Monday, November 12, 2012

Tom Penpark Interview

 This image of the Milky Way is one of Tom Penpark's "Verizontal" panorama images shot on one of his many "road trips" across America. Image ©TomPenpark.

Tom Penpark is one of those inspirational photographers who can do it all; from fine art to commercial assignments, from fashion to portraiture, and from architecture to landscapes. I first met Tom when he came to interview with me for an intern position. One look at his book and I didn’t need to see anyone else!

Since that time Tom has impressed me with both his creativity and his work ethic.   I understand at least part of his success. He works as hard at his art and craft as anyone I know. The results speak for themselves.  I fully expect Tom to end up rich and famous.

Tom, I know you started your career in Thailand and that you worked there as an art director. How has your experience as an art director influenced your photography?

Being an art director gave me a chance to see images in a wider aspect. Other than the image itself, I need to work with the conceptual idea, work with the layout template, and take into consideration the ideas of different people involved in a given project.  As a photographer now, I am very flexible in the how I shoot with different people and concepts.

What was the biggest challenge for you in coming to the U.S.?

The big obstacle for me is still my language skill. It is not that difficult to use English in everyday life, but it is a big challenge when I try to explain shoot ideas to a client or in presenting an artist statement. But I can get over it by practicing and rehearsal. I am thankful to everyone who has patiently listened to my broken English.

You shoot everything from fashion to landscape to food. What do you enjoy shooting the most?

I enjoy shooting a plethora of images just like I enjoy eating different kinds of food. I always try to find a way to make my subject look interesting. Cliché shooting is more fun when I can add conceptual ideas to it.

But one thing I never get tired of is shooting landscapes. I enjoy shooting American landscapes since I first started to have road trips in 2008. I came from Thailand where it is very beautiful, but it is not as gigantic as the American landscape.  Driving on a road trip through the National Parks gives me a chance to see the most beautiful and unique places on earth like Yellowstone or Bonneville Salt Flats. The most difficult thing is that while I can capture the image in front of me I can never capture the soul of the location I’ve been to.   

 In an industry that is constantly changing and filled with adversity, what is the biggest challenge for you?

The biggest challenge for me is always how to present my work to the client.
I have mixed factors that I always worry about like language barriers, my body of work, and pitching the price. But I find the challenge can be positive as well. Most of the time I over-prepare before meeting the client.

How do you choose your locations for those amazing panoramas you do?

I choose the location after I plan the road trip. I always use Google Maps to see the locations and the directions. After I map out all the locations I want to visit, I will do a little research on where should I take a picture and at what time. Knowing sunset and sunrise times, including the lunar calendar, helps a lot too.

Can you take us through one of your favorite panoramas…the story behind it and what went into it?

Most of my panoramas shoots have been planned, but my most favorite image was not planned. It is the image of Milky Way on Highway 1 (see photo at the top of the blog). In October 2011, I volunteered to shoot a Kathina Ceremony at Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in Redwood City, CA. After the shoot I decided to drive up to Fort Bragg to take some pictures on Highway 1 at sunset. Unfortunately it was foggy and I didn’t get any good shots. So I drove back down heading back to San Francisco. Highway 1 was fun to drive through all the curves until it became completely dark. I was exhausted so I decided to have a break. I parked my car in the rest area, turned off the lights and closed my eyes. When I opened my eyes again the first thing I saw was the bright Milky Way right in front of me. All the fog was gone. I captured that image in a “Verizontal Panoramic” (that is what I call my vertical panoramas) from the ground all the way to the back of my head. I am happy that the image won the 4th place APA Something Personal in 2011.

I have tried a few ways to get the best panoramic images. After a few successes and lots of mistakes, I found out the process should be ‘Go for it’, ‘Grab it’, and ‘Groom it’

Go for it. It means you have to drive, walk, climb trees or even get into the water to get the best spot. So I have driven on, and gotten stuck in, wet salt; climbed trees on the edge of a cliff; and walked bare foot in freezing water to get to the spot I want. But you have to be careful for yourself and your camera.

Grab it. This part is to capture the image. I think it is the most important part because if you don’t capture correctly, you will not be able to process it. What you need for the shoot are a stable tripod, a panoramic head with safe lock and water level, and a remote shutter release. Once you make sure you have your camera on a stable tripod, try to pan your camera from left to right (or right to left) to see if you can capture the image straight. For me, I prefer capture from left to right as the way I read my books.

The most important factor to stitching a panoramic image is to have enough information for the software to read and be able to merge all of the images seamlessly. After you have framed the image and are ready to shoot, try ‘zooming out’ a little bit because capturing a wider area will make it easier to edit and crop out the unwanted portions. I normally shoot the first frame and move to the second frame by having 50% of the first frame overlap the second frame. This will make sure I will have enough information for the editing process.

Another important factor in shooting panoramic landscapes is the dynamic range of the image. The best time to shoot landscapes for me is sunrise or sunset. Because those are the times when there are lots of shadows on the ground and the sky is still bright, extended dynamic range becomes very useful. I prefer capturing 3 to 5 exposures for each frame, unless it is a very high contrast scene during which I will capture a 7-exposure range instead.

The techniques I mentioned need some practice. I sometimes start shooting images at sunset where I start with the sun above the sea level on my first image and it had already disappeared by the time I shoot my last frame. I don’t want to encourage anyone who is not familiar with their tools to shoot extra exposures in twilight time because the software may not be able to stitch the images. I suggest you practice multiple exposure panoramic images in the daytime by shooting to the opposite side of the sun so you will get blue sky and flare-free panoramic landscapes.

Groom it. This is where your software creates some magic for you. Photographers have many ways to combine images together. I normally blend the exposures before stitching it together as a panoramic. There are a few software programs that help you blend images together depending on the style and look you want, but for stitching I prefer Photoshop’s Photomerge. It is automatic and the result is beautiful. I have used Photomerge since Photoshop CS 2 and it is getting much easier to use now.

It’s obvious you put a lot of work into your art…everything from finding the locations and waiting for the right light to the hours of precision computer work that goes into your images. What drives you, or motivates you, to go to such lengths for your art?

I have 2 role models who work very hard and never get tired. One is the King of Thailand who is 84 now and still working hard for his people, another person is my father who taught me ethics and work discipline. I’m willing to spend hours on planning, shooting, and retouching to make the best quality out of every image.
Once it is done, I think the image will speak for itself.
What strategies are you employing to further your photography career?

There have been a few challenges in the past year. It is a tough time for all businesses and I continue to try on new strategies. A few people asked me to compromise my image quality thereby reducing the hours spent on each image and allowing me to get more clients in the same period of time. I did try it for my personal work, but then I find I have to re-edit the work it again, so actually it takes a longer time. My strategy for my future is to keep delivering high quality images. But I will have more packages for clients, including working with graphic designers and illustrators. This solution will make a one-stop shopping for clients.

What role does Social Media play in your efforts? 

Social Media is very important. Facebook plays the major role of connecting people with same interests. It is also easy to see portfolios and who people are connected to. G+, Linkedin, Pinterest, Tweeter, these are important channels to let people know you are there to shoot for them. There are lots of good photographers, who never get a job because people don’t know them or their work.

Do you have, or are you seeking, gallery representation?

I am always interested in showing my works to the galleries. I have my panoramic landscape images ready to show. It would be great to have an opportunity to show in the galleries, but that hasn’t happen yet.

How does stock photography fit into your plans?

I was very interested in stock photography before I came to study photography here in US. Working as an art director, I had to search for new images everyday. Getty Images and Corbis were the places I spent hours every week. I always wondered how photographers shot stock. The images they shot looked so cliché, it should be easy to shoot. Well, it was not easy at all. I have tried to take pictures like what the ones I saw but I never came close. So I began to study photography. Now I know how they do it, and now my photos are on Getty Images where I used to spend so much time looking.
Thank you John, my internship with you was an important ingredient to my education.

What is your biggest challenge in creating stock photography?

The biggest challenge in creating images is still the concept. Pre-visualizing an image is a good start before creating a strong image. Concepts can start from basic key words that people are using everyday like ‘network’, ‘election’, or ‘taxes’, but it is not as easy as it sound.

Do you have a long-term plan written out, or do you just “wing it”?

My long-term goal is to can create any images I like around the world, either for clients or for my personal work. I do not have a written plan… it is more like a mind map. I learn new things every day that help me progress towards my goal. 

From where do you get your inspiration?

I often get inspiration from other peoples work. It doesn’t matter if they are famous photographers or not. Also I can get inspired from movies and music. If I need complex work I listen to Beethoven or Rachmaninoff, if I plan to shoot something in nature with beauty I listen to Bach or Vivaldi.

What would people be most surprised to know about you?

I have lots of interests and experiences, which are reflected in my diversity of work.
I was born in Bangkok, but spent some of my childhood in London. I graduated in Musicology, but I decided to be a photographer. I like Metallica as much as I like Beethoven. I was a racecar driver and now I enjoy driving around U.S., though under speed limit.

You recently formed a partnership with Yifei Gu. How did that come about?

Yifei’s background was in arts and painting. She delivers spectacular images with style. Her works are filled with classic looks combined with elegant fashion and beauty. Those are the skills I was not familiar with before. My background was as an art director with a commercial mind-set. My images were focused on commercial concepts and technical aspects more than beauty as an art. We were classmates when we studied photography before. We saw each other develop and it was very interesting to see our works together turn out well. Working together helps us each make pictures.

How do you and Yifei divide up responsibilities…and what does each of you bring to the table?

With great advice from Chris Gramly, “Reducing the impact of the ego is a big part in succeeding”. Yifei and I have very clear communication and a unique relationship. We don’t have much conflict. We work together like a team. I respect her as an artist. We plan shoots together from scratch, drawing layouts, drawing lighting maps, and the look of the final image we want.

Yifei can see the subtle difference in the models that match the concept. While she is taking care of the beauty side by directing and styling the model, I will plan about lighting direction and the light modifiers we want to use. This solution helps managing our working time effectively before the day of the shoot. I still have a lot to learn from her, we are honing our skills every day.

Do you shoot motion or have plans to get into motion?

We shoot motion sometimes. Both Yifei and I have background in movies too. But if we can choose, we still prefer still photography.

How much of your time is spent shooting?

Before I become a full time photographer I had a dream that I would take pictures every day. But as time goes by, I learn new things every day. I learn that I have to plan for the shoot, participate in social networking, meet with clients, edit pictures, archive the digital files, and work at printing and design. Now I have less than 20% of my time taking pictures.

Where do you see yourself and your career five years from now?

I am aiming to work more with advertising agencies. I believe with my experiences as an art director I will be able to deliver high quality images for their campaigns.
Other than assignment work, I will still contribute to stock photography. I like the freedom of creating anything I like on my own terms.

What advice do you have for photographers starting out on their careers?

There are some differences between taking pictures as a hobby or taking pictures as a full time photographer. The main difference is the whole idea of taking photographs for pleasure will start to fade.  Once you become a professional, taking pictures means expenses and responsibility. Expenses are in Cameras, lenses, lighting equipment, computers, maintenance, and other business expenses. One has responsibilities for other people’s important projects, their time, or their once-in-a-lifetime moment.   I would suggest anyone who falls in love with photography to think carefully before leaving his or her current job. The best advice is to keep shooting! For me, I never regret being a photographer.

What is it that I have forgotten to ask?

I came to this point with lots of support from family, friends, and people around me. I would like to thank everyone who gave me experience and support. Both good and bad critics will help me grow in photography and become a better photographer. I hope my work will inspire some of you to be better photographers!

Tom, I know both you and your work inspire me!

 Tom Penpark "Grabbing It").

Tom's Partner Yifei gu.

To see more of Tom and YiFei's work:

Tom's main website:

 Yifei's website is

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