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SJ Van Zyl: On Motivation, Inspiration, and Work Ethic

SJ Van Zyl: On Motivation, Inspiration, and Work Ethic

Based in Cape Town, beauty and portrait photographer SJ Van Zyl creates timeless images both in and out of the studio. Not only is SJ's photographic style aesthetically inspiring, but his views on creativity, collaboration, and personal development are good doses of encouragement for anyone just starting their photographic career or looking to reinvigorate or reinvent their existing one.

“I am drawn to many different genres and disciplines, but I primarily shoot beauty, portrait, and more fashion and location-based images. One day I like sharp, crisp beauty studio shots where every detail can be seen. Other days I am obsessed with shallow depth of field, slow shutter speeds, or painterly fine art portraits shot with natural and experimental light. If I have to narrow it down, I always try to capture a connection with whomever I am shooting since I feel that that is the heart and soul of any photograph.”

“My biggest turnaround came when I became a portfolio photographer for Kohl Makeup Academy, one of South Africa's most successful makeup schools. The owner, Lindi Bester, kindly allowed me to capture portfolio images for the students back in 2009. I had to learn quickly with this task since each shoot would require different lighting, and each model needed specific guidance. I had to work fast and under pressure and, of course, retouch all the images as well. Unfortunately, back then, I was an “I'll fix it in Photoshop" kinda guy until a photographer, Leon Oosthuizen, challenged me to learn to light properly. It was also during this time of going back to basics that I discovered Sue Bryce, Felix Kunze, and Pratik Naik's incredible educational content online, which helped me fine-tune and develop my skill even more.”

“I am inspired by so many creatives like Herb Ritts, Peter Lindbergh, Annie Leibovitz, Lindsay Adler, Felix Kunze, Sue Bryce, Pratik Naik, Lara Jade, Paolo Roversi, Ashley Marie Miles, Justin Dingwall, Emily Teague, Brandi Nicole, Lillian Liu, Jai Mayhew, Vitalii Fidyk, Mathilde Oscar, Kristian Schuller, Amy Dresser, Jill Greenberg, Irene Rudnyk, Anita Sadowska, Mert & Marcus, Steven Klein, Richard Avedon, and Helmut Newton for so many different reasons.

In terms of motivators - I have always been very hard-working, driven, and extremely ambitious. I also love to learn new things and evolve my style and skill constantly. This all motivates me to keep going and keep pursuing my dream of working abroad, educating others, sharing my knowledge, and hopefully living in New York City one day.”

SJ’s work tends to favor studio photography over location; when we asked him what his favorite part of photographing in the studio was, he said: “Everything. Seriously.
I just love that feeling when you walk into a studio, and there's a team of creatives waiting for you, all excited and eager to create together. Seeing the ideas and concepts come together on the floor and finally getting the opportunity to capture it when it's done is pure magic. It never gets old or boring to me; I always leave so energized and happy when I finish a studio session - no matter how tired I might be.

“My lighting has changed so much since the beginning of my journey. At the start, I knew nothing about lighting. I would point my little cheap strobes directly at the model, pray it's okay, then fix the mistakes in Photoshop (badly, I might add). Also, most of the books I read made photographing in the studio sound extremely complicated, expensive, and technical. But then I bought my first Elinchrom studio set at a photography expo, and things started to change. The mystery of lighting started to solve itself. Also, online education started to be more expansive and accessible, so my studio skills started improving. I also packed away all my studio lights and focused on understanding and using natural light in my work. Now I am confident using both, and I do not sweat bullets when a brief requires different moods or lighting set-ups anymore. I also just love learning new lighting techniques every time I shoot in the studio.”


“My advice to readers is first to learn the basics of lighting for both studio and natural light and be able to do basic retouching. Find your style, know your value and worth, and create from a place of authenticity, love, and respect. Appreciate and respect the team you are working with. Charge for your time, skill, and knowledge. Try a social media cleanse to keep you focused and balanced. Play, experiment, and have fun. Pace yourself, be kind to yourself and be open to learning and constructive criticism. Make sure you know the work of the masters and that you're referencing is up to date. Understand the basics of makeup, hairstyles, and fashion styling. Share your knowledge and give back. Learn how to connect with your subjects and make them feel at ease. And always go back to the reason you started if it stops being fun.”

One of SJ’s favorite quotes is: "Whatever you vividly imagine, ardently desire, sincerely believe, and enthusiastically act upon... must inevitably come to pass!" by Paul J Meyer.

SJ Van Zyl’s current lighting kit is:

  • Compact D-Lite RX ONE

    $229.99More infoAdd to cart

    Compact D-Lite RX ONE


    Small but robust, this flash unit offers a flash duration of a 1/2200 s at full power, integrated EL-Skyport for remote triggering and many programmable options. With lots of different accessories available, this is the great place to start.

    Add to cart

  • Compact D-Lite RX 4

    $406.99More infoAdd to cart

    Compact D-Lite RX 4


    The best entry-level unit available. Great recycling time, integrated EL-Skyport for remote triggering and many programmable options. With its color and power stability, this is a great head for any photographer.

    Reflector not included

    Add to cart

  • Litemotiv Direct Octa 120cm

    $509.00More infoAdd to cart

    Litemotiv Direct Octa 120cm


    This 120cm (48") is the big brother of the Rotalux Deep 100cm (39.37"). However, with 16 rods, a heavy-duty bracket and 30% more light output with this new fabric, the Litemotiv 120cm (48") is the ideal light source.

    The Litemotiv bracket is not included and must be ordered separately!

    Add to cart

  • 44cm Softlite White Beauty Dish Reflector - 80° w/ Deflector Set

    More info

    44cm Softlite White Beauty Dish Reflector - 80° w/ Deflector Set


    Ideal for beauty and portrait work, this white finishing offers a softer touch for glamorous images.

    The included Deflector Set can modify the color and softness.

To see more of SJ's work and to keep up on his future projects, find him on Instagram at: @sjvanzyl

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