Born in Wellington, Brake was the adopted son of John Brake and his wife Jennie.
He trained with Wellington portrait photographer Spencer Digby from 1945. Three years later he joined Government filmmaking body the National Film Unit as an assistant cameraman. Brake worked on 17 films at the Unit, mostly as a cameraman, occasionally as a director. Though Brake's skills with studio lighting were utilised, the majority of Brake's work involved the NFU's heavy diet of scenic shorts, including a series of ‘snow' films Brake filmed in the Southern Alps. Snows of Aorangi, one of three NFU films Brake directed, was the first New Zealand film nominated for an Academy Award, in the Best Short Subject (Live Action) category in 1959. It was beaten to the Oscar by James Algar's nature film Grand Canyon.
In 1955 he met Ernst Haas and Henri Cartier-Bresson, members of the photo agency Magnum Photos. This led to his acceptance as a nominee member in the same year, and full membership in 1957. He remained a Magnum photographer until 1967. He worked as freelance photographer in Europe, Africa and Asia until the mid-1960s, when he began working more exclusively for Life magazine.
He is best known for his 1957 and 1959 coverage of China (where he was allowed an unusual level of access), his 1955 photographs of Pablo Picasso at a bullfight, and his series "Monsoon" of photographs taken in India during 1960 and published internationally in magazines including Life, Queen and Paris Match.
In 1976 he returned to New Zealand. Brake commissioned an East Asian influenced architectural award winning house designed by Ron Sang on Titirangi's Scenic Drive, in the Waitakere Ranges to the west of Auckland, where he lived with his life partner, Wai-man Lau, for the remainder of his life, although he continued to accept freelance assignments abroad. In 1985 he helped establish the New Zealand Centre for Photography.
In the 1981 Queen's Birthday Honours, Brake was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to photography
Brake died at Titirangi of a heart attack in 1988.