I am very excited to announce that the Astronaut on Planet White Sands images shown above have been chosen for inclusion in the 2022 Communication Arts Photography Annual, which will be published in the July/August 2022 issue of Communication Arts (CA). The CA Photography Annual is one of the most exclusive photography competitions in the world. The Communication Arts Photography Annual competition has been held for the last 63 years making this one of the oldest photography competitions in the World. From the Communications Arts press release, “Of the 2,241 entries to the 63rd Photography Annual, only 117 were accepted, making the Photography Annual the most exclusive major photography competition in the world.” My congratulations to all of my peers who were also included in the Photo Annual this year as well. Overall, the quality of the work on display was quite impressive and very inspirational. I can’t wait to get the print version of the magazine and spend a little more time perusing all of the great images.
For those not familiar with Communication Arts, here is a description from the press release of the magazine, which is more like a high-end book than a magazine: “Communication Arts is a professional journal for designers, art directors, design firms, corporate design departments, agencies, illustrators, photographers and everyone involved in visual communications. Through its editorials, feature articles and the annual competitions it sponsors, CA provides new ideas and information, while promoting the highest professional standards for the field. With a paid circulation of 25,000, CA has a rich tradition of representing the aspirations of a continually-growing and quality-conscious field of visual communications. Now in its 63rd year, CA continues to showcase the current best—whether it’s from industry veterans or tomorrow’s stars—in design, advertising, photography, illustration, interactive and typography. Everything is reproduced with printing technology and attention to detail unmatched by any trade publication anywhere.”
For me personally, getting the email that another set of my images made it into the Photo Annual, this being my fourth time to be included in the CA Photo Annual over the last decade, is a confirmation of how we knocked it out of the park on this assignment for New Mexico Tourism. Along with the notice, I also received an email that I could announce that my image was included in the Annual, even though the July/August issue is just starting to ship out right now. Having seen a PDF of the July/August issue I have seen that Communication Arts also included one of the Astronaut images on the opening page of the Photo Annual section as well–as shown below.
The images included in this set were all created for New Mexico Tourism and specifically for the City of Alamogordo and the New Mexico Museum of Space History. For the full story on this assignment, and to see a larger set of images, check out my Fall 2021 Newsletter and this web gallery on my website. My thanks to New Mexico Tourism and Bill Stengel–who brought me in for this assignment–for giving me the opportunity. Big props also go to Mike Shinabery, who was in the astronaut suit, and the New Mexico Tourism team for bringing this assignment to life and for all the hard work to help create these images. Also, my sincere thanks to Communication Arts and the jurors who chose the winning images: Mike Davis, Jennifer Dorn – Variety, Luis Paulo Gatti, Natalia Jiménez – Washington Post, Marcia Minter – Indigo Arts Alliance, Nikki Ormerod – Undivided Creative, Adrienne Pao – Academy of Art University School of Photography, David Roennfeldt – 3 Deep Design, Marcus Smith, and Steve Wallington – The Photography Movement.
The Spring 2022 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 of the Newsletter includes an editorial entitled Three Years In, a review of the Aquatech EDGE Pro water housing for the FUJIFILM GFX100S, an article detailing recent assignments with Aaron Fitzgerald of The Flying Bulls, an editorial entitled The End of an Era, and much more.
The Michael Clark Photography Newsletter goes out to over 8,000 photo editors, photographers and photo enthusiasts around the world. You can download the Spring 2022 issue on my website at:
Early on in my career as an adventure photographer, I had a fondness for motion blur imagery. Using slow shutter speeds to show the motion was just part of telling the story and conveying the speed of the athletes I was photographing. I remember my first big commercial assignment with Adobe for the launch of Lightroom (way back in 2006), I went out with Ryon Reed, one of the mountain bikers we were set to work with the next day, and the evening before our shoot we created hundreds of motion blur images just to get something different. It probably looked pretty comical to see me and my assistant chasing after Ryon on his mountain bike but the results were hard to deny (as shown below). Ever since, I have looked for opportunities to incorporate motion blur into my images to enhance the feel and really convey an artistic intent—that intent being some magic mojo that comes out when you add motion blur to an image and it works.
Recently, I have also applied this motion blur technique to photographing landscapes. Below you can see a stand of golden aspens from a spot on the Alamos Vista Trail above Santa Fe, New Mexico. I have long thought blurry tree images were kind of cliché to say the least. In many cases the images just don’t work, but as I have found, if you find the right forest with trees spaced just so and the line of trees all somewhat similar then it can work–and be a very effective and powerful image.
As can be seen below, I have created a wide variety of motion blur images of many different adventure sports, not just mountain biking. Surfing and whitewater kayaking are natural fits for motion blur images though they are also very risky shots as you are likely to come away with hundreds if not thousands of crap images before one just works. You might also entirely miss a key action sequence that could have been ridiculously amazing, but that is part of the fun. Committing the to the idea of a motion blur image is risky, but when it pays off it often results in a much stronger image than a static action shot.
With landscape photography in particular it is exciting to have part of the frame blurred (as in the beach scene below) and part of the frame static (i.e. sharp). This is often done with waterfalls and waves, but in the beach scene below, I wanted to add some mystery to the scene and saw that my tripod was sinking in the sand during long exposures, thus adding a very slight motion blur. I decided to kick the tripod a few times during long exposures and got this image, which has a ghostly array of colors and “smoke” for lack of a better term that really helped propel the image out of the normal.
Motion blur can also be quite effective for portraiture—but as with sports many frames have to be created to get one that works. In the studio image below, I had the subject move while lit by continuous lighting and then froze his motion on one side with a fast flash duration–i.e. a very fast burst of light. This technique creates a mesmerizing image as if a spirit passed through the frame when the shutter was open. It also creates some very interesting lines like some thing out of a sketchbook, which make the viewer take a second look to figure out what is going on.
Taking motion blur to the next level, creating motion blur and then using strobes (or flash) to freeze the motion (but also show how fast they are moving) is a particularly exciting. This technique seems to come and go in popularity but I love it when an art director or a photo editor is willing see this type of work—and allows for the risky nature of creating these types of images. Shown below are some motion blur images of downhill skateboarding created for the FUJIFILM GFX 100S campaign where I was given full creative license to come up with something different and unique.
As for that wall of aspens, I have since gone back to this exact spot as it works better than any other forest I have ever tried, and have created images at different times of the year and with different light as shown below. This winter image may not be quite as magical as the image above created in the fall with gold leaves on the aspens, but it does have some wild shadows on the snow below. I incorporated the sun as well and used it to highlight the wild shadows that appear to be shaking the ground under the trees. The snowy ground also looks as if a wave is breaking through the trees and washing over the ground.
If you haven’t played with motion blur in your images I highly recommend trying it out. These types of images are just fun to try out since the final result will be slightly different every time.
As I have made the full transition to mirrorless cameras in the last year–having sold off my Nikon D850 and pretty much all of my DSLR lenses a year ago–I started thinking about the cameras that I have used and those that have been critical to my success over the years. And seeing that there has been a major gap in blog posts recently I thought this might be a fun one to post.
This is in chronological order–both when I had them and worked with them–and when they were on the market. Since I started out in photography (as a teenager) way back in the mid 1980s half of these cameras are from the film era and the rest are from the digital age. Amazingly, you will notice some gaps at the beginning of the digital age since I found most digital cameras from that first decade lacking quite a bit compared to their film counterparts. It took a while for the industry (and for us photographers) to get everything figured out.
Of course, I have not used or owned all the cameras ever made. So, obviously this list is biased to those cameras I used and owned. There have been a lot of great cameras on the market in the last forty years, but these are the ones that I chose to use and purchase after extensive research–and the ones that really helped me take the craft to a higher level. In that vein, I am including images created with each of these cameras as well as commentary on why they made it onto the list.
Of note, there are some very popular cameras that I have owned and used that did not make it onto this list such as the Nikon D300, D700, D2x, D3, and the D5 as well as the much older Nikon N90, N90s, and the F5. It is is not that those bodies were bad, they just didn’t resonate with me as much as those listed here. As you can see by the list above, I have mostly worked with Nikon 35mm film cameras and Nikon DSLRs with a few medium format cameras sprinkled in. It is only recently that I started working with the incredible FUJIFILM GFX cameras–which I have to say have the best image quality of any camera I have ever worked with (film or digital).
So, without further ado, let’s jump in.
Nikon FM2 / Nikon FE2
I started out as a 13-year old with an Olympic OM-1 that my father lent me to try out photography but the first camera I purchased with my own money was the Nikon FE2 and later an FM2. I also used a Nikon FM that my father had for a while as well before I got the FE2. That FM was what clued me into the Nikon system–and the Aperture Priority option on the FE2 seemed like a great idea after using that fully manual Nikon FM for a while.
The FE2, along with a few lenses I acquired in my teens, was what I started my career with back in 1995. I quickly purchased a Nikon N90s in 1996 to gain access to the new autofocus technology, but the FE2 went on a ton of mountaineering trips in extremely cold conditions–like -40 Fahrenheit temperatures on Aconcagua as shown above. On this morning the winds were gusting over 80 miles per hour and the temps were wicked cold, well below -40 F with the windchill. The FE2 did incredibly well in those crazy cold temperatures.
After those mountaineering trips, at some point I worked with the FM2 as well for a while. And then before autofocus came along I also acquired the Nikon F3HP (discussed below). The FM2 was a workhorse all-mechanical camera that only required a battery to power the exposure meter–everything else was mechanical so there was very little to go wrong. Regardless of the legendary status of the Nikon FM2, I always preferred the FE2 and the F3HP.
To this day, the Nikon F3HP is still one of the top two or three favorite cameras I have ever owned. If I had to use it again now, I am sure it would feel ancient and slow, but the ergonomics were some of the best ever on any camera. I gave away my F3 to a needy photographer in Russia–and I am glad I did as he needed it badly and put it to good use at a time when I wasn’t using it. One of these days I will pick up a used one just to have–and maybe even run a few rolls of film through it every now and again. Above are two images of the F3 HP, one without the motor drive attached (left) and another with it attached (right).
The Nikon MD-4 motor drive for the F3HP was large but it allowed for up to 6 frames per second shooting, which at the time was blazing fast. Remember, there were only 36 images on a roll of film so at 6 fps that lasted only six seconds before you had to change film. The motor drive, as did most motor drives in those days, even further improved the ergonomics of the camera. As a manual focus camera, it was certainly slower to use than modern day fully-automated cameras but at the time it felt like a speed machine. The only automation on the camera was Aperture priority exposure (like the FE2). Even though I only worked with the F3 HP for a year or two, I loved it nonetheless.
The Mamiya 7II is a 6×7 medium format film camera. It was an attempt by Mamiya to create a rangefinder version of their venerable RZ67, which was a humongous studio camera used by just about all portrait photographers in the 80s and into the early 90s. The 7II was super light for medium format–especially given its large 6×7 film size. There were only four or five lenses ever made for the system–all primes–but they were some of the sharpest lenses I have ever used.
Sadly, I never owned the 7II. I borrowed it for one of my big assignments early on in my career from my close friend and mentor Marc Romanelli. He was kind enough to loan it to me for a few weeks and I took it to Mallorca, Spain for an assignment with Men’s Journal documenting the then brand new sport known as Psicobloc (a.k.a. Deep Water Soloing). This was before any other photographers that I know ever went there to document the sport. The photo editor at Men’s Journal indicated that she somewhat despised 35mm film images so I took the 6×7 camera along to placate her tastes. You can see the opening spread from that article (from way back in 2004) below.
The Mamiya 7II was relatively easy to work with. It was massively simplified compared to larger, more cumbersome medium format film cameras of the time. It was super easy to load film into it–much easier than with a Hasselblad (as shown below). The rangefinder autofocus was the tricky bit with this camera. Those that are used to Leica rangefinder cameras might find it easy to use, but in low light (i.e. any situation without direct sun) it was very difficult to get accurate focus–especially if the subject was moving. This was partly due to the 6×7 film size, which offered up super shallow depth of field. Regardless, the image quality this camera created was some of the best I had ever seen and I feel they have only recently been surpassed by modern medium format digital cameras.
The Hasselblad 503CW was the first medium format film camera that I purchased–and it is to this day perhaps the one that I regret selling the most. In a meeting with Rob Haggart early on in my career, who at the time was the Photo Editor at Outside magazine, he told me that we adventure photographers “couldn’t light our way out of a paper bag.” And he was right. Back in the film days, at least for myself, using artificial lighting was scary. His advice was to get a medium format camera and some lighting gear and start learning how to craft a decent portrait so I purchased this Hasselblad setup and some strobes and got to work.
When I bought the Hasselblad, I wasn’t really excited by the square format but I grew to love it in time. If pressed, I might even say square is my favorite aspect ratio. It definitely makes you compose the image differently than any other format. As can be seen at the top of this section, I also purchased a winder grip and an angled viewfinder for the 503CW. That made the camera heavier but much more ergonomic. I stinking loved this camera, but since I got it in 2004 and with the coming digital transition just starting to happen I didn’t love scanning film. As I moved over to digital fully in 2006, I just didn’t pick up this camera as often and eventually sold it to fund another expensive pro-level digital camera body.
The 503CW was slow to use, slow to focus, and loading film was painful. With only 12 shots per roll, you ended up loading and unloading film often. I had a second film back so I could have two loaded at the same time but even then it felt like you were constantly loading film. It was a rare shoot where I went through a dozen rolls of film–especially since I almost always had a 35mm film camera or a DSLR with me for the assignment. Regardless, this goes down as one of my all time favorite film cameras–up there with the Nikon F3HP.
The Nikon D4 was a workhorse professional camera. This was my main camera body for anything action oriented for more than seven years. I purchased the D4 and the Nikon D800 at the same time and sold off both of my D700 bodies shortly after getting this pair. The D800 was revolutionary but not really a top-end action camera. Hence, purchasing both the D4 and the D800.
Looking through my image catalog some of my best and most well-known images were created with this camera. The D4 was a more refined version of the Nikon D3, which changed the camera industry due to its stellar low-light performance. Any of the larger Nikon pro bodies were all tanks that could pretty much deal with anything. The D4 went deep into the heart of the Amazon and braved temperatures as high as 118 F (48 C) and also went on quite a few frigid assignments where the temps fell well below 0 F (-18 C). The camera never seemed phased by any conditions–rain, snow, sleet or temperature extremes.
Even though it was only a 16 MP camera, at the time it was blazing fast for that resolution. It also did exceptionally well in low-light and had super-fast autofocus. The D4 was such a great camera that I never upgraded to the Nikon D5–even though the D5 was an incredible camera as well.
Towards the end of its life in my camera bag, the lowly 16 MP seemed lacking, especially compared to the Nikon D810 and D850 discussed below. Even so, in my office and home I have quite a few 20×30 and larger fine art prints from this camera plastered on my walls–and they look incredible.
The Nikon D810–as well as the previous version the D800–were a huge improvement in image quality for DSLRs. The D800 series cameras in general for a full decade were my main cameras and the D810 in particular was the camera I worked with on some of my most iconic and well-known assignments. Some of the best images I have ever created were captured with the D810 (as shown below). The D810 was a much refined version of the D800 with the same incredible image quality.
The only reason I ditched the D810 was that Nikon further refined it with the D850 listed below. The D810 had its flaws but at the time nothing in the 35mm space could touch it in terms of image quality. And it rivaled or matched some of the lower resolution medium format cameras as well.
The Nikon D850 will likely go down as the best DSLR ever created. There are a whole host of folks who have expressed that same sentiment so this isn’t just me saying that. The D850 was a further refined D810, and with the same autofocus as the Nikon D5, it was so good and so ahead of its time that it was always difficult to get and Nikon couldn’t make enough of them for years. In fact, the D850 was so good that Nikon really had a hard time beating it when they launched their mirrorless cameras in 2018. I would say that they have only recently matched or exceeded the D850 when they launched the pro-orientated Nikon Z 9.
At 46 megapixels, the D850 also pushed the top-end Nikkor lenses pretty hard as well. The camera out resolved most of the F-mount lenses and pointed to the fact that for better image quality the need for superior lenses was paramount. I had a pair of D850 camera bodies and they could pretty much do it all. Sports, portraiture, landscapes, etc. You name it, the D850 was up to the challenge. The only thing it didn’t have was a super fast frame rate but with the battery grip it could get up to 9 frames per second which wasn’t bad at all. That was certainly fast enough for the adventure sports I was documenting.
One of my first photo shoots with the D850 was at Peahi, also known as JAWS, on the north shore of Maui. I shot nearly 9,000 images in one day as the waves were giant. Some of my best ever surfing images are from that one day. The D850’s autofocus blew me away as well. It was able to track the relatively small surfers on these giant waves even when they dropped into the massive tubes and bowls and even when ocean spray popped up between myself and the surfer. The D850 was and still is hands down the best DSLR I ever worked with.
Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi
In an effort to create high-end portraits, back in 2014 I started looking at medium format digital cameras. For most photographers at that time, purchasing a medium format digital camera was lunacy. The expense was ridiculous to be sure as they cost anywhere from $30,000 to upwards of $50,000 just for the camera body. Previously, I had worked with an early Phase One camera and absolutely hated it. I tried out Phase One first as they had a new system, but I wasn’t blown away enough to spend $60,000 for a camera and two lenses. Shortly after that Hasselblad sent me a camera for a week to try out and at the same time they had a massive sale on the H5D 50c WiFI which cut the price by 40%. The Hasselblad was a much more usable camera and I found the image quality was equal or in some scenarios bested the Phase One XF IQ350 that I tried out. I took the plunge and spent more on this Hasselblad than any car I have ever owned. And it paid off as you will see below and in the next few cameras.
Above is a photo of the Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi camera system with the Hasselblad 24mm, 100mm, 150mm and 50-110mm lenses. The H5D autofocus was slow. It was glacially slow, but it was extremely accurate. The camera was massive and weighed a ton. I pretty much needed to have it on a tripod at all times save for when I was using its top shutter speed of 1/800th second. It forced you to slow down, which was part of why I liked it. It was essentially a much more refined version of the 503CW I had a decade earlier.
I have to say, the color straight out of the camera was absolutely astounding. I have never seen more accurate and pleasing color from any camera before or since (including my Fujifilm cameras). Hasselblad has the best color I have seen from any digital camera hands down. The Fujifilm GFX cameras are a close second (among the cameras I have tried).
I created a wide variety of excellent images with the Hasselblad. It was a pain to lug a full digital Hasselblad kit and a 35mm Nikon DSLR kit around the world but I did it for four or five years. When everything started heading towards mirrorless cameras, pretty much every manufacturer sent me cameras to try out. Sony, Olympus, and Fujifilm all tried to woo me to their systems. I resisted for the most part as none of them were as mature or as far along as the Nikon or Canon DSLRs were at the time I tried out those other systems. But I will say that the Fujifilm GFX system caught my eye and I was very impressed by the small size and insane image quality it offered–and I had heard rumors of an even better monster medium format camera that was going to change that genre forever. So I stayed in touch with them and…
FUJIFILM GFX 100
Through an incredible twist of fate, I was one of a handful of lucky professional photographers that created images for the launch of the FUJIFILM GFX 100. The prototype camera was hand delivered to me by Justin Stailey from Fujifilm USA who flew down to Santa Fe and spent five days going through it and working through some bugs to make sure it would work for the upcoming ten day assignment photographing rock climbing and downhill mountain biking (as seen in the images below). Before and during the assignment, Justin was in touch with the Fujifilm engineers in Japan on a daily basis to tweak the camera firmware so it would work better for the images we were capturing. We updated the firmware almost everyday of the assignment and the autofocus continued to improve every day.
I knew about the GFX 100 five months in advance of the launch. Reading the specs, I knew it was going to be good. And it would have autofocus that would actually be able to work for some of my adventure sports photography–which was not the case with any other medium format camera ever before. The image quality is unbelievable. Once you see the image quality from this 102 MP sensor you cannot unsee it is how I put it to my peers. So, be forewarned, it will spoil you for any other camera system. And it is not just the incredible sensor that creates this image quality. It is also the phenomenal lenses Fujifilm has crafted for the GFX system. I have not worked with any other lenses–on any system–that are as sharp as the GFX lenses. And I am not just saying that because I have worked quite a bit with Fujifilm these past three years, I am saying that given all of my experience as a professional photographer over the last 27 years. My Nikkor lenses, even the new Z lenses–which are excellent–aren’t as good as the GFX lenses.
What also separates the GFX 100 (and the GFX 100S below) from all other medium format cameras is that it has sensor stabilization built-in as well, which allows this camera to be used in a much wider variety of situations than any other camera with this resolution or those that are even higher resolution. The Phase One IQ 150 (a 150 MP camera) has I am sure amazing image quality but without stabilization it is very limited in how you can work with it. The stabilization in the GFX 100 (and 100S) allows for reliably tack sharp handheld shots down to 1/20th second with a good portion of the GFX lenses. That is utterly astounding–especially having used the Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi listed above where I could not get a sharp handheld image below 1/500th second with that camera–and it was only 50 MP (i.e. half the resolution). Needless to say, once I worked with the GFX 100 I sold my Hasselblad as it was just redundant.
FUJIFILM GFX 100S
As with the GFX 100 launch, I was privileged to create images for the GFX 100S launch as well. With the same image quality as the GFX 100 but in a smaller, lighter package, the GFX 100S has become my go to camera when I want 102 MP medium format quality and need to go light and fast. The 100S has ever so slightly better image stabilization than the GFX 100 but all in all it is pretty much a smaller, lighter body and also $4,000 cheaper. With this camera, Fujifilm has brought incredible medium format image quality to the masses–or at least the well healed masses.
For the launch we created images of downhill skateboarding in in Malibu, California. The image below was used in Fujifilm’s advertising all over the world. I have since taken the GFX 100S on pretty much all of my assignments since I got it early last year. Notably, I used it for a New Mexico Tourism assignment with a spacesuit, which turned out spectacularly well.
With both the GFX 100 and 100S in my bag, as well as a large collection of GFX lenses, this kit is my go to camera of choice–and it is my most recent favorite camera. For those assignments with crazy fast action that require faster frame rates I take my Nikon Z 9 and Nikkor Z kit. But for the foreseeable future, and that may be the next five years or more, the GFX 100 and 100S will more than adequately serve my needs in terms of image quality for still photography.
Of course, there are a few other cameras that I love, and have owned that didn’t quite make this list. Those include the FUJIFILM X-Pro 3, the Olympus OM-1 (the camera I started on way back when) and possibly the new Nikon Z 9. I haven’t had the Z 9 for long enough to add it to this list. The FUJIFILM X-Pro 3 is definitely a stellar camera as well but was just edged out of the top ten.
If you made it this far, congrats. Let me know what some of your favorite cameras have been in the comments. I have never worked with Leica, Canon or Pentax cameras. They have all made some legendary cameras to be sure. But as with any list like this it is completely biased according to my own experiences–and a lot of fun to consider.
2021 has been a bit of a mixed bag. Parts of the year were nearly as busy as before the Covid pandemic began and other parts felt more like 2020 with long stints here in the office. Regardless, I was still able to create some wild images. A huge thank you to my clients who have continued on with assignments in a tough year and many of whom put in place very strict Covid practices. I very much appreciate my clients approaching any gathering with caution and reasoned practices to keep all of us as safe as possible.
This year also brought with it some amazing experiences–like getting to fly upside down in a helicopter–and some amazing assignments. In February, Fujifilm launched the GFX 100S–their latest 102 megapixel GFX medium format camera–and it was great to see all of the downhill skateboarding images we created for that campaign appear all over the place with the release of the camera. I couldn’t share those images in last years 2020 Year in Review post because the camera had not been announced yet. You can see the best images from that campaign here on my website. Below is a screen shot of the main image Fujifilm used to promote the new GFX camera here in the USA.
Since working with the new FUJIFILM GFX 100S, its has been my main camera and the GFX 100, it’s big brother, has taken the backseat for many assignments in deference to the smaller, more portable 100S. Many of the images shown here in this year-end summary were created with these astounding GFX 102 megapixel cameras. A sincere thanks to Fujifilm for their continued support of my work and for helping me to have the best possible tools I could ever dream of.
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. Without further ado, here are what I consider to be the best images I have created this past year.
Red Bull Air Force Los Alamos, California — USA
Early this spring, after the epic boom in Covid cases over the last winter, I received a great assignment from Red Bull to once again photograph the Red Bull Air Force training camp. I have photographed the last four training camps for Red Bull, which has helped me to establish quite a good relationship with the team and also a very well rounded portfolio of BASE Jumping, wingsuit BASE jumping and aerial acrobatics images. This years training camp was held in Los Alamos, California and offered a completely new landscape to work with as can be seen in the images below.
My sincere thanks to the entire Red Bull Air Force and to Red Bull for allowing me to be a part of this years training camp. I am already looking forward to the next time I get to work with this incredible crew. For the full story on this assignment check out my Summer 2021 Newsletter.
SanDisk Red Rocks, Nevada — USA
Right after the Red Bull assignment shown above I had another assignment with SanDisk and DPReview to show off their latest solid state travel hard drives (SSDs). For this assignment, I chose to create some rock climbing images using my brand-new FUJIFILM GFX 100S and a variety of GFX lenses. Eric Becker, working with DPReview, created a behind the scenes video showing how the images were created and working with the SanDisk SSDs. My thanks to Eric and the DPReview team, as well as SanDisk of course, for this assignment and also to the climbers, Joey and Yulia Cohn and Keoni Onsaga, for coming out on two frosty cold days.
Highlight Skydiving Team Tucson, Arizona — USA
While photographing the Red Bull Air Force team training camp, Amy Chmelecki asked if I would come out and photograph the Highlight Skydiving team, which is an elite female skydiving team. While working with the Highlight crew, they wanted to swoop through a wall of fire as they came in for a landing. I had not seen anything like this in my fifteen years of photographing various skydiving sports but it seemed like a goldmine photographically. As can be seen below, Kaz Sheekey swooped through a wall of blazing fire and smoke (the smoke came from a flare set off in front of the fire line) and these two images might be my best images from 2021. I couldn’t decide which image is better, the one with her in the midst of the flames or the second one where she has just busted through the flames. Hence, I have posted both here. My thanks to the entire Highlight Skydiving team for their incredible hospitality and for having such a cool team training camp.
Rocky Mountain School of Photography Missoula, Montana — USA
For the last five years, I have spent one week each year teaching a workshop for the Rocky Mountain School of Photography (RMSP), which is a nine month intensive professional school for those looking to become professional photographers. I have taught a course on Adventure Photogrpahy and during that week, I try to capture a few images here and there to show the students what I would do in those scenarios. On the day we worked with a few whitewater kayakers this past year, I got the image below of Sebastian Johnson whitewater kayaking on the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula, Montana. As this location had a very busy background I thought using a slow shutter speed to create a motion blur would lead to an interesting image–and well, it turned out pretty well. My thanks to RMSP and the kayakers for working with us in seriously cold kayaking conditions.
Santa Fe Institute Santa Fe, New Mexico — USA
Every once in a while I have a local assignment, i.e. one here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Usually, local assignments involve a portrait of some type and this was one of those gigs. I have worked with the Santa Fe Institute several times over the last few years and as one of the most elite science institutions in the world it is always fun working with SFI. For this assignment I was tasked with creating a few different portraits of renown physicist and cosmologist Sean Carroll. As someone who studied physics in university and got a B.S. in physics, it was pretty cool to meet one of the icons of the science world. To create something unique and show the power of Sean’s mind, I created a double exposure image melded from a black and white portrait and a photo of a 3D art installation at the institute. We also had Sean write out some of the equations he is working with at the institute for a more “standard” portrait. I thought both images are pretty cool and it was great to hear Sean liked them as well. My thanks to Sean Carroll and SFI for working with me on this assignment.
And if there is any doubt about the importance of science and scientists, the last few years have proven quite effectively how important science is to our modern society and how incredible the new vaccines are in protecting us. Please get vaccinated to protect yourself and others.
Golden Aspens Santa Fe, New Mexico — USA
I seem to have been on a motion blur kick this year as I created a wide variety of motion blur images–two of which are show here in this year end post. While on a hike this fall, a patch of glowing golden Aspens along the Alamos Vista Trail above Santa Fe, New Mexico caught my eye and I spent five minutes or more moving the camera and my body to make motion blur images of this forest wall. It probably looked pretty hilarious as I bent my knees in a pumping motion up and down. That seemed to be the best technique for holding the camera steady at slow shutter speeds and not moving it any closer or farther from the scene. The result was the image below. While this technique is nothing new, and many, many photographers have created this type of image, I found this one image (out of hundreds I created that day) to be “The One.” It has already become one of my most asked for images as a fine art print.
New Mexico Tourism White Sands National Park, New Mexico — USA
This fall, I had a very fun assignment working with New Mexico Tourism, the City of Alamogordo and the New Mexico Museum of Space History. The assignment was to create a series of images of Mike Shinabery (an employee of the Space Museum) in an Astronaut suit in and around Alamogordo, New Mexico. The Space History Museum had a $60,000 USD replica space suit based on Neil Armstrong’s suit used for the Moon landing in 1969. This is the suit you see here in these images. The images we created in White Sands National Park in particular were the best images from the assignment and some of the more unusual images I created this year. Below are two of my favorites.
New Mexico Tourism Wild Rivers Recreation Area, New Mexico — USA
On another New Mexico Tourism assignment this fall I photographed fly-fishing on the Rio Grande river in the Wild Rivers Recreation Area near Questa, New Mexico. While hiking down to the river I saw this pretty amazing overhead view with phenomenal colors and textures. Our fly-fisherman Toner Mitchell was gracious enough to hike downriver so I could get a series of images of him in various spots on the river. This image below is one of my favorites from that assignment and seemed worthy of this year end summary.
Eylea California — USA
While this image isn’t from 2021, after two years I am just now able to share it. This image is from a major ad campaign I shot for Eylea, a subsidiary of the pharmaceutical giant Bayer, way back in 2019. Eylea is a drug for those suffering with Macular Degeneration. On this gig, we created three heavily composited images for the campaign. [Note: It is extremely rare that I use compositing in my work and if an image is composited then I am very clear about how the image was created.] In the image brief the ad agency had a mountain scene from Austria and wanted to create something similar here in the USA without snow in early April. While working with my producer for this assignment, we chose a road in central California for the cyclist to ride on–and which had the right foothills surrounding the road. The mountains in the background are from Colorado, the sky is from another image and all of the daisies you see below were added in post-production. While we produced four different composited images for this assignment this one is by far my favorite.
So long 2021. My thanks to Red Bull, Fujifilm, SanDisk, National Geographic, New Mexico Tourism, SFI and all of my other clients with whom I worked this year. Thank you 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 Holidays and a Happy New Year to you all. Here’s hoping your 2022 gets us all back to fully normal and is filled with adventurous travels and amazing experiences!
This article originally appeared in my Fall 2021 Newsletter. You can download the Fall 2021 Newsletter here. If you would like to subscribe to the Newsletter please send me an email. The newsletter is free and is sent out quarterly.
This year, 2021, will go down as the year mirrorless camera technology truly came of age and replaced digital SLRs. At this point, I suspect DSLRs are still the mainstay of many professional photographers but with the incredible announcements of the Sony A1, the FUJIFILM GFX 100S, the Canon R3 and the Nikon Z 9 pretty much across the board every camera company has a stellar option for those looking to upgrade. Back in February of this year I published a blog post entitled, Tools of the Trade: Transition Mode, where I started off that post with the following:
“2021 is the year that everyone in the photo industry will sit up and take notice of the mirrorless cameras that have been flooding the market for the last decade. It has taken a decade for the new mirrorless options to finally match the venerable speed-demon pro-caliber DSLRs that we have all been using as professionals. I am sure many would say this happened a few years back but for pros who get to know their gear over years and years of use, a change in the system is a huge deal. With the back-to-back announcements of the Sony A1 and the FUJIFILM GFX 100S, 2021 kicked off with a bang announcing two new high-end cameras that show what is possible with mirrorless technology. With these two camera announcements, I have sold off my entire Nikon DSLR setup including all of my Nikkor F-mount lenses.”
That blog post was purely predicting that all professional photographers would finally start making the move to mirrorless after the launch of the Sony A1 and the FUJIFILM GFX 100s. I knew the Nikon Z 9 was coming (since Nikon told us long in advance it was in the works) but had no idea what it would become. Now that the Z 9 has officially been announced we can see that every top camera manufacturer has a mirrorless option for pretty much any genre of photography, including sports and wildlife photographers. Since selling off my DSLRs, I have been working predominantly with my FUJIFILM GFX cameras (the GFX 100 and GFX 100S) as well as the Nikon Z 6 and the Z 7 II. Earlier this year I was pondering a move to Sony or Canon (in terms of full-frame cameras) if Nikon could not come through with the Z 9 but it appears that Nikon came through with a stellar new camera offering for pro photographers. I do have a Z 9 on order, and I am excited to again have a stellar medium format and 35mm set up to cover fast action and ultra high-end image quality. The GFX system is my main camera system (and has been since the release of the GFX 100) but I still need a smaller 35mm format kit that can deal with crazy fast action as well. Hence, with my move to mirrorless cameras the focus in this article will be on how these cameras have improved overall image quality and what they allow us to capture that we couldn’t create with DSLRs.
In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS): IBIS has been in mirrorless cameras for a while now. IBIS is stabilization built into the sensor mechanism itself via magnets that hold the sensor in place and stabilize the actual sensor. This amazing technology allows photographers to handhold high-resolution cameras at incredibly slow shutter speeds and still get sharp images—as shown above in an image created for the US Marine Special Forces. I have been able to handhold my mirrorless cameras with this feature at 1/10th second and get reliably sharp images. All of the major high-end mirrorless cameras announced in 2021 have this feature. Going forward, I would be surprised to see any mirrorless camera not having IBIS built in. This is a critical feature in my mind for any mirrorless camera.
Better Image Quality: This is a key part of the reason to go with mirrorless cameras. If the image quality isn’t better than the DSLR cameras of yore then what would be the point? The Nikon D850 was such a stellar camera that it took a while to better it in the mirrorless space. The new mirrorless cameras and lenses allow for sharper images corner-to-corner than their DSLR cousins. The built-in lens profiles that work with Lightroom and Capture One also improve the image quality as well. As noted above, the stabilization (IBIS and lens stabilization) also allow for sharper images over a wider array of shutter speeds. The FUJIFILM GFX medium format cameras notably take image quality to a higher level at much more affordable prices than ever before. As the image below shows, the 102 MP medium format sensors in the FUJIFILM GFX 100 and GFX 100s offer image quality that is a big step up from any 35mm camera at this point.
Higher Quality Mirrorless Lenses: The new lenses designed for these new mirrorless camera systems are a big part of the image quality gains. Shorter flange distances, newly designed optics with modern technology, and the lens profiles that help correct those lenses are all part of the equation. The camera companies are also looking to the future when even higher resolution sensors will be put into cameras and the new lenses will need to keep up with those sensors as well.
Built-in Lens Profiles: We have mentioned lens profiles a few times already so I thought I would list it here again. Basically, all of the camera manufacturers have created profiles of their lenses and have shared these with Adobe and other software manufacturers so that these can be used to correct minor issues that pop up with every lens. These profiles help to correct things like aberrations, including chromatic aberration, as well as vignetting and other optical issues. The end result is that we get better images due to a combination of the improved optical quality of the lenses and the related lens profiles.
Faster and More Accurate Autofocus: The autofocus on most high-end DSLRs was already pretty fast, but the top-end mirrorless cameras have been able to use faster processors to calculate autofocus incredibly accurately at up to 120 times per second or faster in some cases. The new mirrorless cameras, because there is no mirror, can also use machine learning to track the eyes of your subject, or the subject itself with incredible accuracy far beyond the AF systems built into DSLRs. And all of the AF calculations are done on the sensor itself, which insures accurate autofocus in a way never before possible. Gone are the days of fine-tuning the autofocus of DSLRs to make sure they focus accurately with your lenses. Because the AF is done on the sensor the manufacturing variations between lenses is irrelevant—at least in terms of the autofocus. This new AF technology, along with IBIS and better image quality, are the big three reasons to move to mirrorless.
Decoupling the AF point from the Composition: One of the big advances in the new AF technology is that there are AF points from corner-to-corner across the viewfinder. Because of this, we are now finally free to compose the image as we want without any AF restrictions. This is a huge benefit. Additionally, with eye tracking and the new subject tracking algorithms, in many instances we barely even have to think about the AF at all since many mirrorless cameras have exceptional AF accuracy even in challenging light.
Truly Silent Operation: With modern mirrorless cameras we now have full and truly silent operation, save for the noise made by the autofocus moving lens elements back and forth. This is achieved using the electronic shutter option available in most mirrorless cameras. The Nikon Z 9 is the first pro-caliber mirrorless camera that does away with the shutter mechanism altogether. In fact it is a silent camera by default and you can turn on the sound to simulate a camera with a shutter. While a silent camera may not seem like a big deal, in many situations it will allow photographers to capture images without disturbing the subject such as in wildlife photography and photojournalism. Imagine a press briefing without all the annoying shutter mechanisms clacking away from the still photographers. Imagine a tennis match where the players don’t have to hear all of those cameras firing away as they try to line up their next shot? Silent cameras will quickly become the defacto standard and I would not be surprised to see them required at major events where sound is an issue (tennis, golf, press events and so on).
Live Histogram and WYSIWYG: Mirrorless cameras from a decade ago included the live histogram in the viewfinder and pretty much all of the current mirrorless cameras allow for the histogram to be visible in the EVF or on the rear LCD. While this isn’t new, it is incredibly valuable and makes capturing well exposed images much, much easier than it was with DSLRs. Of course, beyond the live histogram, the what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) EVF viewfinders also help massively when it comes to dialing in your exposure. These features not only help to get accurate exposures but they also help to dial in a creative effect using exposure settings. In some scenarios underexposing or overexposing the image helps to create the mood you want to convey better than the most accurate exposure and being able to see that instantly in the EVF is a huge help for translating your intent into the final image.
Faster Frame Rates: Once the mirror was removed from the camera, and faster processors were introduced, the ability to speed up the frame rates in mirrorless cameras jumped drastically. The Sony A1, released earlier this year, notably pushed that envelope to a shocking 30 fps at 50 MP. Of course, for most of us, even sports photographers like myself, 20 fps, much less 30 fps, creates a digital workflow nightmare. It is great to have these options, but realistically, I can make do with 12 to 14 fps and occasionally will bump up to that 20 fps when absolutely needed. Regardless, the new crop of super fast cameras open up new options we have never seen before in any cameras thus far.
While each of these points on their own may have a small (or large) impact on how you use a camera to create images, put together they change the photographic experience substantially—especially for anyone coming from the world of DSLRs. Note that I am not trying to sell anyone a mirrorless camera. I am just laying out my experiences and the advantages I see in working with the latest technology—and my reasoning for selling off my DSLRs.
I will admit getting used to an EVF takes a little while, but with time it becomes very difficult to go back to a DSLR. This was the experience I had when I purchased the Nikon Z 6 way back in 2018 and then had to use my Nikon D850 for faster action oriented assignments. To be clear, the Nikon D850 was and still is a phenomenal camera. Even so, all of the advantages discussed here, and the speed with which mirrorless cameras can get you to the final image, makes the transition to mirrorless more than worth it for pro photographers.
We are at a point now where I am not sure how the top-end cameras can be made any better. My current setup is unbelievable in terms of speed (the forthcoming Z 9) and image quality (GFX system). I am sure manufacturers will come out with ever higher megapixel cameras to tempt us in the future but for the moment, the technology is astounding. If you have been on the fence about making the move to mirrorless, now is the time. There is going to be a glut of gear on the used market so don’t wait until all of your DLSR gear is worthless to sell it off. Kudos to all the manufacturers for taking it to the next level!
The Fall 2021 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 of the Newsletter includes an editorial entitled Cosmic Correlations, an article entitled An Epic Year in Camera Technology, an article detailing a recent assignment with New Mexico Tourism and the New Mexico Museum of Space History, an editorial entitled Blurry Aspens, and much more.
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