Choose your own aperture
can do, especially the climbers and the surfers,” he said in a recent interview. “Last December, I was traveling the whole month, but I had a shoot set up in Hawaii, and it just so happened that the biggest wave in 40 years came while I was there. It was a contest that’s held every four or five years, whenever the waves are big enough. I’m not a surf photographer per se — obviously, since I live in New Mexico — but that was the biggest big-wave surfing comp in the history of the world, and I was there.”
A Santa Fe resident since 1996, Clark grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. His parents pointed him toward art school when they noticed that, as a very young child, he could “draw things photographically. Photography was just another thing I took. We didn’t even have photography at my high school, but I asked one teacher who happened to be a photographer, and he set up a darkroom for us.”
His first camera was the classic Olympus OM-1 SLR, which he used to shoot football and basketball games. His university studies and subsequent employment in physics took him away from photography — but only temporarily, until he got sick of physics.
His work in traditional photography ended seven years ago, when he made the switch to digital. He now only rarely chooses to use a film camera. “I still do shoot with the Hasselblad once in a while,” he said. “There are some portraits I do where I want a super-shallow depth of field, and you can only do that with the bigger-format camera.”
Besides that, he doesn’t miss the film-oriented equipment and processes in the least — “except for the permanence of the film,” he said, “because I have lost almost an entire shoot through multiple hard-drive failures. Two hard drives failed, and one was corrupted within a 24-hour period. I don’t know what the chance of that is, but that [permanence] was film’s beauty.”
Another big issue is the deterioration of images stored on compact discs. Clark keeps all of his photo files on four separate hard drives. “I work closely with Adobe on their software,” he said. “I used to be a physicist, so that’s why I’m into the gear and the digital workflow. The trick is to keep it all backed up and use software to check your files.”
Clark has a new book called Adventure Photography: Capturing the World of Outdoor Sports. He also teaches workshops around North America on the Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3.0 software.
“I’m a real stickler for quality,” he said. “I did a lot of testing before I switched over to digital. The 12-megapixel cameras I shoot with give you the equivalent of medium-format film. There are technical advantages in digital. Nikon’s new D3S can shoot at an ISO of 102,400. Just amazing!”
That compares to the one-time top film speed of 400, which afforded the photographer a little more leeway in low-light situations. The higher the ISO number, the better your ability to make a picture in darker conditions.
“There’s one shot on my website that shows a helicopter shining a spotlight on the ocean, and that was shot at 6,400 ISO,” Clark said. “You could never take that shot with film. That was way after twilight, like at the last vestige of light.
“That was shooting a search-and-rescue team for Men’s Fitness. They were super-elite search-and-rescue guys. I was hanging off the bottom of the helicopter. We did all kinds of crazy stuff.”
Michael Clark: Colin Shadill freeriding the ridges at a secret area near Nambé, New Mexico