Gary is featured as our “Celebrity Mentor” in the Pretty Forum for the entire month of September, so come on over and ask him anything you like. Thank you so much Gary for taking the time to share your work with us today!
Where did your inspiration for photography begin?
My inspiration wasn’t photography – it was the idea of being a wedding photographer. Wedding photography was honestly the best way I could think of to make great money and not have to be the doctor that my parents forced me to be. I was a songwriter/guitarist, and I knew that I wouldn’t do well financially at that. I was deathly afraid of living around the poverty like my parents.
One day, as I was about to graduate from the University with a degree in Pharmacology (of all things), I was freaking out, and telling my girlfriend how bad I wished I could find a way to do something/anything to make a great living besides being a doctor. I shared with her how one of our family friends had started out as a struggling guitarist like me, and wound up being on the “Kung Fu” television series as an actor. As I was telling her the story about this man, Rocky Gunn, I was turning through the pages of Life magazine when I said:
“I wonder what he’s doing now?”
And I turned a page in Life Magazine in a moment that changed my entire life. There was an eight page article, starting with a centerfold spread, saying, “Nobody Shoots Weddings Like Rocky Gunn”. I looked around the room wondering if there was a hidden camera or something. It was so eerie. And I’m a big believer in signs, so I figured I had better pursue this guy. Especially since the article said that he made about $1 million per year shooting weddings.
I was not into photography at all, and had never touched a professional medium format camera, nor had I even been a guest at a wedding. I honestly just felt the universe was giving me a sign (through that “Life Magazine” moment) that I had to meet him. When I finally caught up to him (after many letters and phone call attempts), he fondly remembered me and asked if I had brought my guitar. I had one in my trunk, and we went out to the Redondo Beach Pier and sang a few duets together. A lady dropped a dollar bill in his camera bag, and he said to me, “Hey you and I – we make a great team!” Thus began my close friendship with the most famous wedding photographer in the world.
I carried bags for him for an entire summer and was amazed at how he handled the most intense disasters at weddings, and how he was able to work with people. At my first wedding with him, the groom came running out of the church screaming and jumping, “Rocky Gunn is here! Rocky Gunn is here!” and while I knew my friend was famous, I had no idea a groom would care so much. The reaction from Rocky was not what I expected. He looked at us, and in a very solemn tone, said – “today it is very important that you two assistants work double-time, but speak very quietly – I’ll explain later…” We worked quietly and with hushed tones through one of the most somber days I’d ever seen outside a funeral home. We’re at a wedding, yet people are randomly breaking out in tears crying and leaving the room?
As we were doing the group photographs, one of the bridesmaids said loudly enough for all of us to hear, “I don’t care what that photographer says, I am not going to be in any photographs!” (which was weird). Rocky turned around subtly and looked at “Julie” and expressed amazement at the lighting that was hitting her. From what I could see, she was lit terribly by overhead fluorescent lighting, but what did I know? He asked her not to move from where she was, and gathered everybody in the family to surround her as she sat. She lit up with a smile, and then Rocky said, “Let’s go to the altar and do the group photos” and up she went. I was amazed at his people skills. To me, he was the “bridesmaid whisperer”!
Later that evening I found out that the groom’s mother was killed the night before in a car accident. Julie was the groom’s sister. All of a sudden, everything made sense – the random outbursts of tears and the funeral home feel. So I asked Rocky how he knew the groom’s mother died the night before? Was he told?
“What? She died? I had no idea! That’s awful!” Rocky said. This confused me. I asked him how he knew to direct us to speak in hushed tones and work double time, especially since the groom showed no signs of being in grief. And he told me that he knew that the groom was in grief because even though he acted tremendously happy when we arrived, “he had a rage in his eyes”.
From that moment on, I was fascinated by the amount of intuition he had for people, and that’s what I really wanted to experience more of. By the time I had finished the summer carrying bags for him, I knew that wedding photography was going to be my life’s passion.
Did you study photography in school or are you self taught?
I learned everything about photography from Rocky and a book called, “The Handbook Of Photography” by John Hedgecoe. It was a book full of illustrations and few words. It taught me so much. It showed before/after pictures with amazing diagrams that made perfect sense.
And then being with Rocky was amazing. I’d absorb everything as I was watching him work – which lenses he chose, how he found the perfect spot for lighting, how he worked his flash units. Most remarkably, he never used a meter. He would just stand in a spot and say, “hmmm, right here it’s 1/60th of a second at f4” and he was always 100% right. He taught me that skill, and it’s the weirdest thing. It’s like knowing the temperature of your room. You know when it’s 71 degrees, you know when it’s 84 degrees, and you know when it’s 67 degrees. You know because you’ve stood in many different rooms and made note of what the thermometer said. Similarly, your body knows how much light surrounds you, you just have to memorize that number too.
What do you love most about being a photographer?
The gift you give. When you photograph someone’s wedding, or engagement, or child birth, it’s a gift of a lifetime, of priceless value. We just had our fifth wedding anniversary, and when I went back through the photographs our amazing photographers (Jessica Claire and Jennifer Bebb) did for us, I thank my lucky stars that we had photographers with the eye, the skill, and the expertise to do such an amazing job of capturing the day.
Conversely, I know people who get sick to their stomach looking at their wedding photographs. Disappointing photographs can turn a beautiful day into a sad memory. They thought they knew what they were doing by saving a few thousand dollars and hiring a less expensive photographer. I guarantee you – every single one of those brides would give practically anything now to be able to go back and do it over with a skilled photographer. I think that it’s a huge responsibility that I remind people of this constantly.
What kind of camera do you use and what is your favorite lens?
Part of my job as the owner of a photo accessories company is to test all of the cameras with my products. So I have everything – Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Lumix, Olympus and Sony. And the only camera I use anymore is the Sony A77. It is so far beyond any other camera technologically. Things I could never do with my Canon or Nikon are unbelievably simple for the Sony to accomplish. The eyepiece is not optical, it’s an extremely high resolution electronic viewfinder. It’s so high res, you think it’s optical. Until you switch it to black and white mode, or intentionally overexpose. You see the digital image before you even squeeze the shutter. It’s like “pre-chimping”. And it shoots at an incredible twelve frames per second at over 23 megapixels, with flesh tones that are so lifelike. If I were to claim expertise at anything, I would say it is in camera nerdiness. There’s nothing that comes close to the Sony.
My favorite lens for most everything I do is a 50mm f1.4 on a crop sensor, giving it an effective focal length of 75mm. Shot wide open, it’s a beautiful look. And with my Sony, there is an instant 2x zoom that is far more advanced than the typical digital magnification. So I effectively can have a 150mm f1.4 with the push of a button.
As inventor of “Lightsphere”, what advice do you have for photographers on finding the light?
Learn to shoot in Manual. Shooting in Program mode is like auto-correct on your cell phone. If you don’t know how to spell, you wouldn’t know that auto-correct made the hilarious errors that it does! Learn the basics of available light and when to adjust for contrast and exposure. Learn to find where the sweetest light is. When a photograph comes out “weird”, it’s because your camera guessed wrong. Knowing how to shoot in manual mode allows you to eliminate the guessing.
Once you’re able to “see” beautiful available light, you’ll quickly understand that it’s limited to a tight spot, at a particular angle. If you move three feet, it’s ugly. That’s why I invented the Lightsphere. It softly fills in unflattering shadows and weird color cast in flesh tones, because beautiful light is a tightly controlled spot and angle where you must bring your subjects. You don’t have this luxury if you are a wedding photographer, or someone who photographs children, etc. You can’t stop your subject and freeze their faces in just the right spot all the time.
With the Lightsphere placed off-camera, the things you can do with it are amazing. One of my favorite projects is on my YouTube channel, which I call the “ugly room” series. I literally take a model to the most awful spots (for example, a parking lot on a rainy day, the area outside a men’s room in a public building, etc.) and create studio-quality lighting right then and there.
Tell us about your inspiration for writing, and a little about your latest book:
Writing a book is a lot like writing one very, very long blog post! So many people now are amazing bloggers, each one of them has the potential to write great books!
I was lucky enough to photograph Sidney Sheldon’s daughter’s wedding at their incredible 20,000 square foot mansion. Mr. Sheldon was one of the biggest best-selling authors in history. As I was getting to know the family, I had a tour of the author’s office. What I saw was that day was so cool. He had a flowchart of characters on a write board. There would be arrows from one name to the other, with scribbles over the arrows. (gay? jealous. lover of…) etc. Once he had the characters all diagrammed out, he was able to bounce around the plot window while (in the background) the characters were developing conflicts and relationships on a moving timeline behind the description window. Once he had the people on the flowchart, he’d pick a city or town. If it was a small town in Louisiana, he’d get an apartment in the neighborhood, eat in the local diner, get his haircut at the local barber, shop at the corner grocery store. While soaking up all of the visuals of the local color, he’d record the storyteller’s visuals in words, and weave it into the story.
The books I’ve published have a flowchart in mind. Even though they are non-fiction, they are stories. For example, in “So You Want To Be A Rockstar Photographer”, I treat the social network audience as a singular individual. A tempestuous person who has the attention span of a gnat, and “favorites” only the most colorful and shiny characters… a “fan” who can drop the Jonas Brothers in a split second and worship Justin Bieber the next. I develop a plot line showing how this character’s relationship with “Rockstar” photographers changes the Rockstars. That’s why I’m so proud of it.
My own memoir, “The Accidental Millionaire” was the same way, but the characters that weaved in and out of my storyline were so random that until it reached “assembly”, we had no idea what the point of the book was. Assembly is when you put all of your random “blog” posts into a continuous thread that either works or it doesn’t. I have two books, over two hundred pages each, that have not “assembled” to my liking. When it does you feel like you’ve written a hit song. Seeing my life story in the biography section at “Barnes and Noble” (between Jane Fonda and Michael J. Fox’s books) gave me that feeling.
Can you share some tips for marketing and getting your business out there?
The best piece of advice I ever, ever got was, “nobody wants a salesman knocking on their door, but everyone would welcome a new friend”. So when I was starting my wedding photography business living with mom and dad, with one camera and $254, all I did was contact caterers, bakeries, dress shops, etc. and say that I’d like to come by and introduce myself. When I got face to face, I didn’t have a sales pitch. I just said that I’m a fresh new photographer in town and, would you like some photographs of your flowers? I’d like to shoot your samples. And from that came relationships, which turned into friendships. And everybody refers their friends.
What do you feel has been the most important factor of your success in this business?
Getting the referrals. I read an amazing book, “Marketing Without Advertising”, which revealed an startling statistic. If a customer uses your service twice, the likelihood of them using you a third time goes up to 800%. So when I was shooting weddings, I wasn’t focused on the size of the order so much as I was about getting them to refer me to two friends.
Everybody has a favorite product or service. It might be Starbucks. It might be Panera Bread, or an honest mechanic. Hopefully on that list is a Gary Fong product. If someone loves me enough to refer me to two friends, or purchase two of my items, the third referral or purchase goes up 800%. That is free advertising, and that is built-in growth. You won’t see advertising campaigns from any of my companies. But what you will see is our honest attempt to make you so thrilled with what we offer, that you’ll refer two friends. And it’s worked. We went from a little idea to becoming the world’s largest diffuser manufacturer, with nearly half a million Lightspheres sold. They’re everywhere. And all of that was accomplished without the need for advertising.
If you could encourage a new photographer in one area, what would it be?
Don’t go into business before you’re completely geared up and ready. Carry bags for an entire summer without second shooting. Have deep, deep training. Know your equipment so well that you can operate it subconsciously on an expert level. My book, “Rockstar” opens with disaster stories of well-meaning photographers who went into business too early. One lost all of her husband’s retirement money, their house, and everything they had because of a $500 wedding shoot. I know of many photographers who went through bankruptcy, and even two who actually served jail time because of their handling of wedding clients! And most of the photographers I’ve ever mentored shot one paying job, and experienced so much grief that they gave it up forever.
One of the most irresponsible trends in photography is the fraud that exists in inspirational speeches by “Rockstar” photographers who tell you that you should just “face your fears, leave those insecurities behind, and jump in and do it! Go full-time!”. If you ever, ever hear this from a so-called famous photographer, look a little deeper and you’ll see that they have something to sell you – a workshop, a DVD set, maybe a template website service or Photoshop Actions. In my mind, these people are saying these things to get people to buy their products.
What is next for Gary Fong?
Watching our beautiful ten month old twins grow and change. That much I know for sure. Everything else, I have no idea.
I’ve never known the correct answer to that question my entire life. Every goal I’ve ever set, I never accomplished. And all that I accomplished I never planned. I never thought I’d be a wedding photographer, then inventor, then author, or that my name would be synonymous with a piece of plastic, and that all of that would be appear on Wikipedia. Can you imagine anybody making the flowchart that I’ve gone through in advance? Impossible.
Steve Jobs said it best in his commencement speech at Stanford. He explained that your life only makes sense when you connect the dots going backwards. Where you are is because one step led to the next, and most likely little of it was expected. I’ve learned to focus on the process, not an outcome.
About Gary: Gary Fong is an American entrepreneur and former wedding photographer. After twenty years, Fong ended his photography career in 2002 to pursue business interests such as marketing photography products, plastics manufacturing, a distribution and fulfillment center, and authoring a successful inspirational memoir. When he isn’t enjoying his beautiful wife and twins, he spends his spare time making educational videos for novice and professional photographers.
And don’t forget, you can “Ask Gary” anything you like in the Pretty Forum for the entire month of September!