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Photographer Linh Nguyen: ‘my ideas tend to come to me while I’m sleeping’

Photographer, dog trainer and vet nurse Linh Nguyen talks candidly about animal welfare in photography and the relationship between depression, creativity and inspiration.
Tell us a little about your creative background and how you got into photography.

My background is actually in illustration. I can’t tell you when that started since I’ve always doodled—in class, at church, or even at the restaurant. It definitely picked up during high school because I had friends who were also budding artists, so we’d draw all the time. After I parted ways with these friends, my drawing was a hit or miss, where I either drew a lot or I didn’t draw at all. Granted, the images I drew since parting ways were more to my taste, so I was happy about that, but I didn’t really have anyone to bounce ideas off or do art trades with. So that was a bummer. However, once I started utilizing my illustration mind set to my photography, it was a game changer for my creativity.

With photography, in general, it started as wanting to capture memories. I would look back on family photos and notice that most of them were just standing and smiling. There wasn’t anything that popped out emotionally. Just reminders of where we visited because of the monuments we stood next to. I loved the ones that brought back memories and emotions, so I wanted more of that. Especially now that I have a family of my own. It might be a struggle for me to sit and work on conceptual photography, but I can still capture moments between my husband and our son or moments with our animals.

“Once I started utilizing my illustration mind set to my photography, it was a game changer for my creativity.”

I did my Bachelors of Arts in Fine Art with a focus in photography. Funny enough, I didn’t actually start doing photography professionally until two years after I graduated. I wasn’t a fan of doing weddings, family portraits, etc. I did them and did them well, but it wasn’t where my passion lied. So, I kind of let my camera sit on the shelf for a couple years.

What has drawn you to your photography career?

Becoming a professional photographer kind of just happened out of the blue. I got my BA in Fine Arts from Southern Oregon University in 2012 but didn’t do anything with it until 2014. I happened to come across a Craigslist ad looking for creative individuals who were interested in working in more surreal photoshoots.

I was sceptical and cautious, but reached out. We agreed to meet at a local cafe and it was an immediate hit! We had a lot in common and similar ideas so we planned out a ‘Seer’ themed photo shoot. It was my first real team effort project. She’s still a good friend of mine and does a lot of my FX makeup. I adore her and am forever grateful that she wanted me to be a part of her project, because that was the moment, the series, that it clicked to use my illustration background as part of my photography process.

An image from Linh’s breakthrough ‘Seer’ photoshoot.
You also work in a veterinary clinic and do dog training, what sparked your passion for animals and interest in animal welfare?

As a kid I was always drawn to animals. Instead of watching cartoons I’d want to watch animal and nature documentaries. I remember my friends having trading cards and I had animal fact cards that I collected. Whenever I wanted a pet, my parents would ask me why I wanted it, how much would it cost, and what it required. I’m certain it was just an attempt to deter me because it’d take too much work for a little kid to do all the research. Unfortunately for them I always came back with the entire husbandry, cost, and everything else the animal would need.

I was fascinated with dog training and behaviour after I got my dog, Fenn, a husky mix who was my first puppy to raise and care for on my own. I volunteered at my local animal shelter and learned a good deal from their resident behaviourist. I made it a goal to work with the dogs to make them the most adoptable—so basic obedience and working on behaviour modifications. It got to the point that whenever someone came in looking for a good fit for their family, the shelter workers would point them in my direction since I worked with most of the dogs extensively. Once I got my German Shepherd, Lupo, I dived into K9 sports and personal protection. I’ve learned from and worked with many great dog trainers and behaviourist, and try to learn as many methods as I can and as much as I’m able. I’m sitting at 17 years of working with dogs in the training and behaviour field.

Linh the dog trainer.

“It got to the point that whenever someone came in looking for a good fit for their family, the shelter workers would point them in my direction since I worked with most of the dogs extensively.”

After I lost Fenn, I wanted to get into the medical side of animals. I wanted to learn more and do more to help the non-human family members. I was able to jump into the Veterinary Assistant position at a veterinary clinic who saw exotic animals—such as rabbits and snakes. So I got to dive into a whole new world of pet ownership. I’ve been an experienced vet assistant with exotics and some wildlife for 4 years now, and am working at my 3rd clinic.

While I work at a vet clinic I don’t really do much dog training outside of my own animals. Dog training and behaviour is still a passion of mine but it’s become more of a hobby, however I take the same approach to animal handling in my photography, so it definitely translates over to the niche in photography that I’m working towards. My background in the animal field also makes me more determined to only work with and support others who care the same way I do.

Linh and one of her models.
Tell us a little about your recent photography workshop trip with Ironwood Wolves.

I’ve followed Ironwood Wolves for a year or so. I admired what they were doing with their animals in educating the public about wolves and foxes. The photography that Rachel, the owner of Ironwood Wolves, does is similar to what I was hoping to get into, so when I saw she was holding a workshop I was very excited.

But, as usual, I brushed it aside as an event I couldn’t go to because ‘x, y, z’—any excuse for me not to spend money on myself. It nagged at me though, and I kept checking in to see if the spots were filled. I tried to talk myself out of it as I typically do. Around this time I also fell into another bout of depression—my black abyss—so I actually ended up talking myself into putting the deposit down. It was a leap forward for me on a personal level because I always feel odd doing something for myself. I’m also fortunate enough to have a husband who is very supportive of my passions and encourages me to keep moving forward.

“My background in the animal field also makes me more determined to only work with and support others who care the same way I do. ”

A photograph taken by Linh during her Ironwood Wolves trip, featuring Ena the red fox rescued from a fur farm.

So, we made the trip up to Ohio and I got to spend a weekend seeing how Ironwood’s animals behaved and how they—the team of handlers and models—worked together. It made everything seem more doable, for me. Like, ‘I can do this. My goal isn’t as unachievable as I made it out to be’. I had already made contact and plans with a local zoo and educational program, and had done photoshoots with animals prior to Ironwood Wolves, but their workshop gave me that extra boost of confidence I needed. It definitely helped that my recent photoshoots got published too.

Ena the red fox from Ironwood Wolves.
Obi the fox from Ironwood Wolves.
You also do event/travel photography for newspapers, tell us a little about that and what you enjoy about it?

Of course, I love travelling to different places whether it be in the United States or out of country. Luckily, my husband is a journalist, so I get to tag along to be the photographer for whatever he needs me for. It’s definitely not my niche but I love the challenge. I have to think differently in how I photograph. I’m not posing anyone but instead I’m capturing the moments that, hopefully, will be significant. I’ve photographed in Paris, France and Havana, Cuba. I’ve photographed MMA events and civil war re-enactments. These opportunities give me a way to engulf myself in a culture and that is always an eye opener.

Talk us through your retouching process and what are the main tools you use when retouching and compositing photos?

Oh, this is a tough one. The Brush Tool, Healing Tool, Clone Tool, and Erase Brush Tool are probably my most used. I don’t really think about what tools I use. I just know what I need and start working. Sometimes, it’s not to my liking and I feel a different tool would do a better job, so I kind of toy around with the tools and processes until I’m happy with the results. I have a couple friends, and my husband, I send work-in-progress screenshots to in order to get different eyes that might catch what I don’t or to see if the direction I’m going in works or not.

I typically collect all the images that I need. Sometimes I purposefully take pictures knowing I’ll be using it for my composite. Other times I dig into the black hole that is my external hard drive, and look through years of random images I’ve taken to see if anything can be used. Once I ended up using a photo I took of my mom standing next to a bush while we were at the Botanical Gardens. Another time I used random photos I took at an aquarium with my phone.

Before and after editing.

I do a sloppy select, cut and paste of the pieces that I need so I can arrange them together to figure out my composition. From there I just do a lot of rearranging, erasing, healing, cloning, blending, and repeat for the next few hours. I can’t tell you how often I just stare at my screen with my head tilted and my face scrunched up. I play around with the perspective and then adjust the colour, tones, and lighting of each individual layer to attempt to get them to match up.

“I can’t tell you how often I just stare at my screen with my head tilted and my face scrunched up.”

Usually this process can take a week or more because I’m working on the image in between family life and working at the vet clinic. But even when I’m not working on the image directly, I’m thinking about what steps I can take during any downtime I have. What can I do next? Should I add this and that? It gets to a point that I also envision Affinity’s layout!

After I get all of the basics situated, I start working on making sure the lighting and shadows match, ensuring that the little details make the image seamless and real. Once I get that down and approved by my friends and husband, I work on the overall tone. Doing this puts all the pieces on the same spectrum.

Your style has a dreamlike quality, what has influenced this and are there particular things you do when processing to give your images this feel?

I have always loved folklore and mythology so those usually influence my vision somehow. Also, most of my ideas tend to come to me while I’m sleeping or can’t quite fall asleep, which is why I typically leave a sketchbook and pencil on my nightstand to jot down or doodle my ideas down in the dark.

I like trying to incorporate some ethereal substances into my work—be it illustration, photography, or writing. Most of the time things happen due to my depression. I tend to sit quietly and think, which leads to my mind wandering. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. Honestly, being creative is how I deal with my depression. I hope to one day achieve the similar sensation to how reading a book engulfs you into another world, because that’s how it is for me while I’m working on an idea.

Maid of luminescence.
Who are your inspirations?

Kirsty Mitchel, Natalie Lennard (Miss Aniela), Alexia Sinclair, Katerina Plotnikova, and Twyla Jones. I love the concepts, wardrobe, and details from Kirsty, Natalie, and Alexia. I adore the connection between human and animal models seen in Katerina’s work. I am enamoured by Twyla’s ability to capture such strong emotions in a single photograph and have it tell a story. My goal is to produce images that incorporate all of that. I feel like I’m a long way away, but it’s good to have aspiration and even though I have a long way to go, I’ve definitely made progress. I even got to collaborate on concept with Natalie Lennard with my illustration work. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it to the final concept, but it was still a big moment for me to have been asked to do anything for one of my favourite photographers!

A special shout out to my good friend, Rich Pineda, too! He’s known for his super realistic tattoo work, but I know him as an amazing all around artist. It’s like there is nothing that man can’t do! He’s an inspiration to me because no matter what his craft, his attention to details is intense, and it reminds me to look at the little details, because it matters. I don’t think he’s aware how much influence he had on me. The day he found out I was moving, he told me he would have loved for me to be his tattoo apprentice because he liked my talent as an illustrator. Not even joking, I had a moment of wanting to cancel my move from California to Virginia!

What photography equipment and apps do you currently use?

My main program is Affinity, hands down. I hand edit most of the images I work on but I do use the Afterlight and Polarr apps for filters when I don’t know what direction I want to go for a final look, tone, colour or mood. So I will use these filter apps to give myself a general idea. Sometimes I’ll take ideas from various filters and put them together.

The apps don’t always have the ability to save my images in the proper dpi or size quality, so I still edit everything by hand. It’d be nice to skip these detailed steps but I also kind of enjoy it because it’s almost soothing with how much I fixate on the pictures and shut out everything else going on.

Saint death.
How did you hear about Affinity Photo and why did you choose Affinity Photo to process your images?

I didn’t want to pay a monthly fee for Photoshop but the very old programs I had weren’t cutting it anymore. So I decided to just Google and research a bunch of programs. The usual came up such as Gimp and Lightroom but they didn’t work for me either. I happen to come across Affinity Designer and wondered if it’d work for my photography. Then lo and behold there was Affinity Photo! I looked into it, saw it’s potential, and noticed that it was a one-time purchase and I took that plunge. It wasn’t expensive, either, so that plunge was an easy one to take. I’m beyond thrilled that I did and haven’t stopped using it since. It’s been a couple years now!

Working with Photoshop for so long it was a little different getting used to Affinity Photo, but honestly that didn’t last long. A lot of the tutorials and steps were very similar, actually. The layout of Affinity Photo is clean and easy to navigate. I can also still use Affinity Photo for my illustration needs even though there is also Affinity Designer. So Affinity took over the art programs I’ve needed in the past.

It could be that I’m better at what I do now, but I still feel like I produce better images now with Affinity Photo because everything is seamless.

What would be your dream photoshoot?

I would love to have intricate and extravagant wardrobe, accessories, and props in a beautiful location (built or found) that included multiple models both humans and non-humans. I’d want the mood of the shoot to be ethereal and whimsical. I’d love for the scenes to almost be acted out, for story to be captured in still photography and short film clips. It’d be a huge project that had the ability to be handled as multiple series, with an entire team of people that had passion for their crafts. I love to support others and collaborate with other creatives.

I couldn’t be more specific if I wanted to try with this one, ha!

What are your future ambitions for your photography career?

I have been focusing on becoming published. My aim is to be published in physical magazines but still attempting to publish with digital magazines. I’m sentimental though, so I’d love to have a physical magazine with my work printed in it. Once I upgrade to a new camera, I’ll also pursue galleries again. I just don’t feel like my old and true Canon Rebel T2i can produce a high enough quality image to create large prints.

I’m also going to be working with my friend Jamie who runs zoo educational program, Zooography. So, moving forward with that will be determined by whether I can find the right team members. But buckling down and working with Jamie is definitely something I plan on pursuing.

Artist relations

Charlotte is an illustrator and arts lecturer who is passionate about the creative industries and is now part of our artist relations team. Her interests include mid 20th century inspired design, comic books, board games, movie memorabilia, baking cakes, feminism and yoga. She shares her 1960’s home with her graphic designer husband and her toddler son who likes to hide her iPad. Get in touch with Charlotte if you have work you have made in Affinity apps to share with us, or tag your work with #madeinaffinity in the usual places.

Credits & Footnotes

All photography in this article is copyright © Linh Nguyen.