How To Find Your Creative Path In The Wilderness: Interview with Sarah Smith

Sarah, tell us about your photography journey...

I became inspired by nature and the landscape as I hiked, camped, and travelled around New Zealand and other parts of planet Earth. Originally, I picked up a camera to record these adventures but this soon developed into wanting to capture more than just a ‘snapshot’.

When I am around nature I find that I am more grounded. The process of photographing in nature allows me to escape the busy-ness of life and pay attention to what I am seeing and doing in that moment – a meditation of sorts!

"Meditate" by Sarah Smith

"Water droplets link arms as they drop over the edge only to gather again in the pool below."

In your bio you mention you follow 'Nature First' principles - can you tell us how you discovered this organization and why it is important to you?

I came across the organisation after reading an article by Ann Wheatley, “Taonga First”, in December 2019’s issue of NZPhotographer magazine. On reading the article, I found many of the ideas resonating with thoughts that I'd had over the past few years. I reflected on the role of social media and the many articles and blogs that list the “Top 10 Places to Photograph in xxx” or “The Best Instagram and Photography Spots in xxx”. These lists are helpful in some ways, but can also be detrimental to the often outstanding locations they mention.

We all know of at least one location that has become increasingly inundated with visitors, photographers, and instagrammers as they line up, literally in some cases, to get their shot of an iconic location or view. There is a cruel irony at play here. In their attempt to capture and showcase the stunning landscapes that inspire many of us, inadvertently visitors, instagrammers and photographers are impacting negatively on the very environment whose beauty they are trying to experience, capture, and share.

I think many photographers do follow the ‘Nature First’ principles, but it would be great to see more people promoting them and seeking to protect the environments that we are so privileged to visit.

By Sarah Smith

What have you found the most challenging aspect of photography?

I think mastering the art of long exposures was/is a good learning curve and one that I am constantly revisiting.

Can you choose a favourite shot?

My favourite shot changes all the time depending on my mood, what I am trying to achieve, and what I am into at the time. Often I will look at my images after a shoot and have no favourites, but over time they reveal themselves.

How do you plan your journeys and how do you find interesting photo opportunities?

I’m quite casual in the way that I travel and photograph. I’ll have a basic itinerary of places that I want to visit and then see what happens when I get there, if I don’t feel anything I’ll move on. If something moves me and I think it is worth being there for golden hour, I will organise to stay the night. Obviously with this approach, the weather also plays a part. Flexibility is important and I have to work with what I am given, which isn’t always the shot that I have in mind, but something even better might reveal itself instead. I find sitting with the landscape, observing it, and watching the light play to be so rewarding, and good for the soul!

"A Remarkable Peak" by Sarah Smith

"I lived with this mountain in my backyard for 15 years in Queenstown NZ. This image reminds me of the excitement and fear that can be found in adventure. Taken at 6.47am, it was one of the first and last photographs I took during the day. At this point in the journey, I was loving the light as the sun rose to illuminate Double Cone and Single Cone, it was great to be alive. Seeing the path I was about to take stretched out in front of me, evoked some trepidation but this traverse had been on my list for months. Today was the day, or so I thought. A few hours later, I found myself sliding down the Grand Couloir as I frantically tried to self-arrest. Eventually stopped by the rope I was attached to, I could no longer walk. A heli-vac off the mountain to hospital revealed that I had broken my ankle and would be in cast for 6 weeks. Dangerous and inspiring places those mountains."

What do you enjoy most when out in the wilderness?

I enjoy the pace of the wilderness. I find it has a slower and more purposeful approach and provides the space and peace that I need in my life when it all gets a little too much. I try to convey this feeling and emotion in the images I create.

What would you recommend to beginner photographers if they are thinking about entering the landscape/travel genre?

I think becoming familiar with your equipment and what it is capable of is important. Your equipment should be an old friend that works with you, not against you and it should not stand in the way of you creating the images you envisage. I upgraded my equipment 6 years ago and am still learning new ways that I can use it today, even though it is very out of date now. At the time I upgraded, I was excited about the possibilities, but soon realised just how well I knew my old equipment. I had to slow down and learn how to do things that I could previously do instinctively on my old gear. At times, I wondered if I'd made the right decision in upgrading!

I also think researching a place and learning what is special or unique about it is critical. I will often read about a place to discover what possibilities there are. Once there I spend some time observing the location and the landscape. It is only after immersing myself in a place and the experience it is offering that I begin to notice the emotions and feelings it evokes within me and then I can begin to make my images and my interpretation of my experience.

By Sarah Smith