Home / Featured / One photo changed his life.

Meet Tom Ryaboi, also known as “Roof Topper.

According to him, he’s been on “more rooftops than Santa Clause.” (1) But what exactly is his story? It’s a story about one photo, that by chance, changed his life. You may have heard this story back when it first hit the press and he said, “it almost made me famous,” but we wanted to revisit it, to inspire you to keep shooting.

It all began in 2007, when photography had become a true obsession for Tom. He recalls the urge to see what the viewpoint would be from the skyline of an approximately 15-story building near where he had been shooting in the street. When he got to the roof, he was hooked. It was a new view of the city he’d never seen before—“it was magical.” Fast forward 5 years and Tom was constantly “rooftopping” as he (and many others) came to call it. It had become a new addiction, more than just something you did on the weekends. Every building was a potential masterpiece.

Tom and his friend, Jennifer, had heard about the tallest building going up in Toronto, and decided on a Saturday, to go for it. Getting from the elevator to the top of the building was a blur, but “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.” (2)

The team split up, taking a bunch of pictures with their Canon gear, and a total of five lenses for the day. The lighting was impeccable and the views were mind-shattering.

Tom had been taking photos for a while with the wide lenses, he set those down and started shooting with a 50mm. He got up behind Jennifer on the ledge, who was taking pictures of her shoes in the skyline, and started taking pictures behind her, maximizing the extreme look of the angle. He wasn’t happy with the 50mm, so Tom grabbed the Sigma 8-16mm and started using that.

Here are some of the photos from that day:

As Tom and Jennifer wrapped up that night, neither of them had any idea of what was about to unfold.

Tom recalls, “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.” (2)

Here is the photo, straight out of the camera:

And here is the “I’ll Make Ya Famous” photo behind all the craze:

The photography instantly became the next online craze. Within 24 hours of posting it, the shot had received over 25,000 views on Flickr, huge numbers on Reddit, and was chosen for “Editor’s Choice” on 500px. Tom 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 that picked up the story was My Modern Metropolis, and then WENN wanted to do a syndicated story about rooftopping. He remembers waking up to 500 emails in his inbox, including “requests for interviews by BBCRTL, and National Geographic USA.”

Tom says, “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.”(2)

His lesson to us?

“Keep shooting. One photo can change your life.”

(1) Credit for all the photos belong to Tom Ryaboi. (2) The interview pieces collected from 500px.
Check out Tom’s portfolio here.

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