Don Smith

Why Don Smith’s notebook is more important than his camera

A long-term contributor to Getty Images on ideas, imagination and constant evolution.

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First it was the high-school darkroom, then Kodachrome and Velvia slides, then a digital camera. Photography has always been a constant presence in Don Smith’s life. When he came across a magazine story about travel photographers shooting stock, he felt he’d found his niche.

Don, a biology teacher, was living in Bahrain at the time, but soon after moved to Nepal for a two-year teaching post. With breathtaking scenery and plenty of colourful material on his doorstep, he upgraded to a DSLR and set to work. It took him a year to make his first sale—an image of clouds over the Himalaya.

He’s back in New Zealand now, but he’s contributed to Getty Images ever since—a combination of off-the-cuff moments and pre-meditated shoots—all of them scheduled around his day job.

“I might plan a studio shoot some time in advance, or perhaps decide I need some forest images and will check the forecast for wind at dawn tomorrow,” he says. “I might take 200 frames one day, and then not touch a camera for weeks.

“However, I think about images all the time.”

Recently, Don has been experimenting with digitally manipulated images, most of which he creates with a potential client or particular situation in mind. Stock images are often bought to illustrate intangible things—values, feelings, goals. For advertising clients, sometimes abstract, impossible images suit best.

Don’s children are ever-present in his imagery. At times it’s hard for the viewer to tell the images that have been set up from those that have been snapped surreptitiously.

“I need to produce work that stands out,” he says. “Something fresh is more likely to appeal to clients and you have to constantly bring something new to the library. I try many ways of doing that.”

Manipulating reality is fun, but there’s still nothing to beat the thrill of shooting a great frame, of capturing terrific light. Don says his photographic interests lie in genuine moments, emotions, a sense of story, and communicating a human presence—even if there’s no one in the scene.

Just as his imagination can transport him to new and wonderful places, Don’s son becomes the subject of a digital composite.

Ideas arrive from all directions, he says—films, the internet, observations of real life.

“The single most important tool I have is a notebook. Every time I have ideas I jot them down and cross them off when they’ve been realised. If I don’t write them down they will be forgotten and gone forever.”

Don receives briefs from Getty Images—sometimes several in a week—and balances these short-term advertising interests with shooting for the future. “I’m more interested in the longer term: trying to spot more general trends and styles and meeting demand before it arrives,” he says. Getty Images Visual Trends is a helpful starting point, but he also stays on top of global events and new technologies—imagining how they might affect people is one of his visual interests.

“I’m fascinated by dark dystopian futures—which is fine for book covers but advertising clients will generally prefer an image with an upbeat message, so I often try to add a touch of humour or keep the feeling light.”

Separating the images that have personal meaning from those that have commercial value is what makes a professional photographer professional, but it’s one of the greatest challenges facing creatives across the sector.

“It’s said of stock that you just need to produce the same old thing but in new ways. It does mean constant change but it’s a challenge that gives me great pleasure. Getting positive feedback from an editor about new work is always motivating.”

Play is a child’s work, and like human cannonballs, stock libraries can make hay from these analogies of real life.

In this regard, the stock photography market is a powerful training ground for pros wanting to quickly recognise what clients will pay for and what they won’t.

“The best creative work on Getty Images is quite outstanding and ground breaking,” says Don. “I don’t think any of my work reaches that level so I continually aspire to improve and it gives me a wonderful creative outlet. I see myself still shooting stock in 20 years’ time.”


If you would like to become a contributing photographer to Getty Images, visit to apply—use invitation code NZGeo