“Embrace risk. That is the key to improving at anything. Without the willingness to go down the uncharted path, you will not learn, you will not improve, and you will not grow. This might sound a little preachy, but it is a life lesson I have learned again and again as a climber, a mountaineer, and a freelance photographer. Safety is an illusion. Get over it. You cannot control everything in this world. I have learned to learn from my mistakes because I learn more from my mistakes than I do from my successes. When I make a mistake I own up to it, and then plot how to avoid making that mistake again. Making a mistake is just part of the learning experience. It makes me aware of certain possibilities and outcomes. Sometimes it is only by making a mistake that you stumble onto an unexpected result, or image in this case, and by analyzing that mistake, you can create a whole new look.
Creative people need risk to “break on through” to the next level; here I am making a reference to one of The Doors’ most popular songs. The musical group creatively pushed the envelope, were unconventional (in the extreme), and took chances with their music and lyrics. I use the band as an example only to make the point that if you can’t embrace risk, your images will never be more than mediocre. And that is a sure way to underachieve.
Red Bull is a company that embraces risk and asks their photographers to do the same. I had only nine seconds total to capture the action for this B.A.S.E. jumping assignment. In this image, Jon DeVore of the Red Bull Air Force Team, is leaping off a 3,200-foot cliff in southwestern Utah in his wingsuit. I was hanging over the edge of the cliff just next to Jon as he jumped. I wore a climbing harness and was attached to three small bushes that might have held my weight but I never fully committed my weight on the rope.
As a climber, a mountaineer, and an adventurer, I implore you to get out and experience your own adventures. They might just be the best motivator for your photography. Stepping out of your comfort zone provides everyone with a chance to grow. The next step is to take the knowledge you have learned and put it into practice repeatedly and as often as possible. Dare to fail. Aim high. Dream up an image you want to create and then go out and try to create it. If you don’t get the result you want, try again and again until you do. Practice makes perfect, or at least in photography it makes your images better. Get inspired, get motivated, and get moving. That is the key to photography.”
The three paragraphs above are from my most recent book, Exposed: Inside the Life and Images of a Pro Photographer. They sum up my credo as an adventure sports photographer. Over the last sixteen years, I have pursued my craft—and my profession—with a fervent passion. I have also been fortunate to work with clients such as Nikon, Apple, Adobe, Red Bull, National Geographic, Outside, Men’s Journal, and Sports Illustrated. I have crafted an adventurous lifestyle that has allowed me to witness and document some truly remarkable feats of physical prowess.
In this blog post, I want to encourage you to ‘embrace risk’ and invite adventure into your life and your photography. I am not advising that anyone take huge risks physically, but a ‘willingness to go down the uncharted path’ and explore those things that make you uncomfortable will open up a whole new world. As an example, I will share a bit of my story and how taking on a new sport changed my life in a way I never could have imagined.
In my last year of studying physics at the University of Texas at Austin, I took a weekend rock climbing course through the outdoor recreation program. I was a shy kid. I lacked self-confidence—and I was a little afraid of the risks involved in rock climbing. But I had—and still have—an inclination to run headlong into situations I find challenging. Little did I know at the time, but that rock climbing course would be the start of a whole new career.
Over the next few years I became obsessed with climbing in all its forms: rock climbing, ice climbing and mountaineering. As I gained confidence in my skills as a climber I also gained confidence in myself. When I was a teenager I had explored photography as part of my art studies. It was climbing that brought me back to photography and it was the confidence I gained through climbing that gave me the courage to pursue a career as an adventure sports photographer. I started out shooting rock climbing, then branched out into just about every other adventure sport.
In this image, Chris Sharma is hanging from the biggest hold on this very difficult climb while “Deep Water Soloing” in Mallorca, Spain. This image was shot early on in my career while on assignment for Men’s Journal. And yes, he is not wearing a harness or a rope. Deep Water Soloing is a form of rock climbing where you climb solo without a rope and if you fall the water catches you. I am hanging next to Sharma on a rope to get the shot.
In the beginning, I shot everything “on spec,” meaning I went out and created the images and then licensed them to various magazines and climbing companies after the fact. This was, and still is, a risky way of doing business. I never knew where my next paycheck was coming from or when it would show up. My first big break was an assignment for Men’s Journal shooting rock climbing in Mallorca, Spain. That came to me about five years into my career. My second big break was an assignment to shoot freeriding (a cousin of mountain biking) for the first version of Adobe Lightroom. After that assignment, advertising and editorial assignments started to come more frequently and with increasing regularity.
I don’t want to give the impression that my career was a joyride on easy street—just the opposite, it was a constant struggle to make it work. Working as a freelance photographer involves an insane amount of hard work, stress and risk. For me, that risk was both physical, as an adventure photographer, and financial. Many of my early climbing trips were sponsored by VISA and MASTERCARD, both of which were stored safely in my wallet. It took me years to pay off those climbing trips and my camera gear but to this day I don’t regret it one bit. I certainly don’t recommend using your credit cards to fund your business adventure but at the time I had no other options.
Above is an image of YouTube superstar Danny MacAskill that was shot for Red Bull. Working with Danny was a supreme pleasure and his story is incredibly inspiring. His story is a perfect example of a motivated, and extremely talented individual, showing what they are capable of and reaping the benefits of being able to show that to the world, via YouTube.
Even now, sixteen years later, I can’t tell you exactly where my income will come from six or more months from now. I have to have faith that, like the last sixteen years, the assignments and the work will come to me. This certainly isn’t the job for anyone that wants some vestige of financial security in the form of a steady job. But for me, the rewards of this job are that I am able to see and create images of stupendous feats of bravery in the outdoors. My life of risk has also allowed me to follow my passions to places I never thought I would ever visit and being able to share these adventures with the world, through my clients, is a great pleasure.
It is only by pursuing risk on a continual basis that my career has grown, and blossomed into what it is today. I still seek out challenging assignments, new sports and even new genres of photography. I still long for that next adventure. If I don’t have an adventure on the horizon—something to look forward to—I start to get a little stir-crazy. I am not an adrenaline junkie, as so many “extreme” athletes are labeled. I am just addicted to having adventures.
When I wrote Exposed last year, I had serious doubts about the topics covered in the book and if they would be of interest to anyone at all. The idea to write about the realities of working as a professional photographer, the stories behind the images and detailing how a handful of my images were created was hashed out prior to starting the book with Ted Waitt, an editor at Peachpit. I wanted to be extremely open and honest about my experiences as a pro photographer including all of the embarrassing moments so that the reader could see how I got from A to B to C.
As an example of hard work, creating this image of professional rock climber Timy Fairfield involved lugging over 200-pounds of lighting gear and equipment up into the cave in 98-degree heat—not to mention that fact that Timy still had to climb this difficult route in very tough conditions.
When the first few reviews of Exposed came in a few months ago I was amazed. The reviews were well beyond anything I had imagined. Yet again, taking a risk paid off.
It is my hope that this blog post will at the very least make you sit up and think about how you can add some adventure to your life and inspire your photography. Embracing risk may not be easy, and it may not be pleasant, but it will certainly make life interesting—and interesting often makes for phenomenal photographs.
While shooting an assignment for Men’s Fitness with the Henry 1 Search and Rescue team in Santa Rosa, California, I saw the opportunity for this image and had only twenty minutes to create it. This image was only possible because of the digital preview available on the rear LCD of my Nikon camera, which allowed me to refine the lighting in a matter of minutes.
Thank you to Scott, Brad and the gang at Kelby Media for asking me to write a guest blog post. It is a great honor to be included among the wonderful photographers here on Scott’s blog. And thank you for taking the time to read this guest blog post.
If you would like to read more about the adventures behind my images and how they were created please check out my book, Exposed: Inside the Life and Images of a Pro Photographer.
You can see more of Michael’s work at MichaelClarkPhoto.com, keep up with him on his blog, and find him on Facebook and Twitter. Michael also produces a quarterly newsletter, which is a mini PDF-magazine that details his latest adventures, and includes news updates, equipment reviews and other articles on various topics related to the photo industry. If you would like to sign up to receive the newsletter send him an email. You can check out back issues of the Newsletter on his website here.
You can also get 35% off Michael’s book by using the code KMCLARK at the Peachpit Store!