I just had a recent chat with my manager and good friend Neil Ta. Neil is a professional photographer based in Toronto (shoots wedding and commercial work), and his passion is photography. He has dabbled in many different genres of photography, including “urbex” (urban exploration), “rooftopping” (getting to really high places), documentary photography (he is working on a long-term project on “Alexandra Park“, a public-housing complex for low-income families which is being gentrified for expensive condos), and street photography.
In this video interview, we delve deep into lots of different topics. Neil shares how he first got into photography, why he decided to quit his job and travel the world for 6 months+, how we met, not being pigeon-holed in photography, his love (and hate) relationship with film, and why he is currently shooting on a Hasselblad Xpan.
You can listen to the audio podcast below:
Read more to see the topics we covered in the interview, and lots of inspirational links:
Video interview topics
To get a taste for the video interview I did with Neil, here are some broad topics we covered:
1. “What’s the worst that can happen?”
This is the philosophy Neil took when it came to quitting his job, traveling the world, and deciding to pursue photography full-time as a career.
2. Travel tips in Vietnam
Neil recommended if you plan on traveling in South-East Asia for the first time, to check out Vietnam (his favorite place). He recommends going there for at least 2 weeks, and not feeling forced to see everything. Less is more, you can make your way from Saigon to Hanoi and have lots of great experiences. While traveling, try to immerse yourself in the culture. Don’t just try to cross things off a bucket list. Learn about the people, their history, and try to immerse yourself.
3. How to be successful as a photographer
Try to be humble. Don’t be ego-centric.
4. How to balance pleasing yourself versus pleasing your audience
Knowing that “photography is photography, a photo is a photo.” Don’t worry too much about the genre, and ultimately focusing on yourself before others.
5. Advice for social media
Learn to manage your expectations, don’t over-hype the love you expect to get online.
6. How to shoot urbex and rooftoping
“Respectfully trespassing” is Neil’s mantra. Leave the place the same way you entered.
7. Takeaways from Magnum workshop with Moises Saman
Neil learned more about the editing process, and how much it matters when creating a story. He shares how he edited down from 12 images (boring story) and how Moises edited it to 8 photos (which made a stronger story).
Video interview notes
If you listened to the video interview with Neil, here are some of the links, photographers, books, and resources he recommends checking out:
Links mentioned in the interview
- Neil Ta’s blog post on traveling to Pulau Bidong (the refugee camp his family lived in when they fled Vietnam. Also how my partner Cindy got to know Neil, then got to know me).
- 5 Reasons Why I’m F***ing Done With Rooftopping: Neil shares why he quit rooftopping.
- Jonathan Castellino on Flickr: the photographer Neil first discovered for urban exploration photos.
- Tom Ryaboi: one of the most influential “rooftoppers”
- “Meet the Jones“: the family documentary project Neil did that combined a street photography “aesthetic.” Neil shares more about the process on his blog here.
- Caspar Claasen: a street photographer based in Amsterdam Neil admires who combines his family photos with his street photography.
- Josef Koudelka: Magnum photographer who used a Hasselblad Xpan for his “Chaos” and “Wall” book.
- Jeff Bridges: photographer who uses a widelux to shoot behind-the-scenes panoramics.
Photographers Neil recommends to check out
- Alex Webb
- Elliott Erwitt
- Vivian Maier
- Jonathan Castellino
- Brian Day
- Robert Monaghan
- Dave Jordano
- Karl Edwards
- Jared Krause
- Siri Thompson
Recommended photography books
Advice from Neil Ta
- Work hard, don’t have an ego
- Always critique your work
- Remember it is hard to produce good work
- Be critical of your own work
- Always strive to be better; don’t be complacent
- If you’re a professional, treat photography as a business. Work really hard (learned from parents)
- You’re never as good or bad as people think (mostly not as good)
- Be humble and learn. Read books, attend workshops, talk to your photography buddies about light or studio work or commercial work, or drones, or timelapse.
- Be open and have fun
- Think of creating a legacy or a body of work that will outlive you
Bonus: Interview questions on shooting with a Hasselblad Xpan
As a bonus, our good friend AG DeMesa (the content manager for this blog), put together some excellent interview questions for Neil as well. Here are some of the questions:
AG DeMesa: Tell me about the XPan Blog and how it came to be?
Neil: I had the opportunity to attend Gulf Photo Plus in Dubai last year and one of the photographer’s I heard speak was Joe McNally. He was showing some of his newer work shot with a Hasselblad Xpan (panoramic camera) and I was completely blown away. The portraits he made with this camera were so interesting and the environment added such great context to the stories he was telling.
I picked up an Xpan about eight months later, but it wasn’t until two months ago I really decided to do something with this camera and the panoramic format. My Instagram account at the time was really disjointed. Not only was the content too varied, I was also shooting and posting at all different aspect ratios; square, 3:2, 4:3, etc. The XPan gave me an opportunity to utilize Instagram in a way that was both consistent and unique, as there aren’t many XPan shooters on it and none from Toronto as far as I could tell. I decided it would be great to challenge myself to shot a 365 project all on film, all with the XPan.
I needed a more permanent web-based solution to showcase these images and that’s when The Xpan Blog was born. However, it is more or less an extension of my Instagram account, displaying higher resolution images.
What type of stories do you want to tell with this panoramic camera?
To me, shooting with this camera is more of an experiment than it is anything else. I am the type of person who falls in and out of love with his cameras and I often get bored of using the same camera for more than a few months at a time. The challenge to me was to use a film camera as my everyday walk-around camera for documenting stories from my life, an almost-real-time visual diary of my daily wanderings.
I consider myself just a photographer; not a street, wedding, commercial, or fine art photographer, despite earning a living through the influence of all of them. There’s a great opportunity here to make images that people are not used to seeing composed. Especially in the street photography genre, there aren’t many people using this camera to tell stories. There’s definitely a cinematic feel to the images that I want to exploit. It’s different. It’s neat.
What are the challenges in using a panoramic camera?
The biggest challenge so far is figuring out how to compose again. When a camera is this wide, you really need to be careful of what appears on the edges of your frame. I was drawn to simpler scenes and stories initially, but I am growing to enjoy stories that are multi-layered that include multiple subjects and points of interest. It’s the Alex Webb lover in me.
Did you find yourself being limited to it or it showed you a new way of seeing?
Well, when I was only posting these images to Instagram, the challenge was creating an interesting image with limited pixels. I’m essentially losing nearly 2/3 of the pixels when I post to Instagram, so it goes without saying that my images needed to say something with less ‘pixel real estate’.
Another extremely difficult thing I find about this camera is trying to turn it sideways to create a vertical image. Those are incredibly challenging to me and I may have only successfully done that once or twice. Whether horizontal or vertical, it is a new way of seeing things that will take a bit of time to get used to. I love shooting primes, so even getting to know the frame lines is very important to me. I’m the type of photographer that likes to see the frame before I put the camera up to my eye. I am still adjusting to this.
Are you trying to frame what you see in panorama or waiting thing to happen in the frame?
The process of me taking images is the same regardless of what camera I am using. I try to see things and be prepared when the moment comes. Because of the panoramic aspect ratio, I do tend to view things a little bit more linearly, but that is slowly changing as I get used to the camera.
What film and processing are you using to achieve a consistent look?
For development, I use a lab (Downtown Camera) for the C41 stuff and develop the Tri-X at home using standard Kodak HC-110 for 16 minutes in B dilution. I scan both colour and black and white at home with an Epson V700.
Do you have any artists working in panorama you admire?
Actually, this would be a great question for Eric’s readers since I would love to hear some recommendations. I don’t know many who have shot consistently with it or even produced projects. I know Koudelka’s book “Chaos” is shot in with this camera but I have only seen some images and do not own the book. I’d love to see what others have been able to do with this camera, especially with street and documentary work.
Actor Jeff Bridges has shot some great work using a panoramic camera, but I believe that was with the Widelux.
What tips can you give those who are looking to purchase a panoramic camera?
What drew me to the XPan in particular was its ability to be wide but not have distortion. There are 35mm film cameras that can shoot panoramas, but they achieve that by using a lens that swivels. There’s a camera called a Widelux that is readily available on eBay and Lomo has the Horizon Kompakt.
If you’re looking for a medium format panoramic camera, there’s the Fuji GX617. That’s the motherload, but you only get four frames per roll of 120. Fuji’s version of the XPan is the TX1 and TX2. The Hasselblads are basically just rebranded.
For your 365 project, do you plan on shooting any projects with it specifically or just use it more freely with fewer restrictions?
I am trying to use the XPan as my main camera. In most instances, I don’t leave the house with a digital camera anymore. I’m only shooting digital for my professional work.
Over the last three years, I’ve been photographing Alexandra Park, a housing project in Toronto that is slowly being converted into higher end condo buildings. In the process, it is displacing its residents at least temporarily. I’ve mostly shot this project on digital, but since I’m not carrying a digital with me anymore, the project will have to continue in analog form.
Make sure to follow Neil below: