Behind the Lens with Portrait Photographer Clay Cook

Posted by: on Oct 11, 2023

Behind the Lens with Portrait Photographer Clay Cook

Clay’s Inspiration to Becoming a Photographer

Throughout his childhood, Clay’s passions were centered around Hollywood. The acclaimed photographer grew up as a fanatical movie buff. From “Jaws” to “Braveheart” it was this passion for film that introduced Clay to the world of capturing moments through film and photography.

“In the 90’s, my parents bought a good quality video camera to capture family moments, I ended up using it to make my own version of “Saving Private Ryan,” using firecrackers for explosions and ketchup for blood,” said Clay.

After leaving that brand new video camera outside in the rain and recovering from a month-long grounding, Clay found a new love in the form of music.

“The rush that heavy music gave me was unmatched, it was something movies could not do. It formed a deep passion of mine and spent the following 10 years pursuing a career in music,” Clay stated.

During his time in the music industry, Clay ran into countless photographers and developed a grand respect for the art of photography. By 2007, some of Clay’s passions for music had swayed into the world of graphic design. By the time Clay’s band split in 2010, he decided to take on graphic design full-time and started inquiring about DSLR cameras to shoot his own stock photography.

“In December of 2010, I received my first DSLR camera as a gift. Never did I imagine it would completely change my life,” Clay said.

What was a challenge you overcame when first starting out as a photographer? 

“I started photography with a selfish eye, an eye that only cared about me. An eye that didn’t care who or what was in the picture as long as it had great lighting, great composition, or perfect pose. I didn’t truly understand the gift I yielded and the power of the tool I had been given. That all changed once I was given the opportunity to see the world and step away from the technical aspect of photography. I gained a new perspective and altered the “why” of my photography ideology,” Clay said.

How has tethering improved your photography?

When it comes to the wide variety of photography projects Clay takes on, he believes tethering is an absolute must for nearly all of his projects, in fact most of his clientele require it.

“Tethering is impactful. It allows me to bring a vision to life right in front of my client’s eyes and the reaction is always worth it,” Clay said.

© Clay Cook 2023

Clay often works with a team of people, which may include a producer, creative director, or art director. Tethering allows him to really dig into each photograph with his creative team or client on a large monitor rather than the back of his camera, which is far more comfortable for everyone.

Clay’s organic approach to lifestyle & humanitarian imagery 

“I used to want every image “perfect” until I began to travel the world and experiment with photojournalistic reportage,” said Clay.

Assignments throughout Tanzania, Ethiopia, India, and Iraq altered the way Clay viewed portraiture and changed his entire photography ethos.

© Clay Cook 2023

“As a photographer, I have learned over time that much of my job is to listen first, and shoot second. Understand, bridge, and illustrate. I don’t photograph with the intent to sell or show, I photograph with the intent to relate,” Clay continued.

With 10 years in the music business and 12 years in advertising, editorial, and humanitarian photography, Clay is able to see people and understand human connection differently than many advertising photographers.

“I’m not some guru or magical mystic. I just love people, I love stories and I love to take pictures,” said Clay.

Why do Photos Matter to you?

“We are all photographers. But endless scrolling and over-sharing have become second nature, resulting in a generation with a shorter attention span than a goldfish, 8 seconds to be exact. So, authentically sharing meaningful stories through photography, by sharing our love, loss, vision, and opinion we are compelled to bond with people on a deeper, real level. Authentic stories humanize and influence. Great stories build a bridge of compassion. And compassion will always strengthen humanity. Photography is a power that has the potential to truly make change,” said Clay.

Behind the Lens with Clay Cook: Photography Advice, Camera Settings and Gear List

Want to learn more from Clay? Download the free Behind the Lens Guide to gain access to Clay’s top tips for up-and-coming portrait photographers, a full gear list, and his “go-to” camera settings.