Don Smith Made The Switch

Don Smith has always been an early adopter of the best new technologies. In 2002, as a working sports photographer, he invested in the first widely available, reasonably affordable DSLR—the Canon EOS D30. In recent years, having traded sports for landscapes, Smith made another big switch—from a bulky DSLR to the next big thing: the Sony A7 line of mirrorless compact cameras.

“A lot of my colleagues said you’re crazy,” he says. “‘This digital thing is never going to catch on.’ I’m starting to see the same thing happen with mirrorless. I believe you have to keep your eye on the future if you want to survive in this business. And digital was going to be the future and I didn’t want to try to play catch up. I wanted to get out head of it and be on the front end.”

Smith has stayed on the cutting edge, albeit not before investing some time in testing mirrorless cameras. His first was a Fuji; he enjoyed the small size but found the camera itself lacking. It wasn’t until the Sony A7R that he felt he really had the right tool in his hands.

What I absolutely fell in love with first about mirrorless,” he says, “was that I was looking at what the sensor was going to capture. That was really the hook for me. I started hearing some really good things from my colleagues about the Sony A7R. I had been all Canon, and as a pro I never thought there would be any way that I would be thinking seriously about mirrorless. All I wanted was more dynamic range, and Sony was the first company in my opinion that started paying attention to what pros really wanted in cameras. They were building these phenomenal sensors and I was getting two-and-a-half to three stops more dynamic range than my Canon 5D Mark III. That’s not a knock on Canon; that’s just saying that somebody was being a little more progressive in these sensors. Canon just released this 50-megapixel camera. Even as a full-time landscape photographer that’s not really what I need. I have more than enough megapixels. What I want is more dynamic range.”

One of the biggest things for us landscape shooters is graduated neutral density filters. But I find myself reaching for the grads less and less and less now, because the dynamic range in these cameras has gotten so good that a couple of pictures I can either blend them or what have you, but with this Sony A7r II I don’t know, there’s not going to be too many situations that I’m going to be photographing I think where I’m going to need to reach for a grad anymore.

Smith loved the dynamic range of the first generation Sony A7 cameras, and he’s blown away by the new Sony A7r II. After one shoot, he was so impressed with the detail and dynamic range that he penned a blog post: Have We Achieved Human Vision?

I was shooting right back into the setting sun,” he says of his first test of the A7r II, “with fog and clouds. I chose a frame, took it into Lightroom and made a few adjustments and there it was. I just said ‘oh my gosh.’ I recovered all the highlights, even in the sun. If you put up a histogram there is no fully blown highlight there. The color, it was so vibrant. I was up with another photographer and we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. It was incredible. I can’t tell you unequivocally it’s replicating human vision, but it’s so close! This was an extreme lighting situation, so to be able to dive in and pull one frame and tweak it a little bit in Lightroom and go there it is, it was just incredible to me.”

Without a doubt the A7r and that’s why, so excited to have the A7r II. I was listening to some of my colleagues out there who had made the switch and were using the A7r with their Canon lenses. And they said they hadn’t picked up their Canon cameras in months. You will just fall in love again with the dynamic range.

Running workshops,” Smith says, “I get to see files that come off of all different cameras, and every time one would come off the Nikon D800 or D810—which use the same sensor as the Sony A7r—I would go, ‘Is this a blend of images?’ Oh no, that’s one image. I told my wife I have to catch up. At one point I really thought about selling off all my Canon gear and making a full switch over to Nikon. I went through this for about a month and I thought, no, the smarter way to do this is to get that Sony sensor in an A7R and get the camera and a Metabones adaptor so I can adapt to all my Canon glass and see how I like the camera. And that was it. I got that camera in my hands and I did not want to give it back. I told a workshop group at the time, ‘This is the most incredible camera I have ever had in my hands, the most incredible sensor I have ever worked with.’”

Smith has subsequently switched to all Sony glass to fully reap the benefit of the smaller system, and he’s pleased to have maintained the high standards for image quality he’s established throughout his nearly-40-year career.

“Sony is really ramping up the lenses,” he says. “The Batis and Loxia lenses, they teamed with Zeiss to build this glass. It’s incredible. I’ve been running tests against all the Canon Series II glass. I’ve read online reviews that are up and down, but every one of these lenses either meets or exceeds the sharpness of what I’m seeing in my Canon Series II glass. Really every lens is exceeding it. The 24-70 is easily as good. I’ve been shooting 40-plus years, so I’m doing from real life experience and just going out and shooting. I go out and I want to see how these cameras perform and these lenses perform under real situations that I am shooting in and the type of light I am shooting in. That’s going to be what I hold as the true benchmark for me.”

Smith is especially concerned with sharpness and dynamic range largely because he shoots in the type of challenging lighting situations that will accentuate any shortcoming. Most landscape photographers are lovers of light, but for Smith it’s the end-all, be-all. It’s a lesson he learned from one of his idols, pioneering mountain photographer Galen Rowell—who, coincidentally, used a “small” camera too.

I’m going to go back out to the Grand Canyon this year and have my A7r II and, you know, I have an A6000 and because they are mirrorless, I won’t get into the whole workings on how we capture lightning but it’s with a lightning trigger in the daytime and you have to have a millisecond range of 60 milliseconds or less, so the Canon 5D mark 3 I think spec out at .68 milliseconds. Well the Sony A7s, which I have, the Sony A6000 and now this Sony A7r II, all are specking out at about .22 or .24 milliseconds. Because there’s no mirror.

Living in California we don’t get that many storms. I will go up in the summer when I
have time to Yosemite, I’ll track the storms up there and if I think probability is high for a lightning shoot I’ll get up there in the back country. I’ve been up three times this summer, and been blanked all three times. So it’s hit and miss. My wife says that she thinks we all have death wishes that we want to stand out there in the middle of a lightning storm. You know I have a nurse once in one of my workshops who told me you’re absolutely nuts because I deal with lightning victims in Florida all the time. I know there’s a bit of a craziness to what we do, and I’m not advocating that people stand out in storms and shoot, but I know I guess I’m taking a calculated risk and people that really know lightning tell me that I’m an idiot and I know it’s so.

“I absolutely loved Galen’s work,” Smith says, “and it inspired me. At the time Galen was shooting there was sort of this dichotomy; as a serious landscape photographer you used a 4×5 or even an 8×10. And here’s this guy with a 35mm camera because he wanted it to be light because he is hiking and in the mountains. One of his famous quotes is, ‘My first thought is always of light.’ That has just stuck with me and has been my main thought process every time I go out to shoot. It sounds funny, but I am not really looking for a specific in the landscape to shoot, I first look for the light. Once I find the light, it can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. And I really learned that through the writing and the images of Galen Rowell.”

“When I was younger I was a ski racer,” he continues, “so I would see this incredible light, this glow, early in the morning—first light when it is hitting a distant peak—and late in the evening. That really resonated with me. Transfer it to anywhere I go now, I’m looking for the light! I just got back from a three-week trip through Europe. Whatever is there I will put with it at the time, but the light has to be number one, the very first thing I look at. I am not really what you would term a ‘middle of the day’ landscape shooter. Wherever I am, I’m on location 45 minutes prior to sunrise, and honestly if it’s a clear sky day, as soon as that sun crests and skims the horizon 50 minutes later, I may be done.”

At sunset, when the last light is fading, Smith says his Sony cameras really shine. At times like these the cameras in fact exceed human vision, producing low-light colors the naked eye just can’t see.

“A sunset can be a dime a dozen,” he says. “The light, for me, begins on a clear sky day after that sun has set and I’ve got maybe a half-hour to 45-minute window that I can really work the light. These digital cameras just opened up a whole new world to me, because even when our eyes can’t see the color anymore, when our cones start shutting down and it’s just the rods transmitting these black and white tones to our brain, these digital cameras obviously can still see that color. I just find it fascinating that I’m looking at a scene that is almost void of color, and I’ll do a long exposure and this gorgeous color is just popping up on the back on my LCD. It still fascinates me to this day.”

I do a workshop in Kauai every June and so one of the sunrise shoots that we do is we go to Hanalei Bay. And when we got up there we had some good light, but then a storm quickly developed. And suddenly it was pouring rain, pouring rain. So everybody got back in their cars. You can drive right onto the sand. So we had all our cars parked out there and people would say, why don’t we go down to the waterfall you were telling me about. And I said no, if you look behind you, this is what you have to anticipate, the sun is actually rising behind us. So where rainbows are going to be is if you stood anywhere with the sun out, and you looked down your shadow line, that’s where the apex of the rainbow is going to be and the sun just has to be at a low enough angle from where you’re looking to the intersection point, I believe it’s 42 degrees. Early in the day, late in the day, that is why you see the rainbows more. I said look if we catch a break in these clouds behind us, and with all this moisture in front of us, we could get a rainbow. I no sooner said those words that the far left portion of the rainbow started to appear and the rain stopped where we were standing, it was still raining out over the pier in the mountains and I said okay let’s get out there here comes a rainbow, and then a minute later it just developed into this whole park rainbow over the entire bay. This whole arching rainbow developed over the whole bay and the funny thing was, it just held for about 4-5 minutes, so everybody had a really good success at shooting this rainbow and we were the only photographers out there.

That’s why I’m out early. I call myself a fringe of the day shooter, because I work during the fringes of the day, by and large. If I’m in certain areas and we have good overcast light in the subject or with the subjects I will shoot it, but again to me what really excites me is light and the color that you get on the fringes of the day. So, that’s how I base my workshops too. We do the teaching in the middle of the day and on the fringes of the day that’s when we are out shooting. When the light is the best to give us the best opportunity.

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