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

Ben Sassani -

pretty inspiring stuff! always great to see people’s journey and how they got to where they are now.

Dylan Howell -

Amazing images + story.

Journi Johnson -

Tnx, great glimpse into what makes you..well, you!

Drift Idiot -

Beautiful post Charles. You are an inspiration to some one who has been in the game just as long as you – but with far less success. Thanks for the write-up, and thanks for bridging the gap between automotive and art photography.

Anthony Gibson -

Awesome, and even more awesome photography! Thanks for sharing.

Ben Stieger -

You’re a nugget Linhbergh, something we can all aspire to.

Linhbergh Nguyen -

Thanks man!

Linhbergh Nguyen -

Thanks Journi! Really appreciate it.

Linhbergh Nguyen -

Charles? Hehe. But thanks for posting my blog!

Linhbergh Nguyen -

I really appreciate the your kind words. Thank you.

Joshua Russell -

Lin…you are the man! I see a lot of similarities between us, from the early years to our art background and favorite artists, not to mention the instant music connection we had on that long drive to the desert last year. So glad we’ve met and I wish we had the chance to hang out more! Until then, I’ll look forward to all your nerdy comments on my nerdy posts. Keep it up!

Daniel Mora -

Great story.

Linhbergh Nguyen -

Thanks man!! We definitely need to hang out more and talk about nerdy things all the time. If anything, there’s a long over due photo trip out into the middle of no where sometime soon!

Joshua Russell -

im down! i should just make a trip down to LB and do some biking with you on a weekend you arent busy. ill text ya

Linhbergh Nguyen -

Let’s bike first, photography road trip later. Next weekend possibly? :)

Bruno Vega ドリフト -

incredible post Linhbergh! every success needs a sacrifice, as you did with the miata, the step to FF photography is awesome. deep words and inspiring shoots! I hope someday we could know each other, talk about techniques, cars and photography , cheers from chile bro!

Brayden Cresswell -

Amazing read Linbergh your work just blows me away if I could be Half as good as you I would be happy.

Sam Nalven -

Ohhhhhh my. Captain Dyslexia strikes again. Was writing another message to a Charles.

Ben Sassani -

So I’ll be in San Diego in a few weeks. if you’re in town, we should do lunch or brunch or whatever.

Khanh Ng -

Great story! My friend Costas Stergiou is very proud of you mentioned his name on this blog :)

Linhbergh Nguyen -

For sure! Hit me up when you got your travels plans sorted.

Linhbergh Nguyen -

Definitely let me know if you ever come state side –California specifically and I’ll let you know if I ever head your way.

Linhbergh Nguyen -

Thanks Brayden! Keep having at it and never stop!

Ben Sassani -

I’ll hit you up next week and tell you my itinerary.

Carl Christian Bronken -

You are like a hero for us photographers! Great amazing work, and love the story behind!

Emilio Savov -

A photographer that I absolutely admire! You have such an incredible style, your ideas sometimes are out of this world, man, absolutely stunning, you make pictures of cars to look as pictures of some sexy girls..can’t take my eyes off them :) Thanks a lot for speedhuntin’ and showing to us your passion.

Daniele Fontanin -


Francesco Lombardi -

Ne voglio una….

Francesco Lombardi -

Daniele ma come si fa a fare una foto come la Terzultima con la mustang verde acqua? :)

Daniele Fontanin -

boh…bisogna avere i controcazzi! Io non lo so :(

Bas Kuiper -

Never thought you could achieve such a high level of photography in only 5 years.

Tiffany Shelton -

So when will you come to Thailand and be a guest lecture for my Uni? huh huh! when!

Joe Dantone -

Bro! You rock! I’ve loved your work for a very long time I’ve kind of faded away from shooting cars and got more into weddings now, but I always stay ontop of your work. This was a kick ass write up, as I always love to hear how other photogs got their start. Keep it up!

Jone Klemo Øverland -

Thanks for story behind. really look up to you and your achievement. amazing to see what kind of pictures you managed to get out of your old D40 too.
inspirational :) well I will keep trying with my 60D :) see ya.

Pepper Yandell -

Awesome blog post, and incredible pictures. I love the way you.. eat light!

Ginash Jdmc -

loved it!

Nancy Yandell -

I have to say, your quite a writer also!

Linhbergh Nguyen -

Automotive is still 90% of what I do but I’ve also just recently gotten into weddings. I get such a high from shooting weddings –they’re insanely fun!

Linhbergh Nguyen -

I always say, its never about the equipment. It’s all about the person that uses it. Keep shooting, buddy!

Linhbergh Nguyen -

Thanks, Pepper!

Linhbergh Nguyen -

I would LOVE the opportunity to speak at your University!

Linhbergh Nguyen -

Much love!!

Linhbergh Nguyen -

You’re very kind, Nancy. Thank you!

Jone Klemo Øverland -

thanks :) i will keep doing. and thanks for the reply.

Philip Tieu -

You are an interesting character and your work is amazing. Thanks for sharing Linhbergh!

Joe Dantone -

Ya I love automotive, I’ve shot the eastcoast bash and club loose events as well as 1 year at Wall for FD (which I saw how crazy you really get to get your amazing images) but I think my passion lies in weddings, getting the rush from the uncontrolled chaos of timing down to the incredible emotion through out the day is unlike anything I’ve shot before. Also every wedding is different and its your chance to really tell a great story the way you want through your pictures.

Perri Minot -

Awesome indeed. Thanks for sharing the personal pieces. Great work!

Alvaro Naranjo -

u have 2 real fans linhbergh… miss u in sh!

Efrain Arias -

Fantastic read, your work its amaizing and your photos have allways inspired us in this little island called Dominican Republic.

Raihan Skalski -

great post linh! I’m starting much earlier in photography but I guess I need to step up on art first.. thanks for the insight! by the way.. would you post an inside look of your workflow? thanks so much!

Kadir Yalcin -

you know.. you and I actually aren’t that different. I draw everywhere on everything. I draw cartoons, cars, bikes, engines, action figures with big-ass muscles and sexy shades :D though I’m not the greatest drawer, I just love it and enjoy every second of it, brainstorming about the next little detail. like you said everything falls victim to my creative fervor :D and just like you I have burning desire for any kind of creative professional. Be it editing videos, taking photos and postprocessing them. But all I want is to become a professional photographer. In particular shooting cars. low as hell, balls to the wall-like cars. But there’s one difference though. You see, I’m only 17 yet and my parents won’t let me pursue my dreams stating that the creative industry is too hard and there’s no money to make a living of. All I want is to reach to the sky and achieve my goal to perhaps become a Linbergh. A boy that made it so far that he could make a living out of his hobby instead of a 9 to 5 job. Now we do have a Sony NEX-5 camera and I’m already experimenting with the manual settings, but that just doesn’t cut it for me. I want to earn my food with it. I don’t have to be a freakin billionaire. All I want is to make enough to feed my family and have roof on my head.

You really inspire and I’m a huge fan of your work. Any advise from you would really appreciated.
A BIG fan of yours..

Larry Chen -

Don’t give up on your dream.

Nelson Queralta Jr. -

Wow amazing. I’ve been a fan of your work ever since your photos appeared on Speedhunters. You definitely are an inspiration and I wish you the best in all your future endeavors. It can only get better. Thanks for sharing this Linhbergh.

Spencer Munch On Muncheros -

gives us all hope. Great inspirational piece !thank you

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