We feature some of the brightest Instagram storytellers in the Passion Passport community through our Instagram Spotlight series. This week, Dimitri Smith (@smith_dimitri) takes us into some of the most remote (read: jaw-dropping) corners of Alaska, California, and Arizona.

In the Desert

When thinking about the desert, a few adjectives come to most people’s minds — usually descriptors like “desolate” and “barren.” However, there is much more to these vast stretches of dry earth than first meets the eye. Deserts are actually some of my favorite places to photograph, since no two areas are ever exactly the same. Those who traverse these landscapes can often find incredible rock formations, resilient life forms, and otherworldly scenes.

These images are just a few examples of the many wonders these places have to share. I’ve traveled to a lot of different parks and deserts over the past few years, and I’ve tried my best to show that there’s more to these places than sand dunes and dried-up lake beds.

I captured the first image from the side of the road in Anza-Borrego State Park, California. Over the years, water and wind have slowly eroded the area’s soft sediments to create an extensive maze of canyons just begging to be explored.

I shot the second photo while experimenting with film on a trip to Joshua Tree National Park. We had trekked up to Keys View to watch the last bit of light leave the valley, and just as everyone around me was shooting the sunset, I decided to take a moment to look in the other direction. Right behind us stood a small pine, nestled into the hillside with a miniature boulder. It was quite beautiful, and turned out to be my favorite image from the trip.

As for the third shot, I was on my way to Alabama Hills, California, to spot the Milky Way when the sun began to set, gracing the mountains with a warm, soft light. It was calming to watch through the car window as I passed each telephone pole carrying wires and messages across the land. I had to try to capture that feeling forever in an image.

From Above

Throughout my career in the Air Force, I have been lucky enough to travel often for work, flying across the country and viewing the world from a window seat. I’ve always gained a unique perspective from this spot, and it has really helped me put everything into perspective.

If you’ve been on the internet at least once over the past few years, you’ve probably seen a plethora of drone photos. This type of photography took off quite well (pun intended) because it provides people with a fresh perspective of both the familiar and unfamiliar. However, drones can be quite limited by regulations and, while I’ve done my fair share of aerial photography via drones, nothing quite puts the world into frame like flying in a plane at 35,000 feet above the Earth.

I took two of these images while flying over the Southwest and the Grand Canyon. I absolutely loved the land formations and the light that sifted through the clouds, scattering across the ground below. The clouds looked immense and beautiful, reminding me of my favorite summer memories.

I took the third image on an aerial sightseeing tour in 2015. It was my first spring in Alaska, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to fly over a glacier. At the time, all I owned was my first camera body and a nifty-fifty lens, but I needed nothing more — I was able to capture the vibrant blues of the glacial water and the stark contrast in the ice. It was an unforgettable sight.

On the Road

There’s nothing with more potential than an open road; it can take you anywhere and everywhere. Whether driving down a highway, byway, familiar hometown street, or rustic country lane, I’m forever fascinated by roads and absolutely love photographing them.

Each of the roads I captured here meant something to me. The first came during a winding drive down a mountain, through soft, golden fields on my first trip to Kings Canyon National Park. I fell in love with the drive and, starting at the top of the mountain, I found myself so excited as I overlooked the twists and turns I was about to travel along. On the way down, I enjoyed the views, the rush, the wind in my hair, and the sunlight flickering across the dashboard. Just before exiting the park, I stopped at an “S” curve and captured what I could of the fleeting feeling.

The second and third images show roads that are near and dear to my heart. They are both in Alaska, leading to very different — but equally beautiful — places. The second is from the long drive toward Glennallen, the gateway to the Alaskan pipeline. There stands Mount Drum, located in Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest U.S. National Park. The third image shows off Crow Creek Road in Girdwood, Alaska. This place is just something else. One end intersects the Seward Highway, which is one of the most incredible drives you could ever take, while the other leads to a historic mining town and a fantastic hike. I’ve traveled this road more times than I can count, through all types of weather conditions, yet I still find myself drawn back to it over and over again.

Among the Northern Lights

When you see pictures of the Aurora Borealis, they strike you with awe and amazement, but they don’t have the same impact as seeing the lights in person. When I moved to Alaska a few years ago, I knew I would have the opportunity to shoot the Northern Lights, but I didn’t know where to begin. Now, having spent the past three years or so shooting it, I’d like to think I’ve got my process down — but I’ve learned that luck plays a huge part in photographing this natural wonder. You can do all the planning you want, but ultimately, you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature and the solar winds. Thankfully, over the past few years, I’ve been quite lucky several times.

The first image you see here is of me at Denali View South, watching the lights dance above the Alaska Range, directly over Denali. Denali is the highest mountain in North America, and it’s certainly a sight to behold. I had always wanted to get shots from this very spot, but after trying over and over again, I had almost lost hope. Then, on what was coincidentally my very last night of shooting the aurora, I enjoyed near-perfect conditions in my dream shooting location. We set up a small tent to block the wind and stayed outside for hours. It was a night I’ll never forget.

I took the other two images on the same night in Hatcher Pass, Alaska. Nine times out of 10 when shooting the Aurora Borealis, the lights either won’t show up, or they’ll be so faint that you could easily mistake them for wispy clouds. You can spend countless hours driving, braving the cold, and depriving yourself of sleep, just to have your high hopes fall through. Most people ultimately give up or content themselves with less-impressive displays. But finding true passion in exploring our incredible world always makes the reward worth the effort, even if we encounter disappointments along the way. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many nights I’ve chased the lights and come back with little to show for it. Being persistent is the true key to finding the lights and watching a great corona burst open across the sky, showing you the unforgettable dancing displays.

In the Mountains

If there was one thing I loved growing up, aside from taking photos, it would have to be mountains — exploring them, hiking them, learning about them, you name it. I grew up in a small valley in Virginia, surrounded by the Blue Ridge section of the Appalachian Mountains, which meant that I often coasted along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive. I was always so impressed by the size of the mountains in the area — until I moved to Alaska, that is. Talk about immensity! The mountains here dwarf those of the East Coast, and now, when I visit home, the mountains of my childhood look more like hills.

Another great thing about Alaskan mountains is that they’re all different, varying both in size and shape. Whether you’re exploring the Chugach near Anchorage, passing through the Alaska Range to see Denali, or traversing the Brooks Range on the way to the Arctic, you’ll never cease to be amazed.

The first image you see shows a colorful ridge near Chickaloon, Alaska. This place is incredible year-round, but on that particular morning, the colors and light felt extra special.

The other images just go to show that mountains are great for exploring in all conditions, at all times of the year. The second captures the three small cabins near Independence Mine in Hatcher Pass. I’ve seen this spot photographed many times, by talented individuals from all over the world, yet something made me want to see them in person. I took the third image at nearly -20 degrees Fahrenheit (-29 degrees Celsius). My camera barely functioned properly, and I was constantly battling the elements to stay warm, especially as the sun was setting. But I was determined to capture the beautiful light that blanketed the land in the last few moments of the day. To me, that’s what photography is all about: capturing light and showing off the natural beauty of the Earth.

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Dimitri Smith
Growing up in Virginia, Dimitri Smith spent most of his youth outside with a camera in hand. Some years later, he moved to Alaska and found himself awestruck by almost everything in sight. After reading “Vagabonding” by Rolf Potts, he was inspired to pick up a camera again and began taking his photography more seriously. The next chapter of his life will be written in California, after he makes his way there this summer to continue his education and further build upon his life experiences.