Imagery from the cutting edge
He hangs from cliffs and dives out of helicopters. Whenever and where ever there is adventure, David Clifford is in his element.
“Send Clifford! He’s always willing to charge the machine gun nest. Not only that – he always gets the best images I’ve ever seen.” This statement about David “Cliffy“ Clifford comes from Duane Raleigh, publisher of Rock and Ice Magazine and one of the world’s best climbers. One shouldn‘t take his statement literally, however, as Clifford doesn’t do war photography. Instead, he follows world-class athletes in climbing, running, and skiing preferably in his hometown of Carbondale, Colorado. And when Clifford does one of his spectacular adventure shoots, there’s always plenty of adrenaline involved.
Five lenses have already crashed into the abyss over Clifford’s 25-year photography career. That’s remarkably little for someone who prefers to hover over the ocean with two-three cameras dangling from his neck and secured with only one rope. But he can’t afford equipment failure. That’s why Clifford has relied on ZEISS lenses since the beginning of his career. He used the Distagon T* 2/35, still his favorite lens, on his camera, and around half of his photographs today are taken with this lens. “I first heard of ZEISS lenses when I was in college. Ever since then I have dreamed of being able to represent this company.” That dream came true: in 2014 Clifford was appointed ZEISS Camera Lens Ambassador, making him one of only a handful of photographers worldwide to have this distinction. “It is such a big honor for me.”
Today, the 45-year-old takes pictures with various digital full-frame cameras. The contents of his lens bag have grown, too. When he’s on a shoot, the Distagon T* 2,8/15, Distagon T* 2/25, Distagon T* 2/35, Planar T* 1,4/50, Planar T* 1,4/85, Apo Sonnar T* 2/135 and Makro-Planar T* 2/50 are always with him.
Good photos require good planning. But sometimes reality gets in the way of that. This was the case during an epic hike he took with his friend Ben Ruck in the Purple Mountains in Colorado. After six and a half hours of hiking, they realized they had made a wrong turn. “We were somewhere up at 4,000 meters where we didn’t even want to be,” recalls Clifford. To add insult to injury, the drone with an action cam attached, which had been intended to take pictures of Ben climbing, was damaged. “Despite everything, the location we found was truly fantastic.” In the fading light, Clifford shot this image showing Ben on the mountain. The light sepia tone was accentuated with the help of an image processing program in order to strengthen the natural color of the grass in the autumn light. “This picture alone made the trip worth it.”
David Clifford lives with his wife Rixt Clifford and their three children about 30 minutes from Aspen by car, so many of his photographs are shot in Colorodo. Spectacular mountain ranges and rivers are everywhere in this state. What you won’t find here is the ocean. So for a recent shoot with Carrie Cooper, one of the world’s best-known female climbers, they had to go to where cliffs meet the ocean: Mallorca. Anyone afraid of heights might feel queasy looking at this image, which shows Cooper on an overhanging roof along a cliff without a rope for security. To reach that spot, she had to swim there with a waterproof clothing bag, then get dressed and climb up. In this image Carrie Cooper is climbing 15 meters above the water. ”So that wasn’t even very dangerous,” for a pro like Carrie says David Clifford. A lay person would see that differently. Clifford hung over the cliff with a rope attached and two cameras around his neck. The situation was more dangerous for his equipment, which had a combined value of several thousands of euros. In the case of a fall, both David and his gear would have landed straight in the water. It’s not uncommon for accidents to happen on assignment but being prepared for the unexpected is part of the game.
“What gives you life” was the theme for the advertising campaign of an outdoor outfitter and David Clifford created the photography for the 2014/2015 catalog. He posted up for a week with a few of the best skiers in the world, including three days in the back country on skis and two days at different lifestyle locations. David and his assistant took a total of 33,000 images. He used ZEISS lenses in all focal lengths, from the 15mm wide-angle to the 135mm telephoto lens. All the equipment that Clifford and his assistant carried in in their F-stop packs including their skis and avi gear weighed in total between 50 to 65 kilos.
The image with the five skiers looks more relaxed than it was. “The athletes were literally chomping at the bit to make fresh powder turns. As an adventure photographer you’re expected to live the experiences and embed yourself with top level athletes. Taking the time to drop your heavy camera bag, grab one of your two camera bodies already mounted with ZEISS lenses and shoot from the hip without missing a step or asking for a pose down is part of the job,” says David. Honest moments captured in real environments with top athletes — that’s what truth in advertising means to David Clifford.
The team was just about to board a helicopter, and Clifford was trying to get the perfect image with the helicopter, the athletes, a sun burst and the whirling snow and ice. Clifford caught that golden moment with the sun in backlight, refracting into a star in the stopped-down Distagon T* 2,8/15. Clifford acknowledges that focusing is sometimes a challenge when you shoot outdoor shots in action. But this lens could be focused very easily and it delivered a spectacular image with amazing clarity and sharpness. “The camera and the Distagon did an outstanding job here,” says Clifford enthusiastically. In fact, an auto-focus lens would have completely missed the shot here.
“We were supposed to stick close together and duck our heads for the rotor blades. I shot until I couldn’t see anything anymore,” says Clifford, “the snow and ice were blasting me in the eyes and fortunately the snow was so cold that it flew around the lens. Despite the bitter cold, the lenses worked perfectly.” The result is a photograph in which everything is just right: “You only get an image like this once in a decade,” says the humble photographer with some understatement.
But even this image contains a lot of planning, including the know-how gathered over 25 years. For example, you have to know which exposure time is necessary in order to get the rotor of the helicopter to have exactly the right motion blur: namely, between 1/640 and 1/1000 seconds. And the star burst on the rotor shaft was created in backlight with an almost-closed iris of 16 or 22. Here, too, the perfect exposure was achieved as a result of more than 20 years of experience. “I also knew that the ZEISS lens would perform flawlessly coupled with the D4 for a fast frame rate and a high dynamic range that would yield a perfect balance between backlight, the blue sky and the light reflected by the sun in the shadow. The Distagon T* 2,8/15 creates a lot of drama; you have the feeling you’re part of that group about to embark on an epic adventure.”
About David Clifford
David Clifford, 45, studied photography in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1991 he moved to the mountain paradise of Aspen, Colorado, where he initially worked as a sales person in a photo shop. World-renowned athletes, including the extreme skier and world champion Chris Davenport, soon heard about Clifford. Clifford is a ZEISS Camera Lens Ambassador, one of only a few in the world to have this distinction. Clifford is married with three children.