Nikki Smith first picked up a camera when she was five years old. The next summer, one of her images won her a blue ribbon at the Utah State Fair. Fast forward to today, and you’ll find her photographs throughout countless outdoor or climbing magazines, guidebooks, advertisements, and company catalogs.
Smith’s blue ribbon was the catalyst for a life devoted to capturing adventurous moments in the mountains. More often than not, these moments were and still are of her friends putting up first ascents of rock climbs all around the world. (In addition to photography, Smith is also a notable first ascensionist herself, having established over 300 bouldering and rope-climbing firsts.)
But, her love for clicking the shutter didn’t necessarily start at high elevations. It was in high school where Smith first discovered the darkroom, and subsequently fell in love with the different stages of creating photographs.
“It’s like magic watching an image start to materialize on a blank white piece of paper,” Smith said. “In the darkroom, I was a part of the entire process. I had to learn how to dodge and burn, add contrast and everything else to make a print. I really loved that.”
Then, while bouldering in the desert with a group of friends from the University of Utah, Smith blew a tendon on multiple fingers while pulling a one-finger hold. Not being able to climb for a while but still wanting to hang out with her friends, Smith realized the obvious choice: to fully focus on climbing photography.
Smith was also climbing in one of Utah’s most popular areas during this time, which meant climbing legends naturally flocked to her local scene. “People now understand climbing more because of movies like Meru and Free Solo, but this was in the 90s and people had no idea what climbing was,” Smith said. “I'd be at the crag and see all the legends I'd read about in the magazines, like Lynn Hill, Boone Speed and Jeff Lowe. We were getting after it and putting up a lot of first ascents, so I wanted to show others what I was doing with my friends."
After putting in the time and mastering her craft, Smith’s photographs started getting consistently published in magazines. “At first I got one thing published, but knew it could’ve been a fluke,” Smith said. “But then it kept happening, and I realized that maybe I could make it. It was probably when I got most of my climbing partners published when I knew that [photography] is what I wanted to do with my life.”
Smith is part of a rare breed of photographers who started out with a film camera. While refining her craft, she eventually made the transition into the digital world. It was a difficult switch at first, since the quality of the earliest and “best” digital cameras, like the Nikon D90, couldn’t hold up against the film cameras of the time, like Smith’s Nikon F6. But, one big advantage for Smith in using a digital camera was the ability to easily work with studio lights. The ability to dial in settings efficiently with the new technology made a world of difference.
“At first, photography was a really expensive and artsy thing. It wasn’t easy to figure out,” Smith said. “But digital now opens the door and makes it much easier for people to learn at a faster rate.”
While her work was getting published, Smith also hosted slideshows around Salt Lake City for the Access Fund, which is a national advocacy organization for climbing access and environments. One day, she was approached by Liberty Mountain to coordinate a fundraiser for the Access Fund. The work paid off: soon after she was offered an internship and then a full-time job. Eventually, Smith took over the marketing department at Liberty, where she managed and photographed all the product and action photography. Through her job, Smith traveled frequently and created industry relationships while shooting thousands of images.
“I ended up making friends with a lot of professional climbers and marketing people at different companies and magazines,” Smith said. “I was holding down more than a full-time job, climbing for myself, writing guidebooks and doing freelance work that wasn’t a conflict of interest. It was a lot of work, but I was driven and kept at it.”
And the willingness to go after it, Smith believes, is one of the most important traits for any aspiring professional photographer, especially in the outdoors. It can be a difficult industry to make decent money, and more often than not, creatives are putting their life on the line to get the shot.
“Very few other genres of photography, except war and conflict photography, are like climbing and the outdoors,” Smith said. “We hang off a cliff on less than half an inch of rope just to capture an image. You have to be willing to put yourself in very dangerous situations for little pay. You have to really want it.”
Working with close friends and professionals she knows well has helped Smith maintain some degree of safety while in high-risk environments. Because, at the end of the day, trust is the main factor that plays into creating compelling imagery while dangling from a rope high above the ground.
“I need to know that the people I work with can handle themselves in the mountains. I’ll need to be able to rescue them if something goes wrong, and vice versa.” Smith said. “I need to be sure that I can really trust them and be comfortable asking them to do what I need to capture the shot.”
And, Smith insists that it’s important to maintain a certain level of professionalism. Sure, it might be friends that are best to make images with, but being reliable and trustworthy are traits that are important when not hanging from a rope, too.
“The photography isn’t enough to keep you employed. Being professional needs to carry on through everything,” Smith said. “It has to do with delivering photographs on time, and with all the metadata and model releases. Communication should always be consistent and clear and deadlines should always be met. You should always deliver what you promised. And of course, just be nice.”
Now, after years of working full-time for Liberty Mountain, Smith relies solely on her own company - Pull Media — to put food on the table. Through Pull Media, she writes, photographs, and creates graphic and product designs. She also maintains her status as an accomplished and professional athlete through sponsorships and partnerships with companies like REI, Mountain Hardwear, and Beal Ropes, among others.
And being a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, Smith uses her creativity — whether it be on the wall or behind the lens — to advocate for this group of people, specifically in the outdoors and climbing worlds.
In 2019, Smith worked with Mountain Hardwear and the former Editor in Chief of Climbing Magazine, Julia Ellison, to host six photographers from underrepresented communities in a climbing and photography workshop. People from groups such as Latino Outdoors, Brown Girls Climb and Native Women’s Wilderness were able to learn from Smith and Ellison the ins and outs of climbing photography and how to navigate the white, male-dominated outdoor industry.
“Traditionally, people from underrepresented groups haven’t been able to tell their own stories through their perspective because they haven’t had access,” Smith said. “I want to help underrepresented people tell their own stories and make sure they know that they belong in climbing or whatever outdoor sport it happens to be. Without that, the dominant culture will just continue telling the minority group’s story.”
For those who are aspiring professional photographers who may not get the wonderful opportunity of speaking with or working alongside Nikki in person, she does have two pieces of sage advice that she’d pass along.
The first: find a mentor. Friends and family will tell you your work is great, but a professional with real experience will be able to critique and give insight. Early in her career, Smith sought advice from those who were already established in her area. After begging people to review her work, she received honest feedback. At first it wasn’t pleasant, but the comments were formative in shaping her career and portfolio.
The second: don’t give up. Magazine editors are busy people and submitted photographs may go unnoticed or unopened for months. It’s great to have a one-off image, but in the end they’ll work with creatives they know are consistent and who they have a relationship with.
Ultimately, hard work, dedication, perseverance, and simply being nice, pays off. And if your name is Nikki Smith, these aren’t temporary characteristics or veils your true personality hides behind. Rather, it’s your identity.
All images are used with the permission of Nikki Smith.