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10 ways to improve your mountain climbing photography

Some time ago, I wrote a short piece on ways to improve your rock climbing photography. As promised there, here comes another article, of the same format, with ways to get better mountain climbing images. This is a much more difficult task, as you can’t afford to focus on photography alone – you also need to climb the mountain! There are no silver bullets that will magically make your images stunning, but here is a short list of things you should probably be doing if you want the best results.

1. Keep your camera handy

A climber at sunrise on the Midi-Plan traverse, Chamonix, France

If this article had been called “1 way to improve your mountain climbing photography“, this point would still be there. This is by far the most crucial thing – if you put your camera in your backpack, you won’t take pictures, period. It doesn’t really matter which camera you are using, but make sure it is always stored outside of your pack, readily accessible, without having to take any gear/rope/pack on and off. The bag you are using will of course be the most important element, and my recommendation goes to a belt system, in particular the Thinktank skin (review coming up). The less hassle there is in taking a picture, the more and the better ones you will bring back home.

2. Keep asking yourself “would this make a good picture?

Climbers and skiers waiting for the first cablecar up Aiguille du Midi, Chamonix, France

Alpine climbing is such a difficult and risky activity that it almost always requires your full attention, and makes it all too easy to just forget about photography entirely. If image making really matters to you, you should have a little guy living in your head constantly looking around and asking “Would this make a good picture? Would this make a good picture? What about this?”. You will want to shut him up when things get really hard, but you should listen to the voice (hem…) whenever possible. The best photo opportunities often happen at the worst times, it is up to you to keep thinking about photography in those moments.

3. Shoot in bad weather

A climber belaying at the end of Arete des Cosmiques, Chamonix, France

Though we always prefer to climb in good weather, we don’t always have that luxury and changes can be very sudden. Whenever that happens, and as long as it is safe to do so (if you are trying to get down before a storm hits, don’t be stupid enough to stop and take pictures), keep shooting. The beautiful vistas may be gone, but you have an opportunity to create very striking moods and stories. You can also focus on the reaction of your party (including yourself) to the change in conditions. In short: don’t put the camera away just because you are in a whiteout.

4. Shoot another party

Climbers on the final summit mushroom of Nevado Chopicalqui, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

As we discussed in the rock climbing article, the best way to shoot climbers is from above while they are leading. Unfortunately, that is rarely an option with mountaineering since you will almost never lead a pitch twice just to fix a rope for the photographer, as it would be far too slow. But instead of just shooting your leader from below or your second from above, a better solution is to shoot another party. Ideally, you would climb in two teams of two and would ask to be the second of the first team, so that you can shoot the leader of the second team at your leisure. Another solution is to shoot other parties in the distance with longer focals, though it requires to carry bigger lenses.

5. Make the mountain environment a subject

Arete des Cosmiques in front of Mont Blanc du Tacul, Chamonix, France

Don’t forget where you are! The mountains are what make your photos extraordinary, always try to emphasize them, include the cool snow features, show the crevasse, put a big north face in the background. Mountaineering photography is not about the climbers or the mountains alone, but about how they relate to each other.

6. Don’t sweat the technical stuff

Headlamp trails on the way to the summit of mont-blanc, chamonix, france

Repeat after me: content trumps technical quality. Always. We have to work in some of the most hostile and dangerous environments on the planet, so it’s ok if the images you get are not quite perfect, as long as the content is there. So stop pixel-peeping and bump that ISO to 12,800 before the sun rises, use that plastic kit lens or even leave your DSLR home and climb with a point and shoot. As long as you get the shot, this is all that matters.

7. Keep your equipment lean

A climber descending Aiguille du Plan after a Midi-Plan traverse, Chamonix, France

Photographers love gear, they can never get enough lenses or big enough cameras. It’s all fine at sea level when the hardest obstacle is a flight of stairs, but things are very different in the mountains. More equipment slows you down, leaves you exposed to objective danger for longer and makes shooting more of a hassle. Take a cue from the rest of your equipment choices (hopefully): fast and light. You have to find the right balance between convenience, image quality and weight. As a rule of thumb, if you pack a piece of gear thinking “you never know, it might come handy”, leave it home. Only bring the bare essentials that will allow you to get the images, and nothing more.

8. Don’t pamper your gear. It’s designed to be used.

The northwest ridge of Nevado Chopicalqui, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

After having spent so much money on gear, it is natural to want to protect it. This is fine, of course, but be careful not to take things too far – unless you are a collector, the gear is designed to be used, not pampered. Yes, there is a chance you will break a lens or drop the camera on your climbs, but guess what: there is also a chance you will break a leg or drop yourself. Climbing is risky and even when things go well, our bodies and climbing equipment take a beating. You can’t expect your photo equipment not to. So be careful, but learn to distinguish between what is really dangerous (torrential rain or dropping your camera to the bottom of the mountain, for instance) and what isn’t (snow, fog, condensation, bumping your lens hood in a rock…)

9. Train operating your camera with bulky gloves

Descending Chopicalqui in bad weather, Chamonix, France

This is a bit of a technicality, but too many people have lost fingers to frostbite because they took their gloves off for a couple of photos. It’s just not worth it, and most DSLRs are perfectly operational with bulky gloves, sometimes even mitts. It simply takes training, just as learning how to tie knots and operate the rest of your climbing equipment. So start when things are easy (say a day of ice cragging) and start taking pictures with your mitts, see which controls you miss, which ones you need to check you haven’t accidentally changed, etc. It is time very well spent.

10. Practice, practice and practice some more

Climbers on arete du midi, above vallee blanche, Chamonix, France

Yes, as usual, the most useful advice I can possibly give is: work hard (and it applies to me too, of course). This kind of top 10 lists tends to promote the idea that there is some secret you can learn from more experienced people and start magically taking better photos. There is none (either that or the other photographers are very good at hiding it), the best and only way to get better is to keep on doing what you have already been doing: go climbing, pack a camera, make the effort to use it, review the photos back home, see what worked and what didn’t, rinse and repeat. Oh, and of course:

11. Have fun!

James Monypenny on top of the Cosmiques Spur, Chamonix, France

Getting good photos is awesome, of course, but remember why you want to go suffer on a mountain in the first place – remember to enjoy the climb first and foremost!

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10 thoughts on “10 ways to improve your mountain climbing photography

  1. Yos says:

    Good stuff, thanks. The page overall might be quite a bit better with photo information – what are we looking at? We’re climbers after all, we want to know about the line!

  2. @Yos: you can click on any of the images and you will be taken to a page where you can see it in higher resolution with a caption. There is also a caption if you hover above the image. Since in this case, the photos are illustrative, I felt discrete captions would be less distracting.

  3. Hi Alexandre,
    In regards to the Skin-set belt system you are mentioning, can you comment on how well it works with a, lets say, a 25-45l alpine daypack on the back?

    I tested it (read: tried) it in Greenland some time back and i could make it fit comfortably, so I went back to the good ol’ top-load AW from Lowepro in a modified version.

    Cheers

    Morten, Sydney
    twitter: @morts_lindholm
    photorism.org

  4. @Morten: I used the thinktank with a fully loaded 38L backpack (gear for 3 days alpine climb) and it was just fine. It helped that the hipbelt of the pack (an Osprey Mutant) is not too bulky.

  5. I can agree in 100% with all the points! Especially 3rd point (shooting in bad weather) is worth emphasis – usually you are able to make really unconventional pictures.

    BTW, during hiking and “climbing” (via ferratas only) I am using Kata T-212 torso pack – it is great idea to keep photo gear in front of you when you have to wear backpack with a lot of other gear in the back.

    Did I mention that your pictures are really impressive? :)

  6. I too agree with all your points and actually have some in practice! When hiking or climbing there are so many ops for photos. I love winter hiking the most and a good winter hike always presents many photos ops.

  7. Israel Harriott says:

    I love the very first photo on the blog. Actually, all of them are amazing. I would like to use your first photo on an information flyer (a free community event) advertising an event called “The Young Men’s Summit”.

    Please email me if I have permission, or if you would like more details about the event or organization.

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