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
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
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
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
Once it is done, I
think the image will speak for itself.
What strategies are you employing to further your
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
Thank you John, my
internship with you was an important ingredient to my education.
What is your biggest challenge in creating stock
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
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
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
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
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
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
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: