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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

For The Love Of It

Frank Smith brings a passion and purpose to his photography that proves the true meaning of the word “amateur”

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Yet his pictures remained steadfastly analog through the 1990s, even as digital imaging took the photo world by storm. Then, in 2003, a group of fellow outdoor enthusiasts Smith was traveling with ganged up on him and made him get a digital point-and-shoot. "I told everybody I was buying this camera just to get a feel for it and that I'd never abandon film," he says. "Long story short, I never went back."

The late bloomer made up for lost time. Smith graduated to a digital SLR, investing in an Olympus EVOLT E-300 even before the company happened to move its American headquarters from Long Island to Center Valley, the town right next to Bethlehem. He graduated to an E-510 and then to the top-of-the-line Olympus E-3. And when Olympus came out with its PEN Micro Four Thirds line, he got an E-P2, then an E-P3. The appeal of these mirrorless models was reinforced by the fact that they had the same-size sensors—and, therefore, image quality on par with—the Olympus E-5 that had become Smith's preferred DSLR.

"The Micro Four Thirds system is both physically smaller and lighter, including the glass," he explains. "That makes it easier to travel with, and affords me opportunities to get into places I wouldn't be able to if I were using full-sized equipment. The smaller size is less invasive and less intimidating to subjects. In Haiti and India, when I asked if I could shoot in areas normally off-limits to visitors, my translator looked at my equipment and said that as long as it was all I was carrying, I was okay. Frankly, people don't realize Micro Four Thirds cameras' true capability."

Smith's TEDx talk on Vocation vs. Avocation speaks to his passion for the art of photography (go to www.outdoorphotographer.com/blog where you can see it under OPTV or search for the video on YouTube). His love of photography extends to a drive to help others improve. Smith teaches several workshops every year.
Indeed, Smith's photography, now done mainly with the Micro Four Thirds Olympus OM-D E-M5, relies increasingly on this kind of discretion. In 2012, while traveling in Mumbai, where he was working with a friend who's trying to convince sex-trade workers to make clothing instead, he found himself shooting in slums and brothels. "I stepped completely out of my comfort zone," he says.

Smith shot both stills and video with the E-M5—Micro Four Thirds models having an edge over DSLRs as hybrid cameras—and the take was used to promote the cause and support an annual fundraiser for the group, which is called Worthwhile Wear.

Likewise, Smith traveled this past January to Haiti on behalf of a group called iTOT, which is providing assistance to handicapped children. His photographs are being used to share the organization's good works and to solicit further funding. And, as a photographer working for ALARM, an Africa-based nonprofit in which his wife Karen is active, he was able to document the independence of South Sudan, the continent's newest country. "I was granted full access to the parade viewing stand, within shooting distance of all the important political and military personnel," he says. "It was an incredible experience to witness the birth of a nation." Smith exhibited some of that work last year in Bethlehem City Hall's Rotunda Gallery, one of many recent shows.

All of that's heady stuff for an amateur, and not ordinarily the kind of material to which a mere passion for photography gives you access. Yet Smith's photo travels are also self-assigned.


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