Matt Sweeney – The Minimalist

A creator of still and motion pictures, Matt’s visuals embody a timeless and unadulterated quality through his minimalistic ways. Check him out below. 


Say hello to Matt:

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Where are you from?  Where have you been?

I’m from Buffalo, New York. I’ve been on road trips all over the Northeastern U.S. (near NY), and as far as the west coast, just Vegas once, and California, where I live now. For other countries, just Canada, since the border in Niagara Falls is about twenty minutes from where I grew up.


What prompted the move from NY to CA?

One of my best friends from Buffalo moved here one semester before me, around the time I was looking to transfer out of SUNY Albany, where I spent my freshman year of college. I made the dramatic switch from a finance major to an acting major, and wasn’t liking my options in New York. I was thinking I’d probably move to California after college, but my friend sold me on a great, affordable transfer program at Santa Barbara City College that would help me transfer to a university here.


How would you describe your visual style?

Generally what I aim for is a very clean, crisp look most of the time, with minimal editing. Regardless of how much I edit a shot, I usually try for a timeless look and feel, which means trying to stay away from trends. Since I usually prefer minimal editing, in both still photography and video, I try to make use of composition, lighting, and color to express an idea or mood.

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How do you find your inspiration?

For still photography, I really like the whole new wave of photographers that Instagram has allowed. Some people might say it’s oversaturated, the same way filmmakers say YouTube is oversaturated, but I say there’s more to pick from. I definitely look at a ton of photography on there. I do pull bits and pieces of inspiration from all different photographers, but at the same time, as I mentioned before, I see the obvious trends and try to stay far away from those. If you look at my work, you can see it’s never really over the top, stylistically.

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You’re a creator of both still and motion pictures – do you intend to focus on one more than the other in the future?

I definitely shoot still photography more often, but I also turn out the edits much quicker. I’ve been shooting increasingly more video lately though, which was always my goal since I’m constantly upgrading my equipment. Between freelance promotional jobs, short films, and documentary work, I’m shooting one to two projects a month, and constantly editing video. Long term, I’m working on building my own production company, and I want to work in both still photography and video, but I’d say my video has more room for improvement at the moment.


Tell us about your career.  How did you get into it?

When I moved out here as an acting major, my plan was to learn to write and direct my own roles, so I would have more creative control. That led to an interest in filming, and eventually editing, so I’d have the option to make my own productions start to finish if I wanted, with little to no help. I figured being able to distribute my own material, even if it was only on YouYube, would help my chances of getting noticed. Gradually, I lost interest in acting as I fell more in love with filmmaking and photography.


Of the photos you’ve taken, which are your three favorites? 

I always struggle to pick favorites of anything, but I managed to pick three that I like. This one’s actually a test shot from a short film I worked on, as the Director of Photography. In the scene, the protagonist is on the phone making a shady drug deal, as his friends and business partners look on from behind. We were actually shooting in a very limited space and were struggling with the lack of room to place lights, so it was awesome to find this angle with the main action in the foreground and the supporting actors out of focus in the background. I also think the lighting perfectly fits the dramatic, edgy feel to this scene.

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I mentioned before how I usually prefer minimalistic photography, which means trying to get the right image in camera, so I won’t be doing much in post. I’d argue that color schemes go a long way in photography. Certain colors just look great together, all other factors excluded, and that’s what happened here. This shot was totally unplanned – we were just moving between locations when I snapped this. This is actually the unedited photo, so when I talk about how good lighting, composition, and color will go a long way, let this be an example.  

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For me, this one’s about the overall look and feel that neon lights have. I was hesitant to use this one, because I see that these types of lights are all over Instagram these days. At least it’s not someone awkwardly sticking their face near a window! Did I say that? In all seriousness, I love neon lights because most of the time they have a vintage feel. At least to me they do. I’ve touched on the idea of timeless photography, and I think that neon lights can fall into that category if they’re captured right. They’ve been around for almost a hundred years, and hopefully will be around much longer.

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What’s the best advice you can think of for someone just starting in photography?

Focus more on learning photography more than buying the best gear possible. Buy whatever’s reasonable for your budget, and don’t worry if it’s not much. If you really learn how photography works, you can get great shots on pretty much any camera.

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Who do you want to give a shoutout to?

Just a bunch of photographers. Some of them double as cinematographers & editors, but they all do amazing work. I’ll include their instagram names too. CJ Wallis, Carlos Araujo, Dan Folger, @412turbo, and @ljdilla. They all do amazing concert photography and portraits, and I think anyone who likes my work will definitely like theirs. Two more photographers I have to mention are Atiba Jefferson and Mike Blabac. I’ve been admiring their work since long before I was into photography. They mostly shoot professional skateboarders, but they do a lot of portraits too, and trust me when I say these guys are the real deal. They’re both legends in the skateboarding industry. To me, they’re just all around legendary photographers, and when you see their work you’ll understand why.


What’s your philosophy when it comes to being a great photographer?

Develop your own style, and try not to imitate anyone else’s too much. Use your gut instinct to find shots, too. If a certain look or pose pops into your head, go with that instead of the one you were going to use just because everyone else does.

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What do you think is the biggest thing holding you back in your photography?

Probably being too much of a perfectionist. It has its pros and cons. I’m sure it makes for better results, but it definitely slows me down, whether it’s on set or editing. It’s great to pay attention to detail, but sometimes I’ll spend a lot of time tweaking very minor details that most people wouldn’t notice if you put the images side by side.


How do you express yourself through your photography?

No matter what kind of photography I’m doing, whether it’s a landscape, portrait, headshot or some kind of action, I basically just try to visualize a shot that I think would look cool. By that, I mean a photo that I would like to see someone else post – it just doesn’t exist yet. I would say my photography is a reflection of my tastes. I try not to follow anyone’s style too closely, but mine is definitely a combination of all the work that I like.


What photography advice do you wish you had when you were first starting out?

Spend more time familiarizing yourself with your equipment and practicing in between shoots instead of learning on the fly. Camera settings, rigs, lenses, whatever you have, just learn it inside and out. You’ll get much better results.


What are 3 tips you have for aspiring photographers?

  1. Use the hell out of Instagram. To me, it seems insane for any photographer, or really any entrepreneur not to. It’s free marketing! Even for the Boo Radleys out there who are against social media. Use it for business! It’s amazing to know that every time you post something, x amount of people will potentially see it. Let’s say, hypothetically, only 10% of your followers will see any given post. If you have 10,000 followers, which will happen eventually if you consistently post good content, that means 1,000 people will see it! I’d say that beats sending it to the handful of people you might otherwise. Not to mention all the people that can find your public profile… the potential is infinite.
  2. Don’t think there’s some sort of barrier of entry to photography involving expensive gear and schooling, because there’s not. All you need is any kind of camera. If you have a cell phone, you probably already have one. There are definitely a lot social media platforms to post photography, but I personally think Instagram’s the best at the moment. It’s by far the most popular platform out of all the ones involving photography. Regardless of what platform or website you use, there are a ton that are free. Go somewhere with free wifi. No phone or computer? Go to a library. While you’re there, check out photography books or check out the million tutorials, articles and video essays online. For filmmakers, I really like Simon Cade – “DSLR Guide” on YouYube.
  3. Learn photography basics. No matter where or how you learn them – see above tip – it’s crucial if you really want to get good stuff. At the very least, just learn enough to understand exposure, depth of field, composition, and lighting. That alone will make all the difference when you’re starting out.

What’s one post-processing tip you’d like to share with other photographers?

If you’re a perfectionist like me, always double check photos before sending or uploading them anywhere. It’s good to see how they look on different platforms or screens. I usually edit photos on my computer, and for Instagram, I’ll send them to my phone. It seems like almost every time I export from an editing platform, the photo looks slightly different on my desktop, then different again on my phone. It’s not necessarily the quality of your gear either – I’m working on a new Macbook Pro and an iPhone 5s.


What will you be doing five years from now?

Running a successful production company! I’m still experimenting with different kinds of photography and filmmaking, but I’d love to have a nice studio space to work out of. I definitely prefer natural settings as opposed to studios/built sets, but it would be great to have a collaborative space full of like-minded photographers and filmmakers – think “YouTube Space NY,” or for the people that know Dan Folger and the GLD crew, something like that. I also tend to be a lot more productive when I’m surrounded by other photographers and filmmakers, instead of left to my own devices.


What’s something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t?

Go on tour with a musician. I’m always looking to explore new places, and obviously I like photography, so to me it would be the perfect combination to be able to make a living off of that. It’s not something I’d want to do all the time, but definitely a few times.

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For anyone that wants to get in touch with Matt, here’s some contact information:

FStop: Profile

Website: www.sweeneyvisuals.com

Instagram: @sweeneyphotos


Matt, thanks for sharing your story with us! 🙂

If any artists out there want to collaborate with FStop, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

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