This is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of my recently updated e-book Location Lighting for the Outdoor Photographer. The updated e-book is 361-pages and covers location lighting from start to finish. It starts out with a comprehensive chapter on equipment and ends with an in-depth chapter on the most advanced lighting techniques available today. For more information about Location Lighting for the Outdoor Photographer and to purchase a copy please visit my website.



One of the questions I often get when I teach workshops and seminars is, “How do I know what good lighting looks like?” There are hundreds of ways to answer this question. Knowing what is good when it comes to any piece of art is a matter of assessing its relevance to art that has come before it and also assessing how it makes the viewer feel. I realize that is a very amorphous answer. Let me clarify it a bit with some examples. For myself, learning what constitutes good lighting means looking at thousands and thousands of images including those created by industry masters and those created by the average Joe. This is not unlike learning what makes a great photograph. Master photographers are considered masters for a reason, just as “classic” novels are considered classic for a reason. Whether or not said master photographer’s work inspires me is unimportant, it was deemed important enough in the context of photography to elevate those images to a certain status and as such there is a lot to be learned by analyzing that work and how it was created. Hence, my answer is to look around you. Look at those photographers whose work you enjoy and are inspired by, also look at all types of art, and figure out what you like and how you can implement that inspiration into your own work.

Portrait photography in particular is an interesting example. There are a lot of standard rules for lighting a portrait—to the point that it can become fairly formulaic. Just as with photography, or any other art form, you need to learn those rules before you can knowingly break them successfully. Learning “good” lighting techniques therefore involves a lot of research, a fair bit of experimentation on your own and a process of discovery that not only informs your skills but also your taste. To that end, I highly recommend buying a variety of fine art photography books, or checking them out at your local library, and taking in as much as you can. Alternately, tracking down a wide variety of “master” photographers online and spending significant time studying their work is also extremely valuable. I personally prefer books for this exercise as that allows me a lot of time to sit with the images and assess them in a much higher quality format.

On my bookshelf, I have a wide variety of books from photographers and painters alike. Among those are photography books by Brassaï, Helmut Newton, Ansel Adams, Sebastião Salgado, Steve McCurry, Dan Winters, Annie Leibovitz, Albert Watson, Howard Schatz, Platon, Andrew Eccles, Marco Grab, Gregory Heisler, Jay Maisel, and Galen Rowell among many others. I also have a wide variety of art books covering artists like Dali, Picasso, Van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Monet, Andy Warhol, Matisse, Degas, Georgia O’Keefe and on and on. In addition, I have hundreds and hundreds of my peers websites book marked and I often look to see what new work they have produced. I am constantly looking at photography, art and cinema for inspiration and to further my own understanding of the craft. Taking in as much as possible will not only improve your lighting, but also your photography.

The more experience you have using strobes, Speedlights or any artificial lighting tools, the more you will be able to glean from looking at other photographers work. With experience, you will be able to better analyze how an image was created, how it was lit, and even to some degree how it was processed after the fact, which is a significant factor in this digital age. As with any subject, intensive study will lead to improved understanding, which will help improve your own skills and inform the final image.



Excellent lighting takes time. Unless it is a set up that a photographer has worked with often, no matter what type of lighting used, it slows you down—and that is generally a good thing as it makes you think. Using artificial lighting, of any sort, is one big giant experiment and time is required to dial it in. Often, when experimenting, you don’t fully know what the results will be or what you are looking for but by continually experimenting and pushing your skills you will find new methods and new looks. Photography is an ever evolving art form. With new technology, new options are available to the photographer that have never been possible before. That creates opportunities to push the art form to a new place.

I also want to emphasize here that learning to use artificial lighting is a process. You won’t learn it all here in this book by any means. Learning to use artificial lighting is going to take many years, and the learning process never ends. The lighting masters became masters because they spent decades learning how to tame their lighting. This book will most likely accelerate your skill level but really learning actual techniques can only be accomplished by doing and practicing.

The Winter 2018 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 with recent news, a review of the Nikon D850, an article detailing an assignment for the Elinchrom Adventure School, an excerpt from my recently updated e-book Location Lighting for the Outdoor Photographer, an editorial entitled Setting Goals, 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 Winter 2018 issue on my website at:

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

2017 has been one of the best years of my career in so many ways. There have been some epically successful assignments and photoshoots as well as some career highlights, like working with CreativeLIVE and doing an image critique with non-other than Chase Jarvis. Perhaps the biggest, and most exciting assignment, I had this year was the Lighting the Spirit assignment with Elinchrom and Red Bull Photography where I shot images with the brand new Elinchrom ELB 1200 battery-powered strobe to help show what it was capable of. The images from that assignment have already won several awards and hopefully will continue to win some more awards in the coming year.

I know that these “Year in Review” blog posts are a dime a dozen – and I have seen a lot of them over the last few weeks – but I hope you find this blog post at least entertaining. If you have been following along this year then you have seen most of these already but there are a few new images here that haven’t been distributed far and wide just yet. Hence, without further ado, here are what I consider to be the best images I have created this past year and a few career highlights as well.

Red Bull Air Force
Arizona, USA

Early this year, I was assigned to shot with the Red Bull Air Force at their Annual training camp just south of Phoenix, Arizona. As usual, it is always an amazing experience working with the Red Bull Air Force. Over the course of two days, both the team and I dreamt up a few different complex scenarios like the one below, where two team members jumped off the skid of the Red Bull helicopter, flown by Felix Baumgartner, and over the wing of Kirby Chambliss’ plane. To capture this image I was shooting from a third aircraft and the timing was painstakingly worked out between all team members.

In addition to the action, I was keen to shoot new portraits of every team member, even though Red Bull didn’t ask for them. In between flights and jumps, I pulled each team member back into Kirby’s garage where I had set up a studio backdrop and dialed in the lighting. The portrait of Red Bull Air Force team member Jeffrey Provenzano below is just one of those portraits.

This assignment was also one of the first where I made extensive use of GoPro cameras. When mounting cameras on Kirby’s plane or on the Red Bull helicopter, larger DSLRs disturb the airflow too much and down’t allow for the extreme acrobatic maneuvers. Hence, the GoPro Hero 5 cameras we had for this assignment, set to intervalometer mode to shoot two still images every second, really helped to create some wild images while mounted on Kirby’s plane or Felix’s helicopter. Below are two images shot by remote GoPros mounted on Kirby Chambliss’s plane when he released smoke while performing radical maneuvers in his stunt plane.

I have to say I was pretty impressed with the still image quality straight out of the GoPro Hero 5. For such a small 12 MP sensor, the images had very little noise and were easy to work up. For this assignment we shot over 15,000 images on the GoPro, which made for a long image editing process, but we also got some images that were very surprising. As always, I look forward to collaborating with the Red Bull Air Force again!

White Sands
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, USA

Every year, I try to get out and shoot some images just for myself. As a pro, I have to keep the fires stoked and landscapes are a passion of mine. Landscape images are hard to market as a pro but it is a supreme pleasure to just get out and shoot and not have to worry about setting anything up or coordinating the sun and moon to make it all come together. White Sands National Monument has been one of my go to spots for most of my career. I have done dozens of shoots down there – many of them focused on the landscape. In February, I went down with my buddy Richie Graham to shoot landscapes together. It was wicked cold the night we camped out there, but the didn’t deter us from getting out early to shoot sunrise. Below are a few images from that trip.

Angel Fire Ski Resort
Angel Fire, New Mexico, USA

In April, I had an assignment to shoot skiing for the Angel Fire Ski Resort in Angel Fire, New Mexico. The plan was to shoot when they had a big dump of fresh snow and it came late this year just a few days before they shut down for the winter. Over two days they got 2.5-feet (0.76 meters) of snow. We had a few different skiers and snowboarders lined up for the shoot but on the first day we went out with Zach Vanderlei in Shane’s Glade and used two small Elinchrom ELB 400 battery-powered strobes in Hi-Sync mode to create the image below.

It was snowing so hard, and the snow was so wet, that all of the gear got soaked on our fist morning. My assistant turned the flash head towards me and it was half-filled with wet snow right against the exposed flash tube. We shook it out and kept shooting for a while. I could see that the flash tube was spitting water off with each flash burst. Afterwards, we went back into the resort and laid out all the gear to dry it out. I was wiping off copious amounts of water while on the shoot so I was a little worried I had pushed it too far. Amazingly, the cameras and strobes were just fine and never even blinked at the wet snow.

I love how this image really pops with the artificial lighting. We got some other interesting images but this one was by far my favorite from that assignment. Fingers crossed we get some huge storms this winter here in New Mexico. So far, it is looking like a dry winter in terms of snow conditions.

Lighting the Spirit
Spirit Falls – Little White Salmon River, Washington, USA

The Lighting the Spirit assignment this summer shooting for Elinchrom to launch the new ELB 1200, and also for Red Bull Photography, was one of the best shoots of my entire career. I have written a lot about this shoot already so I won’t go on at length here but I have to include a few of my favorite images from this assignment. Below are what I feel are the best five images for that assignment.

To gauge my favorites I put them up as backgrounds on my office computer or make prints and live with them for a while. If I still think they are decent after one month, two months, or even six months later then that tells me a lot. Of these five, the best of the best (to me at least) are the middle three. Feel free to comment on your favorites in the comments below.

For the full story on this assignment check out my long behind the scenes blog post here.

CreativeLIVE – Red Bull Photography
Smith Rocks – Bend, Oregon, USA

Ever since I saw the first few classes come out of CreativeLIVE I have wanted to teach for them. Doing so has been on my “to do” list each year since 2010. This year, through Red Bull Photography, that goal came to fruition. Even better, we came up with an advanced lighting class that is one of my great passions right now. Looking through these images this year, it might be apparent that a lot of my work has involved artificial lighting and specifically high speed lighting techniques.

Red Bull Photography has been collaborating with CreativeLIVE to create classes that will help Red Bull photographers push their own craft forward. Last year, Corey Rich taught a great class for CreativeLIVE and Red Bull Photography. Hence, it was an honor to be in the mix this year. For this class Red Bull tracked down three stellar athletes for the class including Kai Lightner, Tim Johnson, and Dylan Bowman. We also had Ian Caldwell, The Mayor of Smith Rock, on hand to help out on our shoot in Smith Rock State Park near Bend, Oregon. Below, Kai is hanging off the lip of Chain Reaction (5.12c) and below that Ian is cranking up Rude Boys (5.13c).

The photo above was one of the first shoots we did with Tim Johnson riding cyclocross on the Lower Storm King trail near Bend, Oregon. Because of the messy background it just felt better as a high-contrast black and white image.

To check out the class, follow this link: Advanced Lighting for Adventure Photography. My thanks to Red Bull Photography for making this happen, and to the stellar crew at CreativeLIVE for all their help and hospitality. Teaching this class was a demanding and intense experience, but it was also a career highlight for sure.

Olympic National Park
2nd Beach, Olympic National Park – Washington, USA

While out in Washington this fall, teaching again at CreativeLIVE during PhotoWEEK, I took a few days after the class to check out some parts of Olympic National Park that I hadn’t been to. We were blessed with an incredibly clear morning (for late October) at 2nd Beach out on the coast. During PhotoWEEK, I asked fellow instructor and good friend Ian Shive, who has shot just about all of the National Park extensively, what was the best location in Olympic. Without hesitation he said “2nd Beach.” Hence, that is where we went.

It was a surprisingly long drive from Seattle over to Forks, Washington and then out to 2nd Beach but as you can see above it was well worth it. My girlfriend and I spent a few hours shooting on this morning and this is the best image from that shoot.

National Geographic Exodus Aveiro Photography Fest
Aveiro, Portugal

To cap off this amazing year, I was honored to be a part of the first National Geographic Exodus Aveiro Photography Fest in Aveiro, Portugal in early December. Some of the amazing photographers presenting at the Exodus Aveiro Photography Festival included Reza, Ami Vitale, Pete McBride, Mario Cruz, GMB Akash, Konsta Punkka, and Elia Locardi. The festival was one of the best I have ever been a part of and it was incredibly inspiring to hear each presenter tell their story and share their passion.

Below are a few shots taken by the Exodus Aveiro staff during my speaking session. The audience was packed with over 600 attendees. It felt like a TEDx talk in many ways. In addition to the speaking sessions, there was a gallery exhibit of the ten presenter’s images, which is now traveling around Portugal over the next few months. This was my first ever gallery exhibit, and for it to be in Portugal and part of a National Geographic photography festival was pretty special. It was incredibly inspiring and fulfilling to see my images displayed amongst my peers images. I also had a very encouraging conversation with the iconic National Geographic photographer Reza discussing my images, which as you might imagine was a big morale boost. Several of us also taught MasterClass seminars, and as usual, it is always fun to engage with smaller groups and share the craft and how I do things. So long 2017. My thanks to Elinchrom, Red Bull, Red Bull Photography, CreativeLIVE, the Exodus Fest staff and crew and all of my other clients this year. As I said in the beginning, it has been an incredible year. Of course, there were a whole truckload of other excellent images from this year, but for some reason these have resonated the most for me. Thanks for taking the time to check out some of this years highlights. Feel free to comment on any of these images and tell me which one you think is the best of the best from this year. Happy New Year to you all. Here’s hoping your 2018 is filled with adventurous travels and amazing experiences!


  • Alberto - Thank you for sharing all your knowledge with us. You take an incredible amount of effort to post your learning experiences, just wanted to let you know that they’re very well appreciated. Hope there’s a lot more travel and new experiences coming your way and look forward to reading all about them.

After three months of waiting, I finally got not just one but two Nikon D850 camera bodies and the Nikon MB-D18 battery grip that goes along with the Nikon D850. My thanks to Roberts Camera and B&H Photo for getting me those two D850s. Having put my order in only one day after the camera was announced, you can tell just how popular this new Nikon has been. There is still huge demand for the Nikon D850.

On specs alone, the D850 is a powerhouse. Building upon the exceptional legacy of the Nikon D800 and D810, the D850 pushes the boundaries of high-resolution camera technology. So far, in my testing, it lives up to the hype. The Nikon D850 is the culmination of everything Nikon has learned about building DSLRs. As this is their 100th anniversary, the D850 seems like a perfect product to celebrate that legacy. I realize these opening paragraphs sound more like a “fanboy” review than a critical look at the D850, but don’t worry, we’ll get there.

For myself, as an adventure sports photographer, I have always had two different types of digital cameras. One was a camera with a fast frame rate specifically for photographing sports and the other, especially since the D800 came out, was a high-resolution camera for sports that didn’t require super fast frame rates and also for portraits, landscapes and lifestyle images. Along the way, I fell in love with the image quality of the Nikon D800 and D810, especially when I needed to make large prints. My Nikon D4 has been languishing of late as I rarely use it unless I absolutely need the 11 fps frame rate (as when shooting surfing). In the last few years I also bought a Hasselblad H5D 50 MP camera, which has really spoiled me on the image quality front. With the introduction of the D850, Nikon produced a camera yet again that was better than I had expected. In fact, it is a camera that I have been dreaming about for ten years now, one with both incredible resolution and a decently fast frame rate.

Over the last month I have done some fairly extensive testing with the D850 to see if it can replace not only my Nikon D810 but also my D4, which is my stalwart action camera. I was pretty sure before I even got the camera that it would replace my D810, but I wasn’t so sure it would be able to best my D4 in terms of speed or low noise at high ISO settings. I am still torn as to whether or not I should sell my venerable D4, but at the end of this review I will make that decision. Without further ado, let’s get down to business and dig into the D850. Fasten your seat belts. This is going to be a long ride…


From the first moment I picked up the camera it felt great in the hand. I have large hands so the deep grip on the D850 fits really well. Ditto for the MB-D18 battery grip. The pull out LCD on the back of the camera is also a welcome change. I am not sure why it took so long to add a movable LCD onto the back of pro cameras but there are plenty of times that it comes in handy. The touchscreen LCD and touchscreen menus is also a huge time saver. The first time I saw the scroll bar to go through images my mind was blown. Any other method to scroll through images seems crazy now. Also, the touch menu layout is massively faster than pushing buttons and dials. I can change setups in less than half the time using the touchscreen menu options. These last two tweaks really made going back to the D810 or the D4 painful.

There are all kinds of other little features that have improved the camera as well, but have also taken a little time to get used to. Nikon switched the position of the ISO button and Exposure Mode buttons and I have been constantly pressing the wrong button with the camera to my eye for the last month. I am just now getting used to the new button placements–and they make sense. Having the ISO button right there behind the shutter release is much better than where it was on my D810 or D4. The D850 also has more custom function (Fn) buttons than the D810 and D4, which is nice for accessing custom functions I use often. There are so many ergonomic improvements that until you use the camera for a while you just don’t realize how much better it is than earlier models.

Image Quality

With 45.7 megapixels, the Nikon D850 isn’t lacking in image detail. The Nikon D810 had and still has remarkable image quality. Given that, the D850 has a lot to live up to. Luckily, it is just as good if not better than the D810 in almost every regard. The Dynamic Range of the camera is almost identical to the D810, the noise is well controlled over the entire ISO range (up to ISO 12,800), and the overall image quality is technically superb.

In tests against my Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi, the D850 faired extremely well against the much more expensive Hasselblad. In the center, the images were almost identically sharp when comparing an ISO 64 D850 file against an ISO 100 H5D image file. The H5D image was cleaner overall in terms of noise but that is to be expected. As shown in the screenshot below, where the H5D really outshines the D850 is in the corners. The D850 (on the left) was noticeably softer in the corners than the Hasselblad H5D (on the right). For this comparison no sharpening was applied to either image. I realize comparing the D850 to a top-end medium format camera costing nearly five times as much as the D850 seems a bit overkill but many will be wondering just how well it does in this category. Note that in this test I chose an aperture of f/8 for the D850 and an aperture of f/11 for the H5D giving an approximately similar depth of field. The Nikon D850 had the excellent Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.4G lens on it and the Hasselblad has the remarkable HC 100mm f/2.2 lens attached to it, which is a very similar field of view as the Nikon 85mm lens.

What I have found so far, and I have only been shooting for a month with the D850, is that this camera is pushing Nikon’s best lenses quite a bit harder than the D810 did. All of my lenses are the top end Nikkor zooms and primes, so I have the best lenses Nikon makes, but I can see that if Nikon (or any camera manufacturer wants to push the resolution boundaries higher than 50 MP they are going to have to re-vamp their lens lineup with higher quality glass. This isn’t to say that the Nikkor lenses are bad, just that the cameras are now at the point that the lenses really matter–even moreso than with the Nikon D810.

Another factor when it comes to image quality, which was the case with the D810 as well, is how you handle the camera. The D850 isn’t a standard 35mm DSLR. You can’t think of this as a “run-and-gun-it” style camera like the Nikon D5 or any other sub 24 MP camera. The D810 was comparable to a 4×5 film camera in terms of resolution. The D850 is somewhere between a 4×5 camera and an 8×10 camera in terms of resolution. Because of this much higher shutter speeds are required when handholding the camera to get sharp images. When was the last time you saw someone handholding a 4×5 camera? Think of the Nikon D850 as an 8×10 field camera and you’ll get the best image quality out of it. If you are shooting handheld, I highly recommend shooting with a minimum shutter speed at least four or five times the focal length. For example, if I am shooting with my trusty 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom, the bare minimum shutter speed I would handhold that lens at would be 1/250th second and even that would be dicey in terms of getting a tack sharp image. With my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8, I wouldn’t dream of handholding that lens at anything less than 1/800th second–even with the Vibration Reduction on. If I want to assure tack sharp images with the 70-200 I aim for 1/1,000th second or faster shutter speeds, more likely 1/1,500th sec or higher. To get tack sharp images at lower shutter speeds the D850 would need in-body stabilization like that found in it’s mirrorless counterparts.

For landscape photography, Nikon has done an excellent job reducing the shutter bounce and vibration in the D850. But, with that said, you will need to lock this puppy down on a serious tripod if you expect to get tack-sharp images at any shutter speed below 1/125th second. And by serious, I mean a beefy heavy duty tripod. None of those wimpy tripods with extendable top tubes need apply. I use the same Gitzo GT5541LS tripod that I use with my Hasselblad when shooting landscapes with the D850, and I also use a large ballhead to make sure everything is locked down tightly. For the best results, just as with my D810, I also use the mirror up option along with Exposure Delay mode (3s) and the Electronic front-curtain shutter mode to eliminate any vibration.

This isn’t to say that I shoot with the D850 on a tripod all the time. It has quickly become my all around camera and I shoot most often with it handheld, especially when shooting adventure sports. I just make sure to use a fast enough shutter speed, as noted above, to make sure I counteract any camera shake that might introduce motion blur into the image. I am definitely not the steadiest photographer out there. I drink way too much caffeine. The upshot here is that when care is taken, the D850 produces absolutely stunning images. From what I have seen so far, the D850 has the best image quality Nikon has ever produced in any of their DSLRs. According to DXOMark, the D850 has the best image quality of any full-frame interchangeable lens camera on the market.


When the Nikon D5 came out, I shot with it for several days during a DPReview Field Test. The D5’s autofocus was astounding. One of the biggest draws for me with the D850 was that it has the same AF module as the Nikon D5. Having a camera with best-in-class AF, along with the 9 fps, and 46 MP resolution makes for a pretty alluring piece of technology. That was pretty much all I needed to hear to get excited about the D850. The big question: Does the AF in the D850 live up to the D5’s autofocus? I haven’t done enough testing to know for sure if it is on par with the AF incorporated into the D5, but compared to the D810 and my much older D4, the D850s AF is a giant leap in performance.

Over the last month since I got the camera, I was doing a few demos for Elinchrom with their new ELB 1200 battery-powered strobe kit. For the first two demos, both done in a studio setting, I used my Nikon D810 and even with the modeling lights on the camera had some difficulty tracking the athletes we hired to do a variety of martial arts maneuvers. I used the D850 for the last demo and it had no difficulty whatsoever tracking wild movements in the studio as can be seen below. This image was created using the 3D Tracking AF mode. When I shot with the D5, the 3D tracking AF mode seemed like it could read your mind and kept whatever you locked onto tack sharp even with extremely fast moving subjects. The D850 seems to do incredibly well with the 3D Tracking AF mode as well, and this will come in handy for recomposing while tracking fast moving subjects.

Autofocus has always been something that tied me down to a few focus points when shooting action. Before the Nikon D5 and its 3D Tracking AF mode, I had never seen an AF mode that allowed you to concentrate on the composition and forget about AF like with the D5. So far, with the D850 I have not shot a lot of crazy sports but I will continue to test it’s autofocus. One thing I can say for sure, if you are frustrated by the D810s autofocus, the D850 will be a massive improvement on that front. There are lots of folks online who have run tests on the D850 comparing it’s AF to the Nikon D5 and found the D850 not quite as good as the D5. I am not shocked by that, and so far that is what I am finding as well. The D850 has more than twice the resolution and a slower frame rate than the D5. The higher resolution sensor is more sensitive to AF errors, which means the D850 has to have way more accurate AF than the D5–because you will see those inaccuracies clear as day when you zoom into 100% on these image files. Regardless, the AF of the D850 is utterly superb.

As with the D810, I highly recommend fine tuning the AF for each lens you own and use. With the D850, it is quite a bit easier to fine tune the AF for each lens than it was with the D810 because Nikon has included an AF fine tune option in the D850 as they did with the D5 and D500. PetaPixel posted a great article entitled How to Use Auto AF Fine Tune on Your Nikon DSLR the Right Way. I highly recommend watching this video and dialing in the AF Fine Tune settings for all your lenses. This will make the AF much more accurate.

Dynamic Range

There are other websites, notably DPReview and DXOmark, who have done extensive testing on how the D850 compares to the Nikon D810 and other cameras in terms of dynamic range. I won’t get to crazy here but in my experience so far the D850 matches the D810 in terms of dynamic range. The D810 was a class leader in this respect and that was a big reason for the fanfare over that camera. Having a camera with such an expansive DR allows me to capture incredible detail in both the shadows and the highlights by exposing for the highlights and then pulling the shadows up in post. With the D850, I have been able to pull out at least four stops or more from the shadows just as with D810.

As can bee seen in the image above, the D850 has excellent dynamic range. For this image, shot on the Torre atop the Serra da Estrela mountain range in central Portugal, I exposed for the bright sky and then pulled up the shadows in the mountains. At ISO 64 the D850 has nearly 15 stops of dynamic range which is among the best of any cameras out there and comes close to rivaling the best medium format cameras.

High ISO Image Quality

When I purchase a new camera, one of the standard tests I run on it is a still life shoot at every ISO setting to see just how much noise builds up as I crank up the ISO settings. Since I work in a wide variety of situations knowing just how far I can push the ISO is critical to making sure I come back with the images. With the D810 and now the D850, knowing how much noise is created at various ISOs is even more important because if I am shooting handheld I will likely be working at ISO 400 and above quite often just to get the fast shutter speeds required for tack-sharp images. I know this part of the review will be a bit on the geeky side, but as a pro you have to know your gear.

Prior to this, my Nikon D4 has been the High ISO champion. It still has lower noise at high ISOs than even the Nikon D5. The only other camera that does better than the D4 is the Sony A7s II, but it is only a 12 MP camera. Generally as you raise the megapixel count the amount of noise exhibited at all ISOs increases. The 50 MP chip inside the Hasselblad X1D 50c and H5D 50c, as wells the newer Hasselblad H6D 50c (and all other version of that medium format chip) have the lowest noise I have ever seen in any camera – be it a medium format camera or 35mm DSLR. Hence, as a benchmark, I have tested the D850 against not only my tried and true Nikon D4 but also against the Hasselblad H5D 50c. Let’s jump into the results.

First off, let’s compare the D850 to the D810, which it replaces. In the screen shot below, the D850 image is on the left and the D810 is on the right. Both images were shot at Iso 6400. The D850 exhibits pretty much the same amount of noise as the older D810. Given that there are 10 more megapixels packed onto a sensor of the same size that is pretty impressive. If you downsize the D850 file to the same size as the D810 and compare them then the D850 is even better than the D810. I am guessing this is all due to the Backside Illuminated sensor built into the D850 that is reducing the noise so essentially there is no noise increase.

Now, comparing the D850 to the Nikon D4, we see that the D4 is still a much cleaner file. In the screenshot below the D850 is on the left and the D4 is on the right. Both images were shot at ISO 6400. The D4 image file is ultra clean at ISO 6400. Because the D4 creates a 16 MP file it is much smaller than the 46 MP D850 file. The size difference here also makes it hard to tell how they would appear in a similar size print.

To get a better comparison, I downsized the D850 file to the same size as the D4 image file. Again, the D850 is on the left and the D4 image file is on the right. With these image files size exactly the same the D4 still looks a little cleaner than the D850 but the D850 isn’t that far off. In fact, looking closely at these two images side by side it is like splitting hairs as to which one is the cleaner image file. This is a pretty amazing feat by Nikon to have a 46 MP image file that will print just as cleanly as the Nikon D4’s 16 MP image file. In working with the D850 images I also have found that they have a very organic type of noise, which is easy to clean up in post-processing. If exposed correctly and processed with care, ISO 6400 image files from the D850 are eminently usable.

Now, for the final comparison, in the screenshot below we have the D850 on the left and the Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi on the right. Both were shot at ISO 6400 with approximately the same focal length lens. As you can clearly see, the H5D image file is ridiculously clean at ISO 6400. The D850 file is much noisier. The color fidelity of the H5D image file is also a lot nicer but that is mainly due to the 16-bit image processing pipeline in the H5D. Still, the D850 did quite well in this stress test.

The Nikon D850 did incredibly well in these tests and showed itself to be a real contender at High ISOs, which is not something you would normally think for such a high resolution camera. This was the main test that was going to tell me if I should sell off my D4 or not. If the D850 can match the low noise of the Nikon D4 at High ISOs, and has way better AF, then why would I hold onto that D4? When I can shoot with 46 MP instead of 16 MP and have a lot more options for cropping in post I can’t see why I would ever shoot with my D4 again. Kudos to Nikon, they have not only created a high resolution camera with stellar image quality but also one that handles noise very well, which makes this, in my mind at least, a true all around camera.


The D850 is the first Nikon camera to have full frame 4K video. What this means is that the low noise output comes through in the 4K video just as it does in the stills. I haven’t used the video feature a ton just yet but from my testing so far the D850 has the best video output I have ever seen in any Nikon Camera. It also has focus peaking, which is a huge bonus, but the focus peaking only works in 1080p. Why it won’t work in 4K I have no idea. If Nikon can upgrade that in the firmware I think they would have a lot of very happy customers. Because of this, I still use a SmallHD monitor when shooting video with my Nikon DSLRs.

The image quality of the video is very good and the Flat picture profile allows for capturing a wide range of tones. The Flat picture profile also makes it easy to work up the video files in post. The H.264 video format is a solid codec. The 4K format is UHD, meaning it is capturing 3840 x 2160 pixels. I would prefer that Nikon chose the DCI 4K resolution, which is 4096 ox 2160 pixels as it scales down to 2K output better. In 4K mode, you can only record at 24p, 25p and 30p but in Full HD 1080 mode you can record in slow-mo up to 120p. The D850 video data rate is also 150 Mbit/sec, which is higher than on Sony’s A7 cameras. It still has a video out plug on the side of the camera as well as a mic jack and a headphone jack.

The EOS HD website did a great review of the video features on the D850 in a blog post entitled The D850 vs. Everything. In that article they said, “The image quality in full frame 4K mode is truly incredible, the best I’ve yet seen from any DSLR since the Canon 1D C…the D850 is WAY ahead of the Canon camp.” That is pretty high praise coming from a website that is highly critical of Nikon’s video output in all of their other cameras. Nikon has truly done a great job with the video options on the D850. For a look at some video footage check out Little Shao’s promotional video shot with the Nikon D850 in UHD 4k mode.

Timelapse Photography

The D850 is a time-lapse machine. It can produce 8K time lapse footage and it can shoot time lapses in the Silent Shutter Live View mode so that creating numerous time lapses doesn’t wear out the shutter. In the Silent Shutter Live View mode it is essentially turning the sensor on and off to capture the image, which can produce some rolling shutter issues so care will have to be taken if you choose this option. I haven’t even had time to try this feature out yet so I will have to do future testing here on how well this works. Having talked with Lucas Gilman, who has done a lot of time-lapse photography with the D850, it seems to work incredibly well.

MB-D18 Battery Grip

One of the huge selling points for me with the D850 was the option to add the Nikon MB-D18 Battery Grip and get a frame rate of 9 frames per second. It is this 9 fps frame rate, and its stellar AF performance, that makes the D850 usable for sports photography. The 7 fps frame rate without the grip is ok, but since I have gotten used to much faster frame rates with the Nikon D4 and D5, a minimum of 8 fps would be the lowest I would go to shoot sports. Hence, at 9 frames per second the D850 is just over that. Next to my D4 or a D5 blasting away at 11 or 12 fps the D850 seems a little sluggish, but I have found that all those extra frames just add up to more headaches in post trying to edit images down to the top selects. If I was a sports photographer shooting more normal sports like football, basketball or the Olympics those faster frame rates might be required. For most of my adventure sports assignments if I can’t capture the image at 9 fps then I have more important issues to consider than which camera I am using. And if I really need those extra high speed frame rates above 9 fps I can borrow a D5 from Nikon or rent it.

Those extra two frames per second come at a steep price. The price of the MB-D18 Battery Grip is $399.95 USD just for the grip. To actually allow the D850 to get up to 9 fps you will also need the Nikon EN-EL18b battery (the one used for the Nikon D5 or D4, which goes for $149 USD) and the BL-5 Battery Chamber Cover (another $24.95 USD) to hold that larger battery in the grip. You will also need the Nikon NH-26aAK battery Charger to charge those larger size batteries and that charger is rather pricey at $369.95 USD. Adding that all up, to get to 9 fps you will have to spend an additional $943.85 USD. That is unless you already own a Nikon D4 or D5, in which case you will already have the batteries and the battery charger. Needless to say, that is a lot of money to gain a few extra frames per second.

Aside from the expense, the MB-D18 battery grip is very nice and certainly enhances the ergonomics when shooting vertically. The grip also seems more stable than the D810 grip and has a much much better button layout on the back of the grip which mirrors the same button layout when shooting horizontally. The grip is also extremely comfortable in the hand and allows my pinky to rest in a very natural spot when shooting horizontal as well as vertical. All in all, the grip is a great addition for those that need it. As an adventure photographer, I love having a camera that I can break down into a lighter weight rig when I need it or add a grip to get extra battery life and performance when weight isn’t an issue. In that respect the D850 feels like a massively upgraded Nikon D700.

Buffer Depth

The buffer depth of the D850 is quite good considering the size of the 46 MP image files. In Continuous High mode, without the MB-D18 Battery grip, and shooting only to a wicked fast XQD card, you can get up to 51 or so frames at 7 fps before the buffer kicks in and slows down the frame rate. Sadly, one of the very few knocks I have against the D850 is that when you bolt on the MB-D18 and use the EN-EL18b battery to gain the 9 fps frame rate, the buffer slows down the frame rate after only 20 to 23 frames. So, essentially you get about 2 seconds of shooting at 9 fps before the buffer slows you down. It makes total sense, after all we are shooting 46 MP images at 9 fps so that is pretty incredible. I have just gotten used to the seemingly endless buffer in the D4 and D5 cameras but they were shooting much lower resolution image files. Even with this limitation, the D850 is still a marvel. To get 9 fps with 46 MP images is worth it even if the buffer isn’t endless.

Of course, if you have your camera set up to shoot to both the XQD card and the SD card for backup, the buffer is even shorter than those specs listed above. If you want the fastest write speeds you will need to buy the fastest XQD cards on the market from Sony. We will get to that in the next section.

Choosing an XQD card

To get the best performance out of the D850, choosing the right memory card, and specifically the best XQD card is a huge factor. The XQD memory card format has gotten a bad rep for some reason. I am not sure why. In my experience using pretty much every memory card format on the market the XQD cards are the best out there and they are my personal favorites. They are smaller than CompactFlash cards, large than SD cards and are tougher than both. They are also not as fragile as the CFast cards and they are faster than any CFast card on the market. I really hope they are adopted by more camera manufacturers because they are the memory card format of the future. I think most photographers groaned about the XQD cards because it meant they had to buy new memory cards.

These days, since Lexar bit the dust, the Sony XQD cards (as shown above) are the only option. Their latest G-Series XQD cards are wicked fast and they are my top recommendation for the D850. They come in 64 GB, 128 GB and 256 GB sizes. All of them are crazy fast and they also download faster than any memory card I have ever used. If you want the best performance with the D850 then these are the cards you want. I purchased three of the 128 GB cards when I bought my D850. If you don’t already have an XQD memory card reader I recommend the Sony XQD/SD Card Reader.


Nikon’s SnapBrige App can wirelessly tether with the Nikon D850, but in my experience it is clunky, especially with the giant 46 MP image files coming out of the D850. Unlike my earlier experiences with SnapBridge with the D500 where I couldn’t even get it to pair with the camera, SnapBridge did pair with my D850. Pairing the D850 with SnapBridge is not as easy as you might hope. To actually download images to an iPhone or iPad, you have to engage the WiFi on the camera after connecting it to SnapBridge via Bluetooth. Even with wicked fast WiFi here in my office it took forever to download even one image much less all those on the memory card. Hence, the usefulness of the app seems dubious for a camera like the D850.

What I did find to be very useful was the remote control part of the SnapBridge app, which allows for remote control of the D850 with live view on my iPad. You can change the shutter speed, aperture, ISO and also focus the camera which is pretty awesome–all the while with a live view on your iPad or tablet. I can see using this in a bunch of different situations. It would be great to see Nikon really improve this app as it has promise, but it just isn’t there yet.


The D850 is indeed Nikons best camera ever. Having shot with it over the last month it is very hard to go back to my D810 or my D4. The D850 does everything extremely well and it is the most capable Nikon camera I have ever shot with. Shortly after getting my first D850, my outstanding order with B&H shipped so that I now have two of them. I have had some time to figure out if I would keep the second body or not. As I write this conclusion, I have decided to keep both D850 camera bodies and to sell both my D810 and D4. The D850 is simply that good. It is a better camera than either the D810 or D4. With the D850, it isn’t just the image quality, or the 9 fps frame rate, or even the massively improved video options, it is having all of this and so much more in one camera body. As DPReview said in their analysis of the D850, “this just might be the most well-rounded stills camera ever…we’re comfortable saying the D850 is the best DSLR on the market today.” I heartily agree.

There are so many new features on the D850 that in the month I have had the camera I haven’t even been able to test them all. I will certainly be testing the camera for some time to come. There are, if I am honest, more features in this camera than I really need. But, who is going to complain about that. I will also say that Nikon has quite the line up of cameras right now. Not everyone will need a 46 MP camera. For most amateurs Nikon’s D750 is probably still the best all around camera. For those pros or discerning amateurs the D850 is the pinnacle of camera design. It is so alluring that some who have crossed over into mirrorless have been coming back to DSLR world just for the D850.

With the D850 and the Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi, all of my cameras (save for the GoPros) are at 46MP or 50 MP. I have become an addict to high resolution cameras because the resulting images print incredibly well. With the 36 MP D810, I could print those images up to five feet (1.5 meters) long and they looked spectacular. With the D850 I can go even larger. Aside from the print resolution, the D850 also allows clients to take vertical crops out of horizontal images, which is a great feature when it comes to publishing ads in magazines or for magazine covers.

One last note here, looking towards the future, I have a feeling the D850 will be my last optical viewfinder camera–in other words my last DSLR. I have no doubt that Nikon is working on a pro-caliber mirrorless option. They better come out with something amazing or they will lose market share in a huge way. I am hoping they release an incredible mirrorless option in 2018. I am sure Canon is also working on this as well. With Sony chomping at the bit and releasing a whole slew of impressive cameras this past year, they are quickly changing the game and have been for years now.

I must admit, I much prefer optical viewfinders over EVFs, but the technology has gotten to the point where EVFs are acceptable and the mirrorless cameras have options that cannot be implemented into DSLRs. Unless you opt for a smaller sensor, the whole idea of weight savings with mirrorless cameras is a myth. Sony has proved this with their f/2.8 zooms, which are the same size as the Nikon and Canon options, if not bigger. Regardless, mirrorless cameras are the future. My hope is that Nikon can replicate the D850 in mirrorless form with dual XQD card slots, a body that is ergonomically excellent, and with a stellar EVF viewfinder. 2018 is going to be a very interesting year in the photo industry. Kudos to you Nikon on the D850. You hit another home run with it. I can’t wait to see what you come out with next. But, and this is a big one, whatever comes out next has an incredibly high bar to overcome. The D850 is just that good.

Update – February 8, 2018

After shooting over 9,000 images with the D850 in Hawaii recently during a huge swell at Peahi, a.k.a. JAWS, I thought I would add an update here. Shooting with the D850, with the MB-D18 battery grip at 9 fps for four days, I continue to be impressed with the D850. Specifically, while shooting surfers launching down huge 60- to 70-foot waves I found the D850’s autofocus to be outstanding. As can be seen in the image below of Kai Lenny dropping in on a monster wave, he is tack sharp during his bottom turn and also in the following image where all you can see is the top of his head and shoulders. The D850’s 3D Tracking continuous AF mode followed him throughout the series and kept every single frame tack sharp over a series of sixty images. For my work, this is a huge reason why the D850 is ridiculously good.

Above you can see a tighter crop on Kai Lenny from the middle image above. Note that he is tack sharp. Also, note that this isn’t even a 100% crop of the image. With 46 MP there is an insane amount of resolution to make pretty severe crops from any full-frame image. In addition to the example above, I shot hundreds of empty waves as well and here again the D850’s autofocus locked on and never let go as in the image below. The only times where the autofocus was off where when a huge wave of spray nailed the front port on my water housing.

Needless to say, I am damned impressed with this camera and continue to be blown away by it! With 46 MP I can’t wait to make some huge prints of these images from Peahi.

  • Tony Bonanno - Wholeheartedly agree with everything you’ve said in the review Michael. I received mine the day after they were released and also have the Grip and D5 batteries and adaptors. I’ve used it on corporate events, birds in flight, low light portrait, etc. I’m almost thinking bout selling my D5 and getting a second D850 too.

  • Pedro - Great review, Michael! I was curious to know when you’d write it 🙂
    I got the itch the minute you showed me that touchscreen and that crazy fast image browse. And from those high ISO samples you posted, I’m getting one.

  • Andrew Kornylak - Excellent in-depth review as always Michael. D850 is king.

    …But man that clean Hasselblad shot kind of blew me away!

  • Michael Clark - Yeah, the Hasselblad files, especially the 50 MP X1D and H5D and H6D are crazy clean at ISO 6400. Somehow Hassey has it dialed at high ISOs. The Phase One IQ350 wasn’t anywhere near as clean as the Hasselblad versions for some reason.

  • Venkateswaran B - Best experience

  • Landscape Photography - Excellent article, the best I’ve seen on the d850. Interesting to learn about the high ISO capabilities of the Hasselbad too. I might need to add one to my kit.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Dino - I just wish Nikon would have added the option to shoot natively 7 fps FX and 9 or 10 without the battery grip in DX as the D500 already does. While I like the D850 for a lot of things in theory, somehow I tried a D4/D4s and I felt much more love at first sight despite the “lesser” MP specs. I’m honestly torn cause that continuous 10/12 fps is truly a joy for the ears and terribly reassuring in certain cases. 7 fps – where you can still hear a pause between a click and the next one – less so. If I have to choose a camera for the next 10 yrs I really wonder if a D850 or a D5/D5s (or even D4s FWIW) is the best choice.
    What I need most – often shooting also MF lenses – is the camera ability to lock focus with dim light ( I had a lot of problems with the D600 ) and while I know from D750 onwards (more so with D500) focus has gone through a quantum leap, I wonder if a D4s for STILL shooting with mf lenses (and a 300 F/4 or 70-200 F/2.8 for sport and events with decent light) is SO behind compared to D5/D500/D850. I’d really love to hear from you what you think. Basically I shoot a bit of everything, especially portraiture (in whatever light, not only in studio), events (PJ) and sport, this is why I’d rather prefer a faster burst rather and slightly more usability than always being fixed to a tripod because of the too many MP. Thanks in advance.

  • Michael Clark - Dino –

    I rarely shoot on a tripod. I usually just crank up the ISO. If you really need the 12 fps of the D5 then that is a special scenario. IF you don’t need the 46 MP then the D4 or D5 makes more sense. It just comes down to your needs. With the D850 I get the ultimate image quality and have the ability to crop. With the MB-D18 battery grip it offers 9 fps, which sounds pretty stinking fast. That is enough for me. It is telling I think, that in a conversation a few months ago with Andrew Hancock, who is a Sports illustrated photographer and a Nikon Ambassador, that he sold off all of his older Nikons and upgraded everything – even his D5 – to the D850. This is why I spent so much time in the review talking about High ISO noise as that was the key for me. It basically matched the noise of the D4, which is lower at High ISOs than the D5 when the images are scaled down to the D4 resolution. The low light AF on the D850 is also WAY better than either my D4 or D810. That might help you out. In the end it is up to you. Rent one and see what you think. The reality is all of this gear is phenomenal. It isn’t the camera that holds any of us back these days.

  • Vern Rogers - I have been reading about the demise of the SLR for many years, yet it remains with us. I fell for the SLR way back in 1959 and it has been my favorite ever since. Even though, over the years, I made good use of other types of cameras, including the wonderful Leica rangefinder models and medium format cameras, the SLR remained my goto camera. Now, at 81, I am anxiously waiting for the shipment of my D850.

    With big hands and still getting around fine, I find small and light are not solutions for me, but rather a hindrance to a firm and steady hold. No, small and mirrorless is no panecea, but rather a fine addition to what’s available. There will be other trends coming along that will be the next craze. And they will work themselves into what’s available. It is plain that marketing drives the industry and sales people are good at convincing us that they have just what we need. I don’t follow the trends. I get what works, for me! There is room for cameras of all types, including the fine DSLR!

  • John Wilson - Congratulations on your 2 D850’s, you are one lucky man! You are also the first photographer who makes sense to me in that you have a main and a backup that are the same bodies I assume you set up both exactly the same way except maybe lenses then just pick up and go. I could never understand why more people don’t use 2 of the same bodies! Thank you for review!

  • Jeroen - Thank you for this abdolutely awesome real life in-depth review of the Nikon D850. I hope you are able to share your AF settings with me, with us? Obviously AF-C, but then… Release, Focus, Release + Focus or Focus + Release and the settings a3 Focus Tracking with Lock-On and a4 3D Tracking with Face Detection?

    Thank you Michael!!!

  • Michael Clark - Jeroen – I have all of my AF settings at the default settings. I do use back button AF so that is the only custom setting I have set up. Focus Tracking with Lock on is engaged as usual by default. All I did in this case was switch to AF-C and choose 3D Focus Tracking.

Over the last eight months or more in 2017, I have been working with Elinchrom and MacGroup (the Elinchrom Distributor here in the USA) to help build the Elinchrom Adventure School. The Elinchrom Adventure School is the brainchild of Ab Sesay at MacGroup. It is a great honor to be a part of this and to help Ab bring his idea to fruition.

The Elinchrom Adventure School is a free, online educational website for photographers looking to take their adventure photography to the next level. To access the website, you will have to input your name and email address. That is the only cost to enter. Once inside, you will find an array of behind the scenes videos detailing the gear used for each photo shoot, behind the scenes videos showing exactly how each shoot was pulled off and of course the final images produced. In addition there are links to a wide range of other articles showing how Elinchrom lighting gear was used to create some adventurous images.

As stated in the screenshot below the goal of the Elinchrom Adventure School is “to inspire and educate…while promoting passion, dedication and craftsmanship.” With the launch of the Elinchrom ELB 1200 battery-powered strobe kit, both Elinchrom and I feel that there is no better strobe option on the market for the adventure or outdoor photographer. I have written at length about the ELB 1200 in my Summer 2017 Newsletter. In the in-depth behind the scenes videos on the Elinchrom Adventure School you can see me put the ELB 1200 through its paces. This new strobe kit has allowed me to create an entirely new portfolio of images this year, and many of those can be seen in the Adventure School.

Right now, the Elinchrom Adventure School website will seem like the “Michael Clark” show. That isn’t what it is supposed to be. More episodes featuring shoots by other Elinchrom photographers are in the works and will be added to the Adventure School as they are created. Hence, this is an ongoing project and not just a one-off deal. Elinchrom and MacGroup have invested heavily into this project to help you get the most out of your strobe equipment and show some possibilities. At the moment, as shown below, there are two main segments to the website: one detailing a rock climbing shoot at Rifle Mountain Park near Rifle, Colorado and the other detailing the Lighting the Spirit whitewater kayaking shoot that was part of the promotional materials for the ELB 1200. Both shoots relied on the ELB 1200 battery-powered strobes.

In addition to the behind the scenes videos there is also an incredible interview on the Adventure School with Rob Haggart on “The Evolution of Adventure Sports Photography.” Rob Haggart currently runs the website. If you don’t know about this blog I highly recommend checking it out. is a blog that dives deep into the photo industry and reveals a lot of critical information for pro photographers to help them understand how the industry works from the vantage point of a photo editor or art buyer. Rob is also the CEO of, which is one of the leading professional website template companies. As a disclaimer, I have used Aphotofolio website templates for the last eight years or more and they have been a great boon to my career – and I have paid full price for it as well.

In addition to Rob’s current work, he was formerly the Director of Photography for Outside Magazine and Men’s Journal Magazine. Combined he has worked as a photo editor for more than ten years with some of the top outdoor magazines and he has seen the arc of the adventure sports genre like few other photo editors in the industry have. He was also instrumental in my evolution as a photographer because early on he advised me to buy some strobes and a medium format camera and figure out artificial lighting so that I could produce decent portraits. His exact words were, “You adventure photographers can’t light your way out of a paper bag.” He was right. At the time I was terrified of flash photography. A few months later, when I could afford it I took his advice and bought my first strobe kit and a used Hasselblad.


“This interview with Rob Haggart is a gold mine of great information for any photographer looking to push their craft and especially for any aspiring pro adventure photographers.”


Even if you could care less about using strobes, this interview with Rob Haggart is a gold mine of great information for any photographer looking to push their craft and especially for any aspiring pro adventure photographers. I would recommend signing onto the Adventure School just to watch this video alone as it contains so much great information.

It was a great honor to interview Rob. He is truly an astounding resource in the photo industry and he has done a lot for photographers through his blog and also via aphotofolio as well. Rob has also worked with many of the top photographers across many genres in the photo industry. He has seen it all. He has also helped start the careers of a few very notable adventure photographers. I am praising him here quite vociferously because he deserves it. If you are a photographer, and especially one interested in adventure sports photography, do yourself a favor and check out this interview on the Elinchrom Adventure School.

As new content is added to the Adventure School, I will definitely make note of it here on the blog and also on my social media channels. I also want to thank all of the athletes and assistants that have helped on these photo shoots including Tom Bear and Andrew Bisharat. Lastly, the bulk of the hard work in creating these videos was done by Bill Stengel. Finally, thanks to everyone at MacGroup, who have worked tirelessly on this project and to Elinchrom. I hope you enjoy the Elinchrom Adventure School!


Way back in October of 2014, I posted a blog entitled, “Advice for those looking to start a career in Photography.” I have sent a link out to that blog post quite often and I have had quite a few aspiring photographers thank me for it as well. Recently, I have gotten other questions via Instagram, Facebook and through email. One of the big ones is: “How do you market yourself and your work? How do you get your name out there?” There seem to be thousands of people interested in pursuing photography as a profession. With every photography website selling the “pro photographer” lifestyle as if you can just go out and make it happen in a few years I thought it was time I added another post with the sobering realities of the photo industry and what it takes to make a living in this ever changing career field.

Over the last few months I have had this blog post in the hopper so to speak and have added bits and pieces to it when I had time. In October I was asked by CreativeLive to present a 90-minute class for Photo Week 2017 on “What it takes to be a Pro Photographer.” That class is behind a pay wall, and costs $39 to view, but for those that are thinking of making a career in photography it might be well worth the money to watch the class. In that class I present a very realistic and sobering view of what you can expect if you are looking to jump into this field. I didn’t want to present a class that was bright and cheery. I wanted to dish it out as it really is and tell all. I did end with the cheery note that if you want it bad enough then you too can become a professional photographer. Click on the link above or on the image below to go to CreativeLive’s website and read more about the class.

I did not write this blog post just to try and sell you on a class. I won’t make a dime off that class if you chose to purchase it. I have already been paid. So, I only offer it here as a resource you can chose to invest in or not. There is a lot more to come below, but before we move on, I also wanted to note that during the CreativeLive Photo Week 2017 I was part of a panel discussion lead by Mike Hagen with Ian Shive, Clay Cook and myself as the panelists. In that panel discussion Ian Shive talks at length about the how pricing is changing in the industry. As this video is out there for free, I encourage anyone interested to watch it via Facebook.

Supply and Demand

Before I dive into how I market myself and my work, let’s discuss a few realities of the photo industry. It has always been hard to make it as a pro photographer. That hasn’t changed. While there are more outlets to get your work published there are also more photographers in the industry than at any point prior to this time. The Supply and Demand curves are not working in our favor as professional photographers. Since 2008, the supply has increased massively and the demand has remained steady or has only slightly increased, as shown in the slide below.

Basic economics tells you that if there is an oversupply then prices in that industry will nose-dive and that is exactly what has happened since 2008. Seemingly overnight, sometime in 2009 or early 2010, standard rights-managed usage rates dropped in half. In the last few years, they seem to have dropped in half again, now somewhere down around 75% less than they were pre-2008 in my experience. These days if I can get 50% of what fotoQuote pricing says an image is worth I count myself lucky. I am not putting this out there to bemoan the state of the industry, it just is what it is in my experience. In the old days, pre-2007, if a client wanted to buy all rights for a single image (i.e. to own the image and the copyright) the price was somewhere between $60,000 to $80,000 USD. These days many clients are buying out single images for $10,000 or less.

In fact, it is rare these days that I shoot an assignment and only license a few images from that shoot to the client. Unlimited usage rights contracts are more and more becoming the norm, and I don’t see that going away anytime soon. Unlimited usage rights contracts also take away another of the pre-2008 methods photographers used to make a living, namely the ability to re-license images. It still happens but it is getting more and more rare. Typically after the original usage period ends (or close to it) the client will ask to re-license an image that was still of value to them, and the standard re-license rate was 75% of the original usage rate. I understand why clients are asking for unlimited usage. It make sense for them and is a lot less hassle. Unlimited usage also is key when clients post images on social media as they have no idea who will re-post it or where it will go. Unlimited usage has become the de-facto standard mainly because of social media usage.

The photo industry continues to change on a daily basis. Standard rights-managed usage rates continue to drop, while at the same time clients are asking for more rights, more images and everything to be created faster and faster. The licensing models we have used in the past are slowly fading and are being replaced with unlimited usage agreements that give clients more images and more freedom in how they use those images. In the panel discussion referenced above, I noted that while my income continues to rise from one plateau to the next, I am having to generate more images and offer more rights on each of my assignments to generate that income. Ian very clearly discussed average image pricing at his stock agency Tandem Stock, which should ring a few alarm bells for all of us.

Regardless, the market is going to change and we can either get on board or jump off the train. As I said in my class on what it takes to make a living in this profession, there will always be room for new, talented photographers that are willing to work extremely hard and can create exciting imagery. With that said, let’s get onto the main question: “How do you market yourself and your work? How do you get your name out there?”

Marketing 101

How do you establish yourself in the photo industry? What is the best way to market yourself and your work? These are huge questions that I get over and over via email, Facebook Messenger and via Instagram. Here are my thoughts on the matter:

Step 1: Go out and create Kick-Ass amazing images that are different or better than what is already in the marketplace. Difficulty Rating: 10/10

Amazing images are normally the result of incredibly hard work and a creative mind. This is by far the hardest step. It will require thinking outside the box and getting creative in how you conceptualize and shoot a project. The quality of the work will also significantly affect how effective your marketing efforts are. If the work isn’t up to par, then don’t expect much from your marketing efforts. If the work is out of this world stellar, then it will probably market itself.

The photo industry is not a strict meritocracy. What I mean by that is even if you do go out and create jaw-dropping work, that doesn’t mean that it will automatically get you work. You still have to send it out to possible clients and see what happens. Also, be aware that clients want to see that you are not a one-trick pony. You will need to be able to replicate that stellar work over and over. Luckily, as discussed in Step 2, getting your work out there has never been easier.

Step 2: Market those images to appropriate clients. Difficulty Rating: 2/10

Getting your images out to the appropriate clients isn’t that hard. Tracking those clients down just takes time and energy.

Step 3: License the images. Difficulty Rating: 4/10

Knowing how to license your images and not give away the farm definitely takes some insider knowledge. Luckily, educating yourself on how to price your work isn’t rocket science. I highly recommend purchasing Jim Pickerell’s out of print book entitled “Negotiating Stock Photo Pricing.” The first two thirds of that book discusses how to establish pricing and how to negotiate. If you read that you will be so far ahead of the pack, in terms of understanding how to price your images, that other photographers will be calling you up to ask how to price their images.

Step 4: Repeat steps 1 through 3. Difficulty Rating: 5/10 or 10/10 depending on how easy step 1 is for you.

This is the key. No one starts off getting huge assignments right off the bat. You have to prove yourself to whichever client you want to work with. That will take time, and energy–lots of it.

Step 5: Gain a foothold as a reputable photographer that can come through over and over on assignment.

The above steps should hopefully reveal that there is no secret to making a career as a professional photographer. It is all about hard work. That’s it. If you want it bad enough, and have a few ounces of talent, then you can probably make it happen.

My sincere hope is that this doesn’t come off as a rant on the state of the industry. For more than 21 years I have made my living as a professional photographer. I consider myself blessed beyond my wildest dreams and I live a rich, full life in terms of experiences and adventures. If you do want to pursue photography as a career, it is my belief that going into this profession with a clear perspective on what it is like, what it will take and how long it might take to actually make a decent living will help when the times get tough. Early on in my career, I had enough sense to ask a few photographers much farther along the path how long it took of them to build up their career. “Five years to get established, ten to make a decent living and fifteen to really get into the golden years” seemed to be the consensus. Some photographers advance much more quickly than this, others at a slower pace. It all depends on your situation.

To finish this off, I leave you with the best article I have ever read on what it takes to build a career in any creative field. The article is entitled “The 8 Keys to Success: An Essay and thoughts on What it Takes to reach your True Potential,” by David Lyman and published on way back in October 2004. I have referenced this article many times over and it is still something that I read every year.

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, 2017. 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.

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