Before Don Smith started receiving photo assignments from some of the premier publications in the world, he cut his teeth shooting local sports events for the Hollister Free Lance.
“I shot every high school or Little League game, and I didn’t care what was thrown my way,” said Smith, a longtime Hollister resident who recently wrapped up a 27-year career as the San Jose Sharks team photographer. “It was my craft.”
Smith has treated his craft like a lifelong project. Along with being gifted with some serious talent, Smith’s indefatigable work ethic and passion are the main reasons why he’s shot for Sports Illustrated, Outdoor Photographer Magazine, Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, the New York Times, USA Today, and ESPN The Magazine, just to name a few.
The 62-year-old Smith credits his passion and zeal for all things photography as key to capturing a shot that makes people’s jaws drop.
“It really comes down to hard work,” said Smith, who runs a highly successful landscaping photography business. “I can teach you everything you need to know about the camera, lighting, the composition—all of those things. But what I can’t do is take my passion and put it inside of you. To do well at anything, you have to have a passion that drives you every single day. For whatever reason in the 40 years I’ve been doing this, that passion has never left me. In fact, it probably burns as much as it does today than when I first picked up the camera. I want to continually get better at what I’m doing.”
At an age when most people are slowing down, Smith is in fifth gear, with no letup in sight. In the spring, Smith went through a brutal stretch in which he didn’t take a day off for three consecutive months. Smith spent that period shooting Sharks games and literally traveling the world for his photo landscaping business.
Smith teaches 18 landscape-based workshops per year in locations throughout the world. When Smith is not holding a workshop, he’s on a plane scouting out destinations for the locations of his future workshops (past workshop locations include New Zealand, Namibia and Patagonia, just to name a few).
A bunch of his work has been displayed in calendars, greeting cards and worldwide in the Getty Museums of Art. Although landscape photography is Smith’s current and future business, he will always have a soft spot in his heart for sports. After all, in addition to being the Sharks team photographer, Smith spent 20-plus years shooting NFL and MLB games.
“I grew up a sports nut because my dad was a sports nut,” Smith said. “I played baseball, but the sport I really wanted to excel at was skiing.”
Smith had a goal to make the U.S. Winter Olympics team, but chronic knee issues helped derail those plans. After working for a year as a ski race coach at Dodge Ridge, Smith returned to San Jose State to earn his journalism degree. That’s when a conversation with his parents and his academic advisor, Joe Swann, led him to a life-altering decision.
“He (Swann) called me into his office one day and told me you either become a writer or a photographer,” Smith said. “He said the ones that try to do both usually don’t do well. That really hit me and I came home and talked about it with my parents. They asked me, ‘What do you like the most?’ When my parents asked that, it was a no-brainer. That is when I put all of my attention to being a good photographer.”
Smith spent a semester shooting sports for the college’s newspaper, the Spartan Daily.
“There were 15 people on staff and I was the only guy who wanted to shoot sports on a regular basis,” he said.
Smith shot for 10 years before he earned his first sideline credential to shoot NFL games. While shooting MLB, NHL and NFL games, Smith’s goal was the same for every assignment: take a great shot that brings viewers literally into the action on a magnified scale. Put it this way: through the human eyes, viewers are looking through a 50 millimeter lens. But when Smith takes a shot with an 800 millimeter lens, it literally blows up a scene and brings it to life.
“I want to get people inside the action and show them something they can’t see,” he said. “TV does a good job of that nowadays. I want them to see the grimace on the face of the running back and see the connection of where the puck goes into the goalie’s pads. That part of sports photography I love to no end, and it intrigued the hell out of me.”
Smith has tremendous hand-eye coordination, with the ability to find the athletes, focus on them and get the shot even when the action is going fast and furious. Although being an expert on the technical side matters, Smith also needed to be a de facto expert on the sport he was shooting in order to produce an iconic image.
In his tenure with the Sharks, Smith said he had to be into the sport as much if not more than the players themselves.
“In hockey, I became a student of the game,” he said. “I would pick the coaches’ brains like you wouldn’t believe.”
Smith spent plenty of time with former Sharks broadcaster Drew Remenda, poring over tape and video.
“I wanted to know structured plays and what the defensemen were thinking,” he said. “There were three to four plays the Sharks would run, and to this day I knew where the guys would set up. I tried to read the game, follow them on TV when they were on the road and see plays develop. I would talk to some of the players, and they would share some insights with me that helped me understand the nuances of the game.”
When Smith was on top of his game, the shots he took seemingly happened in slow motion. He described it as being in a zone or flow, where the body and mind is synced up. When Smith was in the flow, it was easy for him to follow the action and almost predict where the puck was going to go.
The word great is tossed around liberally nowadays, somewhat devaluing what true greatness is. But great is an apt description of Smith’s work. One look at some of his iconic shots—which are available to see at donsmithphotography.com—demands equal parts awe, admiration and superlatives.
Smith’s favorite sports photo was capturing the highlight-reel goal from the Sharks’ Tomas Hertl on Oct. 8, 2013. At the time, Hertl was a 19-year-old rookie who had just scored his fourth goal of the game on an unbelievable play in which he unleashed a backhanded reverse shot through his legs past former Rangers goalie Marty Biron.
“As Hertl came down I knew I had one pop at this,” Smith said. “He came in front of the goalie and I remember pulling the trigger, but for some reason I hesitated and all of a sudden I see the stick go through his legs. I fired the shot, the place went nuts, but when the frame was firing, for a split second I lost the action. I remember telling myself that I didn’t see the puck. I hit the replay button and sure enough the puck was going off the goalie’s pads with Hertl looking back at him and the stick between his legs. Still to this day it’s the most amazing play I’ve ever seen.”
When asked about his all-time favorite landscape shot, Smith said, “That’s a tough one.” But he pointed to a road lined with eucalyptus trees in San Benito County off Fairview Road. Smith had driven the road before and knew if he could get there and take a shot as the fog was rising with the mist, it would be a shot of epic proportions.
That’s exactly what happened, as Smith staked out the site and took a shot that produced an ethereal image. That iconic shot has appeared in 18 books, including on the cover of The Life and Love of Trees by Lewis Blackwell. The book was celebrated on the Ellen DeGeneres show and oprah.com, making the shot Smith’s most successful from a sales standpoint.
“It’s probably the highest selling stock photo I have out there,” he said. “I have to give a lot of credit to my wife (Beri).”
It was Beri who initially said the specific area would make a great landscape picture, and her intuition proved prescient. Beri is an Independent Study teacher at San Benito High School, the place where the Smiths met. Married for 28 years, Don was in his second year at the school teaching photo classes and running the school yearbook and newspaper, and Beri was in her first year of teaching at the school.
They got paired up in a teacher buddy program, and “the next thing you knew we were getting married.” It actually took two months before the couple went out after Don initially asked Beri out on a date, as Don had some crazy traveling requirements for work. Don got interested in landscape photography upon seeing the work of the late Galen Rowell, a renowned adventure photojournalist and climber.
Smith and his family were on vacation in Bishop when they stopped by Rowell’s Gallery in nearby Mammoth.
“I walked in that gallery and was blown away,” said Smith, who also counts Ansel Adams as one of his huge influences in landscape photography. “After about an hour, I was still there with my mouth wide open. I spent three to four hours perusing all of his work and talking with some of his employees. It lit a fire under me, and I told my wife on my way back to Mammoth I’m going to set a goal to shoot a landscape once a week. Little did I know, it caught fire and consumed me. Every spare time I had I was running up to Yosemite and the eastern side of the Sierra and capturing this light Galen Rowell captured.”
It’s light that really makes images work, and photographers sometimes prepare for hours—and depending on a shoot, days—to be in the perfect position to capture a once in a lifetime shot. When Smith met renowned photographer Gary Hart 13 years ago, it started an incredible friendship that lasts to this day.
“He taught me the workshop business and told me in two years that I needed to start doing these on my own, and that he would help me,” said Smith, who did his first two workshops at Big Sur upon Hart’s recommendation. “Who would’ve figured way back then it would’ve turned out like this.”
Smith has a lifetime credential to shoot Sharks games an honor probably bestowed to only one or two other individuals. Smith’s professionalism and performance endeared him to many inside the organization, and he’ll value the relationships he built more than the shots he took. At an age when most people are looking forward to retirement, Smith couldn’t be more excited about the future.
“It’s been a fun adventure from the start,” he said. “Who knows when the finish will be? I’ll have fun with it, keep on traveling and shooting away. I feel really blessed to be doing exactly what I’ve wanted to do. It hasn’t been easy, and I rarely take a day off in this business. But it doesn’t feel like work.”