On a Tangent with Neil van Niekerk

Posted by The A-Team on

The next installment of our Shooter Spotlight series features Neil van Niekerk – owner of the popular Tangents blog (that we included in this list).  Niekerk is a very accomplished photographer, and we thought it worthy to pry his brain about his experience in the field. Read on to learn about everything from shooting Nelson Mandela, to his tastes in movies and music, and his keen/sobering insights on being a pro photog…

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a photographer based in Wayne, NJ, specializing in portrait, wedding and boudoir photography. I also maintain an active website for photographers, Tangents.

I teach workshops and seminars on photography. I have written two books on flash photography, of which the first has been translated into Polish and Portuguese.

I’m originally from South Africa where I worked as a TV Broadcast Engineer. Then in 2000, my wife and I decided to settle in the USA with our daughter – and I have pursued photography here as a full time career since.

How did you get started in photography? 

As a child I was fascinated by animals and nature. With this, as a young teenager, I was into ornithology and started photographing birds with my dad’s old Practika camera and a 300mm f5.6 lens. I very quickly discovered that photography was far more interesting than passively watching birds.

One camera and one lens for the rest of your life – what would it be? 

Right now I am shooting with the Nikon D4 and really loving it. In time though, it will be the D5 and then the D6. There’s that progression.

My favorite lens is 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.

What’s the best thing about being a photographer? Worst? 

As a professional photographer? You make your own hours. Your career can be what you want it to be.  There’s real freedom there, but there is also the constant pressure of finding work and opportunity. Also, as a professional photographer, you end up not quite working for yourself, as you had anticipated, but for dozens and dozens of bosses (ie, clients) instead.

If you could shoot anything/anyone/anywhere, what would it be? 

People fascinate me.

As a style, Fashion Photography draws me and I find a lot of inspiration there. So, if I could shoot anything or anyone, anywhere … it would be something along those lines, with the freedom where *I* make my own choices entirely. Whatever they may be at the time.

I know, I know, that sounds so vague. Perhaps this shows a lack of direction, but I hope that it exhibits an openness to possibilities.

What’s the most memorable photoshoot you’ve ever done? Tell us about it. 

This is a tough one. I’ve met so many interesting and remarkable people. It is difficult to compare and pull out just one.

I’ve photographed Nelson Mandela (the previous president of South Africa), during a small function. You truly realized you were in the presence of greatness with him. I’ve also photographed exceptional models, for example, Ulorin Vex

As a wedding photographer, I’ve also seen many touching moments that have deep significance for the people involved. I often tear up during weddings when it becomes emotional. I don’t think you can really be a great photographer and not *feel* the world and people around you.

What would you rate as your biggest accomplishment in your career? 

So far, the success of my books. That was unexpected and hugely fulfilling. My books have now been translated into Portuguese (for the Brazilian market), Polish and Chinese.

The books: on-camera flash / off-camera flash

I do feel though that this isn’t even nearly the peak of my career as a photographer yet, and that there is more waiting.

If you weren’t doing photography, what would you be doing?  

Musician … however, I’m a much better photographer than I’d ever be a musician. So here I am.

You claim to love movies and music. What are some of your favs? 

I have several movie directions that I really like for their style, like Michael Mann and Christopher Nolan. I also really like the unpredictability of the Coen Brothers. I might not like everything they do, but I really appreciate that they’d take risks and keep it fresh. My all-time favorite movies are Brazil, Twelve Monkeys and Dark City.

I also have a deep appreciation for the beauty that is Mad Men, the television series. This is must-watch stuff for photographers or anyone who loved the visual medium.

With music, my tastes are diverse. My band which really had impact on my younger self, was Van Der Graaf Generator. They had no peers, especially in how they structured music, and also in the poetic lyric writing of Peter Hammill. But my music taste was really formed by certain successive genres – the British Punk and New Wave movement in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  Trip-Hop is most likely my favorite genre in music. But mostly I listen to electronic and dance music, and especially enjoy DubStep.  A wild mix, I know.

Words of advice for those wishing to become a full time pro? 

You are going to work hard. It is a career where you don’t really have free time, since you’re forever busy working and thinking about your work. Technology is accelerating so fast, and the stuff-you-have-to-know is increasing at such a tempo, that it becomes a challenge to stay familiar with current trends and technology.  It often will feel like you’re running at full speed just to remain at a standstill, and not fall behind.

Be realistic. Few photographers become wealthy to any extent, but the journey is an interesting one, filled with great experiences. Just don’t expect job security of any kind. 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.

If you’ve been reading advice online that tells you that you only need your “passion”, well nobody cares how much passion you have for photography. No one. Certainly not your potential clients.

If you read easy advice on how to become a professional photographer, they are most likely trying to sell you something, or are lying to you.

Be innovative, and find your own style over time. But make sure that you have the chops. That you know your photography techniques and that you’re very familiar with your photo gear. No excuses.

I truly believe that style in photography should be borne from choices (because we know what the hell we are doing), rather than our style being defined by our limitations.

See some of Neil’s work here, and click through for detailed articles…

Why I Love Off-Camera Lighting © Neil van Niekerk

4th of July Fireworks © Neil van Niekerk

Flash Photography Essentials © Neil van Niekerk

LED Video Lights for Photography © Neil van Niekerk

Processing for a Film Look © Neil van Niekerk

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