Today’s interview is with Neil van Niekerk!

How long have you been a photographer? How and why did you decide to get involved in photography?

Professionally, in the USA, for nearly 10 years now.

But like most photographers, the interest developed much earlier than that. For me, it really sunk in the first time (as a teenager) when I watched a B&W print develop in the dish in my make-shift darkroom in a bathroom in my parents’ home.

It’s been said before, that being an artist (whether a photographer, musician, dancer, performer), is not something you choose to be … it chooses you. In that sense, I had to be a photographer. It’s what I wanted to be, and had to be.

Did you go to school to study photography?

I never formally studied photography or attended any courses at college or university.

But I read voraciously, and still do. Countless hours poring over books and magazines, studying images, trying to take it all in. It’s relentless.

How did Planet Neil come to be? How did you come up with the name?

When my wife and daughter and I emigrated to the USA in 2000, I was a stay-at-home dad for 2 years since I did not have a work permit at the time. So while tinkering around on the internet, I started a website about my various interests .. hence planet neil .. but eventually it just became all about my photography. The quirky name helped me in that it is memorable. But it also sounds like a name for a website that a 13-yr old would come up with. So I eventually changed it to a more dry and changed the photography material over to a blog which I called Tangents. The idea in calling it Tangents, is that it is still defined as whatever-I-want-to-write-about.

If you could take only five pieces of equipment on a shoot, what would you take?

Nikon D3 … a superb camera that is also incredibly responsive when in your hands.

Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 … an incredibly sharp zoom. For weddings, this is my workhorse lens. And it is a great general purpose lens

Nikon SB-900 … the king of all speedlights

Nikon SD-9A battery pack … a battery pack helps in giving me more consistent results as the flash will recycle faster.

the black foamie thing .. the piece of black foam that I use to flag my on-camera flash.

Do you have any photography-related purchases planned in the next few months?

Oh, the compulsion never stops. I want to get another gridded softbox. They are great for giving soft light, but with a controlled dispersion of the light.

The new compact digital camera by Fuji, the Fuji X100, looks irresistible. So I don’t know how I would resist picking one up eventually.

Towards the end of 2010, I started accumulating the gear necessary to shoot HD video with a DSLR, and I will acquire a few more necessary items to make this viable. I sold my classic Canon 5D for a 5D mk II specifically for this reason.

Do you have a set of lighting “recipes” that you use regularly, or do you develop new lighting setups spontaneously during a shoot?

My lighting setups are very simple.

With on-camera flash, it is a specific way of bouncing the flash, which is part of what we’ll cover in the upcoming webinar.

With off-camera flash, I mostly just use one softbox to give me quality light. But I use this with specific ideas in mind of how I would use the flash in relation to the ambient light. The usual approach is to look at my background. This is so important – to have a neutral or complementary background for my subject. Not just a random placement of my subject or model. Then I add flash (diffused with an off-camera softbox), to make the final image pop.

Would you say that you more often use supplemental lighting to enhance the existing light or to define your own interplay of light and shadow?

I mostly just want clean open light on my subject. So it is usually done to enhance the available light. My starting point inevitably is to look at the available light, and then position my subject .. and then add flash. It is a simple approach that is near infallible because it is so universal.

Some people are intimidated by their flash. What advice would you give to someone using a speedlight for the first time?

Use TTL flash, and bounce your flash behind you when you work indoors. It will give you soft even light.

Then also, don’t use a plastic diffuser on your flash unless you *have* to.

When it comes to using flash, what would you say is the most common or important “ah-ha” moment?

That TTL flash follows your camera settings … implying that quite often, there is no specific set of “correct” settings. They will all work. (Within reason of course.) That it is so simple usually surprises people who have been frustrated with flash.

How would you describe your artistic style?

With wedding photography, I am not traditional, but neither am I purist about ‘photojournalistic’ wedding photography. I’m not passive as a photographer. I interact with my clients and it becomes collaborative. So if there is a specific artistic style I have with weddings (and even portraits), it would best be described as get-the-job-done-alism.

Even now, I don’t think I am anywhere near having developed a specific style, although I can recognize my photographs as something *I* would’ve shot that way. (If that makes sense?)

What is your preferred program for post-processing?

Again, quite simple really. I still use Bridge and ACR.

What is your favorite software plugin, action, or other digital workflow tool?

Imagenomic Portraiture, is for me, the one plug-in that I rely on the most. Especially if you do portraits and boudoir.

If you could shoot alongside any another photographer who would it be (and why)?

Elliott Erwitt, one of my great inspirations. The whimsical eye that he views the world with … I want to be *there* when he shoots these images. I want to see what he saw, and then figure out if I would’ve missed the opportunities, or would’ve seen them as well.

Where do you get your artistic inspiration?

Music. I would’ve loved to have been a much more accomplished musician, but I just dabble. But still, I love music, and live my life to a soundtrack of my choice.

Movies! What an inspiration. TV series also have become extraordinarily great in the recent 10 years or so. And currently, nothing touches Madmen. Every frame is a work of art. The lighting is incredible, and worthy of careful study. Then, the design is superb. And of course, the economical way in which they tell the story. Every gesture and moment counts, even if nuanced.

What aspects of photography do you find most challenging?

The greatest challenge is to resist comfortably repeating what I’ve done before. Of course we all develop a specific style over time, but it should be a choice, not borne out of laziness or a complacent way of working and seeing.Therefore the greatest challenge would be to continue creating something new.

What do you most enjoy photographing?

People. I love people.

What are your favorite three images so far this year?

Neil van Niekirk webinar speedlight Don't Fear Your Flash

My assistant, Jessica, photographed with an 85mm lens on the steps inside a train station. Only available light, but she was positioned so that we could use the available light effectively on how it fell on her face. I love the near-symmetry of this image. In a way this image might typify my burgeoning style – a simplicity in design. I also have found that most of my compositions are quite central.

Neil van Niekirk speedlight webinar Don't Fear Your Flash

A model in Las Vegas that I used during a workshop there. I wanted to explain to the workshop attendees how to look at the ambient light .. see how we can use it, and if need be, enhance it with flash or video light. Then I demonstrated how we can pose our model to utilize the available light – the hard spotlight above her in the frame of this picture in the hotel lobby. We could either have added light … or carefully positioned her for the light already there.

My assistant, Jessica, again. The color of her hair and lips against the muted colors of the out-of-focus wallpaper, just draws your gaze towards her eyes. Irresistible. Then, what I also really love about this portrait, is the simplicity of lighting  – it is all one on-camera flash, bounced effectively. And this is what we’re going to specifically look at with the webinar!

For more details on our upcoming interactive webinar “Don’t Fear Your Flash” with Neil click here.

Neil has a brand new book out called Off-Camera Flash Techniques for Digital Photographers and is giving one away here on the blog to one lucky reader!!
Book summary from Amazon:  “Rather than focusing on the gear needed to use off-camera flash, this specialized resource hones in on the techniques needed—addressing photographers’ most common questions and providing practical examples of off-camera flash used on real assignments. Seeking to address the various challenges of off-camera lighting, professional photographers and advanced amateurs alike will find a range of confidence-building instruction, beginning with basic how’s and why’s of lighting for creative effect, the types of equipment available and instruction about their proper use, clear definitions of various technical concepts such as managing shutter speed and controlling flash exposure, using ambient light as well as natural sunlight during a shoot, and incorporating off-camera flash into a portrait session. Concluding this lesson plan is a look at five different real-life photo sessions, each employing a different flash technique. Here, photographers get a deeper understanding of each concept put into practice, marrying the elements of lighting with the natural elements presented by the shoot.”

We are also giving away a spot in next week’s webcam webinar! To qualify you need to spread the word about the giveaway.  You can post the link to this blog post on your Facebook page.  You can tweet the link.  You can blog it.  You can enter up to three times if you do all three- you just need to come back here and post your link in the comments with each entry – make sure you post three separate comments.  The lucky winner will be chosen by random number and will win both a spot in the webinar and Neil’s new book.  Winner will be announced Monday morning right here on the blog.  Yayness!
PS – We know you don’t want to leave your seat in the virtual webinar audience to chance … so go ahead and register now – if you’re the lucky winner of the free seat, we’ll refund your payment.


Our lucky winner is:

Lucky #46 which is Jennifer (jenoco).

Congratulations, Jennifer! Please contact me at Kathryn (at) Clickinmoms (dot) com so I can get you registered in the webinar and get your book out to you.