Climbing photography: some tips
By Quang-Tuan Luong © 1997
Many examples of photographs are in the
Non-climber and climber's perspective
Photographing climbers and mountains doesn't require to be a climber or
mountaineer. Very good photographs of mountains can be obtained from the
base of them or from nearby smaller summits which are generally easy. An
outstanding example is the work of Shiharara which has the best photographs of
mountains I have ever seen
(The Alps, Nepal Himalaya, Karakoram Himalaya, all made with a
large format camera).
Rock climbers can usually be seen in warm and not-so-remote
places. One type of interesting photographs that non-climbers
can get are (super) telephoto shots, which show the party in action on
a huge wall. The climbers appear as tiny figures (you have to make sure
that they are still recognizable). The rock (or ice) wall has to have
an interesting texture or graphical component. Good example of these
photographs can be seen on the Black Diamond catalogs cover shots.
To take good pictures of El Cap climbs in Yosemite from the
meadows, a lens of at least 600mm is necessary. To cite an example,
Gerard Kosicki, one of most well known French photographer of climbers, is
not a climber himself. He choses one view point for the entire shooting
session and sticks to it, using a variety of focals (mostly long ones).
These focals allow you to shoot almost parallel to the wall and therefore
to avoid the convergence problem which ruin most of the pictures taken
from the bottom of a climb. If you must stand close to the bottom of the
climb, try to remain as high as possible. If you are still too low to have
a good perspective, then try to get closer and to accentuate the effect
of towering height. This will result in a massive convergence of the
vertical lines. To keep the picture readable, one edge of the frame should
be kept parallel to one meaningfull vertical line.
The best angles however
are obtained when you shoot more or less
diagonally towards the climber from a higher
viewpoint. They are obtained when doing a traversing pitch when
you are climbing, but quite difficult to obtain in most cases if you are
not a climber. Exceptions are places where you can get easily to the the
top of the climb, such as the Verdon gorge in France, or, to some extend,
Half Dome in Yosemite, CA. Even when you are climbing it is not that
frequent to obtain these angles, and if you get them, you generally have
to photograph a second, which is not as dramatic as photographing a leader.
That's why a large number of photos published in magazines and adds are
taken on rappel. You rap down, hang from a rope, and photograph from there.
The perspective is generally very good. Wide angle lenses work best,
since they tend to accentuate the height (distance to the ground) and the
converging of natural features. Be careful not to include you own rope
in the picture. It is also necessary to have a relatively fast shutter
speed, since you will tend to spin. A comfy harness is appreciable.
The perspective is the best if you are actually
well-detached from the wall so you actually shoot from behind the climber.
Overhanging routes allow you to do that naturally. Otherwise, film crews
have been known to use set-up with poles to keep them away from the wall.
I believe that a suspended tripod (with the feet against the wall) would
work fine. When you are shooting this way, you are actually not climbing,
but your point is to shoot, although you are using at least some
climbing techniques (rappeling, jumaring).
Photographing while climbing is another matter. The essential
thing is accessibility of the camera during the activity. If it is not
easy to grab the camera when you need to, you won't make any pictures.
Also sucessful climbing photography requires a particular state of mind,
that you are not likely to have on all climbs, for example when you are
struggling for your life. Most of the time you will be also climbing
with partners, and their attitude is very important. They will be more
likely to tolerate your photography if, besides not interfering too much
with the climb, you are a skilled climber. This requires you to be
well below your climbing habilities. Remember you are trying to solve
several problems at a time here.
How to carry it
I always keep it to a minimum. When engaged in climbing photography
you have to accept the fact that your photographic equipment might be
damaged. It is just a tool. If you are uncomfortable with this idea,
the only solution is to use cheaper gear. If you overprotect your
camera, this will get in your way and you won't be that sucessfull
with your photography. When I carry the camera in the pack, I try to
stuff it in a place where it is protected by other items like
clothing, etc... When I carry the camera on me, I try to make sure
that it is snuggly attached to the body. The main source of damage
being the camera swinging against rocks. I don't use lens caps in
climbing because they are too easy to lose and get in my way. Instead
I leave a skylight filter permanently attached to my lenses (I remove
them if I need another filter).
The neoprene straps help a lot compared to the traditional straps.
I have one on the camera, and one on the camera pouch.
Most of the ones I have seen use ABS (or similar) Fastex type clips. One might
be concern that it undoes as the camera gets jostled around by
climbing gear, but I have never had this problem.
I have tried various systems (Lowe zoom pouch, Photoflex chest pouch,
a Mounstainsmith fanny pack) to carry a SLR on me. None work really
well for me. The camera tends to swing with the Lowe pouch. It is
nevertheless OK on moderate climbs, you can wear it over the shoulder,
it is not much more annoying than the rest of the climbing gear. The
Photoflex is a nice concept, but there is a major bug which surprises
me coming from a climber such as Rowell: it interferes with the pack's
waist-belt, or the rack, and you always carry either of these on
climbing. The fanny pack tends to be uncomfortable, I sometimes carrry
it on a pitch, but not more. As a consequence, I put my SLR in the
backpack, and take it off to photograph. Looks like an inconvenience,
but: in situations where it is possible to do so, it gives a good
break, and in situations where it is not possible to do so, I just
don't use the SLR that much. Favorable situations include easy
terrain (mostly in mountaineering), and belays (esp. on big walls
where you don't have anything else to do). In addition to the SLR, to
make sure that I have always a camera handy, I carry a small camera.
In mountains, it goes on the chest pocket of my bibs/sweater. When I
am climbing in T-shirt, I put it in a small pouch that I clip on my
harness front gear loop. The small camera has gotten for me at least
as many good pictures than the SLR.
What gear to use
You want a SLR, for its ability to frame, meter, and focus precisely,
use filters (polarizing, and warming), and wide-angle lenses (ie a
24). However, if you have to be light (technical and/or alpine
climbing), a SLR might be too heavy and cumbersome.
Even if you have the SLR, you also need a small camera, that you can always
pull out of your pocket in a matter of seconds.
Typically I take the SLR on moderate alpine climbs, to the approach to
all technical climbs (on the climb itself, if I suspect some good
opportunities I'll sometimes take it, sometimes have the second carry
it), on expedition-style climbs, and on big walls.
The SLR camera and lenses
Now I use Nikons. If I
expect very difficult conditions, I take the FM2. Otherwise, I take a
N90 (which replaced my 8008) for its ability
to operate in automatic mode. THE lens: 24-50/3.3-4.5. 24mm focal is
essential for including both figures and landscape. This is a primary
reason for carrying an SLR. 50mm give pictures which already look a
little like telephoto pictures. Good not to have to switch lenses in
situations where something dropped is lost. Minolta has a 24-85, and
third-party manufacturers have all a 24 to moderate telephoto lens,
however I am not sure they match the Nikkor 24-50 in quality.
On tend to get addicted to very wide angles. I have been thinking
about using a 20-35, but the prospect off risking damage to a very
expensive lens (the Nikkor) has preventing me from doing so, and
besides, the 50mm focal is quite useful to have.
The N90 is a bit on the
heavy side for me, but since I use also a large format camera, I am
getting used to loads. Maybe Canon would be a better choice (because
of the weight), but every climbing photographer that
I know seem to use Nikon.
The autofocus and auto-exposure are big pluses
because you can snap the picture very fast, even with only one hand.A
camera like the 6006 would be probably a better choice than my N90
esp. since you
have the built-in flash for fill-in. These days, I pack in a Lowe zoom
pouch the N90, 24-50 all the time, and most of the time a 75-150 in
the bottom of the pouch, a polarising filter and a warming filter for
the 24-50, a couple of rolls of extra film, extra batteries.
[Note: as of 98, I'd
use the 24-120 instead].
The small camera
I have used Rollei 35, Minox (GT and GTE), Olympus XA,
Yashica T4, Nikon Lite-Touch [Note: as of 98, I got a GR1. I have not
climbed with it a lot]
See my review for more details.
The Rollei 35, Minox and XA are better photographic tools, but a P&S
camera like the T4, Lite-Touch, Stylus is vastly more convenient
in situations where you want to operate fast (mostly technical
climbing) because it is automatic and has a flash. All these cameras
are not too expensive, so it is not that big a deal if they get
I am not sure it is a good idea to use a high-end small camera (T2,
Nikon 28/25 Ti, GR1, etc...) because of the potential loss of money vs
the added features (mostly slightly faster/better optics and controls)
however if I had only one camera (ie not carry the slr) I'd for sure
prefer to have one with some controls so that I can at least choose
the fstop and bracket. So if I had also the SLR, I'd probably take
my Lite-Touch, whereas otherwise, I'd probably take the my GR1.
If I mountainnering or climbing, I don't take a tripod. I think they
are just too heavy and cumbersome. Except for the pictures taken at
dawn and dusk, everything can mostly be hand-help since you won't be
using long teles or need too much dof.
However, on outings where you are out at dawn/dusk, it is good to have
a form a camera support so that you can capture this beautiful light.
I recommend a device which is not full-size, but lets you orient
the camera, like a table-top tripod. There is a range of them, from
devices which are like a full-size tripod with shorter legs, to
minuscule plastic devices like the ultrapod with a flimsy ball-head.
I tend to favor the latter ones. To photograph, you place them over
your backpack. You can also try to use a piece of clothing as a bean
bag, but I have found it difficult to frame precisely this way.
I am not particularly fond of monopods. I'd rather use a clamp on an
ice-ax (Messner photographed himself this way). Camp makes them.
Ski poles can also be used with an ultrapod, or modified to accept
a ball head.
- Cold: Even on Mt Mc
Kinley , one of the coldest mountains on Earth, my FM2 worked
perfectly. This camera was also the choice of photographers Morrow
and Tournaire, who both did the "7 summits" and therefore took
pictures from the summit of Everest and Mt Vinson (Antarctica).
However, in most mountains (including himalayan peaks) the temperature
is warm enough during the day to use an electronic camera. If you use
a remote battery pack to keep the batteries warm, as Galen Rowell did
during his trip to Antarctica, the camera will most likely work
perfectly in any conditions. Otherwise, you might have to switch
batteries regularly between your pocket and the camera.
When you are not shooting, the best way to keep the camera warm is
to put the camera under your coat whenever you can.
Plan to carry
plenty of spares, because the battery life is significantly reduced by
the cold, especially if you are using flash. Breathing towards the
viewfinder or front element should be avoided, as water quickly
condenses on glass surfaces and takes time to disappear. In
particular, if it refreezes, it will be quite difficult to clean out
the pellicle of ice. The LCD of the camera may be impossible to read
in cold. It returns back to normal when it warms. When you take your
equipment back to room temperature, water condenses all over. This
problem can be avoided by putting your equipement inside a plastic
bag, where the condensation will form, instead of on your camera and
lenses. The most serious problem I have had with cold was due to the
It becomes very brittle, and you must be very careful while rewinding.
- Altitude: this affects the climber more than the camera. The only effect
is that there are more UV than at see level. Nowadaus, I carry almost in permanence
a 81A on my lenses as protection, but I don't think this makes a big
difference. The pictures I took without a filter at high altitudes (for
example currently with Rollei 35 or T4, or before I decided to carry a "protective"
filter) did not show a significant blue cast.
The only visible difference is the horizon, which looks a little more hazy and
blueish when no filter is used. However, this effect is rather small
and looks quite natural. The use of skylight (81A) filter tends to reduce slighty
the haze, but not as much as a polarizer. However,
at high altitudes, the sky is already pretty dark, so using a polarizer
in good weather conditions might make it look unatural if the sky is
included in the pictures.
- Snow: most meters are expecting a brightness which is equivalent to a
medium gray. If you meter from the snow, then you might get underexposure:
figures turning very dark, snow looking greyish... Compensate by overexposing
by 1 to 2 stops or by metering from a surface different from the snow.
In my experience, 1 stop is enough. 2 stops tends to wash out the
texture from the snow.
Matrix meters have the ability to detect this situation (by noting that the
average brightness is over the one given by the sunny-f16 rule). The meters
of the point and shoot cameras are very easily fooled by the snow, and it
is very difficult to get acceptable pictures on snowy slopes. The good news
is that Photoshop can compensate partially for exposure problems.
What did camera/film did you use ?
Compared to being there at the right moment and pointing the
camera to the right subject, the equipment is relatively
I have used a variety of cameras, lenses, and films over my climbing years
(note that a few years ago I switched to Canon):
pictures, I don't even remember which ones.
I have found that for
snow scenes, where the color is somewhat subtile, Velvia produces
considerably better results than Kodachrome and even other Fuji films.
Generally speaking, the
colors in the high mountains are not that saturated, and in this type
of photography color never hurts. If I need to use faster film (ie 100
asa), I make sure to use a saturated one.
- SLR: Minolta 9000, 35-70, Nikon FM,FM2,F601,F801,N90,24,28-85,24-50
- P&S: Minox,Yashica T4,Nikon LT,Ricoh GR1
- Films: Kodachrome 25, 64, Fuji Velvia, Kodak Lumiere