The prevalence of rock climbing has skyrocketed in recent years. It is no surprise that the desire to photograph the sport has seen a similar increase. In no time at all, a new photographer sees that there is a steep learning curve to creating stunning climbing photos. Simply put, it is not a sport that can be shot from the sidelines. Already being a climber puts you at a significant advantage, but even after spending the vast majority of my adulthood being both a rock climber and professional photographer, I can say that there is always something to improve on. Consider these a few stepping stones to get you on your way to what can turn into a full-on obsession.
Have A Solid Plan Beforehand
Are you going to be ascending up the route before your climber? Are you shooting from the next route over? Are you rappelling in from anchors above? Before you can ask any of these questions, it is good to get an idea of what you want. Are facial expressions when the going gets tough more important to you than capturing the vast landscape beyond the wall? There are endless ways to shoot a climber, so coming up with a plan before you head up a wall is an important starting point.
Know How you’re Getting to Where You’re Going Before There’s a Camera in your Hand
Those questions about finding the best way to where you want to shoot? They are all addressing access. You might be using two ascenders to jug your way up a line. Maybe it’s a one jumar and one GriGri setup. If you’re rappelling in, knowing a safe way up to the anchors is super important. If you’re shooting bouldering, there is often some scrambling up surrounding rocks to get to where you want to be. Once there, having a hands-free system in place is necessary if you’re going to have the freedom to use your camera. If all of these things sound like I’m speaking another language, find someone who knows climbing and already owns the gear, then have them teach you.
Ask Where the Crux Is and Shoot That
The most difficult or dangerous part of a route is called the crux. It’s a good idea to know where it is on the route you’re about to shoot. Most of the time, the crux will give you something interesting to photograph. Whether it’s a strange body position, an intense try-hard face, or pumped arms giving it their all to hold on, it’s smart to focus on the hard parts if you don’t have something else jarring pulling your attention elsewhere. Climbers also tend to look strong in the midst of the crux, which translates well into photos. Often, excited climbers tell me how much they appreciate that I made them look strong in my shots.
Shoot When the Climber is at the “Right Spot” on the Rock
Rock climbing has various disciplines, all of which ask for different placements of climbers in the shots. If someone is sport climbing, shoot your photos when they are above their last clipped bolt. While this narrows the percentage of the route you will be shooting, it is a good aesthetic rule to follow. When someone is climbing trad, the placement of gear is itself often interesting. You still want to generally hold off from photographing them under a clipped piece of gear, but grabbing a shot of that finicky cam placement or a precisely slotted a tri-cam can be interesting visually. Bouldering is more open, without gear to give guidelines. Most of the time, there are big moves happening on a boulder. Aiming to capture that is a great focal point. Lastly, if you’ve made your way up to the alpine, shoot like crazy. Those mountains are stunning and you’ve worked hard to get yourself there.
Don’t Drop Anything, Ever
While it seems obvious, it is worth reiterating. As a photographer on a wall, you are in no way ever allowed to drop a single thing you bring up there with you. Don’t put something in a pocket and expect it to stay unless there is a zipper closing it in. Don’t sling something around your neck without the strap being attached to your harness with a carabiner. Make sure backpacks are closed. Make sure there are no loose ends. The consequences are obvious when you have people climbing just below you. The less stuff you bring up in the beginning, the better.
I don’t have a photo to explain this one, but that’s probably best.
Get the Climber’s Face in the Shot
It makes a lot of sense that you would want your climber’s face in the photo, but when you’re starting out you’re going to see that it’s not always the easiest feat. If anything, getting your climbers face in the photo will ensure that you aren’t getting the classic butt shot. It’s a good rule of thumb until you define your style and see what is worth including that doesn’t have faces.
Checking out work from some of the masters of the craft is always a good idea. Michael Clark’s composition is always coupled perfectly with bold colors and dramatic lighting. You can take a look at his work here. Savannah Cummins is another expert who creates powerful photos. Regardless of being on a remote expedition or at a small, local crag, her style remains consistent and tells genuine stories of the climbing world. Her photos can be seen here. Shooting climbing is a really rewarding activity. Beyond creating amazing imagery, you will be outside participating in a sport that is captivating for a million different reasons. Enjoy it!
about the author
Carter is a published photographer and writer, always finding new expanses to be creative. She spent much of her adulthood in Panamá, but is now back to being all over the place. As a climber, she tries to spend more time in the mountains than anywhere else. She captures people and creatures in their element all over the world. Her editorial projects – produced when she becomes a fly-on-the-wall photographer and writer – best show off the immersive style of her work.