For more than 30 years, Ralph Clevenger has combined his formal education in zoology with a unique perspective on the application of light and color to photograph wild places and the wildlife that live there. Highly respected and published, Ralph is also dedicated to sharing his skills, techniques and experiences with his students at Brooks Institute, where he teaches courses in Stock Photography, Video Production, Natural History Photography and Undersea Photography. Learn more at brooks.edu.
What event or experience first attracted you to photography?
My father took 8mm movies of the family as we traveled and lived around the world. I always looked forward to helping him set up the movie projector and screen and watching the movies he made. I still love movies.
When did you know that you wanted to pursue a photography career?
After graduating from college with a degree in zoology and not knowing quite how to pursue my dream of working outdoors with wildlife and nature. Photography and zoology seemed like a way to make the dream come true. It proved to be the right choice.
Did you receive any formal photography education? Where? Degree earned?
Yes, I graduated from Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara with a BA degree in photography.
Were you influenced by a famous photographer’s style? Who?
Ernie Brooks II certainly influenced my underwater work. Ernst Haas was a big influence on my way of seeing the world. George Lepp probably taught me more about nature photography than anyone else, but I studied the work of David Meunch and John Shaw too. My fascination with color and design was fueled by the work of Pete Turner and Jay Maisel.
What was your first professional/commercial photography assignment?
An underwater shoot for Marineland of the Pacific Aquarium in Los
Angeles. The Aquarium had a new swim-through display, where people could snorkel in a small canyon with schooling fish, and it wanted some images to highlight the experience. I received the assignment approximately a month after graduating from Brooks.
Do you specialize in a specific type of photography? Why?
I specialize in environmental portraits, eco-travel, wildlife and undersea subjects. Many of my clients are involved in the ecotourism industry, such as lodges and camps in or near national parks and other wild places. I work with these clients to produce images showing all the elements of their business: lodges, room interiors, food, activities, employees, visitors, landscapes and, of course, the wildlife. During the early years of my photography career, my background in zoology helped me gain access to wilderness areas and scientific research projects. This access let me create many strong images.
How many years have you been a professional in this field?
I've been working as a professional photographer for 33 years.
What was your most memorable photography assignment/job/project?
Several come to mind: Working for some whale biologists in the Arctic and diving under the ice was quite memorable. Five weeks in Antarctica, crossing the Drake Passage twice, and sitting out the birth of 5 hurricanes in an ancient volcano is something I'll never forget. More recently, spending two days with wild Golden Lion Tamarins in the Mata Atlantica forests of Brazil. Picking just one memorable adventure is impossible.
How would you describe your specific style?
Simple, graphic, colorful. Light, both found and created, is the key to many of my images. Carol McCusker, Curator of Photography at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, described my work as "...transient light and emphatic color." Those words seem to define much of my work.
In which major publications have your images been published?
Audubon, Islands, Oceans, Outside, Orion Nature Quarterly, National
Geographic, National Geographic Kids, National Geographic Traveler, Popular Photography, Nature’s Best, Terre Sauvage, National Geographic Books, Smithsonian Books, Sierra Club Books, and other national and international publications.
Have you published any books: photography or instructional?
Photographing Nature, 2010. Published by New Riders/Peachpit Press.
Which photography awards have you received?
I've won awards from the Underwater Photographic Society, Nature's Best Competitions and the North American Nature Photographers Association.
Which photo of yours is your all-time favorite?
I can't pick only one. I do have a bunch of favorites and many of which I'm proud. The most recognizable image of mine is an iceberg. Many of my favorite images are highlighted on my Web site.
Where have your photographs been exhibited?
The great majority of my professional work is represented by stock photo agencies and shot on assignment for clients. I don't market my work as fine art, but we do sell prints from our office when requested.
Do you conduct photography workshops?
I do teach photo workshops. One of the unique things about our destination workshops is how they're designed not only for photographers, but also people who just love watching wildlife and spending quality time in natural places. During the fall of 2012, we're running a couple of macro workshops for High Sierra Workshops. During the summer of 2013, we'll be hosting two workshops in Alaska, one in Denali and the second in Prince William Sound. During the summer of 2014, we have an amazing trip planned to Botswana and South Africa. We have considerable experience in Africa and I'm very excited about the itinerary for this upcoming trip.
What is most amateur photographers’ #1 mistake?
I don't think amateur photographers make mistakes. They may not capture what they saw, but that's not a mistake, just a limitation of the medium. Understanding and working within the limitations of photography is one of the things that separate serious photographers from hobbyists. The key, however, is just to enjoy the experience and use your photography to share your experiences with others. At what level you want to do that is up to you.
With what brand name equipment do you shoot: Camera, lens, etc?
Nikons. I have several Nikon DSLRs and a range of lenses: Nikon 14–24mm, 28–70mm, 70–200mm, 200–400mm, 105mm macro, 60mm macro and a Tokina 10–17mm fisheye that I use underwater often.
Do you shoot video and create multimedia presentations?
I do shoot video. For more than 20 years, I worked producing and shooting AV presentations for corporate, government and commercial clients. Nine-projector slideshows on 3 screens with music and narration, that kind of stuff. It was an easy transition from AV to video and I've been doing commercial video productions for approximately 12 years.
What is the most important lesson you learned during your career?
As a professional photographer, the toughest lesson I've learned is that this is a business, and to earn a living from creating images means you must be in business. You hear this often, but actually being in business and surviving isn't easy in any field. Photographically, the most important lesson I've learned is to be patient, but to persevere in my pursuit of images. Having a stubborn streak and not settling for anything less than the best is the only way to create powerful images.
What advice would you share with aspiring professional photographers?
First, don't quit your day job; you need it to support yourself while you learn the photography business. Study the business as well as the craft of photography. You have to be very passionate about making pictures to succeed professionally. Anyone can enjoy photography and become a good photographer. Very few can make it a career. Assist photographers on real jobs. That’s the best way to determine if this is something you want to do as a job; and it is a job. Doing photography for a living is very different than doing it only because you love it. Photography is a very diverse field, so assist wedding photographers, studio photographers and magazine photographers; expose yourself to as many different fields of photography as possible. The business, technical and creative aspects of professional photography is the same. The only thing that changes is where you do your photography and what you put in front of the camera.
One last thing: You must live your subject. What I mean by live your subject is if you like photographing children, then you must like and understand children. If you love photographing birds, then you must know everything you can about them; if extreme sports photography is your passion, then participate in the sports and be involved with companies and organizations that support that field. Live your subject.
Click here for Ralph Clevengers web site
Photograph © Misty Schmidt