Victor Cheng is living the photographer’s dream. Originally from Toronto, Canada and now based in Hong Kong, Cheng is known for his vibrant cityscape and travel photography, frequently shared to his Instagram account of over 183,000 followers. His breathtaking photos — and more recently, engaging video content showing what goes behind his photography — have landed him work with globally recognized brands from Google and Samsung, to Facebook and Airbnb.
For Cheng, pursuing photography and content creation full-time is a career that involves being intentional and calculated, while also having fun with it. Here, he shares with The Leap how he got his start, tips for making money as a photographer on Instagram, and his real thoughts on the direction social media platforms are headed.
How did you get started in photography and content creation?
I started taking photography more seriously when I first saved up enough money for the iPhone 5. That was when I started exploring and using a lot of mobile photo editing apps, and learned things like symmetry, rule of thirds, and color grading.
My first full-time job out of university was doing multimedia/creative for TV personality Robert Herjavec from Shark Tank. It was more of a corporate role, in which I felt a little restricted with the creative freedom I had. Shortly after, I was offered to move to Hong Kong to be the creative director of Hypebeast’s e-commerce platform.
Moving to Hong Kong led to my photography style changing drastically from minimalist to “organized chaos,” due to the dense architecture and vibrancy of the city. For a while, many friends that I would meet on Instagram would visit Hong Kong, and I would take them on photography tours. It sort of forced me to explore the city and find cool locations for photos. That led to capturing a side of Hong Kong I didn’t know about such as rooftop basketball courts, and I explored shooting straight facades and aerial photography.
I also met my wife in Hong Kong during this time, and she was already doing freelance photography full-time. We started working together with different clients in the hospitality industry, and I was taking a lot of time off from my job for traveling. I eventually left my full-time job to pursue freelancing as well.
When did you know it was time to exit the corporate world and pursue photography and content creation full-time?
This is a question I often think about. The one thing that pushed me to make the leap was asking myself if I was happy at my full-time corporate job or not. Oftentimes, the duties that I had to complete at my full-time job wasn’t exactly pushing creative limits for me, and I was always eager to travel and leave work before 5 p.m. It wasn’t until I met my wife, and we started getting more projects together — which made it hard to get time off work — that I knew I had to leave. Financially, I started to notice that some of the projects we worked on outweighed my full-time job salary, so it made sense to focus my time on freelancing full-time.
Did you seek out mentors for advice before or during the transition?
Thankfully, I had my girlfriend at the time (now wife) as my mentor to help with launching the start of my freelance career. Since she was already a prop stylist and photographer, she showed me the steps from pricing my work to art direction.
Is there an early project that stands out to you as a memorable growth experience?
One of the first projects I got to work on was with a dream client, Google. It was for the launch of their new Chromebooks. This project was memorable since it was my first time ever having the creative freedom to go anywhere in the world and capture architecture the way I wanted for a big brand. To have my images as the default wallpapers of the device was a pretty big deal, as I was just starting out in my freelance journey.
How have you been able to manage your finances as a creator?
It’s hard to navigate the world of finance as a creative. Math is not my strength, but I would say the biggest help in managing my finances is setting up a spreadsheet. That way, you can input all your completed projects, expenses, and figure out what your month to-month income looks like.
A huge pro tip I would give is to always have savings or cash on hand, because oftentimes payments can be delayed. Living literally paycheque to paycheque is not a good idea.
Any tips for working with brands as a photographer and content creator? What’s the rule of thumb when it comes to pricing your services?
My tips for working with brands as a photographer is to never stop creating or shooting photos, and to always have a mindset of shooting content that can potentially be seen by a brand or potential client. What I mean by this is to always capture images from a brand’s perspective, while at the same time applying your own creative twist or aesthetic to the photos.
The way I price my work is based on experience. If one client accepts your pricing, then that becomes your benchmark or guideline for the next potential client. I believe as you mature as a photographer or freelancer, your rates can also gradually rise too.
Besides brand deals, in what ways have you been able to monetize your work?
Our print shop sells a bunch of Hong Kong prints that many people have put up on their walls. One print that has been very popular is our Hong Kong Taxi Light print. It’s a great token of memory of the city since the red cabs are so iconic.
Another source of income that I rely heavily on is photo licensing. As a photographer, licensing your images is like letting people borrow books from the library. Those licensing your images could be hotels, airlines, F&B outlets, etc. They’d buy an image of mine, and I get to license it to them for their usage either on digital, social, or print. This is a common way for many photographers to make an income.
What’s your experience with growing your audience and platform?
Social media has played a huge role in my freelance photography career, mainly because this is where most of my passion projects and portfolio are shown to an audience. My advice for using social media to grow an audience is to keep it simple and not overly complicate things. Have fun with what you’re creating, but at the same time keep it professional.
Many photographers are resistant to the recent updates of Instagram as it now prioritizes videos. However, you seem to have embraced the change and have been experimenting with Reels. What’s your experience with short-form video creation?
Yes, this has been the case, and I do see resistance from many photographers. I personally think [the shift to video content] is inevitable. We all once relied heavily on this app, and it has helped us with our careers. But all things grow eventually, and at some point, we have to adapt to the current trends.
For me, video is a great way to showcase the personality behind these “pretty photos.” I used to be very hesitant to be on camera. I am still experimenting and playing around with Reels. There’s still a lot of room for improvement, but I’m having fun with it. I think the key to creating short-form videos is keeping things simple and not to be so serious with it. For example, I would have never imagined in my entire career to hit 1 million likes and 30 million views with a post as simple as this Reel. I believe it’s all about how relatable the piece of content is and the simplicity of the video.
What are you most excited for the future of your work?
With social media constantly changing and now [leaning] into video content, I’m excited to see where photographers will go in terms of branding and creating new content. Instagram was where a lot of photographers started sharing their work with an audience, and it helped pave the way for their career. But the app has completely changed in a direction that is quite similar to TikTok. I’m curious to find out if there will be a new platform for photographers to showcase their work on.