Climbing photography tips

by Duncan Skelton on February 22, 2011

in articles,photography

Slate climbing at Vivian Quarry

Looking for top tips to improve your climbing photography? In this article I offer a collection of ideas to lift your climbing photos up a notch. Originally serialized on rockclimbinguk, I’m presenting the 12 top tips here as a single useful resource with updated examples and content.

Good climbing photographs are generally the result of experience, skill and predetermined conscious effort. They are rarely quick snapshots taken hastily by the belayer.

The snapshots are easy to spot – headless climbers, missing limbs, and butt-shots. Great images don’t happen by chance.

  • A headless climber shot taken from a poor position
    Exhibit A
    A headless climber shot taken from a poor position
  • A classic butt-shot of a climber taken by the belayer.
    Exhibit B
    A classic butt-shot taken from directly below.

The good news is that there are a few easy things you can do to make big improvements very quickly to your climbing pictures. The bad news is that you will need to put in some effort. So let’s start off with the one that I still find the hardest to swallow.

# 1: Decide whether you want to climb or take photographs

If you are climbing and taking climbing photos you’ll only ever get 1 of 2 outcomes…

  • Backsides or the tops of heads/helmets
  • Snapshots and self portraits (I love these by the way and you should definitely take same of these too!)
  • Classic top-of-the-head shot of a second taken from a belay stance.
    #1.1
    A classic top-of-the-head shot of a second taken from a belay stance.
  • Photo of a climber seconding a route
    #1.2
    Another example of the limited shots available to the photographer while climbing.

Climbing and photographing are activities that don’t mix. I hate it, but you have to suck it down. It’s just how it is. If you’re trying to take better climbing shots you cannot be climbing at the same time.

There’s a practical side to this too which is that to try to do both you end up having to carry a huge amount of kit. More ropes, more protection, rigging gear and all your camera kit.

Pro’ photographer Ian Smith echoes this view in our interview. “Be prepared to work hard and be willing to give up some climbing time. It’s incredibly difficult to both climb and take photographs, so set aside days or half days when you separate the activities and decide to be fully one or the other.”

Still want to improve your climbing photography? The good news is that you’ve already done the hard part.

# 2 : Know your camera controls inside-out

Know how to adjust your camera controls without having to think about it. This frees up your attention to focus on creating the image whilst reacting to the changing environment.

You should know how to change ISO quickly to compensate for the changing light, change aperture/shutter speed, metering mode etc. This also means you need to be aware of what your exposure metre is reading through the viewfinder. Practice at home, practice in the garden. Don’t leave it till you’re hanging on a rope investing your day for one must-have shot. This becomes increasingly important as you add complexity to your setups with fill-flash and remote flash.

Aim to be able to do all of the above and more without missing any of the action. I wouldn’t like to count the times I’ve been caught out fiddling with camera buttons at the point when a climber takes an unexpected fall. Shooting on ‘auto’ means you have to worry less about settings, but in doing so you surrender artistic control of the image you capture. For many cameras using ‘auto’ also means you can’t capture RAW files, only JPG, further reducing your choices.

  • A well exposed climbing shot taken in changing, but good light
    #2.1
    With a strong wind blowing broken clouds fast across the sky the lighting here changed constantly. This shot worked well.
  • Climbing shot in bad light
    #2.2
    Fast changing extremes of light caught me out on this shot and it hasn’t worked at all well. Some things you cannot control

# 3 : Use the creative controls

If you’re shooting with an SLR or modern compact you have access to the cameras ‘creative controls’. Taking charge of the aperture and shutter speed gives you control over the depth of field of focus and the extent to which you freeze, or blur, movement (ideally whilst maintaining a well exposed image).

If you’re aiming for a close-up of a climber’s chalked hand foreground while keeping their face stylishly blurred in the background then aperture is what you adjust.

Big aperture = shallow depth of field = low ‘f’ number = f2.8

Small aperture = large depth of field = high ‘f’ number = f22

  • A shallow depth of field centres attention on the hand and quickdraw
    #3.1
    A shallow depth of field centres attention on the hand and quickdraw
  • Blurring
    #3.2
    Blurring the background in this shot helps to isolate the climber and provides a sense of depth to the image.

If you want to emphasize the movement of a boulderer as they dyno for a hold then shutter speed is the answer. Experimentation is the best way forward, so review each image and adjust your settings until you get the look you want.

  • Freezing the movement of a climbers hand using a fast shutter speed.jpg
    #3.3
    Freezing the movement of a climber’s hand using a fast shutter speed.

If you want to understand the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and ISO/film-speed (and it’s good that you do) then go Google.

# 4 : Use continuous shooting mode

If your camera has it I suggest switching to ‘continuous shooting’ or ‘high speed’ shooting mode. It can be invaluable as the climber moves through a crux sequence, or if they peel off and take a whipper. Without it you’ll likely capture a frame just before or just after the one you wish you’d got. It’s a little bit of insurance. With it you may catch some images you’d not expected.

Be wary though. You can massively increase the number of images you take (and thus process), so do use it wisely. You don’t want to spend hours editing and analyzing which of 10 indistinguishable images is the best.

  • A seagull enters the frame and flies through it.
    #4.1
    A sequence of 3 shots that captured a gull flying through the frame as it checked out the climber.
  • A seagull enters the frame and flies through it.
    #4.2
    The lucky addition of the bird adds to the atmosphere of this shot. It was picked up for a Rockfax guide.

# 5 : Remove clutter from the scene

If you do shoot downwards look hard at the background through the viewfinder. Presumably you want the climber or part of the climber to be the focus of the photo. Make sure there’s no unnecessary background clutter in the frame. It will distract attention away from your subject.

The most common clutter comes form rucksacks, contents spread out across the ground – helmet, gear, bottles, tupperware, shoes, bright clothing. Even other people can be clutter and you can ask them to move away for a moment. It sounds so easy and avoidable, but it’s always surprising how easy it is to clutter the bottom of crag. Be especially mindful if there’s a group of you.

Clutter reduces the impact of your shot so take the time to remove it from your composition. It’s so much quicker to remove it yourself now, (or ask the climbers to shift it so it’s out of frame), than it is to Photoshop it out later. It It gets worse if you’ve shot a sequence and need to use 3 different exposures from a sequence? Now you have to remove it 3 times!

I promise that once you know it’s there you’ll kick yourself later, and every time you didn’t take a moment and move it.

  • A cluttered background distracts attention from the climber
    #5.1
    A cluttered background was not part of the vision for this shot and draws the eye away from the climber.
  • De-cluttering a background in post-production is always more time consuming than getting the composition right in-camera
    #5.2
    Fixing a cluttered a background is always more time consuming than getting the composition right in-camera.

# 6 : Styling matters

If you haven’t spotted it yet in the climbing mag’s you soon will. Red T-shtirts everywhere! There is a reason; they have great impact.

Okay, so it’s not editorial law, but go with this for a minute. You’ve pre-visualized a moody atmospheric shot on the Grit’, and your chosen model has black Ron Hill’s and a black long-sleeved thermal top. There’s no contrast, and you’ve immediately lost your subject and thus any connection people might have had with the image.

Think about the image you’re trying to create and why. It might make sense to discuss it ahead of time with the climbers. It might make sense to have a couple of spare tops with you to hand out. Strong colours generally work well and the contrast they provide adds perceived sharpness to the image. Experiment and see what you think works well.

I agree that there’s a few too many red tee’s out there but I have hope. I’ve seen a lot of great images with textured beanies and muted woolen pullovers. I find them fondly old school and refreshing. The bottom line is that styling does matter.

  • A climber in dark clothing blends into the rock.
    #6.1
    The climber blends into the rock and the photo has poor resulting subject definition.
  • A
    #6.2
    The classic red T-shirt draws attention to the subject and works well with the rock colour.

# 7 : Get level with the climber

If you’re after people shots, (faces, emotion, positions), then generally you need to be level with, or better still above and slightly to the side of the climber.

You’ll be able to frame the climber’s face, their body position and a little of the route with some background context.

Sometimes the only way to achieve this will be to rig an abseil, descend the rope and hang around. You may need to ascend the rope when you’re done, so think about what kit you need. (I only needed to learn that one once!). If you don’t know how to do this safely then have someone teach you.

With that in mind don’t forget the easy options for these positions. Can you shoot from the top of the crag? Can you scramble up a nearby boulder or route?

One thing I’ve noticed in these ‘above & side’ positions is that competent climbers spend a lot of time looking down at their feet! So be wary you don’t end up with up with lots of back-of-the-head shots. If the climber is wearing a helmet it may throw shadow over their eyes and face.

  • An easy position alongside the climber on high sloping ground overlooking Llanberis pass. Front cover to Rockfax Trad CLIMBING+.
    #7.1
    An easy position alongside the climber on high sloping ground overlooking Llanberis pass. Front cover to Rockfax Trad CLIMBING+.
  • A tricky abseil anchor was required to get position for this shot.
    #7.2
    A tricky ab’ anchor was needed to get position for this shot. I was lucky to achieve a magazine front cover with this too-tight crop.

# 8 : Watch your composition

Getting your composition right in camera is another huge effort-saver in post-processing, and can make the difference between a front-cover and frustration.

  • Horizons & Horizontals:
    Sloping horizons are easy to spot and don’t cut it for editorial work. Correcting them means cropping and losing pixels along with your composition.
  • Gravity & Verticals:
    Runners, rope and gear are big giveaways. There’s nothing funnier than quickdraws hanging at angle off a gear loop as if magnetically attracted to the rock.
  • Cropping:
    Beware framing too tightly on your scene. With mega-pixel cameras you can afford to crop a bit, but you can’t add missing pixels. I’ve fallen foul of this a few times and had images rejected from publication as a result. Magazines like space, and front-covers demand it. Think about what you are shooting for.
  • Know the rules:
    Understand the rule of thirds and other classics. Use them, and break them from time to time.
  • Remember to de-clutter!
  • Unlevel horizon in climbing photo
    #8.1
    Deliberately steepening a climbing shot is usually obvious, and just looks plain wrong.
  • Photo of a climber set against a damn and bridge
    #8.2
    In this shot the climber is placed against the water to emphasize shape and position.

# 9 : Be respectful and professional

I believe this is fundamentally important, and can set you apart from everyone else wielding a camera at a crag. How you represent yourself is what your reputation is based on. Everything you do conveys a message about who you are and how you work.

  • Respect the climber:Don’t distract them, and be ready to help but only if requested.
  • Respect others:You won’t make friends by throwing your ab’ rope down a popular route just to get into position to shoot someone on the neighbouring line.
  • Check first:If you’re obviously about to take photos of a climber you don’t know, and it’s reasonable to do so, ask them if it’s ok. If they say no, or prefer you not to, then don’t take the picture.

If you have taken photos of a climber then get their name so you can caption the shot and acknowledge them. Send them a copy.

I think its a bit of a cheat when you see “Unknown climber on limestone classic” in a mag. You’re getting exposure from the published images, so make the effort to get the climber some too. In my experience climbers are generally happy to contribute.

  • Geraldine Taylor on a birthday ascent of London Wall - a story revealed only by talking with the climber.
    #9.1
    Geraldine Taylor on a birthday ascent of London Wall
    – a story revealed only by talking with the climber before and after taking the picture.
  • A wave-soaked climber climbs in underwear while his trousers dry
    #9.2
    A wave-soaked Charlie Woodburn climbs trouserless. The ‘distracting’ trousers are a key part of this story-telling shot. I got permission before pressing the button.

# 10 : Review Review Review

If you are serious about improving then you need to be serious about reviewing and critiquing your work. How do the shots you took today compare to your favourite images from the pro’ climbing photographers?

Pull out your best two climbing photos. Why do you call them your best? What ‘makes’ those pictures for you?

When you’re editing your next shoot, pause before you hit the delete key on the rejects. Pick a couple. Why are you about to trash them? Why are they ‘bad’ photos?

Pick a couple of the ‘keepers’ that didn’t get a top star rating. Why did they miss that star? What would need to be different/improved upon?

It’s okay to be your own harshest critic. But be disciplined and allow yourself to experiment and fail. Know when to silence the inner critic completely or you’ll stifle your own creativity.

Equally good is to have other people give you feedback. Obviously you should only invite constructive, well-intended criticism. The UKC photography forum is one place to look.

In our exclusive interview with top UK climbing photographer Tim Glasby, he repeats the message, “Be honest with yourself about the quality of your work”.

  • Sport climber on portland flowstone clipping a bolt
    #10.1
    A potentially strong image that just hasn’t worked for several reasons, most notably its too tightly cropped.
  • A wave-soaked climber climbs in underwear while his trousers dry
    #10.2
    I like this shot but again it’s too tightly cropped. Better if we could see more of the route and the ropes/clipped runners.

By inviting comment and self-review I learnt I often compose too tightly on the climber and missed out on other compositional elements and context. Once I was aware of this I put more effort into my compositions. Despite strong colourful elements in #10.1 I wish had got further out from the rock so we could see Al’s left arm and feet, and composed a wider shot to get a sense of the position’s height. Being higher than the climber would have helped out here.

# 11 : Set yourself projects

Improvement requires practice, and that requires motivation. Help yourself by keeping a list of ideas for shots, locations and angles.

  • Belayers holding ropes at a busy crag.
    #11.1
    One of my continuing projects is to capture the atmosphere of climbing, without focussing on lead climbers in action. A busy sun-dappled day at the Dewerstone provided good opportunities.
  • A climber in a wide bridging position on Stanage gritstone.
    #11.2
    I’d been waiting for a while to shoot Goliath’s Groove at Stanage with the aim of capturing the initial committing bridging moves. While I like this shot there are a number of issues with it that keep me wanting to go back and try again.

Look at the climbing media for inspiration. Recreate the shots you like or challenge yourself to find a new perspective on a classic image. I have a list of different projects that I keep dipping into. Additionally I always think I could improve on the images I already have so I’m always motivated to reshoot certain routes.

# 12 : Pre-visualise your shot

  • A climber on a steep layback
    #12.1
    I’d seen Allan’s Crack at Brimham and seen this shot in my head. Months later I shot what I’d imagined. Now I know how to imrpove it.

Okay, this one’s a biggie. It touches on a number of other ideas here and is contrary to some. If you buy that there’s the ‘go and experiment’ approach, then this is the opposite, and it therefore requires more preparation.

The essence of this is that you plan ahead of time, as much as possible, exactly the images you want to create. To do this you’ll need to draw upon your:

  • knowledge of the existing body of climbing photography out there
  • knowledge of routes, how they are climbed, their aspect and crux moves
  • creativity, to find new angles, positions and compositions
  • predetermined plan of what you want to shoot that day

Expose yourself to the work of as many photographers as you can and look at their styles. Are you after documentary coverage of a meaningful ascent; abstract close-ups; wide landscapes showing the context of climbing; rock architecture; body positions; your own style?

If you’re planning for a particular location or route then do some research. Which angles do you like? Which are most common? Can you find a new angle? The UKClimbing website is a good place to start your research.

If you have a strong idea in mind you get the added benefit of minimizing the number of exposures you take and benefit from spending less time behind the computer!

Our interview with Alex Ekins, professional photographer sums it all up nicely and makes it all sound so ironically straightforward. “All you need to do is to find a great route with a great line, a willing and able climber wearing bright clothes, be able to access the best position to take the photograph, use good composition and then pray for amazing light.”

  • Climbers on the Roaches classic, Valkrie
    #12.2
    Valkyrie at the Roaches is one of the most photographed routes. For a while I’d been thinking about how to get a slightly different perspective on the route. I still think there’s more to explore there.

So take from that what you will and go create great climbing photographs! I’ll end by repeating some of Tim’s own advice. “To coin a phrase, ‘just do it’. Get out there and take as many photos as you can in as many varied places and situations as you can.”

12 top tips for better climbing photography.

# 1: Decide whether you want to climb or take photographs
# 2 : Know your camera controls
# 3 : Use the creative controls
# 4 : Use continuous shooting mode
# 5 : Remove clutter from the scene
# 6 : Styling matters
# 7 : Get level with the climber
# 8 : Watch your composition
# 9 : Be respectful and professional
# 10 : Review Review Review
# 11 : Set yourself projects
# 12 : Pre-visualise your shot

For more climbing photography tips and insights from the UK’s leading photographers be sure to read our exclusive interviews

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

kim obrien jones May 1, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Thankyou, I found this really helpful.

I’ have just started climbing and with my background in fine art, I have ended up going down the photgraphy route. I love it.

Thanks again for the tips.
Regards Kim O’Brien Jones

Reply

Duncan June 6, 2011 at 9:26 am

Kim,
It’s a pleasure. Enjoy your climbing and your photography, and good luck in balancing them both! 😉
cheers,
Duncan.

Reply

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