A Photographers Interview with Neil van Niekerk

Please tell us about yourself as a person and as a photographer. Where did you grow up and what sparked your desire to photograph? Were you active with the photography department in high school? Where are you living now? Can you describe the defining moment or image that made you want to become a photographer?

I am originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, but I immigrated to the USA in 2000. I am now a resident of New Jersey, USA, where I live with my wife and daughter.

As a teenager I had an intense interest in nature and wildlife and was a keen birdwatcher. From this grew the interest to photograph what I saw … and from there the photography interest became an overriding passion.

What was the first camera you ever owned and how did you come across it? Was it a hand-me-down, purchased at a garage sale, found on the side of the road?

My first camera was a Praktica with a 300mm Tokina lens that my dad lent me. My first camera that I owned was a Pentax ME super, later replaced with a Pentax Super-A.

What was your first paid photography job? Did you enjoy it? Were you scared? Did you make any mistakes?

My first paid photography job .. I can’t even remember. It was probably a few Rand for something I had shot. Something inconsequential.

The first big shoot that I had, was for a company that assembled trucks. They wanted some images of a new line of trucks they were assembling there in South Africa, and they wanted the images to be used on advertising flyers. The terms and requirements weren’t properly defined beforehand, and when I delivered the images, they claimed that 35mm was too small for use on their A4 sized flyers.

What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?

In my early days as a part-time photographer, I can think of several. For example, not bracketing my bounce flash shots taken during an interview with an important businessman for a French business magazine. The transparencies were all nearly 2 stops under-exposed. Ouch!

I very quickly realized that I had to be very prepared for every shoot. I had to make sure that I anticipate every eventuality before the time, and figure out how I could produce work of a high standard, regardless of what happens.

© Neil van Niekerk

How did you decide to make photography more than a hobby? If photography is your full time job, how did you make that decision? What was your backup plan if the photography career didn’t take off? Any regrets? If you are not a full time photographer, what is stopping you? What is your full time job? Any plans to become a full time photographer in the future?

I worked as a Television Broadcast Engineering Technician back in South Africa. My photography hobby had picked up speed to the point where it was a parallel career. Then in 2000 we emigrated to the USA under my wife’s work permit. I was a stay-at-home dad for 3 years until I received my USA work permit in 2003. I had to make the choice, whether to try and get into the TV broadcasting field, or do what I love – photography.

I applied at a studio nearby where I was living, and was accepted as a 2nd photographer. I worked for various studios here in north New Jersey for 4 years until I started my own business late in 2006.

I now work as a wedding and portrait photographer here in New Jersey. I also present workshops and seminars on photography, specifically flash photography and lighting. I also maintain a website (Tangents) dedicated to teaching other photographers.

What was the last straw, the final decision maker to make you go digital? What do you miss about film.

During the first two shoots for that wedding studio (back in 2003), I shot film for them, but realized I had better move to digital or I will be left behind.

What do I miss about film? Nothing. This past year I’ve started to re-scan my 35mm Fujichrome slides .. and I only wish that they had been D3 captures. The Fujichrome slides had a vibrancy to them .. at the time.

But right now, compared to what I know is possible with the Nikon D3 .. there is no comparison.
The digital images are crisper, sharper and have more clarity and vibrance to them. Right now, digital is vastly superior to film.

What is the hardest part of the job when shooting for a client?

Creating unique images from each wedding, and not falling into patterns. With weddings, it is useful and necessary to have certain techniques and stylings that you can rely on to produce consistent work .. but I also feel it as a constant pressure upon myself to move beyond that on every wedding shoot to create unique images for my client.

© Neil van Niekerk

What is the hardest part of the job when shooting for yourself?

Finding something that will be unique and inspiring. Something that will stand up if viewed alongside the great names in photography.

Do you try to help others learn about photography? If so, please explain how.

My Tangents blog has numerous articles on flash photography, lighting, wedding photography, and various aspects of digital photography.

Do you consider yourself an artist first before thinking about the job ahead of you?

That seems to be self-indulgent to me, to be thinking in those terms before a professional shoot. I’m a photographer. Hopefully one with a strong artistic approach. But I don’t think of myself as an artist per se ahead of a professional shoot.

What is the best advice you would give a photographer just starting out?

Do your homework.

The key to creativity is…

.. always be willing to learn. From others, and from your own experiences.

© Neil van Niekerk

What is your favorite camera that you have used or owned? What camera and lens combination do you use most of the time when photographing for a client? What about when photographing for yourself?

Nikon D3 and the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 AF-S
This is a combination that gives me confidence I can cover nearly everything in a wedding shoot.

How do you deal with rejection of your work, losing a job, not making a sale or a negative comment?

I assure myself that I need to do more. My only limitations are my own.

Do you prefer RAW or JPG and why? If RAW, would you prefer a system that uses the DNG RAW format?

RAW. JPG isn’t an option.

What music sparks your creativity? Do you listen to that when shooting a job?

I’m a music junkie. I could identify so well with the character in High Fidelity. The genre I am most fond of is Trip-Hop, but I also listen to Electronica, House, and Trance-House. I also really love British Punk and New Wave (from the late 70’s and early 80’s), and Alt-Rock.

When I am editing or working or driving, I mostly listen to electronic music. I find that music with lyrics tend to pull me out of whatever I’m concentrating on.

What is your favorite band?

My favourite bands are two very different bands: Van Der Graaf Generator, and Massive Attack.

Book?

The book that had the most impact on me recently,is by Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything.

What is your favorite photograph you’ve ever taken?

It constantly changes, but this recent image of my daughter is currently my favourite

© Neil van Niekerk

If you could take your art in any direction without fear of failure or rejection, where would it lead? What new thing would you try?

Fashion.

Do you find yourself always looking at the World wondering how it would look as a photograph?

I think most photographers do this at some level.

If you could only shoot one thing over and over, what would it be?

beautiful women.

Do you prefer big lighting, a strobist style lighting or mostly natural light?

Whatever looks the best for the subject, combined with whatever is the most practical. I detest dogma in this regard. The best photographers are those who are adaptable to the situation and subject they find themselves with.

What was the most challenging photography job you ever had?

I would say that boudoir photography is the most challenging. In the space of a few hours you have to come up with unique images that will transcend any self-doubts and negative self-image that your subject may have, and have them react with an, “wow! is that me!?”

What do you do to challenge yourself?

Study books on lighting, and soak up as much as I can from them, as a built-in library of techniques to be used later on shoots.

Any projects you are working on currently? Anything planned for the future?

I’m currently writing another book on flash photography – this time on off-camera lighting.

Anything you would like to add for our readers?

Photography has a life-long learning curve, and you can never allow yourself to stagnate. Learn from other photographers wherever possible. Read as much as you can. Immerse yourself.

View more photographs by Neil van Niekerk: neilvn.com, planetneil.com, twitter.com/Neil_vN

Thank you for reading the interview. This interview was presented to the photographer with questions asked by me and submissions from other photographers. The photographer is asked to answer only what he/she is comfortable with. If you would like to contribute to future interviews, please submit your your questions to me on Twitter, Facebook or on the Interview intro blog post, What would you ask a photographer?. Thank you for reading and enjoy the interview.

Some questions supplied from the following Twitter users:
@pjtaylorphoto, @ishootinraw, @donkeymaster, @GrfxGuru

Some questions supplied from the following Facebook users:
Brian Walter, Faylin Myhre, Leslie DeLorean, Patrick Connor

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