I recently shot an incredibly fun and exciting assignment for Red Bull with the Red Bull Air Force at their training camp just south of Phoenix, Arizona. Having shot with the Red Bull Air Force crew several times before I knew it was going to be an exciting assignment. For this assignment I had to come back with several portraits of each team member as well as lifestyle and action images. The team spent two days at Kirby Chambliss’ ranch where he has his own private airfield, allowing total freedom and privacy for the team to test out new maneuvers while skydiving with and without wingsuits.
The folks at Red Bull Illume saw the images that were uploaded to the Red Bull Content Pool website and contacted me to ask if I could share some tips for shooting skydiving and winsuit flying. Their introduction to that article started out saying, “Photographer Michael Clark recently completed another great shoot in Arizona with the Red Bull Air Force. Shooting B.A.S.E. jumping, skydiving and wingsuit flying is notoriously difficult even for top photographers – so Red Bull Illume caught up with Clark to discuss some pro tips.” You can read the entire article on the Red Bull Illume website.
After the assignment, I had to work up not only the action images of the team, but also close to sixty studio portraits. In all, I spent a few weeks working up all of these images but the end results were worth it. The client was supremely happy and I ended up with some stellar new portraits as can be seen below.
My thanks to Red Bull and the entire Red Bull Air Force team for their help in making these images possible. Also, my thanks to Kirby Chambliss, a world-renown stunt pilot for the Red Bull Air Race, and Team Chambliss for their hospitality and for putting on quite a show while we were out at the ranch. For more on this assignment check out my upcoming Winter 2014 Newsletter, which should be out in the next few weeks.
I usually save product reviews for my Newsletter, but in this case, I have found a product so useful that I just have to get the word out right here on the blog. Get ready for some serious gushing because I am going to praise this product like few others. I would like to introduce you to the Sensor Gel Stick (see image below). Now I know sensor cleaning is not a very exciting topic, but for those that are serious about photography and especially for those shooting video with an HD DSLR, cleaning your sensor is a huge deal. I have spent way too many nights cleaning my sensor at 1 AM for the next day of shooting on an assignment. When you are exhausted and bleary eyed, having to do a wet cleaning several times to get your sensor clean for the next day of shooting is pretty much the last thing I want to be doing.
Before I get into reviewing the Sensor Gel Stick, let me give you some background on my experiences cleaning DSLR camera sensors. I have been shooting with digital cameras since 2003. I started out with a Nikon D70 and very quickly realized that I would have to learn how to clean my cameras sensor in the field if I wanted to continue shooting digital. The reality is that you can’t always send your camera back to the manufacturer to have them clean the sensor. My experience has been that if you do send your camera back to Nikon, Canon, or whoever made your camera, to have them clean the sensor, it will usually come back with just as much dust on the sensor as it did when you shipped it out. The reason for this is that there is dust in the shutter chamber that can and will fall onto the sensor as the camera is bounced around in shipping. Aside from that scenario, I have had to clean my sensors while on assignment where sending it back to Nikon just wasn’t an option. Hence, I have been cleaning my camera sensors since 2003.
I have used just about every product out there. For years, I used VisibleDust products like the Arctic Butterfly brush, the Sensor Brush and all of their wet cleaning solutions. While their products work well, they are quite expensive. Since I clean my camera sensors often, i.e. before every assignment, I tend to go through a lot of sensor swabs and solution. Before I got my Nikon D800 and D4, the VisibleDust products were working just fine for me. But with the D4 and D800 there seems to be a lot more oil around the edge of the sensor, which can massively complicate the cleaning process. With these new cameras, I opted to switch to Sensor Swabs and Eclipse cleaning fluid last year in order to cut down the massive expense of cleaning my cameras sensors.
I also had a very frustrating experience last summer cleaning my Nikon D800. While cleaning the sensor with a Visible Dust Arctic Butterfly brush, I accidentally pulled some oil from the sensors edge onto the sensor. This had happened to me before so I just grabbed my wet cleaning kit and used some swabs and Visible Dust’s Smear Away solution to remove the oil. After a few tries with the Smear Away and some other solutions I could not get the sensor completely clean. I tried everything I knew and the oil just kept moving around on the sensor. I tried cleaning the sensor over twenty times and I used up over $200 worth of sensor cleaning supplies. To say I was frustrated would be a major understatement. And this wasn’t my first rodeo cleaning sensors. I had never had anything like this happen while cleaning camera sensors and I had done hundreds of sessions cleaning my camera sensors. After hours of working on the camera, I ended up sending it back to Nikon to have them clean it. Mind you, this was before a major trip that I wanted to take that D800 on. I ended up taking just my Nikon D4 and no backup camera, which was not optimal. Luckily, it was a personal trip, but still, I wish I would have had the D800 on that trip.
[Note: Nikon did do a great job cleaning the D800 sensor and the entire camera. It did come back with a bit of dust on the sensor but I have since learned to live with a bit more dust on my sensor than I used to with my older model cameras. I must say that it seems Nikon has put more oils around the sensor on the D800 and the D4 than they have with past camera models. I don't think it is as bad as the stories I have heard with the Nikon D600, but as my experience above might indicate, it is an issue with these new cameras. I never had any issues with oil on the sensor with my Nikon D2x or D700s.]
Getting back to the Sensor Gel Stick, when I saw the blog post about the Sensor Gel Stick on the F-Stoppers website, I was very much intrigued. I had never heard about a sticky gel “sensor stick” before and trust me I had done some serious research after my epic sensor cleaning session with the D800. Seeing that Nikon, Canon, Leica, Pentax and many other manufacturers use this same product to clean sensors when you send the camera back to them was all I needed to hear to give it a try. I watched the video on the Photography Life website before I ordered the gel stick and I watched it again before using it on my own cameras. I will say that pressing a sticky gel stick to my camera’s sensor seemed a bit sketchy at first, but seeing a Leica technician do it in the video on the F-stoppers blog helped me get over my reluctance.
My first test was to clean my Nikon D4 sensor. As you can see in the image below, my camera sensor was quite dirty. Before this cleaning, I had just returned from a big Red Bull assignment and apparently the sensor got quite dusty while changing lenses in the windy conditions and mounting the camera on the helmet of a skydiver. Click on the images below to see a larger resolution version of the images.
Above is an image of my Nikon D4 sensor before it was cleaned with the Sensor Gel Stick. As you can see, it was quite dirty. There are huge chunks of dust on the sensor and some of these were also oil spots. Click on this image to see a larger high-resolution version. For a note on how I created these images showing the dust spots on the sensor, please read the last few paragraphs of this blog post.
As you can see in the above image, after one cleaning 99% of the dust was removed from the D4's sensor. There are still a few dust spots on the sensor but for a 20-second cleaning this is phenomenal. The last few remaining dust spots were removed with a second targeted cleaning with the Sensor Gel Stick. Click on the image to see a higher resolution version of this image. For a note on how I created these images showing the dust spots on the sensor, please read the last few paragraphs of this blog post.
As you can see, with one 20-second cleaning the Sensor Gel Stick removed almost all of the dust spots (that were huge I might add) on my Nikon D4′s sensor. There were still a few small dust spots on the sensor after this first cleaning but those were easily removed with another cleaning, where I targeted those areas specifically. Just to be clear here, the cleaning time to get my sensor this clean was less than one-minute. With previous dry or wet cleaning options (as described above) it would easily take 15 minutes or longer to clean my sensor – and that is the best case scenario. With the D4 and D800, I would rarely get the sensor clean with one cleaning using my old wet and dry methods. Another great thing about the Sensor Gel Stick, aside from how well it works, is that it is very difficult to drag oils out onto the sensor because it can’t really get into those areas in the first place. It can also remove oils as well as dust so it has you covered even if you do somehow get oil on your sensor.
So, I am obviously smitten with this product. Is it the perfect solution? Well, it is a great solution but it isn’t perfect. When I cleaned my D800′s sensor, it did a similarly awesome job but I did have to do a wet cleaning to get the sensor fully clean. So, don’t throw out your old methods of cleaning your sensors but I do highly recommend this product and it will save me a truckload of money when it comes to cleaning my camera sensors. At $39.99 per Sensor Gel Stick, this is a hell of a deal. They will last quite a while from what Nasim at Photography Life says, and since it was $45 per box of 12 Sensor Swabs, $40 for the Sensor Gel Stick is looking mighty cheap. My thanks to Nasim and Photography Life for bringing this product to the USA. When I ordered my Sensor Gel Stick a few weeks ago they had over 900 in stock. Now there is a note on their website that they are out of stock on this product so it is obviously popular. You can watch a video of Nasim talking about the Sensor Gel Stick and demonstrating it below.
[Update: I just found out that the $39.99 price was an introductory price and that the price has gone up to $45 for the Sensor Gel Stick. Nonetheless, it is still a great deal and very much worth the money.]
As this product is highly popular, I would suggest putting an order in right now on the Photography Life website. You won’t regret it. This is now my go to sensor cleaning tool and I am overjoyed that we now have a decent way to clean our sensors that is quick and easy. This might just be the best tool to come on the market since the digital camera. I know that is a big statement but it is ridiculous that we have to go to these lengths just to clean our camera sensors. In this day and age of high-tech gadgets, Nikon and Canon should have a wiper blade, or some such device built into every DSLR, that automatically swipes across the sensor and cleans it perfectly with the push of a button. Until that happens, the Sensor Gel Stick is the best tool I have yet found to get your sensor clean.
Before I wind up this blog post, I also want to detail how to check and see if your sensor has dust issues. First, set your camera to aperture priority at the lowest ISO setting possible. Then set the aperture on the lens to the lowest setting, i.e. f/22. Take a photo of a white piece of paper filling the entire frame with the paper. Note that the camera doesn’t have to focus here since we are imaging the sensor, not the paper. I usually turn the autofocus off. You will end up with a gray image since the camera’s exposure meter will make the white paper gray. Now, take that image and download it to a computer, open it in Photoshop and select Image > Auto Tone from the top file menu. Selecting Auto Tone in Photoshop will automatically adjust the levels so you can more accurately see what is on your sensor. This is the technique I use and have been using for ten years or more to see what is on the sensor. The Auto Tone will show you way more dust spots than you can see on just that gray image. I will say that the demonstration shown in the above video and on the F-Stoppers website is sub-optimal for checking your sensor and how much dust is on your sensor. You really need to use the Auto Tone feature in Photoshop to see everything on your sensor when cleaning it.
Earlier this month I was interviewed by Chris Smith, Founder & Host of the Shoot For Thrill Podcast. The podcast is one of the top photography related podcasts in iTunes and focuses on successful photographers that are at the top of their craft who desire to inspire others. During the podcast we talked about how I got started in photography, from my roots as an artist all the way through to starting my career. We also discussed how I go about shooting rock climbing, as an example, and my beginnings shooting surfing out in Hawaii.
In the interview, we discussed some of the struggles I have faced while making a career as an adventure photographer, my successes, and some of the gear I use. You can find the interview on the Shootforthrill.com website. You can also find it on iTunes.
My thanks to Chris for tracking me down and interviewing me. Hope you enjoy the podcast.
I just finished up a big fine art print job for a local client here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This order included both Limited Edition and Open Edition prints, which were printed at 16×24 inches all the way up to 40×60 inches. In the process of printing the larger prints, I was blown away by the image quality of the Nikon D800 and how well it responded to enlargement. For the 40×60-inch prints, I only had to enlarge the Nikon D800 images 147% to get up to 40×60-inches at 180 dpi, which is the resolution I use to print huge prints on my Epson 9880 44-inch printer, as seen above.
As this is the first time I have printed my images at such a large size, it was both an educational experience and a jaw-dropping astonishing experience. The 40×60-inch D800 image shown above looked very similar to the 13×19-inch print of this same image. When I saw the print above roll off the printer I was so blown away it took me a full hour to pick my jaw up off the floor. Honestly, if the D800 could shoot at 8 fps I would never shoot with any other camera. Making such huge prints makes you aware of how careful you need to be with your camera technique. Any tiny error in camera handling results in less than wicked-sharp prints, especially when printing this big. Seeing my images this big is going to help make my images that much better technically.
Also of note, I also printed a 35mm film image at 40×60 inches. I fully expected it to look pretty rough, but because I had a huge resolution film scan it looked quite good. Indeed, it had a lot of grain up close, but overall it looked pretty incredible. It wasn’t anywhere near the quality of the Nikon D800 image up close but overall I was pretty impressed.
All of the image processing, including the enlargement and sharpening, was done in Photoshop. Before printing this job, I did a test between Photoshop and Lightroom to see which software would lead to better overall image quality. The results were that while Lightroom had excellent sharpening techniques it also added quite a bit of noise to the images when they were enlarged. Using Photoshop allowed me to get better overall image quality with less noise and the same dead on sharpening.
For all of these prints I used Ilford Gold Fibre Silk, which is one of my favorite papers. Look for a review of the Ilford papers in the next issue of my Newsletter along with an article on this Fine Art Print job.
“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” - Ansel Adams
Ok, so now that the onslaught of “Best of 2013″ blog posts are starting to appear everywhere I just want to let readers know this is my first of that kind. I am not posting these images to join the club, it is just that this year has been especially creative – more so than perhaps any year I have had before in my career.
For any photographer, pro or amateur, creating a dozen top-notch images is a very good year (as stated above by Mr. Adams). 2013 has turned out to be one of the best years of my career creatively. I shot a lot of new portfolio images this past year. I can’t remember any year prior to 2013 where I updated the images on my website so often. Hence, without further ado, here are a dozen of my best images from 2013.
Dawn Glanc – Ouray, ColoradoIn early February, I set out to create some new ice climbing images for my portfolio. The image above was the result of a lot of thinking, pre-production, and a collaboration with ice climber Dawn Glanc. It is hard to say which of these images are the best of the lot but this one is certainly close to the top of the heap if it isn’t the best image I shot in 2013. Tell me which image you think is the best from this selection in the comments below
Josh Redman – North Shore, Oahu, HawaiiMy good friend Brian Bielmann was kind enough to let me shoot a few images of his friend Josh Redman, a South African big-wave surfer, who stopped by for a few photos before he shaved his beard off. The result was that we both got some stellar images and fed off each other for new ideas and approaches. This is certainly one of the best portraits I have shot this year. My thanks to Brian for letting me shoot a few images and to Josh for looking so cool!
Carlos Munoz – North Shore, Oahu, HawaiiDuring our 2013 Surfing Photography Workshop in February, Brian Bielmann and I hired Carlos Munoz to come out and surf for our class at Rocky Point. As one of the top ariel specialists in surfing he was able to put on quite a show even though the waves were only average. This image was one of a few stellar surf images created during that workshop.
Kohl Christensen – North Shore, Oahu, HawaiiOn the last day of the 2013 Surfing Photography workshop Pipeline kicked up bigger than I have ever seen it. It was a funky day with swells coming in from various directions the wind played havoc with the waves making for very dangerous and difficult conditions for the surfers. Nonetheless, Kohl Christensen rode this wild wave, which turned out to be one of the best shots of the day. Another huge wave rolled in later on and is pictured below (surfer unknown).
Chelsea Yamase – North Shore, Oahu, HawaiiWe also got the chance to work with Chelsea Yamase, a professional model on the North Shore, to shoot some lifestyle images. The results were some ‘classic’ Hawaiian surf lifestyle shots. This is by no means the best image I shot in 2013, but it is a solid lifestyle image and went straight into my portfolio.
Clay Moseley – Los Alamos, New MexicoThis spring, I shot several images specifically for my book Location Lighting for the Outdoor Photographer. The image above was one of those images, and was shot up at the Pajarito Nordic Ski area near Los Alamos, New Mexico. Those who know my work know that I love to show motion in still images – this image was just a new application of my standard motion blur technique with flash.
Thomas – Eaves Movie Ranch, Santa Fe, New MexicoWhile shooting out at the Eaves Movie Ranch this summer I worked with Thomas, a local actor and the manager of the Movie Ranch. This portrait, and the one below, were shot in five minutes while working quickly. While I don’t think either of these images are as strong as the portrait of Josh Redman above, they are new and different than any portraits I have ever shot. I still haven’t decided which is my favorite of the two. I am leaning towards the one above but let me know your favorite in the comments below.
Levi Siver – Gold Beach, OregonIt was an honor to work with Levi Siver earlier this year on a Red Bull shoot in southern Oregon. Levi is a consummate professional and I got hundreds of stellar images on this assignment but this one was the best of the lot. It was chosen by National Geographic as their image of the week when it was released the week after this assignment. My thanks to Levi for all the hard work and to the helicopter pilot for putting me into the perfect position to get this shot. For the behind the scenes story on this assignment check out my Summer 2013 Newsletter.
Cape Sebastion – Gold Beach, OregonJust before the start of the Red Bull Windboost assignment with Levi Siver (pictured above) I spent an afternoon location scouting in and around Gold Beach. I found this spectacular view on Cape Sebastion, which is just south of the city of Gold Beach, Oregon. This image is easily the best landscape I captured in 2013.
Joe Nodeland – Wedge Islands, British ColumbiaMy week-long sea kayaking trip with Joe Nodeland and Tony Hoare was by far the best adventure I had in 2013. This image is my favorite from that trip, though there are many other images from that trip that could be a part of this blog post. A selection of the images from this personal trip have already been published by Red Bull on the Red Bull Adventure website. For a full recounting of this adventure check out my Fall 2013 Newsletter.
Aspens – Kebler Pass, ColoradoWhile on a hike this fall above Crested Butte, Colorado I walked through the largest stand of Aspens on Earth. It was an incredible experience and resulted in this image. While landscape images of Aspens are not worth a whole lot in my genre of photography, I still love this image as it reminds me of how small we are on this planet. This stand of aspens covers a staggeringly huge area and the color of the aspens varied with their altitude creating a kalediscopic array of colors.
Jon Fullbright – Sleeping Beauty, Rio Grande, New MexicoCreated just last month, this shot of Jon Fullbright doing cartwheels in Sleeping Beauty, a surf spot for whitewater kayakers on the Rio Grande, was created using a strobe in late afternoon shade. As with several of these images, I am not sure if I prefer the shot above or this alternate motion blur image below. Let me know what you think in the comments.
There you have it. Thank you for taking a look. I hope 2014 is even more creative than 2013 and I can continue to push the limits of my creativity and create new perspectives and stellar images for all of my clients. My thanks to all of the clients who hired me for assignments in 2013 and to all of the athletes I was honored to work with.
“Michael Clark has many talents but perhaps the most powerful weapon in his arsenal is his ability to accurately capture the grand scale on display in front of him. You can feel the enormous scale in every sport, stunt, and activity he shoots.
Looking at his photos, you can feel how long the fall will be if the climber slips, or if the rider misses his jump. This skill is equal parts impressive and important, as it allows us to share in the rush of the adrenaline-inducing sports he shoots. Except, you know, without risking our lives.”
My thanks to Alan Steadman, the author of the article, and PetaPixel for for the very kind words on my work and for including me in this article. Check the full article by clicking on the link above.
For the last few months, I have been providing Pictureline.com with in-depth Workflow Friday blog posts on the topic of digital workflow. In case you haven’t heard of Pictureline, they are a high-end camera store and rental house based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Each Friday, they feature a new blog post on a digital workflow topic. These “Workflow Fridays” are a series of blog posts that build upon each other and mimic the flow of my very popular e-book, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom: A Professional Photographer’s Workflow. Each of these blog posts details what I consider crucial steps in a solid digital workflow.
While this series of blog posts covers a fairly large swath of a well-thought-out digital workflow they will not, and cannot replace the depth provided by my e-book. Nonetheless, these are a good primer for those looking for tips to advance or enhance their digital workflow. Over the years, I have blogged on the topic of digital workflow for Adobe, O’Reilly, ShootSmarter and a few other companies. Digital workflow has reached a fairly mature state but it is still a constantly evolving area of digital photography. As such, I am happy to share tips and techniques I use on the Pictureline blog.
My thanks to Pictureline for reaching out to me and for making this happen. Stay tuned to Pictureline.com for upcoming blog posts each Friday.
P.S. – Pictureline also published a blog post earlier this week, entitled Michael Clark: Holiday Wish List 2013, which details my “must-have” photo items and gives a brief description of why I find them so valuable for my work. While some of the items on this list are pretty pricey (i.e. A Nikon D800 camera body for example), I have also included some very affordable items like the Lenspen.