Fujifilm South AfricaSJ van ZylTake TenX-CommunityX-UserX100VXF35mm F1.4XF56mm F1.2

TAKE TEN: SJ van Zyl

Portrait and fashion photographer, SJ van Zyl, is doing some incredible work using his Fujifilm X-T30 II and X100V. We caught up with him to talk more about his attraction to portraits, his favourite person to photograph and a shoot he would rather forget.

SJ van Zyl

When did you realise, “Hey, maybe I can do photography for a living”?

I guess when I got my first pay cheque when I worked at Caxton as a journalist and photographer. It made me realise this is a career that can pay the bills. While I studied and did my degree in graphic design, I was always more drawn to my photography subjects. For me it was great to make the transition and to be able to focus on photography as a career.

What is it that attracts you to portrait photography?

The age old saying that in a portrait you capture someone’s spirit, essence and soul during a specific moment in time, is something that has always fascinated and intrigued me. Photography is a powerful medium and it’s constantly changing and evolving, giving me endless ways in which I can capture and portray the people I photograph.

Tell us about your gear for a typical shoot?

I’m quite minimalistic in my approach. Too much gear gives me anxiety and also I’m at an age where I don’t want to carry lots of bags. This approach has led me to get to know my camera bag and its content quite well and I can utilize everything in my bag efficiently and adequately. My typical camera and lighting bag currently has the following in it:

  • Fujifilm X T30 II camera
  • 56MM, 35MM and the 16MM lens
  • Fujifilm X100V camera (got this one second hand and so happy I could get one for myself)
  • Godox AD400 Pro Light
  • Godox Litemons LA200 Bi Light
  • White beauty dish from Godox
  • 120CM collapsible Godox Octabox
  • ND Filter and the 49mm Glimmerglass filter for the X100V

What’s the one thing that immediately improved your photography?

The day my good friend and brilliant photographer, Leon Oosthuizen, took me away from my studio lights and told me to master natural light. Up until that point I was completely dedicated and committed to studio lighting. Natural light intimidated me, but he told me in order to truly understand light you have to understand both natural and studio light. He also taught me that natural light has a different effect on the way portraits can be taken and how it reads for the viewer and subject matter. Now I kind of find it funny that I spent so much on modifiers and lights, when there is a giant Octabox in the sky and it’s free.

But the experience led me to expand my lighting knowledge and skills and now I’m proficient in both. That fear of not knowing a specific lighting method has left the building and opened the doors to so many other ways of capturing images and people. You are never too old to learn something new.

When and why did you switch to Fujifilm?

I read all these amazing reviews about the X-T2 when it was launched in 2016 and the system intrigued me. Also, I was a bit tired and uninspired by the camera I was shooting with during that time too. I did some film photography at university, so I knew about Fujifilm and the rich history behind the brand and its impact on the industry.

For me it felt like such a natural fit to swap over to the Fujifilm world of cameras and lenses. However, when I wanted to buy the camera they were sold out nationwide and the waiting list was quite extensive. Luckily Hein Hough from Fujifilm went out of his way to look for an X-T2 for me and found a brand new demo model.

This has always been one of the things I love most about the brand, is the service and support people like Hein offer continuously to each photographer that shoots with Fujifilm gear.

Tell us about a shoot you would rather forget?

18 years in the industry gives you a lot of shoots you would rather forget. But I guess one that will always come to mind was when I had the not so brilliant idea to shoot an entire paid for beauty themed shoot at F1.2, with no tripod. In camera it looked so dreamy and whimsical, but when I downloaded the images on my computer, almost every single image was blurred and out of focus. And when the focus is on skin and makeup, you can’t have out of focus shots.

This was also years back when we didn’t have all the AI generated capabilities and sharpening plug-ins we have today so I ended up with loads of blurry shots, all of which had these weird, crunchy, almost HDR looking sharpened eyes and lips. I often see them on the wall at the company I shot them for, and it always makes me cringe to look at them and remember that day.

The lesson here is that paid shoots with specific briefs is not the time and place to experiment with new techniques and styles.

Do you have a favourite person that you just love shooting? 

I adore shooting my best friend Renee de Wit. Her timeless beauty, sense of style and grace deliver the most beautiful results and she has been my muse for many years now. Every year I also capture family portraits of her lovely family and watching her daughters grow up in front of my lens is both surreal and nostalgic.

This goes back to what I mentioned earlier, how we capture moments in time and how special photography is in terms of leaving behind these beautiful reminders about the lives we lived and the loved ones we shared it with.

You get the chance to pick a subject and location – who and where?

Subject or theme wise, definitely shooting an editorial for Vogue Italia inspired by the experimental style of Paolo Roversi. Location wise I would love to shoot this on a Tim Walker inspired set, filled with elaborate and surreal elements. If I may add a second one it would be a black and white model editorial, inspired by Peter Lindbergh or Herb Ritts‘s style, shot on the beach inside one of those famous light bounce tents.

Can you give the readers one tip to improve portraits?

Learn the importance of human connection and how to connect with your subject matter. There’s so much information out there about how to shoot, how to light, etc., but the true magic of portraiture is not technical in nature. It’s the ability to capture the essence of a person in a way that is authentic, honest and real. You can have the best gear and the best team, but if you don’t understand people and how to guide and capture their images, your images will not have a timeless aesthetic and the emotional impact on your viewers will be lost.

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