Steve Noto – Urban Planner, Freelance Photographer

January 4, 2013

As the series of interviews continues, we’ll shift our focus to photography. I absolutely love photography and – as a bit of a hobby – love to go out and shoot whatever I can. By interviewing a couple of great photographers, I want to get an idea of what it takes to make photography your profession.

This interview with an Urban Planner by day and Freelance Photographer always looking for online job ideas by, well, day or night, Steve Noto. Steve is from the Orlando, FL area (Sanford to be exact) and started working as a photographer earlier this year. Steve and I met almost 10 years ago when we both worked in Melbourne, FL. I wanted to find out from him what it took to branch out on his own and become a successful photographer in such a short period of time.

What is your name, title, and company you work for?

Steve Noto, Urban Planner with a local government in Central Florida.

If asked what you do as an Urban Planner, what would you say?

It’s a multi-faceted position. Working for a small municipality, I end up involved with many aspects of the urban planning profession: plan review, growth policy, public participation, urban design, and even some graphic design on a good day. The underlying theme has to do with making big decisions on what the built environment will look like. It’s very exciting.

What made you want to become a photographer?

I’ve always been interested in photography. For years I would buy point-and-shoot after point-and-shoot. I was so naive then… thinking that an increase in megapixels would make for better pictures. That a cooler design would somehow help take better low-light pictures. Looking back, it’s pretty hilarious, but only because I’m smarter now, haha.

What really shifted my thought process was two things. The first was a trip my wife and I took to Savannah, Ga. If you’ve ever been there, it’s a mecca for historical buildings. The public squares are an urban design delight. Well, I had, what I thought was, a pretty nifty point-and-shoot Sony. As I mentioned, I pretty much knew nothing substantial about photography. That includes aperture settings, shutter speeds, ISO, lens depth, etc. So, while I’m going around taking pictures, I was getting so frustrated about not being able to fit whole buildings in the frame. I really had no idea why that was. Again, so naive.

So we got through the trip and none of the pictures were what I wanted them to be. This resulted in a decision to buy an “introductory” DSLR, the Sony NEX-3. With two interchangeable lenses, and the ability to make a “blurry background”, I was pretty happy. We ended up going back to Savannah a few months later and the pictures I took then were much better. Again, I didn’t completely know why, but I was satisfied.

The second thing that happened was a conversation I had with a fellow urban planning professional. He has his own small business in digital video production. The main aspect of his business is making promotional material for a heavy hitter in the tourist industry in the Far East. When he showed me his work, and how he did it, I thought to myself, ‘wow, I can do that’. Shot with a flip-cam and edited with Apple software, it really hit me. I always wanted to have my own venture and I always wanted to be better at photography and digital video. It was soon after this that I bought my first DSLR, went head first in to teaching myself all that there is to know about photography, and started my own business.

Who are some of your inspirations in the field of design, photography, or the arts as a whole?

This is a tough question. Of course, Ansel Adams is a go to name for any photographer – can’t beat a classic. Earlier this year I went to Chicago and flew through the Art Institute of Chicago. As we were practically running through the place (it was closing soon and we still had to hit another museum), I came across a picture by Kota Ezawa. Never heard of the person, but the name of the photograph was Barber Shop (1936), 2006. It was an image of a barber shop backlit by a lightbox. It was one of the coolest images I saw that day. Upon further research, I found out that it was an enhanced image originally taken by Walker Evans called Negro Barbershop Interior, Atlanta. Go look it up. Anyway, it just really struck me. It was one of the first photographs I saw in person that made me stand still and stare at it.

I also have a few friends who I consider my photography mentors. They have great eyes in composition and help me make better decisions.

Urban design wise, I really enjoy Ebenezer Howard (the mastermind behind the garden city) and Andres Duany (a leader of New Urbanism – the thought process to “kill” suburban sprawl). Both of these gentlemen are geniuses when it comes to City design and how people interact with the environment. I’d highly recommend to anyone who is interested in anything ‘City Planning’ look these guys up.

What makes you most excited about working with photography or any part of the medium?

Photography is an ever evolving field. The irony, though, is that no matter what gizmo or gadget that comes out for photographers to use, you can’t beat good composition or the knowledge of how to use your equipment. It is also a pretty subjective field to be in. I mean, obviously you have your standard “rules” and “laws”, but for the most part, any potential image can turn out to be a great image. It’s all in the user.

I have yet to find inspiration in “objects” or “landscapes”. This is my own fault because I haven’t pushed the boundaries needed to achieve that inspiration. That said, the most exciting thing is seeing people react positively to my pictures of them. It’s something that’s very satisfying to me.

What do you expect (or want) to see happen within the photography field over the next several years?

Part of it has already started to happen: the integration of wifi into DSLR’s. I’m only partly excited about this though because no legit photographer uploads their images without touching them up first. I’m also only partly excited about touch screen technology coming to DSLR’s. I like using buttons and scroll wheels to adjust aperture levels and ISO settings. A touch screen just seems too prone to accidental incidents.

I’m also interested in seeing where all of this smart phone photography is going. I feel like it’s a fad, but with so many new app’s coming out every day, and the phones themselves getting better every year, I’m just very intrigued by the whole thing.

If you had to choose a different, completely unrelated career, what would that look like?

Over 10 years ago I was really interested in web design and IT. I wish I would’ve had the mental capacity to have gotten the appropriate degrees and had my own business in web design.

Is there anything else, personal or professional, people should know about you?

I enjoy going to Disney, I have an amazing wife and two fantastic miniature schnauzers, and I’m really excited about the craft beer movement that’s going on in the U.S. right now. The Matrix, Back to the Future, and The Godfather are my favorite movie series.

Some of Steve’s Photography

By Steve Noto

By Steve Noto

By Steve Noto

By Steve Noto

By Steve Noto

By Steve Noto

By Steve Noto

Full Disclosure: I slipped those last two in there because they are of my beautiful family. 🙂

Where You Can Find Steve

Official Photography Website –

You can also keep up to speed with each shoot on his Facebook page –

Wanna chat about this article or any others? Feel free to DM me or mention me on Twitter @marcusdburnette to start a conversation!

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