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  • July 20, 2021
  • 17 min to read

An Interview with Professional Landscape Photographer - Don Smith

An Interview with Professional Landscape Photographer - Don Smith

Having begun his professional career over 40 years ago as a sports photographer, Don successfully transitioned into the world of fine art landscape photography in 2002. Follow Don on Facebook, Twitter  and Instagram.

What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photos?

I’ve been a pro since the early 80’s and I’ve learned over the years that the world is shoulder-deep with great shooters but only ankle-deep with smart business people. Fortunately I’ve surrounded myself with people smarter than me in that area, which means a good office assistant (my wife Beri), bookkeeper, accountant and lawyer - one will need to really rely on these people to make the business run efficiently. If you are just starting, check your ego at the front door. Egos only serve as a negative. Too many young shooters think if there work is strong that the marketplace will beat a path to their door - this is simply not true. Work hard at your craft but don’t give your work away. That is going to mean passing on many potential jobs; let the lesser-talented people will take those. Believe in yourself and hold-firm to your worth in the marketplace. That’s not ego, that’s self-confidence.

Why do you take photos? What inspires you?

I’ve really come full-circle in my career. My parents bought me my first camera at age 13 and I had no idea what I should photograph, so I spent a lot of time out in nature shooting a lot of cows standing in fields. Of course my mom was my biggest fan. In college, I transitioned into sports photography and dreamed of working for Sports Illustrated. That dream came true for 7 years but then I started my family and wanted to cut back on the constant travel. Throughout my sports career, I kept trying to improve on my landscape photography skills. I was heavily influenced by Galen Rowell on the color-side of the craft. He was working strictly with 35mm and this intrigued me. I finally made it into one of his galleries and was transfixed with his images. They were all about quality light that one finds on the fringes of the day as opposed to settling for a specific subject matter with average light. I remember leaving the gallery thinking that from that day forward, I was going to get out of bed while it was still dark and get out on location very early. I still love shooting early - it’s my favorite time of day. I simply find the best light, head in that direction, and find something in the landscape to put with it.

Which photographers influenced you, and how did they influence your thinking, photographing, and career path?

Besides Rowell, I had many favorites on the black-and-white side. Ansel Adams was number one on the list. I own every book he has ever written and have read each numerous times including his brilliant trilogy: The Camera, The Negative and The Print. John Sexton, who still works today, was another favorite. I was also heavily influenced by the work of David Muench. His images really stressed the importance of a strong foreground feature and I still think of his work when I’m out shooting. Elliot Porter, Philip Hyde and Ed Weston were also heavy influences. Each taught me something different about my craft and I’m really an amalgamation of all of these tremendous artists. 

What do you want to say with your photographs, and how do you actually get your photographs to do that?

I’ve never been a photographer with a cause. I hope that doesn’t sound as if I am a shallow person. I really get excited about what I photograph and as I said earlier, about quality light around the fringes of the day or during a storm. What I really hope my images convey is a sense of that excitement. Social media exposes a daily audience to my work. I think my favorite compliment is when someone tells me that I have inspired them to get out and shoot on a regular basis. Whether we come back with a good image or not, just reconnecting with nature will recharge your soul and that is priceless.

What technology/software/camera gear do you use?

About 4 years ago I was looking for a lightweight system that I could carry around to photograph my oldest son Rob who was playing college golf. A friend/colleague of mine suggested I look into mirrorless. Looking back, that was a turning point in my career. I started with the Fuji line of mirrorless cameras then about six months later I tested a Sony a7R. I was blown-away at the dynamic range that this little camera’s sensor was capturing. I began blogging about my excitement for the image quality - it was unlike anything I had ever seen. I would expose for the highlights and there seemed to be an endless amount of pixels in the shadows that I could open in post-processing. I knew the Director of Marketing at Lexar and he put me in touch with Kayla Lindquist who is the head of the Sony Artisan Program. I’ve proudly been a Sony Artisan for the past three years. I love what Sony is doing as they are innovating and really going after the pro market. Moreover, they really listen to their pros. Their cameras and lenses are state-of-the-art and they recently passed Nikon as the Number 2 camera manufacturer in the world. I was asked to be part of a small contingent of photographers who met in New York in June 2016 to help design the new Sony a9. That was quite an honor. When I shot Canon gear, I didn’t feel as if anyone was really interested in my feedback, so I quit offering it. To be with a company that truly listens is invigorating to say the least.

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How do you choose what you are going to shoot?

Much of my time is spent devoted to my landscape workshop business. I have just returned from a trip to New Zealand with fellow Artisan Gary Hart and we are offering our first international workshop next June on the South Island. I am also exploring the possibility of a workshop in Namibia. So much of what I am shooting involves locations that will be included in these workshops. I also do solo trips to shoot for stock. I had never photographed the Palouse in eastern Washington State and spent a week there this Spring. My travel schedule is quite intense but as I also say, “the image won’t come to you, one has to go out and get them.”

What kind of tools do you use for post processing? Explain your work flow.

Wow, that could take quite a while so I will try to condense what I am currently doing. First off, I am a software geek and love testing new software when I have the time. My main workflow still begins with Photo Mechanic for a first edit and then onto Adobe Lightroom to just do my global corrections. I start with tonality and drill down to color. My localized workflow is done in Photoshop. I rely on various third-party software and I am heavy into masking. I learned a lot about luminosity masking and use Tony Kuypers masks on a regular basis. I now carry the idea of a mask when using third-party filters and a few of my favorites are Macphun’s Luminar/Neptune and On1. Masking allows me to control various sections of the image that I feel are weak in tonality, contrast and sharpness. 

Among your works, which one is your favorite? Why?

I get asked this question a lot and I’m not sure if I have one distinct favorite. My best-selling stock image is of a country lane between to rows of large eucalyptus trees in the fog. This is definitely one of my favorites and my wife takes the credit (as she should) for spotting the scene. I just stayed patient until we had a soupy foggy morning ( live about 16 miles inland from the Monterey Bay). When I arrived, the morning sun was just about to burn through the fog and I got seven frames off before it disappeared. This gave the picture the look and feel of a painting and that is why I really connect with it. The image has sold repeatedly via Getty Images and has been on the cover of 8 books internationally including a coffee table book titled The Life and Love of Trees, which was voted Book of the Month on the then Ophra Winfrey Show. Unbeknownst to me, it was displayed on her show and the next morning I was besieged with emails of people wanting to purchase a print. 

What was the most curious story behind your photograph?

Guess I just answered that in #8.

Three new things (names, places), you learned in the past year about the photograph?

Not sure what you mean by this question. The image is still selling and I occasionally display in on my social media sites and the reaction stays strong. I have been flattered over the years by the number of photographers who have tried to replicate the image. This past winter we had a huge wind storm hit the area (winds in excess of 70mph). I learned that many of the trees blew down though I have not been back to personally check. Rarely can I return to a location of a successful shoot and get something better, so much of it is tied to the weather and light and those elements are always in a constant state of flux.

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