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Tom Ryaboi & Almost (I'll make ya) Famous

Published by Debs Slater · April 24th 2012

A year has passed since Tom Ryaboi clicked the shutter, captured a photo, and with it changed the course of his life. Here he is to tell us the story about the incredible response to one single shot.

One year ago today I took a photograph that would change my life. A single frame turned my whole world upside down, and brought on a storm of media attention, praise, criticism, confusion, wonder, and doubt. After one hell of a ride this past year, I think today is a good day to finally tell this photo's story...

The birth of a movement?

I guess this all started in 2007, when photography became a full time obsession for me. That summer I returned from Europe where I learned to use my first DSLR (Canon Rebel XT), and leaving the house without a camera was just not an option anymore.

I was shooting some street just before sunset when I came across a construction site on a busy Toronto intersection. It didn't seem like there were any workers around, but the gate was wide open. I thought I could get a cool vantage point to shoot the skyline so I just went for it, found the stairs and climbed to the very top.

The building wasn't very high, perhaps 15 or 16 storeys, but when I got to the top and opened the door to the roof I got an instant rush of adrenaline, like I just opened the door to a secret world of wonder. The city was right in my face, like I've never seen it before; the sun was setting and all the lights were starting to turn on. The noise from the street was muted, the cars and people moved about in what seemed like slow motion, it was like a Eric Satie song. It was magical.

One of my first “rooftopping” photos

The first rule of rooftopping is...

Fast forward five years and "rooftopping", as I (and many others) called it, was on the tip of every urban explorer's tongue, at least in Toronto. It wasn't something you just did on the weekends, it was your life. Every building I walked by was now a potential target. I was sizing up the elevators, fire escapes, security, entrances and exits everywhere I went. Even in my sleep I was dreaming of roofs.

It was a Saturday, and the weather in Toronto was just starting to turn warm again, the sky was bright blue and the sun was shining overhead, it was a perfect day to go rooftopping. Jennifer Tse and I planned to hit one of Toronto's tallest buildings under construction. After an exhausting climb we got to the top and shot for about 30 minutes. It was midday and the building was higher and further away from the city then we expected, not what we had hoped for.

We finished up and descended back to ground level where we met Hi-Lite and Peter, two of Toronto's premier rooftoppers. We walked around for a while and scouted a few buildings when we serendipitously found ourselves in front of one of Toronto's sweetest high rises. Nestled in the heart of the financial district, it was a building we have attempted and failed many times before.

A photo from earlier in the day, April 24th, 2011

Can't be stopped

There was no time to waste, we were going for it. After moving past security without incident, we found ourselves in the elevator watching numbers run up. The sense of uncertainty and anxious anticipation was thick, but luck was on our side on this day, and a few minutes later we were face-to-face with an open hatch.

This is where things get hazy. You see, coming out of the hatch of an epic skyscraper in the middle of the city, for the first time, is really hard to put into words. I guess it's what I imagine a caged bird would feel if you leave the the gate open, a warm rush fills your chest and for a moment, everything slides away and nothing can touch you, you are truly free.

The shot

After a few high fives were exchanged, as we often do when we get on a roof, we split up and started to shoot. Since we all shoot Canon we had all our gear in the same place where we could easily exchange lenses, I believe we had a total of five lenses to choose from that day.

The light was perfect, the views were stunning, everywhere you looked a great photo was waiting to be taken. After shooting for a while with the wides I set my fisheye on the ledge and started to shoot with the 50mm. Jennifer picked up the fisheye and sat out at the edge of the building, as she often did, and began to shoot her shoes with the skyline in the background (see here, here, and here). The 50mm wasn't doing it for me so I grabbed the Sigma 8-16mm, which Jen had just removed from her camera.

The six frames leading up to “I’ll Make Ya Famous”

I've had many people ask me what planning and preparation I took to get "I'll make you famous". The truth of the matter is there was no staging or prep involved at all. As Jen sat at the edge and took her own photos I stood over her and shot a series of photos without even looking through the viewfinder.

As the sun was about to set, we wrapped up and headed down. I remember looking at the photos in the elevator, I saw the shot and thought I had something but didn’t have much time to analyze. We went on to 'rooftop' one more building before calling it a night.

When I got home that night I set the photos to upload and made myself something to eat. When I came back everything was ready to process. I took 422 photos that day, and as I scanned through the grid view in Lightroom one photo stood out from the crowd.


The first thing I did when I saw the photo was flip it upside down; it instantly took on a new dimension. The next thing I did was bring it into the Develop screen (in Lightroom) and tried to apply a couple of different presets to it. Neither seemed to work so I tried a preset I'd been working on for 3 months called "Shopping Family". After a few adjustments I finally was able to give the photo that pop that it needed. I published the photo two days later.

This is “I’ll Make ya Famous” straight out of the camera.


The photo instantly blew up. Within 24 hours of posting the shot it had gotten 25k views on Flickr and huge numbers on reddit, but it was on the new upstart 500px where it really took off. The photo was picked as "Editors' Choice" and quickly piled up 50k views in the first two days.

I never expected the photo to get such a response. Hundreds of people seemed really moved by the image, some negatively, while others thought it was photoshopped. Never the less, the ride was just starting.

The first media outlet to pick up the story was My Modern Metropolis, who ran the first article about rooftopping. Before I knew it all my photos were in demand, and WENN was keen on syndicating a story about rooftopping. I was pretty naive to the whole thing, so I said “sure why not”.

When I woke up on the morning of May 19th I had 500 emails in my inbox, including requests for interviews by BBC, RTL, and National Geographic USA. The story had been picked up by several major newspapers around the world (here, here and here, to name a few) with the headlines proclaiming rooftopping to be the new "craze".

Everything happened really quickly from there, all kinds of doors swung open. I was offered the photo editor position of Toronto's leading blog, I began to licence loads of my images, and I was selling tons of prints, all thanks to one photo. Even now, a year later, I still get 3-5 requests for this photo every week.


Keep shooting. One photo can change your life.

To see more of Tom's work check out his 500px page and his website. And you can find I'll Make ya Famous on 500px here.


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Frank Villafane  3 months ago
Hey Tom,

I remember the article and read it with fascination. I completely understand your feelings regarding "freedom"...the rooftops offer something that simply cannot be found anywhere else. While I don't engage much in "rooftop photography" now, I did have a very intense fling with it when I started. I likened being "Up On The Roof" to the lyrics from that great Drifters song from the 60's, and featured several of my rooftop images in my first gallery showing in New Brunswick 2 years ago.

Fast forward...I still love the heights and shoot there when I can, but I've found other avenues now to satiate my photography-jones. Bridges, cityscapes, industrial construction sites and urban wastelands...all appeal to me.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading the story behind the image. Regarding 500px...I recently discovered and joined (yeah, I know...where have I been?). Fantastic images, and one that I never thought would be as popular as it has turned out - "Glassy Manhattan". While it hasn't garnered 24,000+ views, it has gotten a fair amount of positive attention - something I'm happy with.

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read my comment. I will check out your work and look forward to your new posts. Take care...

Frank Villafañe
Urban Industrial Imaging

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Micaiah Wiafe  over 1 year ago
"Keep shooting. One photo can change your life." I'll definitely remember this!
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Matt Lichy  over 1 year ago
Great post. Very cool, and inspirational. Congrats on the shot. It really does draw you in, and make you stop and look.
Ronny Engelmann  over 1 year ago
really a great story! i know rooftopping for long time (when i wasnt into photography yet) and the feeling to be on high buildings etc is awesome! Photos like this arent just photos. it more looks like a life in it. you simply can FEEL when looking at it. love this about it!
Ivy Goldyn  over 1 year ago
This story is such a great inspiration, thank you so much for sharing!
Conny Eriksson  over 1 year ago
Great story :)
Robbie Russo  almost 2 years ago
Amazing Story! Fantastic Photo!
Sebastian Rojo Fernández  almost 2 years ago
This photo and history is fantastic
Zara Zara  almost 2 years ago
well done!
Marcel  about 2 years ago
I think turning it upside down is really what makes it so special. It feels like you re hanging in the air and are looking towards the building! pretty awesome ;)
Panka Kaiser  about 2 years ago
Great photo and great stroy. It shows that you have talent. You picked out the one-that changed your life- out of the 422. God job and thank you fot the adventure this shot gives me everytime I look at it! :)
Bob Symons  over 2 years ago
Thanks for giving us the background to an epic photo. Very interesting.
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Roland Maria Reininger  over 2 years ago
what a story! hell yeah!
Angélica Jeronimo  over 2 years ago
Big thks for these amazing shots that i couldn't do ;-)
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incredible story. thanks for sharing it and congratulations on your success.
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Great story, thanks for sharing!
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Nathan Oosthuizen  over 2 years ago
Great story, lovely images, thanks for sharing with us!
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Edgar González  over 2 years ago
Holy crap... I don't know how you can sit there just like that, is that big the emotion? I can't imagine how that feels, Really amazing story, lot of things to learn and think. But most of all that, we need to go out, take some risk and shot!

Thanks for sharing your amazing work.

Mohd ALRAWAHI  over 2 years ago
So much to learn..
Robert Brienza  over 2 years ago
Great photos and great story behind it. I have always been curious how you guys managed to get to these spots when you posted on RFD or Flickr. I have to say I still get really nervous when I look at these photos, makes me think as much as I would loved to have gone up to the roof on one of Toronto's skyscrapers, I'm not sure if I would be of any use once I got up there!

Well done.

Adrian M. Hall  over 2 years ago
awesome adventure ++++
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Ankit Banerjee  almost 3 years ago
Superb! Really.
Teus Renes  almost 3 years ago
Great, now I have vertigo...... incredible pictures!
Miguel Jesus  almost 3 years ago
nice mate!
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Peter Henry  almost 3 years ago
A great story and some amazing images! Its always good to hear of people making a success from the simple action of pressing the shutter button on a camera.
Dmitri Tcherbadji  almost 3 years ago
As always, congrats. Very happy for you and proud to have this happen in Toronto. In the end, it is all about moving the art forward.
Andrew Power  almost 3 years ago
Palms sweaty, vertigo setting in. I could never do rooftopping, but I love the photos from those that can and do.
Excellent series and story!
Anni Skilton  almost 3 years ago
Inspiring stuff
Philipp Baak  almost 3 years ago
wow. the picture is awesome and the story behind it is even more awesome! it was really interesting to read! thank you!
K Elli  almost 3 years ago
Emotion-inducing image. Noteworthy and nicely done.

Should be noted, though: Tom didn't start a movement, he was only part of it's revitalization. Margaret Bourke-White got there first-- In the 1920's.

Ange Loron  10 months ago
wow, this lady used her life very well. Amazing story. Tks for sharing
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Michael Pachis  almost 3 years ago
It was a brilliant stroke to turn it upside down.
C. Lear  almost 3 years ago
Fantastic Story.... I had never even heard of "rooftopping" until I came across your photo's here on 500. Being from Toronto myself, I instantly fell in love with your pictures (have been following you since my first account).
Keep up the great work, and congrats on the success that your passion has brought you :)
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John Wilhelm is a photoholic  almost 3 years ago
not only a hype... thes photos are really different and special... they provoke almost exactely the same feelings in me, as if I would stand/sit on the edge of these buildings myself... ants running up and down my legs...
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David Cantos  almost 3 years ago
I love the stories about how a photo was made. They teach me a lot. Thanks for this article.
Thom Bartley  almost 3 years ago
Great story man!
Johannes Kühnel  almost 3 years ago
wonderful story!

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