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Climbing photography: some tips

By Quang-Tuan Luong © 1997

Many examples of photographs are in the Mountain Gallery.

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.

Camera bags

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 damaged. 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.

Camera support

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.

Specific 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 unimportant.

I have used a variety of cameras, lenses, and films over my climbing years (note that a few years ago I switched to Canon):

For some 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.

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