Chris Nguyen Shares Life Behind the Lens

By Jackelyn Ho

Photography sounds easy enough, right? You take a camera — or just a phone for that matter — and then point, shoot, and capture. But over time, photography has developed into a beautiful art form and some have risen over the rest when it comes to capturing spectacular moments in time.

Cue in my good friend, Chris Nguyen. We met sometime last year when we shot this video together, showcasing #myempireintheair. You’ll hear more about Empire In The Air in just a second.

Chris is hands down one of the best photographers I have ever worked with. He really has a way of snapping that perfect moment in time where the light is golden and the subject is always so intriguing. I was so fortunate to do a shoot with him earlier this year, in which I had to get out of my comfort zone and become a magical fairy in the forest and a shining beacon of light in a dusty warehouse. Pretty far out from my usual fitness looks, but it far surpassed my expectations.

He’s so talented, right?! Anyway, I thought I’d ask Chris a few questions about how he got started and how he ended up where he is now. Whether you’re an aspiring photographer or just looking for photography inspiration, then you’ve landed at the right place. Oh and before we move on, you HAVE to follow him on Instagram. Like, right now. Done? You won’t regret it. Okay, now you can read on.

Tell me about yourself.

I am a self-taught Bay Area photographer. Formerly a photographer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Ames Research Center, I enjoy freelance photography as well as just capturing moments with my girlfriend as we travel. Along with photography, I dabble in videography and music production– all of which I am currently doing as the director of Empire in the Air’s media team.

Aside from photography, I studied as a civil engineer at San Jose State University. Currently, I am working as a full time engineer for Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) and I love my job.

How did you get into photography? Do you remember the first time when you captured an image and thought, “This is it!”?

I got into photography in late 2010. My friends were purchasing DSLRs at the time and so I purchased my first Pentax Kx— it was lime green. Shooting was just a fun hobby at first, but I began to shoot more and more as my photos were becoming more well receieved. Photography grew into a pass because I wasn’t really capturing a moment anymore. I was creating the moment and making the photograph say what I wanted it to say. There was no real first time, or one image that made me feel like, “This is it!” It was more an accumulation of photos that brought me to where I am now.

What is the most important part of a good picture? The subject? Lighting? Location?

To me, the most important part of a photograph is the lighting. Lighting is the key factor in photography, and without it you don’t have your image. When shooting outdoors, choosing the time of day where the light will flatter your subject is important— location also plays a big factor in lighting. I try and shoot during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset, but when those times don’t work out, finding locations that diffuse, reflect or obstruct light can also be advantageous.

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” – George Eastman

What is your favorite picture of all time? One that you’ve taken? One that someone else has taken? What is the story behind both?

For my own photography, I try to make one of my next photos be my favorite photo. Recently I took a trip across the mid-west and visited places like the Valley of Fire, Mt. Zion, Antelope Canyon, and the Grand Canyon. Somewhere in those photosets lies my favorite photo and my next trip will produce a new set of favorite photos to choose from. I guess you could say travel photos are my real favorites. I travel with my girlfriend as much as we possibly can, and although I like to say most of my photographs create a story, these traveling photos tell a story. They remind me of the time and places we’ve been to together.

We’ve done a photoshoot together before (it was so much fun!) and you did everything you could make sure you got the right shot. What does that “a-ha” moment feel like when you capture THE shot?

The “a-ha” moment when you feel like you’ve captured THE shot affirms and sets the tone of the rest of the shoot. As you’ve experienced, I typically like to plan out my shoots so they can run as smoothly as possible— plan location, types of shots, time, etc. Even with all that planning, you can never really gauge the success of your shoot until you’ve had that “a-ha” moment and captured the shot that you want. Luckily, with you, I had plenty of those moments and it made the shoot that much more fun!

You’ve mentioned to me before that photography is a fun hobby for you and never feels like work. Can you describe what it feels like to be in that state of mind?

Photography did not use to be just a fun hobby for me. At one time, when I worked for NASA, it did feel like work. After coming home from a 7-4:30 shift of just shooting and editing everyday, I never wanted to pick up my camera. I never really got to shoot for myself, so photography was never really fun anymore. I did learn a lot from that job, but being my own boss and choosing the photoshoots that I want to embark on makes it that much more fun for me. I shoot for myself and can be as creative as I want to be. Doing your craft for yourself turns it into your passion, and it’s that passion that drives the creativity in my photos.

You also shoot a lot of great images for the lifestyle brand, Empire in the Air. Can you tell me more about that?

Empire in the Air is a brand founded by my girlfriend, Francesca Mateo. The brand is a creative collective that is meant to empower and lift those trying to pursue their own dreams and passions, or Empire’s as we would call it. The word “Empire” represents that legacy she strives for and “in the air” signifies everyone that said her head was in the clouds. Empire in the Air defies all those who doubted her.
I love shooting for Empire in the Air because it allows me to tell stories not only through photography, but through fashion as well. I have always been a believer that the way you present yourself (in the way that you dress) reflects how you want to be portrayed. Your attire is everyone’s first impression of you. Empire in the Air is a streetwear brand with a purpose and meaning, and those are ideals I want to portray in my photos.

If you had one tip you wanted to give to budding photographers, what would it be?

Keep shooting. Your only limits are the shutter counts on your camera. You also don’t need the best or fancy gear when you shoot. Take the time to develop your eye first and the rest will come when it does. I have seen many photographers make the mistake of dropping as much money as they can into equipment and think they can start charging people for photos. Some of my favorite and featured photos were taken with my old Pentax and a kit lens.

Tell me about a typical workout that you do. Okay, and what about one that you actually LOVE to do?

It’s not really a workout routine, but recently I have been hiking more routinely. I use to partake in triathlons, running, and cycling events, but due to a more impacted schedule these past few years I have been trying to rebuild my endurance. While I hike, it allows me to take photos and enjoy the outdoors so it’s been a great way to scout for possible photo locations.
A workout that I love to do would have to be playing basketball. I have been playing in basketball leagues since I was 8 and now I play on a weekly basis at a park with my coworkers. Even with a busy schedule, I’ll always find time to eventually get on the blacktop.

Photography provided by @chrissnguyen