In the Mind of the Fashion Photographer

Researched and edited by Loud Kitchen LLC

What makes photographers gravitate to a certain genre? What does it take to become good at it? Let’s do a deep dive into the minds of veterans to see how they tick.

In this first instalment of our series, we delve into:

Fashion Photography with Kenneth Wong

Kenneth Wong is an assignment based photographer with over two decades of experience photographing fashion, beauty and lifestyle commissions.

In between productions, he lends his expertise and experience towards raising the next generation of creatives as an adjunct lecturer at Lasalle College of the Arts, Glasgow School of Art, Singapore and Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design & Media.

You can view Kenneth’s portfolio here: Kenneth Wong Photography

What drew you to Fashion Photography as a career?

I had a door open at Her World magazine very early on in my career as a professional photographer. Over time, I got to work with the fashion and beauty desks. Then the same thing happened with other magazines.

I accepted the assignments because; one, I enjoyed them and two, I continued to get calls.

And most importantly, having the opportunity to create images of beautiful people in beautiful garments was and still is more than I can ask for as a visual artist.

Photo: Kenneth Wong

Truth be told, I never set out to be a fashion photographer. I just went with it and did my best.

I grew and am still maturing in my craft and in appreciation of fashion and all the things that are connected to it – art, design, culture and life.

But really, I was just answering the call, the phone call!

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Inspiration can come from anywhere.

Works of fiction, non-fiction. Art history, movies, magazines and even chit chat sessions.

What are your thoughts on the difference in approach between fashion and traditional portraiture?

With a fashion image, my primary concern would be the clothes. Whereas with a portrait, I’m focused on the sitter.

Photo: Kenneth Wong

Subject matter aside, these two genres share a lot of common ground as far as the process of photography is concerned.

In both cases, I would have similar considerations;

  • Is there a particular theme or concept to work towards?
  • How can I bring forth the best in the subject matter?
  • Are there certain features or traits that need emphasis?
  • And how long do I have for each shot?

As a photographer, both assignments would require me to interact carefully with individuals and manage their expectations and egos.

While fashion shoots may seem more challenging by virtue of the sheer number of people involved, a 1-on-1 session with someone who “hates being in front of a camera” can also be equally demanding.

It’s like dancing or angling, you’ll need to know when is the time to give and when is a good time to take.

Sometimes, I start with something in mind, but the shoot may not pan out the way I want it to. In which case, as a professional photographer, I would have to make adjustments very quickly.

These adjustments could happen in one or more aspects of the shoot, from art direction, composition, lighting, to the location of the shoot.

What’s your approach to lighting?

If I could get away with it, I would use available light all the time!

I like the way the real world looks, hence the way I apply flash and other artificial sources would be based on the laws of nature; one main light with bits and pieces of fill in the form of reflectors or far less powerful lights.

I tend to use diffused lighting more because I find that the transition from highlights to shadow areas tend to be gentler.

But that does not mean I do not produce pictures that are high in contrast. I enjoy dramatic schemes now and then, but at the end of the day, the lighting that works to make the picture is the lighting I use.

Photo: Kenneth Wong

Let’s talk about your favourite gear.

Nikon, Profoto, Gitzo, Apple, CaptureOne Pro and Adobe are mainstays. But it depends on the job.

I could go with Broncolor if fast flash duration was needed.

I would also be comfortable using a hand-held torchlight, Dedolights or an ultra-wide angle lens if I felt that it was able to produce a certain look and feel.

I generally gravitate towards stuff that is predictable, easy to use and reliable.

How do new trends arise in fashion photography?

Well, this is a big question and I am not sure if I am able to answer this question well enough.

The simple answer? I think people tire from having the same and want something new!

Photo: Kenneth Wong

From my perspective, fashion has been linked to art and commerce for some time now. These links have strengthened and became more obvious over the last 100 years or so.

Fashion trends develop because it is all about business and profits. Fashion photography trends move in tandem but their developments are motivated by a broader range of factors.

If you look at the history of photography, you can see different factors at play; culture, politics, technological advancements and even the individual’s worldview influence (from what the photographer chooses to record, how pictures are framed, lit, post-produced and to whom they are presented to).

I do not think it is enough to be novel and clever to start a trend.

Instead, it takes being at the right place and right time for the required response to a certain condition and set of cues to be deemed of great value by the right group of people. Having found benefit, these people would then help propagate the response which would hopefully be adopted by the population at large.

Is it wise to challenge trends, with the aim of becoming the next trendsetter?

In 2000, I ditched my film cameras to join Geoff Ang and a handful of others to pioneer the use of digital capture in Singapore.

To say the least, I personally experienced a lot of grief because of how new the technology was. Some of my clients were unimpressed and others dissatisfied with the results. It would have been so much easier to get work and shoot with film. After all, we were in the era where film was faster, had more latitude and better image quality.

But I stuck to my guns and continued to upsell digital capture and the possibilities that it gave.

This, I could do because I was young and had little burden on my back. Thank God it was not long before a good majority of the studios in Singapore saw value in operating a digital system and jumped onto the bandwagon.

The little I know about being a trendsetter is that there is always a price to pay for challenging the status quo.

The real question is, can you afford to go against the tide, knowing that there are no guarantees?

It is often said that fashion photography has no rules. What are your thoughts on this?

Like it or not, everything in this world is built on and abides by a set of laws and principles.

Photo: Kenneth Wong

We would not be able to exist if there were no rules.

Fashion photography, like any other artistic endeavour is no exception. So, it might seem like that there are no holds barred, and as if huge liberties are taken in the process of making a fashion image.

But underneath the bold images and wild ideas, an author has to remain conscious of the existence of certain criteria or parameters. And adheres to them.

As a Fashion Photographer, some of our criteria or rules could be:

  • the considerations given to the clothes’ design and purpose,
  • the formal qualities of a fashion image,
  • the cultural backdrop the subject matter is placed in,
  • the context in which the photograph is made,
  • or, a combination of all of these.

The processes, outcomes and objectives in Fashion photography cannot be random or insubordinate. Even when there are so many ways of seeing, interpreting and responding, it does come with fundamental rules.

What advice would you give yourself if you could travel back in time to the beginning of your career?

  1. Spend time nurturing relationships.
  2. Read, read, read and read.
  3. Stay in good shape. Health is almost everything.

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