What do you do when you get inspired by the pure beauty of coastal environments and you want to convey that experience to anyone who shows an interest? To get an answer to this question I spoke with Dutch nature photographer Jan Smit, winner in the category Plants and Fungi and highly commended in the category Landscape for the NPOTY contest 2017.
In this interview Jan explains how he grew into a photographer with a story to tell. And how his passion for photography converted into quality time with his son, with whom he runs a successful business focused on presentations, photo workshops and short stay photo trips. As professional photographers both Jan and his son Mart build up an impressive track record earned in multiple photo contests over the last 15 years.
“Since my early twenties I spent lots of time outdoors exploring the natural world. I was inspired by the wonders it beholds so I made studies of all the objects I could find on my path. I studied birds, shells, plants and stones and shared my knowledge through presentations and lectures with friends, family and anyone who was interested. Later on I started to photograph this world I was exploring to spice up my lectures. As my photography developed it became the main ingredient of my presentations and I gradually turned into a photographer with a story to tell.
I have always been keen on sharing my interests, both professional and in my social life. So I felt very lucky when my son picked up on photography. It was like the story of the apple and the tree… At the age of fourteen he won his fist prize. Since then photography became a serious activity for him and it boosted my photography as well. Can you imagine how blessed I feel spending lots of time together with Mart in a small tent experiencing phenomena like the midsummer night or the Northern light, or get soaked laying flat on our bellies capturing shorebirds like Sanderlings foraging along the shoreline.
Quality time together with Mart in a small tent, Jan Smit
About fifteen years ago my son and I started our photography business. Now the knowledge of the natural world I acquired comes in handy during the workshops and photo trips we provide and is much appreciated by our customers. Knowing what you are talking about inspires and adds to the experience. Since the beginning of 2020 I fully dedicate my time to photography. The presentations, workshops and photo trips started to consume so much time that my own photography activities started to diminish severely. So I gave up my ‘normal’ job and now I divide my time between our photography business activities and my own photography moments.
Initially the photographer Fred Hazelhoff was my source of inspiration. At present my inspiration comes from specific photos rather than from photographers. Expressing the experience plays a huge part. For me a great photo makes the viewer feel what the photographer experienced when he was on location.
Swan love, Jan Smit
This also influenced my personal style in photography. Take bird photography for example. At first I started to photograph birds in a more or less traditional way. Close up, perched and covering the frame from egde to egde, just showing what the bird looks like. Nowadays I try to add context to the bird, showing more of the environment they live in or elements in their behavior. I even got rid of my 500 mm telephoto lens and carry no more than 300 mm with me, allowing me much more freedom and possibilities in composition.
Besides bird photography I love to do (coastal) landscapes, natural phenomena like sea sparkle and Northern light and I put effort in night photography. In the feedback on my photos I hear terms like harmonious, pleasant to look at and expressing the experience. For me this feedback is a source of inspiration as well.”
Natural phenomena like sea sparkle and Northern light, Jan Smit
“With my photos I want to pass on my experience when I visit these overwhelming environments. It is my ambition to make the viewers see and feel something of my perception and to make them notice the value of nature. Nature is beautiful but fragile and we must treat it with great care. That is why I sometimes deliberately choose to photograph the effects of our careless behavior which poses a threat to the beauty of nature.
My place to go is the coast, albeit not necessarily the Dutch coast. Especially the Nordic coasts are favored. In coastal environments things constantly differ due to rapidly changing weather, tidal influences, the interaction between land and water, seasonal changes et cetera. Together with my son we published our book ‘By the sea‘ in which we give our impression of the dynamic character of the coast. The book shows different aspects, like birds and landscapes but also what the coast does to its visitors in a more psychological manner, the feelings it brings upon people. The photos in the book are supported by the stories and vice versa.”
The dynamic character of the coast, Jan Smit
“Photography competitions such as Nature Photographer of the Year (NPOTY) provide a great platform for photographers to come together and showcase their best work. It offers opportunities to meet other photographers, to get to know them and to get inspired by their work. And from a business point of view, competitions are a great way to get your work published to the wider audience.
Entering competitions like NPOTY also forces you to be critical at your own work. You have to select your best photos from an objective point of view, not the photos that bring up your best memories. Try to look through the eyes of the jury and ‘kill your darlings’ if necessary.
My message to new competitors is: don’t be afraid of rejection. Competitions are always subjective. Every competition has another jury, which means other preferences and other views on photography. Learn from your fellow competitors and from the choices the jury makes and their comments to it. Always remember you will have to be original if you want to be successful. Don’t imitate but look in your portfolio for photos which show your subject in an unexpected manner.”
Juvenile Cormorant picking flies from the glass in a hide-out, Jan Smit
To finish the interview I asked Jan the following question: “if you could ask another nature photographer one question, who would that be and which question would you ask?”
“That is a difficult question. I would ask photographers in general how they deal with all photos they bring home. Each trip adds another couple of hundreds or even thousands of photos to your archive. How do you decide which ones to keep, which ones to publish? What do you do with the photos that you don’t select in your first (or even second or third) pick? I do welcome suggestions on this topic.”
Pass on my experience when I visit these overwhelming environments (Faeröer), Jan Smit