For this interview, we had a chance to get to know Henry Chen, a wedding photographer out of Long Beach, CA. I have a feeling that this guy will soon be recognized as one of the leaders in the industry and perhaps a “Top 10” at some point in his career. He has the creativity, the technical skills, and the awareness of his surroundings that distinguish the exceptional from the ordinary. He’s also a really cool and very personable guy, as you’ll get a sense for as you read this interview. Thanks for taking the time out of your day Henry; and we wish you the best of luck. For more of his work, please check out his website and his blog
1) What does Henry Chen do when he’s not working?
It’s tough to consider wedding photography as work-work since I enjoy it so much, but when I’m not doing that, I’m either watching an NBA game, riding my bike, traveling, or hanging out with my amazing girlfriend Nancy and family.
2) Where are you from?
I was born in a country called Burma but my parents and I immigrated to the US when I was three (back in 1987) and have been living in the Los Angeles area since. I didn’t get out of the city as often (or rather at all) until I started doing (wedding) photography about three years ago.
3) What were some of the biggest influences in your life growing up?
Most definitely my parents, who are by far the most influential people in my life. They didn’t speak English, came from the lower-middle class, and didn’t know what SATs were, but through their actions and wise words taught me the most important lessons of life. Also, my high school teachers and college professors inspired/motivated me to work hard, stay focused, and simply not give up.
4) Where’s the most beautiful place you have ever seen?
I’ve had the opportunity to travel and shoot in a few countries the past year or two in Europe, Africa, and Asia, but the most beautiful places (at least the ones that I remembered) are the ones where the light was amazing, there was hardly a single soul around, and everything at the location was historic. It could’ve been an empty alleyway, a field of tall grass, an abandoned movie theatre, or even someone’s house. It’s more about what the place means rather than it’s actual location that I love.
5) In four words or phrases, what’s your favorite food, tv show, band and book?
Favorite food: anything with beef aka steak.
TV show: any NBA game and (sadly now gone) Lost and 24.
Band: Linkin Park.
Book: I don’t read much but I’d have to say those children books I read back in elementary and middle school ;).
6) What do you think you would have been if you weren’t a photographer?
Practically speaking, I’d probably still be in the engineering industry. I’d love to change fields and get into either the medical field or historian traveling the world.
7) Along the same lines, what do you think you will do after you decide to stop shooting weddings?
I actually hope to never stop shooting weddings, or at least do it until my knees and wrists fall apart :). I’d love to teach, probably something in photography, or if I can remember anything of it, engineering. It would also be really fun to shoot the NBA games again.
8) What are some of your favorite quotes or words to live by?
I can’t remember any ver batum at the moment, but a few are:
“I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.” – Thomas Jefferson
“Nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm.”
There’s a lot of quotes from Michael Jordan that I really liked but can’t remember any at the moment and don’t have Internet on this plane to look them up :(.
1) How did you get Started in the photography business?
It started back in the Summer of 2006 when I saw several photoblogs online and thought about buying a DSLR. It was fun exploring different parts of my city (that I probably wouldn’t have gone to otherwise) and taking photos. I’ve always been a diehard Los Angeles Clippers fan (feel free to make fun of me :P) and just the NBA in general, so when I saw an opportunity to be the Clippers’ photo intern in the Fall of 06, I jumped on it right away and got the job. That’s how I really learned how to use a camera (shoot in manual mode, anticipate the moments, what lenses to use, etc.). Then in the Spring of 2007, my friends joked that I should take their wedding photos one day (ironically none of them are married yet) after seeing some of my early work. I looked into weddings then and in the Summer of 2007, I started looking for opportunities to second shoot. The rest, as they say, is history :).
2) How did you know that you wanted to do wedding photography?
Honestly, I feel like it fell right into my lap by sheer coincidence. I definitely didn’t grow up as a photography enthusiast and certainly not wanting to be a wedding photographer. I knew I wanted to do something that influenced people as well as have my own business, and something I would be very passionate about. Engineering was a great starting point but after a few years, I had a feeling it wasn’t the thing for me. So when I started taking photos for fun and when a few friends suggested I look into weddings, I realized I was onto something I could see myself having a career in.
3) Who are some of your favorite wedding photographers?
Ben Chrisman (actually flying to his workshop – my very first one! as I type this) and David Jay. Both most likely have no idea who I am but I just admire their photography (Ben) and how they run their business (David) so much. Andrew Bernstein, NBA Director of Photography, would be my favorite photographer. I’d love to have his job one day!
4) Where do you draw photography inspiration?
A lot from my everyday life. As boring as it may seem at times, I enjoy studying the behaviors and personalities of individuals, especially complete strangers :). My girlfriend Nancy says my eyes wander a lot, probably because I’m always checking out the surroundings. I also get some inspiration from watching NBA games – the fast-paced action and drama of the sport are elements I’d like to incorporate into my photography (or it could be my lame excuse to just watch the game and call it “working” :P). Finally, movies and TV shows. It could be a pose, how a scene was lit, or just the interaction among people that give me ideas.
5) Your style is truly unique. I see aspects of lifestyle photography, photojournalism, and fashion, but I’m curious to hear how you would define your photography style?
Thanks Chris, I’m very humbled and grateful by your kind words. I don’t know if I just have one or two word that precisely describe my style but definitely photojournalism and something contemporary/modern/creative. I want to keep the photos “real”, in the sense that if someone were to look at the images, they can imagine actually being there and feeling some emotion (hopefully good!). I do my best to just let things unfold at a wedding and capture them that way, but at times feel like I need to step in and create the moment (say during the getting ready and definitely during the portraits). Also, anticipating moments, looking at something in an uncommon way, and bringing out the unique personalities and dynamics among the individuals at a wedding (especially with the bride, groom, and family members) are things I try to do. I feel it’s very important to be one with the wedding and not just a photographer or storyteller, that’s when and where you’ll find inspiration and “moments” you thought never existed.
6) If you could shoot a wedding with anyone who would it be?
Do you mean with another photographer or just anyone in general? If it’s with a photographer, I’d say someone who has shot wars, historical events (presidential elections, riots, etc.), third world countries, who has that raw, real, photojournalistic style. If it’s just with anyone, it would be with my parents. I’d love to take my mom and dad to a wedding and show them what I do (haven’t found a client that would be okay with that though :P).
7) When can we expect your next workshop?
Good question, I have no idea ;). I did a pseudo-workshop in my tiny apartment studio April of 09 and a more adequate one earlier this year. I don’t know who would want to learn from me :) but if there’s enough interest (around 15-20 photographers), I’d love to have one in January or February of 2011 at my studio (in Long Beach, CA).
8) For the aspiring wedding photographers with limited money to spend, what advice might you give them to grow their studio and build their brand?
I say if you’re aspiring and believe in yourself (if you don’t no one else will), even if you have limited money to spend (take out a few loans or use CC with no interests for a year or two – that’s what I did), you HAVE to dive into this amazing industry with both of your feet and go for it all. I don’t think you can be on the fence on whether or not to pursue wedding photography. You need to be confident in your work and in yourself, know your strengths, but also be the first to acknowledge your weaknesses, and genuinely be passionate in what you do. If you’re half serious, don’t ponder getting that lens or paying someone to build your site, JUST DO IT. This is a very fast-paced and competitive business. If you aren’t doing everything you possibly can to grow your business, someone else is and they’ll pass you by. Speaking of business, you need to have a very good understanding of how to run one. Imagine if you were to open up a clothing store or start a financial consulting company. Would you not do it because you don’t have enough money? Would you wait another week to work on that business model? Why should your wedding photography business be any different? I always feel that if you don’t take your own business seriously, how would your potential clients?
9) In your early career, what forms or marketing worked and what didn’t?
I signed up with theknot.com in the Spring of 2008 after launching my website, blog, and having a few weddings under my belt. It helped me get a nice number of bookings for 2009 but unfortunately that didn’t happen as often for this year. I also signed up with a company that would put my site in the sponsored section of Google and Yahoo for the phrase “los angeles wedding photographer”. That generated some traffic and helped me get a few weddings. Both were paid but I wanted to get a good start in the business, especially since I bought a boat load of equipment while hardly having any weddings booked for the next year (2008). Facebook ads also helped a bit, but not too much. I did my one and only bridal show in the Fall of 2008. Unfortunately, that didn’t help me at all and was a tough lesson for me to learn (since it was a bit pricy). No matter what, word of mouth and referrals from other wedding vendors are the way to go. Nothing beats a good word from a past client or someone that has worked with you.
10) Would you have done anything differently if you could do anything in your career over again?
There’s definitely a list of things I wished I didn’t do, i.e. spend money buying a lens I didn’t need, advertising with a company that didn’t help me much, not having albums to show potential clients in my earlier days, but I probably wouldn’t change any of it as I feel they were all lessons I learned and shaped me to who I am today and how my business is. If I didn’t make those mistakes, I would’ve made others :). It’s best to learn from them and try to help others so they wouldn’t have to go through the same things.
11) What is your favorite part of the wedding day to photograph?
Anything that is based on raw emotion. It could be a laugh, smile, tear, or something downright funny, happy, even sad, or serious. I do like the getting ready as it gives me a chance to get to know the wedding party and get more intimate shots. The toasts and formal dances (first, father-daughter, mother-son) are always great as you get a chance to capture some really heartfelt moments between the bride, groom, and individuals that have most likely waited their whole life to experience.
12) Would you be willing to share a couple of your favorite images and explain what you love about them?
I wished I had Internet connection on this plane but unfortunately no :(. I’ll have to get back to you on this one, perhaps in another post? In general, my most favorites are ones with either a lot of emotion or has some interesting usage of light, composition, and mood. It’s because of those things that I like them.
Since you’re away from the computer, I’ll go ahead and show you some of my favorites that I’ve seen on your blog
13) What’s the best part about your job?
Not to be too cheesy or cliche-ish but it’s the feeling of doing something that has a huge influence on the lives of the people in the photos. Whether it’s an 8-hour or 16-hour wedding, 10 or 500+ guests, lots of beautiful details or not, local or destination venue, having to do portraits at high-noon in 90+ degree whether or right before sunset in an incredible setting, none of that matters if what you do doesn’t make a positive impact to someone. It’s the best feeling to get a compliment from not only the bride and groom but also their family and friends, and to know you were able to give them something they’ll cherish for the rest of their lives.
14) What’s the worst part about your job?
When you only get 10 minutes with the bride and groom for portraits or there’s a lot of water bottles and sandwiches in the getting room haha, jk. It does get stressful at times on the wedding day, especially when you know you can get a better shot if only a few simple things were changed. But that’s just the nature of the beast and something we all need to live with and even embrace. Sometimes, when you’re done with the day, you look back and laugh about it :).
15) If you were stuck using one lens for the rest of your life, what would it be?
That imaginary 24-200mm/1.2L IS lens that Canon sells for $50,000 :). On a more serious note, it’s a toss-up between the 35mm/1.4L and the 50mm/1.2L from Canon (on a full-frame body). I just have to go with a prime for the low-light capability and photo quality. It also encourages me to be more creative with the lack of a zoom feature. I think both do portraits and details well, plus focus fast enough to capture those action shots.
Thanks again Henry! Great interview!