Not Your Average Vacation Video: Shooting in Mid-Air with Jimmy Chin
Hey everyone! I’m Reese and I’m excited to be a part of the Fstoppers team. My segment, The FS Spotlight, is a new weekly Q&A session with professional photographers at the absolute top of their field. The interviews are going to touch on everything from how they reached rock star status to their shooting style to what cameras they shoot with as well as their advice to all aspiring photographers. This week’s feature is the adventurous Jimmy Chin; enjoy!
Youʼve never shot video before. Someone hands you a camera and a manual. “Figure it out,” they tell you. “Your first shoot is a documentary for National Geographic. On the top of a mountain. In Tibet.”
If youʼre most photographers, youʼre probably thinking some choice four letter words and/or about to pee yourself. If youʼre badass photographer and professional climber Jimmy Chin, youʼre used to thinking on your feet (or hanging from a rope in midair) so you rock the assignment and eventually end up owning your own production company, Camp 4 Collective.
Today Chin is one of the few people on this planet who can literally claim the word “adventurer” as his job title… but he also proudly bares the titles photographer, professional athlete, filmmaker, and one of People magazineʼs Most Eligible Bachelors. Chin can regularly be found in exotic locales around the world, and his photos can be found in National Geographic, Outside, GQ, Men’s Journal, and outdoor clothing brands.
So the question is, how do you shoot video while dangling off a rock tower in Pakistan? How do you pack gear for the North Face of Everest? How do you balance being a professional photographer on assignment with being a dependable team member in some of the most dangerous situations on the planet? When it’s survival of the fittest, how do you get the shot?
Fstoppers: Youʼre one of the worldʼs premier expedition photographers. Which came first, climbing or photography?
Jimmy Chin: Definitely climbing and skiing. I wasnʼt trying be a professional athlete either, though. I went to college for international relations and thought I was going to have ‘professional career,’ but I took a year after college to focus on climbingand skiing – at least thatʼs what I told my parents. I ended up almost living out of my car for 7 years, doing a little bit of everything. A friend of mine was hoping to become a photographer, and I took a photo with his camera and when he submitted photos to clients the only one they bought was mine, so he sold it for $500 and gave me the money, and I bought a camera. I was living on nothing at the time and I remember thinking, “I only have to take one photo a month, and I can live forever!” A lot of my friends turned out to be amazingly talented athletes, some of the best climbers and skiers in the world. I was in that scene, able to travel, and they didnʼt have to worry about me as a liability, so when they became famous I was kind of a go-to guy. It evolved from there, and Iʼve been with The North Face as a professional athlete for 10 years now.
Fstoppers: So you’re a self-taught photographer?
Jimmy Chin: Yeah. Galen Rowell was a big influence. I met him early in my career, and he was actually one of the guys that suggested that I buy a camera. I also took a photo seminar in Jackson, Wyoming by Rich Clarkson, and I got to hang out a lot with David Allen Harvey… He opened my eyes to the idea of photojournalism, the decisive moment, getting in close while shooting, and the idea that you have to establish a rapport and be a certain kind of presence so that you can make people feel comfortable.
Fstoppers: Youʼve developed quite a reputation as a filmmaker as well. How did that happen?
Jimmy Chin: I never planned to be a filmmaker either, but in 2002 I was invited to join Rowell and Baker on a project in Tibet. Rick was the writer and Galen was the photographer, and David Breashears was supposed to be the filmmaker. Heʼs the premier filmmaker of his time. They called me and said, “Hey, do you want to go? The only thing is that youʼd have to take David Breashears’ spot.” It was a big deal, especially since Iʼd never filmed before in my life. They handed me the camera and the manual and said, “Figure it out!” So my first film was a National Geographic documentary. Then I started getting a bunch of jobs as a camera man.
Fstoppers: You crossed 300 miles of the Chang Tang Plateau on foot and unsupported, attempted the North Face of Everest, and skied off the Everest summit. How do you simultaneously stay focused on the expedition and the assignment?
Jimmy Chin: It really is two full time jobs. It really is that hard. Some of the best moments happen when things are getting really bad and going sideways and people are exhausted. The photos from those moments have the most impact, but theyʼre really difficult to shoot. When thereʼs a momentʼs pause in the action, when people are eating and taking care of themselves, thatʼs when you need to anticipate, move ahead, and get ready. When the storm is moving in and people are throwing on jackets and battening the hatches, thatʼs when you need to be shooting. You need to anticipate that moment and eat while youʼre climbing, shove stuff in your face, because their 5 minute break is your only chance to get ahead. You need to know when to shoot and when you need to pull your weight. On lot of these shoots Iʼm leading with the climbers and canʼt bring much equipment with me, and sometimes you realize, “Itʼs a little too serious to shoot right now.” It gets dire enough that you have to be part of the team, not a photographer.
Fstoppers: Traveling with gear is an issue for most photographers, so how do your work environments effect what gear youʼre able to work with?
Jimmy Chin: It depends on the type of shoot. If itʼs a bigger commercial shoot and I have helping hands and weight isnʼt as much of an issue, Iʼm bringing an arsenal for sure. If Iʼm in the US and can have a crew, I have more options. But if itʼs in Denali and youʼre hauling your weight on a sled for 14 miles and youʼre carrying all your food and shelter for the next 20 days? I went up there with one camera body and two lenses.
Fstoppers: Tell me about your cameras. What do you shoot with?
Jimmy Chin: I shoot with both Nikon and Canon. I do tons of my video work with the Canon, but for photojournalism I like the Nikon better… probably because of the autofocus systems and Iʼm more familiar with it. Canon does great images as well, so if Iʼm doing film and stills then Iʼll probably bring the Canon.
Fstoppers: Youʼve traveled to Tanzania, South Africa, Argentina, and documented the first ascents of unclimbed towers in Karakoram and ski descents in the Himalayas. Where has been your favorite place to shoot?
Jimmy Chin: The next place, wherever that may be. I like shooting in places that Iʼve never been and that are foreign to me. Iʼm always looking for the next place. Itʼs nice to know an area if you have commercial concepts and you know that you can go to one location and nail that for them. Purely on a personal level though? Places Iʼve never been.
Fstoppers: What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment as a climber?
Jimmy Chin: Probably climbing and skiing Mount Everest in 2006. I just climbed and skied Denali with a few friends, and that was amazing as well.
Jimmy Chin: Getting the cover of National Geographic last month was pretty nice. I always aim to bring back photos of things that people have never seen before. Creating an image Iʼve never seen anyone else take. Something that was inspired by a spontaneous moment. Something truly inspired by a moment and spontaneous, I love those.
Fstoppers: I canʼt not ask… Wikipedia informs me you were voted one of People magazineʼs most eligible bachelors, how do you feel about that?
Jimmy Chin: I donʼt know! I guess I feel like Iʼm getting old. I thought that was pretty funny. It happened during a period when I was traveling so much on back to back expeditions, I actually didnʼt see the issue for several months. It didnʼt really register. The only thing that registered is that I still hear about it!
Jimmy Chin: Theyʼre all dangerous. Maybe the North Face of Everest… Almost every location has some serious objective hazards to get over, whether itʼs getting robbed at knife point in Chad, Africa or hanging off of a cliff. There are lots of different sorts of dangerous situations… Driving down the highway in Pakistan.
Fstoppers: Whatʼs next for you?
Jimmy Chin: I have a bunch of post-production obligations. I have a commercial for The North Face and I have a lot of office-related obligations these days, but the next big trip is to the Garhwal Himalayas in India.
Jimmy Chin: I work with different people and you can see when there is talent, but the thing that distinguishes the people that end up being successful is those people throw themselves at their work. You have to work really hard and put a lot of time in, and be really focused. Thatʼs hard to do unless youʼre passionate about it. Harness the creativity and the passion of it… Thereʼs so much creativity and passion and motivation out there. Find inspiration through mentors and donʼt be afraid to go after what you want. The biggest thing is not being afraid, having the courage to do what you want to do.