Every photograph begins with an idea. The job of a photographer is to not only capture the vision, but manipulate it into art, bigger than life, and beyond any initial expectations. 

Less than six years ago, Clay Cook received his first DSLR as a gift, and he fell in love with photography. Prior to that, he was in a band that toured the nation, performing and selling records. It was in those years that Clay learned all about graphic design and video editing while making fliers and videos for the band. When the band broke up, people started paying him for his design work.

Soon, photography began to take over his life; he wanted to capture it all. Eventually, Clay honed his talent and skills to advertising and editorial photography, with his work featured in notable publications and outlets such as: USA Today, ESPN, Wine Enthusiast Magazine and more. Clay is also an educator and contributor for Fstoppers, on top of being an award-winning photographer and filmmaker.


For this series, One Thing I Wish I Knew, we asked Clay to share with us his response to this question:

What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started photography?

You can see more of Clay’s work on his website, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

Clay Cook’s Gear List

(Clay’s gear list is extensive, so he shared with us an abbreviated list with his most used items)



Clay: There are three types of photographers: those that confide in instinct and sunlight, those that rely on post processing, and those that excel at artificial lighting and formalities. Some of the best photographers in this industry can transition like a chameleon and shine at all three. As an editorial photographer, I love lighting, rigging, and all technicalities involved with photography. For many months, the subject fell second to setup.

As an artist you need to ask yourself–what does the image mean to the viewer and how will they relate to it?

There was one moment where it all clicked for me, where everything came together. I only photograph one child about two times a year–my nephew, Jake. Nearly three years ago, I captured an image of Jake that, in my opinion, was perfect. The light was perfect, the expression was perfect, and I was quite proud of the image. Photographers loved the image and I received great feedback from family and friends. When I showed the image to my mother, she loved it, but immediately pulled out her iPhone and showed an image she had just captured the day before on her iPhone. Jake was laughing, looked happy and, more importantly, was wearing a University of Alabama shirt. The iPhone image was out of focus, dark, and the composition was off, but that image ended up in a big frame.

It perplexed me and bothered me for days to follow, I didn’t know whether to feel slightly offended or just accept that the image I captured wasn’t what it cracked up to be. But when I sat down and compared the two images, the answer was clear. It all boiled down to subject matter. Although I had the “perfect” photograph, the laughing and wardrobe of my mom’s iPhone shot was the winner.


It changed my outlook on photography and I garnered a grand respect for those that kick the technicalities for composition and concept. I made it a personal mission to focus on content and context before setting up any sort of light, or picking up the camera.

I had spent half my career focused on the lighting, catchlights and grading, but in a selfish manner I totally ignored the most important virtue of a photograph–the subject at hand. It is the one thing I wish I knew; it’s not about the gear or the camera, it’s about your creativity, vision and ability to connect with people. You own the image, but take into consideration who is watching first.

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CREDITS: Photographs by Clay Cook are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.