Today’s Friday Featured Photographer is Neil van Niekerk. Neil is quite the legend when it comes to flash photography and creating images with flash that looks totally natural and perfectly lit. I have learned most of what I know of using my flash from following his blog and reading his books. It gives me great pleasure to be able to interview him for the Photographer Mojo blog.
You are an advocate for using flash even when one might think that natural light provides adequate light. Is there a single thing that you can tell us that would improve our flash photography instantly if we were to do this one simple thing?
It is all about direction of light. Whether you use natural light; on-camera flash; off-camera flash; multiple light setups or video light – it all comes down to the direction of light. Once you recognize this aspect of photography and lighting, then the door is wide open for you to be able to comfortably use any light source.
What is your favorite photography accessory other than your camera?
A speedlight of course. Crazy question!
If you had to choose one lens which one would it be and why?
The Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR II
(The Canon equivalent is just as great.)
On a full-frame camera body, these lenses are the perfect portrait lenses with which to isolate your subject. You can use shallow depth-of-field, and you can compress perspective. All around, it is just the most versatile lens for anyone photographing people.
Who are the photographers that you have learned from most?
I pored over books when I started to become interested in photographers. I spent countless hours at the Bensusan Museum and Library for Photography, reading. So there were numerous photographers that informed my own style.
In terms of photo-journalism, it would have to be James Natchwey, Don McCullin and Ken Oosterbroek.
In terms of Fashion – David Bailey; Richard Avedon and Bob Carlos Clarke
in terms of general photography – I love the gentle humour and keen eye of Elliot Erwitt.
Back in South Africa, the person I learnt a lot from was Emil Wessels, who was the chief photographer at the time I was working there. Similarly, there have been a number of photographers over the years that influenced me.
A few years back, I attended a presentation in New York, by Yervant (very well known wedding photographer), and David A Williams, also a highly regarded Australian photographer. I had been deeply impressed by Yervant’s style of wedding photography, combining story-telling with Fashion. Impressive lighting skills and posing. When I first saw his work, my reaction was … maaaan, I couldn’t even attempt this because I don’t have a whole team working with me and multiple lights. To my huge surprise, at the seminar he told us that he works alone, and mostly just uses available light, and / or a video light. His assistant holds up the video light for him, and carries his second camera. Supremely simple. It was like a shock to my system … *I* could do this! And that moment definitely propelled me forward as well in terms of really looking at the quality and direction of light, and working with my clients.
If you could second shoot with someone who would it be?
If I could split this up as a two-part answer. I’d love to second shoot with Jerry Ghionis. At the moment he is at the very top of the field in wedding photography. I’ve met him on a few occasions, and he has a great personality, warm and out-going. I’d love to shoot with him.
If I could get to hang out for an afternoon with someone, and just walk around taking photographs out on the New York streets, it would have to be Elliot Erwitt.
What website or blog do you visit often?
I check out DP Review often. I love the toys. Then there are photographers that I know, who I check out on Facebook regularly, like Chuck Arlund (a Fashion photographer friend of mine), Todd Laffler (a wedding photographer here in New Jersey). So it’s a mix-n-match of places I visit during the day as I need a break from work.
Each of us has someone or something, which inspires our life and work. Can you tell us the true basis of your inspiration?
Music. There is something about music which just cuts right through to the emotional core. Even dance music hits the spot – your body just wants to move in time. I think it is that aspect that also drives my photography – emotional impact and connection.
There are a lot of doom and gloom in the photography industry of late. What is your opinion on making it in photography and the perceived threat to professionals emanating from the fact that technology has enabled everyone to be a photographer nowadays?
This is a tough one to answer. The simple fact is that there are too many photographers chasing a static market. And some markets dwindled entirely, such as stock photography.
I also see older photographers complaining, but when I look at their websites, they are stuck in a previous era, and their sites are out of date. They also quite often haven’t embraced the modern technologies yet, or are not on Facebook, nor do they know how Search Engine Optimization works. (Although that is a dark science of its own.) And so on. Things have dramatically changed for photographers in the space of just the past 10 years. You have to adapt, and keep on adapting.
If you want job security, then reconsider studying something in the engineering or medical field instead. You certainly won’t die a rich person, working as a photographer, but the journey is an interesting one, filled with great experiences. Just don’t expect job security of any kind. Simply because of the numbers, many aspiring photographers simply won’t make it. The statistics count against that. But the energetic, hard-working, inspired and creative photographers, who know how to market themselves, and are personable, and know how to work with people … they will make it.
You will also have to work harder than you can imagine, since being successful as a photographer is a never-ending job in itself, constantly chipping away at it.
Is there anything you would have done differently in your photography career?
This is also a difficult question to answer. If I can step back through this a bit … if I had set out 8+ years ago with the intention of propelling my career as a wedding photographer, I would’ve had a template website, and template marketing materials, and followed a similar course to most photographers.
Instead, perhaps due to some iconoclastic thing, or that Artist’s desire not to follow a rut … I did many things which just didn’t make sense at the time. I simply did it because I wanted to and liked to. For example, starting the PlanetNeil website (now the Tangents blog). It has taken countless hours, with very little reward of any kind for the first few years. From an accountant’s perspective, it would make no sense at all to put that much effort into something which doesn’t reap any benefits. Yet, years later, it had resulted in me writing two books (of which the first is the publisher’s best selling book), and I am writing a 3rd book. I’m presenting seminars and workshops across the USA and even in the UK and Ireland. It is exciting to be here! But it all was the cumulative result of doing something that just made no sense from a business point of view.
So, would I have done things differently? With hind-sight I could’ve avoided a lot of dead-ends, and a lot of money spent on useless stuff … but in the end, it is part of the journey.
What talent do you wish you had?
Musician … however, I’m a much better photographer than I’d ever be a musician. So here I am.
Name one thing that you are still learning to do?
I still have my saxophone, but rarely get time to play it. In terms of photography, the technology is expanding at a faster rate than we can possibly learn and master. At the moment I am exploring video as shot with HD DSLRs. (Canon 5D mk2)
Is there anything you are saving up for?
I’d love to own a Nikon 200-400mm f4 lens again. That was a beauty! Here is a shot taken with my iPhone, of the first generation 200-400mm lens I had. (I sold it to foot the bill for the HD video gear.)
If you could have lunch with anyone famous who would it be?
Photographer – Elliott Erwitt.
Politician – Barack Obama (love his sparkling sense of humour)
Musician – Peter Hammill
Movie star – Charlize Theron
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My daughter, Janine. (Photo of her below)
Which 5 words would your friends use to describe you with?
Intelligent, funny, helpful, eccentric, cute
If you were not a photographer, what else would you have liked to be?
I could easily have embraced the drug-fueled, hordes-of-groupies glamorous life of a rock star.
Is there anybody or anything you would love to photograph that you haven’t yet?
I would love to be able to take portraits of some of the celebrities that are in the news. But something more down-to-earth and revealing of themselves than their public facade would allow.
Alternately, the work by Obie Oberholzer is inspiring – environmental portraits of every day people in unusual places.
We are looking forward to you sharing your knowledge with us on the PM blog. Can you give us a teaser of what is to come?
I allow myself the freedom of writing whatever I feel like. There’s no grand plan here. However, a topic that I want to explore in future posts, (as soon as I am better informed myself), is HD video. Video and photography are converging fields, and we’d better embrace that idea.
When can we expect you to present a workshop in South Africa?
I’m hoping perhaps Feb or March 2012 … but it is too soon to talk about definite plans yet.