Climbing photography basic tips - Part 1

Klemen in route Fight or Flight 9b, Oliana, Spain.


I am climber and a climbing photographer and through my photography experiences took me years to learn to take really good photos which now I have them published in magazines, books and other media. With photography I started around 6 years ago. For more understanding; I started actually much earlier with compact cameras and also cameras on film in my teenage years and also I adore photography since I remember.  When I got my first DSLR Nikon D90 in 2010 I started my learning process and for the last 3 years I have been taking this job more seriously, so I am getting better every day. Today I shoot with Nikon D7200.
Well…the thing is… to be a good climbing photographer or photographer in general is a hard job. For me was quite hard to learn all tricks in climbing photography by myself. So, I decided to share my knowledge and experience what I did wrong and what works for me and give you some basic tips for the start of your climbing photography.
I am going to write a blog in two parts, so you can learn from first part and do some homework and then I will give some practical tips in part two. Remember that photography is always about the planning and enjoyable job too.
So, let’s begin!

Tip 1: Get your gear ready

1st you need to get best camera you can afford. For climbing photography is really important that the camera can shoot as fast as possible (5 or more frames per second). I am not saying that the normal camera can’t do a good shot, but climbing has fast and unpredictable moves from one side to another so you and your camera must be fast. You don’t wanna miss a jump, fall or really weird face of the climber. So, I do recommend to buy a good DSLR camera or mirrorless camera with good lenses. And learn how to use your camera.
I use a DSLR Nikon D7200, Nikorr AF-S 18-140mm F/3.5-5.6G ED, Sigma wide lens 10-20mm F/4-5.6 DC HSM and Nikorr AF-S 35mm F/1.8G ED. Don’t forget for flash. Keep your gear organize and clean, cleaning sensor is really important too.
I also recommend to have better lenses, for example zoom lens from Tamron SP 70-200 mm F/2.8 Di VC USD and one good lens until 70mm with also F/2.8. Test lenses first before you buy them. On photos you need to show action and faster lenses can do a better job for us.

2nd thing is 98% of the climbing photography is shooting from the top of the route or from upper part like the edges. That means you need to be ready for jumaring up on rope which you or your climber has to fix into anchor. I will not teach you how to do it. So you need to be aware that climbing is an extreme sport and you are shooting in extreme ambience as well, so you need to take over the responsibility what you are doing and be safe. I recommend if you don’t know how to do those things, the best is to learn rope access from cavers club or someone who knows how to do it properly. Don’t try to figure out how to use your descender on the top of the route. You should know this before you start going up!!! And most importantly; Don’t forget to double check everything before you hang on the rope.
I use all equipment from French company Petzl. They have all the gear for ascending and descending, which is handy, ergonomic and weighs almost nothing. You already have many photo equipment to carry up, so you need to think about the weight too.

my gear+hanging chair from Petzl

Tip 2: Choose the climbing crag and route

Oliana, Spain.
For choosing the crag doesn’t mean you have to drive 1000 km away and then fix the rope and wait for climbers to show up. Don’t do that! Choose you closest crag in your region and call your climber friend and tell him/her that you are learning a climbing photography and you really want to try taking picture of him/her. 99% I’m sure they will love to go climbing with you so you can take photos of them.


Fix the rope in easier route If you are jumaring up for the first time, so the ascending up won’t exhausted you and beside that you are on learning journey, so you won’t be able to take picks right away on overhanging routes with hardcore climbers. You need to understand the movement of the sport first and keep practicing from beginner climbers and slowly move on better climbers. Why? Because you are not fast enough for hardcore climbers yet. So start with 6a climbers. They usually rest more, chalking, talking time in between… and you have much more time to find a good composition. This is a learning process like gardening.

How to choose the crag? Well, all the climbing crags looks mostly the same, the same structure, similar colors from grey to orange and also the lines go more and less in vertical and horizontal direction. Some will disagrees with me, but you imagine a picture which has a bottom layer-the rock, and upper layer is a ˝climber˝ like distraction. In photography means that you have to put distraction into photo. The only differences in the rock is your subject -˝climber˝ and the background like sea, lake, mountains etc. Your job is to draw that climber’s action into a frame and pick the right composition. And that’s it! Sound easy, but it’s not!

Futbolin sector in Santa Linya, Spain.
MY STORY  from my first photographing on rope: I didn’t have that luck to choose an easier route. I had to learn fast because my husband gave me a camera and he needed photos for sponsors. So, I grab that thing and start shooting. And one day Klemen said: ˝Go up and take photos!˝, that was in Gimmelwald in Switzerland. I did jumaring before and also I am alpinist and I know how to use ropes, but taking pics from hanging rope was really uncomfortable for me. So, I went up and took pictures from one 8c route. And guess what, my photos was published in magazine. I couldn’t believe it. It wasn't the best photo, but for that time was good enough. So that’s how I started.

Tip 3: Study the light

The shot was taken during midday. Too much shadow on her face.
In photography is always a lot of words about the light. Basic rule is DO NOT SHOOT IN MIDDAY sunlight unless it is cloudy or the crag is in the shade. Why? The light is too strong and you will get strong highlights and shadows on faces. 
Too much sunlight. Dark and too much bright light on face.
The shot was taken in shady crag.
From my experiences I can say I shoot in afternoon because climbers are too lazy to wake up for one photo which would be great, but the truth is you want the photo and the climbers are in a sleeping mode and their body is not able to do a hardest move at 7 a.m. So you have one option basically. SHOOT IN THE AFTERNOON, CLOUDY DAY, SHADY CRAGS AND AT SUNSET OR SUNRISE LIGHT! Flash is an optional photography, more in advanced tips.

Sunset light makes photos more warm. Good as well.

Tip 4: Get the climber ready

Well… to some people sound funny when I say to them that the photos will be lame if they wear grey, black or old overused clots. But the truth is, most of the people like to see themselves beautiful and in good light with also branded clothes. There are some exceptional people like alpinists who don’t care about how they look. So don’t blame those kind of people and also don’t shoot theme. Why? Because they look the same like crag, there is no contrast between rock and climber and camera also will not recognize what to focus. You can just take a photo of empty wall and it will look the same. About focus later.
My solution is: I order to the climbers exact color I want them to wear and also if they don’t have any, I bring it with me. Don’t worry about the girls, they always have colorful clothes on or decoration on their hairs. The problem is man.
BRING GREEN, RED, BLUE, AND JELLOW T-SHIRTS TO THE CRAG, SIZE M FOR MEN OF COURSE. You can get those cheap shirts in Decathlons sport shops.

Colored T-shirts makes photos alive. In photo you get more contrast between climber, rock and background.
Example of no-colored climbers. They looks the same as rock. And maybe you can find women dressed black too. :)

Tip 5: Composition and framing

Rule 1: Get a knowledge about climbing

If someone asks me: if it’s necessary for taking good climbing photos, to be a climber too? I could say yes, but it is not completely true. Why? You have to be good at framing, compositions, light, catch a good action and tell a story in the image. But if you are a climber, you can better understand physics of moving, gravity and action. If you are not a climber, you need to study this sport, so the easiest way to understand climbing, is to begin climbing.

Rule 2: Be in a good physical shape

Why? You need it! You carry all photo gear on crag, ropes, other access equipment and also jumaring up is not the easiest.

Rule 3: Study compositions before climber comes up

Go up slowly. Look at the line, look at the holds where they are. Try to imagine how the climber will hold theme. It helps if climber goes in a route twice or more times, so you can practice. 

Study the route with different angles and zooming of your camera. Write it down as you get to the ground and next day with your ticket going shooting best composition you studied night before.
For me was the best composition those diagonal lines of tufas in left corner. The rope and climber goes in the same direction. You can imagine diagonal lines and then main distraction is on top of image. On the bottom is connection between lines, this is another, climber ˝belayer˝ looking up. When you shoot someone, please tell to belayer to look up. 

Rule 4: Rule of thirds

Put climber in one of the strong points on intersection in the Rule of thirds.  This is the basis of photography for good balanced and interesting shots. 

Good example rule of thirds. The head and eyes are on intersection of the lines and they are on point of interest. That makes stronger composition.

Another good example rule of thirds with background. Climber is main point of interest and also clots are correctly colored.

Rule 5: Avoid shooting bottom and beginning of the route

Do not shoot from the bottom up and far away, where you can barely see a climber on shots.

Far, far away you can't see what you wanna show to a viewer.
Do not shoot like this or do not publish it at all! there are some exception when is still ok, when with super zoom lenses you can shoot climber looking down. But in most cases that is poor composition.
Start shooting from middle section of the route. Shoot interesting moves, that is usually hard section in the route and shoot the last part of the route too. 

Avoid to do that. The climber is too low. There is no action, boring pic.

Rule 6: Avoid unnatural smiles, shaking, chalking, clipping and posing

Shaking and smiling sometimes is good but not always.

Rule 7: Do not put climber in a cage of your frame. 

Do not force climbers to do stupid moves that they would normally never do in that route.

You must keep in mind; if climber wants to go somewhere, you need to let him/her go there. Let’s see the space in front of climber. In most cases is a hold before climber is reaching for.
Climber is closed in a cage. I don't let her continue the route. Wrong.

Cage photo again.


to be continued....