The carabiner is a device most closely associated with mountain climbing, but now it finds application in so many other things. In this article, we’ll explore a few ways you can make good use of a carabiner as a photographer.
Interestingly, the carabiner was not initially invented for climbers. The history of the device is interesting with an inventor nicknamed “Rambo.” It’s not a story I’ll detail here, but worth a read. The carabiner is essentially a loop with an easily opened “gate.” It allows quick clipping onto objects and then which closes by means of a spring. Some carabiners also have a locking mechanism which prevents the gate from inadvertently opening.
Not for climbing
Carabiners come in a multitude of sizes and designs. Those specifically made for climbers are carefully designed, tested, rated for strength, and marked with their load-bearing capabilities. At the other end of the spectrum are the lightweight versions often sold for just a few dollars in hardware stores and the like. These are often marked “Not for Climbing” as they are not built with the same care or performance capabilities of the climbing-specific types.
For the purposes described in this article, we will cover possible uses by photographers. For those applications, the lighter weight, non-climbing versions may work fine.
As a disclaimer, I know very little about climbing. I am not a climber and certainly would not begin to suggest you take anything in this article as instruction on how to use carabiners for climbing. If that’s is your intention, go find an expert – someone you trust with your life.
In the climbing world, that really is the purpose a carabiner may serve.
Security and convenience
Carabiners serve two main purposes for climbers:
Safety – Carabiners are used as quick attachment devices to clip into climbing ropes. Those ropes act as safety devices so should the climber fall, the rope and the carabiner restrain the climber and save them from disaster.
Convenience – On the side of a mountain, it’s just you. Fumble and drop something, and it’s gone. Unable to carry a heavy load, you need a strong, lightweight device that provides security as well as easy access to your equipment (sometimes with just one hand). That’s just the job for which the carabiner is well-suited.
Safety and convenient use of carabiners by photographers is what we’ll address.
When fragile things fall onto hard surfaces, bad things happen. That is why climbers use ropes and carabiners – as safety devices. If you’ve ever dropped a camera, lens, or other valuable photo gear, you learned this lesson the hard way. So, what if we could come up with a few tricks using carabiners to provide some safety for your photo equipment so you aren’t punished by the law of gravity?
I do a lot of landscape photography and like to mount my camera to my tripod with a Swiss-Arca compatible L-bracket. The bracket clips into the lever lock mount at the top of my tripod. I prefer the lever clamp to twist knobs. It’s quicker to work, easier to see if it’s locked, and unlike a twist knob, doesn’t require periodic checking. After taking a few shots, when moving to a new location, I put the tripod over my shoulder and walk to the new spot with the camera and lens still mounted to the end of the tripod.
Now, I know I’m not the only one to do this – I remember watching Art Wolfe’s “Travels to the Edge,” where he’d routinely carry his camera like this. I like to be cool like Art – silhouetted against the sun with my tripod and camera over my shoulder. Never did I see his camera fall off the tripod and I’ve never had mine fall off…yet.
I’m afraid that one day I’ll be walking, carrying the camera this way, and suddenly feel the tripod get lighter and hear a crash behind me. I know my blood would run cold. A clamp failure or unplanned release could spell disaster and certainly, make a grown man cry. Rather than have that happen, I came up with this idea.
Get two carabiners and tie each to opposite ends of a short length of rope. Paracord works well for this as it’s light and strong. Don’t over-engineer this. You want to pick carabiners and cord with a load strength of maybe 50-lbs or greater to be on the safe side, but not so large as to be cumbersome. What is important is to tie the cord to the carabiners with the proper knot. If the rope comes loose from the carabiner when the need arises…yup…that would be bad.
The length of the cord shouldn’t be much longer than the distance to reach from your tripod head to the camera. Usually, 6-8″ (15-20cm) will be about right. Get a split ring, the kind often used for keyrings, and mount that to the lug on the side of the camera made for a regular camera strap.
Now, clip one carabiner through the ring and the other one just under the mount on your ball head. (See the photo). Most ball heads will accommodate this. However, if yours doesn’t, you’ll need to find an alternate place on the tripod to clip the lower carabiner. Now head down the trail confident that if the clamp releases your camera, the tether will save it.
Yes, it might occasionally get in the way or prevent your ball head from completely free motion while photographing, but if so, unclip the carabiners while you work. The peace of mind I get as I walk the trail with my camera on my tripod over my shoulder is well worth a slight inconvenience.
Other uses for a safety tether
A similar DIY device, two carabiners connected by a length of cord, may find other applications in your photo work as a safety tether. The size and weight of the device you need to protect will dictate the strength of your carabiners and connecting cord, rope, or cable. People in lighting or theatrical work are likely familiar with such. Having a heavy light fall onto the talent below would be bad, very bad.
Even if your photography doesn’t involve talent under lighting or other equipment, having expensive photo gear fall off a mount and crash to the ground is also bad. Consider devising ways you can create safety tethers for some of your other equipment with a little creative DIY engineering.
I get it, no one likes a strap around their neck, and most camera straps are a bothersome hassle. But like wearing your seat belt in the car, perhaps you need to consider the risk versus the inconvenience. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen photographers – even pros – holding their camera and taking a shot with the strap dangling down in front of them rather than around their neck. I see them shooting out the tour bus window, over the side of the boat, over a cliff edge or at the zoo with crocodiles below.
Also, I wish I had all the money wasted when cameras and lenses which could have saved with a strap instead were fumbled, dropped, and destroyed. I use an Op/Tech sling strap (Black Rapid is a similar well-known sling-strap designer). It is more comfortable, keeps the camera on my hip rather than my chest, an is still ready for quick action.
My work camera uses a different connection method. It uses a mount into the tripod screw hole and a snap-clip which is much like a carabiner. Before that, I modified my OEM strap and used a similar hardware store snap-clip.
I guess there are people who “free-climb” mountains with no safety devices, people who drive without their seat belts and, yes, people who don’t like camera straps. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
Me? Camera straps, carabiners, and safety tethers are my friends.
Photographing near the edge
On a trip to Canyonlands National Park in Utah, we had a photo buddy in our group with less acrophobia than I. (We nicknamed him “Spiderman”). While photographing the canyon at Deadhorse State Park, he was uncomfortably close to the edge. I tried not to look and concentrated on my photography. Then I did look around…and he had disappeared! His tripod and camera were still there, but not him.
I feared the worst and cautiously peered over the edge…
A few minutes later, with a big grin, he stepped out from behind some bushes.
For our next trip, I’m considering rigging him with a safety tether.
I tell that story to suggest this, using a carabiner and length of rope to allow you to make those “edgy shots” safely. The shots where you extend your camera and tripod over the edge, out the window, over the side of the boat, cliff, above the crocodile pit (Crikey!). All of those places where if you fumble or your clamp releases you won’t be getting your gear back. At least not in one piece. There’s also the potential danger to those below to consider.
I’m suggesting attaching your camera/tripod to a tether. A good device if you do a lot of hand-holding of your camera with a wrist strap. There are various commercial designs, or you can fashion a strap with a velcro fastening to go around your wrist and a carabiner to clip to a ring on your camera. Fumble the camera and the safety tether to your wrist saves it.
While working near precipitous edges, it may also be a good idea to have a tether on yourself. However, if you decide to do so, you enter the realm of “climbing.” As I said, don’t look to me or this article for guidance on that subject.
If you do tether your equipment, secure the other end of the rope to something secure, perhaps not yourself. You don’t want a falling camera and tripod dragging you over the edge too. Got all that Spiderman?
Convenience – What, where, and when you need it
Having what you need, where you need it, when you need it, and available for quick access and return to its storage location is essential to a mountain climber hanging on the side of a cliff. It’s also handy for a photographer who has hands busy operating the camera. Or doesn’t have the time to root through a backpack looking for something while the light is fleeting. Carabiner to the rescue! Putting easy access to equipment within reach is a hallmark of this little wonder.
Creative photographers will come up with many uses for a carabiner, whether in the field or the studio. Others marketing all manner of other goodies and gizmos have also incorporated carabiners into their equipment designs to make them more useful.
Let’s look at some photos that show both some DIY uses as well as product designs that leverage the wonders of a carabiner.
Team these with a carabiner
You’ve seen some great uses for carabiners for a photographer, and hopefully, I’ve introduced you to something you can use. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest some other devices to throw into your pack to increase the versatility of carabiners even more.
Originally developed as the suspension lines used on parachutes, this strong and lightweight nylon cord is a great accessory to have in your pack. It’s available in many thicknesses and strengths, a rainbow of colors, is easily cut when you need a shorter length and you can seal the ends with a match. It’s great stuff and a perfect partner to a carabiner.
Yes, the kind used in the office. They come in a variety of sizes so you can suit the size to the need. A perfect photographic application is hanging a backdrop. Put a few binder clips along the top edge of the backdrop, clip carabiners through the loops of each clip and you can hang the backdrop from a paracord line or rod.
Zip ties – (aka cable ties)
Zip ties are very lightweight, strong, and able to be pulled very tight and locked there. These are wonder devices. When you can’t attach your carabiner directly to an object, try attaching a zip tie to it and before tightening, a carabiner as well. The example above of attaching a water bottle to a carabiner is a good one. You’ll think of dozens of other uses. Zip ties can also save the day when straps or other things in your photo kit break and you need an emergency fix.
People in the film and theatrical professions know and love this stuff and no photographer ought to be without a small roll in their pack. Don’t confuse this with duct tape, it will only make a sticky, hard-to-remove mess of your equipment. Get real gaff tape and then go nuts with the many ways you’ll be able to use it.
The DIY photographer
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a real DIY nut! If I can figure out a cheaper, better, innovative way to do something, including my photography work, I’m all over it.
Carabiners certainly fall into the list of useful parts in the “goodies” bag I keep in my photo backpack. I hope you picked up a useful tip here. If there’s something I missed that you’d like to share with the worldwide photographic community here on DPS, please include it and maybe a photo too in the comments section below.
Now go forth and photograph!