Christmas interview: three internationally famous dad photographers give us their tips and advice

As a dad myself, also photographer, and using my children for several projects, I was curious to know how other fathers manage those particular moments of collaborative work with their kids, and kids in general. Luckily I’m friend with three worldwide famous photographers, dads, and during this particular moment of the year I’ve asked Bill Gekas (Australia), Adrian Sommeling (Netherlands) and John Wilhelm (Switzerland) their methods and secrets to realize bold and artistic projects with their child!

10 questions, 10 answers often different, sometimes similar, that we’re going to discover together!

French version is here

1/ Hi Bill/Adrian/John ! Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

Bill GekasI was born and live in Melbourne, Australia with my wife Nikoleta and young daughter Athena. Although my photography work is well recognized, by choice I choose not to be a professional photographer for a number of reasons. My works are heavily influenced by the atmosphere, light, colors and emotions of the paintings by the old master painters of which I try to infuse into my photography work.

Adrian SommelingMy name is Adrian Sommeling, born in 1966. Married and father of a great son, that appears in almost all my images. 😉 My life is surrounded by art. My mother is an artist (painter) and taught me already at the age of 4 how to paint on canvas. Later on I used other media, like the airbrush to create images. Since the computers are quick enough and Photoshop exists I now paint digital with the photos that I take. 😉

John WilhelmMy name is John Wilhelm, I’m 45 years old, I live in Switzerland together with my wife (actually we’re not married but it’s always so complicated to explain our situation so I call Judith my wife) and our 3 little girls, my full-time job is IT-director, my passion is photography and all the devilish new methods connected to it (retouching, compositing, integration of 3D-elements etc.).

2/ How and when did you come to photography?

BGMy first encounter with a camera was my father’s Pentax ME-Super film SLR camera back in the 1980s and it’s where I had a first play with a serious manual SLR type camera. In the 1990s when I was a bit older and had a bit more money I acquired my own camera, a Pentax K1000, some lenses and then I learned the craft of photography and traditional b&w darkroom printing. But it wasn’t until about 2005 when I switched to a complete digital workflow and things started to get interesting in the speed and way I could experiment !

ASActually I am already busy with photography for a long time. It started when I was in high school. At that time still all analog. I developed my photos in my own dark room, but stopped with it after high school. Years later when I started my own advertising/design agency I did more and more again with photography, but really picked it up again around 5 years ago. When I saw friends busy with photography I also started again, but now with a different point of view. On high school I shot portraits, but now I like to tell stories with my images.

JWPhotography runs in our family. My dad was already a very enthusiastic hobby-photographer. No way to escape this. But it was 4.5 years ago, when I discovered the possibilities of Photoshop. I made it my primary goal to master this program and to become able to create nice compositions and to bring my ideas and fantasies to live.

3/ Who’s your model as a photographer?

BGThere are many photographers both past and present that I have a lot of respect for but if I had to pick one it would be Dan WintersI think his portraiture work is beyond amazing, both the technicals and artistry!

ASI don’t really have a model, but from all the good photographers out there it is most of the time American photographers which work I like. It’s more the advertising style and that style comes pretty close to me. From the many good photographers I like the old work of David Hill!

JWI was never the guy who had role models. I didn’t even have a favorite pop-star or soccer-club. I always wanted to create my own stuff. Of course I’m inspired by many many other digital artists and photographers but imho it can be dangerous for your own style if you try to follow a certain model. It can be a motivating and leading starting point having some master or guru from which you can copy technique, style and ideas, but at a certain point you should go your own path. I see lots of photographers who unfortunately stay all the time in the track (and shadow) of their role model.

4/ How do you share your time between work with Athena  (Bill and Nicoleta’s daughter) / Nic (Adrian and Nisa’s son) / your daughters (John and Judith have 3 daughters : Lou, Mila, and Yuna) and chill / play with her/him/them? Can you do both at the same time while expecting a specific result?

BGTime is the only thing that prevents me from shooting more of my concepts. I own and run a business in the manufacturing sector of the building industry, this takes up a majority of my time, second priority is my family and home commitments, my photography takes last priority. But over the years I’ve learned to balance it well and in reality I probably wouldn’t have it any other way as I’m in a position to shoot what I want, how I want and when I want without the time and financial pressures associated with the commercial aspect of it. Shooting infrequently and spaced out is also good for Athena as she looks forward to the shoots when we haven’t done anything for a while. I think finding that balance is the key to enjoying it a lot more when not doing photography at a commercial level. But… if a single day had 28 hours, it would make a lot of difference for me!

ASIt’s hard to spend the time between work, Nic and chill. To be honest…I never chill 😉 and work I often combine with being with Nic. He often keeps me company when I have a shoot and after that we have some time together. I think it’s hard to do both at the same time and expecting a specific result. We spend time together, but I hope, when it goes a little bit better with everything that I get more time for him. I think that will happen 😉

JWFor straight out of cam work hobby and family, life runs well together. But for my conceptional images I have to separate the « photographer » from the « daddy ». My kids already know if daddy is in a professional studio mood and most of the time they cooperate. I guess they can feel how important this is for me and meanwhile they’re also looking forward to the final results of certain shootings.

5/ How much time do you spend taking pictures with Athena / Nic / your girls / each time?

BGThe actual shoot time is very short. I’ve done some shoots in 15 min and some lasted longer up to an hour but generally we’re done within half an hour as we’re only ever shooting for ONE image! The key to this is preparation. It’s the pre-production which takes time and that’s something myself and Nikoleta do ourselves in our spare time, planning it out, etc. Once we have every detail planned out then it’s just a matter of me setting up the set, camera, lighting, etc., and Athena just gets ready and walks onto the set so she’s not waiting around and losing any interest.

ASNot so very much. I mean, I don’t produce so much work every month. Often only one or two images. Also I know what I want when I take the images, so taking them is often only a matter of one hour. Only at workshops, when he is the model, it is a few hours more.

JWKids (or at least my kids) can’t concentrate for a very long time. And their motivation drops extremely fast once they’re standing in front of my camera. So it has to go fast. I guess an average shooting (without styling, dressing etc..) takes 15 min.

6/ Does your daughter / your son / your girls get bored sometimes? How do you manage it?

BGI’ve been fortunate that she enjoys the aspect of putting on costumes and acting something out. Something I learned very quickly at the start a few years ago was that if you ask young children to pose it sort of doesn’t work, they lose interest quickly, they don’t have the patience of adults. After observing her natural child behavior, the solution was obvious. Here’s the thing, kids in general like to act especially when they’re wearing a costume or something. I took advantage of that and asked her to just act on the set, pretend you’re this other person we’re photographing, and occasionally look straight into the camera. This worked! Now at 8 years old she’s more in tune with what we’re doing and takes some direction much easily whilst we’re still allowing her to be the child that she is.

ASYes he does 🙂 🙂 Well, I make sure that I take the pictures not at the end of the day when he is tired. When children are tired, you can see that always in the final image. It misses that special look when they are tired. So I try to take the images in the weekend, best is the end of the morning. But… even then he often doesn’t want. Not because he doesn’t like it, but because he is busy at that moment with something else, for example Minecraft ;). But when I ask him if I should ask somebody else he has suddenly no problem anymore to be the model. He hopes to get famous one day. 😉

JWOf course. Sometimes I can bait them with sweets, surprises or iPad-game time. Sometimes I ask them if they’re ready for a shooting and they reply: « No dad, not today… tomorrow. » I have to accept that. I would never force them to get an image or idea done.

7/ What kind of advice can you give to people who want to take pictures with their own child, in a professional way?

BGDon’t force young children to pose for photography if they don’t want to because ultimately it sort of shows in the final image. Let them be themselves, let them act something out rather than having them pose, they’ll enjoy it a lot more as it’s sort of more natural to them. Just ask them to occasionally look into the camera while they’re acting something out. If you see they’re not into it then let it go and try again another day.  Make sure you’re ready to start shooting as soon as they’re ready, the worst thing is to be fumbling with cameras, lights, settings, props,angles, etc. and they’re waiting. This is sometimes irritating enough for adults let alone children who don’t have that patience.

Music! When in the studio music is key, it fills the room with a happy ambience and music is something we always have playing in the background when shooting. Overall when shooting young children with this type of concept work it has to be a sort of fun experience for them, one they’ll be willing to do again at another time rather than dread it.

ASThat’s hard… Every child is different and what I saw with children is that some can focus and some not. If they can’t focus, I think it is nearly impossible. I am lucky with my son that he can focus and is able to have different expressions on his face. One thing you should never do is telling the child how many photos you gonna take. Cause they count with you and once you reached the number of photos they really stop. 🙂

JWWell… hire a professional photographer. But seriously: Get decent results in (children) photography is only possible if you have certain skills. A $10’000.- camera-equipment will help somebody with the right skills but is useless for any untalented amateur. Once you’ve mastered the basics of photography and imagery, you’re ready. Now you just need willing and also talented kids to work with you. I’m really really lucky to have such kids. I never wanted to do children photography but when I saw how great Lou’s working in front of a cam things were settled.

8/ What is Athena / Nic / Lou, Mila and Yuna’s feeling about your success and rewards with picture she’s in? Does she consider herself lucky, or is it a standard situation for her / him / them?

BGShe’s become used to the camera now and enjoys talking about the images at her school with her friends. She still loves seeing the work we do with her on photography magazine covers and exhibitions and seeing that end result putting a huge smile on her face makes it all worthwhile for us.

She’s also at the age now where she understands what we try and create and as a creative young girl herself I can see her becoming a great photographer or artist in the future as she’s learned many things of me and also by being in front of the lens. She uses her own camera a lot herself and when I look at her photos I see she knows how to frame and compose an image well. A lot of what we have done has worn off on her in many ways which we consider a great thing for a young child to be immersed in this level of creativity.

ASHe likes it very much. He often asks me, ‘daddy, am I already famous?’ and I always tell him not yet… only among my Facebook friends. 😉 He hopes to be famous, but more as a ‘youtuber’ instead of a model. About considering himself lucky… I don’t think so. He is still a child and everything that comes to him comes like it is. I mean, we fly a lot to other countries. When I was young I never did. But because he doesn’t know a situation that we hardly fly it is all common to him. 😉

JWGuess they have to grow up a little. At the moment it’s just a standard situation for them. But I’m sure that will change. Once they’re 30 and over, they will be very happy about these special memories. And perhaps they will hate me somewhere between 13 and 18, when other teenagers stumble over their images on the internet. But my girls have a pretty strong self-confidence… I hope they will get over it or even use the images to their own advantage.

9/ We don’t see your wife in your pictures, how does she feel about your work?

BGNikoleta is key. She’s my secret weapon. If it wasn’t for her willingness and enthusiasm in this project, I don’t think it would have reached the level it has. Nikoleta is always ready to make or buy a costume, look for a prop, location scout, hold my lights in awkward positions, dress Athena in the costume and do hair, etc. I’m so lucky she’s been all for it and at the same time she does all the other house things whilst I’m working. I think I’m a lucky person! 😉

ASMy wife is only in a few images. The last one is the one that my son is on a flying carpet. The reason why (but never show this interview to her) is that I need actors for my kind of images. And although she is the sweetest person in the world… she is not an actor. 😉

JWShe’s supporting me 100% and there are quite a few funny shots she’s also playing a role in. Usually I discus an idea with my wife before I start with the implementation. She often has some cool ideas to add or some changes she would make to a concept. But she’s also very creative and productive herself with her fashion and bag creation. Check out her work.

10/ How do you manage, as parents, the fact that your kid(s) is/are internationally exposed ? Have you ever had stolen pictures and piracy issues ?

BGThe works are well known worldwide now and we’ve enjoyed the publicity they have reached as many photographers and admirers of art have come across the works in one way or another. We’ve never had a problem with them reaching that much exposure as these works are more pieces of art than portraits of our daughter. They can never be portraits of our daughter as these works step into a realm of surrealism and fantasy. Her only role in these works is the portrayal of a child, a universal child where the end viewer can relate to the emotion of their own child, grandchild or even themselves when they were younger.

Unfortunately though global exposure can be a double-edge sword as I’ve found out over the years. The works have been used without my permission and made into paintings, printed on coffee cups, graffiti’d on walls, etc. At this level it’s to be expected and this type of dishonesty by some comes with this territory. Fortunately though the works are known enough that we get informed almost immediately when a copyright breach occurs !

ASI don’t mind so much if my images are stolen by private persons. They can only use low-resolution images and you can hardly do anything with that. When companies or professionals are using my images without permission I always make sure that they will pay for it 😉

JWThat’s how it is nowadays with the internet. We all have to get used to it. It will be nothing special anymore in a few years. And of course: An exposed life brings certain risks with it. But if I ever had a dangerous or threatening situation I would have stopped immediately I guess. But the opposite is the fact. I’m in contact with many nice fans and photographers all over the world and I get so many nice feedback. Sometimes also criticism… but that’s challenging and can help to get better. 

Btw. not to forget: It’s not so easy to recognize my kids if you see them in real life… unretouched. 😉 And, of course, my images get stolen and copied all the time. As long as they don’t sell it I’m not so worried.

A final word?

BGI’m often asked if this project will come to an end as Athena gets older and my response is why would we stop if she’s still enjoying it? If anything i’d like to think we’re just warming up to bigger and better shoots as she gets older. As long as she’s still keen we’ll continue with the series and see how it evolves over time. 🙂

ASI don’t have really a final word. I only want to thank you for asking me for this interview. 😉

JW : Nothing to add, thanks for the interview!

Fan since several years of Bill, Adrian and John’s work, it was important for me to show their universe. Beyond the respect I got for their work, they became friends through our discussions, but also via our own children, that we all use for our images, whether it’s creative or artistic, that brought us closer, necessarily ! I hope this holiday interview will bring you the right advice and methods to realize your own children’s pictures or other children pics ! I wish you a merry Christmas and happy holidays in your families !

A triple HUGE thanks for taking time to answer me Bill, Adrian and John ! Find a lot more of their works with the links below :

Bill Gekas : website / his 1X gallery

Adrian Sommeling : Website / his very first video workshop : « realistic compositions » / his Facebook page

John Wilhelm : Website / his Facebook page