Adam Clark began his professional photography career 20+ years ago as a ski photographer and went on to become one of the most well-known in the industry. He’s since added video to his services and successfully widened his reach to include a host of non-ski clients like Yamaha, REI and GoRVing.
We met Adam at his house on the southern edges of Salt Lake City and at the base of the Wasatch Range, just a quick drive to some of the best skiing in North America. Outside there’s a large camper van in front and a lovely garden out back. Inside at the far end of the hall is his office where his shelves are stacked with gear and his filing cabinets are filled with organized slides. His massive printer, too large for his office, lives in his fianceé’s studio in the room next door.
Can you give us a brief overview of your background?
I’m 50/50 photo and video. I’ve been doing photography for 22 years. I still love it and have a ton of passion for it and it’s what I do as a hobby and profession. Every way you can do it, I just love photography.
I got into video when the Canon 5D came out just because it had a video function. I also think it’s ‘cause the guy who got me into photography in high school, one of my best friends Bridger Nielson, was in L.A. and he’s become a really great filmmaker. He’s always been an influence.
I wasn’t interested in video at all. I would just get random clips. But I think over the years of working with TGR [Teton Gravity Research] and MSP [Matchstick Productions] and just being constantly surrounded by other filmmakers, it just seeped into my system. And eventually, I woke up one day and I was like, I love video. It came out of nowhere.
Do you see shifting to more video? Is there more of a demand for it?
50/50 works really well and it’s a very conscious decision. Most of the time I look for jobs I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of. And for me, that’s going out into the mountains with really fun people and coming back with really cool content. But I still have to take some commercial work to help pay the bills and I try to take as many commercial jobs as I can that pay really well.
Offering photo and video gives me the most access to the type of work I want and that’s why I do it. If a client comes to me and is like, This is the job outline, I want to be able to say, Yes, I can do that. Whatever it is.
That’s kind of my goal so I don’t have to go back to doing the type of work I don’t want to do. I want to have as many skills as possible to do the type of work I love. Because at the end of the day, there’s not that much work for photographers or videographers to go backcountry skiing and there’s a lot of people trying to get that work. So I just wanted to set myself up to get as much of that work as possible – whether it’s because I like it, the timing works or because I want to stay at home.
What are some of the downsides to doing video?
Some days I wake up and I’m like, Man, I wish I never got into it because it’s so much more work. Photography is, I feel, much simpler as a business. Some days I wish I just stayed on that course. You go out, you take photos. It’s really easy to keep it all under your own umbrella. I don’t have to hire people, I don’t need assistants.
For a lot of the video work, you really need to have a team to create and get that final product everybody is stoked on. Of course there’re tons of ways to shoot video personally and edit yourself, but for me, I found it’s always worked better when I have other filmers, producers and editors. And when I have that team, it’s really cool what we come up with.
Are your teams constantly shifting? How does that work?
When I look at my 5-year plan or whatever, one of the things I still really prefer and really like is not having any employees. I want to be able to cut off the income stream and not have a worry in the world. I want to be able to say no to jobs that I want to say no to. So for me, it’s always project by project.
What are your major tools of choice for photography and video?
I have a problem. [Laughter.] I have way too much. They’re all really specific for each job.
I have my Canon setup, which is the most trustworthy. I know it’s going to work in bad weather, wet weather, auto-focus action.
Mostly what I use is a Sony, that’s my go-to. It’s awesome, it does everything. I can do photo and video with it. In that next generation of Sonys the batteries are way better. The first generation of Sonys, they all failed on me with moisture and stuff, so I’m hoping the new Sonys will get to that level of the Canons. I think they’re pretty close.
My Sony setup is awesome because I do a lot of backcountry stuff and it’s lighter. And then a lot of times I’m shooting photo and video together, which that’s great for. The Canons, I’m not a fan of the video. The Sonys I love.
For commercial work, I have a RED. I love that camera. If I could, I would take it everywhere, but I can’t. So the RED is my favorite video camera for sure. It’s amazing. But half the time I just rent it out, I don’t even use it because it’s too heavy. The actual RED [photo] camera isn’t that bad, but you have lenses and then the six or seven batteries you need and it’s just way too much weight.
Who rents it and how do they know you have it?
The rental houses in Salt Lake have a list of local people who have them. And I give my filmmaker friends a good deal on it so they’re happy to rent it.
What do you use for software?
I still do use Bridge for my base editing and then Lightroom for the metadata and tweaking. And then Premiere for all my video editing.
Your first published photo was in Powder magazine. What year was that?
I think about ’97, because that’s when I graduated high school. That’s when I first started getting photos published.
After that image was published, you went on to become one of the most prolific and influential ski photographers in the world. What do you feel you did differently from other photographers to rise to the top and become a go-to photographer for Powder and other media outlets?
The one thing that rises to the top — regardless of photography, video or anything artistic — that I think would answer anything is that I did what I really love to do. And I think, as cliché as it sounds, it totally works.
I just loved it so much. I worked really hard and hard work pays off. A lot of people I worked for in the industry, their feedback to me was that I was always available, always there, always came in on time.
A lot of people in the creative world aren’t on time and I learned really quickly to be on time with everything. It’s really easy to procrastinate and be a day or a week late. A person who’s not on time, their photos might even be a little bit better, but when you’re somebody in an office dealing with 40, 50, 100 different creatives, the people who are on time, I think it really makes a difference.
So doing what I love and being on time, those seem to be the magic combo for me.
You’ve also mentioned the importance of being persistent and constantly being in front of everyone. Were you often reaching out to a lot of different companies?
Yeah, I think you get what you ask for. You have to go out on a limb, whether that’s creatively or socially. It’s different for everybody, but at some point you’re going to have to do something you maybe don’t feel totally comfortable with.
For me, it was cold calling photo editors and reaching out to athletes I never met before and saying, My name is Adam, I want to shoot photos of you, which for me was really hard and awkward. For some people, that part is easy. Luckily, in Salt Lake, a lot of my friends ended up being professional skiers so it kind of made it easy for me.
But it’s even the same when you’re dealing with some of your first photo sales and you have to ask for a good amount of money. That was hard too.
So those were some of the barriers I have, putting myself out there socially and also believing my photography was worth money.
When did you decide to go full time and how did you know it was time to do that?
Yeah, it was pretty clear for me. I was selling photos out of high school, working at Alta’s Rustler Lodge as a dishwasher, being a total ski bum. I was like, All right, time to go to college now.
I went to college for a semester in Montana, the end of the semester came, it was snowing and I was like, I’m done. I’m quitting college and I’m going to go try to be a professional photographer.
So I moved back to Utah, had the talk with my mom, got the job with Rustler Lodge again and just totally went for it. It was motivating to go to college and realize, Well, I can always go back, I guess, if I wanted to. But I’m going to really try to do the ski photography thing.
Was your mom supportive?
Yeah, yeah. She was pretty bummed, she wanted me to go to college, but she was very supportive. Whereas my dad was like, Woo! Sounds awesome, have fun!
How long did you have to juggle the side jobs until you felt like, Okay, I can support myself just with photography?
In high school, I did summer commercial fishing in Alaska and spent two winters at the Rustler Lodge. The second winter, I got fired. I went through probably— I don’t know, way too many busboy jobs. Like, 20 of them. I’d take a job for a few weeks and then I’d go travel. I did that through that next summer and the next fall.
And then with the money I got from fishing, and my grandma gave me $10,000 to go to college I never used, I bought this house. Four bedrooms. I filled up three, sometimes four of the bedrooms with other people. So at that point, my mortgage was covered and I didn’t really need to work for other people anymore. I was making just enough money to get by.
So you could focus 100% on your photography.
100%, yeah. And that kind of worked. You could say I was making a living in the sense I didn’t have another job, but it wasn’t very much money.
I remember I was in Haines, Alaska, and went to the grocery store. We were living out of a hotel and heli-skiing and I’d given this woman my credit card and she was like, Declined. I was like, How about this one? Declined. How about this one? All of them declined.
I totally went out on a limb with credit cards and following TGR around, doing all of that. I came home and sold my mountain bike, my car, everything. Luckily, I had a girlfriend at the time who would drive me around. I called my mom and was like, Mom, I don’t have any money and I’m not going to ask you for money, but could you take me to the grocery store?
So I was making a living as a photographer but it took me a while to get past that point too, where I was really, like, making it. Probably another year or two.
That’s part of the story, having to sell all those things just to keep it going.
Yeah. And it was easy then. People tell me now they want to quit their job and become a photographer and maybe they have a family or bills to pay. I didn’t have anything to deal with. I could put all my eggs in one basket. It felt totally natural and fine. I could say yes to everything as long as the credit cards worked.
Which of your skills have had the biggest impact on your career?
The skill I’m proud of, for skiing, is I got good at getting something great even with bad snow, bad skiing, bad light, maybe a bad skier, whatever. That’s when I kind of realized I was becoming a good photographer – when I didn’t have to rely on amazing action and was constantly able to create something of value regardless of the conditions. Because if somebody is jumping off a huge cliff or doing some crazy trick, you’re going to get a good photo of it.
The skill I’m now prouder of is that I was really smart with my money. Once I paid off my credit cards, I played it really safe and became very budget-oriented so when there were dry spells with my career, it wasn’t a big deal.
I became very conscious of how I was spending my money. Because if you don’t have much money you need to spend, you don’t need to make that much. And that really worked for me and got me through the next five years.
Were there any resources you looked to for that?
Probably my mom. I’m sure she gave me some great advice.
And not being seduced by all the new gear all the time, that was the hardest one. And also not being seduced by traveling all the time. It’s really expensive and I found that when I was always gone, I definitely wasn’t focusing on the business side of it. I was only focused on the creative side, which I personally couldn’t afford. I had to give myself time to focus on the business because the better I did at business, the more time I had to be creative and not be stressed out about it. It’s weird to say that now, but it really makes a big difference. It really helped me out.
How did your expenses break down for travel compared to what you might spend on gear or other things?
When I first started out, it was all on travel. One body, three lenses and that was it. I spent everything else on travel.
What about now?
Now I spend more money on gear. But I don’t spend my own money to travel for work, which I did a lot of getting started. I pretty much only travel for work if somebody else is paying for it.
Smart. You also earned that.
Yeah, I mean, it’s nice now, I get to say no to stuff. Whereas before, I didn’t have that luxury.
What’s something you struggle with?
I think balance is the part I struggle with the most.
I mean, I think it’s really easy to go down the rabbit hole, especially when you really love your job. So you have all these different inputs in life that are really positive. Maybe you’re making money, you’re getting good feedback, you’re getting traction with your business.
For me, I was traveling and meeting all these really cool people. It’s definitely easy to overdo it. I guess it’s what you want in life too. Some people love it and I definitely loved that nomadic lifestyle for a while. But for me, it started to become unhealthy, it was just too much of everything.
When it comes to business, are there any resources or people you can turn to when you encounter problems?
Yeah, Salt Lake has tons of great photographers and filmers, and some of them are very open about money or experiences they’ve had. Some people are still very closed about it, which is fine.
I always look toward other people in my industry. Even if I haven’t met them, most people are usually very receptive to an email or a phone call.
Do you also find you’re referring business to these people? Maybe it’s like, I’m not the right guy for this job, but this person is.
Yeah, I think that’s one of the perks of having a network of other creatives. It also goes back to wanting to be able to say yes if a client comes to me, no matter what. Because sometimes that means me finding another person for them to hire. So whatever service I can be to somebody, I want to be that person. And I have the luxury of saying no a lot more and I do say no a lot. Because I can’t travel like I used to.
So there are a lot of great people out there I’d love to recommend and every now and then, that comes back and I get recommended. It’s pretty rare, but it does happen. And when it’s the right job, I’m so stoked.
Are people finding you by word-of-mouth or are you still pretty active with your outreach?
Yeah, if I have free time, I definitely am reaching out to potential clients. Sometimes it’s just, Hey, how’s it going? if I’ve hung out with them before.
One of the things I found that’s good for me creatively and for business is, I’ll put together an idea and create something. Maybe I’ll go shoot some photos and put together an idea that’s really clear and written out. And instead of just saying, Hey, I want to work for you, it’s more like, Hey, let’s make this together. I’ve had a lot of luck with that. You’re not just giving somebody an idea, but you’re giving them an idea on how to make it happen. It’s a lot of work upfront, but it’s really good training and a good way to think.
It’s good advice. It makes it easier for people to say yes when everything is already put together.
Exactly. And luckily, my fiancée is a graphic designer and she’s also a woodblock printer, so she’s really good at helping me with that stuff. I can give her some content and she can put it together and make it look good. Presentation is important.
Going back to travel, a lot of people don’t realize just how much money you have to put in yourself on the front end for it to pay off on the back end. What exactly were you paying for in the beginning?
Most of the ski trips I did starting out, I would have to pay for all my travel, food, heli time – everything. Which is really expensive. I would do 20 days with TGR and it would be $17,000 or something. They’re big, really expensive trips and really hard to pay back and then make money.
But sometimes it worked. Sometimes it worked really well. Sometimes I’d finish a trip and it was one of the best trips of the season for everybody and sponsors would want photos of all the athletes. Then sometimes I’d finish the trip and break even. At the start I didn’t care, I felt it was still a win if I could break even and come back with great photography. I was totally fine with that.
All those companies are really gracious in the sense that if there was an opportunity, they would always hand it over. Every now and then something would fall in my lap where everything was paid for. Or maybe everything was paid for plus a little bit. Or maybe there was one sponsor in particular who was like, We’ll pay for you and we’ll pay you.
So it was a combination of all of them, but I mostly stopped doing that because it’s such an emotional wave of everything. When people would pay you upfront and you’d come back with nothing because you didn’t even go skiing because it rained for ten days, that feels bad. That’s the hard part with skiing, for sure.
You’ve worked with some of the most successful brands in the outdoor industry like The North Face, REI and Smith, as well as non-endemic brands like Yamaha guitars, GoRVing and Travel Oregon. How do you approach the marketing you do to those companies?
Yeah, so me as a marketing person, I try to have as wide a net as possible. So I did the Yamaha thing because they work with Bluerock and I fit with what Yamaha was looking for.
It’s weird how stuff seems like it comes out of the blue. But it’s usually because you’ve done something. Whether you went to a party or you emailed somebody and they changed jobs or you followed up with somebody and maybe they didn’t reply to you for years, but they remembered you.
Just because somebody doesn’t reply to you doesn’t mean they don’t like you or your work. I just try to keep current with everybody I like to work with because they end up somewhere out there in the world. Maybe they don’t work for a ski company anymore, but they work for a guitar company.
So when you do get the commercial work, how do you handle pricing?
Pricing is really hard. I rely on other people – my friends and peer groups. It’s really important because it’s easy to lowball yourself and it’s easy to ask for too much. I really believe there’s a sweet spot and it’s important to figure that out.
Some people, like Patagonia, they usually have set rates. But then you go outside of the box – maybe you’re doing a video project or a ten-day expedition – and those rates change all of a sudden because they don’t have set rates for that stuff.
So it’s always figuring it out. It seems like it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it for. It’s one of the hardest things of all, for sure.
Do you have any retainers with companies? A way to make sure there’s predictable revenue each year?
Yeah, I’ve had retainers over the years. I’ve never had a retainer last longer than a year. It’s always been a year contract. And they’ve always been local. People who can call me and I can drive to the office, pick something up and shoot it.
How do you handle contracts?
I try to keep my contracts as simple as possible. They can get really complicated and if I get a multi-page contract from a client, I usually try to refuse it. Because there’s going to be something in there that can screw you over time. So I like to keep it as simple as a certain amount of photos or video and usage and call it good. But they can get, obviously, way more complicated than that.
I’ve never personally had a bad experience with a contract. But there are a lot of them out there and photography gets used in ways you didn’t think it was supposed to.
If somebody sends you a multi-page contract, you need a lawyer to read that for you unless you have some kind of experience with it. They need to read it to you and you need to decide if that’s something you want to do, which ends up being a lot of work.
When you’ve refused, are clients usually pretty good about accepting the one you send in return or do you sometimes have to drop the job?
So far I’ve never had anybody refuse the work because of that. Everybody has been fine with it. They’re doing their job with their lawyers trying to make it happen, whereas I just like to keep it as simple as possible. And I think I’ve always been fair to work with also. I’ve never tried to take advantage of huge corporations, because that’s usually where they come from.
Do you copyright your work?
No. Everybody should copyright their work. If your work is stolen and it’s not copyrighted, it’s a lot harder to sue somebody.
So why don’t you?
Because it’s a lot of work.
Yes, and it’s gotten more expensive too.
And it’s gotten more expensive, exactly.
I have a little bit of trust in the universe. Whatever happens, happens. You know, you read about those crazy stories of photographers who have a photo stolen, they’ve copyrighted it, they go to court and they get a million-dollar check and, like, Wow, that would be cool. But at the same time, that’s not how I want to make a living, by going to court.
I had people steal my photos and paid lawyers to write them letters and 50/50 I’ve gotten money out of it. I’ve never taken it past writing a letter because then it’s pretty expensive to continue to pursue it.
I write a letter where it’s like, You broke the law, you owe me money, this is my lawyer. They can easily never reply, never say anything, then you have to keep pursuing. I never kept pursuing. But sometimes you write that letter and whoever at the company sees it is like, Well, let’s pay him. I’ve always just asked for fair value, nothing more, nothing less.
Caroline Gleich, Wasatch Mountains, UT. Utah has A LOT of backcountry users, so I end up doing a lot of Sunrise ski touring to get good light, but also just untracked snow. This is a peak just across the street from Alta and Snowbird. –Adam Clark
You’ve mentioned before that photographers Chris Noble, Lee Cohen and Scott Markewitz have been role models of yours. Can you tell us how those relationships were formed over the years?
Yeah, so Chris Noble was the first guy who took me into his house and let me ask questions. I was with my friend Bridger Nielson, the guy I went to high school with. We both went in there and Chris was like, What do you guys want to know? Which was awesome.
Lee is great because—just the way he talked about photography and skiing. I have a ton of respect for him because I grew up skiing at Alta and he was the guy. He was always really nice to me and would always answer my questions as well as he could. Lee is somebody I could talk to about photography and it would get me excited, which is really important. You want to be excited. You want that enthusiasm. And he has it.
Somebody like Scott Markewitz is a role model because he’s the person I could look at and be like, This is possible. It’s not just some figment of my imagination. This guy makes a great living and does what he wants to do. He didn’t have a lot of intentions to help me as a photographer. But as a role model, he was perfect because people would speak highly of him and I’m like, Okay, I can do that. I realized there are some other things I can do to help myself besides just being a good photographer.
How do you decide when to turn down work?
Most of the work I say no to is because of travel. It’s because I love my home, my fiancée, the dog, I’m happy when I’m home. I still totally love traveling, but at one point I was traveling ten months out of the year. Now I’m down to probably 2 ½ – 3 months out of the year. Much more manageable.
Every now and then a job comes up I can’t say no to. It doesn’t matter what’s going on, I say yes. Usually because it pays well and it’s really fun.
How much work do you do outside of the ski industry?
A fair amount. I’d say, like, half now. Maybe more.
Is that work mainly here in the Salt Lake area?
Yeah, most of it is around here. I’ve had to get away from being a ski photographer to make enough work for me in Utah. I can’t just be a ski photographer if I just do shoots in Utah. I could do it, but I think I probably wouldn’t make much money.
Do people contact you to buy prints of your work?
Yeah, I get requests for prints all the time and I actually have a print room in my house, but that’s turned into a lot of work that isn’t my favorite kind of work. It’s awesome, it feels good to send that print off that somebody is going to put on their wall. But the actual task of printing and making it look good is— you need a print tech and I’m not one.
So I think I’ll probably end up doing one of those websites like SmugMug where you can create your portfolio and they do all the printing. I usually give people a really good deal who are asking me personally for prints, but honestly, I’ll probably set my prices a little bit higher.
What’s your creative process like?
A lot just comes from the inspiration of being outside and finding the light. That’s my favorite way.
But when I’m doing, say, a commercial shoot where I’m shooting somebody inside, then I’m trying to be a really curious little kid who really wants to know what every little thing is. I try to not think about the client or the model but really, What could be interesting in this scene? There must be something. And just following that around until I find something cool. I really have to zone everything else out and not think about what a good photo should be. But like, What’s this thing in my hands? Who is this person?
Are there any other outside influences that affect your creative process? Whether it’s music, other artists you see, objects, things like that?
I try to curate what I look at to be inspiring. There’s the website A Photo Editor, he sends out people’s new work that’s sent to him. I really like that, it’s really diverse. Social media can be super inspiring, but there’s so many it’s a blur. There’s so much great work out there.
What type of work are you most interested in for the future?
I haven’t done as much personal work as I would like to. So I hope there will be some more time for that in the future.
Interview edited for length and clarity. Artist’s work courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. Photos of the artist and space by Kim Olson.
- Yamaha Guitars
- Go RVing
- Powder Magazine
- Bridger Nielson – filmmaker and friend from high school
- Teton Gravity Research (TGR)
- Matchstick Productions (MSP)
- Drew Petersen – freeskier
- The North Face
- Smith Optics
- Travel Oregon
- Tim Durtschi – freeskier
- Caroline Gleich – ski mountaineer
- Chris Noble – photographer
- Lee Cohen – photographer
- Scott Markewitz – photographer
- Alta Ski Area – Utah ski area
- SmugMug – create an online portfolio to showcase and sell work
- A Photo Editor – inspirational influence