Ever since he was a kid, what Don Smith wanted more than anything was to become a professional sports photographer shooting for Sports Illustrated. He worked hard and dedicated himself to his craft and ultimately he achieved that goal. Smith made it into the ranks of SI and for decades he was living is dream. So it might have come as more than a little surprising when Smith decided he didn’t want to be a sports photographer any more. He was in the midst of a thriving career when he started thinking about making a change. Ultimately he traded his super-telephoto lenses in favor of wide angles and switched his focus from sports to landscapes. That kind of big shift not only means different photographic subjects and techniques, but an entirely different business model as well. Smith would be almost starting over as he reinvented his career. The process began more than a decade ago, and today Smith, who is also a Sony Artisan Of Imagery, is a renowned landscape photographer and workshop leader. Undertaking this kind of a career overhaul is no small feat. Here’s a look at why, and more importantly how, he did it.
Why The Change
Smith wasn’t stuck in a rut and he hadn’t lost his passion for sports photography. In fact, in every phase of his long career, passion for photography has never been in short supply. But he identified oncoming changes to the businesses that were going make it increasingly difficult for him to continue earning a living as a sports photographer. He needed a new direction in order to continue supporting his family.
“The main issue was that back in the late 1990s,” Smith says, “Getty Images started buying up the rights to all the different sports leagues. Everything from NCAA to Major League Baseball, NFL, NBA, NHL… all the big ones. They were locking down exclusive licenses for everything. Back then you could do very well with your stock images because there were no restrictions. If Nike wanted to come along and buy a picture of mine, that could be a $30,000 or $40,000 sale. Getty started to see the potential and they came in and bought up the licensing rights so that anybody who wanted the photography had to go to them. Photographers were kind of edged out and we could no longer make a lot of the big money corporate sales.”
“That was the beginning of it,” he continues. “What really got me to switch was an industry change in the early 2000s. There was a nasty term that came along and it’s still in this industry to this day: it’s called a ‘buyout.’ Essentially, that’s where the photographer gets hired to shoot a game, for example, for some amount of money which ends up being akin to an hourly rate, and that’s it. At the end of the day, the agency who hired the photographer owns all the rights to everything you’ve photographed. And once that happened I just said, ‘That’s it, I’ve lost control of how I can make my living and all these corporate sales are going to go away.’”
“There are people nowadays working for $100 an assignment for big name publications,” Smith says, “These are often people who have had full-time jobs or they’re semi-retired and to them it’s fins to get $100 because they want to go hang out on the sidelines of a big game and the money isn’t what they depend on to live. They spend more on their equipment than they’ll ever make on sales in a year.” In that reality, Smith determined that he could not continue as he had been. Something had to change.
Making The Transition
Looking back at his career shift, Smith points to four primary factors that helped him transition from sports photographer to landscape shooter. They serve as guideposts for other photographers who are considering a mid-career reinvention of their own.
1, Follow your passion.
Making a big change is going to be hard work, so you’d better love it. Smith knew he needed to make a salient business decision in transitioning from one branch of professional photography to another, and while “landscape photographer” is atop nobody’s list of get rich quick schemes, the fact that Smith was choosing a pursuit for which he had a lifelong passion is no accident. He says his new career certainly would have failed had it not been built on something he truly loved to do.
“It’s kind of funny,” he says, “because I get asked that all the time, ‘Why did you get out of sports photography and get into landscapes?’ It wasn’t really an abrupt change at all. Ever since I’d picked up a camera in high school I was drawn to photographing landscapes. I just had no idea or intention of ever making it a full-time living. I never gave it up. It was always what I considered my fun photography, my hobby. I’d go to spring training down in Arizona and I’d be down there working for six weeks, from the day pitchers and catchers reported until they broke camp. I did that for 14 years. We had all this beautiful desert landscape around us, so after I’d put in a full day at the ballpark I’d be driving up from a game in Tucson and I’d be pulling over and shooting sunsets. The next thing I knew I was getting up early in the morning before the games and going out and finding sunrise locations to shoot. I was just having a blast at it.”
“You have to follow your passion,” he adds. “I try to tell my sons this, they’re both college age: what your passion is, that’s what you’re going to want to do 100% of your time. It’s not going to feel like work because you’re going to love doing it. And so I put in endless hours in this business, between the travel and the planning and the logistics of all of the little bits that make it work.”
2, Put in the time.
Understand that this isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to take time and dedication and you’re going to have to put in long hours. One of the biggest challenges facing a professional photographer making a complete directional change is that the business branding has to catch up. In Smith’s case, his byline had been associated for decades with high-end sports photography. Now he needed clients to unlearn one thing and learn another—that the name Don Smith should be associated with landscapes. That’s easier said than done.
“I’ve been in this business now over 40 years making a living as a photographer,” Smith explains, “and I knew I had to create a brand for myself. I also knew that I was known as a sports photographer in the industry so I said to my wife that it’s going to be a five-year process to make the brand shift. Well, actually I said two years, but I knew, realistically, for me to get noted as a landscape photographer I was going to have to work my butt off for the next five years. That’s how long I expected it to take for the editors and the influential people in this business to start looking at me and considering me a landscape photographer.”
“The bust your butt thing,” he adds, “there is absolutely no other way around it. People always ask me ‘How do you make it work full time?’ In anything—and I write and talk about this constantly in my blogs and talks to colleges and camera clubs—being able to take pretty pictures is just one thing. Yes, you’ve got to be good at your craft…really good at your craft. But even with that, there’s still a whole business side out there. If you ask anybody who’s successful, they’ll tell you to get there, they rolled up their sleeves and dedicated themselves to it. I hit a point of thinking about maybe even getting out of this business and going off and doing something else entirely, but I made the decision that being a photographer is really what I was meant to be—it’s what I love doing—then you get into the mentality of sink or swim. Then you have to commit 100% to it.”
3, Seek good advice from a trusted expert.
During the time when Smith was considering new business avenues, he had the fortuitous opportunity to spend the afternoon with landscape photographer Gary Hart. An established professional, Hart encouraged Smith to follow his passion and make the leap. More importantly, he offered an inroad into the business side of landscape photography.
“I honestly at one point thought about getting out of the business,” Smith says, “that’s how downcast I was with it. But as things worked out it was almost like it was meant to be. Back around 2006 I met Gary Hart. We both just happened to be up in Yosemite during the middle of a snowstorm, almost a whiteout, each of us just driving around the park photographing. And we ended up at the famous overview of the park, Tunnel View. We both got up there about an hour and a half before sunset, and you couldn’t see ten feet in front of you it was snowing so hard. And we sat out in the snowstorm for an hour and a half talking to each other and that’s how we got to know each other. Right at sunset, it was basically magic how this happened: the skies parted and we witnessed the most incredible sunset. I remember leaving that evening and saying let’s stay in contact. About a month later he got ahold of me and said, ‘I’m going to start doing some workshops in Yosemite, are you interested in teaching with me?’ Well here we are, going on year 13 or 14 now, and this was what opened the door for me to get into landscape photography. I had an avenue now where I could actually make money with teaching others how to do landscape photography.”
“I honestly owe everything I do in the workshops to Gary,” Smith continues. “He brought me in and he taught me how to run workshops. We sort of stumbled our way through them together for a while and about a year and half into that he said, ‘Why don’t you consider doing these on our own?’ I live out near the Big Sur coast and he suggested I start doing a couple of workshops out there on my own and see how it goes? I did and I’m still doing two workshops a year out there in Big Sur. I consider them my home base workshops. Gary was very supportive in coming in and helping me get those set up. He was very, very encouraging to me,” he adds. “I don’t know if I would’ve moved forward without a push from Gary. I do owe him a lot of credit there. He got me off and running.”
4, Do whatever you can to get your new work seen.
For a photographer trying to reinvent themselves, nothing is more important than associating one’s name with the new style of work, rather than the kind of work they used to do. The best way to do this is to get the new work published, get it seen as much as possible. This will begin associating the photographer’s name with the kind of work he wants to do.
“I had set goals for myself,” Smith says, “and one of them was to get published. I worked to get my landscape photos seen by editors and I started to have some successes. Finally, just this past year, I had my first cover story with Outdoor Photographer. I had done some work with them long ago, on sports, but this was a cover photo of the Columbia River Gorge.”
“Another one of my goals was to get associated with a stock agency,” Smith says. “I had been with Getty on the sports side and when one of their higher up people in New York came out to California, he and I ended up at lunch together in San Francisco. I can remember just broaching the subject and saying, ‘ I’ve been doing a lot of landscape work. Is there any way Getty would be interested in representing that work?’ One thing led to the next and he put my work and my website out to the powers that be at Getty in Los Angeles, Seattle and London. That opened the door for me.”
Getty ended up pursuing a rigorous critique of more than 800 photographers in search of one to contract as an official Getty landscape photographer. Sure enough, Smith was that one—a reminder that there’s no replacement for mastering one’s craft. And while Getty happily associates with many more landscape photographers these days, at the time Smith was a rare breed for sure: under contract to produce landscape photographs which were represented by the preeminent stock agency in the world.
Ultimately, Smith says, all that patience and hard work never adds up to a sure thing. In any endeavor, whether a career change from one type of photography to another, or becoming a professional photographer from a field outside the visual arts, no matter how prepared one might be, an eventual leap is always required.
“You have to take a leap of faith,” Smith says. “I tell anybody in the arts business, at some point you just have to say, ‘I’ve got to put it out there and see what happens.’ Because if you never do that, you’re never going to know. Yes, it’s true that a lot of people don’t make it, but a lot of people do! It really is so important to believe in yourself. Speaking for myself, I had a lot of confidence in what I was doing. Am I the best photographer out there? No, by no means. There are people who can shoot circles around me. But it’s a whole package; the business side, the artistic side, constantly being flexible to change, constantly looking at what’s going on in the industry and being aware.”
And that really does point out the single most important thing for any professional photographer. Today more than ever, no matter what you photograph, you have to be looking forward, seeing where the small shifts are before they become seismic changes to your business. Don Smith saw those changes when he moved from film to digital, when he switched from DSLRs to the Sony mirrorless system and when he moved his primary business from sports to landscapes. All along the way he’s been an early adopter because he’s constantly looking ahead.
About the author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.