While revamping my website recently it was decided to take down a few of the stories I had on my portfolio website to simplify it a bit. This story, from way back in 2003, is one of many stories I have about nearly buying the farm in the sky so to speak. If I have to add them up I have used up seven of my nine lives so far in my 20 year career as a professional adventure sports photographer. A few of those stories include: falling into quicksand in Patagonia, getting hit by a car on my road bike, being hit but a beach-ball size boulder, being hit by a basketball size piece of ice, and taking 20-foot fall that left my head only inches above the ground. Above and beyond any of these other exciting moments, this story of my rope getting cut while on assignment for Climbing Magazine is by far the closest call I have ever had. Because so many people have responded to this story over the many years it was on my website, I wanted to repost it here on the blog. Without further ado, here is the story entitled, “In God’s Hands,” that has been on my website up until it was revised this past summer:

The climbers and I started hiking at 5 AM that morning in the dark. This was the third day of an assignment I was shooting for Climbing Magazine in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It had already been a little rough with two days of difficult weather. I was in desperate need of good light and the bright stars were a good indicator that the dawn would be clear. Larry Shaffer and Cheryl Mayer had been recommended to me as the trad masters of the Needles, and they didn’t disappoint. Larry soloed the short first pitch (meaning he climbed without the use of a rope or any gear to protect him in the case of a fall) of East Gruesome Spire as I moved into position to shoot higher up in the gulley.

In the top of the gulley it was freezing cold and the wind was howling. I was shaking so violently I could barely keep the camera steady. My plan was to shoot East Gruesome Spire from the side at first light as the climbers ascended and then jumar to the top of East Gruesome to shoot across at the Eye Tooth. Though only rated 5.7, the Eye Tooth was spectacularly exposed and would give a very good feeling for what it was like to climb in the Cathedral Spires.

[Technical note: For those not aquainted with climbing techniques, jumaring, also known as jugging, is slang for ascending a fixed rope. It is a technique where the climber clamps mechanical ascenders onto the rope that slide upwards and lock with a camming device. Hence, with a pair of ascenders and some nylon webbing one can ascend a fixed rope without having to climb the rock face. Climbing photographers use this technique so they can get into position, freeing their hands to manipulate a camera.]

Around 8:30 AM I started jumaring to the top of East Gruesome Spire. My sixty-meter static rope hung free from the gently overhanging wall for the first hundred and sixty feet. I wanted to get in position as quickly as I could so the light wouldn’t get too harsh on the Eye Tooth. Thirty feet from the top I looked up to see my rope, twelve feet above me, bent over a large quartz crystal pointing straight out from the wall. My first reaction was to push off the wall and get the rope off the crystal. As I leaned out from the wall I noticed my rope seemed strangely thin where it ran over the crystal. I was looking at frayed core material. From my perspective it appeared I was hanging from one third of the rope’s sheath!

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Above: Michael Clark’s partially severed static line after a very close call in the Cathedral Spires in South Dakota.

I wasn’t panicked. I was stunned. It was sobering to think that my life would be over so quickly. I immediately started to pray. One third of a sheath couldn’t hold me for more than a few seconds. I could already see my body falling away from the wall and I was anticipating how it would feel. Gravity would engage instantaneously. My thirty-five pound camera pack would act as ballast. Upon impact one hundred and eighty feet below, the camera pack would break my back and slam my head and feet onto the granite slabs. I would have two seconds at most. And I would be looking at the blue sky above me the entire time. I could hear the dull thud of my landing. And I was praying as I have never prayed before, certain that this was my time to die.

I tried to call up to the climbers, who were still on top. I had to forcibly clear my throat just to speak. When finally I yelled, it was with noticeable urgency. I asked them to lower a rope to me as quickly as they could and put me on belay. I remember Larry said, “give me a moment, this could take a little time.” I shouted back with a cracked and broken voice, “lower the rope NOW! I’ll tie in while you are putting me on belay.” Larry’s face popped over the top and he understood the situation immediately. I can’t remember how long it took to get the rope down to me. It felt like two or three minutes. I held myself as still as I could on the holdless wall waiting for the rope to break.

My mind was racing and I realized I was praying out loud. Verses I had memorized from the Bible were floating through my mind. “… to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) I can’t say I felt peace. Endorphins and adrenaline kicked in. I was on autopilot, praying without even thinking, confessing my sins and preparing myself for the end.

The rope end dropped just in front of my face. I made the fastest tie-in of my life, at the same time concentrating on my breathing to calm myself down. Once secured, I jugged up and past the cut. When I got to the cut I realized that some of the core was still intact but I just kept going. On top, Larry and Cheryl were looking at me, waiting for a reaction. My nervous comments gave away how I felt. Little else was said. Then they moved ahead with the plan, rappelling their ropes to start up the Eye Tooth. It appeared that the crystal had cut half way through the core. I would later find out, after cutting the rope open that I was hanging from three of the seven strands of the core.

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Above: Cheryl Mayer on the daunting and exposed Eye Tooth (5.8+) in the 4/5 gulley of the Cathedral Spires in Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

It was not until I was alone that I broke down. I started praying again, thanking God for His mercy. I must have prayed for twenty minutes or more. It seemed to calm me. And I knew I had to keep it together and concentrate on the images. Taking photographs was a diversion. I started to get excited about the images and it forced me to think about composition, exposure, and focus instead of what had just happened.

When it came time to rappel I was gripped. My faith in ropes had just taken a serious beating. I checked the anchors at least five times before I leaned back over the edge and once I was on the ground I felt a huge release. We continued shooting for the rest of the day but thankfully the architecture of the Spires was such that I could get above the climbers without having to get on a rope.

The next few days were intense after such a close call. Flowers looked brighter, the sky bluer and life seemed surreal. I realized that every moment from here on was a gift. I no longer felt invincible. And death didn’t seem so far away as it did before. It could come at any moment. And that forced me to stop and think about what is truly important.

A few days later, I was two hundred feet off the deck in the Cathedral Spires again. Needless to say it was mentally challenging. I knew the “money shots” would be from above on the second pitch in the late afternoon light. I forced myself up there even though my nerves were still frazzled. I said a prayer before I started jugging the second pitch that made everyone take notice at the belay. Once we started shooting I calmed down. I quickly realized these could be the cover shots for the article and that made me concentrate on the images.

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Above: Eric Sutton on the 5.12 second pitch of the Yellow Wall on Kayyam in the Cathedral Spires of Custer State Park, South Dakota.

To this day, I still get nervous when I hear rope rubbing on rock. But in retrospect, it has become a blessing. Every breath is a gift. Someday we will all die. I don’t know if I am ready, but I am getting prepared.

Writer’s note (from 2004): As I wrote this my heart was palpitating, my hands were shaking so much it was hard to type and I had goose bumps just remembering what it was like hanging, thinking and waiting. My shirt was soaked from sweat by the time I finished writing and I felt sick to my stomach. I was trying to put myself back there, in that situation to capture what it felt like and I was a little surprised at how well I could remember every detail of those three or four minutes.

(An edited version of this article was published in the 2004 Photo Annual of Climbing Magazine as “The Wake-up Call”)

A few weeks ago I sat down and did an interview with Dale Sood of Vistek, which is Canada’s largest, professional photo, video and digital imaging store. They are also a distributor in Canada for a large number of high-end photography brands. Dale and I, as you will see in the video above, discussed a large number of topics including how I got started, how I work with professional adventure sports athletes and what it is like to work as a pro adventure sports photographer in this day and age.

I met Dale, and a good portion of the Vistek crew, last year while presenting at the Vistek ProFusion Expo in Toronto, which is the Canadian equivalent of the Photo Plus Expo. They are a great group of people and fun to work with. I hope you enjoy the video and get something out of it. I also invite you to ask questions here in this blog post and I will do my best to respond to them all.

8-2-16163235albert_watsonAll images kindly provided by Christopher Michels, who was one of many talented photographers in Albert Watson’s workshop. In the image above, Albert is discussing a lighting setup on the second day of the workshop. 

In August, I took a photography workshop with the legendary Albert Watson at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops.  If you are a photographer and don’t know of Albert Watson, look him up. You have seen his work before. I guarantee it. He has been called one of the top 20 photographers of all time. That is some pretty rare air. He is also an incredibly personable and genuine person. And, he is one of a handful of photographers I would call a true lighting master. As is evident in his images, he sees light in a way very few photographers do or can. Hence, taking a workshop with Albert was a great honor and a huge learning opportunity.

This was the second photography workshop I have ever taken. It was also the highest level workshop I have ever been a part of. Everyone in the class was either a working pro or an extremely advanced amateur, but most were working pros. Once Albert started showing us his basic lighting techniques, most in the class were completely blown away, myself included. Even my good friend Robert Reck, one of the top architectural photographers on the planet and a fellow participant, was heard muttering, “I can’t believe it” after the first lighting demo. Most of Albert’s lighting is done with one strobe head and a beauty dish, and the light is then bounced off white and black foam core to create a custom lighting setup for each image. What he was able to create with a very affordable amount of foam core and several flags (used to block the light) was absolutely astounding.

I took this class to help push my portrait photography lighting skills to the next level and also to get a creative boost. In the workshop, we talked about a wide range of subjects and Albert also critiqued our work and websites in front of the whole class. While looking at my images for over an hour he loved a few of my portraits and harshly critiqued quite a few of them as well. The constructive criticism was what I was there for and it will help me work harder to create higher-end portraits.

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Above, I am in the hot seat. You might notice my nervous, awkward stare. I was sweating a bit more than normal as Albert critiqued my images. It isn’t often that you have a photographer of Albert’s stature and experience critiquing your work. He was honest and direct, just what I was looking for. I learned more about my portraiture in this one hour than I have in a long, long time.

During the workshop I took over 28-pages of notes. There were also a ton of pretty remarkable quotes that I wrote down. Below are a few of the best quotes from the week:

“If you learn one thing from me it is to analyze your pictures. You have to get into your own picture and really analyze the image as with a microscope. My one eye is a magnifying glass.”

[Sidenote: Albert has been blind in one eye since birth, which allows him to see and analyze images differently than those of us with stereo vision.]

“Good lighting is a matter of you moving the light and using your eyes to adjust the light.”

“The final proof is the image hanging on a wall. Do you love it or not?”

“Spend more time on the creative and on the conceptualization of the shoot than on equipment and gear. “

“Never in your life use one of those nasty silver reflectors. Burn them.”

“There is a great malaise with a lot of photography now. There is not enough homework done before the shoot and not enough thought put into the image.”

“One of the weakest things I see is photographers don’t use flags with their lighting.”

 “Try over the next year to concentrate on the images and the art, not the gear. Instead of looking at gear reviews spend your time looking at art and taking in as much art as possible to influence you.”

“The devil’s in the details.”

“Make memorable images, not postcards.”

“We need to rise above all the millions of cameras and rise above the fray and above the stratosphere.” – Albert speaking about creating memorable images that stand out from the crowd.

This workshop also happened to be the first five-day workshop that the Santa Fe Workshops has ever run where the participants did not shoot at all. This was intentional by design. None of us really needed to shoot anything. We were there to learn about Albert, his work and his methods. Hence, taking time to shoot our own images would have limited how much of his craft we could absorb. We could see how how he worked and replicate that process after the workshop if we wanted to create similar looks. For this workshop and the high level participants not having to deal with shooting images was fantastic.

8-2-16163615albert_watsonAlbert giving direction to one of our models for the afternoon. Unlike most photographers, myself included, Albert gets in close to his subjects and really looks at the way the lighting is falling across their face as his assistant(s) move the light. 

8-4-16164668albsert_watsonA Portrait of Keith Coleman, Albert’s 20-year assistant, who brought with him years and years of knowledge. 

One of my mantras is “Never Stop Learning.” If I ever did stop pushing to learn new techniques or expand my skill set I feel that my career would be in steep decline soon thereafter. Improving my portraiture, and my lighting skills, has been a decade-long endeavor so far and will likely continue for many more years to come. One of the big take aways from this workshop was not a photographic technique or any lighting setup per se, but the urging by Albert to think more artistically when creating images. Albert noted that we as photographers get so wrapped up in the technique that we often loose sight of the creative side. Going forward, I really want to push the envelope creatively more than I ever have. What that exactly means is something I am still figuring out. This, my 20th year as a professional photographer, has been quite busy but I have also taken the time to seek out and find inspiration.

This was Albert’s second time teaching a 5-day workshop. The last one was eighteen years ago and also at the Santa Fe Workshops. He has taught a one-day seminar in Europe but besides that he hasn’t taught any other workshops or seminars. My thanks to Albert Watson for taking time out of his incredibly busy schedule to inspire and challenge us all. Also, my thanks to Reid Callanan, the director of the Santa Fe Workshops for bringing Albert back to Santa Fe.

 

  • Sean - Oh man, that’s awesome. What a great experience to learn from one of the masters. Totally jealous. Keep wanting to come down and take one of their workshops. Hopefully soon.

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To get the ball rolling for the fall holiday season, I am happy to announce a 25% off sale on all of my fine art prints until December 31st, 2016. How this works is very simple, just take 25% off my standard fine art print pricing, which can be found here, and contact me to order the print.

All of my images are available as Fine Art Prints. You can see which of my images are in the Limited Edition category on my website. Any images that are not shown on the Limited Edition page are considered Open Edition prints. Please note that these prices do not include shipping. If you have any questions about print sizes or available images please don’t hesitate to contact me. I will work with you to make sure the final print is the best it can possibly be and will look great mounted on your wall.

These archival prints are painstakingly created by yours truly on some of the finest papers available. I do not outsource printing to a third party printer because I want to have tight control over the quality of the final print, and I have not found a third party printer that can achieve the same level of quality that I can produce here in my office. The prints are made on Epson printers using a variety of papers including both fine art matte papers and baryta photographic papers. The printer and paper combination is chosen specifically for each image so that image will be rendered with the highest possible resolution and the widest color gamut. Our main papers are Ilford Gold Fibre Silk, Ilford Gold Cotton Textured and Ilford Fine Art Smooth papers.

Below are a few sample prints that I have made in the last few months to give you an idea of just how stunning these turn out when framed up.

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framed-print-003-mediumformatPlease contact me with any questions or if you would like to look at a wider range of images than are featured on my website.

 

summer-2016-cover_smThe Summer 2016 issue of the Michael Clark Photography Newsletter is now available for download. If you’d like to sign up for the Newsletter just drop me an email and I’ll add you to the mailing list.

This issue includes an editorial about my recent assignments and non-stop travel, a review of the Nikon D5, an article detailing a recent with Red Bull at the Red Bull Summer Solstice Photo Challenge, an editorial entitled “The Next Level,” and much more.

The Michael Clark Photography Newsletter goes out to over 8,000 thousand photo editors, photographers and photo enthusiasts around the world. You can download the Summer 2016 issue on my website at:

http://www.michaelclarkphoto.com/files/summer_2016.pdf

If you’d like to check out back issues of the newsletter they are available here.

Please note that the newsletter is best viewed in the latest Adobe Acrobat reader which is available for free at www.adobe.com.

nikon-D5A few months ago I received a call from Eric Becker at We Are Shouting, a production company that works with Digital Photography Review (dpreview.com). They were working on a full fledged review of the Nikon D5 and wanted to do a Field Test video review of the camera with a pro photographer to go along with their in-depth report. For these Field test video reviews, DPReview sends out one of their top editors to shoot alongside a pro photographer and discuss various features of the camera. Rishi Sanyal is the deputy editor and technical editor at DPreview.com and is the most knowledgable person I have ever met when it comes to digital camera technology. He and the video crew came down to Santa Fe, New Mexico and we worked side-by-side for three days shooting a variety of fast-paced adventure sports including BMX, whitewater kayaking and motocross. These are three of the toughest sports to shoot as far as autofocus and keeping up with the action, so they were an extreme test for the Nikon D5. The in-depth Nikon D5 review went live several weeks ago. The Field test video featuring Rishi and I went live just a few days ago. Check out the Field test video right here below. Afterwards, come back and read my thoughts on the camera in the rest of this blog post.

I have been working with the pro Nikon digital camera bodies since the D2x came out over a decade ago. My main workhorse action camera these days is the Nikon D4, which is no slouch. The D5 is the culmination of everything that Nikon has learned since they introduced the Nikon D1 way back in 1999. The D5 is not the highest resolution camera they offer, nor is it the lightest or most ideal camera for shooting in the studio. This is a camera designed for photojournalists, sports and action photographers, and photographers who need a super-reliable do-anything camera. For portraits, I would reach for my Nikon D810 over the D5. But when it comes to action sports, especially when it is happening in less than ideal lighting, the D5 is the camera I would reach for. Here in this review, I am not going to pixel peep and get deep into the technical aspects of the camera; The folks at DPReview have done an excellent job discussing the nitty gritty details already. Here, I am going to give the pro perspective on this new camera body and how I feel it stacks up against the Nikon D4 and D4s.

 

Daniel Coriz motocross riding at the Santa Fe MX track in northern New Mexico.

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Let’s just get one thing out of the way right off the bat: The autofocus built into the Nikon D5 is by far the most incredible autofocus I have ever seen in any camera bar none. It blew both Rishi and I away. With all of my Nikons, I have either used single point AF in AF-S mode or Dynamic AF in AF-C (Continuous mode) and have found those to be super reliable. With the D5, Nikon has taken 3D AF tracking to a whole other level where it nearly completely frees you up from focus points and will follow the action from edge-to-edge in spectacular fashion. With 3D tracking, you have to initiate the AF on your subject and then from that point on it will track the subject anywhere in the frame. The image above is an excellent example of this, where I followed the rider into the frame then selected my composition and let the 3D tracking stay with the BMX rider, Daniel Coriz. There were very few situations where the 3D Tracking AF missed focus. Rishi and I also tried out Auto AF in AF-C mode, which is an autofocus mode I generally would never trust with previous Nikon models, but it was ridiculously accurate for quite a wide variety of scenarios allowing us to focus on composition. To sum it up, I don’t know how autofocus could ever get any better than this. The autofocus in this camera alone is reason enough to upgrade or add a D5 to your camera bag if you shoot action.

Daniel Coriz motocross riding at the Santa Fe MX track in northern New Mexico.

As further proof of the autofocus accuracy, the above shot of Daniel Coriz riding motocross shows just how good the D5’s AF is. For this shot, Daniel was moving so quickly relative to the camera position that we had to shoot at 1/8,000 second or he would be soft due to motion blur. This image was shot wide open at f/1.8 with the Nikkor 24mm f/1.8 lens and it is tack sharp where we want it to be right on his face. I don’t think my Nikon D4 could have kept up anywhere near as well with this sort of scenario. This was also quite a dangerous spot to shoot from; Rishi had a sizable rock that shot out at him from under the tire of the bike like a bullet. Luckily it hit the camera and not his head. The camera was fine. The Nikkor 24mm f/1.8 was getting a bit beat up with all do the dirt flying straight at the lens.

mclark_nmdp_0416_1327v347The only time I saw the autofocus fail was with a few very specific scenarios while shooting whitewater kayaking. I consider whitewater kayaking to be the ultimate test of autofocus. There are splashes of water popping up all over the place between the camera and the subject, and very few cameras stick with the subject if a splash of water pops up in the frame. With more time, I think I could have tweaked the “Lock On” custom settings in the D5 to overcome this scenario and have it stick with the subject regardless of the water splashes. Other than in this very specific situation, the camera did phenomenally well. It did better than my D4 or any previous Nikon camera could in this scenario.

Nikon offers the D5 with either two CompactFlash memory card slots or two XQD memory card slots. Since the Nikon D5 is built for action, if you are buying a D5, I have no idea why anyone would get one with CompactFlash card slots instead to the XQD. The XQD cards make this camera lightening fast. In our testing, Rishi and I found out that having the latest, fastest XQD cards was important. My older XQD cards, that I purchased with my Nikon D4 four years ago, were so slow when used with the D5 that it took several seconds for the images to be written to the cards whereas the latest XQD cards that Rishi was using never skipped a beat or slowed him down at all. In fact, even after shooting a ridiculous 100+ images at 11 fps the images were written to the card by the time he took his eye away from the viewfinder and looked down at the back of the camera. My recommendation is if you are getting this camera, get the XQD version and buy new cards.

There has been a lot of hype out there that this camera doesn’t have the dynamic range of some of it’s predecessors, and that may be the case in the laboratory, but I didn’t notice it to be an issue in real world usage. Granted, I wasn’t shooting landscapes with the D5. For landscapes, I would be shooting with a D810 anyway. With my D4, I tend to shoot at ISO 400 and above about 75% of the time, and am often shooting at ISO 800 and above. The D5 is optimized to be used at higher ISOs. So, at least for me and the way I shoot with the pro body cameras, the dynamic range is not an issue.

I don’t want to make this a long-winded review because DPReview has already posted the most extensive review of the D5 you are likely to find and you can check it out on their website. Will I upgrade? That is the question. I still have another camera purchase to pay off before I buy any new cameras but at some point I will definitely be adding a new action camera to the bag and this will most likely it. [I am still excited to test out the Nikon D500 as well since it is a nice, lightweight camera that incorporates many of the same features found in the Nikon D5 including the new blazing fast autofocus module.]

My thanks to DPReview and We Are Shouting for pulling me in to do the Field Test with the Nikon D5. Not only was it a great chance to test out this new rig, but we also managed to get some pretty cool images in the process. Also, thanks to the athletes who worked with us: Daniel Coriz (BMX and Motocross), John Fullbright and Aren Rane (whitewater kayaking). Without their hard work these images wouldn’t exist and the video would be a lot less interesting. To find more info on the Nikon D5 visit www.nikon.com.

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Last month I had the pleasure of shooting for New Balance with Dominic and Katie Grossman, two elite ultra trail runners. While I was shooting for New balance, we were also shooting images to promote the Ultra Santa Fe trail race, which is sponsored by New Balance and is coming up quickly on September 10th, 2016 in the Sangre De Christo mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico. As you can see in these images Dominic and Katie are amazing trail runners. I have never seen runners so enthusiastic about running. I have also never seen runners fly through the terrain as these two seem to do at every opportunity. Both Dominic and Katie were like gazelles bounding through rolling terrain. They were literally flying on some trails with their feet spending less time on the ground than in the air.

This assignment started early, as is usual for most of my assignments, before sunrise. We drove up to the top of Ski Santa Fe, the local ski area, and shot at sunrise in the high alpine terrain at over 10,000 feet overlooking the valley below. Along with Dominic and Katie, we had a whole crew of runners including Peter Olson and Taylor Pardue, who are putting on the Ultra Santa Fe race. Over the following twelve hours we worked at a half dozen different locations showcasing the varying terrain of the race.

 

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At the end of the day we ended up on a single track trail up high in the Aspens as seen in the image above. This is one of the most amazing Aspens groves in the state of New Mexico and both Dominic and Katie were keen to shoot here even after a long day running back and forth for the camera. What impressed me most was just how fast they moved through terrain, even as ultra trail runners who average 50 to 100 miles in a race. Overall, this was one of the funnest assignments I have had in quite a while. It was an great, easy-going crew who were keen on running and we got some amazing images at just about every location.

 

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My thanks to Steve Hyde from New Balance, the Ultra Santa Fe race organizers and of course Dominic and Katie for making this happen. Dominic and Katie are coming back to run the race here next week. If you are interested in signing up for the 50 mile, 50 Km, 13 mile or uphill mile race visit the Ultra Santa Fe website for more details and to register. To see a wider selection of images from this assignment visit the New Balance page on my website under the new Commercial heading.

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