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Sean Nel

As one of the first few pioneers in the industry, Sean Nel has got a lot to share about the development in the world of photography, especially in the advent of digital age. Unravel the truth currently facing the industry and understand why he thinks that each stock image have to speak for itself and to some extent defend its right to exist. All these and more in this issue of Hear It!

Photographer: Sean Nel
Country of Origin: South Africa

1. Production Equipment: Please list the production equipment that you use on a regular basis (eg. Cameras, lenses, flash & lighting, photo editing software).
  • Camera: Canon 5D
  • Lenses: 24-70mm f/2.8 L (as walk-around lens), 70-200mm f/4 L (general sport and portrait lens), 17-40mm f/4 L and a 50mm f/2.5
  • Macro Kenko extension tubes
  • 580ex Flash units
  • 800 watt Allien Bees
  • And lastly, a big truck to move it all in!

2. What do you think of photography these days?
I love photography and the images people create through it. Unfortunately, the advent of digital age has made everybody a "photographer" and people are copying each other's work in an effort to improve. Not that it is bad, but the Internet for example, is causing everything to get published no matter how good or bad it is thus resulting in a blurring of similarities. It's difficult to find truly original images out there anymore.

3. What did you want to be when you were younger?
A fireman, a spy and a teacher!

4. Tell us about the time when you first got started in photography.
It would be in high school, when I ran my first photography business. Back then, I would shoot athletes during sporting events and sell those images back to them. Everything was in black and white, and shot on a Pentax K1000 with a 50mm lens - manually!

5. In your opinion, what does it take to become successful in this industry?
Time, patience and lots of hard work. It's been said that the best way to end up with a small fortune in this industry is to start off with a large fortune! Seriously though, I think the biggest downfall is simply because would-be photographers don't actually count the costs of doing business or refinancing their photography through other means, and one day just fall flat and disappear. You need to persistently shoot and create high quality images, get them out there, and get them sold. 10 years ago I could travel to an exotic location, set up my medium format and wait hours for the perfect Tourism shot. Now, there will be 500 people shooting the same location with a 12mp camera they bought for less than half of what my lens cost! There is no more exclusive content nowadays and this should be a fact that we all must accept, adapt and overcome!


6. What was your biggest challenge coming into this industry?
On the technical aspect: getting rid of noise. In the past, we would underexpose E6 to punch the colors. But now, underexposing will generate noise, causing it to lose color and contrast, and ultimately produce a mucky image that takes hours of post-processing to get even close to a high quality saleable image. All the technical trades of photography still applies when handling photographs, just differently depending on the situation.

On a more personal level, I find stock photography more challenging than assignment photography. Many of my images were sold to clients because of the personality and the experience clients had during the shoot. It is the emotional connection that sells the image. But in the stock photography world, those images need to speak for itself and defend its right to exist.

And in general, deciding between art or concept shots. They rarely overlap each other but when they do, you will get stunning images! Whatever it is, photographers also need to shoot the basics to pay the bills. It might not get your name into the history books, but it keeps your name off the creditor's lists (Editor - Now guys, that's some awesome advice!).


7. What are the best perks as a Photographer?
My grandfather used to quote "Find a job you like, and you will never have to work a day in your life!" I think doing what you love is the perk - traveling to places, meeting people, hearing their stories, etc. People will lie to their doctor because they are afraid of what he may tell them, but they will bare their soul to a photographer if you know how to coax them!


8. How do you plan for your shooting sessions?
Stumble in sideways with my finger on the trigger! Ideas can come from different sources and therefore, planning happens subconsciously. For example, you might find a piece of clothing or jewelry that catches your eye while walking through a market. If inspiration hits me, I'll get a model to drape it on and start shooting (or book a location if the need arises). Also, I often walk around with my compass on my watch and a little point-and-shoot to mark sunsets and sunrises. Scout beforehand for light, shadow and sun direction. Google maps are great for working it out, but only when you are there on the ground, would you come across the obstacle(s) - often a big tree that obscures the setting sun right where you plan to shoot! Whatever it is, I shoot EVERYTHING! I'd rather take it, and not use it, than not take it, and realize that I need it later.


9. How would you describe your work to first time viewers?
Functional and usable. It serves a purposes and addresses a need.


10. Do you shoot to what your heart tells you or do you go through a complex check list in your mind when you produce your work? Describe the feeling/check list.
I set up a checklist and starts there. Depending on what the model or the location provides, the rules will change as it goes along. I have very little control over most of the shots I take, so I need to be extremely flexible in my work. All you need is to adapt and get the best possible shot.

11. From your experience, what subjects gives you the greatest satisfaction? Any examples?
Honestly, I do not know. I do not have a fixed style or theme. I hate every shot I take. The reason I shoot is because those subjects create emotions in me. If given the choice, I would not even edit them for two to three weeks after shooting until it starts to look better. Maybe I've put too much pressure on myself in the beginning because at times, I would find myself looking back at images I shot 6 months before - recalling the shoot and admiring my own work. The best experience I get when flipping through a magazine is to find my own images in it!


12. From your experience, what subjects are the hardest to work with? Any examples?
Model that don't show up for the shoot, kids and objects that vibrate or impossible to focus. When I have projects with kids, I will definitely load up on energy drinks or something fierce. (Editor - LOL!)


13. What is your philosophy when it comes to your work?
Just shoot and never be afraid to experiment or break any rules. Apply what you have learned into your shots and it will create usable images that sell!


14. Describe who/what inspires you, tell us why?
This is easy! It would be my wife Luba (lvNel). She is an artist, and she shoots what I've always dreamt about. She is truly a Photoshop queen and a shortcut master because she would look as if she is typing an e-mail while editing in Photoshop! She is also one of the few people I know that truly Creates an artwork, not just “blindly” shooting what's in front of her.


15. What do you do when those creative juices just seems to evade you. How do you "get creative"?
You just 'do it'. If this is your business, you can't stop. Just keep on shooting and the images in the viewfinder will lead you to inspiration.


16. Tell us about a time when inspiration just hits you, and you felt the insatiable urge to create. What did you do with that energy?
I Edit. I hate post production so I need to use that inspiration to turn the shots that I have taken into something spectacular. Going out to shoot creates its own energy, so the spurts I get when not shooting is used behind the computer screen.


17. What have you discovered about yourself through photography?
You don't need admirers in life to enjoy it. You don't need to be the best with your name in lights. The appreciation from a grandmother when she receives a framed print of her grandchild is more than enough to make the world spin for weeks!


18. Whose work do you admire the most? Why?
Ooh... I admire different people from the different fields of photography. I admire Chase Jarvis as a creative and business-minded photographer, Brian Bowen Smith as a man with passion and Luba Nel as a Photoshop Master.


19. Do you have any advice for those who are just getting in to stock photography?
Patience. Don't chew off your wrists when you get an image rejection. Understand that this is not a "get-rich-quick" scheme, but rather, take pride in images that sell because you are competing against some of the best photographers in the world. Anybody can make an image look good at 600px on screen, but it will take more than hard work for an image to have exceptional quality and make it into stock. And yes, buy a dictionary!

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