Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson rest in a portaledge on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California / Nikon D3S / 100 ISO / 17-35mm f2.8 lens / 500 second / f4.0
Sometimes I feel like I have a dual personality. When I’m 2,000 feet up on El Capitan, the best chunk of granite in the world, shooting some of today’s best climbers in the beautiful evening Yosemite light, I feel like Superman.
But there’s this whole other side of me that feels more like Clark Kent. Let me explain.
Over the years I’ve spent an enormous amount of my time hanging from the sides of cliffs, diving in tropical oceans, skiing steep powder, or floating remote rivers, my camera always in tow. My first love is documenting adventure—those high-test situations in which the outcome is uncertain, to borrow the definition from the legendary climbing pioneer, business man, photographer and friend Tom Frost.
But there’s another part of my professional life that has nothing to do with documenting adventure. I’m still working to creatively tell stories with my camera … only I’m—gasp—indoors in a sea of cubicles!
Let me explain. Through my production company, Novus Select, I work with a number of BIG companies (frequently Fortune 500) around the globe to help tell their stories through both still and motion. Part of the storytelling process frequently involves shooting for some of these enormous companies on their corporate campuses or other company facilities.
Early on, as I tried to get a foot in the door within this world of advertising and commercial photography, I would often hear clients raise this legitimate concern:
“Listen, buddy, I can appreciate that you like to hang off of ropes and shoot in wild places. But that doesn’t mean you can come into these corporate settings”—factories, offices, warehouses, data centers, etc.—”and make that work.”
Eventually, because I really believed this was true, I started responding with, “If I can shoot interesting images in the most dangerous places on the planet, you better believe that I can stand on my own two feet, on concrete, in a temperature- and light-controlled environment, with abundant power available and access to all the equipment I could ever possibly imagine at my disposal, and take a good photo. And believe me; I know how to work with people.”
And it’s true. Obviously, there are far fewer variables to contend with indoors or in a corporate environment than on the side of El Cap, with two exhausted athletes and a storm moving in. First and foremost, in climbing photography, and adventure photography in general, I have to consider my own safety—double checking my knots and that everything is rigged properly. After going through those checkpoints, only then do I begin to think about making pictures, which involves an entirely different set of logistical hurdles, of course.
But there are challenges to shooting, say, a sea of cubicle, too. Compared to an open Yosemite vista, a corporate office offers some pretty tight constraints in which to work. Making a good, if not great, interesting photograph in such a small space is, ironically, quite challenging. I’ve stood on filling cabinets, crawled under desks, reorganized furniture, covered windows, completely transformed the light, and shot through plants in order to spice up the foregrounds. Overall I’ve had to work and push myself hard to find the most compelling, creative ways to capture those interior situations and create authentic moments on demand.
What I think is so cool is how these two very different worlds intersect and even complement each other. I believe shooting in the adventure world helped me become a better commercial / advertising photographer and director, and vice versa.
Take this image of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, two of the world best climbers, sitting on a portaledge 2,000 feet up the Dawn Wall of El Cap. Mid-day on El Cap is a pretty bleak place to be, for free climbers, photographers and filmmakers alike. The sun is relentless. The light horrible. The climbing conditions miserable. At those times of day, we resign ourselves to sitting on the portaledge, hydrating, Facebook-ing and swapping stories as we wait around for the blinding heat to pass.
Well, the climbers do. I never put my camera down! Even when it’s hot and there’s no action happening, I still work to make pictures.
Every climber probably knows the cliche photograph of a portaledge. From a position of about 45 degrees up and right, or up and left, the photographer shoots down on two climbers on the portaledge, using a wide-angle lens in order to include the Valley floor below. But that shot has been shot to death!
In order to capture Tommy and Kevin “sky lounging” in a new way, I treated the portaledge as if it were a cubicle. Using the type of creativity I might employ in a corporate or commercial environment, I decided to get down underneath the portaledge and shoot from an unexpected position. I spent about 15 minutes arranging ropes, fussing with my jumars, and clipping the appropriate amount of camera gear to my harness in order to have everything I’d need once I got into position.
Under the portaledge, I was pleased to discover that this vantage offered me a way to really appreciate just how airy, if intimate, it feels to be sitting on a tiny, little canvas rectangle, way up the side of El Cap. I used a 17-35mm f/2.8 lens and intentionally shot wide open at f/4.0, with at 1/500h shutter speed and 100 ISO, making the background slightly out of focus and therefore adding depth and dimension.
Instead of getting the same cliche portaledge shot, or just idling around while we waited for it to cool down, I was happy to find a new way to capture an old scenario. Though I have to admit, maybe the best part was getting my face out of the sun and into this little bit of shade underneath the portaledge.
As photographers and filmmakers, we tend to define ourselves in narrow, specific ways. Some may call themselves portrait photographers, or landscape photographers, or bird photographers. I prefer to think of myself as an adventure photographer and filmmaker.
But what I’ve learned is that these self-imposed adjectival descriptions might also be scaring us away from new, completely unfamiliar opportunities. After all, regardless of what we love to shoot, we’re all really just people who use cameras to tell great stories. Those skills that you’ve acquired in your chosen field can be applied anywhere. If you’re a landscape photographer, try shooting product indoors, and vice versa.
So don’t be afraid to step outside your box—even if it means stepping into a corporate one. In fact, you might be surprised to discover how similar the two worlds are, and even how much the new one has to teach you.