ASMP — American Society of Media Photographers

Questions with a Pro: Michael Clark

Liam Fields dropping over Spirit Falls while whitewater kayaking on the Little White Salmon river near White Salmon, Washington. © Michael Clark

This week’s Questions with a Pro features Michael Clark.

Michael is an outdoor photographer specializing in adventure sports, travel, and landscape photography. He has a passion for action himself given what he is willing to do to capture the most captivating image. He is a former physicist which allows him to bring a very unique perspective to photography. Here, he shares with us some details about his background in physics, advice about transitioning to full-time photography, and his thoughts about the future of the industry.

We asked: How has your background as a physicist influenced your career as a photographer? Did this background help you decide on your speciality?

Michael said: My physics background gave me the ability to problem solve at an advanced level. In essence, it taught me how to think logically and figure out the steps required to solve the problem. Previous to my physics degree, I was doing art from a very young age – since I was three and a half years old. For most of my life I was in one art class or another, even before I started school. I worked in just about every art medium there was at one point or another. Photography was one of those art mediums I tried out, and really enjoyed, when I was 14 and 15. Throughout high school I worked on the yearbook and photographed a wide variety of subjects.

As far as my love of adventure sports, I started rock climbing at the end of my physics degree. I quickly became obsessed with rock climbing and mountaineering. While studying Physics, I never shot a single photo during my studies, but once I started rock climbing it seemed pretty natural to bring the camera along and document the exciting adventures. After a few years of traveling specifically for climbing all over the world, I looked for a way to combine my two passions: climbing  and photography. Initially I started out as a rock climbing and mountaineering photographer, but within five years I started to branch out into other adventure sports to expand my portfolio.

We asked: Do you have any advice for individuals thinking about changing their career path to full-time photography? Was this a difficult transition for you to make?

Michael said: Becoming a full-time freelance photographer, especially these days is not unlike trying to be a professional athlete. It has to be one of the most difficult careers in which to actually make a living. With that said, it is also a very rewarding career. I think those looking to enter this profession also need to have realistic expectations for how long it will take to get established, which for most of us took three to five years, and then another three to five years to really get to a level where we are making a decent income.

For me, going full-time as a pro photographer felt like jumping off a giant cliff without a parachute. Financially it was dicey. I worked fifteen-hour days non-stop for ten years. No vacations, no days off, it was all consuming and my obsession as much as it was my career. This career takes full commitment. As an adventure photographer this career isn’t a job, it is a lifestyle. And just in case anyone is wondering, it doesn’t seem to get any easier once you get established.

In terms of advice, I would say that your photography needs to be at a high level before you even consider working professionally. Ease into a photography career on a part time basis and test the waters. If it seems like photography is your dream job, and you are willing to work harder than you have ever worked at any other job, then you might have a chance. Photograph what you are passionate about. Work hard. Be persistent. The best advice I ever received, and which is still is great advice to this day, is “Keep your overhead as low as possible.”

We asked: What role does motion play in your business? Do you predict that this aspect of your business will grow?

Michael said: It seems like every assignment I shoot these days has a motion component to it. At the very least the client will want a behind the scenes video from the shoot. On bigger assignments the motion component is massively larger than the stills. I was recently told by a mayor client that the behind the scenes video was more important to them than the stills I was creating because more people would see the video than the stills, save for those included in the video. I definitely see motion work becoming a larger and larger portion of my business, but I also get a lot of calls to shoot still images. Hence, both are important.

As far as where it is going, I think every photographer coming up needs to work on their video skills. I myself am not a master of everything video, but I have surrounded myself with people who have much more knowledge than I about their specific role on the crew. In my experience, a high-end motion piece cannot be created by just one person. I have to build a tight crew that really knows their stuff and let them do their thing.

We asked: Please describe one element of photographic technology that you have used your problem solving skills to push to the limit. How has your ability and willingness to push the technology affected the types of projects you take on?

Michael said: Photography is essentially problem solving at the core, with an artistic bend in terms of composing and framing the image. As for my current work, I haven’t really altered any technology, but I have really pushed myself to take the technology we currently have and push it as hard as I can to create new and interesting images. Any example of this is the lighting work I have been doing using Elinchrom’s Hi-Sync technology. This new lighting technology allows us to use any shutter speed when syncing with a strobe. Hi-Sync allows me as an adventure sports photographer to light up athletes that are quite a distance from the strobe. With one 1,200 Ws battery-powered strobe, I can overpower daylight from 60-feet away. By working hard to perfect this Hi-Sync lighting, I have really pushed the technology and my own understanding of it to the point that I have created an entirely new portfolio of adventure sports images, all lit with this unique lighting technique as in the image shown above.

Because of my work with this new technology, a lot of clients are coming to me to solve a problem or work on really difficult to pull off projects. In turn they are creating assignments for me where the outcome is unknown and together we are really pushing the envelope of what is photographically possible. For me, that is a very exciting situation to be in.

We asked: What are your thoughts on the future of the photography industry given the intense digital emphasis?

Michael said: Wow, that is a huge topic. Digital is here to stay. It is a different medium than film, but it is just a different way of creating an image. The difference with digital is how much easier it makes the process of learning photography. It also democratizes photography so that millions of people can more easily access a camera (i.e. like the one built into their phone) and experiment with the medium. What that means for us as working pros is that the supply is increasing exponentially, and basic economic theory tells us when supply increases prices decline – as they have over the last decade. There will always be those who can demand higher prices for their work because they are innovative and produce incredible images.

I think that in order to survive as full-time photographers we have to really up our game and work hard to separate ourselves from the pack. For years now, I have been saying that in the next five to ten years, the number of photographers that can make a decent full-time living will decline and only the top photographers in each genre will be able to do so. The rest will be part-time photographers and have a job on the side. I stand by that statement and have seen it start to happen over the last few years.

On the flip side, this is likely the most exciting time ever to be a photographer. The photo industry as a whole is growing massively. There is no lack of incredible work being produced around the world. Digital camera technology has only helped widen the number of photographers capable of creating stellar work.

Find more of Michael’s work on his website.

If this article was of interest to you, take a look at some of the other articles in the Questions with a Pro and Questions with an Educator series.

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