Brett Wilhelm: Forging His Own Path

Mentorships and apprenticeships can be powerful tools in forwarding a career. As Colorado-based Brett Wilhelm proves with his camera, when you’re under the tutelage of not only a master photographer and editor, but also an extremely successful businessman and educator, the results can be stunning. Wilhelm joined Rich Clarkson and Associates (rebranded as Clarkson Creative) fresh out of college and has emerged as one of today’s top action-adventure sports photographers.

At the beginning of 2014, after 15 years with Clarkson, Wilhelm ventured out on his own, creating the company Wilhelm Visual Works, with a variety of national clientele, including ESPN’s X Games, Red Bull, Sports Illustrated and the NCAA. The self-proclaimed “military brat” put down roots in Boulder after extensive travel and residence throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, which helped mold the future photographer.

DPP: What’s the secret to Rich Clarkson’s success, both as a mentor and a businessperson?

Brett Wilhelm: I think the real key to Rich’s success, not only in his current business, but all the time he spent in editor roles at newspapers and magazines over his long career, and the incredible cadre of talent he’s advanced through that time, was a focus on hiring the person, not the photographer. He has never pursued the hottest photographic talents. He keys in on the individual, his reasoning being, he could always make you a better photographer, but if you weren’t a good person, if you weren’t reliable, if you weren’t sharp, that would be a lot harder to fix. He has always surrounded himself with solid people with the potential to be pushed to great things. I certainly wasn’t hired out of college based on my photographic talents—I think I had pictures of tulips in my photojournalism portfolio—but he saw in me a potential to be really additive to his group, and I thrived there in the company of a very solid group of coworkers for more than a decade, learning to be a photographer along the way. That’s the real magic.

Thanks to his intimate knowledge of the sports he covers, Brett Wilhelm is able to anticipate the key moments in any event, and be in the right place at the right time, such as this shot of Greg Bretz at the 2014 X Games in Aspen.

DPP: What type of work did you do during your time with Clarkson?

Wilhelm: Everyone there wore a number of hats. I was a photographer. I ran the Summit workshops for most of my 15 years there. I was also the technology director. I had no formal computer training, but I had an aptitude for it, so early on, I started working on the technology side of things, including digital asset management. Those needs expanded as we, and everyone else, converted to digital at the turn of the millennium.

DPP: What type of photo assignments did you do?

Wilhelm: One of our major clients was the NCAA, covering something like 20 different sports and around 90 national championships a year. Sometimes, I was a one-man band. For the larger events, such as the Division I basketball championships, we’d send four or five people because of the diverse needs of the client. Beyond the NCAA, we were the team photographers for the Colorado Rockies, and for most of my time at Clarkson, the Denver Broncos. These experiences provided me with a broad exposure to lots of different sports. The business ran photography workshops and produced books, magazines and exhibitions. In addition to the excellent mentorship, one of the things I appreciate is getting a broad approach to the business as a whole, including how to provide photo management services to clients. It wasn’t just about making great pictures.

DPP: How has Rich Clarkson and his company not only survived, but prospered through difficult times, including the transition to digital, which dramatically changed the world?

Wilhelm: One is the diversification of the business. First and foremost, we were a photo and, eventually, a bit of a video business. But we could also produce books, manage exhibitions, run workshops. That diversification was the real ace in the hole. When one client wouldn’t have a successful sporting year and, therefore, those photos wouldn’t be as popular, another portion of the business could pick up the slack. The education market contributed to the business. The one-off book projects that might only be every couple of years, those would bring in a big influx of revenue. We did books such as one celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Final Four, another on TrackTown USA, books for the Rockies and the Broncos, and non-sports books such as Where Valor Rests: Arlington National Cemetery, produced in coordination with the government. I still work with Rich and his team on some of the big projects, like the Men’s Final Four. It really helps to hit the ground running with an experienced crew. A week like that isn’t only sports photography. It’s not just about covering the games. It’s about attending to all the needs of a larger client, covering the sponsor parties, the community outreach programs, all of the pomp and circumstance.

DPP: Since venturing out on your own, you’ve expanded your body of work to include portraiture.

Wilhelm: Some are sports figures, some are musicians. I do a fair amount of music work these days. It was a bit accidental, but something I really enjoy. I did a series for Red Bull’s Sound Select music series. After so many years with that photojournalistic fly-on-the-wall approach, where you’re trying to be as minimally disruptive as possible, I’ve had to adjust to the portraiture world, where you’re directing your subjects and trying to put them at ease. That was a mental switch I had to throw. People look for direction in a portrait session situation, and that’s something that I had to learn how to do.

DPP: What sort of lighting setup are you working with on location, both for your portrait and action work?

Wilhelm: I was mainly working with Dynalites, but with the advances in low-light sensitivity, I’m shooting a lot more often with Nikon Speedlights using the PocketWizard TT1 and TT5 radio remotes. Often, the environments I’m working in—the side of a mountain for a ski shoot or in the woods somewhere—aren’t as conducive for carrying in relatively heavy strobe equipment.

DPP: How did you achieve your creatively lit and captured shot of the mountain biker speeding by?

Wilhelm: It was during a race at Keystone Resort. My friend and mentor Dave Black talks about the lighting triangle, not only getting the lights off-camera, but producing a triangle to make that light more interesting. The subject is one corner of the triangle. The lights were behind the rider camera-left and behind him camera-right. One is up in a tree attached to a Gorilla tripod, which can wrap around virtually anything, and the other was on the ground behind him. I played with various apertures and shutter speeds, and powered up and down the Speedlights remotely. I was shooting in rear sync and panning for many of the shots at around 1/30th of a second.

Brett Wilhelm’s Gear
Nikon D4S
Nikon D800 and D810
AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II
AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm ƒ/4G ED VR
AF-S NIKKOR 50mm ƒ/1.4G
AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm ƒ/4G ED VR II
AF-S Zoom-NIKKOR 17-35mm ƒ/2.8D IF-ED
AF Micro-NIKKOR 60mm ƒ/2.8D
AF Fisheye-NIKKOR 16mm ƒ/2.8D
AF-S NIKKOR 85mm ƒ/1.4G
Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-17EII
Nikon SB-800, SB-900, SB-910 AF Speedlights
Lensbaby 2.0
Apple MacBook Pro
A variety of lighting tools
Manfrotto stands
Lowepro backpacks
Lexar and SanDisk cards

DPP: What camera bodies and lenses are you working with?

Wilhelm: My primary cameras are the Nikon D4S, and I also work with a Nikon D800, which I’m flipping to a D810. The D4S is much more sports-oriented, both in low-light sensitivity and frame rate. Ninety percent of the time, my camera backpack is packed the same way. I have one Nikon D4S with a Nikkor 17-35mm ƒ/2.8 and another D4S with a Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8. I’ve also been shooting a lot more lately with my 50mm ƒ/1.4. It reminds me that my best zoom lens is my feet and carefully composing images. It’s easy with a zoom lens to just zoom to the framing you want and start firing away. With a prime lens, you start moving around and composing things more carefully and more artfully. I’ve also just invested in an 85mm ƒ/1.4. The background goes so beautifully out of focus. The world looks pretty beautiful at ƒ/1.4. For the action-sports world, I have a 16mm ƒ/2.8 fisheye. It gets used a lot in skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding. That market cares a lot about perspective. If you want to get close, but you want to show the entire length of the rail or you want to be close to the athlete, but also want to see the lip of the half pipe where they’re coming from and where they’re landing, the fisheye is a unique lens that works great for that. It can very quickly get overdone as a look, but it’s a really important tool in an action-sports photographer’s kit. I rarely use a fisheye outside of the action-sports world.

DPP: How are you getting your images off the slopes when covering events such as the X Games?

Wilhelm: In the case of the X Games, we’re transmitting images directly onto a wireless network they deploy; those images go directly to the PhotoShelter FTP and immediately produce password-protected online galleries. I’m out in the field, two miles from the editors, an athlete is coming down the half pipe and, using a WT-5 transmitter, I can hit “transmit” on the back of the camera and that image in near-real time is transmitted wirelessly to the back end of the PhotoShelter site, and editors sitting at the base of the venue and editors back in New York or wherever can access those images. These days, you don’t even need a wireless network deployed by the venue. I can turn my iPhone into a hotspot and transmit directly from that. This ability for the individual to distribute in a real-time, deadline-oriented world didn’t exist five years ago. I can set out into the field and with a cell signal be broadcasting my images around the world to a diverse clientele with the same speed that a Getty Images or an Associated Press and all their back-end infrastructure can do. A lot of things that used to require a lot of web-development skills or accounting skills are now off-loaded to third parties for a nominal fee because so many other customers are sharing it. Things like PhotoShelter, FreshBooks, have come a long way in enabling the individual to compete with the larger agencies. I can operate with a much lower overhead and have a lot more flexibility as to the projects I pursue.

Working with Rich Clarkson gave Wilhelm access to some of the most memorable moments in college sports.

DPP: One of the most important technological developments in action sports—especially for POV shooting—is the GoPro. Are they in your arsenal?

Wilhelm: They are, but I don’t use them in the conventional sense. Rich instilled in us the importance of giving back, the importance of providing educational outlets. I use GoPros to produce educational behind-the-scenes content. On an assignment, I’ll turn the GoPro back on myself and talk about what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. The camera is on a little tripod, and I wear an Audio-Technica lavalier with a hardwire with a USB adapter connection so I can plug into the GoPro for better sound.

These videos are a way to attract more eyeballs to my work, but it’s also a really low-cost, low-resource way to share what I’m doing with not only photo enthusiasts, but hopefully the next generation of photographers coming through the ranks that find the content valuable. There are so many talented photographers out there today. Technology has allowed so many people to compete that it isn’t just about making great pictures. It’s about relationships to elevate yourself above all the chatter. I think now, more than ever, in the world of Instagram and websites, it’s about that relationship. The client hopefully trusts me to not only get the right shot, but to go on location and represent them in a professional and personal way. Having and maintaining those relationships is vital so you’re number one in their head when they have an assignment.

DPP: You spent much of your youth moving, globetrotting. How have those experiences affected you?

Wilhelm: I was a military brat, and we moved every two to three years. For me, to lay down roots in Boulder for the past 20 years, was never something I would have thought possible when I moved out here for school. This lifestyle developed a natural curiosity because I was exposed to so many different cultures early on. There’s a phenomenon called Third Culture Kids. The idea is, you grow up outside of your home culture, but you’re not fully embraced in your host culture. I wasn’t going to a Japanese school, I wasn’t growing up in a Japanese home; same thing in Italy and Scotland. So you grow up in this in-between world. It develops a natural curiosity and cultural understanding about things, which I think lends itself well to photojournalism. It develops an ease in getting to know people quickly, at least in a very basic sense, and to approach situations from hopefully a welcoming standpoint.

DPP: You have to hit the ground running when on assignment, on location, and it’s not just the technical skills that bring about a successful shoot; it’s about interacting successfully with people.

Wilhelm: You have to gain that access, you have to gain the trust. You hopefully develop a rapport with them. Rich Clarkson has always been great at that, and he provided incredible mentorship. He also provided a wide range of incredible connections. So, when I went out on my own, I was only moving tangentially within the
same business. But I’m more of an action-sports fan—skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking—than a stick-and-ball- or Olympics sports-type fan. I’ve gotten closer aligned to my passions through my work with ESPN’s X Games. It’s hiking up a mountainside to photograph skiers, working in the woods with mountain bikers. I was a former athlete, and I wanted to be out there exploring more. It came down to chasing my passions.

You can see more of Brett Wilhelm’s photography at

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