The high-octane action images that make our jaws drop aren’t shot from the safety of an armchair. Photographer Michael Clark tells us what it takes to get the great shots and why he couldn’t be happier pushing the envelope.
“I have used up six or seven of my nine lives. The most intense near-death experience I have ever had was when my rope got cut…..”
You were originally a physicist. How did you make the transition from physicist to photographer? It was all because of my obsession with climbing. My last semester in college, I took a rock climbing course through the University of Texas at Austin. I also met a friend who was a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) instructor. He was looking for a partner to go climbing in Hueco Tanks, Texas for spring break that year and he was nice enough to take on a neophyte. Climbing soon became an obsession and I ended up turning down job offers in Physics to go climbing. I only ended up working as a physicist for a year before climbing took over my life. It was climbing that brought me back to photography, at first to record the amazing places I traveled to and later to inspire others.
How did you acquire your photography skills? My education in photography came via a teacher in middle school who was kind enough to take me under his wing and teach me the basics. From then on I was self-taught, save for the occasional photo workshop.
What elements from your career in physics have translated well to the field of photography? My physics education taught me how to solve problems and to this day that is probably the most valuable asset I have as a photographer – Physics taught me that with enough time I could basically solve any problem, within reason. I also worked on the same chips that are in modern cameras and helped build the world’s first ultra-low temperature Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) that could electronically image individual atoms on the surface of the substrate (i.e. the chip). That gives me a fairly unique understanding of how modern digital cameras work.
Do you remember the first paid project that made you realize photography could be a legitimate career? It was on a trip in France that I first thought I could make a living from my photography. I was photographing Toni Lamprecht, a world class German climber, in Buoux, France. When I returned home I made a deal with myself: if I could get my first three submissions published I would make a go of photography as a career. I sent my best work to Outdoor Photographer, Climbing and Rock and Ice. All three submissions were published within a few months. Looking back, it still shocks me to this day. It took five more years to get another image published in Outdoor Photographer. Those first three published submissions, referenced above, let me know that I could make some money as a photographer. I knew from the outset of my career that it was going to be a long road to make a living, but being a “dirtbag” climber I also knew how to live cheaply and live a lifestyle that was committed and focused. As far as that first paid project, I shot on spec for the first three years and started getting assignments at the end of the third year. It was a series of assignments with the climbing magazines Rock and Ice and Climbing, as well several climbing companies like Black Diamond, Patagonia and others, that really helped me get established. From there, I went on to shoot some big assignments for Men’s Journal, Sports Illustrated and several other magazines. My big break into the commercial side of things was when Adobe called and asked me to shoot images for the first version of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom before anyone had ever heard of it.
You have had countless images published over the years. Do you still get excited seeing your work show up? I do still get excited when images are published, especially if there are published by new clients or in a unique publication. These days it seems like half my work or more is published online more than it is in print, but that is just the way it is these days. I get really excited when an assignment takes me somewhere new or some place that I love.
You have built a reputation as one of the industries top action sports photographers, traveling the world to capture the world’s best athletes in remote locations. Do you think you could have survived a career in the physics lab? That is a hard question to answer. For sure, I could have survived in physics. I probably wouldn’t be as fit as I am today, or as happy, but I could have done it. I miss the math (how many times do you hear that statement?) and the mental gymnastics that physics provided. The flipside is that when I am out in a wild, remote and amazing landscape, working with the world’s best athletes and getting to see some of the most remote corners of the globe, I have to pinch myself. I am incredibly privileged to see what I have seen and to do what I do. I don’t take that for granted. I hustle every single day to make sure this whole thing continues.
You have a massive range of work from portraits to landscapes and architecture to action. Does this huge variety help keep you fresh or does it become taxing to try and do them all at a world class level? I realized after five or six years that I would be broke the rest of my life if I didn’t start shooting other sports besides climbing. At that point, I branched out into mountain biking and whitewater kayaking and kept pushing into other sports to round out my portfolio. It was only after ten or twelve years that I realized I was one of a very few photographers worldwide that shot all of the adventure sports. I suppose I was always looking for something new and different to shoot. I am still looking to shoot as wide a variety of sports as I can and even though I live in New Mexico, I shoot a lot of big wave surfing all over the world. I would definitely say that I am not world class in the architecture and portrait genres. I have good friends that are world-class in those genres, like Andrew Eccles. But I continually keep pushing my portraits to be better and they have come a long, long ways since those early days. My lighting skills are finally getting to the point where I can get really creative and make some unique portraits.In fact, Rob Haggart of APhotoFolio was instrumental in my portraiture photography. I met with him every once in a while when he was the Photo Editor at Outside magazine back in the early 2000s. Rob told me, “You adventure photographers couldn’t light your way out of a paper bag!” and he was right. Back in the film days none of us adventure photographers shot with flash or strobes very often. He also told me to “Go out and buy a Hasselblad and some lighting gear and learn how to shoot a decent portrait and you will be way more valuable to me and every other photo editor.” He was right. It was excellent advice. [Thanks Rob!] I went out and got a Hasselblad and some lights a few months later and the process began and still continues to this day.
As far as keeping it fresh, my clients are always asking me to shoot a wide variety of action sports – and many of them want portraits of the athletes to go along with the action shots. Red Bull in particular is pushing the envelope in so many ways and they ask their photographers to think big and push the envelope creatively. Hence, the drive I have to really create top-notch images in a variety of genres is partly from the clients I work with and partly my own drive, which is insatiable.
Your action shots include rock/ice climbing, surfing, kayaking and B.A.S.E. jumping. Which of these sports is closest to your heart? Since I started out as a climber, anything related to climbing is a natural fit for me. Surfing is a relatively new sport since I have only been shooting it for the last seven years or so, but it seems very similar in terms of the lifestyle to climbing. [Swimming out at Pipeline is perhaps the scariest thing I have ever done – my surf buddies think rock climbing is completely insane so it all comes down to what you are comfortable with.] B.A.S.E jumping and wingsuit flying are also some of my favorites to shoot and as the world’s most dangerous sport these disciplines fascinate me to no end.
If you could only shoot one sport what would you choose? Luckily, I don’t have to make that choice, but if I did it would be climbing in all its forms. The mountains call to me…
Do you ever wish you were on the other side of the lens being the one captured in the moment? I sometimes wish I could be doing the activities I am photographing but I don’t have the skills for all of them. I am a decent climber, cyclist and skier, but I am nowhere near as talented as the athletes I work with. I probably get more excited creating images of the sports I shoot than I do when I am participating in them – and often, documenting the action requires me to be a participant. Ice climbing is perhaps my favorite sport. It is tough for me to put down the ice axes and actually shoot images instead of climbing. When I photograph climbing I have a strict rule that I don’t climb unless I have to climb to get into position. Otherwise, I will ditch the cameras and just start climbing.
Your workspace is harsh environments ranging from blistering heat to frigid winter conditions. Do you find it extra challenging to shoot in these conditions? I am used to rolling with whatever comes my way and I have a gear closet that can outfit me for just about anything anywhere. I was in the Amazon earlier this year on a documentary film project with recently contacted indigenous tribes in Brazil. It was 108 °F and 100% humidity the whole time. The bugs were out of control. I came home with a parasite. There were 50 ways to die and that was before you even got out of your hammock! I don’t do well in crazy humid conditions like that, but I don’t really know anyone that does. We were soaked from head to toe with sweat the entire time we were down there. Compared to that, -40 °F on a glacier somewhere is a cakewalk. I love the cold. The cameras seem to be able to deal with anything these days. I have never really had issues in super hot or super cold environments.
What sport has proven the most challenging to shoot? Wingsuit BASE jumping and BASE jumping in general are very difficult to capture as you only have a second before the athletes are just a dot in the sky. Mounting cameras on the jumpers results in the best images but that isn’t always possible. Careful planning is required to get decent images and you have to make sure everything is dialed in before they jump. In order to capture action sport athletes in their element, you too are usually in that same element.
What is the scariest situation you have been in when capturing a shot? I have used up six or seven of my nine lives. The most intense near death experience I have ever had was when my rope got cut down to two strands of the core (out of 7) on an assignment for Climbing magazine. You can read the story of that experience on my website. Every time I tell the story of my rope getting cut, I get shaky and a bit out of sorts – so I try not to tell it that often. I have also fallen into quicksand, been hit by a beach-ball sized rock falling off a 450-foot cliff, been hit by a car while training on my road bike, went hypothermic in the Beagle channel at the bottom of South America, and I have been caught in an avalanche. If you document adventures, you build up a few adventure tales of your own.
How do you coordinate shooting with top athletes to keep them from pushing beyond their “comfort zone” when trying get great shots? On some assignments, as with Red Bull, that is their job and they know what they have to do before we even start. I always have a group discussion with the athletes at the start of any shoot and discuss with them what is possible to do safely. If it’s a portfolio shoot then I ask them to push it but only to the point where they are safe and comfortable. For most of the athletes I work with, they are already at such a high level that they just have to do what they do and it looks extreme.
Is there any athlete you have worked with that has simply blown your mind with their skill set? There are lots of athletes that have blown my mind with their abilities. The entire Red Bull Air Force is composed of “super-human” beings if you ask me. I have seen climbers pull up on ridiculously small holds. I once saw a climber do five one-arm pull ups off his pinkie finger. The downhill mountain bikers are also incredible as are the top whitewater kayakers. And big wave surfers are unbelievably skilled. Every adventure sport these days has been pushed to mind-blowing levels, which is why it is so exciting to be able to work with these athletes and create images with them. As an athlete myself, who has wrangled with fear, desire and doubt, it is an incredible thing to spend time with athletes from so many genres and see and hear how they are progressing in their sport. In many ways for me, the images are just the icing on the cake – but they are obviously important for my career and the athletes I work with as well.
You do a lot of location lighting in your action sports photography. Do you have a “go-to” way you like to light things outdoors or are you constantly looking for new ways to shoot? I vary my lighting according to the sport and the scene. It’s never the same from shoot to shoot. I have been playing a lot with Hypersync flash technology over the last few years and that is helping to take adventure sports photography to the next level. Elinchrom just announced their Hi-Sync transmitters that will help me take lighting to an even higher level (and already is) for adventure sports. Since lighting is more difficult than just shooting with available light it sets my work apart from many of the other adventure photographers. I am constantly pushing the envelope in terms of artificial lighting. It is very exciting to have so much new technology at our disposal these days, especially on the lighting front where Elinchrom is making some big waves.
You have some great landscape images. Do you find it relaxing to shoot when you can just focus on the surroundings without having to incorporate an athlete in motion? I shoot landscapes for my sanity. Just me and mother nature, out there at the crack o’ dawn or at sunset. Many of my adventure sports images are basically landscape images with an athlete in them. I have always loved landscape photography.
Looks like you are extremely busy with global travels for shots, teaching workshops, creating a newsletter and publishing photography books. Do you ever have time to truly unwind? I do have time to unwind. I have to take time to relax. I can’t stay creative if I am constantly traveling so down time is key to my creative process and especially for coming up with ideas that will help push the envelope. There are certainly stretches where I am traveling non-stop for a few months (like right now) but that is hard to sustain for more than two or three months.
Are you able to go do action sports for yourself and leave the camera behind? I do go climbing with friends on my own and without a camera. I also train by riding my road bike as much as possible in the summer and fall. In the winter, I go skiing as often as possible and make sure I get out hiking for turns. I have sea kayaked, whitewater kayaked and have participated in quite a few adventure sports but climbing, cycling and skiing are my main sports. If I had to say my favorite, it would definitely be ice climbing.
What has inspired you to write so many great tell-all photography books? All of my books grew out of my Newsletter, which Rob featured on APhotoEditor years ago. It is still going strong and goes out to over 8,000 people. As for the books, I was asked to write the two printed books. My digital workflow e-book, entitled A Professional Photographer’s Workflow: Using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, was originally crafted after I shot the first Lightroom assignment way back in 2006. Because I had some insider knowledge, I thought I would share it in the form of an e-book and that proved to be a huge success. I just recently, a month ago, revamped the entire digital workflow e-book so it is up to date. Folks can find it on my website (see the link above). I wrote the first printed book on Adventure Photography because it seemed like a novel thing to do. I wrote the second one, Exposed: Inside the Life and Images of a Pro Photographer, because the first book was such a great marketing piece. They were both torturous to write. But they were also great for my career and helped me get to where I am now.
What is the one piece of camera equipment you simply can’t live without? Aside from my cameras, my main three go to lenses are key to everything I shoot. Those include the 14-24, 24-70 and 70-200 f/2.8 Nikkor zooms. Also, in the last month I have been testing the brand-new Elinchrom Skyport Plus HS transceiver that controls my strobes and allows me to shoot at 1/8000th second with flash, which has opened up an entirely new world of possibilities.
You are fortunate to have an amazing job and travel to incredible places, but it is still very much a job. What do you say to people that think you are just on a year-round vacation? I wrote an entire book on this topic, trying to strip away some of the glamour people seem to associate with pro adventure photographers. In the book Exposed, I made a graph showing the reality of the job for a pro photographer. Occasionally, when I am traveling somewhere exotic (like Tahiti) everyone I tell asks if they can carry my bags. What they don’t realize is that I spent five days on a boat for 13 hours each day going up and over the shoulder of huge waves and could barely sit down when I got on the flight home. It wasn’t a vacation. I am a baggage handler, a professional traveler, the marketing guy, the photographer and everything else. I have to work my ass off just to get into position and often with a ridiculous amount of gear. Then the stars have to align for the images to actually happen. If I don’t come back with stunning work then I’ll never be hired again by that client and potentially others. The pressure is often quite stressful, especially when the budgets are huge. You have to come up with great images on command in less than ideal circumstances. That is the job. That is why they hire a pro. The athletes who I have worked with are often amazed at how far I will go to get the image. )
Your images are loaded with power and energy. How do you harness this power in a frozen moment? When shooting the action, I am looking for that peak moment and I think through the images I want to get before the shoot. A big part of that process is thinking about how I can convey to the viewer not just what is happening visually but how it feels to be that athlete. I want the viewer to have a sense of the exposure, risk, talent, and bravado on display at the moment the athlete goes for it.
Why did you choose a Photo Folio for your website? Originally, the huge images that loaded wicked fast were the big draw for me. My website at the time needed a major overhaul and I noticed quite a few APhotoFolio sites that looked amazing. The interface was also relatively easy to manipulate so I could build a site that looked stellar and performed very well. My first APhotoFolio site was a Flash design way back in 2010. Once I made the switch my career took off in a whole new way, not just because of the site but as a result of years and years of hard work and getting all my marketing ducks in a row at the same time that I launched the new website. In 2013, I updated to the Design X version and it has been awesome. In the five years I have been with APhotoFolio my website has won two PDN Photo Annual awards. I’d say it has worked out quite well.