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Gavin's Underground

Will Thompson

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2013-08-04 - Salt Lake City's photography scene has grown exponentially over the past few years, with professional shooters and amateur stars capturing what's happening around us. If there's any indication it's one the rise, the recent anniversary of the SLC Photo Collective should serve as proof, highlighting many of the newer talents on the rise who have come around in the past few years.
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Branching out from that thought, today I chat with photographer Will Thompson about his life before pursuing his dreams, getting into the business and making a career of it, and a few other topics that came up. (All pictures courtesy of Thompson.)

Will Thompson
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Gavin: Hey, Will. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Will: Thanks, Gavin. First off, let me just say that I'm flattered that you contacted me, and I'm really honored to have the opportunity to tell you what I'm up to. I've been a fan for years. I don't know if you remember, but you "published" the first photo of me as a photographer at Poor Yorick's. I'm a professional photographer and owner of Shoot What You Love. My interests include fashion and editorial, head shots for models, actors, professionals and others, bands and live music events, landscapes, dogs and cats, and flower photography.
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Gavin: What first got you interested in art, and what were some early influences on you?

Will: I've been interested in art as long as I can remember, starting with drawing when I was a boy. My earliest influences were album covers and Rolling Stone Magazine. I began taking photos in junior high, mostly landscape and art photography. In high school, I took photos for the newspaper and yearbook, and developed a love of sports photography, which requires accurate timing and anticipation of what is about to happen. I also won several scholarships for art photography. Some of my earliest photographic influences were Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Gavin: What specifically drove you toward photography, and what was it like for you learning early on.

Will: Photography was attractive because it combines my interest in science, particularly optics and physics, and my interest in art. This is a recurrent theme in my life: working at the interface of art and science and technology.
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Gavin: Originally, you went through college earning degrees in science and business administration. What got you interested in those fields, and what was it like working for those degrees?

Will: Photography is ultimately about light. My science education, particularly in the areas of light, optics and physics, enabled me to better understand what I'm attempting to do with a camera. The more I understand about the technology and physics of photography, the more it opens and enables my creativity. And the creativity and desire to expand my abilities drive more learning in the fields of science and technology, so it's an ever-expanding spiral. My business education taught me the importance of customer satisfaction and the importance of service-centered businesses. My philosophy of business is only to take clients I'm willing to work with, to treat them with respect, decency and consideration. My first question about a prospective client is always, "Are they good people?" My business education also taught me that images need to reflect the personality and goals of the subject or the organization. And, of course, it would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of quality, individualized photography for professionals, aspiring professionals and giving a business a distinctive edge.
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Gavin: In your work life, you worked for places like Philips Digital, L-3 and Dancing Cheetahs. What did you take from all those businesses over the years and how did you later apply them to what you do now?

Will: I initially worked for Bosch, which was later purchased by Phillips, doing computer animations for video. It was excellent experience for what I do now. Like photography, computer graphics is about light. If the light isn't what you would see in real life, the animation won't look real. So, I learned a lot about surfaces, geometry, texture, and, above all, various approaches to lighting, which I continue to use in my work as a photographer. I also trained other artists in using the computer-graphics software, again requiring my knowledge in science and technology and working at the interface of tech and art. And, of course, excellent people and customer-service skills were necessary for me to succeed.
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Gavin: I read that through your own consulting you discovered your passion for photography. What was that experience like for you?

Will: It was really a journey of discovery. Just after high school, I stopped doing photography because I believed that I had to be as good as Ansel Adams and that I was only capable of doing landscape photography. In 2008, I started using the tools I taught in my consulting to question those beliefs. I questioned whether I had to emulate Adams and found that I didn't. I found, in fact, that while I love landscapes, I also love "macroscapes," flowers, pets and, especially, people photography. Other things I incorporated from my consulting are to "pay it forward.” I have learned much from free information, from other photographers and from other people, unrelated to photography. I feel it is my responsibility to give back. I love teaching the "old ways" to young, new photographers. I learned to ask questions, to involve other people and especially the importance of the other people involved in any creative endeavor. The creative team can produce something that is far more than just the sum of the parts. I did not invent photography, and I think it is silly to behave as if I figured it out all by myself, and to hoard and protect the information I have. I hope that I never become self-important, and that if I do, I hope I have friends who will make sure I get straightened out quickly.
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Gavin: Rather than do it as a hobby, what made you decide to pursue photography professionally and start up your own business?

Will: I'm a skilled photographer, a creative person, and also someone who is good at working with people, helping them be the best they can, and teaching.  And I love photography. It seemed a simple decision to pursue photography professionally, and I enjoy working for myself.

Gavin: What was it like getting everything you needed together, and where did Shoot What You Love come from?

Will: Getting things together is an ever-evolving process of learning the equipment, learning to maximize its utility and improving equipment as needed; more isn't always better. The name came from one of my mentors, Joel Addams. I was frustrated by the usual advice given to photographers to specialize in one area of photography and do only that. I told Joel that I didn't want to shoot just one thing and he replied, "Shoot what you love" -- and the business name was born.
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Gavin: You started in mid-2008. How was it for you breaking into the business and working that first year?

Will: Breaking in was incredible! Although my photos were shown in gallery shows when I was in high school, I never attended one. So, my first gallery show, at Saans, was a real high. Breaking into fashion was about 100 times more exciting than gallery shows!

Gavin: What were some early lessons you learned along the way, and how did you adapt to working on your own?

Will: Some of my most important lessons have been that people skills and interactions can be more important than talent and creativity although, of course, both are necessary. When doing fashion and editorial shoots, the cohesiveness of the creative team and the ability to work with people are of primary importance. In other words, developing relationships with other creative people is critical. I also learned that while gallery shows are fun, they can be expensive in terms of the cost of frames, mats and travel expenses.
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Gavin: What kind of equipment do you shoot with?

Will: I use a Nikon D700 camera. I like Nikon because the cameras work the way I think. I try to avoid the "religious wars" over which camera is best. The best camera is the one you can use! I use a lot of studio lights and also like shooting in natural light. I'm not very "gizmo" dependent.

Gavin: Do you prefer working with digital cameras, or is there a part of you that prefers film?

Will: I prefer the look of film. However, I find that shooting exclusively film is often too limiting. I'm a featured photographer for Alien Skin Software, which allows me to get the look of a wide variety of types of film while shooting digital. However, I also enjoy the challenges of shooting with film. You have to believe in yourself to do that.
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Gavin: How was it for you breaking into shooting the fashion and entertainment scenes in Utah, and what has it been like working with the talent you have?

Will: Breaking in has been both incredibly easy and extremely difficult. The difficult part is establishing my "name." As in any industry, there are relationships that have been established for years, and people tend to work with people they have worked with before, and whom they have learned to trust. Since I am an introvert, I am not one to go to a lot of parties and social events. As a result, I don't have as many social relationships to draw on and I am not at the top of people's minds when a project comes along. I have had to develop relationships through work and through community resources like Facebook, etc. The easy part is that Utah is a very special place in my experience, because artists of any genre are more open and cooperative than anywhere else I have ever lived. If I have a question, I know someone will answer it. I see artists working together, I see a community that comes together to help one of its own. I feel fortunate to be a part of such a cooperative and open community.
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Gavin: How has it been for you branching out with your work into galleries and exhibition shows and hearing public reaction to your works?

Will: I actually started out doing gallery and exhibition shows. It was during my first group show opening at Saans photography that I saw a photo by Zuzanna Audette and was mesmerized by the light and emotion in the eyes of her subject. I spent most of that evening studying that photo and trying to figure out how she had done it. That was the impetus to begin shooting people. I spent months learning about lighting, about how to interact with people as photo subjects, and again, questioning my belief that I was not capable of shooting people. That photo of Zu's is responsible for much joy and pain! She is one of my idols. She can do it all, and she has never been anything but kind and helpful when I've contacted her for anything. As far as public reaction, I have come to understand that it is important to me to have people see the result. There is something about seeing a print, in a frame, hanging where people can see it and think about it, that completes the creative cycle.
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Gavin: You just passed the five-year mark over a month ago. What's your take on your career so far and the effect it's had on your life since pursuing it?

Will: Has it really been that long? Jeeze, in most ways it doesn't seem like very long at all. I can say that it has changed the way I see and experience the world. One of the hardest things I've done during that time is to learn to accept and "wear" the term "artist." I never thought I was good enough. I never believed I had any creativity. I have had to reconsider that, and while I still feel some weirdness about it, I do see that there is a definite art to what I'm doing. The second biggest effect is that I've been forced to push myself outside of my natural introvertedness. A few years ago, I took a personality test that placed me in the "5% most introverted" category. Since fashion photography requires more than one person, I have had to find ways to overcome my shyness and my discomfort around people. So, I guess I would have to say that the effect on my life is one of personal growth.
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Gavin: Are there any plans for you to expand your portfolio down the road in other forms, or possibly setting up a physical studio somewhere?

Will: I currently have a studio in my garage, and my back yard has lovely, natural, northern light. My portfolio is already very diverse. I'd like to do more commercial fashion, dancers, and head shots for actors and others, and I would love to do "professional profile" portraits.

Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of the year?

Will: Oh, I have such a hard time answering that. I will continue to work as hard as I can to make a name for myself in the local fashion industry. I can't really explain how much I would love to be more involved, to get more calls for projects with a larger scope, and a larger creative team. That is the dream. One of the things that helps me get through Utah's winter is knowing that the Twilight Concert Series will be coming! I love that environment! I volunteer for 15 Bytes, so I get to shoot some of the concerts from the press area. That is an amazing experience to be in the "protected" space between the crowd and the stage. For some reason, that space has come to represent "potential" to me. Within that space, I am able to move freely and anticipate the performers and to capture the crowd reaction. I spend a lot of time in the press area taking pictures of the people in the crowd, the excitement, their reactions, and just the mass of people having a good time. Fall is coming, and with it the unreal Utah color. I am so fortunate to live within an hour of Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, and nearly as close to the Alpine Loop in Utah county. There's just so much to do and the days are short!
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Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?

Will: I think it would be fun to offer a special "Friends of the Underground" discount to anyone who reads this and contacts me this month. I ESPECIALLY want to do some band photos. Anyone who contacts me for a shoot in August and mentions that they are a friend of the Underground will get a 25% discount on my usual sitting fee.


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