How one of Northern Ireland's most popular Instagrammers found his flair for photography
Armed with a few smoke grenades, Daniel Smyth has become a leading light of a vibrant creative community – but his recent career turn isn't one he'd planned for
Daniel Smyth has been a graphic designer for 10 years, his most recent role being in-house at Queen's University Belfast, where he has worked for about five years.
As he explains, it was at Queen’s that he 'accidentally' discovered a love and a flair for photography. 'I started working in the marketing department and, at that time, it was a temporary role. They had two photographers in the department but a year or two after I started, the uni had to make some cuts and the photographer roles were suppressed.'
Smyth still needed fresh, high-quality images for the university literature he was designing and thankfully, there was equipment in the department that had been purchased for the in-house photographers. 'There was a need for photography and there was gear just sitting there, so I thought I may as well pick it up,' he says. 'Also, my job at that time was still temporary, so being able to produce photography too was a way to try and solidify it.'
Outside of work, his love for photography quickly developed from a hobby into a new outlet of visual creativity. In summer 2016, he took the germ of an idea, a brave friend, a red umbrella and a smoke grenade and created the stunning image that he’s become known for.
'I’d seen people using smoke grenades in pictures on Instagram. I’m not sure why I thought of the umbrella – I think it evolved from brainstorming what I could do with the smoke; what could I do that nobody else was doing?
The photo 'Head in the Clouds' won last year's Capturing Creativity competition and was subsequently used as the cover image for Creativity Month's 2018 programme
'We tried other things too, like tying smoke grenades to string and spinning them round in the middle of the forest, putting them in boxes… and I found that a lot of the things went on fire pretty quickly! Thankfully the umbrella didn’t, and it worked well.'
Northern Ireland has a thriving community of visual content creators, including designers, photographers, filmmakers and artists, most of whom unsurprisingly can be found on Instagram. Smyth is currently collaborating with photographer Tim Burr and photographer, filmmaker and designer Dillon Osborne.
Osborne’s popular daily Insta stories and YouTube vlogs have captured some of their recent travels and experiments, including more umbrellas and smoke bombs in abandoned buildings, and capturing the sunrise over lighthouses on the coast.
While this work is fun and only loosely planned, it’s a crucial creative outlet for Smyth, who acknowledges that designing for clients can be more restrictive than photography.
Although he is led by creative instinct, he has also enjoyed professional success, working in commercial, event and wedding photography and has seen his work included in prestigious exhibitions.
'Wex Photographic have a weekly competition on Instagram – you submit a picture you’ve taken the previous week and they select a winner, plus second and third place, then add up the points at the end of the year to find overall placings. I got a few first places, ended up joint sixth overall in 2016 and the umbrella photo was shown in an exhibition at a gallery in Shoreditch.'
Although he has obvious talent and a growing profile, Smyth’s approach to his future in photography is organic rather than painstakingly planned. 'I have no plans to go down the art route or anything. If I take an image and it does well and takes off that’s great, but I’m just going to continue doing what I enjoy and seeing what happens.'
Daniel’s advice for aspiring graphic designers and photographers
'I wish I had a better answer than ‘keep going and try to enjoy what you do’ but the fact is, if you can show other people that you truly love doing whatever it is, then they will see that, and they’ll trust you to do a good job. Creating work just for the fun of it shows that you really care about what you’re doing.'
'Graphic design is quite a cut-throat industry and often you have to do (or have) something extra. Having photography skills is a really useful string to my bow, but being able to code, or having another skill that will complement your work could be really helpful.'
'People in the design industry get emails from people looking for work all the time; try the personal approach instead. I got my first design job by going around agencies in person - I designed and printed my CV, and I had little tins of mints with labels I’d designed too. I was able to show that I had the creativity, design skills and the print knowledge to do the job, and it just so happened Darragh Neely Design were just about to advertise for a new designer; so I got an interview and got the job.'
This article was originally commissioned as part of Creativity Month 2018, themed this year around creative industries careers and skills. For more articles you may have missed click here.