10 Jun 19
The Shutterstock Blog
Just what goes into a stunning portrait? Explore new ideas for composition and lighting in portrait photography with tips from British Colombia-based photographer Kyle Cong.
For photographer Kyle Cong, staying curious is one of the most important keys to success in a creative field. Not only is he passionate about his work, but Cong also takes every opportunity to learn new techniques and fine-tune his skills. His detail-oriented approach has served him well, drawing students to his photography workshops and clients to his portrait business. He’s also impressed countless brand managers through his work with Shutterstock Custom.
Cong’s days as a British Columbia-based creative are never the same. He thrives on the variety that comes with being a professional portrait photographer, Shutterstock Custom contributor, and technical workshop teacher. At his popular workshops, he’s able to share what he’s learned and mentor up-and-coming photographers as well. He approaches each task as an opportunity to refine his approach and create something new.
[sstk-pullquote align=”full”]“Being able to play with aspects like lighting to achieve a different effect is really rewarding.”[/sstk-pullquote]
In the following article, the photographer shares the big risk that led to his current career and the must-know tips he’s learned about lighting in portrait photography along the way.
Portfolio + Instagram
What advice do you have for people who are curious about pursuing a creative career?
If I had one suggestion, it would be to follow what you like to do. I personally believe that anyone can find success if they try hard enough. If you fail at something, you shouldn’t stop trying. You’re allowed to make as many mistakes as you want. As long as you keep trying and working at it, you’ll only get better. You might be lucky enough to know the right people at the right time. I think the number one thing is to choose something you won’t give up on.
You’re based in Delta, B.C. Is there an active creative community there?
For me, I discovered other photographers mostly through Facebook groups and social media. I even have my own Facebook group where I post my work. It now has 12,000 members. That’s one of the tools I’ve used to help me to build my brand and market my photography workshops. It’s also how I’ve been able to make more photographer friends from all over the world.
How have those connections helped you along the way?
I have a friend who was a product manager for a company when I first started dabbling in photography. I got my start in commercial photography shooting products for the company he worked for. I enjoyed it but found it to be repetitive, so I started to try shooting portraits. People started booking me more frequently, I made connections with other photographers, and started teaching workshops. Then a friend of mine suggested I look into Shutterstock. I signed up over a year ago and haven’t looked back.
Did you grow up in Delta?
No, I actually immigrated to Canada with my wife twelve years ago. We started from scratch here. Before that I had studied finance in university and was working in international trade in Shanghai. I worked for a company in a really well-paying job.
In 2004, I visited a friend in Vancouver for the first time. I noticed a huge difference between life in Shanghai and Vancouver. It’s very different. I liked that the lifestyle in Canada seemed less busy. I quit my job and moved to Canada two years later. At that point, I hadn’t even thought about pursuing photography.
Who inspired you to pick up a camera?
My brother-in-law is a photographer and has been for many years. I was inspired by him. Then when my daughter was born, I thought, “I need a good camera to take pictures of her.” That’s how everything started. I like shooting different things and working with different clients who are looking for different types of work.
[sstk-pullquote align=”full”]“What I found so interesting about this job is that there’s always a new challenge and something new to learn.”[/sstk-pullquote]
You’re now teaching photography workshops as well. Did you ever seek out classes or training when you were starting out?
I am completely self-taught. I’ve always liked experimenting with new things. When people say, “Don’t do this,” or, “This will get you that result,” I like to see and find out for myself. That’s how I’ve found what works for me on set and what doesn’t, by learning from my mistakes. I’ve never been to any formal training for photography or art in general.
When I was a kid, I loved drawing. The one thing I was always curious about was composition. Understanding composition helped me when it came to developing my photography style and taking my work to the next level.
What’s the most memorable thing you learned about composition when you were growing up?
Composition is not just about the rule of thirds. You’ll be surprised by how dramatic the mood changes when you adjust the position of your subject, the value of your background, or the framing of your image. Good composition is the foundation of any form of visual art, no matter what gear you are using.
Tell us about a time when you made a mistake and learned from it on set.
I learned early on that I can’t use the same approach on location as I do in-studio. I realized that I was ignoring the ambient light when shooting on location. That made my photos look flashy. In order to get the natural look I wanted, I had to respect the ambient light, rather than work against it. The number one thing to keep in mind is to work with the ambient light when it comes to lighting in portrait photography.
It sounds like you always like to build on your work and learn from feedback.
That’s true. Working with Shutterstock Custom has been a learning curve for me as well because each assignment presents a new challenge. It’s something that I want to keep mastering and refining. I’m always looking for ways to evolve and streamline my workflow, while still delivering work that fits each client’s requirements.
We’d love to hear more about your experience directing talent. How do you capture realistic expressions or interactions in imagery?
Being a photographer is a lot like being a director on a movie set. You’re constantly planning, making choices, and introducing elements that will help you get the best result.
First I always explain to the talent the kind of story we’re telling. Sometimes I seek out actors versus models, because I know they might be able to look more natural.
Secondly, I want them to feel like they’re in the scene. For example, in the moment that they are a businessperson or a student meeting his or her classmate for coffee. If I see talent looking distracted, I’ll remind them of our story and make suggestions.
Lastly, I shoot a lot of photos. That provides me with lots of choice, and I can find the images with the best expressions.
What gear do you use?
For cameras, I recently switched to mirrorless from DSLR and I love it. I frequently use prime lenses 24, 35, and 50 F1.4. For product photography I use a 105 micro lens.
For lighting, I use Profoto, and also have a huge collection of lighting modifiers. I also like using a 3-stop ND filter. By using it, I pretty much don’t need to shoot high-speed sync anymore. That’s a huge advantage when working on-location. High-speed sync mode cuts down the strobe light output a lot. Avoiding it allows me to get the same result with a small light.
Since you teach other photographers about lighting techniques, can you share a tip on lighting in portrait photography with us?
Small light modifiers work wonders. The two main issues that come up when using a large modifier are that they need a very powerful light, and that they kill the shadow. Shadow is very important in order to maintain the toning. Using a small modifier can be very beneficial, you just need to be precise with the positioning of your light.
What’s something you’d encourage novice photographers to keep in mind on set?
Picking the right background is just as important as using the right lighting on your subject. You need both to get good results. When blending a strobe light with ambient light, our light could work as key light, fill light, or rim light. This all depends on the background you choose.
You’ve shot lifestyle, automobiles, food, and product assignments for Shutterstock Custom. How has that variety made you a stronger photographer?
Shooting for Shutterstock Custom has pushed me to be a better photographer because there are always very clear requirements for each assignment. You can tell right away what’s really important to a client. It’s also helped me gain extensive experience.
[sstk-pullquote align=”full”]“When I go to an interview or introduce myself to another photographer, I can say I’ve shot all types of content thanks to my work with Shutterstock Custom. “[/sstk-pullquote]
All images by Kyle Cong
Looking for more inspiration for your next portrait shoot? Check out these articles:
Portrait Photography: How to Pull Off Rembrandt Lighting
Five Tips on Taking Authentic and Natural Portrait Photos
6 Cheap Ways to Light Your Next Portrait Photoshoot
5 Expert Photographers Share Their Best Portrait Photography Tricks
4 Photographers on How to Capture Intimacy in Portrait Photography