Meet our Presenters: A Q&A with Michael Willems

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For decades, Vistek has been an authority on pro level photography. That’s why we only bring the most experienced and qualified photographers for our hands-on workshops and seminars. To show you what we mean, we’ve created this blog series to give you a closer look at the people who drive Vistek.

Meet Michael Willems

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Michael Willems is one of Canada’s most popular photography coaches and the author of the popular Advanced FlashEvent Photography, and Travel Photography signature seminars. He is a keynote speaker, lecturer and teacher at schools like Sheridan College and Canada’s School of Imaging. Michael is a regular columnist in Photo Life and runs his own photography teaching blog at speedlighter.ca.

Perhaps most significantly, Michael is an award-winning photographer, with a portfolio that spans across newspapers & magazines, the fashion industry and various private projects. His work has found its way to over 35 countries on 5 continents. He is a member of David Honl’s Round Table. He understands the engineers, because he is one: he has a BSc(Eng) in Electronic Engineering. As a photographer, he is a member of NPAC, is accredited with PPOC, and has earned LPPO licentiate status.

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How long has photography been a passion?

Since I was around 12, when I was given a Kodak Instamatic. I loved the hunt for great pictures even then and the anticipation of seeing my vision on photographic paper. even today, I print a lot, because a photograph isn’t really a photograph until it is printed.

How did you get your start?

When I was young, I wanted a career in journalism but it turned out that I had to wait a few decades. I came to the industry in different ways than most. I trained as an engineer and travelled the world in that capacity and later as a business executive.

In my younger years, I worked for long periods in very wild environments such as Nigeria, Libya and the Middle East, including Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. These environments and what I saw there further whetted my appetite for photojournalism. I am quite visual in nature and wanted to share. Pity that “digital” had not yet been invented. I initially learned photography during those years.

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What is your background/education?

I am an electrical engineer by trade, with a degree from London University in the UK. Later, I added formal photography education: first in Europe, then in Canada, where I moved in 1995. Eventually, I started teaching, and that led to me learning the skills I did not yet have. I must say, though, that I learned most of my advanced skills when I was shooting for newspapers. A news photographer has to be a product photographer, event photographer, portrait photographer, food photographer, and more, all rolled into one, and often on the same day.

What/who (where?) inspires you to shoot?

Everything, everywhere, every day. If you look around, there’s so much to see. So much to tell. My photos are more about me than about my subjects, and I like to communicate. But time and time again I come back to both scenes and people that inspire awe.

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Do you have a particular genre that’s your favourite to shoot?

I am an all-round photographer. When I shot a lot of news, I had to be; today, I like to be, because it keeps me fresh and inspired. That said, I love people: creative portraits, weddings, family events; I shoot a lot of art nudes also, and I also particularly like travel photography. So I wouldn’t say I have one favourite genre. Perhaps a favourite technique, though: flash photography.

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Do you have any favourite photographers?

In photography, several greats come to mind: Nan Goldin, Robert Capa, and Annie Liebovitz; but also Mike Disfarmer, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, and Sally Mann. There are so many photographers whose work inspires me. The first picture that truly made me want to be a photographer was the cover of Patti Smith’s album “Horses“, shot by her then boyfriend, the late Robert Mapplethorpe. When I saw that photo in 1976 I knew I wanted to learn this. And that is the power of the still image: the power to change lives.

What has your greatest career accomplishment been to-date?

Probably my being asked to be part of the current “Picture Change” exhibit by Photosensitive, a collective of Canadian photojournalists. This six month exhibit, from July-December 2013 in Toronto, puts together the work of 100 of Canada’s top photographers, with one picture each: a picture that changed things. I was honoured and humbled to be chosen to be among those 100 great names.

ExhibitOpening from PhotoSensitive on Vimeo.

Can you share with us anything that you’re working on right now?

I am writing a third e-book. My first two e-books, available from www.michaelwillems.ca, are on handling diverse photographic situations, and on flash photography, respectively. The third one will be on travel photography. These e-books support the courses I teach, of course.

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Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I hope to still be learning new techniques and especially, trust I will still be having fun doing it. I imagine I will be better known then around the world than I am now; just like I am better known now than I was ten years ago. I also know I will still be teaching: I love conveying my knowledge. As an engineer, I am very aware of how badly other engineers communicate – including the ones who created your cameras. I redress that balance: coming from a long line of teachers, I pride myself on being able to convey knowledge in the easiest way.

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Tell us a little about some of your favourite photo gear.

I love my modern large DSLRs, like my Canon 1Dx camera. The ability to shoot at high ISOs and the ease of use when you know your stuff make these amazingly fun. And of course I love my lenses, especially the wide angle 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, and the primes – the 35mm f/1.4, the 50mm f/1.2, but I also love my 45mm f/2.8 TS-E Tilt-Shift lens, which basically makes my SLR into a view camera.

More than anything else, though, I love my flash gear. I have a huge bag full of flash equipment: Speedlights, Pocketwizards, modifiers, brackets, and much more: everything I need in one convenient roller bag.

What is your favourite photo accessory, other than your camera?

I would probably have to say: my Honl photo flash modifiers. These modifiers, which include reflectors, soft boxes, gels, grids and more, fit easily onto speedlights.

A close second would be my Hoodman Loupe, which allows me to clearly see what I have been shooting, even outside in bright sunlight.

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If you had to choose just a single camera and lens would it be and why?

My Canon 1Dx and either the 16-35mm f/2.8 zoom lens, or the 35mm prime. I would have to think hard about that one – probably the zoom, after some internal debate. I love wide angles for travel photography, because they are easy to use (“focus-o-matics”, almost), with great depth of field; they allow slow shutter speeds, and they introduce depth and perspective into your images. I love primes, on the other hand, because they are small, light and super-fast.

You can learn directly from Michael in his upcoming hands-on workshops at Vistek.

Flash Photography
Date: Saturday, October 05 2013 at 10:00 AM & Saturday November 23, 2013 at 10:00 AM
Location: Vistek Toronto

Exposure & Composition
Date: Saturday, October 05 2013 at 2:00 PM
Location: Vistek Toronto

Event Photography
Date: Saturday, November 23 2013 at 2:00 PM
Location: Vistek Toronto

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