Prime focus – Matty Smith

I AM MATTY SMITH

MATTY SMITH IS AN AWARD-WINNING OCEAN WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHER WHO HAS BEEN A MEMBER OF THE NIKON AMBASSADOR TEAM SINCE 2014.

Matty Smith is a series of contradictions.

A fitness-loving thrill-seeker who went nose-to-nose with a 2.5 saltwater croc off the coast of Cuba, he is also the same man who has been turned off eating calamari forever after taking a cute picture of a charismatic juvenile squid. It should come as no surprise therefore that despite growing up in the landlocked town of Nottingham in the UK, Matty has held a lifelong obsession with the water.

Photo taken by Matty Smith

Raised by parents with a fairly large dollop of wanderlust, the 41-year-old distinctly remembers the moment when his passion for travel, exploration and the water first took a hold.

“At the tender age of nine during a holiday to Spain, on the Mediterranean Sea side, my dad bought my brother and I snorkel masks and fins. We were visiting a small town, I can’t remember its name, but it had a calm but very steep beach with a big underwater shelf that dropped away into the abyss. I remember quite clearly swimming over the edge of the drop with my Dad and looking down into the deep blue. Shafts of light from the overhead sun danced and weaved past us and I could see the faintest shimmer of silver from a large shoal of fish deep below us. That was the moment. My folks spent the rest of that holiday trying to get me out of the sea.”

An engineer by trade, Matty was 20 when after showing interest in pictures and camera gear, he inherited his first camera from a friend’s father. Attending night school to learn how to use his camera, he began honing his skills at the beach, taking photos of mates and others surfing, as well as the odd sand scape.

Photo taken by Matty Smith

But as his talent developed, so too did his need for better, more advanced equipment. In 2000, he purchased his first camera, a Nikon F80 together with some waterproof casing and his journey with Nikon began.

“My next big purchase was a second hand manual focus NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8 ED lens and its accompanying TC-14B teleconvertor, which I still own. It’s such a beautifully crisp lens and it came with its own Nikon, velvet-lined, hard carry case. I needed the quality and extra reach of this lens to shoot close ups of surfers, as the action is often a long way from the beach.”

Photo taken by Matty Smith

Matty’s professional career took off after he made the transition to digital photography. After ditching the dark room and buying a Nikon D200 DSLR, his work began getting noticed by UK-based surf magazine editors who began giving him commissions.

But drawn by the magnificence of the Pacific Ocean, he made the life altering decision to move to Australia in 2007 to fuel his creative obsession and see where his talent could take him.

A little overwhelmed by the large number of talented surf photographers already here, in 2011 he turned his attention from just above the waves to below. Having received his PADI diving accreditation a few years earlier, it was here his skills really started to escalate through regular diving, practice and experimentation. Professionally, at least, he has never looked back.

Photo taken by Matty Smith

Today Matty is one of the world’s foremost half-under, half-over photography authorities, being named the 2014 Australian Geographic ANZANG Nature Photographer of the Year and featuring in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition in the Natural History Museum in London.

It was off the back of this success Matty was invited to come onboard where he has worked closely with Nikon ever since, trialling and reviewing equipment and leading masterclasses to introduce others to the magic of the underwater world.

Matty says if executed well, an over/under photograph is a magical thing capable of transporting a view into another world.

Photo taken by Matty Smith

“I like shooting them not only because it sums up the way I feel about entering the ocean but they are always received with a bit of a ‘wow’ factor when exhibited. They catch people’s attention and inspire them to look closer. They capture my life long obsession and emotion in a single frame.”

Matty’s award-winning images have been seen in over 70 countries across five continents around the world including the Louvre in Paris and the Australian Museum in Sydney as well as across a number of influential print and broadcast media such as National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, Ocean Geographic, The Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Australian, the BBC, Channel 7 and the ABC.

Photo taken by Matty Smith

He also likes to give back. In addition to his charitable work, he regularly leads expeditions overseas where he mentors other would-be wildlife photographers, teaching them everything from lighting techniques to basic equipment use.

In doing so, he hopes to inspire as many as possible to take up the art.

“For me one of the most wondrous parts of any dive is the moment that the water engulfs my mask as my head slips below the surface. I think it’s the suspense of the unknown of what lies beneath, the transitional part of moving from one element to the next that feels so magical and the thought of what alien creatures I might encounter. That is what draws me to taking half over half underwater images. I try to convey to the viewer that majestic feeling in a picture format. It’s maybe the best way I can communicate to a non-diver of what it’s all about, to marry a wet and unfamiliar world with a dry and more familiar one.”

Matty Smith

What’s in Matty’s bag?

  • “I always travel with my pair of Nikon D810 camera bodies, you always need a backup. I had been working with Nikon about two weeks when I destroyed my first D810 camera. It was during an expedition to Cuba with Ocean Geographic mag to shoot American saltwater crocs. That was an awkward phone call to head office. When you take expensive electrical equipment into salt water on a day to day basis you will have an accident from time to time, as an ocean photographer the quicker you come to terms with that fact the better.”
  • “The Nikon D810 is a beautiful camera, the crisp high-resolution files it produces are a joy to work with, couple that with NIKKOR’s melt in the mouth optics and you have a match made in heaven.”
  • “To use with my pair of Nikon D810s my first go to lens in my NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR, it allows me to shoot anything in the ocean from about the size of a football up to a whale or reef scape vista, it’s my work horse really. Add to that my NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E Fisheye and my wide angle and extreme wide-angle options are covered. The advantage of the fisheye is it can focus extremely close so I can get very close to my small subjects and hero them in the frame whilst still including their habitat.”
  • “I also carry NIKKOR 60mm and 105mm f/2.8 micro lenses for shooting small and tiny macro subjects. There is little use for telephoto lenses underwater so I rarely carry them with me on trips, unless there is a specific above water subject I want to shoot.”
  • “When baggage allowance is going to be a serious problem I’ll take my Nikon D500 camera body instead of the Nikon D810, the camera is smaller and lighter and so is the water housing. It’s also a great option for macro subjects as the crop frame sensor gives me greater magnification and depth of field.”

See more of Matty’s work here, follow him on Instagram or like him on Facebook.

[Words by Tracey Porter]