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Best of ASMP 2008

With a background and training in international security, Oregon-based Cliff Patrick specializes in tactically correct action photos of military, security and law enforcement personnel for advertising and editorial clients. Rather than focusing on the dark side of conflict, Patrick emphasizes the heroic aspect of this subject for a look that blends iconic defenders with fashion. While all the weapons and actions are true to life and tactically correct, Patrick’s final images are often digitally enhanced for maximum drama and visual appeal.

Cliff Patrick — Eugene, OR

Web site:
Project: Military commercial shoot for a watch company

© Cliff Patrick
All images in this article © Cliff Patrick

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

CP: I’ve been photographing part time since 2003, and I started my full-time photography business, Tactical Image, in 2007.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

CP: Since 2007.

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

CP: My company, Tactical Image, specializes in commercial advertising and editorial photography for military, security and law enforcement.

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

CP: While my editorial work is fairly straightforward, there are several different processes involved in creating my advertising photographs. There’s a tremendous amount of planning involved, which includes procuring tactical equipment (firearms, tactical clothing, gear, etc), actors with the right “look” (usually real military or police operators), and, if necessary, securing access or permission from the military or police agencies when restricted equipment or locations are involved. My crew on the shoot day usually consists of assistants, occasionally a consultant or prop provider, and sometimes art directors. I often capture about 1,000 photos during a single day of shooting. After the shoot, I do all the post processing, which sometimes takes a couple of days. Before and after a big shoot, my studio often resembles a military warehouse, with oddities such as machine guns, silencers, and body armor strewn about.

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

CP: I don’t have a single most valuable piece of equipment, but some of my favorite recent additions to my kit include a Nikon D3 and new lenses (14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8), Nikon SU-800 wireless speedlight commander, Vested Interest Khumbu vest, Acratech GV2 ballhead, and Honl Photo grids and snoots.

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

CP: I consider myself a “tactical photographer,” portraying military and law enforcement service as an honorable profession. My images embrace a timeless human attraction to adventure, challenge, and what Joseph Campbell referred to as the “hero’s journey.” Many elements of warrior spirit are prevalent in my photographs that focus on themes of duty, sacrifice, personal strength, and courage. In some aspects, my photography is a fusion of fashion, military, and law enforcement.

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: Please describe the clients/markets most interested in your work.

CP: The defense and security industry is a large portion of my commercial market, using my images for print advertisements, trade shows, Web sites, etc. These clients include companies that manufacture a wide range of gear for soldiers or police, such as tactical vests, firearms, non-lethal munitions, edged weapons, optics, rangefinders, ballistic armor, boots, eyewear, apparel, weapon sights, flashlights, communication equipment, armored vehicles, maritime vessels, aviation and aerospace vehicles, and more. The U.S. military, allied countries, or government agencies might use my photography for PR or recruiting purposes. In the editorial realm, I frequently work with magazines that specialize in military and law enforcement subjects.

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: Much of your photography involves military and security gear. How did you get your start in this niche area?

CP: Photography was a serious hobby for me in high school, followed by a military career (Air Force Academy/Air Force pilot), and then several years spent overseas working as part of a government security mission along the border between Georgia and Chechnya. Then, in 2007, when I was training to do Personal Security Detail (PSD) work in Afghanistan, I unintentionally found myself siphoned back into the world of photography. In pursuing a PSD job, I had to outfit myself with a variety of expensive personal equipment such as body armor. I contacted some of the companies that manufactured the gear I needed and asked if they were interested in doing a trade of photos for gear. They agreed and liked the photos I produced. It didn’t take me long to realize there was a need for this specialized kind of imagery, and my tactical training and military background gave me the knowledge and access to execute the assignments. Also, I really enjoyed doing the photography because it combined my passion and respect for military and law enforcement, the challenge of producing advertising assignments, and the creativity and technical savvy required of photography.

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: Do your clients generally provide you with detailed direction or do they have restrictions on how and what you can photograph?

CP: Most often my clients give me a vague outline of what they’re looking for, such as “We want photographs of a special forces team coming out of the ocean wearing rebreathers, tactical gear, and our dive watches.” It’s then up to me to research what this involves: tracking down the specialized equipment, military folks, scouting the location, etc. It can be very challenging to produce a shoot that involves getting permission to photograph government or security locations, personnel, and equipment because I have to comply with the multitude of laws that exist within DoD and law enforcement agencies concerning photography, OPSEC (operational security), security clearances, etc. Also, as you might imagine, when you have people with guns running around in public locations, it can attract a lot of attention, so I need to be very sensitive about how my photo shoots may affect the public and I have to pay special attention to securing permits when necessary.

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: Your images often involve rugged locations and physical action. Please talk about the special challenges of photographing under these conditions.

CP: Executing a shoot is A LOT of work for me and my crew. If you’ve ever worn a level 3 ballistic armor vest for a day in scorching desert heat, you realize how heavy it is. Add to this the tremendous amount of other gear that the modern soldier wears on the battlefield, including firearms, night vision equipment, communication equipment, combat medical supplies, ammunition, food and water, etc. With the help of my crew, I have to move this virtual battlefield of gear and photography equipment to the photo shoot locations, which include some of the most sparsely populated places in the United States. This often involves driving on rough dirt roads or sand as close as possible to the shoot location, and then carrying hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds of gear over rough terrain. It definitely makes you appreciate what soldiers in the field have to endure as a normal part of their jobs. Of course, we can never control the environment, either. Dramatic-looking locations generally range anywhere from being hot, dusty, vertically-inclined, to freezing, windy, snow-bound, icy, deep, wavy, or stormy. Also, these locations are hell on equipment. After a long day of shooting, the last thing you want to do is have to spend time cleaning salt water or sand from expensive firearms and camera equipment, but it has to be done. In terms of physical activities, safety is always paramount during the shoot. The day always begins with a safety brief. When working with firearms, we take lots of precautions. If there is climbing or rappelling involved, we doublecheck everything twice.

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: How much preproduction goes into the planning of your shoots? Are there specialized services or suppliers that you rely on for this part of your work?

CP: For the preproduction, there’s a lot of planning involved for the advertising shoots, sometimes months in advance. I produce most of my own shoots, but rely heavily on various manufacturers of tactical gear to outfit me with miscellaneous parts for a shoot. For example, for a recent shoot I had about a dozen companies outfit me with products, such as laser range finding binoculars, machine guns, satellite phones, and uniforms. It’s a win-win situation because the manufacturers receive free marketing exposure for their products. However, because of the restricted nature of the tactical gear, I often have to jump through a lot of hoops to take possession of items controlled by the government. For example, silencers and machine guns require me to have a special license with the BATFE (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) and to periodically be inspected by federal agents and maintain a lot of paperwork. I also have to get special permission from police agencies to take possession of some restricted firearms, and it often takes several weeks to get the paperwork approved. Having to go through such an involved process adds to the workload, complexity, and operating costs of my business, but it’s also a selling point and provides a benefit to my clients.

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: How and where do you find your models? Are there any specific considerations you use in selecting who to work with?

CP: I prefer to work with real police and military operators because generally their training and knowledge of tactics allows them to pose correctly, which is very important in my work. The way that a soldier dons their equipment, holds their rifle, or stacks up with teammates is highly scrutinized by the consumers that view my photographs in advertisements. One incorrectly placed finger on a handgun can ruin an entire series of photos. For example, back in the 1980’s, a respected firearms manufacturer published a magazine ad depicting bullets that were placed backwards in a handgun’s magazine — an obvious slip up made by the “tactically untrained” commercial photographer that shot the assignment. By working with real operators (and by having hundreds of hours of tactical training under my own belt), I can guarantee my clients that I’ll never make the same kind of mistake.

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: You mention that your images are tactically correct, but they also involve post-production retouching and enhancement. Please elaborate on your view of the relationship between documentary accuracy and commercial polish in an image.

CP: My images are “tactically correct” in the sense that weapons, tactics, and operators are depicted in the way they would be used in real life situations, according to current military and law enforcement training doctrine. However, since advertising photography is not bound by any kind of documentary accuracy standards, I can and often do perform a lot of retouching to my images to add drama and visual appeal. On the other hand, editorial photography and photojournalism are bound by ethical accuracy and authenticity standards, so I generally do little retouching except for basic changes to contrast, brightness, etc. The one constant desire I adhere to with all of my photography is to avoid any kind of “cheesiness.”

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: Please describe your post-production workflow. What types of Photoshop enhancements do you apply to your images?

CP: Ninety-five percent of my post-production workflow is done using only Adobe Lightroom, and I only use Photoshop for selective retouching I can’t achieve in Lightroom. I absolutely love Lightroom and believe it’s an amazing tool. I have no relationship with Adobe or Seth Resnick, but I would highly recommend Lightroom to other photographers as well as Resnick’s D-65 workshop that helps with post-production workflow.

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: You have spent a great deal of time working and traveling in sensitive territories. Please describe the most essential considerations one should observe when working/traveling in these types of environments.

CP: It’s important to have an accurate assessment of an area and its risks before you jump into a hazardous area head-first. I collect intel before traveling to a place (a great resource is the “Thorntree” forums), and then continue to learn more once on the ground. Generally speaking, when I work in a high-risk country, my approach is to start out in the safest region first and then only venture out after I feel confident that I have reliable information about the other places I intend to go. Americans who work in the region are a great source of information. Down-and-dirty backpackers and Peace Corps volunteers are another good source of information, especially since they tend to immerse themselves in the culture and may know more than your average deployed soldier or government expat.

Whether embedding with military troops or with indigenous people, you must have the ability to be a chameleon and blend in by learning the local lingo and understanding the social and organizational culture. In a foreign country, it helps to learn the basic words for “please, thank you, hello, goodbye, I want, numbers, pleased to meet you, etc.,” as well as other common phrases unique to that region. Also, it’s essential to learn what the local population respects, which differs widely and may include adherence to social place and tradition, religious devotion, power, displays of strength and “manliness,” family honor, modesty, etc. You don’t have to become disingenuous to gain foreign people’s respect, but it helps if you can maintain your own identity and dignity while showing you respect their culture.

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: Given your background and training with various tactical security groups, are there any specific insights about security and staying safe that you can share with photographers/photojournalists who may encounter hostile environments in their work?

CP: No matter where you go, your mind and intuition are your greatest assets. Avoiding getting into precarious situations in the first place is a good strategy (an informative book I would recommend is The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker.) I’m also an advocate of remaining humble and showing respect to people at all times. If you can gain the respect of the people around you, it can go a long way in terms of helping keep you safe.

As a side note, I would highly recommend that people traveling to high-risk areas take some self-defense and firearms safety classes, and learn basic information about munitions such as land mines. In no way will such classes make someone invincible (and I’m not advocating that photographers arm themselves in a conflict zone) but, at the very least, they will provide a broad, useful, and practical knowledge of the capabilities of guns, weapons, and ill-intentioned people. There are plenty of other small things people can do to reduce risks such as traveling in pairs, appearing confident, respecting local customs and traditions, wearing subdued clothing, carrying flashy camera gear in a discreet canvas or plastic bag, and staying situationally aware. Also, I have found that the most seemingly random training and knowledge that I’ve gained in the military, security, and civilian world has repeatedly helped me assess, react to, and stay safe in challenging or risky situations.

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: You recently returned from photographing a very unique religious festival in the republic of Georgia. Please give us some background about this project.

CP: I lived in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia along the mountainous border between Chechnya and Georgia for several years in the past as an international border monitor and trainer of the Georgian border guards. I was very interested in the local culture and found out about an ancient religious festival that travels from village to village through the mountains during a two-week span. Combining forms of Christianity and paganism, the people don traditional warrior outfits, carry old authentic swords, and sacrifice animals in front of sacred stone altars. The setting is stunning, with crumbling old stone fortresses clinging to steep mountains and lush green valleys. I describe it as Lord of the Rings meets Blair Witch Project. I’m photographing the assignment as part of a long-term photography book project I’m creating about the republic of Georgia.

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: Did this experience live up to your expectations? Was there anything you encountered on this trip that was totally unexpected or cathartic?

CP: I was gone on the assignment for 11 days (spending half of my time traveling solo by horseback) and had an amazing experience. Khevsureti, the area along the border of Chechnya in Georgia, is a land of stark contrasts. With thousand-year-old stone fortresses scattered among lush mountains and deep ravines, it is stunningly beautiful yet unforgiving in its ability to deal out harsh treatments to the people who live there. Every family seems to have suffered fatalities from war, murder, drowning, or avalanches. Yet they are incredibly warm, romantic, generous people, who celebrate life, love and family with tremendous gusto. The pagan ceremonies and animal sacrifices were fascinating, and in many cases almost seemed like a pretext for dancing, singing and lots of heavy drinking.

© Cliff Patrick

ASMP: Was there anything you encountered on this trip that was totally unexpected or cathartic?

CP: Two experiences left me a little rattled during my journey:

First, one night during a jubilant feast at the dinner table involving heavy drinking and singing among local villagers, my host pulled out a concealed Russian-made handgun, aimed it between the two men sitting across the table, and shot a hole in the wall and then the floor. The deafening roar of the shots created an apropos moment that left everyone sitting stunned, but it only took a few seconds for the drunk teenage boys at the table to express their affection for the gun, admiration for the shooter’s apparent “manliness,” and desire to handle the gun (which they did, thankfully, after my host had removed the bullets). Having drunk people shoot guns and wave them around at a party left me feeling somewhat unnerved.

Secondly, the next day a drunk villager fell into the turbulent Argoni River that flows from Georgia into Chechnya, and I had to run a quarter mile downstream to help save him. During the run, I mentally rehearsed my CPR training and grabbed a log on the way to use as a tether. By the time another villager and I had fished him out of the water, he was blue and nearly unconscious. After he puked up a lot of water and alcohol, we realized he’d be okay, but on the run to save him, I was dreading the possibility of having to jump into the water to help. I completed a water survival course at the Air Force Academy, but I’m a very weak swimmer, the water was choppy and strong, and I was totally breathless after sprinting that far.

Those two events reminded me that there’s never a dull moment in Georgia.

© Cliff Patrick