True vision: An interview with celebrity photographer Matthew Jordan Smith

From capturing Aretha to Oprah, tales and tips from a photographer to the stars

Photographer Matthew Jordan Smith
Matthew Jordan Smith

Photographer Matthew Jordan Smith spends his time photographing celebrities, beauty, and fashion — but his start was a little less glamorous. Developing film in the bathroom with a camera gifted by his father, Smith quickly fell in love with the art form and launched a career after working as a photo assistant after college.

Now, Smith’s portfolio includes images of Oprah, Aretha Franklin, Queen Latifah, Angela Basset, Tyra Banks, and Mandy Moore, to name a few. Along with working as a celebrity photographer, the Nikon ambassador is also known for work in beauty and fashion. Smith has also published three photography books and leads the Master Your Lens podcast.

How did you get started in photography?

My father gave me a camera when I was 12. I’ve been in love with it ever since. From there, I went to art school and trained in photography. I moved to New York and worked as a photo assistant for three years with some amazing fashion photographers. From there, I went on my own. I’ve been shooting for myself ever since.

Who are some of the most memorable celebrities that you’ve been able to photograph?

Oprah was a favorite because she’s amazing. Tyra Banks has been an amazing one that I’ve shot for forever. One of my longtime clients just passed away, Aretha Franklin. I shot her for the last 14 years and we were actually in the midst of planning a shoot when she passed away. I have so many favorites, I just love the industry, it’s been very good to me.

What was it like to meet Aretha?

The first time? Intimidating. She definitely was a diva. But then she became very close. When you are doing portraits in this way, it becomes very personal.  One day, I got a call at two in the morning. It was Aretha Franklin and she was calling to ask me my opinion on the name of her CD. I was like, is this a dream?

But that happens often with people, you develop a relationship and then you become friends, evolve and just get together and make pictures. Because we had this relationship based on photography, you get incredible images. I love this industry.

What’s one of the craziest things that has happened to you in your photography career?

I was speaking in New York at Focus Expo a few years ago. There was a guy in the audience that heard me speak and approached me afterwards. Long story short, he ended up hiring me to go to China to photograph 30 celebrities in China for a month.

Shadows and light portrait | Photographer Matthew Jordan Smith
Matthew Jordan Smith

There are so many crazy stories that have happened in this crazy industry that’s taken me all around the world. Iceland, the North Pole, India. I now live in Japan. I was born in New York, raised in South Carolina and went back to New York to begin my career. Now, I’m based in Tokyo, I work in Tokyo, New York and LA. I never would have thought that was possible as a kid.

What is one of the hardest things about your job?

The hardest thing about being a photographer I think is staying inspired. I’ve been out shooting for 31 years and there’s a period where I lived in LA. In LA, I didn’t feel inspired because most of my life has been in a big city. Being in a big city, you are inspired by everything around you. I missed that living in LA [which just wasn’t big enough].

Now I live in Tokyo and it’s that same inspiration again. I think you always have to look for inspiration and if you are a new photographer, you have to understand that your inspiration comes from your life, not from looking at other people and what they are doing, but from your life. You have to get out and live a full life to put that in your work. So the hardest thing is staying inspired and then finding things that inspire you constantly and putting that in your work. 

Over your career, how has camera technology changed?

My first roll of film, my father turned the bathroom into a makeshift darkroom, so we could print my first pictures, which I still have. Now, instead of shooting one roll of film and worrying about how much it costs to shoot one roll of film, you can shoot as much as you want. You can shoot movies and thousands of images. It’s easier than ever before.

But the one thing that’s consistent, that will always be consistent, is that you have to have your own vision. To do it as a career — and be successful — you always have to have a vision. That will always be true, and that will separate those who are successful from those who are not. True vision.

Two Sides of Tyra Banks | Photographer Matthew Jordan Smith
Matthew Jordan Smith

Just in the last year, photography has changed quite a bit. What do you think about full frame mirrorless? Is full frame mirrorless the future?

I think mirrorless is another tool. I don’t think that it’s going to take away from the DSLR, it’s just another paintbrush for us to have to create great images with. I now love shooting with mirrorless. I love having my D850 [DSLR], but I like the opportunities that mirrorless [cameras] have given me in terms of shooting video and in terms of shooting silently. 

To shoot silently opens another atmosphere for photographers. People tend to time a picture when they can hear the shutter going off or when they can see a flash going off. But to shoot silently gives you another feeling in your images. It’s quite amazing. That one small feature. Also, to be able to see with EVF as you shoot and keep creating versus stopping the moment to look down [at the LCD].

So that’s opened another avenue for us and I love where it’s going and I think it’s just going to keep evolving. As it evolves, photographers should not be scared of the evolution, but embrace it, take it, use it, and thrive.

Any advice for new photographers that are just starting out?

My best advice to give new photographers is to learn the basics. No matter where photography goes, learning that foundation will open up another world. Learn the foundation, and find your own voice. That’s going to open up an amazing opportunity for a great career.

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