’d take weeks to put together a 30-second clip.

Scenes from Devin’s adventurous youth

With your love of extreme sports, do you participate in any of the adventures you film today?

When I was filming my snowboarding videos, I actually broke my back and then my leg, and I was told I would never be able to do that kind of stuff again. But I loved it, and I was able to figure out how to stay involved through filming. I pretty much stay behind the camera now. Occasionally I’ll participate in something that won’t hurt my back. Generally, I come up with ideas and then let my friends, who are the professionals, handle the action so I don’t chance popping my back out of place.

Goodness! May we ask how you injured yourself?

I broke my back and leg in two different trips, a year apart. My back injury happened during a snowboarding jump on a tabletop I was trying to clear. It was 70- or 80-feet long, and I didn’t go fast enough. I spun and landed from high up–it would be like falling from a couple stories and landing on flat ground. My vertebrae squished in an L2 compression fracture.

My leg broke during snowboard camp. I was on a trampoline of all things, and I landed on a spring. It popped the bone out of my leg. They had to stick a rod down my leg, and I had to go through surgery, but it never stopped me. When I recovered, I went right back into filming extreme sports.

Scenes from Devin’s adventurous youth

Wow. Seeing your behind-the-scenes videos you’d never know. You’re running and jumping along with these folks!

Yeah, my original goal was to tell feature film stories for Hollywood on the big screen. Then I made the decision to create wedding videos on the side to help with finances. When I started studying other wedding videos, I realized they all used static shots. I wanted my wedding videos to look like something out of a movie. And with movies, the camera is always moving.

I heard about Steadicams and things that allowed you to get those moving shots. After lots of research, I bought a GlideCam and started using it on everything I did, including the fun things I did with my friends. That led to using the GlideCam for the extreme sports videos, which require me to always keep moving!

You make it sound simple, going from weddings to extreme sports, but it sounds like quite a transition!

It definitely was a transition. I was filming weddings on the side while I was going to college for film. While I was working on my studies, I discovered the power of social media and YouTube. I was able to transition at the right time and find my niche with extreme sports, which people would share. Then companies around the world started asking to hire me to do bigger and better projects for television. YouTube opened the door to all these opportunities, and it’s been great ever since.

How do you handle lighting while you’re doing all this running around?

For me, there’s no science behind it. I just film what I feel looks good. Since we’re a one- or two-man team at most, we don’t have time to light things. That’s one of the reasons I shoot outside: you don’t need a whole crew to light things. But we do time all our shoots around the sunlight, filming during the golden hour when the sunlight’s looking its best.

Behind-the-scenes photo by Dustin Bess Photography

With such a small team, do you use additional cameras, or are you just running around everywhere to get all those angles?

We’re literally just getting every shot we can think of, running from one thing to the next. Especially when we have only an hour of sunrise or sunset. In addition to the GlideCam shots, we’re also using GoPros now since the quality has gotten so amazing. With those we use a GoScope, which is basically a pole we can hook the GoPro on to. We’re all about making people feel like they’re part of the action, and the GoScope allows us to put the viewer in the position of the athlete.

Any other essential gear?

We use two cameras as our main cameras: a Canon 5D MkIII and a Canon EOS-1D C. Ninety-five percent of our shots are with those and 5% are from the GoPro cameras. For lenses, the majority of our shots are done with the Canon 16-35/f2.8 L series. The rest of the time we use a Canon 70-200/f2.8. With the 16-35, we can be everywhere. We’re always choosing epic or amazing locations, and the wide-angle shots make the viewer feel as if they’re there.

We’re curious about your settings since you’re moving around so much. Do you shoot any of this manually?

We’re working on new videos once a week, which doesn’t allow a lot of time to edit, so we try to do everything in camera. Generally we’re shooting everything at 2.8 with ISO around 100 and shutter speed around 4000. We also use a B+W polarizer, which makes the skies super blue and the greens super vibrant as well.

As far as focus goes, we do everything manually. When shooting video, you can’t do automatic focus because the focus will be pulled all over the place. So we set the focus and then try to keep our subjects the same distance from us. If we move in close, we just change the focus.

Scenes from Devin’s adventurous youth

What are vital things you look for when framing a shot?

I try to have movement in the foreground as well as in the background because it gives the shot more life. If nothing is going on in the background, I’ll have someone run by or shoot a water gun so it feels like there’s as much action going on as possible. Then I’ll look for good lighting that makes the person or location pop the best.

How do you maintain your framing so well while you’re running along with the action?

Years of practice! When I started I wasn’t very good with the GlideCam, but now that I’ve done it so much I don’t have to look at the camera anymore. I can instead look where I’m going and get a good sense of what I’m filming.

What do you feel is important for telling a great story in film?

I always try to create mystery in the first 15 seconds of any video I do. This involves close-ups so we don’t reveal exactly what the viewer is going to see. For example, in the rope-swing video, you see someone walking in a close shot, then you see them setting up something, and it makes you wonder what they’re doing. Then, at that point, it’s all about making the viewer feel like they’re a part of the action and showing them something they’ve never seen before.

I feel so many people are stuck in their office space looking out the window, and they want to experience life, so we try to give people experiences they potentially would never have.

Could you walk us through your editing process after a shoot?

We’ll spend a day shooting and then it usually takes a week to edit the video with music and sound. The music I use is stuff my friends compose. And our sound design is done by a guy in England. It’s really just straight-up editing.

We always have an idea of how we want a video to play out, but once we start editing we get a better scope for it. We lay out everything on a timeline and go through every shot one by one–it’s a discovery process all over again. Then we’ll spend a couple of days fine-tuning and putting sound in.

Often we’re editing on the plane when we’re coming back from a shoot. The world is my office.

Scenes from Devin’s adventurous youth

That sounds like it can be tiring. How do you keep going?

It is definitely tiring, which is why we’re super selective about our projects. We don’t do anything that we’re not going to be passionate about. And that’s the only reason we can do what we’re doing–when we travel it’s almost a vacation because we love it so much. We’re hanging out and making a video with friends, and we’re just having fun. We get to see the world doing that.

Any advice you’d give to someone who’s looking to get started with filmmaking?

Go out and constantly shoot and constantly learn. A lot of people wait to get accepted on projects, so they never end up shooting. But what I discovered is by doing a video once a week, we’re constantly growing as filmmakers. It’s okay to fail as a filmmaker. Make a lot of mistakes and learn from them. And content is more important than any gear you can or cannot afford.

What do you love most about what you do?

It gives me amazing opportunities to work with amazing people. I get e-mail from people around the world thanking me because it’s given them a reason to go outside and do things they’re passionate about. I once got a letter from someone who said they were going to commit suicide but then remembered my videos; he said the videos gave him a reason to be alive because these were all things he’d be missing out on. For me, more than anything, the reason I do what I do is it gives me an opportunity to give back to the world and show how amazing life really is.

Portrait by Jarvie Digital

Find Devin online:

SmugMug Films: Air-to-Air Photography by Jessica Ambats

Today we’re joyously announcing the second installment of SmugMug Films with a spotlight on heart-racing aviation photographer Jessica Ambats. Watch it now and subscribe to get first access to future episodes.

A love of flying led Jessica Ambats to an editorial job with an aviation magazine, Pilot Getaways. The publication required air-to-air shoots, and after tagging along a few times, she was hooked. Jessica learned how to direct her own air-to-air shoots and eventually became a pilot herself, sharing her love of the sky and everything that flies through it with fellow aviators and friends. She also works as editor of Plane & Pilot magazine.

Starting with air-to-air photography seems like a big leap to take.

I’ve always been fascinated by photography for as long as I can remember, but I never had any formal training. My first official introduction to aviation photography was through the International Society for Aviation Photography. They have a meeting every year, and I was able to attend one. I’d always been interested in photography and aviation, but it hadn’t really occurred to me to put the two together. Listening to speakers at the meeting was an eye-opener for me. I then worked at Pilot Getaways magazine, where I got to join their shoots and learn the ropes that way. I’ve also been fortunate to have a great mentor, photographer Russell Munson, who has encouraged me every step of the way.

Has your process changed much since then?

Over the years I’ve refined how I do things. I’ve learned how to be more directive, because you need to constantly give the pilots positioning instructions. And I’ve gotten a lot pickier about everything: the timing of the shoot, the background, and so on. Whereas in the very beginning, I was just excited to go up in an airplane and take pictures, and I didn’t focus on the small—but important—details.

Has your own training as a pilot helped improve your ability to direct in-flight composition?

Being a pilot and taking a formation-flying course helps because it gives me a firsthand understanding of the flight dynamics. This is useful when positioning my subject planes. Also, when planning the shoot, it gives greater understanding of the logistics, such as airspace restrictions, appropriate altitudes, and ATC [air-traffic control] coordination.

How do you position the subject planes?

I talk to them directly over the radio, or I relay my instructions through my pilot via the intercom. My positioning instructions are measured in feet, such as “ten feet higher” or “twenty feet back.” Sometimes I’ll also use hand signals, but in general I prefer to keep my hands steady on the camera.

You’re telling pilots to fly ten feet one way or another, which is probably very tough to do.

A movement of ten feet exactly is really hard to judge. So what I’ll do is give the first command: ten feet higher. And then I’ll watch what they do. Whatever they do, I make a mental note of what they are using as ten feet. Then I calibrate based on that.

The pilots I work with are highly experienced in formation flying, so they’re used to small adjustments. They can focus on a particular part of the photoship (the plane I shoot from) and then move their line of sight relative to that.

Air-to-air photography is a team effort and the pilots make all the difference in a safe and successful shoot.

How close do the planes fly?

Distances range from around 20 to 150 feet. I’ll move the subject planes farther out or closer in depending on the composition I’m trying to create.

You’ve got all this coordination between pilots, planes, and air-traffic control. Do you also have to coordinate with the Federal Aviation Administration?

No. And depending on the airspace, we may not even need to talk to ATC. There’s no special clearance required for a photo flight. You fly within the same regulations as a standard flight.

In congested areas with controlled airspace, like Las Vegas, we coordinate in advance with ATC. We’ll also give a head’s up to local helicopter companies as well as law enforcement. They’ve gotten calls saying, “Hey, two planes are chasing each other over the Strip.” We want to do as much advance coordination as possible before shooting in a high-visibility area.

Could you walk us through your typical shoot process?

I’ll first pick a location. For the SmugMug shoot in the SmugMug Film video, it was the Bay Area. Then, I’ll plan a flight route. In the Bay Area, you can make a nice loop over Alcatraz Island, the San Francisco skyline, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Next is the hardest part of everything: scheduling a date that works for everyone. Coordinating multiple pilots, airplanes, and the weather is not easy!

Once a date is set, I’ll calculate the exact timing for everything. I’ll look up sunset times and work backward from there: What time do we want to be over the bridge? What time do we need to depart our airport to be there? What time do we need to arrive at the airport to brief and set up cameras?

As the shoot gets closer, I’ll start checking the weather forecast constantly. The day prior to the morning of, we’ll make a final go/no-go decision. If the weather looks iffy or bad, we’ll postpone it. If it looks good, that’s a go, and we’ll all meet for a pilot brief.

During the brief, we’ll cover the specifics of the flight, including takeoff/landing procedures, frequencies, altitudes, airspeeds, photo maneuvers, and emergency procedures. I’ll discuss the shots I’d like to get and review my positioning terminology.

On the ramp, we’ll configure the photoship. My pilot will remove the doors, and I’ll set up my gear. I’ll put my harness on, and we’ll launch.

In the footage you had a spare camera in your lap. You don’t try to change lenses once you’re up in the air, right?

No, that would be a bad idea. You don’t want anything loose. I would not want to drop a lens for sure! And there’s so much airflow that it can’t be good for the camera sensor. I’ll take two cameras, with two different lenses.

On photo flights, do you use any cameras besides your Canon DSLRs?

In addition to my beloved GoPros (which I mount in various spots on each airplane), I’ve been wearing Google Glass while on photo flights. I record video and take photos with Glass, but I would like to find a way to do live hangouts during photo flights so others can join in on the experience!

Do you have any tips or tricks for how you maintain your focus in such a chaotic, loud environment?

My mental focus, or the camera focus?

Both!

Mental focus comes instinctively. It’s a very intense environment. Everything happens quickly, so there’s a lot going on. You’re sitting in an open door, which can be pretty uncomfortable, cold, noisy, and bumpy.

For example, I did a shoot over the Hollywood sign with three jets that was very challenging. We flew orbits in front of the sign, and I only had a small amount of time during each orbit to get the shot. In that time I had to position three airplanes relative to each other, and then line them up with the sign, too. I have to be entirely focused on what I’m doing during the flight or I will miss the shot.

With the camera itself, I try to be really, really steady holding it. I stay out of the airstream and focus on the subject. I also use image-stabilized lenses, like Canon’s 24-105 and 70-200.

The flights are pretty intense. I’m usually completely exhausted afterward. Mentally and physically exhausted.

Are there any flights that are particularly memorable for you?

One that comes to mind was over New York City, where I’m from. It was a complicated shoot of four privately owned Citation jets and a P-51 Mustang warbird from WWII. So we had six airplanes, including the photoship I was in, flying down the Hudson, circling over the Statue of Liberty and other landmarks. As a kid growing up in Manhattan, I always looked up at airplanes as they were flying and never imagined that I’d be in one taking photos.

You mentioned that you prefer sunset flights to sunrise. Any reason why?

I’m not a morning person! And sunrise shoots in general are harder on everyone. I want to be shooting over the location at the very first light, so that means getting up way before sunrise to meet, brief, get the airplanes ready, set up my gear, take off, and fly to the location. And then the sun comes up. It can be a little brutal when I have a sunrise photo flight the morning after a sunset shoot.

But the main reason I like sunset better is that, as I usually launch an hour before sunset, the light just keeps getting better and better. You’re working into the good light. Everything gets more tuned. But at sunrise, the very start of the shoot is the best light, and it just gets worse from there. I always feel like I run out of good light really quickly in the mornings.

That said, the air is usually so calm in the mornings, and you have a great feeling that you’ve got the whole sky to yourself. It’s always worth the effort.

Do you have a favorite aircraft to shoot?

I like them all! I do. It was a real treat when I shot the Blue Angels from one of their F-18 fighter jets, but I love shooting everything from a little Piper Cub, which is a two-seat light aircraft, to a larger business jet. They all have different challenges.

For example?

On one of my Blue Angels shoots, I was in their two-seat F-18 for formation aerobatics. Their routines are intense with strong, sustained G-forces. It can be physically hard to hold the camera up while pulling Gs. I learned pretty quickly to position my camera before each maneuver started. It’s also challenging to shoot through a canopy, which may have scratches, reflections, and glare.

Any advice for those who might want to pursue a similar path?

Safety, safety, safety. Make sure you’re with experienced formation pilots; otherwise, don’t do it. It’s not the kind of shooting I would encourage anyone to just wake up one day and go do. Spend time in aviation environments first. A good place to start is at an airshow where you’ll have lots of great ground-to-air photo ops and you’ll meet other aviation photographers.

What do you love most about what you do?

I love to be in the air! There’s a great saying: “To most people, the sky is the limit. To those that love aviation, the sky is home.”

Find Jessica online:


Photo credit: David Farr

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:

Watch the World Premiere of SmugMug Films

Introducing SmugMug Films. An all-new, behind-the-lens look at the world’s most exciting photographers, our heroes. Extraordinary people who follow their passions to create amazing shots that stop us in our tracks.

It’s our hope that these stunning video shorts will inspire passion, ignite possibility, and encourage us all to to throw our own shutters wide open to the wonders of the world.

The first SmugMug film will debut on Monday, January 13, 2014. Subscribe to our SmugMug Films YouTube channel with one click, and you’ll get first access to each new episode.