preview-2016_instagram_logoWithout a doubt, Instagram is one of the most exciting social media platforms anywhere. It is now ranked the number two most active social media platform (by number of users), just behind Facebook, with over 600 million participants. As a photographer, who has been slowing building a following on Instagram over the last three years, I have a love-hate relationship with the app. “Hate” might be a bit of a strong word choice in that last statement but you get the point. Trust me, I spend way too much time on Instagram. They have me hooked. On the one hand, it is inspiring to see an incredible number of amazing images on my Instagram feed each day. I tend to follow a lot of my fellow pro photographers, who post some top-notch images. In addition, there are a large number of amateur photographers creating incredible work, and in some cases their images are better than a lot of pro photographers.

Instagram is a hot topic among pro photographers. When I get together with my peers, it is the rare meeting where Instagram is not mentioned or discussed. For some pro photographers, mostly those with large numbers of followers, Instagram has been a huge boon to their career. For other pro photographers, it has been a burden, a source of frustration, or just another form of marketing. Before Instagram, there was the feeling that the pecking order in photography was based on a meritocracy. By this I mean that those who held the purse strings, and who also knew a lot about photography and what constituted excellent photography, chose the best photographer for each assignment. Instagram has flipped that script to some degree because it often rewards images that are good but not those that rise to a whole other level of excellence, which is why it is intensely debated and discussed among working pro photographers.

I will parse my words here carefully as many might take issue with that last statement and I don’t want to sound like a whining voice, moaning about my lack of followers. I know among pro photographers, who are a pretty discerning bunch, that quite a few of us have realized this fact. That fact being that our best images rarely get as many likes as our B-grade images, which are some times tailored just for Instagram. My best images, those that are the best I have ever created in 20 years of working as a full time pro, always seem to get less likes than an average image with some fancy lighting or a landscape reflection in a lake.

As an example, below are two of my images that were posted to my account @michaelclarkphoto. The left image is a cool image of a windsurfer, which was shot from a helicopter. It is a decent image, and an interesting perspective, but by no means is it out of this world incredible. On the right is one of the best images I have ever produced. It is an image that draws you in and forces you to look hard, and the lighting in this image took years to develop. Yet, the far superior ice climbing image got less than half the number of likes as the windsurfing image. This is but one example, but I have seen this over and over, not just on my own account but on other major Instagram accounts that I post to. On other accounts, I have regularly seen my best images get 1/5th the number of likes as some of my more pedestrian images have. I have also seen world famous photographers post “once-in-a-lifetime” images that barely get a yawn, but the next image posted of a Lilly pond gets more than twice as many likes. That begs the question, “What is going on here?”


The answer, I believe, is that the masses are not necessarily as educated about photography as industry insiders are. I’m pretty sure that isn’t really a shocking statement to anyone. I would hope that photo editors, ad agency art buyers and professional photographers who have spent years and years in the industry critiquing, editing and pursuing top-notch imagery would have greater experience judging imagery than the average consumer.

In many ways, this emphasis on entertaining the masses with an-image-a-day is in some ways promoting mediocrity in the photography industry. I know that is a huge statement. Let me explain. Instagram is driving a lot of advertising these days–much more than the average consumer probably has any idea about. I have lost assignments and sponsors because my social media stats weren’t big enough–i.e. I didn’t have enough followers. That is totally fine. I get it. If a company wants to spread the word far and wide then they need to go with someone who has the megaphone and can do just what they want–or help to increase the spread of that companies advertisements beyond the companies’ followers. These days, there are quite a few photographers (and non-photographers) on Instagram with significantly larger followings than the companies they are promoting. [Kudos to those photographers!] Amazingly, some of the best photographers to ever pick up a camera have a ridiculously small number of followers.

There is actually a pretty clear formula as to which images get the most likes on Instagram. Create images that are nicely composed and exposed, which allow the viewer to escape in that image and you will have a winner. A few examples of those types of images are: place a small figure in a large and compelling landscape, create a unique and stunning landscape image of an exotic location, use dramatic lighting to make an image pop off the feed, put up a hammock in an unusual place with a stunning background, shine a headlamp up into a night sky with a little aurora borealis in the background, and finaly post those images often. Of course, some of these are age old image styles while others are new “Instagram” style images. The reality is the first time you saw an image of a dude standing there under a star lit night sky shining their headlamp straight up into it, you have to admit, that was a pretty stinking cool image. Just like songs on the radio that get stale after being played too many times, everyone copied the original and we are now officially over it–though those images still get a ton of likes.

So, what is the upshot here? I still love checking my Instagram feed and seeing what my friends and my peers are up to. The app is fun and easy to use, which is why it is so appealing. Do I wish my following was bigger than it currently is? Yes, of course. I am working on that. I also realize that the number of followers I have is growing quickly because I am allowed to post on some other much bigger Instagram accounts and because I get shout outs here and there. But no matter how many followers I have, I look to my own experience as a photographer, and to art buyers and photo editors that see thousands of images each year, to help me decipher which are my best images. The upshot is that photographers should not judge their best images by the number of likes they get on Instagram.

I realize this sounds like a giant rant on Instagram. If I had a million followers perhaps I would think differently about Instagram, but I know a few photographers with a million or more followers who are realistic about Instagram and have said similar things as posted here. Don’t get me wrong, Instagram is a great tool for marketing as well as for sharing images and communicating. But, it is my hope that those looking for photographers to promote their brand look at more than just the number of followers.

  • Jeff Holdgate - You are correct. The “dumming down” effect of the internet is evident. I’ve seen some truly bad street photography with hundreds of likes – why ? because so many of the other images are equally bad. Images which require some investment of time and critial facility are usually ignored.

  • Daman Powell - If it makes you feel better, when I loaded the page on my phone and flicked around looking for the images (before reading the copy) I decided that I prefer the picture of the ice climber.

  • Donald Giannatti - Super well written, Michael. The old paradigms are changing fast. What worked before may not work today, and the smart money is learning how to think and act fast in the face of technology/culture and the “attention” era.

  • The Paradox of Instagram – Mi Podrastaem - […] Concerning the creator: Michael Clark an internationally revealed out of doors photographer specializing in journey sports activities, journey, and panorama images. You could find extra of his work and phrases on his website, blog, or by following him on Instagram. This text was additionally revealed here. […]

  • Sherri - People who are not photographers don’t think about the quality of images in instagram. Many of us look for inspiration, for images that capture our imagination, and for escape from the mainstream media. There are also those who are addicted to selfie/celebrity social media, also described as “old school” ha, who view instagram as just another posting method. There are “spam” followers trying to sell products and lots of people just trying to increase their numbers. You can play that game but I prefer to have authentic connections with people and places that are beautiful. That beauty is more often displayed by the subject than by the equipment used to capture it.

  • Andre - Great comments on Instagram- far too many of the popular photos and photographers are instagram cliches and all blur into one giant photo of a hammock, small person and reflection in a lake.

visualrevolutionary-image1A few weeks ago I had the honor of speaking with the the Visual Revolutionary Podcast, hosted and created by Ric Stovall and Kevin Banker. Ric and Kevin are laid back, easy going guys, with a penchant for exploring how top-end photographers have gotten to where they are today. If you have not heard about this podcast I can’t recommend it highly enough. Ric and Kevin have interviewed a lot of photographers in the last two years, and specifically quite a few photographers in the outdoor adventure genre, including many of my peers: Tim Kemple, Keith Ladzinski, Andy Mann, Corey Rich, Chris Burkard, Anson Fogel, Cory Richards and Tyler Stableford. They have also interviewed luminaries such as Dave Black, Ami Vitale, David Alan Harvey and Rich Clarkson.

Their focus is not on gear, but on the journey each photographer has taken to get where they are currently in their careers. As it says on their website: “Because we are interested in people’s story and not what type of gear they use, we introduce a new much needed podcast in the world of photography and cinematography. Featuring in-depth conversations with some of the world’s leading photographers, filmmakers, and other visual revolutionaries, we are bringing you the backstory on how some of your favorite artists got to where they are today.”

Bravo Ric and Kevin! This is a much needed style of podcast. Whenever I meet a photographer that inspires me, the burning question I always want to ask is “Tell me your story. How did you get started?” I think that in telling that story, those who are starting out, or even the seasoned pro, can learn a lot about the process, the journey and what it takes to get established. None of us have the same story, but they are all fascinating stories to listen to and learn from.

You can find my conversation with Ric and Kevin on iTunes or on the Visual Revolutionary website. It is also available on Stitcher and many other podcast apps. I hope you enjoy the conversation – and find time to listen to some of their other excellent interviews. My thanks to Ric and Kevin for reaching out and asking me to be a part of their podcast series. This is definitely one of the best podcasts I have been a part of in a long, long time.

  • terrell c woods - This was a fantastic sit down. I felt like i was in the room with you guys. Michael you provided great insight into the work that has to be down.Talent is only part of the equation. I seriously appreciate your work and talent. Stay safe and keep shooting.

  • Michael Clark - Thanks Terrell!

  • Randy Lovelace - Michael,

    Thank you for taking the time and doing the interview. I learned about the podcast through your blog, and I will share it with my network. Specifically, thank you for telling us of your journey and being willing to share your most prized lessons. It was an inspiring interview that has helped bring some clarity to my goals as a photographer. Chase Jarvis talks about scaling your mentoring, and while I can’t afford to go on your workshops this year, I am learning a lot from you. To give back to you in a small way I have purchased Exposed, worked/ing through anything from Albert Watson, sharing your interview on Vision Revolutionary and putting into practice what I’m learning. I am a life long learner, I want critical feedback and I aim at being in the one percent who applies what you teach.

    Cheers – Randy

2016 has been yet again an incredible year with some of the most adventurous travels I have had in a number of years. Luckily, 2017 is looking pretty adventurous as well. 2016 also marked a year where one of my images was recognized by Communication Arts in their Photo Annual. That was a huge award for me as I have been trying to get an image in the CA Photo Annual pretty much my entire career. 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.

Patagonia Ice Cap Expedition
Argentina and Chile

Traversing the Patagonia Ice Cap earlier this year with Vertical Shot Expeditions in February was one of the most incredible trips I have ever done. With near perfect weather the entire trip, and incredible views of both Cerro Fitzroy and Cerro Torre from just about every possible angle, it was a stand out trip and perhaps the best trip of the year. I have had a love affair with the Patagonia Ice Cap for nearly a decade now, since I first saw it while covering the Patagonia Expedition race way back in 2008. At that moment exploring the ice cap shot to the top of my list of things to do in the future. It took me all of a second or two to accept this assignment–which was also an incredibly adventurous photo workshop. I got so many amazing images on the ice cap traverse that it is very hard to pull just a few here for this wrap-up, but here are what I feel are the best of the best from that experience. And if you are interested in exploring the ice cap, you are in luck, Vertical Shot Expeditions is putting together another trip on the ice cap slated for 2017. Stay tuned for more details.



New Mexico, USA

When I got back from Patagonia, I received the new Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi camera that I ordered in December. Right away, I took it with me to Hawaii and shot a bit with it there. Sadly, the best images I shot in Hawaii are still under embargo so I can’t share them. But, the best image I have captured with the new Hasselblad, and perhaps the best image I captured all year was this image of Shiprock with the starry sky circling above it. I shot this image at around 11 PM and even though there was a faint glow from the city of Shiprock, New Mexico (seen on the far right side) it was pitch black. I couldn’t even see the 2,000-foot tall volcanic plug that was right in front of me and I had to guess at the focus, which was painful because of the thirty-minute long exposures. It took me three tries but I eventually got the focus dialed in and this image was the result.


Nikon D5 Review with
Northern New Mexico

In May, I was asked to do a video review of the Nikon D5 for, the largest photography website on the internet. Working with Rishi Sanyal, DPReview’s Deputy Editor and Technical Guru, we shot three different sports–BMX, whitewater kayaking and Motocross–over three days right here in northern New Mexico. While I got decent images of the other sports, motocross was completely new to me and a few of those images are definitely some of the better adventure sports images I have captured this year. The Nikon D5 is also an incredible camera, with autofocus like nothing I have ever seen before. Below are the two best images from that assignment.

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

Red Bull Summer Solstice Challenge
San Francisco, California

This summer, to celebrate the summer solstice and announce a new kiwi flavor, Red Bull flew in ten of the top Red Bull athletes and ten of their top photographers for a photo showdown. I had the pleasure of working with Levi Siver again. Levi is a world-class windsurfer. We have worked together on a few Red Bull projects in the past and it is always fun to work with Levi. This photo challenge included a variety of genres including lifestyle, action and Red Bull specific images. Typically, there are no waves of note in the summer months in the northern hemisphere. Amazingly, even though the waves weren’t phenomenal, we did get some wind on the day of the shoot and Levi was able to put on a show, even with the tiny little waves that were rolling in. This assignment was tough. We had to go out and shoot the images for all five categories and then work them up and submit them by that afternoon. This forced all of us to be on our game and also get really creative, as can be seen with the double exposure images below. This event was also a great time catching up with some of my peers and athletes that I have worked with in the past including JT Holmes, Ian Walsh, Christian Pondella, Zak Noyle, Chris Garrison, Chris Tedesco, and of course it was great to get a chance to work with Levi again. Below are three of my favorites from this shoot. For the full story on this assignment check out the Summer 2016 Newsletter.

Levi Siver wind surfing in and around San Francisco, California on June 20, 2016.

Levi Siver wind surfing in and around San Francisco, California on June 20, 2016.


Ultra Trail Running with New Balance
Santa Fe, New Mexico

One of the best assignments I had all year, because it was perhaps the least stressful and the most fun, was photographing Dominic and Katie Grossman, two world-class ultra trail runners, for New Balance. This assignment was both a photo shoot for New Balance with Dominic and Katie as well as a way to promote the Ultra Santa Fe, a new ultra trail running race in the Sangre de Cristo mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico. We got so many amazing images this day it is very hard to pick the best of the bunch but below are my top three. For more on this assignment check out my Fall 2016 Newsletter.


Dominic and Katie Grossman trail running in the Sangre de Christo mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Boxers in the Studio
Santa Fe, New Mexico

As can be seen in my previous blog post, I had an assignment shooting for Sekonic light meters in August of this year photographing boxers in a studio-like setting. We actually shot these images at a local gym. The point of the shoot was to create a behind the scenes video of me setting up the lights and using the light meter to show how easy it is to use with my Elinchrom strobes. The Sekonic LiteMaster Pro L-478DR-U-EL, with the Elinchrom Skyport transmitter built into the light meter, allows for full wireless control of the strobes using the touchscreen on the light meter. Even when shooting for photographic equipment companies, I am always looking to push the envelope and really create something striking. These in-camera multiple exposure images are the two strongest images from that shoot. Check out a behind the scenes video and my full blog post on this shoot here.

Luis F. Castillo shadow boxing at Undisputed Fitness in Santa Fe, New MexicoLuis F. Castillo shadow boxing at Undisputed Fitness in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Diablo Canyon
Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA

This fall I set up several portfolio shoots to play around with various outdoor lighting techniques and work with new equipment, like the Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi. The end results were some pretty cool new images that have already made it into my portfolio both on my website and in my printed portfolio. Here are a few images from two different shoots, which were captured in Diablo Canyon near Santa Fe. In the second image, we really got lucky with the sunset behind the climber. My thanks to Amy Jordan and Aaron Miller for working with me to create these images.


Alamos Vista Trail
Sangre de Cristo Mountains, New Mexico

On another portfolio shoot this fall, I worked with Chris Sheehan up on the Alamos Vista trail in the Sangre de Cristo mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico. The aspens were in peak form and this trail is perhaps one of the most beautiful in all of New Mexico – especially in early October, when this shoot happened. Again, testing out some strobe techniques and experimenting with various lighting setups paid off. When I have time between assignments I am always testing new lighting techniques, new gear and trying to create more dramatic images than I have in the past.


Portraits in the Studio
Santa Fe, New Mexico

In August I took a photo workshop, only the second I have ever taken, with Albert Watson. Albert is a legendary photographer and this workshop, which was only the third time he has ever taught was phenomenal. Check out my write up on that workshop here. Let’s just say he is a true master when it comes to lighting. I learned a lot about lighting for portraits and a few months after the workshop I spent two days putting into practice some of the techniques I learned in his workshop — and I also worked hard to add my own flair to the portraits as well. Here are a few of the results.


God Beams and Monklets

The last adventure of 2016 was teaching a ten-day photo workshop for Popular Photography magazine and the Mentor Series Treks in Myanmar. Myanmar is pretty phenomenal for photography. The culture, the people and the landscape are all exotic, friendly and photogenic – at least for our western eyes. It has become a major travel destination in the last few years and I can see why. I haven’t even finished editing the 7,000-plus images I shot on this adventure but this image below seems to be the clear winner.

mclark_myms_1116_4686Of 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 the highlights of the year for 2016. 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 2017 is filled with adventurous travels and amazing experiences!

Luis F. Castillo shadow boxing at Undisputed Fitness in Santa Fe, New MexicoEarlier this year, at the end of the summer, I shot an assignment for Sekonic light meters to show how the Sekonic L-478DR-U-EL light meter works seamlessly with Elinchrom strobes. For this assignment, we chose a studio setting and I worked with a trio of boxers from Undisputed Fitness here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The boxers, Nate Harris, Luis F. Castillo (pictured above) and Reuben Rivera, are wicked fit and were great to work with on this shoot. As you will see in the images below, we shot some “standard” type portraits and then really got creative with in-camera multiple exposure images. But since the whole point of this shoot was to highlight the Sekonic light meter we were also filming a behind the scenes video to go along with the images.

The main setup used for this shoot can be seen below. This was a pretty standard three light setup with two edge lights in the back separating the boxer from the black background and a large octa softbox filling in from camera right in front of the subject. For the background lights, I used one Elinchrom Indirect Litemotiv Recta on one side and a 30-dgree grid spot on the other side. The big softbox in front was an Elinchrom 120cm Litemotive Octa, which is a gorgeous light modifier. For light, I used a couple of the Elinchrom ELC Pro HD strobes along with an Elinchrom ELB400. All of this was triggered with the Elinchrom Skyport Plus HS transmitter. The reason I am going into such great detail here is to show that the Sekonic light meter talks to both the strobes (all Elinchrom flavors) and also to the Skyport transmitter so that all of them are on the same page. I can take readings with the Light meter, change the power settings on any or all of my strobes, and the strobes and the Skyport will talk to each other and adjust the power settings in sync so that everything is on the same page.

A004_C062_0731QN.0000992FA004_C005_0731CU.0000471FA004_C047_0731MH.0000803FThe Sekonic L-478DR-U-EL (that is a mouth full) is an incredibly powerful light meter. In the standard mode it is very easy to use. You simply touch the screen and power your lights up or down and then push the button on the side to take a meter reading. On all of the Elinchrom strobes, it is possible, and fairly easy, to put each of them into individual radio frequency groups. The light meter can handle up to four groups. With the strobes set up this way, you can touch the screen and adjust the power setting of each group individually. Also, the light meter will show you the exact f-stop reading for each group so you can build your lighting set up quickly and efficiently–all the while knowing the exact lighting ratios between all of the groups. As you can see in the image above, I had the three strobes set up in three groups and dialed in the back lights so that they has the same power output. In this example, the rim lights (Back lights) were approximately a half stop brighter than the front fill light.

Once we got everything set up and dialed in, we concentrated on the images. Initially, I focused on portraits like the one shown below of Reuben Rivera, and shot those with the Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi. I did shoot some action with the Hasselblad as well, like the top image in this blog post, but then switched to the Nikon D810 when the action started heating up – and for the multiple exposure capabilities built into that camera.

A portrait of Reuben Rivera at Undisputed Fitness in Santa Fe, New Mexico

I always use a light meter when I work with strobes. I just don’t get why you would not use a light meter. They aren’t that expensive when compared to the camera and lighting equipment. And with a light meter right off the bat you get a perfect exposure with no guess work. Of course, the light meter reading is only a starting point depending on what look you are going for. But, when I am on a set with an art director, the athletes and other crew, and sometimes the client themselves, the last thing I want to do is have to take five to ten shots where I am guessing at the exposure to figure out my camera settings. I look a lot more professional using a light meter and nailing it on the first shot is just a hell of a lot easier than guessing. Plus using a light meter allows me to dial in the lighting to the aperture I want to use straight away without any guess work.

Before the shoot, I came up with the concept of doing a series of multiple exposure images and then piecing the various multi-exposure images together in Photoshop. Once we got rolling on that series of images, we really started to hit the mark. The boxers seemed pretty stoked on the images and I worked with each of them to create a variety of multiple exposure images. I also have to say the in-camera multiple exposure mode of the Nikon D810 (and it is the same on most pro Nikons) is pretty incredible. There is very little post-production on these images. I only did a little tone mapping and darkened the black background slightly to get the images you see here.

mclark_nmuf_0716_230_comp1v2Luis F. Castillo shadow boxing at Undisputed Fitness in Santa Fe, New MexicoI am not sure myself which of the above composites (of two multi-exposure sequences) is my favorite. If you have an opinion please let me know your thoughts in the comments below. My gut leans towards the top one or the bottom one. I have to say that all of them look pretty cool. I was trying to convey the bobbing and punching movement of a boxer in a still image.

In the end, we got some great images and we really showed just how powerful it is to have a stellar light meter to work with. If you use Elinchrom strobes and are looking for the best possible light meter to use with your strobes, look no further. The Sekonic L-478DR-U-EL is an amazing light meter with a very deep set of functionality and a super cool touch screen. And until December 30th, you can get $50 off and free shipping through Mac Group. My thanks to Sekonic and Mac Group (the USA distributor for Sekonic and Elinchrom) for this assignment. My thanks also to Bill Stengel for the behind the scenes video footage and of course to Nate, Luis, and Reuben for working so hard to help us create these images.


The Fall 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 travels, jet-lag and surgery, a review of Pro Media Gear’s Elinchrom ELB400 cage and Matthews Road Rags, an article detailing a recent assignment with New balance, an editorial entitled “Staying Curious,” 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 Fall 2016 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

exposed-cover-2016While 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. I wanted to repost this insight into the life of a pro photographer here on the blog, and just now have finally gotten around to doing so. This is the first chapter from my book Exposed: Inside the Life and Images of a Pro Photographer (cover shown at left). Originally written in 2001 and entitled “Reality Check,” this article was updated in 2010 and then against was updated for Exposed in 2012. If you would like more information on Exposed and my other books please visit the Books section of my website.

Control is a myth. I realized that five days into a three-day assignment in Joshua Tree National Park. The soggy walls of my mountaineering tent didn’t bode well for a rosy-fingered dawn. I’d been up at 5 a.m. for five days straight trying to get first light on a particular landscape. It had been raining sideways all five days, and I had yet to shoot more than a dozen images.

The campground was empty save for my friends Kurt and Elaina Smith, both of whom are phenomenal rock climbers. I spent five days hiking around in the rain checking angles and the setup for hundreds of different images. The best photo op I had was shooting inside Kurt and Elaina’s warm and cozy van, which doubles as their home. If not for the satellite TV and DVD player in their van, we would have gone berserk. Luckily, the morning of the sixth day dawned clear, and I was in position when first light hit the rock arch that I had been trying to photograph for six days. I spent the next few days shooting other images for the assignment and also some images of Kurt and Elaina rock climbing.

Fortunately, not every assignment is as laborious and frustrating as the one in Joshua Tree was. I am constantly amazed at how well many of my assignments go, especially considering that almost all of my work is shot outdoors. For much of my adventure sports work, the athletes need fairly specific conditions to perform at their best—or to even do what they do at all. Rock climbers generally don’t climb in the rain, downhill mountain bikers need calm weather to jump off huge cliffs, and likewise, BASE jumpers also need calm winds to jump. Time and time again when I’ve had big assignments the weather has cooperated, at least long enough for me to get what I needed.

My assignments can range from an afternoon near my office in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to weeks on end in remote corners of the world. I usually travel at least six or seven months a year. The rest of the time I am in the office talking with clients, pursuing work, editing and processing images, keeping up with the accounting, or sending out submissions and invoices to clients. There are no regular “hours.”

Above: The Opening spread of Chapter One in my book Exposed:Inside the Life and Images of a Pro Photographer

I started out shooting primarily rock climbing and mountaineering, and then I slowly branched out and started shooting all of the other adventure sports. With my background in adventure sports, clients have also called on me to shoot assignments that involve risky situations. For that reason, I’ve always included a workout as part of my workday when I’m back in the office so I can stay fit enough to get the shot while out in the field with world-class athletes. I don’t pretend be a world-class athlete, but I am in good enough shape to do what I need to do.

Almost always I’m carrying more equipment than the people I am with, and in most cases I need to be ahead of them to get the images I want. As an example, a normal day shooting rock climbers involves at the very least a 70- to 80-pound backpack. On big wall excursions, carrying up to 120 pounds is not uncommon, and by big wall I mean cliffs that are anywhere from 1000 to 4000 feet high—like El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Shooting on big walls usually involves carrying loads of ropes and hardware up the backside of the cliff. Often, it takes more time to set up for a shot than it does to actually take it.

I tend to go very light (in terms of photography equipment) so the pack doesn’t get too heavy. Now, in the digital age, my main kit for just about any “adventurous” shoot is a Nikon D4 (or D810), three or four lenses, a small flash, and plenty of memory cards. My main kit includes three zooms: a 14–24mm f/2.8, the 24–70mm f/2.8, and a 70–200mm f/2.8. More often than not, I’ll bring a Nikon D810 as back up, especially in remote places and when I’m on assignment. With a closet full of camera bags, and depending on the shoot, I’ll choose the most appropriate camera bag(s) and pack the basic kit in it. When I’m shooting rock climbers, for instance, I take at most two or three lenses. If I am on a rope, I am usually fairly close to the climbers, so the Nikon 14–24mm f/2.8 wide-angle zoom and the Nikon 24–70mm f/2.8 medium-range zoom are my go-to lenses in that situation. Of course, depending on the sport I am shooting, I tailor my kit and how I carry it. For sports like surfing or whitewater kayaking, I might not carry as much gear while shooting, but often I have more equipment back in the car if needed. If I am using artificial lights, the amount of gear involved on a shoot can balloon to a few hundred pounds or more, and that usually requires an assistant (or two) just to get everything to the location and set up. Using large, battery-powered, studio strobes on location can certainly complicate a photo shoot, but it can also very easily set those images apart from anything else in the industry—and that is precisely the reason to use them.

For some situations, it isn’t about how much gear you take but how little you can get away with. When shooting in very remote locations, I trim down the kit to one body and one or two lenses depending on the sport. In the mountains I trim it down even more. The less gear I carry, the more it forces me to become creative. And I really prefer to be unencumbered when shooting. No matter how much gear I have with me, when I start shooting in earnest, I have only one camera around my neck. I’ll ditch the camera bag and come back to it if I need to. Having a camera bag hanging off me doesn’t allow me to move and explore the location like I do naturally with a single camera and lens.

No matter how much gear you have (or how little), shooting an assignment is hard and stressful work. You have to come back with “the shots,” and the shoot doesn’t always go as planned. Throw in the fact that I’m often working on ropes and hanging thousands of feet off the deck, and you start to get the picture, no pun intended. It can take a lot of time just to get into position, and sometimes I wonder if my success as an adventure photographer is directly related to my ability to coax athletes to get up early, warm up on their hardest projects, and to do it “one more time” over and over again.

Many of the athletes I work with have become close friends. To capture what they are experiencing, I must be there with them, and that isn’t always pleasant. Most of the time we are camping, and sometimes even simple amenities like a shower seem a world away. National Geographic’s photo editor, Kent Kobersteen, summed it up when he said, “The really strong photos come from those situations where the last thing you want to do is take pictures—when everything is going to hell, when the storms are raging and everyone is trying to hang on. Those are going to be the most telling images.”

I am also always aware of the sudden “courage” athletes gain when a camera is pointed at them. To date, I’ve not had anyone get seriously injured on a photo shoot, but there have been some very close calls. I’ve seen a kayaker under the water for 12 minutes, a mountain biker jump off a 40-foot cliff and crash hard, and rock climbers take serious risks. The kayaker survived because of his wise decisions and with the aid of his experienced companions. The mountain biker was scraped up a bit and his rear wheel exploded when he hit the ground, but amazingly, he was unhurt. And although I’ve seen a few really scary rock-climbing falls, some of which resulted in extensive injuries, I’ve never seen anyone permanently injured. Just as with my career, in the sports I photograph, everything is a risk—albeit a “calculated” risk.

The reality is that there is precious little I can control on most of my photo shoots aside from coordinating the action or modifying the light. In addition, freelance photographers might soon be a dying breed. The competition is fierce in this business, and corporations are always asking for more usage rights with no extra compensation. There is more competition in this industry than ever before, and photographers need to have a fair amount of business savvy as well as the ability to produce top-notch work.

On top of that, digital photography has revolutionized our industry, and photographers are taking on huge expenses they never had to deal with before. Digital has also brought with it a very steep learning curve, the opportunity to create images that were not possible before, and unprecedented control over the final image. And it is also making photography more exciting than it has been in a long time.

In the end, there is much more to working as a professional photographer than just capturing the images. Many photographers tend to make the work sound so glamorous. They leave out the unpleasantries like sleeping in airports, 90-hour workweeks, and the tough realities of owning your own business. In this era of ever-increasing expenses, dog-eat-dog competition, and shrinking assignment rates, you must work extremely hard and count perseverance as a good friend if you want to make it in this business. I would only recommend this profession to those obsessed with creating and sharing their images; to those who can’t imagine doing anything else.

  • Britt Runyon - Thanks for sharing.
    I’m looking to upgrade from a D90.
    It’s a “dog eat dog competition”.

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!

Michael Clark

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.


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.


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”)