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Photographer Tom Wang: ‘something magical happens when it becomes dark, and the lights go on’

Tom Wang is a piano teacher and part-time photographer based in Wiesbaden, Germany. He discovered his passion for photography around ten years ago when he first held a DSLR camera in his hands.

He now runs his own studio, shooting portraits for a range of clients including business professionals, musicians and entertainers and doting pet owners, as well as indulging in his love for travel photography.

We caught up with Tom to learn more about his work, how he juggles two businesses and why he chose to make the switch to Affinity Photo.

You were a full-time piano teacher. How did you get into the world-of-photography, and when did it become more than a hobby for you?

Actually, my piano classes still make up the main part of my business, I’m still in the process of developing my photography business to a greater scale. So far, having a lot of music students has been very helpful, as knowing my studio work a lot of them either get involved in a portrait session personally or recommend my service to their friends and contacts. So, fortunately, both go hand in hand quite well.

There was actually no specific reason that got me into photography. At some point, I decided to get myself a DSLR camera to see what I could do with it. I then started playing around with it, as well as studying every workshop or book related to photography that I could grab. Eventually, that passion caught fire to the extent that I decided to make more out of it than just a hobby.

Tell us about the work you do now and what a typical working day looks like.

Apart from my piano classes during weekdays, which are mostly scheduled from midday to afternoon, I usually do all client shoots on weekends or, if possible, before noon. That is also the time I edit all images from my personal work and plan my future projects. As the timetable of my music classes is quite busy, I do most of my personal projects during holidays and then end up with a lot of images I have to take care of in my downtime. I still have unprocessed images from my first travel to Hong Kong in 2017, which is quite embarrassing!

You have quite a diverse portfolio. What is your favourite subject matter to photograph and why?

This diversity is the result of the demand from my clients and my personal projects. With almost all of my client work being either personal, business or pet portraits, I get really excited when I can disconnect from the daily routine and travel to some great places. I do love both tasks.

There is a lot of creative potential in all genres of photography that you can take advantage of. I would say, while portrait work is a challenge, travel photography is a passion for me, so I enjoy both, but in different ways.

A lot of your cityscape and street photography is captured at night. What is it about night-time photography that appeals to you?

It must be the colours. There is something magical that happens when all those colours come to life. Although I occasionally get compelling images in the daytime, the atmosphere completely changes when it becomes dark, and the lights go on. It can completely change the appearance of the whole scene. I often do location scouting during the day, where I take some test shots with my phone, trying to visualise the end result, and then I come back with proper equipment to take the actual shot.

I know I have a lot of black and white street images too, but I usually only do that when the colours aren’t pleasant enough and don’t add anything to the appeal.

Are there any visual elements that you always try to incorporate into your work?

It depends on my initial impression of the scene I intend to photograph. When it provides striking colours, I try to emphasise those in the final image. Apart from that, I either try to follow the classic rule of thirds or go for symmetry, whatever suits the subject better. I also try not to cut through specific objects when framing a scene if it will impact the balance of the image.

What photography equipment do you use?

I enjoy the process of taking the image as much as I enjoy the final result. It took me a while to figure it out, but eventually, I decided to have two different setups depending on whether I’m going to photograph extensive landscapes or vibrant street life. For my landscape work, I use a high-resolution medium format camera with a range of wide-angle to lower telephoto lenses, some CPL filters and, of course, a tripod in a backpack. When walking on the streets, I prefer to go as light as possible, so a smaller body or even a fixed lens compact camera in a small sling bag is my way to go.

What are your usual post-production steps for retouching your images?

Actually, there is a certain workflow pattern that I always follow regardless of the genre. I always try to handle pixel work first, and then I work with adjustment layers on top. This gives me the greatest amount of flexibility when I decide to change something later.

For example, when working on portraits, I do pixel related tasks like liquify, frequency separation and other retouching work including healing, inpainting, cloning brush and the patch tool first. Then I continue with colour and contrast adjustments, dodge & burn and sharpening. When editing landscapes, I do exposure blending first (if needed) and continue cleaning up the scene with basically the same tools I use for portrait retouching. I then again work on contrast, colours and all enhancements needed with adjustment layers on top, although I use slightly different tools there.

How much time do you spend taking photos versus editing photos?

It depends whether I’m doing client or personal work. When shooting for a client, I obviously have to deliver the results quickly. Most of the time for a basic portrait it’s about one hour of shooting followed by roughly 1/2 hour of editing per image.

When I’m editing my own work, I often spend a ridiculous amount of time on the edits because I frequently change my mind or sometimes I overdo something and then have to pull back.

How have you found working with Affinity Photo?

Affinity Photo has made my work not only much more enjoyable but also much more efficient as well. I was always curious to try different image processing applications and to see what they can do for me, so I grabbed Photo from the App Store and quickly discovered that it had all the features I needed for my workflow, and a lot more. In addition to that, some of the features are a lot more advanced than in the software I was using previously (I particularly love how Live Stack works with its live preview and how frequency separation is built right into the filter options), so I decided to focus my workflow on Photo for all pixel work. Not to mention the iPad version of the software which, I just started enjoying a lot. Honestly, I can’t imagine going back to anything I used previously. I even started completely re-editing some of my old images using Affinity Photo.

How do you feel you’ve grown as a photographer since you first started out?

Apart from gradually improving both my image taking and editing techniques (which I have to admit are still not where I wish them to be), I have also learned to be more patient, as well as more organised. I don’t rush things like I used to do in my early stages. Instead of packing every piece of gear I have into my bag and taking photos of every subject possible all day long (like I did in the past), I now take more time to look for interesting places, and then decide what kind of task, at what time of day I want to achieve. Then I go prepared with the right gear for the purpose. Focusing on one task at a time really frees my mind and helps my creativity.

What are your ambitions for the future? How would you like your photography to progress?

As important as social networking is nowadays, I have to admit that I have totally neglected this topic. This is definitely something I need to improve on. I would also like to extend my travel portfolio to a larger scope and a higher quality level to make it suitable for high-quality prints and photobooks, thereby making it more profitable. Looks like a lot of work to be done…

Do you have any dream locations that you would like to shoot when travel becomes less restricted?

I can’t wait to visit Hong Kong once again. It is absolutely my most favourite place to photograph. The variety of possibilities is incredible. It’s a place with amazing skylines, vibrant streets and, most importantly, great food! I already have some projects in mind when hopefully I will be able to visit again. In addition to this, I would love to revisit Tokyo and also look for some new opportunities in Shanghai, where I actually haven’t been before. As you can see I’m a sucker for places in Asia.

Do you have an all-time favourite photograph that you’ve taken? What makes you so fond of it?

Although the majority of my favourite images are from Hong Kong as you can imagine, I would put the Hokan-Ji temple in Kyoto in the top place. I was so fortunate to be there just at the right time in the evening to capture those beautiful colours created by the sunset. It’s hard to believe that this is how the scene actually looked like for real, for about 15 minutes before those colours disappeared. I have never experienced anything like this before.

From the technical point of view, I think that the classic rule of thirds combined with distinct leading lines works quite well in this case.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to take the step up from hobbyist to professional photographer?

The most important question you have to ask yourself is whether you will still enjoy photography to the same extent when you will be doing it for others instead of for yourself. The fact that you give away a significant amount of control might completely change your experience. A big part of making money from photography isn’t even taking pictures but planing, promoting yourself and building up your social network appearance. You have to carefully take into consideration whether this is something you are suited for.

It might be a good idea to not completely give up your day job right away, but to start developing your photography business gradually alongside your current work if possible. This is at least what works for me, but of course, it is also strongly dependant on the genre you intend to dive into.

To see more of Tom’s photography, visit his website, Facebook and Instagram. You can purchase prints of his work on