Such great heights: photographer Nate Smith's aerial magic

Such great heights: photographer Nate Smith's aerial magic

Up in the air

Text: Yeong Sassall

Brooklyn Whelan introduces us to the work of surf-turned-aerial photographer Nate Smith

As a professional photographer, Nate Smith has chased down some of the ocean's biggest swells and the world's best surfers for most of his adult life. His images have graced the covers of the world's best surfing magazines and with over 20 years travel experience, he is now soaring to new heights as his work takes on a new direction. Now focused on land and cityscapes, I sit down with him to discover more about the man behind the images.

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How did you get into surf photography?
Well, I grew up near the ocean and was first thrown in the water as a baby. My mum had friends who surfed and my uncle also surfed, so I guess I was destined to play in the ocean in some form or another. Basically, like all kids, you grow up wanting to be the best at whatever you do and this led me to competing in a few surfing events.

I competed in a few WQS (World Qualifying Events) and spent a whole lot of time surfing, travelling and having fun. I was around photographers a lot and was always fascinated with what they were up to - I was really into art as a kid and I guess photography seemed like a cool medium. I won the Avoca Pines charity surf contest and the first place was a trip to the Mentawai Islands. Shortly after I won I had a really bad surfing accident in Umina Point and that sidelined me for about six months. I swapped my prize for a video camera (which I didn't like) and some cash, bought a still camera to kill time while I healed, and basically never stopped.

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Such great heights: photographer Nate Smith's aerial magic (фото 1)

You've been in some pretty heavy situations out in the water trying to get the perfect shot - tell me about one of them.
A couple of years ago I got clipped by the fin of a surfboard shooting fisheye water photos and it sliced my heel from one side to other, down to the bone. It took nine stitches and a few months out of the water. That's the worst by far, but there have been a few other close calls - dodging boards and getting and sucked over onto shallow reefs. It's all part of the job really.

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Such great heights: photographer Nate Smith's aerial magic (фото 2)

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Film vs digital? What are your thoughts?
Look, I really love film and the way it has its own feel and quirks, but it's not a viable option nowadays as we live in an instant world - everyone wants something done yesterday and with film you just can't do this. I have slowly over the years created almost the same look and feel of my film-shot images using digital, which is great, although I thought I would lose that once I went digital.

The one thing that bugs me about digital is that some people just go too overboard with what they can do in Photoshop. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should, if you know what I mean? I like photography to be kept simple and to let the images speak for themselves. Photography has become very complicated and fiddly, shooting panoramic and blending images and all that just isn't me. 

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Why the slow switch from sea to land - specifically cityscapes?
I've been involved with surfing, pro surfers and travelling for almost 20 years, which was awesome - it was like one huge apprenticeship. I've travelled to some really rad places and I've always had a very healthy appetite for photography in general, not just surfing. I have some killer images that no surf mag would ever be able to publish because they're just not relevant. I love our country and our beautiful Sydney, and whenever I'm around town I always have a camera on me, there is just a lot to see and photograph.

Before I started photography I was enrolled at Sydney University to study architecture, but surfing got in the way and I never went. I went to NYC in 2011 and was blown away by the architecture and just how good that city was to photograph, so when I got back to Sydney I saw things in a new way - which is great if you're creatively inclined.

I'm intrigued by Sydney's history and feel it should be documented. I'll continue to shoot surfing when I feel like it or even get back into surfing now that I have a bit more time, but for me, it's all about having my own creative freedom and working on projects or for companies that are going to reward me for the effort applied. 

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Such great heights: photographer Nate Smith's aerial magic (фото 3)

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How did the idea to hire a chopper to shoot Sydney's Vivid Lights come about?
Last year, I was involved with I-Manifest and Vivid as a guest artist speaker with a bunch of other industry types. We held a class with about 30 odd kids aged between 14 and 16 who were in some way all interested in careers in the arts. It was a really cool day. We were right there at Vivid on the harbour, but I missed it and never got [to see it] due to work commitments.

Vivid is really cool and super popular for photographers and I thought if I'm going to shoot it, I have to do it in a way that I haven't seen before. Being really interested in cityscape photography, I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone and shoot the city from above with all that extra light bouncing around. So I hired a helicopter, took a mate who could film it and my girlfriend as an 'assistant' (wink wink). Shooting Sydney from above was amazing, but tough because of the very low light. Shooting using a handheld in a helicopter in pitch black darkness was a real challenge, but for me to progress with photography you need to be challenged. 

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What's next for Nate Smith? 
I'll slowly and steadily continue on a more commercial path and will keep shooting things that once upon a time I couldn't concentrate on. I always love shooting new subjects and I believe (especially in this day and age), you just can't shoot one style or type of photography and really make ends meet. I'm always developing my skills so that I become more appealing for jobs. I've been shooting full time for the best part of 20 years and I feel that I'm in a position now to use that experience confidently and shoot some really cool things.

Last, but not least - warm or cold milk?
Given that my star sign is Leo the lion (a cat) - I'll take warm milk, thanks chesshy!

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