Articles

Rising Light: Shaoyi Zhang's journey from landscapes to architecture to people

19 September, 2017

Written by: Harley Anderson

Some people come to photography in a relatively straight path. Others find their way to photography in a more circuitous manner. A native of China, Shaoyi Zhang spent his university days training to be a biologist only to realize his true calling was to be a photographer.

Some people come to photography in a relatively straight path. Others find their way to photography in a more circuitous manner. A native of China, Shaoyi Zhang spent his university days training to be a biologist only to realize his true calling was to be a photographer.
 
Zhang's grandfather was a newspaper photographer before the Cultural Revolution, which made photography part of the family narrative. Before heading to a new life in New York Shaoyi’s mother bought him a Nikon D40 - a camera that helped him hone his photography skills. The camera also enabled him to up his skills at shooting landscapes, a genre of photography he loved despite the fact he was painfully aware of how difficult it could be earning a living shooting landscapes. To remedy that problem Zhang began promoting himself as an architectural photographer, which while more profitable, was less-than-satisfying both creatively and personally.
 
 
 
While in college he was fortunate to get an assisting job with Robin Mas - a French-born portrait photographer working in Shanghai, from whom he learned volumes about lighting, posing people, communicating with models, editing, retouching, and other realities of being a successful photographer. It was during his time working for Mas that Zhang came to realize portraiture was his calling. And when Zhang decided to move to New York for further education, it was Robin who suggested Zhang look into the School of Visual Arts in NYC as being the best school for him in his soon-to-be- new hometown.
 
 
Zhang found SVA's curriculum to be ideal for his needs. SVA offers a choice of pathways into photography including business classes, which he readily recognized as being imperative if he expected to survive in a competitive.
 
For inspiration Shaoyi looks to a select number of iconic shooters that include Irving Penn, Dan Winter, and at the top of his list - a well-worn book of photographs by Arnold Newman.
 
 
Another big influence in Zhang's journey has been his key mentor at SVA, Ethan Hill, whose advice, knowledge, patience, and appreciation for the details in both business and photography has made a lasting impression on him.
 
Zhang's experience as an architectural photographer is apparent in the way he composes his photographs. He gets in tight, often real tight, and he plays positive and negative spaces off one another very well. His lighting is equally well staged, sometimes more obviously than not, and together they create portraits that hijack your eyes.
 
 
During his time at SVA Zhang began experimenting in earnest photographing models first with one light, then two lights, and soon three lights. When shooting in the studio he uses Profoto D4 Studio Packs with Profoto ProHead Plus Heads. Though he doesn't like limiting himself when it comes to light modifiers his current preferences include the Profoto Deep umbrella (L), and RFi Softbox Octa 3’.
 
Other light shapers Zhang makes use of are Profoto Zoom Reflectors, Profoto Umbrellas, and Profoto Deep Umbrellas. Whatever tools light the scene the way he sees it in his mind's eye, that's the tool he chooses. 
 
 
Zhang often chooses the White Beauty Dish for his portraits because he finds it hits the sweet spot between hard and soft light. Another combination of light modifiers he likes using are Profoto Zoom Reflectors with Profoto Barndoors that he uses to narrow the light into sharp strips of light that cross the frame. 
 
When shooting on location he packs Profoto B1 off-camera flash heads and Profoto Deep Umbrellas (Large), often with diffusers. “Profoto Deep Umbrellas have nice gradients, highlights, and shadow details, and I can adjust the look of the light by using the reflector's zoom function". 
 
 
A project that has been dear to his heart is 'Chinese in New York', a series of environmental portraits of Chinese immigrants who like himself have made New York their adopted home. The style of the portraits - the way they are composed and lit, presents each of his subjects with equal measures of dignity regardless of how long they've been here and how far they've come. 
 
Having recently graduated from SVA Zhang finds himself pursuing his photography with the goal of shooting editorial portraiture while pushing his comfort zones by getting involved with shooting and/or directing documentaries. 
 
His immediate goal is to land an assignment to shoot his first magazine cover. A longer term project is to see his Chinese in New York series published in book form. Stay tuned.
 
To see more of Shaoyi Zhang's work visit his website and Instagram pages.
 

Written by: Harley Anderson

Products used in this story

OCF Beauty Dish White

A portable beauty dish for off-camera flashes

OCF Beauty Dish Silver

A portable beauty dish for off-camera flashes

Profoto D4

The commercial studio pack

ProHead Plus

A classic head delivered with a Zoom Reflector