Note: There is now a similar article for mountain climbing photography!
Rock climbing photography can be a surprisingly difficult domain. Though many climbers are also photo enthusiasts, it is all too easy to come back with a lot of butt pictures and photos of piles of choss.
Here then are ten ways you can start getting better images:
1. Use a better perspective
This is the single most important thing you can do. Shoot from above or shoot from the sides, but avoid shooting from below like the plague, as it’s very rarely good or interesting.
The main reason you want to shoot from a different point of view (beside not wanting close-ups from the crotch of the climber) is so that you can show perspective and exposure. Climbing is a vertical activity which, with the right perspective, can be extremely impressive. This is your best weapon, make sure you use it fully!
This usually means ascending a fixed rope (make sure you know how to do this safely, and how to get down), though sometimes you can just scramble to a good place. Just keep safety in mind, as it’s too easy to forget when a beautiful image presents itself.
2. Show the climber’s face
A corollary of the previous point, shooting from above or from the sides will allow you to show the face of the climber. This will create a human connection with the viewer and will help him relate to your photograph. A grimacing face also says “this is hard!” better than anything else.
3. Wait for good action
We want to see action, shoot the climber when he is doing something interesting. Also remember that climbing photography is sport photography: don’t feel guilty to use that motor drive when the action is good! Conversely, nobody really cares about the climber resting or considering his next move.
4. Show the climber’s feet
It makes a big difference if the climber is standing on a big ledge or if he has a single toe on a millimetric hold. A natural tendency is to assume that feet you can’t see are standing on something good. You can add a lot of drama in an image if you show them explicitly and on tiny holds.
5. Only shoot above the gear
Even non-climbers usually have a good idea of what happens in case of a fall – if the climber is far above his last piece of protection, the consequences of a fall will appear serious and this will create a lot of drama as well as tell a story of courage. Conversely, top roping photos are usually very boring.
6. Concentrate on details
It’s often easy to forget about detail shots – close-ups of faces, hands, feet, gear, even the rock itself. Sometimes they say more through suggestion than any “general” image.
7. Use the light
Like in any other area of photography, light is absolutely crucial. Warm evening light will make everything look good (including the climber), whereas harsh midday light will be hard to work with. Also be careful with shadows, as they have been known to ruin many shots.
8. Climb the route yourself
Of course, it may not be an option if you are shooting Chris Sharma on his latest project, but having a go on a route is the best way to get to know it and to be able to better anticipate where the best photo opportunities will be.
9. Move back
Either because you can’t get to a better point of view or simply to shoot something different, try moving back a few dozen meters and using a telephoto lens. It will show the climber as tiny and insignificant on a big wall (unless you are shooting bouldering, of course) and the perspective compression can be very interesting and more original than what the viewers are used to.
10. Keep shooting
Finally, don’t expect great images overnight: it takes dedication, hard work and a bit of luck to get the good stuff. Just keep shooting, day in and day out, even when things look bad and even when you don’t really want to, and you will see improvement.