Featured Photographer – Clay Cook

Each month we feature a DT customer who’s doing exciting and interesting work in the world of photography to answer 12 questions and give us a peak into their world. This month we’re excited to feature Clay Cook.

Photographer, Clay Cook, has learned the importance of going the extra mile, after a long, arduous run in the music business. As a result, his wisdom, field experience and work ethic has pushed him further into an inspiring career in Editorial, Advertising & Portrait photography.

Describe your approach to photography— What makes your work unique? What makes a good image?

My style can be defined as organic but with a clean, distinct bold flair. Someone once compared my work to “Goat Cheese,” I took that as a compliment. I use color to best describe the mood and simplistic lighting to add contrast. I used to want every image perfect, until I began to travel the world and experiment with photojournalistic street-style photography. The adventures throughout Africa, India and the Middle East altered the way I viewed portraiture and changed how I approach a photograph, whether it be an editorial portrait or an advertising campaign.

What inspires you? Who are your influences?

I am inspired by everything. I am always looking for new ways to push myself and my art. I draw inspiration from life, I believe the experiences you go through in life shape and craft your creative eye. One photographer will photograph the same person very differently to how another photographer will and that fascinates me, I love the idea of creating a story through an image and as a photographer, you get to be the author of that story. As far as particular photographers, I’ve always been drawn by Annie Leibovitz, Norman Jean Roy, Miller Mobley, Kristian Schuller and Art Streiber’s images among others. In the end, I believe the connection you have with your subject is what makes or breaks the photograph and they are masters of that connection.

What was your first camera?

I started with a Nikon D5000, then transitioned to a Nikon D7000, then a Canon 5D Mark III, now a Phase One IQ3. Scattered over the years and depending on the job, I’ve used the Sony A7RIII, Canon G7X Mark II, Mamiya RZ67 or a Nikon D800.

Can you think of the first time you realized the camera you owned was holding you back?

I don’t need a Phase One. I don’t need Profoto lighting. I love my Canon 5D Mark III system, however the more and more I sunk into the world of advertising the more I realized I needed specific tools that not only produced a great quality image but raised the level of my brand value. Advertising agencies know camera equipment. They know about Phase One or Hasselblad medium format, because that is what top professionals have used for decades. The transition for me was sparked after a conversation with a client that knew I had used the system in the past and expected on their project. I didn’t have it, nor budgeted for it. While the Canon 5D Mark III delivered a great product, I left the conversation with a sense that expectations weren’t met with the client. So, the follow week I crunched some numbers and made the biggest investment in my entire photography career. It was an investment into the quality of my work, but more importantly the value of my brand. I haven’t looked back. I truly believe that the sensor size of medium format and the dynamic range provides a sharp, more painterly final product, but it’s a heavy camera designed to be used in a controlled setting. I have used the system in some of my documentary work in Tanzania, Africa, but that situation calls for more of a workhorse run-and-gun camera. No camera is perfect, that’s why I’m fortunate enough to have a small selection depending on the project at hand.

What’s a photography-related purchasing decision or experience that you regret?

That old saying “You get what you pay for” couldn’t be truer. I like to purchase top-notch product, so that way I won’t have to buy it twice. I think a lot of photographers don’t see the big picture when purchasing equipment. They purchase a cheap product for what works for that moment, then it falls apart. Once it falls apart, they realize they depend on that product, so they have to purchase a better-quality brand. Therefore, they just bought the same product twice. No doubt, early in my career I was sucked into the gimmick world of low-end photography products, such as flash diffusers or light stands, but much of that I later transformed much of that gear into DIY handy tools to have around set.

How did you make the transition to professional photography, and how did making a living from photography impact your style of shooting?

You have to go back to my teenage years when I first got into video, music and art. I believe my passion for everything “creative” stemmed from my mother who studied to be an interior designer and the business side of me came right from my Father who owns and operates a successful flooring distribution company. Eventually, I really started to get into the creative side of music. The rush and the adrenaline that music like Metallica and Nirvana gave me was unmatched, it was something movies could not do. It formed into a deep passion of mine and spent the following 10 years pursuing a career in music. During that time on the road, I ran into many photographers, some better than others, but I had a grand respect for the art of photography. By 2007, Some of my passion for music had swayed into the world of Adobe Photoshop and graphic design. I designed flyers, album artwork, websites and even edited others bands images. By the time our band had split in 2010, I decided I wanted to take on graphic design full time and started inquiring about DSLR cameras to shoot my own stock photography. December of 2010, I received my first DSLR camera, a Nikon D5000 as a Christmas gift. Never did I imagine it would completely change my life.

Over the course of my early career, I experienced a lot of creative burnouts, but everything seemed to change the first time I was hired to shoot a humanitarian story in Tanzania, Africa. It was one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever been asked to do, and it sparked a new fire that remains lit today.

What was your most difficult project?

I’ve been on some very tough assignments all over the world. I think one of my most stressful assignments wasn’t because of the production itself more of the potential risk that came along with it. In May of 2017, I went to Iraq to shed light on one of the thousands of families, who were finally returning to their war-torn home in Qaraqosh, Iraq: a small city near Mosul, Iraq. Our focus was not war, but those rising up in the aftermath. There was a lot of fear and mental anguish that was attached to the thought of the assignment beforehand, but after much thought I knew the regret would be greater than the risk.

If you had to do a project using the bare minimum of equipment, what would you bring?

I’m very particular when it comes to my pack, especially on assignments in developing countries or conflict zones. The lightest pack I’ve ever carried was actually to Iraq and included one Canon 5D Mark III, one Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT , one Profoto Shallow White Umbrella, a Benro ProAngel Aluminum Series 4 Monopod and one Think Tank Photo Cable Management pouch filled with accessories . All in a logo-less Swiss Army backpack. I lined the backpack with Velcro and placed inserts to guarantee all the camera equipment would remain secure.

What’s the most interesting/surprising/invaluable thing you keep in your equipment bag?

The obvious answer would be the camera itself, but beyond that I really depend on the Anker Powerhouse Portable Generator. It provides plenty of power for all our accessories that need a fresh charge.

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started out?

There are three types of photographers: those that rely on instinct and sunlight, those that rely on post processing, and those that excel at artificial lighting and formalities. Some of the best photographers are chameleons that shine in all three areas. As an editorial and advertising photographer, I love lighting, rigging, and all mechanics involved with photography. For many months, the subject came second to setup. But as an artist you need to ask yourself–what does the image mean to the viewer and how will they relate to it? I had spent half my career focused on the technical, but in a selfish manner I totally ignored the most important virtue of a photograph–the subject in front of the lens. It is the one thing I wish I had known; it’s not about the gear or the camera, it’s about your creativity, vision and ability to connect with people. Yes, you own the image, but take into consideration who is watching first.

Do you have a “Passion Project” that you enjoy working on in your free time?

I do my best to fit in a personal project once a quarter. Whether that be a simple test or a concept series. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. However, much of the global focus work I do really “fuels the fire.” It’s extremely rewarding to help people with the talent I’ve been blessed with.

What’s your favorite book/movie/album that you’ve experienced recently?

I’d say these are some standouts I’ve watched/listened/read recently.

  • Movie: A Quiet Place
  • Documentary: City Of Ghosts
  • Book: Lion: A Long Way Home (Also, great movie)
  • Album: RY X – Dawn


See more of Clay’s work at www.claycookphoto.com or follow him online at @ClayCookPhoto