In an effort to bring the interviews back to Randomn3ss, photographer CT Pham agreed to play Q and A with me.

You were recently featured in an article I wrote for Light Stalking entitled 7 Photographers you will probably hear about in the future. I chose to feature you in there because of the urging of several on a Canon photography forum and your Flickr portfolio, one that is heavily commented by viewers and admirers of your work.  How do you feel about this?

I still can’t believe I was mentioned, because there are thousands of good photographers out there, really quite an honor to be included in that article.  It hasn’t sunken in yet, on what I do with my photography and how many I have inspired and where it is leading to…

A while back a member on the Canon Forum (Phil) created a “Phamster Fan Club”, I didn’t think much of it, because he was witty and made it for fun, but as time went by, it evolved to reality and more members stated they are also a Pham Fan – I didn’t think of this too much, because the forum was mainly Users of Canon Equipment, and mainly for people who are there to learn photography..  heck that is why I joined because didn’t have an SLR or DSLR until April of 2008..  (xti rebel)I joined the forum to learn, improve and get feedback.  (thanks Phil for the fan club !)

But the point of this story is this:  it is easy to impress others who are beginners and I have been at it for a while.   So in my mind,  Phamster Fan Club is a small niche group on POTN only.

So what happened next was a talented member from POTN (Ryan O Hicks) and I hung out more and did 2 successful projects together, eventually became good friends, he bought me a Flickr Account for Christmas 2009; Probably the best Xmas gift I received in 10 some years.

At this time, I was thinking to myself, I am a big fish in a small pond @ POTN, but in the vast OCEAN of the Flickr Pool, I didn’t know what to expect.  So I just posted some photos and do what I do.. talk about how I did the shot, show the info and help others become better photographers and from there my Flickr account and views are where it is now.

Tell me about yourself, how and when you got started in photography, what motivated you to start shooting more seriously.

Who is The Phamster?  I ask that my self all the time…   in a nut shell: I was brought from Vietnam by my grand parents in 1973 , the family escaped the war and settled in the Midwest,  raised by my Aunt and Uncle ,went to high school in a small town, was an all state tennis player and went to college on a tennis and golf scholarship, and currently I work for Subaru as a quality engineer; happily married with no children, still a scratch golfer and a county champion, now hobbyist – part time photographer (39 years of age).

I started shooting junior tennis events locally, being tennis paid for my schooling and I wanted to give back a little and always remembered when I was playing junior events, how cool it was to have a  photographer line side taking shots of me.. this was June of 2008 ,  after doing a couple of events successfully, it started to click with me, I can reach out and do more with photography, at this time was when I joined photography on the net and started to learn about what I can do with my XTI.   Some how I was able to do a couple of senior picture jobs, and 2 weddings that year.

My biggest discovery was when I took a shot during a wedding with a softbox and it turned out amazing, At this time I didn’t fully understand the powers of  “off camera lighting” at all, but after that one shot I realized the power of flash photography and what I can do for your images..    so I started to practice off camera lighting with a single speed light and a single modifiers, read what I could off the net, and better yet practiced in my living room with the one light set up. ( in manual mode, both camera and flash unit)

I can not emphasize enough about how important lighting is to photography and how it is helped me get where I am now.

Good sources to learn about Off Camera Flash is Strobist.com and Ali Hohn’s Rock that Off Camera Lighting, and of course Lighting Forums and strobist blogs.

My goal was to be able to walk into a room, a set, or an outdoor location, and engineer a one light set up in manual (camera, and Flash) with limitations of shutter speeds under 1/200 and make a good photo all under 5 mins..  and if you can’t do this under 5 mins, I would recommend spending some time learning or training your self  so you can get good exposures in bright conditions or even at night with a one light solution in manual..  it is really a must for you to have this fundamental stobist skill before you start working with clients or even hobbist level, having this fundamental strobist skill will make your personal work more rewarding.

Where do you see yourself going with photography in the next few years?  I know you aren’t a full-time shooter, what would it take to leave your job and shoot for a living?

I have been with Subaru for 17years.. and I don’t like change too much..  what I plan on doing is collect data for 3 more years before i make a transition to full time photography.. heck I might be burnt out of photography.. (need to evaluate the market because there are so many good photographers out there; consider if I still love photography or go into teaching or do day seminars)

I have started a book project and would  like to complete it this year..   the book will show an image one page, and the opposite page will show the light set up and my thoughts behind the composition and how I did the photo and the post work and any special comments about this photo, like what I would do different. Also include pitfalls about doing a photo like that.   I am very excited about this project and wish I had more time to complete this.

Right now I do photography not for the money but for the art of it..  I know I don’t charge enough to make a living out of it and it would be a huge leap of faith to jump into it full time, if photography becomes full time, then it is like a job, and the love for the art might not be there and viewed strictly as Dollars signs.. and it quickly becomes cookie cutter approach.. I don’t want that to happen..   so for right now it is classified as a hobby I love and look forward to the next shoot.

What’s your current setup / photography kit?

I carry all Canon Equipment,  (2 x 5DMKIIs and 40D as my back up)

I have 4 lens from Canon,

  • 35L 1.4
  • 85L  1.2
  • 24-70L 2.8
  • 70-200 2.8L with IS

I mainly use the 35L on one of  the 5D and the 85L on the other 5D.. great combo.. and this combo is all the camera equipment I will ever need..  (love the primes)

But lighting is KING,  here is what I currently carry ..

  • 2 AB1600 2 VagabondsII
  • Speed lights( 580’s, 550’s , 430’s, )

Radio Triggers (in the order I use the most)

  • Radio Poppers RX system (for senior and wedding run and gun style)
  • Cactus V4’s (for my alien bees)
  • Pocket Wizards (flex models)

Modifiers are important as well, many shoot thru umbrella, (broke 3 this year already), beauty dish, and PLM system from Paul C Buff..  probably one of the best modifiers out there (PLM).

Your work is mostly location based and seems to utilize off-camera flash(s).  How did you go about learning how to use / setup / configure these sometimes complex location setups?

Setup knowledge comes from having experience and experience comes from multiple shoots,  trial and error; and the will to succeed.

You have to know what type of look or image in your mind first before setting up on a shoot, also after you set up a shot, there will be adjustments and tweaking.  for example my Blonde Bikers shot took about 30 mins to engineer up the light, and about 10 mins for the shoot..

So in the past 1 ½ years:

  1. I have had a lot of shoots, client work and personal work
  2. I try different things (and not all of them work out, but I try to countermeasure it right away and improve on the next shoot)  I usually reflect on what I can improve on during post work.

What beginning shooters must ask yourself:

Now you just made a good photo.. why was it a good photo? and can you duplicate it?

And if you can duplicate it, can you duplicate it in a bright and dark environment? (and what can you expand this success to?)  Meaning a different Location? Different Subject?  Different Genre?

On the other hand, when you make a bad photo, what was bad about it?  And what can you do to improve it next time?  Was it your equipment? Was it your settings? Was it your lack of patience, did you panic and why? Etc…

Are you using a light meter with these setups?

No I don’t have a Light Meter, I Chimp and since I use the same Camera body for over a year now.. I pretty much know my settings..  so in about 3-5 chimp shots I should  have my settings nailed to where I like it.

People are your main focus, how do you find subjects / clients?

When I first started off, I had to recruit a model to practice with (Molly M)  she had the patience to work with me and allowed me to learn lighting and for that she got some good files..  but after working with molly and becoming friends with her I put up an album on Facebook and tagged her name, and then I noticed a thousand of her friends/contacts saw the photo I just created.  Right there is when I realized that Facebook was a marketing phenomenon.

The Core of my Clients have come from Facebook.  My Senior photography strategy was to recruit one person that is active in the local high schools, and work with her exclusively, doing multiple shoots and each time I tagged Tori’s name, over a thousand of her friends saw my photography and from there the rest is history.

It does help that Tori was a cheer leader and her mother was very active in the community; ironically I used to work with her aunt so it was like fate that this family contacted me to do Tori’s senior photos.

Also from there I did weddings and had multiple new friends request on facebook and the social network just catapulted my photography into the community.

The vast majority of your work is location based, do you spend a lot of time scouting or do you rely on a few key spots?  How do you keep from getting bored shooting in the same locations?

It is true I have one favorite spot at a local university (Purdue) but I don’t ever get bored of this location, because this location will yield a different look every night, I use this perfect little hill that faces west and the Indiana sunsets does the rest..   I have countless colorful skies because of this one location and every night has a different look and feel..

As for scouting I have made contacts and friends that have property of old rustic farms for future shoots, and I always keep an eye out for unique locations that will yield that jaw dropping photo.

Your Flickr portfolio seems to get you the most noticed, but your website has you listed more as a wedding, engagement, sports and events photographer.  Is Flickr your outlet for showcasing creative work?

Truth is I have not had time to update my website as I would like to.  Flickr has a great user interface, I can post once on Fickr and update my blog all in 2 simple clicks.  Plus Flickr has this Addictive interaction about it.  And the Vast Art that is on Flickr is amazing..  I spend alot of time on Flickr studying and learning from the worlds best every day.  Seriously I am sure Hollywood Art guys are looking at the EXPLORE section for inspiration on the next Hollywood block buster poster.. Guaranteeing that !

How do you choose what goes on Flickr vs what goes on your website?

Pretty simple what goes on Flickr is that shot from the shoot that has great light, and the wow factor!  That one jaw dropping shot you can’t wait to go home and start your editing on.

I still don’t have a Flickr account, between running my own site and Facebook, do I need one?  I obviously found you via Flickr, but do clients find you that way or is it more just for showing your work?

My flickr history is this.. Ryan O Hicks gave me the Pro Account as a Xmas Gift, I didn’t think much about Flickr, just thought it was another place to put up photos but after the first week, I realized that the world looks at Flickr as the biggest photography social network and with my will to improve I discovered the Explore section of Flickr.  Just spending 20 minutes in the Explore section made me realized I have so much more to learn about photography, composition, and post processing.

My work has evolved because of this membership on Flickr, it has forced me to learn new post processing skills, become more editorial on compositions with models, etc..   bottom line , if you want to become better photographer, spend some time on Flickr and interact with the members, it will make you a more dynamic photographer…  like I said before it is one of the best gifts anybody has given to me… growth in my photography.. Thanks Ryan!

What inspires you / how do you stay motivated?

What inspires me is how some photographers makes such amazing photos with normal ordinarily concepts in a basic environment but the out come is amazing

Motivation is coming from my normal will to create a jaw dropping photo, but since i haven’t had a Number One Explored photo, that is motivation enough.. to create a portrait that becomes Number One on Flickr’s Explored section would be a great accomplishment.  Most of the time this #1 spot are landscapes, objects, and abstracts, rarely is it client work portrait.  So motivation is for me to create a photo normal client (senior – wedding, ect)  would awesome.

What photographers have had and influence on how you shoot?

Zack Arias aka Mr One Light, David Hobby the Strobist, both got me started with their strobist ways.

But for Senior photography, people that have influenced the way i shoot are (Tony Roberson, Ali Hohn, Marci Ralph) In Fashion i follow Misha Mikhaylov, Alejandro Sandoval, Oleg Igorin.  And with band shoots Peter Place of 40/60 photography, and other fellow photogs that I follow are Ericson Calderon, Brian Story, there are so many names that I know I have forgotten to mention.. sorry

Do you think anyone in photography really creates new concepts or are we just re-using the same things in different ways that someone else has shot at some point in the past?

I think new concepts are being created in the post processing genera of photography all the time.  The way light and colors can be manipulated completely changes the feel of the photo vs the way it came out of the camera.

Ways to take a photograph has been beaten over and over, and there are only so many ways to light up a subject and all iterations have been exhausted.  So it leaves innovations in Post processing, Compositions, and the ART of photography lays with the Artist him or her self.. (the jaw dropping photo created in the artist mind is conceived way before the actual lighting set up is done and the execution of the conceived photo is the easy part.. then the post processing becomes the signature of each Artist.)
So short answer is yes.. new concepts are being created only in the sense of the Art and Conceived Concepts, throw in post processing and you will get an infinite New Concepts in photography.

Your day job is technical, to say the least, as an engineer for Subaru.  As an engineer, what technology or advancements do you want to see implemented in the near future in digital photography?

My work is very technical, but a simple way of seeing what I do is to assure quality, making sure what we do is what the design intent was, and preparing for the future builds.  Putting 3000 some parts on an assembly line in a certain logistical manner with vital safety components, day in and day out is very challenging to say the least.

With that, the technology to assist the human build process to control all of this is amazing.

What I see in the future is digital cameras with the ability to become smarter, more fool proof, and speeds increasing.  More like the digital video systems that film makers are using, but each still is capability of being printable and have the clarity of the current full frame bodies.

Also I fore see a binocular lens system coming forth, similar to what the human eye can see, a very wide screen view and similar to what the director of Avatar James Cameraon Co created,  making a 2D image capable of 3D viewing perhaps printing too.  Who knows.. with all new technology, either the market dictates it or a manufacture just breaks the mold and puts themselves out there and risk everything.  Like Apple with the iPhone, or iPad.

What one photo are you most proud of and why?

My OMG Crazy Blonde Bikers”  must be one my favorite, because it involves 2 subject matters, Motion from the bike moving and the hair and scarf flying in the wind.  In addition the comedy of it all, a calm cool biker driving the bike while putting on lipstick and the passenger is scare out of her mind… this the title OMG Crazy Blonde Bikers..  haha

Also proud of my 4 seasons series, Winter Wish

and Beauty of Spring

Promote yourself – website / facebook / flickr / twitter / can I buy prints?  / shout-out and thank you’s…

I am really not about promoting my self at this time, just want to help other photographers with understanding lighting is the most important part of this photography and focusing on keeping quality high with every shoot I do for my clients and have fun creating personal work for myself, and as for what the future holds for me?  IDK..

Shout outs goes to my parents first, for giving me what I needed to succeed in life. Teaching me the values, knowing when to step in to help and let me learn some lessons the hard way..  having this support from a young age has really given me major advantages over many people that I have encounter so far, and for this I can’t thank my parents enough.

The second shout outs go to one Forum.. Canon’s Photography on the net.. with out this forum and the Members that makes this forum Great are the reason I am here writing this now…   I couldn’t have done this with out this Forum…

To the members that interact with me on this Forum (Tony Roberson, Mish Mikhaylov AKA Korrektor, Allen AKA Airfrogusmc, Vigs, Shimmishim, AlexanderGarnder, Geno.ca, Peter Place AKA GenuineRolla, Erison Colderan AKA Alas, Zach, DJharmonix, Echo, Robert of TMR Design, Photophil, (Veemac and Yagit80 and others for the nomination)

To my Purdue Friend Ryan Hicks and Molly (friend and model) who have spend many shoots with me.

Since he won’t, I will.  Visit Phamstr’s website PhamPhotos.com for information on booking a sitting with him in Lafayette, Indiana and keep an eye on his ever expanding Flickr Portfolio.  Big thanks to CT for taking the time to do this and share his information, totally down to earth fellow shooter with a great style and willingness to share information.