Compositing with John Wilhelm


John Wilhelm is a Swiss chap from Winterthur. John is a father and a dedicated husband, but he is also a little obsessed with his 2 passions, which are photography and Photoshop. John spends a lot of time and energy in this obsession, so much that he “forced” his family to be part of his crazy projects.

But above all, John likes Elinchrom to light up his fantasy pictures. All these facts caught our curiosity, so we asked him a few questions to learn more about his habits as a “Photoholic” (as he likes to describe himself).

John, for a few months now, you have created quite the buzz around the web. How do you explain this sudden notoriety in the photo world?

I’ve been developing this kind of images and style for over 4 years now and posting them obstinately on flickr, 500px, and most importantly on Facebook. So I guess it was about time I got a little attention ;). Just kidding! No honestly, I guess I’m a social-media victim. There are lots of this social-media-based news services like bored panda, heftig, etc… Which are permanently looking for some sensations, interesting news and articles to generate traffic on their webpages. And about 1-2 years ago, bored panda got its focus on me, and wrote a post about “the Photoshop dad”.

“In compositing genre I realized that one has to master light if they want convincing results!”

The feedback was absolutely astonishing and many others of those websites wanted to write something about me (including print media etc.). Meanwhile, I was even contracted by a news agency to handle requests. Just crazy.

How did you start photography and especially, what brought you to flash?

Photography was always important in my life. My father was an experienced hobby-photographer and founded at least two local photography-associations. So I grew up in an environment of cameras, magazines, lenses, self-made cameras, darkrooms and funny weddings.? I wasn’t very excited back then about those films and development processes. It was such a fiddling in my eyes. The importance of photography changed into joy when I was holding my first digital camera in my hands. The fire sparked off and a long journey begun, a journey through lots of camera systems, techniques, experiences and finally software products. In February 2011, I decided to take a step across the border of plain photography. Before I started to create those funny compositings, I was a serious “straight out of cam – fully open aperture – available light photographer” (even with an expensive Leica rangefinder as an instrument). But when I entered the compositing genre I realised pretty quick: One has to master light if you want to obtain convincing results. My first flash steps were taken with Nikon SB900s and other units in this class. My flash exploration led me through different products and brands to finally the Elinchrom Studio systems and of course the Elinchrom Quadra. And I guess I finally found my way.

And more precisely, how did you come up with Elinchrom gear for your lighting? Is it because you’re Swiss?

Nope it’s not even that but it’s a nice side effect. I mean if you love a product and this product is coincidentally designed in your home country that’s just great! But, I’m also a little tech-geek. I love to check out new stuff, new equipment, to see technology getting better and better from day to day. And I was also trying out quite a few flash systems until I got my hands on my first Elinchrom Studio BRX 500 compact flash. And the Elinchrom system convinced me in a very short time. And it does still, every time I work with it.

Can you explain the whole process of producing such crazy results, how many time do you usually spend on such images?

I guess an average image takes all in all (from idea until upload) 6 hours net. First you have to get the idea. Luckily this happens pretty spontaneously in my case. But I always write it down first and let it grow a little in the depth of my mind. Then (mostly on Fridays) I take the actors and elements I need to my little attic photo studio (or on location). Shooting with kids must not take too long because they cannot concentrate for a long time. After the shooting I put the single elements together in Photoshop.

In the end, your pictures involve a lot of retouching. How do you balance between technical and creative spontaneity?

I think it’s all about the initial idea. Photoshop & Co. are “just” (wonderful) instruments, to make everything possible (and nowadays really everything is possible. If you can’t compose it with different photos you change to 3D and create it from scratch). I guess there’s also a big chance to get an idea while playing with technologies. So for example if there’s a new tool/filter becoming available in Photoshop this can perhaps also lead to something cool. But my best images are definitely the ones I had a crystal-clear idea right from the beginning.

You recently worked on a project with InMyBag related to the new Elinchrom ELB 400. What can you tell us about it?

I asked my fellows John Flury and Jurek Gralak if they’d like to test a new Elinchrom equipment with me while creating a few projects with it. Of course they were in without hesitation. We decided to shoot with the flash but also to bring the flash itself in scene. We also wanted to emphasize the 3 main features (power, versatility, portability) of the unit. Hope you like the results. You can have a look on the project on InMyBag’s website.

“We decided to shoot with the flash but also to bring the flash itself into the scene”

Of course we love it! And what is your feedback on the ELB 400 actually?

It’s the consequent development of the Quadra-series. It’s really small, really strong, really fast and absolutely versatile. I can absolutely recommend this nice piece of technique to anybody looking for a good flash-system.

We have to ask this, but how on earth do you manage to combine your family duty, your IT professional work and your devotion on this photographic hobby?

I’m a time traveler; always hoping 2-3 hours back if time gets short ;). But seriously, this is really the most difficult part of everything I’m doing at the moment. To bring a full-time job in a leading position, a family with 3 little girls and a hobby which is more an obsession than passion together seems sometimes almost impossible. But perhaps that’s exactly where the key to my success lies. Job, Family and Hobby can fertilize each other. I have my best ideas often in frantic times and not while sitting on the couch watching TV. And a sparkling idea can motivate me to squeeze another few hours out of every day.

Your daughters, are they not sick of your constant requests to pose for funny pictures?

Sometimes they are. But they also like it. Sometimes they even come up with their own ideas (weird and not yet implementable). For me it’s important to keep the shooting time as low as possible. If you think you can go to a studio half a day and shoot your kids, forget it. 10 minutes is already a very long time for a kid (even if baited with sweets and TV ;-)).

In the future, do you you still plan to continue your job as an IT?

Of course I’m thinking a lot about what it would be like if I did this photo-hobby for a living (mostly because people are pushing me a little in this direction). But the balance is just great at the moment. I also love my regular job. IT is very interesting and the environment I’m working in is just great (and if you have to feed a family a regular income is pretty important).

But never say never.

Related products

Related articles