FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHER

Terence-Kent Ow

APRIL 2020

Meet Terence, a young but ambitious freelance photographer. Although he had a ‘hands on’ approach from a young age, Terence didn’t venture into photography until he was completing his Industrial Design degree. Since discovering this new medium, it quickly turned into a passion and creative outlet, finding joy in photographing everyday landscapes. In this interview, Terence recounts the highs and lows of being a creative thus far, and how he overcame hurdles in his first year out as a graduate.


While he says he is still developing his own personal style, I believe Terence’s work consistently has a strong composition, integrating both colour and different textures to create a balanced piece. Something that I love, and have personally taken away from his insights, is his desire to work collaboratively with other creatives with interesting ideas and for his practice to be multidisciplinary, allowing him to constantly learn. I hope that this interview with Terence can provide any creative wanting to start something new, the inspiration to do so.

To kick things off, tell me about your childhood, what were you like growing up? Were you or anyone in your family creative?
My family moved every few years when I was a kid, and I was never very social, so I didn’t have long-lasting friendships until high school. I was always the new kid, so eventually didn’t feel much of an urge to fit in. Instead, my attention was turned to figuring out how things worked, and was constantly fixated on some creative hobby back at home, whether it was drawing, reading, writing, playing with LEGO, building and painting toy soldiers, delving into electronics and robotics, or just putting together, taking apart, and fixing (or at least, trying to fix) whatever I could get my hands on.

What I’m most grateful for is the way my parents allowed me to pursue my interests. They initially tried to raise my siblings and I with stereotypically authoritarian ethnic parenting, but in between our misbehaviour at school and constant rebellion against weekly tutoring sessions and Mandarin school, they realised that they weren’t the kind of people to parent like that, and that we weren’t the kind of kids to be raised that way. Since then, I’ve felt nothing but their unconditional support for whatever path I chose - and a huge motivation for me is to repay them with the confirmation that they made the right choices in the way they raised us.

Growing up, did you ever have a moment where you were like ‘ok I want to have a creative career’? Did you take any specific steps to make sure a creative career would always be on the cards?
I hadn’t taken any conscious steps towards any particular career path until applying for a uni degree at the end of high school. I chose my school subjects exclusively based on my interest in them. Looking back, I was too naive to understand that many people chose a career based on practicality, and opted to keep their work and passion separate, or simply leaned toward more clearly-defined career paths. But having really enjoyed my time in Engineering Studies and Visual Arts, I looked to the disciplines of the built environment.
From knowing you personally, I know that you did industrial design at uni before moving more into photography, what was your uni experience like? When did the transition from industrial design to photography start to happen?
I met some of my closest friends and greatest teachers while studying Industrial Design, and the experience was positive overall. The actual degree felt very open-ended however; unlike many other degrees, there wasn’t much of a pathway into a career for graduates, thus leaving a lot of us struggling with uncertainty and unemployment - especially in Sydney where design roles are hard to come across. Aside from that, my Honours year experience was crushing. I lost faith in myself as a designer. But instead of seeing that as a finality, I realised that design was one of many ways in which I could fulfil my need to create.

During my time at uni, I got into photography on my first smartphone, then once I got an entry-level digital camera and film camera, I shot landscapes, street photography, and some portraiture, while travelling to Japan, New Zealand, China and Hong Kong throughout 2016. Soon after, I landed my first (very small) paid gig doing food photography through Airtasker, and continued shooting for a small business along with a handful of other Airtasker clients in my final year. So it felt like a natural progression to pursue freelance photography upon graduation.

I personally believe that all creative fields cross into one another at one point in time, how does industrial design impact or influence your photography?
Of what I learnt at uni, I think the most apparent skill that I use in my photography is sketching. Sketching out ideas and compositions is one of my favourite parts of the process. Apart from that, I learned to interpret a brief, ask the right questions, and present my ideas visually and in writing. It helps immensely to have knowledge of design principles when it comes to composing a shot or discussing ideas with clients or fellow creatives. Having gotten used to receiving feedback from tutors and peers helps me to judge my ideas with a more detached perspective and critical eye.

When it comes to the actual creative expression, things like colour, visual rhythm, balance etc. seem to have emerged from my experiences as a maker/creative and observations in everyday life. A big part of this is always being aware of what I’m drawn to (whether it’s design, art, music, architecture, food, cinema, or just other things I observe around me) and contemplating why I find it appealing. I feel that this constant, sometimes unconscious, process allows me to improve what I make and pushes my creative practice in a direction that’s truer to who I am.
When you finished uni, what was your first year out really like?
With no network and little experience, I struggled as a freelance photographer in the first few months out of uni. Thankfully, I was still living with family so it wasn’t a matter of survival, but I felt very frustrated and hopeless at times. Having come out of four years of uni with little to show for it (even if it was largely my own choice to go down a different path) was very discouraging. Eventually I took on a casual role to take the pressure off my photography.

I initially resisted the idea of getting a day job, because I thought an all-or-nothing approach would work best, but learnt to appreciate the freedom that having a steady income allowed for. It gave me the focus to spend my time wisely by reading books and developing concepts in my lunch breaks, and the funds to upgrade my equipment and set up a better website. It was amazing to see how much further I pushed my ideas, and how much more confident I felt once I was less worried about getting paid. I was a lot more open to shooting for free, and as a result was able to gain access to valuable resources like studio space and meet a lot of cool people.

That first year out of uni was a bit of a slog, and pretty painful at times, so it helped to stay in touch with my mates from uni who were all facing their own struggles with finding their place in the creative industries.

Because I’ve seen some of your work in the flesh, I would love to know more about one particular client. How did you secure Dermalogica as a client?
I got in touch with the team at Dermalogica through the generosity of my clients and a lot of good luck. A client whom I worked closely with in the beginning recommended me to someone she knew through her own networking efforts. That second client happened to be a project manager at Dermalogica, and after shooting for her brand, referred me to their marketing team. I received the first brief while I was travelling across Japan, where I was able to source most of the props with much greater ease than in Australia (thank you, Tokyu Hands).
What was your creative process for these beauty product shoots?
When it comes to the process of a product shoot, I start by going through the brief/enquiry (or shot list if they provide one) and think of what info might be missing. I make sure to ask questions about where the photos will be used, whether certain elements are necessary, or just to get clear on details. It’s extremely important to do this early on, as there are many hidden factors that will eventually inform the way I style and compose the images.

I generally take a few days to a week to create/refine the concept before I present it to the client, depending on the urgency of the job. The extra time lets the brief soak in and gives me the chance to brainstorm, visit places/window shop for inspiration, and question every idea that pops up in my head or on Pinterest. The first bunch of ideas are usually more ubiquitous, but I document them anyway to free up mental space for the more interesting ones.

After finalising the concept with the client, I’ll go hunting for props. I try to use props I already own, are found in stores or shipped within Australia, simply because waiting 3 weeks for something to arrive is usually too long. This is a fun part of the process, as a lot of ideas for compositions come up, and I find some cool materials/props to use in future. I make sure to note these down somewhere, or I’ll definitely forget.

During the shoot, I take on the more straightforward and less fun shots first, because the enjoyment of playing with compositions keeps me going towards the end. I take a few variations of each shot and always refer to the moodboards and brief to make sure I get the vibe right and don’t miss anything. I note down anything that I’ll have to deal with in Photoshop later.

Straight after the shoot, I’ll back everything up to two hard drives, then review and cut down on a lot of shots before importing them into Lightroom, where I flag the best variation of each shot to edit. These settings get copied to the other shots to save time. Lately I’ve been syncing entire albums in Lightroom to my phone and doing basic edits while on the train, then fine-tuning, reviewing/culling edited shots, and Photoshopping on my laptop. I like to edit after work at a cafe that opens late, or in the Westfield food court with a view of the street below. It’s difficult to concentrate at home sometimes, but being somewhere else with a cup of coffee, something to snack on, and podcasts on creativity and business really help me block everything else out and focus.

I then send the proofs over to the client in an online gallery, where they can select the ones that are most suitable, which I send through in whatever formats they need.
You’re also working currently in a visual merchandising team, do you think working in a retail based job can also push you into new opportunities, make industry connections, or even just challenge the way you think about composing an image?
Since starting to work in a retail environment, I’ve picked up on more brand knowledge than I normally ever would’ve, and have met a diverse and interesting range of people - including a bunch of very skilled designers and photographers. It works out really well because I’m always looking for a chance to collaborate with and meet other creative people. For young creatives like me, I definitely recommend finding a day job where you’ll be able to make a lot of connections.

It’s thrilling to work in visual merchandising, where I get the chance to use my experience with styling, creative problem solving, and making/fixing things, on a daily basis. I’m very grateful for that. I love seeing the way other people approach a brief, problem or composition, so in this team I get an abundance of insight everyday.

Is there a particular direction you want to push your photography in the next 5 years? Are there any specific goals or types of clients you would want to work with in those years?
I want to have a much more distinct style to the point where any image I take is recognisable to be mine, not through any particular editing technique or conscious effort to stick to arbitrary guidelines, but through the general vibe that it gives off. Creative control is a big thing for me, as I have always appreciated the work of people like Aussie creatives Nat Turnbull and Anna Pogossova, countless musicians and bands, and filmmakers like Wong Kar Wai, whose vision is very clear throughout their bodies of work. So, I’d love to shoot more campaigns and editorials where I get to be more experimental, or work with people who have a strong vision and interesting ideas, irrespective of the photographic genre.

Some longtime goals of mine have been to get my work into publications like i-D, to sell prints of my personal work, and to be exhibited. I think at the core of all this, I just want to keep making things and taking photos, and get to know more creative people in the process.

With all of these aspects in mind, how do you define ‘success’ and being successful in your practice?
To me, success is to be financially secure and to be able to support my parents as they get older. It’s to have creative freedom, and for people to seek me out because of my style. Success is to have a multidisciplinary practice and to keep learning - to never allow a lack of knowledge or skill to get in the way of a project. I want to keep making stuff. I want my work to be of emotional value to people.

It saddens me when people say they wish they were creative. My parents (and many others) didn’t get to continue their creative pursuits because life got in the way. So I want to show people that it can be done. Looking beyond my own career, success is to be a little closer to a culture where the urge to create is always greater than the difficulties of making it happen.

You can follow Terence on instagram or can view more of his work on his website.

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