How did you get started in photography?
I studied photography when I was 14 or 15 in high school, but then I went on to study physics. It was through climbing that I got back into photography, because I started rock climbing in America, Europe and the south of France. In the south of France, I decided to start shooting images of rock climbers. That was pretty much the start of my career. I started out as a rock climbing photographer.
Do you think one needs to have formal training to be a photographer?
Not necessarily. There are a lot of professionals who are amazing photographers and are self‑taught. You need a certain amount of training just to understand how the camera works. Though these days with digital, if you’re going to produce high‑end images I think you need some technical training on how to post‑process your images in Lightroom, or Aperture, or whatever software you’re using, just so you can really dial in the post‑production. I think that’s really important.
How does rock climbing affect your work when you’re shooting?
Obviously with rock climbing, I think you have to be a climber to do that, but it also helps with all of the other things that I photograph. It definitely helps me to think and get into positions where other photographers may not be able to. Because I can think about getting above the subject, or if it’s possible, climbing up a tree, or just feeling comfortable in a different environment so that I get different angles.
What do you feel were the main obstacles you faced along your career so far?
Well, just breaking into the business, just getting an image published is very difficult. I think it’s no different now than it was when I started 16 years ago. It’s very difficult to get a client to license an image and put it in a magazine or in an advertisement or anything. That’s the major obstacle for every photographer that wants to make a living.
In general, it just takes a lot of persistence and some thick skin. You can’t take rejection personally. You need lots of passion, drive, motivation, and lots of experimentation so you can create better and better images.
What goes through your mind when you find yourself in a physically dangerous situation and you need to get the shot?That’s a good question. I think a lot of situations, like shooting rock climbing or surfing, for example, go into the two most dangerous situations I can think of. I don’t really put myself in a physically dangerous situation without feeling comfortable with that situation. It’s only through skill. There have been some times where I’ve had my ropes cut or I’ve had some incidents that were dangerous, but those are pretty rare. I’m not really thinking about the danger, I’m just concentrating on the images. If I’m thinking about the danger, then I’m probably not going to be taking the images.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
From a lot of things. I grew up as an artist, so a lot of my inspiration came from painters like Salvador Dalí, Picasso or van Gogh, artists from past generations. Also, was definitely inspired by the rock climbing photographers that came before me like a guy named Greg Epperson, and then Galen Rowell, of course in the outdoor industry. Also Ansel Adams.
There’s a whole truckload of photographers whose work I look at, like Joe McNally and Dan Winters. These are people who shoot stuff in completely different genres that I shoot in. I look at a ton of photography as well. I was really inspired by movies from Hollywood.
Do you think there are limits in post‑production?
I don’t know if there are any limits, really. For me, personally, I try not to add or take anything away from the image. Sometimes I will take a tree out or something like that, but mostly I’m trying to make it look like the scene and how I saw it. Every once in a while, I’ll get creative and make it black or white or tint the image to some degree.
Your work has taken you to many places all over the world. Is there a top three of the best spots?
Yeah, Patagonia in Argentina is probably one of my favorite places in the world. It is crazy beautiful and very difficult to be there because the weather’s really harsh. There’s good rock climbing and trekking and mountaineering, and all kinds of sports down there to photograph. Tahiti is definitely for surfing. Teahupoo has some of the most beautiful waves in the world. Let’s see, a third one. There’s a place called the Bugaboos in Canada. It’s a place where there are 3,000 foot granite fins of rock sticking out of a glacier.
What advice would you give to someone making a start in photography?
The best advice doesn’t have to do with photography itself, but has to do with the business aspect of it, and that is to keep your overhead as low as possible. Meaning, don’t buy the super fancy TV. Live cheaply so that you can spend as much money as possible on your career or at least save up money to help travel more and go to different places to take pictures. That might have been the best advice over and over and over for myself. It’s allowed me to travel to a lot of places I couldn’t afford to if I spent money on like a really fancy TV or furniture or stuff like that.
Michael Clark is an internationally published outdoor photographer specializing in adventure sports, travel, and landscape photography. He produces intense, raw images of athletes pushing their sports to the limit and has risked life and limb on a variety of assignments to bring back stunning images of rock climbers, mountaineers, kayakers, and mountain bikers in remote locations around the world. He uses unique angles, bold colors, strong graphics and dramatic lighting to capture fleeting moments of passion, gusto, flair and bravado in the outdoors. Balancing extreme action with subtle details, striking portraits and wild landscapes, he creates images for the editorial, advertising and stock markets worldwide.