Getting Into the Action with Sports Photographer Michael Clark

Michael Clark Interview 1

All photos taken by and used with permission from Michael Clark.

In sports and action photography, it’s almost always the subject themselves – the athletes – that get all the glory. Rarely do the men behind lens, who in actuality get into the action themselves, get any recognition for the exhilerating shots they capture. So for this month, we here at the Phoblographer are seeking to give the floor to the sports photographers, without whom the best and greatest moments in sports would never be documented.

We recently chatted with sports photographer Michael Clark, whose work has been featured in several photography magazines including Outdoor Photographer and Digital Photo Pro, to get  insights on what it’s like to be a one.

Read his interview after the jump.

The Phoblographer: First of all, I’m sure a lot of our readers would be interested to know, how did your career as an adventure sports photographer start? 

Michael Clark Interview 2Michael Clark: Well, the answer to your question is a long story.  When I was three and a half, I drew a quarter on an envelope. I showed it to my mother and she said, “very nice tracing darling,” or something to that effect and I shook my head and informed her it was not a tracing. She watched me draw it the second time almost perfectly. At that point, I thought everybody could draw things perfectly. It was a revelation to both my mother and I that I had a God given talent. From then on I was always in one art class or another and dabbled in just about every art form there is.

While I was in junior high school in the early 80’s I became fascinated with photography. Luckily, one of my teachers also worked as a studio and wedding photographer. I asked if we could set up a darkroom in the school and we began to develop black and white film. I started with an old Olympus OM-1 and a 100mm lens that my father let me borrow. Over the course of two years I learned all I could about B+W and color photography. It became an obsession and a dream of mine to someday become a professional photographer. But when it was time to start college I put the cameras away and began a degree in Physics.

During my last semester in college, I took a rock climbing course through the University. I also met a friend who was a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) instructor. He was looking for a partner to go climbing in Hueco Tanks, Texas for spring break that year and he was nice enough to take on a neophyte. Climbing soon became an obsession and I ended up turning down job offers in Physics to go climbing. It was climbing that brought me back to photography, at first to record the amazing places I traveled to and later to inspire others.

It was on an extended climbing trip in France that I first thought I could make a living from my photography. I was photographing Toni Lamprecht, a world class German climber in Buoux, France. When I returned home I made a pact with myself: if I could get my first three submissions published I would give it a go as a career. I sent my best work to Outdoor Photographer, Climbing and Rock and Ice. All three submissions were published within a few months. Looking back, it still shocks me to this day.

After that, I worked part time at an outdoor store and photographed my friends in my spare time. I started out as a rock climbing photographer and slowly branched out into other sports. It took me three and a half years to go full-time. At present, I have been working as a professional photographer for 18 years.

The Phoblographer: What entails being an adventure sports and action photographer? What things do you need to be doing differently as a photographer? 

Michael Clark Interview

Michael Clark: The biggest difference between a normal photographer and an adventure sports photographer is that we have to be athletes ourselves. Adventure photographers are often participants in the sports we are shooting. We have to put ourselves into dangerous positions to get the shot – and often getting into those positions requires us to climb up a rock wall, swim into huge waves and generally be comfortable in exposed and dangerous places.

As with any sports photographer, understanding the sport and the culture of that sport greatly enhances your ability to capture stunning images of that sport. I am a climber, a mountaineer, and a cyclist, and I have extensive outdoor experience in a wide variety of sports. Having spent a lot of time on big rock walls and in mountains all over the world, I am pretty comfortable and confident in just about any outdoor situation. I also shoot surfing, but I am not a surfer. I am an excellent swimmer but by no means does that qualify me to swim out on the really huge days at Pipeline.

In answer to your question, as an adventure photographer, I have to think a lot about the logistics of getting into position and how to capture the image I am looking to create. I also have to work with the athletes to create that image. Working with the athletes and understanding what they can and can’t do is critical to getting the best image possible.

The Phoblographer: Any work hazards? What was the most dangerous situation you’ve found yourself in? Tell us about it.

Michael Clark: Let’s just say if there is such a thing as nine lives, then I have used up six or seven of them. I have had my rope cut down to a few strands of the core (while I was hanging on it). I have been hit by a beach ball size rock while rock climbing, fallen into quicksand, been hit by a car, gone hypothermic in the Beagle Channel, had cerebral edema at 22,000 feet and last but not least I have frost nipped fingers and toes while documenting mountaineering. I should have died at the very least in two or three of these situations but the rope incident was one of those moments where I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was going to die any moment. Instead of relaying that whole story here, since it is a long one, you can find it here on my website.

The Phoblographer: How much preparation do you do when you’re about to shoot an action shot? Do you normally have a preconceived idea of what you want to capture or do you usually wait for that perfect moment to present itself? 

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Michael Clark: For every shoot I go on I have a shot list written out that details some ideas I have for the shoot. Depending on the sport or the shoot, I might have a very detailed shot list or one with the types of images I want but no details on how to get it. Ideally I am able to scout the location before we start the shoot but that isn’t always possible. Either way, I definitely have several shots in mind before we get out to the location and I also try to stay open for other shots that I hadn’t thought of.

As for other types of preparation, I tailor the gear that I will need on each shoot very carefully. I also work out regularly to stay in shape so that I can stay with the athletes, which isn’t always easy when you are carrying more gear than they are.

The Phoblographer: Which athlete/s are your favorite subjects to shoot and work with? Why? 

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Michael Clark: Just about every shoot I do is fun and exciting in some way so it is hard to pick out one athlete or sport. As a climber, I always love to shoot any form of climbing. Surfing is another sport that I am really excited about these days. Earlier this year, I had an assignment with the Red Bull Air Force, who are some of the best B.A.S.E. jumpers, wingsuit flyers and sky divers anywhere on Earth. Those guys are a blast to hang out with and they do some radical stuff. Hence, the images are never dull.

The Phoblographer: You also shoot wonderful portraits and landscapes. Which type of photography do you enjoy most doing personally and professionally? 

Portrait of professional South African big-wave surfer Josh Redman.

Michael Clark: Thank you! As a pro adventure photographer, I found out quickly that it isn’t all about the action. Clients need stellar portraits and lifestyle images just as much, if not more, than they do the wild action shots. Early on in my career I was a horrible portrait photographer. In the early 2000s, an editor told me that we action photographers “couldn’t light our way out of a paper bag.” His advice was to learn how to shoot portraits and that would make me a much more valuable photographer. It was some of the best advice I ever got from a photo editor and I started working on my portraiture skills soon afterwards. It was a long, hard road and I am still on it but my portraiture skills have come a long, long ways.

As for what I enjoy the most, I love shooting wild action shots and just being there to witness the amazing feats the athletes I work with can pull off. I also love being out in the wilderness all by myself shooting landscapes. Personally, I love capturing the action. Professionally, it is a mix of the action, lifestyle and portraiture that pays the bills. Also, what really gets me is coming up with an idea for an image and then going out and capturing that idea—or something similar. It is rare that I get exactly the image I have in my mind, but every once in a while it comes to fruition.

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The Phoblographer: As with many photographers, you’ve made the transition from film to digital. In your opinion, which medium is best to shoot professionally with and why?

Michael Clark: These days shooting film is a pain because no one wants to see the actual film. Clients, in my experience, want a digital image file as the deliverable. Hence, if you shoot film, you have to scan it and color tone it, which can be a lengthy process. Film has its place but these days I rarely ever shoot film. In fact, I haven’t shot on film in over seven years at this point.

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The other reason I shoot with digital is that the resolution is so unbelievable right now it just blows the doors off film. A few months ago, I made several 40×60-inch prints for a client that were shot on the 36-megapixel Nikon D800. Those prints were so stunning it took me an hour or more to pick my jaw up off the floor. The 40×60-inch print didn’t really look any different (in terms of sharpness and resolution) than the 13×19-inch test print I had made. That camera has the same resolution as a 4×5 film camera, which is shocking.

The Phoblographer: What’s in your camera bag?

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Michael Clark: My main cameras are the Nikon D4 and D800. For sports I shoot with the D4, for portraits, landscapes or anything where the subject isn’t moving that fast I shoot with the D800. In terms of lenses, I have the standard pro zooms including the 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm—all f/2.8. I also have the amazing Nikkor AF-S 200-400mm f/4 zoom lens and Nikon’s wicked fast Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.4. I use Elinchrom Ranger and Quadra strobes, Lowepro camera bags, Gitzo tripods, Apple computers, Epson printers and Adobe software. You can see a full list of all my gear on my website in the Behind the Scenes section.

The Phoblographer: You teach workshops on adventure photography as well as run a production company. Tell us more about these other ventures. 

Michael Clark: Like many of my peers, I have moved into the motion world since I am often asked to provide stills and motion content, especially for advertising campaigns. The move from stills to motion was (and is) like drinking from a fire hose. There is a lot to learn but the same concepts (composition, lighting, etc.) still apply. It is exciting to move into a whole new realm and to work with a group to create motion content. I generally act as the Director on motion projects though often everyone on team is wearing multiple hats, as is normal on small footprint productions.

I have taught workshops for about ten years now. I only do four or five a year so they don’t conflict with my assignments. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help of my mentors and those that took the time to educate me about photography and the photo industry. Hence, teaching photo workshops is a way to give back. I teach workshops on a variety of topics including adventure photography, surfing photography, artificial lighting, and digital workflow. Recently, I have taught a few workshops on the Nikon D800 since it a demanding camera to work with.

Teaching workshops is not only fun, but I always learn a few things myself. And of course, teaching a workshop on Surfing Photography isn’t too bad either. That is probably the most incredible workshop I teach, and I teach it with my good friend Brian Bielmann, who is a legendary surf photographer.

Folks can find out about my workshops on my website and on my blog.

The Phoblographer: What’s next for Michael Clark? Any new projects you’d like our readers to know about?

Michael Clark: As always, I have a number of projects in the works and I will be out of the office for an entire month straight. I am headed deep into the Amazon here in a few weeks to document an indigenous tribe. That should be a fun trip, though I am fully expecting to get really sick. I also have a workshop coming up in Austin, TX (May) and another, an adventure sports workshop, at the Maine Media Workshops in August. And Brian and I are putting on another Surfing Photography Workshop this fall. Aside from these workshops and the assignment in the Amazon I have a bunch of other projects in the works for this summer but as of now I can’t go into more detail on those.

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Michael Clark is a published sports, portrait, and landscape photographer.  He has written four books, all of which can be found on his website including Exposed: Inside the Life and Images of a Pro Photographer, and currently runs the Michael Clark Productions.

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