Jul 30, 2013

Phlearn Interview John Wilhelm

John Wilhelm was born in 1970, and was raised in Winterthur, a town in Switzerland (with over 100,000 citizens), close to Zurich.

After high school John went for an apprenticeship as a Radio/Tv-Electrician and after 2 years of working on the job he started studying at the Higher School of Applied Sciences and gained a degree in 1994 as an engineer of electrical sciences. Since then he’s been working in the IT, for 10 years he has held the position of the CIO at the Higher School of Education in Zurich.

When John isn’t working at school, he’s working at home or on location (or behind the computer). John is a photographer and digital artist in his free time, or as he calls himself, a “photoholic”. He creates spectacular Composites from ideas formed in his head, whether it’s turning his daughter into “Luigi” from the Mario Brothers, turning himself into the Pope, or giving a camel a cigarette, John can create it.

Join us in this fantastic interview where John opens up about his life and his work. He tells us what he considers to be the key elements to making a great Composite (and they’re all very helpful!), and there are side by side comparisons throughout the interview of his photos Before and After an edit. So, what are you waiting for? See what you can learn from John Wilhelm.

I was surprised to find out from your website that you actually don’t do photography as a full time job. With that said, what do you do as a full time job?

I’ve been in the position of the CIO (Head of IT) of the Higher School of Education in Zurich for over 10 years now. With a 23 head staff we run and maintain the whole ICT- and Multimedia-infrastructure for the University.

What first sparked your interest in photography? For someone who’s only doing this part time you have quite the expansive portfolio!

I was born in a photographer-family. My dad was a passionate hobbyist and founder of several photography-clubs. So photography was always an important element in my whole life so far (and I guess it will always be).

But what really sparked my passion was an App on the iPhone called Polarize. During the first pregnancy of my wife (meanwhile we’re awaiting daughter no. 3) I started to shoot like crazy with this funny program and I even set up a little business ( To be a little more independent from the iPhone I developed a way to generate artificial iPolas (images created with the app Polarize are called “iPolas”) with shots from high quality cameras (for example a Leica M9) with the help of Adobe Photoshop. So I got in touch with Adobe Photoshop and decided to enter the composing and Retouching genre a little bit more intensively approx. 2 1/2 years ago.

It was a little frustrating at the beginning but with the acquisition of a Wacom Cintiq 21 it became something absolutely magic.

I call myself a photoholic because I love this Workflow (Cam > Lightroom > Wacom-Photoshop-works > Final Image) so much, I honestly have to fight withdrawal symptoms if I can not do any photo work for more than 2 or 3 days.


What’s currently on your gear list? (camera gear, editing software, etc)

  • • Nikon D600 & D800E, Sony RX1
  • • Nikkors 14-24, 24-70 (my fav lens), 70-200, 105 macro
  • • 3 SB 900, 4 Yongnuo remote triggers
  • • 3 Elinchrom Studio flashes with div. softboxes
  • • Gitzo Traveler tripod with Manrotto 498RC4 ballhead
  • • Wacom Cintiq 24 HD
  • • MacPro 32 GB Memory
  • Adobe Photoshop cc (It seems I’m alone with the opinion but I love the cloud approach)
  • • Adobe Lightroom
  • • Nik filtersuite (new by Google)
    Nik HDR Effex 2 for HDRS
  • • Filterforge
  • • Terragen 2 (Landscape generator)
  • • ZBrush 4.6
  • • ZereneStacker (great focus-stacking software)

How important is Photoshop within your work?

Photoshop is THE central element. Nothing would be possible without it and I’m very grateful we can work with such a great product.

Where did you learn your skills at compositing? Seriously, your composites are always very well done.

Thank you for the nice compliment. I started with tutorials from Video2Brain (pros like Ulrich Staiger, Ralf Mack and Calvin Hollywood were absolutely inspiring at the beginning) and read lots of books. Of course I also stumbled many times over Phlearn and other great sites. The knowledge hidden in the internet is just tremendous and if you’re a good autodidact you only need a little talent, a computer and some time.

What inspires you?

My children, talking to my girlfriend (she’s a very creative costume designer), looking at other works on all these great platforms like Béhance, 500px, Flickr etc. Ideas often pop up while exercising contemplative work (household, garden etc.)… so my recommendation is: Don’t outsource too much of these jobs, you could also give away great ideas with it!

What’s your favourite type of photography to shoot?

I’m just not able to answer that clearly. I love portraits, Landscapes, insects, animals etc.. equally; As long as the IQ is high, and the scene is inspiring, funny or special. I’m sure: Obtaining a really great Composite or Retouched Photo requires a top quality photograph to begin with.

Is there anything (within the realms of photography or not) that you wish you were better at?

Yes that crazy complex 3D stuff. Im learning ZBrush at the moment and find it very very time consuming and hard to learn. It’s not the program to blame but myself (the program is absolutely wonderful).

I love your ongoing series with your family. What is the general reaction of your little girls when they see themselves in these out of the world photos??

They like it a lot and even start to bring in their own ideas. The shoots in my little studio are sometimes pretty exhausting. If you have little children and ever tried to have them sit as still as possible before your lens you know what I mean.

Your ideas within your photography are always very interesting and incredibly unique. How do you overcome a creative block?

That happens often. If a specific idea will not come to my mind I just wander through my Lightroom Library and in most cases, I can get spontaneous Inspiration from a photo. Perhaps even a shot taken a long time ago which I saw already many times and nothing happened can suddenly trigger an emotion or an idea. My photo with the two seagulls titled “Health Check”, with which I’ve won the special prize of the annual DOCMA award, has been created this way.

Your “animals” series is both awesome and hilarious. What’s the most challenging part of this series?

The pelt and Hair of course. It’s always a challenge to separate these creatures neatly from the Background. I often cut out complete areas of pelt and/or Hair and repaint these from the scratch. Perhaps I should change to frogs and crocodiles instead..

Can you tell us about your experience at “Zingst 2013”?

Zingst was great. It’s a very special town, located in a very special area of Germany with very friendly people living up there. To see my photo in the catalog, on great plastic posters and merchandising material made me pretty proud. Zingst was also very special for me because I had been accompanied by my pregnant wife and we left our two girls Lou & Mila for the first time alone with their grandparents for 5 days. I missed them a lot (and I missed my Wacom Cintiq and Photoshop also :)).

Can you please tell us about your inspiration behind your Pope self portrait? It cracks me up every time I see it!

I had the idea during the last time the Vatican was electing the new pope. I imagined what it would look like, if I was hidden under a Transparent floor with my camera, and the pope together with his bodyguards would send me a kiss straight to the lens, while blessing a country he had just landed his plane on.

Who are some of your favourite photographers?

I really like Erik Johansson, Adrian Sommeling, Jonas de Ro (more a painter but he also uses photographs in his work… check him out he’s so crazy good), Tim Flach and many many others…

And to follow up the previous question, what photo was the most challenging to create?

For me the most challenging project was also one of my first complex compositions (“Prime Hardau”). When I created I was just getting into Photoshop and it was a pretty messy journey to the final image. By the way, if I look at it now I think it’s not on the Level it could be. Perhaps I will do it again just for fun in the future.

Generally, how long does the creative process take? Coming up with an idea, shooting, editing, etc..

A conceptual project with shooting usually takes me a total of approximately 5 hours. For me it’s important that I can finish a project the day I started it. So it gets very late (or better said early) sometimes in my digital photolab.

I just gotta know, what’s the highest number of layers you’ve had on a PSD file? Your editing is just unreal …

I always work with two layers to keep complexity low :). But seriously… I’m pretty sure I usually have over 300 layers…

What’s your favourite photo that you’ve ever taken?

It depends on whose opinion. I guess the most important image is “Into the poppies” (my daughter running into this wonderful poppy-field).

What are you currently working on?

At the moment I’m learning ZBrush and there’s no time left for a really big creative project… but that can change any minute, stay tuned.

Any big plans for the future?

I want to stay healthy. That’s the most important thing, and I want to do what I’m doing right now as long as I possibly can.

What would you consider the key to a good composite to be?

The fundamental basis of my work is still photography. Unless you’re a well educated and trained digital painter you should really know what you’re doing with your camera before you enter Photoshop. For Composites I would recommend the following:

  • If you can afford it buy a good camera (the best I’ve ever had is my Nikon D800E) and even better lenses (my favourites are my Nikkor 24-70 and Nikkor 14-24).
  • Know, at which aperture your lenses bring top notch Sharpness and use it.
  • Stick with ISO 100-160. The slightest Noise can be pretty annoying in postproduction.
  • Take a tripod with you if you’re shooting with a small aperture and ISO 100 can’t be held steadily anymore.
  • Take several shots with different apertures and Exposure settings (you don’t have to generate HDRS to gain top notch results, but sometimes certain over- or underexposed elements can easily be taken from a differently exposed shot).
  • Do focus stacks (especially if you have to shoot with open aperture). Unsharpness can easily be applied later but not Sharpness.
  • Be careful with different lighting settings. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to bring elements neatly together, if they were shot in different Light situations.
  • Do not use stock photos. You will not be able to be as proud of your final work as you could be.

What’s your proudest moment as a photographer?

It was definitely up there in Zingst when everybody was talking about my seagulls.

Your work plays off humour quite a bit, and that’s hard to accomplish, but you flawlessly pull it off every time. What advice would you give to someone who is wanting to go the same route with their photography? I ask because humour can sometimes be very difficult to pull off.

This is very very difficult to tell. I’ve grown up in a family where humour was always present and very important. I had my troubles in school for always being a class clown and joking around during lessons, and I still do this today during meetings sometimes 🙂 My tip: Just be funny! 😉

Where do you hope to see yourself and your photography go within the next couple of years?

I want to become better and better. There’s still so much to learn, so much to explore and so much to achieve.

Do you think you’ll ever stop working your other job to become a full time photographer?

I’m not sure. I think a lot about it, but always end up with the same result: As long as I can do what I’m doing right now I’m happy. I earn enough money with the IT to keep my family and my hobby running and I don’t have angry customers who tell me to put a different colour here and another Light there 😉
And finally if I made my hobby my job what would my new hobby be? I haven’t the slightest idea… so better leave it as it is, although it would be so good to work on a cool project for a few nights AND days.

To keep up with John and his work you can do so on his Website, Facebook Page, Flickr, and/or 500PX.
Interviewed By: Angela Butler

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