Photographer Christopher Smith has accomplished much in his 34 short years on this Earth. A quick scroll through the Jersey City resident’s Instagram (@_satellites_) illustrates his astounding drone footage locally and all over the world. Smith’s portfolio is a powerful showcase of his ability to create vibrant still lifes, sweeping landscapes, and distinguished celebrity portraits. At first glance, one would think Smith always had his eyes set on a career in photography. However, that wasn’t always the case.
Originally from Lavallette, NJ, Smith grew up fascinated with the outdoors. As a child, he was always near the water—either snorkeling or surfing. To Smith, photography was recreation. He was originally planning for a career in marine science when he answered an ad posted by a celebrity photo agency in Manhattan. “It came out of nowhere. They were looking for someone local, and I was curious,” he said. Not long after, Smith found himself walking the edges of red carpets and concert halls.”
Although he chose to pursue photography, rather than marine science, he believes the two interests have “sprung from the same place,” his childhood in Ocean County. In any path he chooses, the vastness and enormity of the ocean seem to be the thread that connects it all.
His work often represents extensive bodies of water and spacious landscapes, both through digital photography and drone. “It’s the most unifying feature. And something that I love and will always love. When my wife and I moved to the city, my one requirement was to live near the water. ”
After landing the agency job, Smith began commuting to the city from Ocean County to photograph celebrities at significant events (MTV Awards, etc.), turning his hobby into a thriving profession. As time passed, he traveled and incorporated his love of nature and wildlife in his work. Although he has fallen in love with drone photography, his professional work still relies on digital SLRs. The Associated Press and Getty Images have since syndicated him and his work has been published in newspapers and magazines worldwide.
Smith often pulls concepts from the nature documentaries he watched as a kid. “David Attenborough is my number one inspiration. He’s somebody who loves what he does and does it [well] even though he’s in his nineties.” In terms of color and composition, Smith looks to the master painters of past centuries. “There’s a lot of mathematics in their work, a lot of planning. I started finding these patterns showing up in my photography by accident, so I think there’s some sort of fundamental attraction that humans have to these compositional elements that these painters used.” Once Smith started picking these elements apart, he was able to understand what makes a good photo, utilizing the basics to produce greater depth to his work.
“It’s all math, essentially, ratios. The rule of thirds is a door you open up, and there’s a whole world on the other side. I started seeing compositional relationships. In school, I thought math was just equations. It turns out real math, what mathematicians do, is all about problem-solving and relationships, which is much more interesting.”
Smith still carries what he learned through his years studying science. He finds the scientific method can be useful when approaching his work. “I think, in general, [the scientific method] is something that you can apply to a lot of different areas of your life. Taking a systematic approach to photography is probably the main thing that I’ve been able to transfer from my background in science.”
The scientific method observes the natural world, as Smith does through his lens, and collects data. In photography, the data could be the weather, the settings on the camera, things of that nature. Each photo is an experiment, giving Smith the power to prove or dispute a theory. Each photo a chance for discovery.
His editing technique is to alter his photos as little as possible, with only minor adjustments to color or distraction. “I try to make the photos look the way the scene would look with your eye. I don’t like to go overboard with filtering, but I do usually work the photo a little to try to give it more atmosphere.”
His goal is to bring out the most natural reaction in a person as if one is standing there witnessing the moment alongside him. “I think our subjective reality has a lot to do with our emotion at that moment, so when you’re standing on a mountain, and there’s a sunset in front of you, and the foliage is changing, I think you see something very different than what the camera captures.”
A recent aerial photo published to Smith’s Instagram features a campsite half-submerged in lake water. Surrounding the cabin are vibrant shades of yellows, reds, and greens, colors from the shifting foliage of Onchiota, New York.
“I’m working on a series right now that’s exclusively aerial view photography. It’s more abstract, landscape orientated, and heavily involved in mathematics and fractals and how they pop up in nature. That’s the direction I’ve been going in my personal work.” In 2015, The FAA lifted its commercial drone operations restrictions, allowing Smith to apply for a license. Shortly after, his company was one of the first in New Jersey to receive one. The drone imagery has now become a signature element of his social media aesthetic.
“Instagram works a little bit differently than an art gallery. You have to have that ‘wow.’ Something a little bit more over the top than my style necessarily leans towards. My minimalistic work doesn’t have many colors and it’s pattern-based. The abstract doesn’t do well on social media. I’m okay with that, but it’s interesting to see these patterns just popping up all through nature. It does better as printed photos than some tiny square on someone’s feed.”
While Smith recognizes social media as a tool for good, he does notice the change it brings to the field. “There’s almost a disposable quality to photography now, I think, and that’s a little bit unfortunate. You have something out there, and within hours, it’s like it never existed.” But it’s a supply and demand issue as well. Social media has made the supply limitless, making it harder for a new photographer to carve out a niche for themselves. It’s got a lot to do with just an overabundance of really [excellent] work. There are a lot of talented people out there, so much good work. [Social media] isn’t so much a negative as it is a game-changer.”
At the moment, Smith is continuing to work on upcoming projects from home and making time for his wife and parents. The pandemic that hit the East Coast mid-March has made it almost impossible to retain job normalcy. “The change has been earth-shattering,” he said, “50 percent of my career is on hold at the moment.”
As is, New Jersey state restrictions caused large photo agencies to cut the number of photographers hired, ensuring limited exposure to those in attendance. Exhibitions, contests, and celebrations have all been canceled or postponed. Smith has not been able to travel outside of the country and only recently has been comfortable taking trips along the East Coast. However, he’s stayed patient and positive throughout. “For the time being, I’m getting as much work done as I can.”
Smith has no problem staying busy. A few weeks ago, he was capturing drone photos from the Adirondack Mountains. This week, he’s editing, updating his Instagram with chromatic views of fall foliage across the East Coast. He’s almost finished putting together a book—although he hasn’t settled on a title. All told, whether he is studying scientific theories, the stylings of the Renaissance, or teaching himself to fly a drone, Christopher Smith continues to find ways to stay in flight.