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I’ve been into rock climbing on and off for the past couple of decades. About the same amount of time I’ve been into photography (but that’s been more on than off). It hasn’t been until recently, though, that I’ve become interested in marrying the two in something more than an accidental way. After trying my hand at photographing a local indoor climbing competition and also planning an upcoming climb of a 20,000′ peak in Nepal, I decided to make learning the craft a goal of mine.
In searching for someone to help me, and you, learn more about climbing photography, I turned to Twitter. Kamil Bialous was kind enough to heed my call and after checking out his nicely designed portfolio website(http://www.kamilbialous.com), I set about asking him a few questions in hopes of learning how he captures his wonderful images.
But first, a small bit of climbing terminology is in order:
I started developing my climbing photography during a time when I was climbing heavily and training for climbing almost daily, for several years. This coincided with my exploratory period in photography where I was beginning to find my photographic vision. The opportunities arose from being surrounded all the time by ambitious, fun, and fit people. I started shooting bouldering on a few trips to Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee – I really love the rock in these areas, and the photos always had a very raw look to them, which I enjoyed. Photographing bouldering didn’t require me to operate a camera at a great height, and allowed me to really focus on my craft and discover new perspectives, and angles that looked good to me. That was really important to me – not replicating what was already out there.
For experienced climbers, shooting on a cliff will not pose too much technical difficulty. I’ll assume a new climber, or a photographer with limited ropes experience. There are a few notable challenges that present themselves. First and foremost is your own safety – learn the proper techniques, ropes, and systems management for shooting tethered to a cliff. Know, however, that once you are tethered, horizontal mobility becomes rather difficult, so your creativity may be restricted. Finding a vantage point that allows mobility for various angles and perspectives, while still allowing you to capture your vision for the shot/route/move/sequence is one of the interesting and challenging aspects to roped climbing photography. Next up is equipment management. I’ve got it dialed now with a little modified bag to hold my stuff without getting in the way, but there is no rule book on this. Comfort is also paramount while hanging in a harness for a long time while a climber works a route for the umpteenth time, so those cute sport climbing harnesses that look like a thong may not be my first choice.
Again, no definite rule book exists for how you protect your equipment while on rope. Photographers generally work out and modify a system that allows their shooting technique the most flexibility. Personally, I tether my camera to myself, or to my main jugging rope. My gear comes on my back in a modified backpack that I can sling like a bucket below me from my belay loop or from an ascender. Careful is the keyword when changing lenses. My backpack, which also acts like a bucket due to its top opening, becomes really handy here. Camera body is never detached from its safety tether.
Planning for a particular shot or a shoot is really important, as you want to minimize the amount extra work you’ll be doing. You’re already hiking in with maybe 20 extra pounds, (maybe 20 extra pounds on top of that with a light setup), than the climbers, so no extra work, please. I usually start off speaking with the climber about where the crux of the route might be, or try to view and imagine the line and see where the best light, or most interesting movement may come. Again, creativity and knowledge of the sport is important here. If I can walk up the back of the climb, and rap down, I will. Failing that I will set up an anchor and jug up the line before the climber. On new routes or projects, I will often watch a climber on their first go, and try to determine where the most interesting image or scene will happen. Upon reaching the anchors, I will ask for them to haul up my rope and set up an anchor, so that I can jug up my rope and have vertical control of where I am on the route for their next attempt. Of course, again, if you’re shooting from a rope, horizontal mobility is compromised, so see if you can get an excellent image without having to jug.
For each climber/route combination I photograph, I challenge myself to walk away with one “cover” shot. To me this means that on that specific day, given the conditions, lighting, climber, and rock, this one shot represents the best photograph that anyone could create that encapsulates the story of that route the best. Perhaps it was the crux move, perhaps it was a moment of failure, a missed hold, or a victorious clip of the anchors or gear placement – it has to be cover worthy. If I get one of these, I am happy. Nonetheless, I try to shoot in a documentary style throughout the day for stock. These are shots that may become something, but I went to the crag first to shoot the climbing.
It does take a little bit of practice to keep your bits and pieces like rope, gear, slings, feet, out of the frame especially when shooting with wide angle lenses. Often times ending up in a horizontal position to get the perfect perspective, or to keep something out of the frame. At the same time, with practice, you realize that directly overhead, is usually not going to create the best photo – unless you’re shooting splitter cracks in Indian Creek, and even then it’s a maybe. Above and a little off-axis from the climb is usually best as it situates the line in the environment a little bit better. In any case, if you’re looking straight down, you’re going to have to be comfortable hanging in weird positions, waiting for the climber to reach the decisive spot on the climb. So get comfortable, and wait.
That really depends on how familiar I am with the area. If I know the area well, then very likely minimal scouting is required. The challenge will be on-location to find a new angle that I or someone else has not shot before. That’s the exciting creative side of climbing photography for me. For example, shoot really wide and far away, shoot through the trees, or shoot really tight – get the climber’s face and hand only, maybe. Try new things. Before getting to a crag, and if I know the route I’ll be shooting, I have in the past Google’d the route to see what images have been done, so that I force myself to shoot something new. I think the climbers I shoot with really appreciate the effort in not replicating the same thing, and telling a new story of the climb. When I get to the crag, I’ve been know to drift off and walk around a lot, sometimes far away, trying to find an angle from the ground that will work best while the climbers are getting ready. In any case, I always bring a mix of gear that will allow me to shoot from wherever the best perspective is for the given route.
Friendships and relationships are the most important thing that will contribute to a memorable climbing shoot. A lot of my shoots are on multi-day trips and each trip has its own weave of stories and misadventures. I recall one day this past summer when two friends of mine were climbing a long multi-pitch route called Angel’s Crest in Squamish, BC. Although, not particularly difficult it’s rather long at 15 pitches, and the day turned out to be really hot, particularly long for them due to some questionable route finding – offenders to remain nameless. I comfortably watched with binoculars from the deck of a friend’s back yard as the duo wandered and meandered their way up in the heat of the day. When they were nearing the end, my friend and I headed up the back trails to the summit and awaited the climbers with a couple of cold beers that we insulated in our backpack. We were met with hoots and excitement when the tinnies came out. I snapped one of my favorite portraits of them at the top of that climb, as they quenched their thirst after 15 pitches of climbing. We hiked back down together in the dying light and had a killer bbq meal at our friend’s Peter’s house. Simple and perfect.
Without a doubt, you’ve got one step up on everyone else because you know and are comfortable with the lifestyle of the sport. For example, you know that when a climber rests on a climb, they are likely to re-chalk, when they pull out their hand out of the chalk bag, chalk will go flying everywhere and that may make for a cool photo if shot really tight. Emotions are most important in climbing images, as it’s such a dynamic and emotional activity. Don’t look in magazines to get your direction on what “look” you should be going for. Don’t try to compete with anyone for an aesthetic. Shoot to convey what YOU believe good climbing images should look like. Shoot what YOU believe should be running in magazines. That is the only way new creative content will be produced. Don’t get too hung up on gear, the more you have, the more stuff you have to carry. Try to compete on creativity of angles, composition, and light. That is where I believe the frontier lies in climbing photography. It’s not about how sharp an element of a photograph is – it’s whether you get sweaty palms from looking at the emotion in the photo.
Thanks very much for that. I have a couple that I really enjoy seeing the work of. First off, I think Gordon Wiltsie’s work is quite amazing. (www.alpenimage.com) I admire his work with the late Alex Lowe on some of the world’s greatest big walls, as well as the stuff he’s been shooting for National Geographic. Andrew Burr’s work is also great (www.andrewburr.com), as is Cory Richards from Canada (www.crichardsphoto.com). I really enjoy these photographers for their documentary approach to shooting images that are essentially commercial, and depictions of emotions in their photos.