Patrick Smith on WHNPA recognition, photo assignments and Pickles

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“Cliche sounding I’m sure, but life is one big assignment. All I ask for is to be healthy and have a new photographic challenge every day.” — Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is a freelance photojournalist based in Baltimore, Md. whose work has been distributed and published by Getty Images, Reuters, New York Times, and The Baltimore Sun, to just name a few of the publications where you might have seen his name. Recognized as the Still Photographer of the Year by the White House News Photographers Association (WHNPA) in their 2013 Eyes of History competition, The Darkroom caught up with the Baltimore native, who dished on photographing the Penn State scandal, gear setup on shoots and his Pickles Pup photo series.

You’ve been honored as the 2013 Still Photographer of the Year by the White House News Photographers Association (WHNPA). Can you tell us about some of the memorable photos you’ve taken over the last year? Any compelling stories behind these photos?

It’s an honor to be recognized by the WHNPA – I’m very happy, humbled and proud. My body of work submitted ranged from a pictorial image in the rain, a long-term picture story on the Penn State Scandal, to local sports photos on nearby high school and professional fields.

Of all the images, I am most proud of the moments I documented during the Penn State scandal. I worked many weeks searching for telling-moments in a community that was consumed by tragic news for months. This image came after the statue of former legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was pulled to the ground. A funny story, my wife forced me out of bed to go shoot the news in “Happy Valley” for myself considering all the time I’d spent there. She said I needed closure to my prior photos shot there. I wasn’t assigned to this part of the story at first, but halfway up to Penn State, I got the call to cover it by my editors at Getty Images. While I missed the actual event of the statue coming down, after lots of waiting and shooting, I was able to capture this moment. I think everything about the image tells the entire story of the scandal: what was left, how the community felt and how they reacted.

Aside from taking photos for Getty, you’ve also freelanced for The Sun. Can you talk about some of your past assignments that helped you get recognized?

In 2008, I was the photo intern and have continued to freelance since. Most of my work for The Sun is sports related – I’ve covered everything from small weekday basketball games, sports entertainment wrestling, to high school championships, and Baltimore Ravens games. This past year for The Sun, I covered some prep football in amazing sunsetting light and the Maryland Cross Country State Finals, amongst other assignments. The latter was a fun day of shooting and turned into a nice photo essay. After shooting and transmitting, I wasn’t thrilled with my take. Yet after going back through, I realized that I had a lot of nice moments that impeccably documented the nightmare of a race that it was. I was able to sequence an alternative edit that I now love. I think this goes to show that there are stories and events to photograph right in our own backyards that have the potential to be extraordinary visually.

How did you get your start in photography? Was there a specific moment that made you think “this is what I want to do as a career”?

I am an athlete by nature. I have three older brothers who I grew up competing with at everything. In a way, photography is very competitive, not only with others, but yourself. After high school, I stopped playing sports and was interested in videography and documenting others worlds, but was missing that challenge sports provided me with. I quickly shifted from video to photography as an outlet of my artistic vision and combined it with my love for sports, which led me to newspapers. I really got my start photographing news and sports at Towson University for the student newspaper – The Towerlight. Once I joined the staff there, I dedicated every waking hour to learning my craft around other friends doing the same. I don’t remember a defining moment that made me want to do this as a career, but my peers and mentors have always driven and inspired me to continue to do what I love.

For the gear nerds, what’s your typical setup when you’re out in the field shooting?

To start, I am a Nikon shooter. My current daily kit consists of: two Nikon D4 camera bodies, a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 and a Nikon 70-200 f/2.8. For most assignments, this is my starting lineup because it’s versatile and I don’t need to carry anything extra. I like working light. For sports, I’ll use a Nikon 400mm f/2.8 and sometimes use a third camera body. I have a ton of other lenses, lights and gear, but the aforementioned is used daily.

Dream assignment? What would it be?

I get asked this a lot, and it’s one question I never have a clear answer to. Former Baltimore Sun photographer, and friend, David Hobby once asked me, if I could shoot one genre of photography for a large amount of money, what would it be. I still don’t really know the answer to that question. I’m a curious person, so I love to travel and experience new cultures and people. Not sure I’d enjoy that everyday though. Cliche sounding I’m sure, but life is one big assignment. All I ask for is to be healthy and have a new photographic challenge every day. I like shooting a bit of everything, so as long as it’s fresh and relevant – near or afar – I’d be happy.

Is being connected to technology and social media sites like Twitter and Instagram important as a freelance photographer?

I think marketing yourself is important no matter the outlet. I like meeting people in person, because the Internet can make us seem much different than we are in person. I try to keep up with it all, but sometimes it can be exhausting. As much as I disliked Instagram at first, I find myself always scrolling through my feed. I’m a photographer and like to have fun shooting the things I see daily – be it my food, my wife, my dog, or something on assignment. It keeps me seeing things creativity and keeps me excited about photography.

Speaking of Instagram, I’m a fan of yours. It’s a great mix of photos ranging from news assignments to candid family shots to your dog Pickles. Is there anything she can’t balance on her nose?

Thank you for following! It’s a lot of fun. As I just mentioned, it’s all cutting-room floor type of photos. The funny thing is, I started blogging my iPhone photos years ago, but it never had the social media aspect like Instagram. As for Pickles, my Golden Retriever, she is simply amazing. She keeps me sane when work is slow – and she really has taught me about patience. As you noticed, her best trick is balancing things on her head and nose. She gets a little better everyday, but when I try to go extreme, it’s usually too much. I’m not sure if you know, but she has a website, too:

Must-knows: Recommendations on current trends in the photo world, gadgets, photographers, books that are need-to-know that you’d recommend?

I love a ton a photographers, and their work. Everyone inspires me differently and I would feel bad leaving anyone out. But everything inspires me in different ways, from music and movies, to friends and family. So I won’t list all the of names of people, movies and music. As for technology, gadgets and such, not really! It’s pathetic, but I do love my iPhone and iPad if that counts for anything.

Any advice to photographers hoping to get noticed, paid, respected?

My advice is always the same to anyone: I think being an honest good-person is good advice. Everyone likes to smile and feel respected, so treat others as you expect to be treated. For photographers, they should also be good-humans, but remember when shooting to: take risks, be patient, and foster relationships.

For more about Patrick Smith: Website | Blog | Twitter | Instagram

Some answers have been edited, including for length and/or style.