Interview with Benny Lee (Designer/Photographer)

Benny is a professional photographer and creative designer based out of Atlanta, GA. By blending his well-honed design skills with his photographic talents, Benny is able to share many stories through his art. Benny’s creative world is ever expanding as he, true to his mantra, ‘aims to show the world as he sees it’ in many mediums.

Zippy: You are quite the creative individual. What would you attribute your creativity to?

Benny: Hmm…I would say growing up in a family of designers and artists.  My mother was a fashion designer, and my brothers were quite the artists so I became a very visual person.

It’s probably because of that that I got into anime, manga, and video gaming.

Zippy: What was the first anime, manga, or game that you remember getting into?

Benny: Well let’s see…Since I started gaming and reading manga when I was 5, I would say Megaman/Rockman for manga and Mario (N64) for gaming.

Zippy: What are your current favorites?

Benny: I have a lot! I love RPGs, Action, Racing, and FPS.  As for anime/manga it’s about the same. I’m into them as long as there’s a good balance between the plot, visuals, and climax to keep me interested.  Some examples of those would be One Piece, Soul Eater, Initial D, and Gantz.  For gaming I would say my favorites are the Final Fantasy series, Call of Duty, Devil May Cry and Uncharted.

Zippy: Going back to your creative origins did you develop many of your talents on your own or with the help of your family? Or did you supplement that with formal training such as school?

Benny: That’s a good question. I actually never wanted to do photography until 2 years ago, and it was by accident.  My family actually had no idea of my photography job until last year. [Laughing] I’m also grateful that I went to school for industrial design, which helped me to develop my style by learning various 2D and 3D programs.

Zippy: By accident? Is there a story there perhaps?

Benny: Well, I ran into my high school friend Julie during Momocon 2 years ago when I was staff there.  Then the following summer she suggested us doing a cosplay group together and I agreed to it.  And since I just got my DSLR at that time and we didn’t have a photographer, I was elected to be one.  So it became my first experience in cosplay and as a photographer. [Laughing]

After that photoshoot it seemed people kind of liked my photos so I was being referred and it just took off from there.

Zippy: So do you consider yourself a designer first and a photographer second?

Benny: [Laughing] Actually neither of them. I consider myself a storyteller. I just like to tell a story or have a message for every photograph I capture or every product I design. That’s all.

Zippy: How do you approach a cosplay photoshoot then if you’re looking to convey a story? Do you feel you have to know a lot about the character ahead of time, or do you sort of work with what the cosplayer wants?

Benny: Yeah actually that’s one reason I like cosplay. The character’s background and plot are already established, so I can just tell the story by recreating a certain scene.  That’s why I always find out what kind of cosplay shoot I’ll be doing and do some research on the plot and characters beforehand.

Zippy: I know you do non-cosplay model shoots too, so I’m curious if there’s a difference between how you approach those types of shoots?

Benny: For non-cosplay shoots, it can be a bit tricky. Instead of recreating a scene, I let my models be who they are, and then tell the story by capturing their personalities.

Zippy: Are there any particular challenges you’ve found that are unique to shooting cosplay photos?

Benny: Actually there is one and it’s the issue with finding a suitable location to shoot. Cosplay shoots can be very particular and have to be shot in a certain setting and costume in order for the audience to recognize and then appreciate it.

That’s also why I’m grateful I’m a design major, and I’m familiar with some 3D modeling programs; I mean there were times when we just couldn’t find any fitting locations so I resorted to the modeling programs to recreate a world.  I guess you can also say I can be a perfectionist, so I want to get everything right. [Laughing]

Zippy: I’d imagine you certainly have an advantage with your design skills since you can digitally manipulate the images more than the average photographer. Do you feel that when modifying pictures like that though there’s a limit to how much one should modify the image? Or do you let the shoot, the cosplay, or the story you hope to portray guide you when making this decision?

Benny: Hmm…I have been confronted before whether it’s ethical or not to manipulate images, seeing as it has gotten a bad rep from various magazine companies because everything is retouched these days.  I would say it’s more beneficial than harmful for my work; I usually do not manipulate the model into another person until it’s a request. I manipulate images based on the vision I have in my head and how I see it.  And since the world around us can’t always be like the world in anime/games I resort to the technology.

Zippy: What is the process for a typical non-convention shoot?

Benny: Well I generally prefer out of con shoots seeing it would give me more freedom for the location and lighting condition.

Typically, I would find out as much as I can about the shoot beforehand so I can have time to brainstorm ideas/shots.  Then I would decide whether a makeup artist or stylist would be needed.  After that, I will gather as much info as I can (i.e. acquire concept arts/screenshots from the series or listen to the soundtrack and get a feel of it.)  Finally, I would plan out how I can capture those shots in my head and make sure I have the proper equipment.

I guess for photographers, the work is only half way done when the shoot is over. For me it can be a joy because that’s when I get to see what I can do with those images.

Zippy: When you’ve completed a shoot what to you defines ‘job well done’? What kind of reactions to your photos let you know that you’ve done what you set out to do?

Benny: Well one of my mentors once told me that the photos will never be ‘fully finished’. You just have to do your best and find a suitable point to stop.

[Laughing] I think everyone has been too kind to me even when I know I’ve done a bad job, so a lot of times I would set a really high goal for me to aspire to.  That way if I do fail I’m hoping I’ll still do better than what people expected.  I also try to get feedback from friends with no knowledge of the series to see if they get what I’m trying to go for.

Zippy: Do you have a style that you feel that particularly identifies your works as yours?

Benny: Well, for the longest time I had no idea what my style was.  I’ve been told my photographs are ‘colorful’ and I emphasize a lot on the composition.  However, I do try new techniques for new shoots, even if it’s for repeating clients.  I think my style is heavily influenced by my design background and how I see the world around me.

Zippy: Since it’s likely there are other designers/photographers who will be reading this, I’d like to know what sort of equipment you use?

Benny: Well, I currently use a Nikon simply because it feels right with me, but I would say any camera would do as long as it does its job.  As for software, I use Photoshop and Lightroom for 2D,  Solidworks, Allias, and a little of Maya for rendering, and the reason I use them is because I learned them while I was in school. So I’d say most 3D programs will do the job. :)

Zippy: Is there any particular dream photoshoot that you’d just absolutely love to do? Like an amazing landscape, photoshoot with your favorite celeb, or an awesome group cosplay you’d love to shoot?

Benny: I’m not sure if I have a dream photoshoot at this point but when I see a series I really like, I would try to do a casting call and attempt to shoot it.

I like to do shoots based on animes/video games I like, but at the same time I can be excited about a series I’ve never heard of before as long as know it’s a great series. I think my favorites are portraits and cosplay, because people are so interesting and in my opinion they’re made for storytelling. [Laughing]

All in all I think I am pretty lucky too, because I have been able to meet so many popular people in the cosplay community because of my work

Zippy: I definitely see as a theme when talking with cosplayers, con goers, and really anime fans in general, about how their fandom brings them together with so many cool, new people.

Benny: [Laughing] I guess when you’re in the cosplay community long enough people will eventually find out about you.  I think that’s how I got to know some of the well known cosplayers, photographers and prop makers.  I guess it’s a bit odd to me because I remember there were times when I went to con wanting to get to know those people, and now I’m shooting with them regularly. So cosplay definitely has had a huge impact in my life.

Zippy: You mentioned that you have cosplayed before.

Benny: Yep, the first time I cosplayed was also the first time I did my first cosplay photoshoot. [Laughing] I cosplayed Jin from Persona 3 and Kouichi Aizawa from Nabari no Ou. I was the photographer for both shoots. :)

Zippy: Do you feel having been on the other side of the lens that you have a perhaps enhanced outlook or appreciation for cosplay?

Benny: [Laughing] Well that definitely made me appreciate how dedicated you must be to stay in cosplay, since you not only have to dress up like them but you have to act and behave like the characters as well.

Zippy: Since you have that dual perspective is there anything you’d like to tell cosplayers that you think they should know going into a photoshoot or when dealing with photographers?

Benny: I guess all I can say to cosplayers is try to express how you feel about the costume and shoot. Let them know any particular shots you would like to do or any particular look you would like captured.  They can’t read your mind and they might not know about the series as much as you do so that would definitely help them get a better idea.

Zippy: Is there anything you think photographers, especially perhaps ones who haven’t shot cosplay photoshoots, should know?

Benny: I would say try to be friends with the cosplayers you shoot with and try to understand them.  Do explain what you’re doing as you’re doing it and be nice. On top of that, try not to show frustration if you can’t get the shot; cosplayers are people too and they might feel like it’s their fault.

Zippy: For photographers and/or designers just starting out what advice would you give them?

Benny: Well, I would say keep doing what you’re doing as long as you love doing it. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re bad at it in the beginning. I mean everyone has to start somewhere, and it’s all about practicing.  So as long as you feel the joy while doing it then it’s worth it.

Zippy: Speaking of beginnings I saw that you’ve begun to work with film making. What made you decide to branch out into this medium, and can you let us in on any info about the first film project you’re developing?

Benny: Yes I’m in the process of branching out to film making. The funny thing is I’ve wanted to make films since I was I young.  I’ve attempted a few films long before I started photography, but I felt like I wasn’t ready and did not have the necessary skills for it at that time, so I’ve put that aside until recently.

The current film I’m working on is still in the process of editing. I’m trying to get somebody to do the score, and it’s taking a while since both the actor and I have been busy with our own work.  This film will be about the relationship between a girl and an instrument, and I’m hoping to get it released within a year’s time. In the meantime, I’ll also work on other short films.

Zippy: In addition to your film making are there any other projects in the works you want to let folks know about?

Benny: I’m actually trying to get into music right now. It’s another passion of mine. Maybe one day if I feel like I’m good enough I’ll share it with the world. [Laughing]  

Zippy: Lastly what are the best outlets for people who may be curious to see what you’ve done?

Benny: People may check out the rest of my work at my main site and my Facebook page. I update my work there frequently.

Main site: www.emanonDesign.com
FB page: www.facebook.com/BennyLeePhotography

About the Interviewer: I have the pleasure to wear many hats in the fan community. I currently host a weekly J-Rock/J-Pop/K-Pop radio show in Chattanooga, TN called Tokyo Tower. I also am the Vice-President for Chattanooga’s local anime club Scenic City Anime & More. Last but certainly not least I’ve had the pleasure to help coordinate and run with my fellow co-directors a new anime convention, Anime Blast Chattanooga, that started with great success in Fall ‘11! On the side I do various web projects, the occasional interview (as demonstrated here), cosplay and non-cosplay photography, and I listen to an absurd amount of music.