The Photographer Project: Jennifer Smith

Portraits by Diana Deaver

What’s your birthdate?   June 28, 1968

When did you first pick up a camera?  Tell me about that.  When did you know you had a talent for photography?  Natural talent or learned process?

I’ve had all kinds of cameras over the years. Polaroids, Kodak Disc camera, a point-and-shoot that I sacrificed to perpetual mist in Cornwall. Pentax, Olympus, Fuji and a handful of Canon 5Ds. As charming as it would be to have some pivotal moment as a child “when it clicked,” I can’t fabricate such a tale. I made photos. At some point people said I had an eye for it. I was able to nurture this as a play-at-home mom when my kids were young. When I worked at the aquarium, I wrote articles and made portraits of fishermen at work. That led to my first wedding, a shrimper’s daughter married a McClellanville guy. A barefoot bride on a swing and a sunset with a shrimp boat, and I was hooked!

I believe having an eye for moments or composition can be a natural result of enjoying observation, but there are some components of photography that are absolutely learned and honed. 

What do you love to photograph?

I love to photograph vibrant slices of life, colorful personalities and moments – quiet, poignant, funny and joyful ones – that can tell a story.

You get to have dinner with 3 other people, alive or deceased.  With whom would you dine?  What would you ask them? 

May I pass on this question? I’d try not to talk with my mouth full. I’d rather sit around a fire pit chatting, sipping an IPA as puffy clouds breeze over the moon.

Do you know when you have a spectacular shot, or does that come about in the editing process?   I’m more skilled at capturing moments and personalities than creating art with filters, layers and editing wizardry. Most of the time I’ll know when I’ve gotten something to be proud of, but there are times, especially with kids on the move, that I may not gasp until images are loading onto my computer and I see it on a larger screen. This can also happen on a wedding day. I love to document connections and moments as they unfold naturally, but with hundreds of clicks throughout the day, I am not always aware of my favorites until later. That’s especially true with subtle moments. I’m always watching and anticipating, but sometimes it’s subtlety that speaks louder after the fact.

What makes you feel connected to your subject?    Great question! As both a bride and a mom, I have an immediate connection to many of my clients, having been in their situations. As part of a large family, I can also relate to the dynamics that can enhance or wreak havoc on a wedding day. Regarding family portraits, I sympathize with having to rally and dress a clan for photos that a dad is moaning about. Then there’s the groom-to-be, who really doesn’t want to give up a game day afternoon to have his photo taken. When I first started photographing friends and strangers, I was gobsmacked by how much psychology is involved with helping people feel comfortable with themselves and earning their trust. Empathy helps a lot. I’m not big on mini-sessions because I really enjoy having an hour to create posed portraits and hang around as people let their guard down. Some of my favorite, most real moments come at the end of a photo session when people have forgotten about my camera.

What are your thoughts on editing?  Like it or abhor it?  Do it yourself?     Ah, it really depends on the day and time you ask me that. It can be overwhelming in the middle of wedding mania to have a seemingly endless editing queue. That said, I edit my own files. I like to appraise each one. I continually learn from skimming each frame, seeing what I’ve photographed that can stand the test of time and identifying elements to make my next frames my best ones. (The only thing I outsource is when clients ask for body-altering retouching, as that really is a different skill set.)

Is there any genre of photography that you’d like to explore further?   I figure once I no longer have energy for long wedding days or toddler chasing, I can do more travel and landscape photography just for the sheer enjoyment of it. I prefer lifestyle, outdoorsy pursuits over intense studio work. Years ago, I worked for an agency in Boston. I was in account management and spent a day watching a photographer get a perfect shot of a glass of Crown Royal on the rocks. We tried different glasses, while he tweaked the lighting in tiny increments. All day. One photo. I know I don’t have the patience for that! I’m more of a big picture person.

What’s on your photographic bucket list?   Colorful places with different topography from Charleston. More helicopters, hilltops and hikes. In the green-is-my-favorite-color category, we have The Northern Lights, the Faroe Islands, Hawaii, New Zealand, Bali, Peru. Other dream trips include Scandinavia, Greece, Cuba, the Canadian Maritimes, Galapagos. Don’t get me wrong, I love field trips close to home, too, and frequently enjoy mini adventures, but bucket list tell me to dream big! Given my fondness for islands and clouds, I should probably add the Isle of Skye.

What inspires you?   Color, personalities, the human connection, playing outdoors, patterns in nature, light and shadow, perspective, landscapes, reflections, textures, the sky.  I have a deep fondness for islands and clouds.

How would you handle a difference of opinion with a client?   First, I think it’s critical to set expectations with clients as much as possible to avoid any issues later. I’m very up front with how I operate, the style I offer and my delivery times. After that, the handling can vary with a situation. With both weddings and portrait sessions, my goal is be helpful, receptive and relaxed, minimizing stress for clients. Wedding day logistics, family dynamics and even donning mascara while dressing toddlers after a busy beach day can be inherently stressful. Obviously, I do my best to set a tone that will result in images that are true to my clients’ personalities and connections. Honestly, in almost a decade of serving clients, I can count on one hand the times differing viewpoints couldn’t be resolved. I do my best to make things right, knowing that there will be rare cases where it’s out of my hands. From there, I do my best to learn and communicate better going forward.

What advice would you give an up and coming photographer?   Wow, this could take so many paths, depending on specifics. Simply, if you believe in your perspective, then share it. Be open to learning, be dedicated to your clients, be honest in your business tasks. Draw more inspiration from the world around you than from the photographers in your market. 

Are you involved in any kind of continuing education or professional groups?   I’ve engaged in a variety of continuing education over the years. I’m not keen on huge trade show events, but I love smaller gatherings. I try to take advantage of great opportunities close to home. Most recently, I attended the Fearless conference at the American Theater. Photographers from all over the world converged here, and only a handful of us were locals. It was so refreshing! Next up in March is a lighting class with 15 people taught by a local Charleston photographer. It’s good to maintain a healthy mix of inspiration and practical knowledge. 

What makes you feel loved?   Feeling like my unique qualities are useful. When I feel like I can add value or document something valuable and others appreciate my contribution.

What are your favorite conditions/lighting/circumstances to shoot?    Naturally, sunny days and ethereal backlight can be dreamy, but I’ve made memorable pictures in the fog, beneath clouds and in the rain as well. If I keep it more about the story than about the most Pinteresting editorial photo, it’s easy to embrace conditions beyond Charleston’s usually-perfect weather.

What are your social media handles?

Instagram: @jenphotosmith

FB: @carolinaphotosmith

Website: www.carolinaphotosmith.com

What makes you feel pretty?   Wind in my hair, sun on my face, although neither of those translates to actually looking pretty 😉 Being fit. (Yes, I remember those days.) Sporting a funky skirt with a fresh pedicure in sassy sandals. Makeup that doesn’t look overly contrived. I go without it more days than I apply it, so I feel pretty when I look put together.

Do you have any other thoughts or things to say about your profession?   I’m grateful to live in such a beautiful place and thankful to work with gracious people to document the here and now for later. I’ve had a lot of jobs prior to this 40-plus career, and I really enjoy being a photographer.

 Candids provided by Jennifer Smith

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