Climbing and photography take time and effort to master and maintain. The best climbing photographers are passionate about climbing and don’t forget why they love to photograph it. Being inspired will go a long way toward making you an outstanding photographer, but you also need to know why you are taking photos in the first place. What is it you want to achieve, and why? If you were to shoot for 10 years, what would your “body of work” look like? Would your photos be unique? Answering these questions will help you find your vision, which is the fundamental step toward improving your photography.
I mean, really understand it. This is more complicated than thinking the best light is always in the morning or evening and blue sky is best (it often isn’t). The time of day, time of year and cloud cover are factors that determine the direction, intensity, quality and color of light. Understanding light will help maximize whatever light is available, and help you anticipate how the light will change. It will also help you decide if you need artificial light, and, if so, how best to use it.
HOMEWORK AND PREPARATION
Many shots will work out better if you know the area, the climb, the conditions and the light beforehand. Think ahead about the best angle and position. Consider rappelling and taking some test shots, and work through the lens choices and compositions. Get into position early so you are ready to catch the action. If you set up well enough in advance, and discover that another position might be better, which happens, you may still have enough time to relocate. Finally, be prepared to scrap your plans and be spontaneous. Seize an opportunity should it arise.
POSITION, POSITION, POSITION
This is everything in climbing photography, and you don’t have to “epic” to get in position—some of my best shots were taken from the ground, a ledge or the cliff top. Work the angles, which really just means considering all options including the distance you are from the climber and the size he will be in the frame.
One of the fundamental challenges in climbing photography is getting a good angle on the action and the climb. Often, if you can get farther out from the cliff you will improve the perspective. But getting farther out presents a problem. Greg Epperson has his famous stilts as a solution. Years ago I built an aluminum A-frame structure, which I called the “photo frame.” That enabled me to get 20 feet out from the cliff, but it was cumbersome, took ages to set up and was fixed to one position, so I didn’t use it much. Lately I’ve rigged a camera to a 25-foot-long pole. A video feed from the camera lets me see the composition on a little monitor, and I use a remote trigger to fire the shutter. This is a versatile, adjustable and lightweight solution that I can easily travel with, but not all solutions have to be elaborate. In some situations you can tie the end of your fixed rope to a tree at the cliff base and tension out, or string the rope between two cliffs.
There are no hard and fast rules of composition, but here are some considerations. Backgrounds can make or break a shot. Use a telephoto lens and camera angle to simplify a cluttered, distracting background. A narrow depth of field (wide aperture) makes the subject “pop” from a nice out-of-focus background of colors, textures and shapes. Or perhaps go wide, wide, wide and show the grand vista and amazing situation that the climber is in. Keep horizons straight; even a slightly crooked horizon will look wrong. Don’t tilt the camera to make the cliff look steeper than it is; quickdraws hanging the wrong way will give it away. Remember the “Rule of Thirds.” Divide your image into thirds, and place your subject off the vertical or horizontal center. And here’s a big tip: think about what is unusual or unique about the climb, setting or situation and find ways to emphasize that; it’ll help your image stand out from the crowd.
This is obviously critical, but you must constantly remind yourself. Bringing photography into the mix means there is simply more to go wrong, and you’ll get in situations such as scrambling unroped around cliff tops and across ledges, often with loads of equipment. Rockfall is another major concern both for you and the climbers—it’s too easy to knock rocks off the cliff top or for a fixed rope to brush flakes off the wall. As a photographer you should be especially aware of the safety of the climbers you are shooting. Some people get excited about being photographed, and push the envelope more than they might otherwise. Be prudent about what you ask or encourage any climber to do. No photo is worth dying for, and you have a moral responsibility to keep your subjects safe.
IMPROVE YOUR CLIMBING SKILLS
Becoming a better climber will make you safer and more productive. I don’t mean you need to climb harder. Instead, improve your rope work, rigging skills and increase your understanding of what’s going on. These are not skills learned in a gym, but ones that require time on the rock and ice. Do stacks of trad and multi-pitch climbs.
For ropes, I much prefer to fix a static cord, which stretches less, making it easier to jumar and more resistant to cutting than a dynamic rope. Even with a static, I use lots of rope protectors and re-belay (tie off) my rope below sharp sections. Rig your ascenders so they are dialed in and fast to use: During a shoot you may need to sprint to a new position higher up the rope. Every second it takes for you to get in position can mean a missed shot. Using a chest harness (in addition to a sit harness) will transform your photography. A chest harness not only makes hanging on a rope more comfortable, but enables you to lean way out for a better perspective and hold that position for a long time. This gives you a better angle, and being comfortable lets you concentrate on operating the camera and precisely framing your shots.