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...
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
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
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.
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.
Every day we see stunning photos from our peers in the 500px community, but not often do we turn the lens back upon the photographer. The Portrait series focuses on remarkable 500px users who may have something to teach us about their field of photography. This week's feature is Marsel van Oosten, interviewed by Matt Knight.
Hi Marsel, could you tell us a little about yourself?
After graduating from the Academy of Arts, I started a career as an art director in advertising. Fifteen years later, I took the plunge and swapped my established advertising career for the precarious life of a nature photographer. My images are featured in galleries and museums, and are used worldwide in advertising, design, and magazines such as National Geographic.
I live in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, with videographer Daniëlla Sibbing. Together we organize specialized wildlife and landscape photography tours and workshops, for small groups to destinations worldwide.
What’s the best thing about being a photographer?
Photography is all about creativity. I’m a creative person, and being able to use my creativity in my job is just great. I love animals and the outdoors, and being out there in nature is a joy, even without my camera gear.
Are there any parts, or things you would change?
There are two things that I could definitely live without: time spent in airports/on airplanes, and image processing. Unfortunately they’re all part of the deal.
Do you have any memorable stories from any of your experiences with photography?
Recently, I spent five weeks in the Algerian desert. The wind was blowing constantly; there was sand in my breakfast, in my lunch, in my dinner, in my bed, in all my bodily orifices, and, in my camera. After a while there were so many dust bunnies on my sensor that I had to clean it. I ended up making a greasy mess of the sensor, and I had to send it back by courier to The Netherlands to have it cleaned. I had to spend a week with just one camera and three lenses, because that is how long it would take to get my other body back. So they said. It never arrived in Algeria, because it never left The Netherlands. Dutch customs couldn’t believe that someone would send such an expensive camera to Algeria, so they returned it to Nikon. I now bring a camera for every lens when I’m shooting in the Sahara.
What makes your work different to anyone else’s?
My images are very clean and simple, have lots of clarity, and I go to great lengths to get them that way. The right combination of subject, location, weather conditions, habitat and viewpoint are critical to get the look I want. Most wildlife photographers focus their attention on the subject, I tend to focus on the habitat first. For this reason I have not photographed much wildlife in rainforests and jungles yet. The endless green clutter just doesn’t appeal to me. I prefer strong shapes with clean outlines, and graphic lines. I am greatly influenced by my career in advertising and graphic design.
What makes a good photo?
Photography is visual communication. The photographer decides what the message is that he or she wants to bring across. A good photograph is an effective photograph: it delivers the message. My message is one of awe and wonder of the natural world. In my work I show my personal interpretation of nature, which is primarily an esthetical one. In the end it’s just a matter of taste, so there are no hard rules as to what makes a good photo. Some prefer color, some black and white, some prefer landscape, others wildlife, etc.
If you’re going out on a day trip what camera and what lenses do you take, compared to a more planned out photo shoot?
On a small day trip I usually only bring a small point and shoot camera, unless it’s a serious day trip. If it’s serious, then it depends on the subject matter. Point and shoot cameras are getting better all the time, and the quality of the images you get with them is amazing.
On a lightweight scouting trip I often bring just one body and a 24-70mm. I take many shots from different angles and decide later which ones I’d like to do again with better light or a different lens. If at all possible, I always scout my locations first. On a more planned out photo shoot, I take at least two bodies and three lenses.
Do you plan projects? Or take photos with a particular shot in mind?
Most of my images are the result of planned projects. On average I spend just as much time on planning and preparation as on the actual trip. Good planning and research are essential to get the shots I’m after.
For every subject that I photograph, I try to get as much information as possible on what’s already been shot before. Photography is an art form, and you want your art to be original. For nature photographers this is particularly difficult, as we have very little influence over our subject, and image manipulation (the easiest way to add your creative signature to a photograph) is frowned upon.
One of the first things I do for any project is research what’s already out there to get a good idea of the shots I don’t have to take because there are already a million versions of it. By knowing what’s already been done before, you can also determine what possibilities there are to create something original. My snow monkey shots where I used remote controlled off-camera flash in an artistic way are a good example – those shots are unique, and a direct result of my effort to find a new way to photograph an often photographed species.
For most of the subjects that I photograph I already have a particular shot in mind, often based on the research that I’ve done. That said, I usually make adjustments once I’m in the field. Either because it’s impossible to the get the shot exactly the way I envisioned it, or because I see better alternatives.
I've heard that from a set of 100 photographs, a photographer may only be happy with 1 of them. How many shots do you take, and do you shoot for insurance?
That greatly depends on the subject and the circumstances. When I’m shooting landscapes, I have much more control over my subject than when I’m shooting wildlife. With landscapes you’re only depending on the weather and the light; if the weather is bad, you can always return the next day and try again, the landscape will still be there. When I’m shooting landscapes, I don’t shoot that much. I try to find a good composition and just wait for the perfect light. When the conditions are good, I might be happy with 25% of the shots. With wildlife it’s a whole different ball game. Often, when the light is perfect, the animal is not there, and when the animal is there, the light is terrible. When the light is perfect and the animal is there, it’s often in the wrong spot or only showing its butt. It can be pretty frustrating. When the light is bad but the action is great, I still take lots of shots. And when the light is great and so is the action, I can shoot hundreds of images in a matter of minutes. On average I guess that I’m really happy with 1% of the wildlife images that I shoot.
What’s better, photographing by yourself being able to do what you want? Or shooting with friends?
I like both. On our tours and workshops I shoot alongside the participants, and I really like the interaction. We do image reviews in the evenings, and it’s very inspiring to see what other photographers have shot at the same location. When I’m shooting by myself I obviously have more time for my own photography, and I tend to stay longer at a location than when I’m with a group.
How important is it to have the best (and potentially the most expensive) gear? How much do you own yourself, and what couldn’t you leave the house without?
Unfortunately, a lot of people think that when they buy the most expensive gear, they will get better images. If only it were that simple. Give a good photographer a cheap camera, and he will still be able to get great shots. The more expensive pro models have a lot of extra functions that can make your life a lot easier, but also a lot more complex. Sensor quality, high ISO capabilities and frames per second are all important, but they’re not essential.
I’m a Nikon shooter myself. I have a D3, D3s and D3x. The D3 and D3s I mainly use for wildlife, the D3s for low light and high ISO (night)photography, the D3x for landscapes. My lenses: the AF-S 14-24/2.8, AF-S 17-35/2.8, AF-S 24-70/2.8, AF-S 70-200/2.8 VR II, AF-S 200-400/4 VR II, and the AF-S 600/4 VR. If I had to bring one body and one lens, it would be the D3s and the 24-70.
Street/Landscape? People/Animals? DSLR/ SLR?
Wildlife and landscape, and ideally a combination between the two. I consider myself to be an all-round nature photographer. I like both wildlife and landscape photography and I know how to get good results with both genres. I shoot only digital.
Which photographers, or artists, inspire you the most?
I get my inspiration from all over the place; not just from one artist or style. If I had to name one artist that has really influenced me a long time ago, it would be the German painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). In his work he uses people as small elements in the landscape. The people give a sense of scale to the scene and emphasize the drama. In my wildlife photography that is something I like to do as well: don't fill the whole frame with the subject, but keep them relatively small in the frame and show a lot of habitat. My elephant shot at Victoria Falls, the giraffe at sunset shot, and the image of the sleeping whooper swans are good examples of that.
How important is post-editing? To what extent do you use computer software to improve your photos?
It is important. Post processing is for a photographer what herbs and spices are for a chef. By tweaking exposure, white balance, color balance, saturation, contrast and crop, you can greatly influence the look of your image. However, you can’t cook a great dish if the ingredients are not good. Post processing won’t turn a poor shot into a good shot, but it might turn a good shot into great shot. Landscape photographers tend to do more post processing, as they often use exposure blends and focus stacking, which is less common in wildlife photography.
How can new photographers improve their photography?
There are many ways to learn. I learned most of the creative part of photography during my time in advertising, working closely together with professional photographers. Later, I learned the more technical part by reading photography magazines, books on photography and photography forums.
A good way is to study and analyze the images of photographers that you admire; why do you like those shots so much. Trying to put those feelings into words will enable you to understand what it is that appeals to you in photographs, and by combining those characteristics you will create your own visual style.
And it should come as no surprise that I recommend booking a photo tour or workshop with a photographer whose work you admire. Spending a week, or two weeks, with like minded enthusiasts is not only great fun, you will learn so much more, so much faster, and so much easier in the field than from (e)books and magazines. And finally... get out there and shoot.
More and more people are gaining popularity through photo sharing sites such as 500px; are galleries still important?
I think there is still a place for galleries. However great a picture might look on the screen, there’s a big difference when you see a good print that’s ten times the size. And a computer screen is always a computer screen. How you perceive a print in a gallery, or museum, can be completely different because of the size, the paper, the (size of the) wall it’s hanging on, light, etc. A print on a wall feels more important than a picture on a computer screen, because it is isolated. At the same time, photo sharing sites are more easily accessible and have a much larger audience.
The 500px Uploader for OS X was born like many of the best small tools are: boredom. Not boredom per se, but a lack of something else to do. I had finished what work I had to do on the iPad app for the immediate future and needed something else to do. Since all of the designers were busy redesigning the entire site with Flow, the Mac Uploader was completely my creation.
The first mockup I completed, in OmniGraffle, looked something like the following:
It’s fairly obvious that a developer made these - they are no where near the calibre of quality you expect from 500px. It was, however, enough to get me started until a designer was available to make it pretty.
I started working on the back end and reused a lot of the code from our iPad app. The iPad app doesn’t allow photo uploads, but I used my experience writing storygram to upload JPEGs. Since this is my first ever Mac app, and it’s pretty unique (drag-and-drop menu bar app), there were a lot of challenges just learning the system. Mac apps are a lot more different from iOS apps that I had anticipated.
Nevertheless, the app was completely functional in about a week.
This doesn’t look much better than the mockup, but it worked: you could log in and upload photos. At this point, Moeed was finally free to design a better interface, and we went through a few iterations. Our next working version looked like this:
Designing an app that sits in the menu presents some unique challenges. For instance, since you don’t have an application icon in the dock and don’t have a window with the standard “close” control, how do users quit your app? It was this problem in particular that forced us to revisit this design. Moeed, Oleg, Evgeny, and I finally arrived at what we considered to be the best user experience we could design.
We had to compromise along the way to adhere to Apple’s Mac App Store guidelines. For example, we had to remove any buttons to our “Upgrade” page, since those pages don’t use Apple’s In-App Purchase framework.
I leveraged some open source software along the way; Philippe Casgrain’s PhFacebook library was a spectacualar help in getting the “Log in wth Facebook” part of the app to work.
It was my first ever Mac app, but coming from an iOS background, it was fairly easy to adjust. Much of the code for interacting with 500px is shared with the iPad app. The biggest challenge was adjusting from UIKit to AppKit for the user interface elements of the app. When Apple reimagined OS X on the iPhone in 2007, they built the user interface elements all from scratch with 20 years of experience. Coming to OS X from iOS meant having to acquire two decade’s worth of cruft that Apple never introduced to iOS.
There was also the issue of the Mac App Store approval process, which is different enough from the iOS approval process to cause us some serious problems. Our app was rejected by Apple no fewer than four times. Ultimately it was approved and is now free to be downloaded and enjoyed by all.