Magazine Article


Vision & Versatility
Stock photographer Ian Macdonald-Smith uses his creative vision to maintain a steady and versatile business

© Ian Macdonald-Smith

© Ian Macdonald-Smith

© Ian Macdonald-Smith

© Ian Macdonald-Smith

© Ian Macdonald-Smith

© Ian Macdonald-Smith

© Ian Macdonald-Smith

© Ian Macdonald-Smith

© Ian Macdonald-Smith

© Ian Macdonald-Smith

© Ian Macdonald-Smith

Ian Macdonald-Smith wears many hats in this industry. A stock photographer for more than 22 years, he shoots travel, landscape, and architectural photographs, among other genres. An environmental activist with a predilection for variety, Macdonald-Smith is enraptured with life, and with capturing it in water (see "Photography: The New Artistic Frontier" on page 16), on land, and sometimes in its more abstract forms. "My taste is for abstract or graphic fine-art photography, so the way I see things is very different from other photographers," he says.

Macdonald-Smith is a visionary with a cause, impassioned by what he sees as the subtleties of reality, oftentimes overlooked by the less observant. "We are paid to observe," he explains. "The technical side is important because you have to capture what you see, but you have to have a vision in the first place. All photographers are--and must be--visionaries. Whether it's someone buying a book, someone buying a print, or someone who's commissioning you, you have to sell that vision."

It's this vision that's smitten his clients and got the photo industry talking. With sponsorships from Olympus, Tamrac, and Nik Software, six books published, as well as three books due out in the next 18 months, Macdonald-Smith balances his stock photography with more personal projects, while remaining an activist for environmental issues. "I've co-founded three environmental NGOs and a foundation," he explains.


Though Bermuda is his main market, especially for architecture and tourism, Macdonald-Smith also shoots for various companies and clientele. "I'm not a generic stock shooter, in that I'm not told by agencies where to shoot," he says. "I survived in this industry mostly through my books. I also have my website, which is a stock library."

For the last 10 years, Macdonald-Smith has been traveling as much as he can, gathering images for both his cyber stock library and for his various photography books. He rarely uses assistants, and he usually camps out in his VW for six-month stretches in Europe. "When you're on the road for seven months, you can't be selling pictures to clients," he says. "So I rely on my website, which allows me to make prints, sell books, and sell to advertising agencies from my laptop. My computer is my office."

According to Macdonald-Smith, finding your shooting stride abroad becomes easier the longer you travel. "If I'm going out on the road, I want to be on the road for months, because that's when you really get into a great groove," he says. "You're creating every day, and your senses are being bombarded by all kinds of things. There's a new culture, language barriers; you've got to read guidebooks; you've got to feed yourself. If I'm in Bermuda, I have a base--but when I'm traveling, I have to be more flexible."

Maintaining a level of adaptability allows Macdonald-Smith to capture images for both his monetarily lucrative projects and his creatively profitable ventures. "When I did a book on Baillie Scott's architecture in England, I knew I was going to be gone for six or seven months," Macdonald-Smith explains. "It was the worst summer on record. What would've taken three months took four months. Although the Baillie Scott book was a commission, I also planned for stock to come from the project. I knew that only 240 images were going to make the book, but I still photographed 156 houses from different parts of the country."

And, as with all things, patience is a virtue. "Sometimes you're camping out for two days, just waiting for light on one façade," he says. "A lot of people look at these beautiful images, and they don't realize that you have to get up at 4:30 in the morning to capture them sometimes."

Macdonald-Smith is as meticulous about setting up his images as he is about taking them--scouting out spots with the best light, the strongest angles, and the most unique shapes.

"Composition has always been what I concentrate on and what I love--I apply that to everything that I have to do to stay alive," Macdonald-Smith explains. "If I'm shooting stock, and I know I want a shot of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, I'm going to be there morning, noon, and night. I'm going to look at it in the right light. I'm going to try to find an angle that works. I want to get something that's good and dynamic, that's going to make people want it for a particular reason."


Depending on the project, Macdonald-Smith will vary his lighting arrangement. "I'll do interiors for architecture, which usually needs to be well lit," he says. "There are also times when I don't want sunlight--I want to have all the colors saturated. And other times the best light is midday--you put a polarizer filter on your camera and you get great skies, stark contrasts, and beautiful light on a building."

Macdonald-Smith says that newer DSLR flash technology has improved the lighting situation for most photographers. "I prefer to control my lighting, but I also need time to do that," he explains. "Olympus now has a system where you can utilize multiple flashes, three or four at once. Most of the time, it's enough to light a room.

"I use Olympus DSLRs--their glass is amazing," he adds. "Their dust-reduction system is great, so dust is not a problem. I don't need to keep cleaning the sensors because the sensors are automatically cleaned every time I turn the camera on. The E-3 and their two lenses are waterproof--so it's very rugged equipment with edge-to-edge sharpness."

However cutting edge Macdonald-Smith's images are, he still adheres to the old-school mantra of capturing the image right in the camera, before playing with it in post-production. In fact, Macdonald-Smith tries to do as little post-production work as possible. "I always try to get the majority of what I can get done in the camera," he says. "I'll use graduated-density filters for balancing foregrounds and skies, but I want to control that in the camera."


Throughout his career, Macdonald-Smith has relied heavily on his book sales to supplement his business. "Books have provided me with constant, steady income," he says. "I took risks 18 years ago. Bermuda was my market, and tourism was thriving then. I realized that I had something to offer. I self-published a couple of books, and they're still selling. The books have really kept me alive from a bread-and-butter perspective."

Print sales have also remained profitable for Macdonald-Smith. "My print sales are another facet of my business that's successful, because of the range of photography that I do," Macdonald-Smith says. "I have good relationships with interior designers who like working with me. It allows me the opportunity to be creative with some of these companies. A lot of the businesspeople I work with are creative in what they do--otherwise they wouldn't be successful in business."

Macdonald-Smith sells photographs to companies to hang on their walls, and he even helps interior designers persuade their clients which series of his to choose. "So I'm basically decorating their office, and enlivening their space by the placement of my art," he says. "You have to do everything to stay afloat in this economy. The reality of it is that I'm a publisher, I'm a book-delivery service, and I'm a warehouse guy. Every day is varied."

Working with interior designers, art directors, and clients directly, Macdonald-Smith is open to new ideas. He says that collaboration is a necessity. "You have to try to swim with the current," he says. "You can try to swim upriver, but you'll get exhausted."

And for Macdonald-Smith, quality service means creating a healthy working relationship with those around you. "I just photographed a $150 million building for an architect," he says. "They're submitting the image for an award, so they need the imagery to sell their building. They want you to work hard and get them the image. They also want you to be easy to work with. It's about breaking the ice with people, and making people laugh. As you get older, you realize that everybody needs somebody--and we all have to serve somebody, I don't care who you are."

As for settling down, Macdonald-Smith says it's not an option. To paraphrase what the famous 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol once said about his literature, if he's not photographing life, then he's not living: "Retirement is not in my vocabulary. I do what I do because I love doing it, and I want to do it until the day I die."

For more on Macdonald-Smith's work, go to

Photography: The new Artistic Frontier
Ian Macdonald-Smith Finds Inspiration in Abstract Expressionism

Judging from Ian Macdonald-Smith's "Water Reflections" series, it's no surprise that he's a big fan of abstract expressionism. Inspired by painters like Jackson Pollock and Joan Miró, he says that he is most interested in making parallels between their art and his own photography: "As a fine-art photographer I want to muddy the water between painting and photography, so that when people look at the image, they don't necessarily know whether it is a photograph or a painting."

With this project and with his other creative ventures, Macdonald-Smith blurs the lines between the spontaneity of a subjective surrealism and the more stylistically articulated aesthetic found in expressionist art. Another series of his called "Squiggles" is, in fact, the photographic equivalent of a Jackson Pollock, while his "White-on-White" photographs seem to echo--at least in their name--Mark Tobey's "White Writing" paintings. "With my White-on-White project, I'm one of the only people just working white, which I think is one of these interesting things," he says.

Taking cues from the father of photorealism, Chuck Close--another artist whose work mixes photography and painting--Macdonald-Smith says that with his "Water Reflections" series, he's doing something that he's never seen before in the art world. "There's a great interview with Chuck Close, who says that if you do something that no one else is doing, you actually own that vision," he explains. "I've got four series that I'm doing that no one else is doing my way--and I like that. ‘Water Reflections' is a unique project in that I'm not the artist; physics and the earth are the artist. All I am is a medium--I'm there at the right place, and nature is giving it to me an awesome light show."

Being prepared to capture those moments when the stars do line up is a craft in itself. "When I'm shooting into the water, I have no idea what I'm getting," he says. "The elements have all got to be there; you have to have a great subject that's well lit, it has to be reflected in the water, and the water conditions have to be exact--if the water conditions aren't exact, then you don't get the shot. But it moves so fast that you don't really know what you got until you look at it on the computer."

Retouching very little, his "Water Reflections" images are a combination of high-intensity light on very dark water. "I need great light on whatever is being reflected, but I also need dark-enough water for it to be able to hold the reflection," he explains. "In Photoshop, all I'll do is play around with the levels. Occasionally, there is something in the water that I'll take out. But sometimes, with the intricacies of the patterns and the lines in the water, you can't take it out--it would just take too long."

Balancing work with play isn't always easy, but Macdonald-Smith supplements personal projects with his book sales and stock photography. "There's always this conflict between nurturing the creative and staying afloat," he says. "You have to keep on making enough money to do projects that you love. It's feast or famine. When it's feast, you really have to do as well as you can do, realizing that you're going to have times when you're not going to be making a lot of money."

He says that for an artist there is, and should always be, a creative feast. "There's never a shortage of things to see, to look at, to photograph, and to discover--that's never the issue," he says. "Once you're actually living off of your art, you have a lifestyle that you want to maintain, which requires having the space, the time, and the freedom to exercise your vision."

And as far as expressing that vision goes, Macdonald-Smith says that there are still many unchartered territories in the field of photography to explore. "Photography is truly a creative frontier that still hasn't been mined," he explains.

When I asked him what he wants to achieve with this "Water Reflections" series, he says that it's just a photograph. "But it's a photograph that makes you look at life a little differently," he says. "Within these images, there are faces and shapes. This is abstract expressionism taken to the level where it becomes the viewer's expression: ‘What do you see in it?' I like that, because it really gets people to look at things from a different perspective."

Ian Macdonald-Smith's Gear Box

• Olympus E-3 and E-30

• Olympus 7-14mm, 12-60mm, 14-35mm, 35-105mm, 50-200mm, 90-250mm, 1.4x converter,
• Lee filters: graduated neutral-density 0.3, 0.6, and 0.9; polarizing filter

• Olympus FL-50R flashes
• Manfrotto NeoTec tripod
• Hoodman 16GB media cards and Hoodman card reader

• Mac Pro and MacBook Pro 17"
• Eizo ColorEdge CG242W monitor
• Wacom Cintiq 21UX
• Adobe CS4
• Nikon Capture NX 2
• Nik Software Complete Collection: Silver Efex Pro, Dfine 2.0, Viveza, Color Efex Pro, and Sharpener Pro 3.0