Kyle Kong: Strobist Portraits Influenced From Movies and Video Games

All images by Kyle Kong. Used with permission.

Photographer Kyle Kong is an editorial style photographer based in Vancouver Canada. “I’m specialized in shooting portraits on location with strobes.” he says about his work. “I like fine tuning my lights to make them blend in with the ambient so my subject get lighted naturally and beautifully. I used various light modifiers, shooting with multiple light sources and always trying to capture different mood and expression of my model.”

Considering how many of the most creative photographers featured on this site have drawn inspiration, it should come to no surprise that Kyle drew his love from video games and movies. But on top of scene building, he also believes heavily in the power of creating your own light.

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Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Kyle: I started photography as a hobby. I bought my first DSLR 9 years ago when my daughter was born. It’s a Nikon D80 with 18-55 lens. I want to take some photos for my new born daughter and thought to get good pictures I just need a nice camera. Quickly, I learned that’s not case.

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Phoblographer: What made you want to get into portraiture?

Kyle: I use to be a huge fan of landscape photography, but about 3 years later I got tired of it. I wasn’t good and wanted to improve. I needed to shoot more, but that’s hard to do with landscape. Not only I need to show up at the right place at the right time I am also totally at the mercy of the weather. The other thing was, I feel other than the camera setting, playing with filters and post editing, I really don’t have much control. I started feeling photography is boring and lost interest to in. I stopped doing photography for about 4 years, wasting lots of times on video games and watching movies. Until one day, I happened to found a short video on YouTube about location lighting for portrait. As soon as I saw it I know this is something I want to do. Being able to shoot anywhere at any time is exactly what I want. Instead of starting from shooting with natural light. I started with strobes. Having total control with my lighting is what I was missing when I first started. Meantime, portrait photography is so much fun because I got meet and work with many talented people.

Phoblographer: Your portraiture is really about emphasizing beauty and playing with fun characters or people in situations while creating a sort of iconic image of them. Where do you draw your inspiration from and what makes you want to create images like this?

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Kyle: Remember I said I wasted 4 years playing video games, and watching movies? Well maybe I didn’t totally waste those times. They are really the major part of my inspiration. I love drawing and bought lots of art books. I especially love those video game art books. Seeing how the those masters create their art from scratch. What they did on the composition for each painting, what background they used the make their subject stand out. What lighting effect and color they use to express the mood. These are very inspiring to me. Something even more interesting is they are either painting or 3D rendering. In order to create them in a photo, I have to really think hard about how I’m going light my subject or sometimes even the background. It’s not easy, but very rewarding.

Phoblographer: So how do you create your portraits? I’m sure that there is creative direction, maybe story boarding and a lot of interaction between you and the models. Walk us through your creative process.

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Kyle: Every shoot usually started with something simple, It could be we happen to have access to nice indoor place, or a designer just finished some new dresses or it could be just a simple idea. It’s like playing puzzles, we start with one piece and just need put the missing pieces together. After location, props, wardrobe, makeup and models are all ready, I’ll looking for inspiration photos and create mood board. I find it’s fair important for everyone to be on the same page about what we’re going to create.

I’m not good at directing posing. Models are much better on posing themselves. I just need to tell them what direction they need to turn their body or face so the lighting will be the best. I constantly show the photos on the back of my camera to people when I’m shooting. Taking feed backs making adjustments. It’s easy for photographer to get carried away by the lighting and miss some important details, and these details can be easier picked up by other team members.

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Phoblographer: How closely do you pay attention to colors in the scene? It seems like you’re quite careful about it.

Kyle: I always trying to make the color match the theme and the mood. Shooting in a cold mountain will look different from a beach in a hot summer. The color theme has to be different. Color is one of the most powerful tools on editing. I happened to find a very useful book. It’s a book for 3D rendering but can be totally used by photographers on post editing.

It’s called “Illuminated Pixels, the why, what and how of digital lighting”. I learned a lot from this book and I recommend any photographer to read it. It really will help you to bring your work to a different level.

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Phoblographer: What do you think you and your creative mind do that someone with just a camera can’t do themselves?

Kyle: I’m getting better and better on picking an interesting shooting spot from a seems like very boring location also on shooting from an angle to make my subject stand out from the background. Once it a while I have feedback like this “That place has been shot by many people and I never seen anyone shoot from that angle”. Being creative starts from seeing things creatively. It comes with experience. I think it’s one of the most important thing to learn for a photographer who just started.

Phoblographer: What do you feel using strobes does for you and your creative vision that natural light can’t?

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Kyle: Many. Strobe can work with, over power or even totally kill the ambient light. There are so many different modifiers to choose from and each have their unique use. Of course, different modifiers can be used together. There are just so much possibilities.

I can enhance the ambient if it’s too harsh. I can fill the shadow if my camera is struggling with the high dynamic range. I can fake the sun if there is none or not where I want it. I can shoot at any light condition any time of the day. I can create highlight and shadows that don’t even exist. These are just the basic function of strobes, I’m not even talking about change the quality and quantity of the lights. I can’t imagine how I’m going to do all these with just natural light.

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Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use. It seems like what you most care about are your light and lenses in order to create the photos that you do.

Kyle: I use Nikon D810 and shoot with prime almost all the time. My most favorite is 50mm f1.4. Sometimes I did a whole photo shoot with just that lens. For strobes, I use Profoto B1 and B2. I have many modifiers. Beauty dish, 1×3’ 2×3’ 1×4’ softbox, 3 parabolic umbrella from medium size to XL.

Phoblographer: How do you plan on stepping your photography up even more within the next year?

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Kyle: I would definitely like to improve my skills on directing the posing. I’m lucky to work with many professional models. They are very creative and efficient on posing which makes my life a lot easier, but that’s not the case when I’m shooting with someone who never modeled before. Other than that, I just recently bought a 35mm lens. It creates a very different view from 50mm lens. I would like practice more this lens and see what it can do for me.

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