From snapping commercial photography in LA to romping in the mountains and cliffs across the country, Michael Lim turned himself into both a climber and an adventure photographer … all in the course of a whirlwind year of life on the road and in the wild.
Michael’s captivating intensity, exuberance, and constant drive to deliver his best work are striking features of his personality—traits that have enabled him to blossom into, quite possibly, the most talented up-and-coming photographer in the climbing world.
Read on to hear how about his rapid transition to the adventure realm, what climber he aspires his photography to mirror, and what you should be doing to improve as a photographer each and every day.
You weren’t always adventuring and photographing professional climbers. Tell us about your journey into the outdoor photography realm; what made you want to pursue this professionally?
My main focus was commercial photography in Los Angeles, where I did work on commission. It led to me creating a lot of work I didn’t care about for campaigns I didn’t believe in.
By January of 2015, my brother asked if I’d be keen on living out of a camper for a year with him, touring the country with some rock climbing involved. I had such a great time hanging out at the crag with climbers and meeting people on the road that adventure photography only made sense. My brother was probably stoked I fell in love with climbing because that road trip would’ve driven him insane if we didn’t climb as much as we did.
What influences (life events, music, books, etc) have most contributed to the photographer you are today?
It’s a combination of all those things. Everyone is a product of their environment, and some people have a more stable environment than others. I was fortunate enough to’ve been on both sides of the coin, and those who know me well understand the struggles I’ve been through; it’s what continues to shape my perspective.
All on top of the rags to riches life, my parents were avid 1960s British Rock fans, so they flooded my life with art and music to keep me out of trouble. They bought me my first violin, guitar, and camera. Only the last two’ve stuck.
Surely you get to climb here and there. What’s your 1) preferred style, 2) favorite destination, and 3) most memorable climb?
I don’t get to climb as much as I’d like, mainly because the climbers I take pictures of are so much further along in their climbing; meaning, there’s rarely anything in my grade range at the crag. However, my preferred style would be anything with crimps for cruxes and jugs for resting.
My most memorable climb would have to be a V6/V7 ultra classic in Moe’s Valley with a two finger undercling slot. Also, I felt really cool because Jon Cardwell took my picture.
If your photography could mirror the character of a professional climber, who would your photography most closely represent and why?
That’s tough, but I’d like to think Daniel Woods. Somewhere between the tools of rage and nothingness, is tranquility/balance. There’s also a methodical focus and execution to his climbing and I’d like to think that my photography is the same way. Daniel pulls into a zen state through breathing before hopping on a problem—I do the same thing the second I’m en route to a shoot.
Finish this sentence: if I weren’t currently an adventure photographer, I’d be ____________.
Dead, or a zombie going through the motions, which is still technically dead.
What has been the most challenging experience you’ve had shooting?
That’s tough to say because the challenges I’ve had to face have been so varied. In a very condensed year, I’ve faced cold weather, cold weather on top of a mountain, blizzards, windstorms, lightning, sometimes all three at once, rigging issues, lighting issues, broken party members, gear malfunctions, travel hiccups, hiking, directional challenges, exhaustion, etc.
I don’t know, I would say the past year has been a life challenge.
The most most rewarding experience?
The most rewarding experience was photographing Katherine Choong on Southern Smoke (5.14c). She was an absolute doll and pleasure to work with. She sent the route, and less than a week later, eight different climbing media outlets had picked up my photos for the story. It felt pretty rad, and I was happy to see my aesthetic was welcomed.
Is there something you always ask to yourself/think just before you push the button?
It’s different every time. Sometimes the shoot happens very organically; your relationship with your subject is fluid and personal. Other times, you start a photo session and the first few images are not at all where you envisioned the start to be. That’s when I start asking/saying to myself,
Ok, what is going to tell the biggest story here and what’s going to make me excited?
What gear items do you not go into the wild without?
A down jacket, cigarettes, snacks, toilet paper, and a shovel. Hey, we’re being real yeah?
What’s next? Any climbing/photography trips that you’re especially excited for?
Next is Rifle, Yosemite, and hopefully some international travel by July.
Climbing trips are interesting … you don’t believe they’ll happen until the tickets are booked and you’re packing up the night before, only to realize half of your gear inventory is missing.
Related: Climber Spotlight: Matty Hong
What advice do you have for budding adventure photographers and videographers?
Shoot every single day with intention and execution.
Not every photo or video will be a big hit, but it’s important to stay true to your vision and perfect it, much like a songwriter when making an album; every song is equally important to the writer, but the singles are often obvious.
My biggest problem is hearing others’ opinions or seeing a photo not perform as well as I’d like to. I do my best to ignore what’s detrimental, learn from my mistakes, and better myself. I fight the anxiety through more work by trying to make every photo a “single.”
It’s also cathartic. If I don’t take a picture once a day, you probably don’t want me around because I’ll be stressing about how I’m still not the best photographer I can be.
All photos courtesy of Michael Lim 2016 ©