How I learned to eat light

I’ll admit: I never aspired to be who I am today. I never planned on it, nor did I even fathom that I would ever become a photographer when I was younger. It just happened.

My childhood was filled with things that were just like any other boy; days filled with Legos, playing in the streets, video games, Robotech, the Disney Afternoon, orange creamsicles, purple drink, dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets, and of course, knee scrapes aplenty. But interspersed between normal kid-dom was a creative flair that never faded away.

I drew–a lot. I took so many sheets of paper from my father’s printer that my buttocks already knew the sting of his bamboo stick before it was even unleashed. My dear mother never seemed to be able to supply me with enough coloring books as each new black and white book would instantly be introduced to the world of color. Teachers would always send me home with notes saying that I doodled when I wasn’t supposed to, on things like essay margins, standardized tests, math homework, my desk, and fellow classmates’ bare arms all fell victim to my creative fervor.

As I slipped out of kid-hood and into my teenage years, I realized that this addiction to constantly create was more “me” than my addiction to Star Wars (don’t get me wrong though, the Millennium Falcon is still one of the coolest space faring vessels in any science fiction universe). During the four years of high school, I took six art classes–SIX! In the first of those four years, I knew deep down that I wanted to have a career as some sort of creative professional. My burning desire at the time was to make video games. I locked myself in my room for hours on end creating custom 3D models for the first person shooter, Counter-Strike. But most importantly, I learned how to use photoshop.

By the time my second year of college rolled around, I somehow managed to take all four of the art history classes that were available. I breathed in each and every one of those classes like fresh air. I relished the stories about the masters; how they grew up, their creative process, and their social impact.

I fell deeply in love with modern art. Artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Jeff Koons, Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, Georgia O’Keefe and Richard Diebenkorn would later creep in like a ninja to influence my photography.

Eventually, I dropped out of college to support myself. I felt as though I received what pieces of knowledge I needed from school. Plus, living alone while working and taking classes was one tough cookie, I tell ya! I started working for a small graphic design studio. I worked on brochures, presentations, illustrated children’s books, designed products and product boxes.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with my photography, and my answer to you is this: everything. But we’ll get more into that in just a bit….

I was eventually let go from that studio. They were kind enough to leave me a bit of severance pay. In my grief over losing a job, I decided to use that extra bit of money to treat myself with something–something that I’ve always wanted to get but never took the plunge: a camera.

I bought myself a refurbished Nikon D40 with 18-55mm (non VR) for $450 in the fall of 2007. I did zero research about cameras before I hit the “buy” button; I knew absolutely nothing about them. But when Mr. Brown finally delivered the box to my front door, I couldn’t help but to tear it open. In the aftermath, a small black camera sat quietly on my bed.

Like a virgin on prom night, I had no idea what do with it.

Growing up, I was never into cars as much as I am now. Don’t get me wrong though–I had a poster of a Lamborghini Countach on my wall like ever other pre-pubescent boy. My education about the world of cars during those hey-I’m-getting-taller years was through video games. At that time, I thought I was the coolest kid on the block when I was blasting through the streets of Tokyo in my 450 horse power Toyota Camry with the gaudiest of body kits and the grossest of wheels while destroying my opponents with my rice.

When I was working at that graphic design firm, I bought myself a 1992 classic red Mazda Miata. I’d been hearing through the deep caverns of the internet that these little roadsters were the best fun that you can have for less than $2000, and the internet was right.

Through the power of the internet, I met a few other individuals that shared the same addiction toward those cute convertibles. There was a whole lot of hard parking (parking and hanging out in parking lots) during that time. It was at one of these many meets that I met two individuals that would forever change my life.

The first was Peter Li; he was a fellow roadster owner that had another addiction: photography. His progressive compositions and use of color were like none I’ve ever seen before on the automotive internet.

The second person was Jesse Lee. He also was into photography and shared the same burning passion for those happy and quirky cars. He introduced me to the technical side of being a light-capturist, which, I have to admit, turned on my inner-tech-nerd side.

After I purchase my camera, Peter and Jesse both taught this would-be light eater everything he needed to know about cameras. Now armed with some knowledge about my light capture device in my brain, I proceeded photograph anything and everything. Nothing was safe from my shutter–blades of grass, random neighborhood dogs, sunrises, sunsets, and of course, friends and family that were completely uncomfortable with having a camera shoved in their faces at all times.

That little Nikon never left my side for a whole year.

My love for photography grew hand-in-hand with my love for automobiles. It was only natural to start shooting my own car as well as my fellow Miata enthusiasts’ cars. I became completely engrossed in photography. Every waking moment of my life was filled with thoughts of how to capture light. There were countless late nights spent staring at the computer screen trying to absorb as much photography knowledge as possible. During that time of information osmosis, there were a few notable automotive photographers that would inspire, influence and motivate me to become better with my new artistic medium: Easton Chang, Winn Ruji, Scott Dukes, Mike Burroughs, Costas Stegriou, Sean Klingelhoefer, anyone that shot on the original JTuned, and this new automotive website that I had a growing addiction for: Speedhunters.

Automotive photographers weren’t my only source of inspiration, however. I frequented wedding photography blogs and subscribed to Vogue, Bazaar and Southern Weddings magazines. I followed the likes of Fred Egan, Nick Onken, Sean Flanigan, Jory Cordy, Tony Yang, Chase Jarvis and their photographic journeys through their blogs.

Everything I consumed eventually found its way into my photography.

In January 2009, I got a particular email from a chap named Rod Chong–yes, Mr. Red Pants himself from Speedhunters. It was Mazda month and he was wondering if I’d like to blog about the Southern California KINOD roadster community that I was a part of. It took me no more than 2.9 milliseconds to prompt a response. This was the result of that. And the rest is well… history.

The dear little Nikon was on its last legs as I started to contribute to this site. The only lenses I carried to shoots was a 50mm F1.8 and a 18-70mm F3.5-4.5 with a broken auto focus motor. That was my primary setup for more than a year. But as the little black light capture device started to cough and wheeze to and from shoots, I knew I had to retire the poor thing. Short on cash for a new camera, I did something that pained me dearly: I sold my Mazda Miata. What replaced the tired old Nikon and that peppy little roadster was a Canon 5D Mark 2.

We’ve been inseparable since.

What did all of that nonsense have to do with my photography? Like I said earlier, everything. Every single experience that has happened to me in the past has had some sort of influence on my creative work. Every person I’ve met, every scraped knee and every dinosaur shaped chicken nugget consumed are all elements that have made me who I am today. As a creative professional, I have the liberty to shape my own reality. My photos are not just photos of professional racing drivers, some slammed late-model import, race cars, or just clouds; rather, they are a glimpse into my reality the instant that shutter closes.

(Originally posted July 19, 2010 on