Recently we interviewed with Michael Clark, an amazing photographer and all around humble person. We asked Michael a few questions about photography and the industry – and he offers up some really great advice for aspiring photographers. Michael is an internationally published outdoor photographer specializing in adventure sports, travel, and landscape photography. He produces intense, raw images of athletes pushing their sports to the limit and has risked life and limb on a variety of assignments to bring back stunning images of rock climbers, mountaineers, kayakers, and mountain bikers in remote locations around the world. He uses unique angles, bold colors, strong graphics and dramatic lighting to capture fleeting moments of passion, gusto, flair and bravado in the outdoors. Balancing extreme action with subtle details, striking portraits and wild landscapes, he creates images for the editorial, advertising and stock markets worldwide. As a former physicist Michael has worked on both sides of the technical revolution – helping refine the technology and using it for his current profession. Michael has worked as a professional photographer since 1996 and added digital photography to his repertoire in 2003. While Michael still shoots some film, mostly medium format, the lion’s share of his images are now produced with high-resolution digital cameras. He has been featured in Outdoor Photographer (September 2001), Nikon World Magazine (Summer 2006) and New Mexico Magazine (2007) for his work with extreme sports.
He contributes to National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, Sports Illustrated, Outside, Men’s Journal, Backpacker, Outdoor Photographer, Digital Photo Pro, Climbing, Alpinist, Rock and Ice, Bike Magazine and The New York Times among many others.
A sampling of Michael’s advertising clients include Nike, Nikon, Adobe, Red Bull, Patagonia, Propel/Gatorade, Pfizer, DuPont, 20th Century Fox, Black Diamond, Cloudveil, Prana, Arc’teryx, Camelbak, La Sportiva, Gregory Packs, and Butterfield and Robinson.
Below is the interview we conducted with Michael, as well as a few samples of his amazing photography. After you finish, head over to his personal portfolio and his blog. Thanks again for your time Michael, keep up the great work!
Thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview, why don’t you start off by telling us a little about yourself.
I studied physics in University but fell in love with rock climbing the year I graduated and that sent me on a few years worth of adventures that brought me back to photography, which I had learned about in junior high school. It was rock climbing that brought me back to photography, My passion for the outdoors and photography really sparked my interest in starting a career as an adventure sports photographer. I have been a full-time professional photographer now for 15 years.
What kind of photography do you do? Do you enjoy it?
I am primarily an adventure photographer, meaning I shoot adventure sports and adventurous assignments of a wide variety (from helicopter search and rescue teams and adventure races to portraits of gymnasts). As I said above I started out shooting rock climbing and then grew my business by shooting all of the other adventure sports as well as producing portraits and lifestyle images of athletes and shooting landscapes.
I enjoy my job a lot. It is my dream job and though I have to work incredibly hard to keep everything going it is my passion – my obsession. One of the best aspects of my job is just being there to witness such amazing athletes doing what they do – at the elite level.
What’s your gear? (type of camera and most used lens)
For the most part I shoot with Nikon digital SLRs but I have also shot a fair bit with Hasselblad and Mamiya medium format cameras. My main working camera these days is the Nikon D700 because it is very versatile and I can take the battery pack off the camera body to make it lighter for those times when I need to go fast and light. My main lenses are the Nikkor 17-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. With these three lenses I can do just about anything. I also use a fisheye quite a bit for a variety of sports as well as longer lenses when shooting surfing. For a complete list of the gear I use as well as reviews of those items please see the Behind the Scenes page on my website.
Can you tell me some vocabulary or terminology specific to your job?
Here are a few basic terms:
On-Spec: This is a short version of the phrase “On Speculation”, meaning you will do something without pay because you are “speculating” that you can make money from the work at some point in the future. In photography, many of us shoot on spec when we are shooting for our portfolio or don’t have an assignment but need to create new content. Most photographers start out shooting everything on spec and licensing the images at a later date.
Licensing: As photographers we do not sell our images, we license the usage of our images (if we hold onto the copyright). How much we can license an image for depends on many factors including the usage, placement, size of the use, time and so on. Licensing images is the backbone of any photo business and everything is based on this concept.
Buyout: A buyout is a term used in the photo industry to denote a complete transfer of copyright. For photographers this means that a client wants to buyout your rights to an image completely so that they own the image and you no longer have any rights to the image. Because of this the price is usually quite large since the photographer gives up all rights to the image, including their copyright.
What computer program do you find yourself in most? (lightroom, photoshop, etc.)
To process my raw images I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. I find that I cannot fully process an image just using Lightroom. I have to use Photoshop to finish an image off. I can get an image about 70% of the way processed in Lightroom and then the rest happens in Photoshop. I also wrote an e-book that details my entire digital workflow starting in the camera and all the way through to delivering the images to the client. You can read more about the book and order it on my website.
Do you shoot with film or digital? Have you ever shot in film? Which do you prefer?
I shot film for the first half or more of my career using 35mm and medium format film cameras. I still shoot a little film here and there with medium format cameras but that happens rarely these days. I have to say I prefer digital. I prefer the look and resolution provided by digital cameras and the amount of control I have over the final image.
What advice would you give to our readers who are looking to ‘go pro’ and turn a hobby into a profitable business?
First off, you have to be able to create stellar images. That is a given. If you don’t already have a solid set of images to show then it is going to be hard to make a go of it as a pro photographer. That isn’t to say that you can’t license a few images on the side while keeping your day job but to really go for it full-time requires a lot of hard work, thick skin and a lot of persistence. So if you don’t have the images to show would be buyers I suggest taking photo workshops, setting up your own shoots and taking the time to really perfect your skills as a photographer – at least to the degree that your work is in league with what is already out there.
Instead of me going on about what to do in terms marketing images and such I will just point you to some of the best reading material that has really helped me in my own career. One of the best articles I have ever read on what it takes to make it is an article by David Lyman entitled The 8 Keys to Success: An Essay And Thoughts on What It Takes To Reach Your True Potential. Other great books that I have read include: The Real Business of Photography by Richard Weisgrau, Visionmongers by David DuChemin and Best Business Practices for Photographers by John Harrington.
Also you will need to have top-notch post-processing skills so I highly recommend my e-book on digital workflow entitled Adobe Photoshop Lightroom: A Professional Photographer’s Workflow. I know listing that book might seem a little self serving but I have honestly not seen any other book on the market that really puts it all together like this one, which is why I wrote it. And of course if your interest is adventure photography you might also check out my other book Adventure Photography: Capturing the World of Outdoor Sports, which also has two entire chapters on how to get started as a pro.
Photographers are often told that they need to develop a personal style to set them apart. What would you say sets you apart?
The style question is always an interesting one. Photographer’s are always told that they need a “definitive” style. I have found, as I think many photographers have, that it is only after shooting for about ten years that you find your style. And strangely enough it is other people who tell you what your style is. I can recognize the style of my peers quite easily but it is hard for me to say exactly what mine is. I have been told that I have a very clean, graphic style. I have been told that my images have very creative angles and that my images are “perfected to a degree that few other outdoor photographers can achieve”. For myself I can say that my style is to work hard, find the best angle and shoot in the best possible light whether it is natural or artificial. What sets me and my work apart is my work ethic, my passion for the sports I photograph and the images I create and the lengths to which I will go to get the shot. I am never satisfied and I am my own harshest critic when it comes to my images.
When not looking through the lens of a camera, what do you like to do in your spare time?
When I am not working I love to get outdoors without a camera. My passions aside from photography are rock climbing, cycling and tennis. I ride my road bike as often as I can to keep in shape and so that I can keep up with the world-class athletes I work with. I am also a fanatic when it comes to movies.
Who are your influences?
I have had a ton of influences. From my early childhood, I did a lot of art – everything from charcoal to painting and sculpture. Hence my initial influences were the “masters” like Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Salvador Dali, Van Gogh and Picasso. When I started into photography and made it my career there were a ton of photographers who influenced my own work including Galen Rowell, Ansel Adams, Nevada Wier and more recently James Nachtwey, Joe McNally, Platon and Dan Winters. I was also blessed to have some incredibly talented pro photographers here in Santa Fe mentor me on a number of topics when I was starting out including Marc Romanelli and Jamey Stillings.