UNB Photographer Profile featuring West Phillips
Popular photographer West Phillips sat down to talk about how his photography has grown into many genres from commercial to fine art and beyond. From exotic beach locations to abandoned buildings, he battles the elements of real life to capture breathtaking shots with amazing backgrounds.
UNB Kyle: I am glad you were able to take some time to talk to me today about your work. What was your first photo shoot and how did you come to get it?
West: I started photography in 2010 when I was living in San Francisco. My first shoots were generally friends or acquaintances who I had convinced to model for me as a way for me to practice and explore this newfound interest in photography. I created a page for my photos on Facebook and within a few months I had my first paid photo shoot from a guy who had found me there!
Kyle: Social media today can open so many doors its fascinating. What made you want to pursue photography?
West: I never had this burning desire or huge interest in photography, actually. I always was slightly interested in the back of my mind, I guess. The turning point came when I began dating someone who really sort of inspired me and brought out this yearning to capture moments spent with him. At the same time, I was realizing my own vision and style in how to take a photo of someone and how the idea in my head didn’t seem like it fit the mainstream – and I liked it.
Kyle: I like that. A simple desire to capture special moments in a relationship ignited something inside you that turned into a passionate career. Any breakthrough moments in your career to date?
West: About a year after I started, I was hired by Peter Le (fitness model and competitor) for a photo shoot in San Francisco. At the time, I didn’t know who he was or how massive his following was. The shoot went well and since then we’ve become good friends and have had many photo shoots, both around the US and abroad. I gained a lot of exposure in working with him, especially in Asia, and in turn I’ve helped him gain some exposure in the western market with publications that don’t generally feature Asian models.
Kyle: That sounds like a great collaboration that has had a lasting effect on both of your works. Have you had any shoots that stand out as a favorite for one reason or another?
West: While it’s hard to name just one, I have a handful that are definitely memorable and make me smile when I reminisce. One of the most exciting and adventurous shoots I did was at an abandoned, unfinished and partially demolished amusement park outside Beijing. There was this huge Snow White-esque castle that was never completed surrounded by farmland and crumbling brick walls. With the smog, leafless trees and mountains in the background, it made for a sort of apocolyptic scene, so I incorporated these old military-grade gas masks on the models. The park has since been completely demolished and I feel lucky to have these photos!
Kyle: I agree! So nice to be able to remember that scene in what would be for you iconic photos. What has made some of your photo shoots challenging?
West: The biggest challenge for me is usually the weather. I shoot outdoors mostly and I love to use natural light. When I was starting out in the business in San Francisco, I was constantly fighting with the fog, wind, rain and grey skies. During one shoot specifically, we were shooting for DNA Magazine and the typical San Francisco weather was working against us. The model was in underwear and freezing as the water sprayed up from the waves crashing behind us. By the end of it all, we got some decent shots after all and they were published soon thereafter. Thankfully the model was a trooper and gave it his all!
Kyle: I hear the elements can be quite a factor in shoots. I guess the models get used to it but I can imagine it can stress out a photographer very quickly. I love to hear about embarrassing or funny photo shoot moments that keep it all real. Any to share?
West: A couple years ago I was shooting someone on a remote, natural sort of beach in Miami and we were in the water, almost up our waists. I’m looking through the camera and suddenly hear a noise of something coming to the surface about 6 feet to my right. Both of us got so spooked and jumped before we realized it was a manatee! That was my first time seeing a wild manatee and to have it come up so close to us in the water was pretty damn cool.
Kyle: Man that would have freaked me out too! There is something to be said for shooting indoors with what unexpected things can happen. But your shots have turned out amazing! The background is just as beautiful as the model. Are there any brands or models you would like to work with that you have not worked with yet?
West: Recently I have been doing more to expand on my fine art portraiture and ever so slowly I’m trying to creep away from the commercial stuff. Granted, at this point the commercial work is paying more and I still have bills to pay, so I certainly don’t mind doing it, but my passion is much stronger with the more artistic side of it. In regards to a specific model I’d like to work with – there isn’t one who comes to mind right away. I have worked with such a wide variety of models, from people who do it for fun, to college students doing it on the side, to full-time agency models. I like normal, regular down to earth guys. I don’t need a famous, expensive professional model to make the photo a success, but sure, the exposure that comes with that sort of model isn’t so bad.
Kyle: I agree and can see the good and bad in all of those markets. For models having to wear underwear, swimwear, or be nude, what are some tips you give them in order to be comfortable in front of the camera whether as a new model or for more intimate/revealing shoots?
West: I think one of the most important factors when shooting with a new model or in a very intimate setting is for both the photographer and the model to be on the same page and to have some trust. As I shoot a lot of physique and fitness models, these guys are usually pretty comfortable wearing a bit less and showing off the handwork they’ve put in at the gym. I’m usually cracking jokes and acting goofy during parts of the shoot, so that helps lighten the mood and break the ice if it’s someone I haven’t worked with before.
Kyle: Breaking the tension and creating a fun atmosphere probably goes a long way for them! How do you prepare creatively and determine your environment for the shoot? Is it determined by you, the brand, or a collaboration?
West: The factors that I take into account in preparing for a shoot are pretty simple. First of course, who is the model? Is it more of a commercial look/shoot that we’re going for or is it more fine art – driven? If I am doing official commercial campaign work for a client, then of course we will brainstorm together and they usually have a good idea of what they want the concept/look to be. For my private clients who want a simple photo session for their own purposes, most times they rely on me to choose the location. There are some people of course who have a very clear idea of what they want and I do my best to execute their vision. For the most part I have a lot of freedom in deciding all of these things and for that I am fortunate.
Kyle: I’m sure it is very rewarding to be able to use your own creative mind and thoughts and watch them come to life before you. Tell us more about you and what are your interests are away from the camera?
West: Travel! I do as much as I can and of course I always incorporate my photography along the way. In addition to my portraiture photography, I also do a lot of travel & fine art photography. I’m happy to say that genre of my work is starting to get noticed a little more these days and I’ve had some travel clients which have allowed me to go some places I otherwise am not sure I would have known about! I also am really into nature and wildlife conservation, having worked in the animal science field in the past.
Kyle: Being able to travel the world and capture so many great sights on camera is special. You can even tell in your photographs of the men how amazing the background and landscape are, showing that ability to capture anything. I know people reading this may someday want to try photography. Any tips for them?
West: Pick up a camera and shoot whatever you want! Practice, practice, practice and find your style.
Kyle: Good advice! Especially on find your style. There are probably several people out there who shoot what they think people want them to shoot and not what they have an eye for. What are some of the things that you feel set you apart from other photographers in the market?
West: I always want to be moving, exploring and shooting wherever I can and using the natural outdoor scenes as inspiration or backdrops for my shoots. To always shoot in the same city or in a studio just seems stifling and limiting to me – I think it would make me crazy. I want to be out there in the natural elements, in an environment that’s not so controlled like a studio. Of course, outside there can be headaches dealing with the factors I can’t control like weather, etc – to expect the unexpected and make it work with you, not against you – that’s what I try to do.
Check out more of West Phillips below.
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