How Von Wong Turned Tech Employees Into Athletic Superstars...With Only $20, And A Lot Of Creativity

Benjamin Von Wong is at it again. He teamed up with the team at SmugMug on yet another collaborative masterpiece. This time, he left the cold, foggy San Francisco forest, and retreated to the warm, sunny outdoor confines of the SmugMug campus in Mountain View, California. With only $20, a couple lights, and a lot of creativity, he turned everyday tech employees into athletic specimens. 

Lucky for me, I was working at SmugMug at the time, so I was one of those lucky subjects. But when I wasn't being photographed taking hacks with a baseball bat in the cold and harsh simulated rain, I was filming content for this Behind The Scenes look at the shoot. The idea was simple. SmugMug President Chris MacAskill wanted big photos to hang in the company gym. He thought, if they could see themselves looking like athletic gods on the walls, it would be more motivation for his employees to push even harder when doing the Body Beast workout. Having a close relationship with photographer Benjamin Von Wong, Chris immediately commissioned the extraordinary photographer to photograph this rather ordinary idea. But with Von Wong, nothing is ever ordinary. 

Knowing photos of subjects in front of a plain black background wasn't his thing, Benjamin started brainstorming ideas on how to make these athletic portraits stand out. He quickly decided that rain would be the X factor that would add the dramatic look that he was seeking. With $20, and some MacGeyver like construction by SmugMug employee Daniel Petrosia, they created a rain machine out of simple PVC piping and average sprinkler heads. Benjamin added 4 lights to create a very edgy and dramatic lighting on the subjects while they lifted tires, jumped with steel chains and delivered right hooks to a heavy punching bag. Even with all of the movement from the subjects, and the pouring rain, Benjamin still pulled off these photos shooting at 1/250 of a second. Benjamin told me:

Camera flashes have a 1/250 of a max synch speed.  It is up to the flashes to freeze the motion when you are in a controlled environment. We initially wanted to shoot this in the gym, in an inside studio environment. We quickly realized that flooding the studio full of water might not be a good idea. So right outside of the gym, we were able to set up under a large tree, which provided plenty of shade in the glaring California sun.  But since we were outdoors, we didn’t have the freedom to crank up the ISO, or shoot with a large aperture, like f/2.8

My Broncolor lights are actually pretty fast, so I was able to set the flashes to a minimum flash duration of 1/1500 of a second, with an ISO of 100 and aperture of f/14, which did an excellent job of eliminating the ambient light. 


My favorite part of the Behind The Scenes video is when Toni MacAskill, Chris' wife and the Countess of Cash for SmugMug says : "I am a 62 year old Grandma. Ben is used to shooting beautiful, young models. And still, somehow he manages to make me look great!" 

I asked Ben, "What is your biggest reward from photographing all types of people, of all ages, from all walks of life?"

I really love working every day people because that's where the photos become even more magical. You expect photos to come out amazing when you are working with professional models and dancers, but when you can show off these incredible photos, and tell the viewer that these aren’t models, they are normal people like you and me, it makes the photos that much more special and magical. I take great satisfaction in making the ordinary extraordinary, and not only does that apply to scenes, but that also applies to people too. 


There is no denying that these portraits do an incredible job of transforming these everyday people into hulking, tough athletes. The choice to shoot in black and white adds to the strong allure. 

For images like these, which are edgy and simple portraits. you don’t want any distractions. You want the viewers to just focus on the shadow, the highlights, and most importantly, the muscles, and black and white did a much better job than color would have. These images are so much more powerful in black and white.


Being that I am more of a landscape and documentary style of photographer, I asked Ben what advice he could give someone like me. I often have a difficult time thinking outside the box, especially when it comes to shooting people. 

I think shooting enough helps. When you have done something over and over and over again, and exhausted all possible options, you are automatically going to start searching for different alternatives. No one likes doing the same thing, day in and day out. People want variety, challenges, and unpredictability in their lives. I think photographers who are struggling to find new ideas, if you just get out there and shoot, and constantly try to do better, your mind is going to become more creative. 


It's hard to say that Benjamin hasn't inspired us all in some way in his short, but very successful career. This photoshoot, as simple as the idea was, is no different. 

There are two types of people who will look at this shoot. Those who say, 'I never thought to use water like that’ or ‘who knew simple black and white portraits could be so amazing?’ and there are the other people who will say ‘it’s not just a $20 rain rig, he had $20,000 worth of photography equipment.'

The viewer in the first camp will feel like they learned something, and feel empowered to get out there and try something new.  They want to learn and discover how far they can push their limits and what they can and cannot do. 

The viewer in the other camp is content with thinking that they don’t have enough resources to pull off what they want to do. They have already given in, and refuse to think outside the box and force themselves to be creative. 

I think the first camp is the people who are going to get better, the people who are going to change the world. I really hope people see a photoshoot like this and don’t look at the things they don’t have, but rather look at what you do have, and make something creative and incredible out of it. You can do a lot more than expected. You may surprise yourself.


You can read more about this shoot, and the seven tips Ben has to pull something like this off, over on his blog

SmugMug Head Of Online Advertising Michael Shostak struggles to lift a giant tire.


Marketing and Business Development Associate Katherine Cheng is known for her quiet and nice girl demeanor. But Von Wong brought the bad ass out of her.

SmugMug President Chris MacAskill recently celebrated his 61st birthday, but that doesn't stop him from riding 100 miles on his bike every Saturday and Sunday.

Chris MacAskill's son Don is CEO and Chief Geek at SmugMug. He is also Chief of Abs.

Smugmug Director of Design, Vilen Rodeski, spends his weekends competing in triathlons and Spartan races.

Andrew Shieh jumped and spun 360 degrees to give Von Wong the natural facial expression and movement in the chains.

Even yours truly got into the action with SmugMug UI Designer Kennen Wells (I am on the right), in a modern day version of The Bash Brothers

Michael Bonocore's picture

Michael is a full time photographer, traveler and workshop teacher based out of San Francisco, California. Michael's passion lies in international photojournalism, which has brought him to lead photography workshops around the globe. Michael has written guest articles for companies such as Matador Networks, SmugMug, and Borrow Lenses.

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Holy moley, these are incredible! Phenomenal job, Ben!


Awesome work as usual :D

yep. cool.

but whats up with these headlines? $20 for the rain. and $10.000 for the rest of the gear used.

Maybe even more. Did you read the last quote? :)

As you may have guessed, I did not :) But what I am displeased about is the use of these kind of headlines. "Hey look, I made this photograph only using a twig. I used the twig to trigger the exposure on my phase one 9000"

I liked the article and images and all. except the stupid headline :)

Serious, ridiculous, talent! Great set and BTS :)

Incredibly misleading headline. Way more than $20 went in to that shoot. True the rain machine may have been $20, but if you look around, 4 lights, huge para's, Huge black cloth backdrop...not to mention all the necessary grip equipment, he had thousands of dollars worth of gear on the set.

I agree with the premise, that you don't NEED thousands of dollars of gear to pull of great shots (toy camera challenge anyone?), and that it was the $20 rain machine that created the wow factor here, but to think that you are going to pull off a shot like this with only camera and $20 worth of gear is simply unrealistic.

Thank you for your feedback Robert. I understand your position. My intent wasn't to mislead, but rather say what a average photographer in our space (most who usually own or have access to borrow or rent lights) could create dramatic portraits that recreate an interesting weather effect.

No worries. It was a god read detailing how sometimes it is an inexpensive yet resourceful/creative idea that can really have more of an impact than all the expensive equipment, and I didn't take it as intentionally misleading, but I think it is important to keep in mind that there are a lot of new photographers without a lot of resources reading, loving, learning from and drawing inspiration from these articles. I think it would be false to assume that everyone reading the article has or has access to (or even knows how to use) the rest of the equipment.

True. I have been a photographer for 6 years, and while I have access to lights, I wouldn't have the faintest clue how to use them. :) I didn't consider those aspects when writing this, but I should have.

Great photos, but I have to agree that the headline is a bit misleading/clickbaity. I mean, even disregarding the cost of his camera gear (I mean, you don't need a $10,000 t take pics like this anyways), I also have to consider that he had very high-end lights and a whole crew of photographic professionals to help him set this up.

The resources he had would be valued at way more than $20.

It's like saying "Celebrity-esque photographer uses an entry-level DSLR to make outstanding portraits," which disregards the facts that people have been doing the same thing for years, and besides the one cheap aspect, he had a whole crew of creative people to help pull this off.

Good photos, but they aren't inspiring me to think that I could create something similar with a limited budget because, well, there's more to this photo shoot than a $20 rain maker.

Really cool photos from this "$20" photo shoot, but the company members sort of look like they are being punished.

That's because we *were* being punished. Von Wong makes you work for your photo shoot. That is true pain and intensity in those photos.

does anyone know what site i can goto to find huge prints like that? i know smugmug has like bayphoto and all that good stuff but ive never seen prints like that as a option? so just wandering...

For photos of that size you usually don't want to order online, you want a local shop that you trust to do it right the first time due to the cost.