Spotlight Interview … Photographer Neil van Niekerk

JRP: Neil van Niekerk is a professional photographer whose passion does not end with that acknowledgement. Neil is a teacher as well whose website is full of information and advice garnered throughout his photographic career. Even this “ole dog” has learned a few new tricks courtesy of Neil van Niekerk.

Thanks Neil for sharing your photography and experience with the readers of JRP Blog.

Neil van Niekerk: Hi there James. Thank you for inviting me.

JRP: Where is home for you?

Neil van Niekerk: I grew up in various cities and towns in South Africa, but I regard Johannesburg as my hometown. I emigrated to the USA in 2000, and right now, Wayne in northern New Jersey is my home. Close enough to Manhattan to be exciting, yet quietly suburban to me.

JRP: What events led you down the path to photography? Do you have any formal training?

Neil van Niekerk: My interest in photography was an overflow from my love of nature and bird-watching when I was a young kid. I started taking photographs of animals and birds using a Prakitamat and an archaic 300mm lens that my dad owned. Then the photography bug bit me when I developed my first B&W print in the bathroom of my parents’ home. My fate was sealed. I was completely fascinated and even enchanted by photography.

I never had formal training, but learned from a number of photographers over the years, and I read a lot. I mean a lot!

JRP: What would you describe as your photographic specialty or focus?

Neil van Niekerk: I love people. I love photographing people, and look for genuine reactions and emotions. I never wanted to be a wedding photographer per se, and even until recently thought of myself as a photographer that also does weddings … but the truth is, I love wedding photography. I have learnt so much about photography in general as a wedding photographer. Working with people, lighting in all kinds of situations, working fast and thinking on my feet. Constantly adapting, and constantly having to come up with creative ideas.

JRP: How did your website Planet Neil” come into being?

Neil van Niekerk: When we emigrated to the USA in 2000, it was on my wife’s work permit with the realization that I would be a stay-at-home dad for a few years until I was able to get a work permit here in the USA. So for nearly three years I wasn’t able to work, and during the day while my daughter was at school, had to entertain myself. Since I was quite isolated as I had left all my friends and family behind in South Africa, I spent a lot of time on the Internet.

One of the things I did, was to start a website with all kinds of snippets about my life and my interests. That was the origin of Planet Neil. In a way it was a blog without me quite knowing what blogs were at the time. Gradually all the other aspects of this personal website had fallen by the wayside, and only the sections on photography remain and eventually expanded. By that time, the website’s name had become well known. I couldn’t change it to something else without losing a lot of recognition. It’s a geeky domain name, and I inadvertently lucked into a website name that is easy to remember for any casual visitor.

If I had originally started with the intention to create a website that concentrates on essays and educational articles on photography, it would’ve had a different name. Right now it is what it is, even though it sounds quite self-absorbed and arrogant in a way.

JRP: Give us a peek into your camera bag. What do you have in it?

Neil van Niekerk: My main camera bag is a big Tamrac roller case in which I can put nearly all the cameras and lenses I own. I am an unrepentant photogeek and gearhead, I have “everything”. I own both Nikon and Canon gear but primarily shoot with Canon. I have a ton of Canon equipment. At the moment I mostly use the Canon 1D mk3. For lenses, I have all the f2.8 zooms, and all the f1.4 and f1.2 primes. From these I pick whatever I think I will need on a shoot. It varies, but I am never without the 16-35mm f2.8 II zoom, and the 70-200mm f2.8 IS zoom.

If I had to choose a walk-about camera, it would be the 1Dmk3 with the 35mm f1.4.

For flash photography, I really like the 580EX speedlights because they rotate 180’ to either side. This has been instrumental in changing my approach to flash photography since it allows me to direct my flash in any direction.

For more light, I use the Quantum system.

JRP: What do you use for your digital workflow?

Neil van Niekerk: This also varies. I use a number of programs, Breezebrowsr, Canon’s DPP software, and CS3 (Bridge and ACR). I have Lightroom, but haven’t had the time to become au fait with it yet.

JRP: Given your experience and looking at the majority of questions coming to you on your educational website (Planet Neil), what are some of the most common areas that most photographers want to realize improvement in?

Neil van Niekerk: Perhaps this is because of the number of articles on my website dealing with flash photography and exposure metering. Most questions are slanted towards those two topics.

I find that many photographers over-think what they are doing or need to do in order to get an interesting photograph. Specifically I often tell photographers that I teach that the specific settings are mostly irrelevant. It is *how* you got there that is important. An understanding of the approach and the method.

JRP: What is most important to you, technique or vision?

Neil van Niekerk: I would say neither … or both. The best photographers are those who can perfectly balance the artistic vision with solid technical understanding. One without the other would leave you a lesser (and frustrated) photographer. This touches on the previous question in a way.

It pains me no end when someone accuses me of being “too technical”. I feel that a solid understanding of technique allows me to ‘not-think’ about the exact details while shooting. This will allow me to ‘ride on top of the technical details’ without thinking about it, and just reflexively use what I need to … thereby hopefully reacting spontaneously to whatever / whomever I am photographing.

JRP: What has been your most memorable photo session to date?

Neil van Niekerk: When I had the privilege of photographing then president Nelson Mandela at a small function in South Africa. If you meet him in person you can not but be completely taken by his quiet charisma.

JRP: What has been the best advice given to you by another photographer?

Neil van Niekerk: Don’t take it so seriously.

JRP: What advice would you give to a young photographer starting out?

Neil van Niekerk: Devour books. Constantly read, and take in as much as you can to fuel both your creativity and technical understanding when you shoot.

I find that many new photographers don’t read books, and somehow miss out on so much that is inspiring that other photographers have created, or are trying to teach.

JRP: Thank you again Neil for sharing your thoughts and photography with us. It has been a pleasure talking with you.

I highly suggest that all of you checkout Neil van Niekerk’s websites:


3 thoughts on “Spotlight Interview … Photographer Neil van Niekerk

  1. Pingback: planet neil - tangents » spotlight interview

  2. Outstanding interview with a very gifted and giving person. Neil van Niekerk is one of those rare individuals who freely provides his advice, techniques and wisdom that helps so many people learn important aspects about the wonders of photography. I wish there were more people like him.

    -Tom K.

  3. I had the good fortune to have a one on one private tutoring session with Neil, and it made a huge impact on my understanding of light. He is a hugely talented photographer, a gifted teacher, and an all around good guy! Great interview, I could almost hear him speaking.

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