10 ways to improve your rock climbing photography

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.


Midi-Plan ridge – a photo essay

On September 2nd and 3rd 2010, Nic Mullin and myself attempted a full traverse of the Aiguilles de Chamonix, from Midi to Grépon. We left early in the morning of the 3rd, but lack of acclimatisation, route finding mistakes and general slowness made us reach the summit of Aiguille du Plan in 8 hours instead of the guidebook 4. Since the traverse is a committing route and since we were starting to really feel the altitude, we decided to bail and returned to the cablecar station in 5 grueling hours.

Here is a photo essay of a wonderful climb. Enjoy!


Despite the appearances, we were actually sorting the gear…


Part of the Aiguilles and our intended traverse. From left to right, Blaitière, Ciseaux, Fou, Dent du Caïman, Dent du Crocodile, Plan and Rognon du Plan.


As we had the end of the afternoon free on the first day, we decided to scout the first part of the ridge. We cached the bags at the end of the Arête des Cosmiques so that we could move fast and unencumbered.


A solo climber ascends to the cable car station from the Col du Midi, with the Glacier du Géant and Italy in the background.


A team tops out on the south face of Aiguille du Midi, probably via the Rebuffat route. I was keen to try it out on the last day but Nic’s fingers were too damaged for granite jamming after ice climbing without gloves.


A glorious sunset awaited us from the same spot.


One year after my Mont Blanc climb, a nearly identical sunset on the Dôme du Goûter and the Glacier des Bossons.


We started at first light, and our first obstacle was the easy but exposed snow ridge. Overall, conditions were acceptable though there was a fair bit of ice on the latter portions of the ridge.


Nic on the knife-edge ridge, in front of a rising sun. A magic moment.


We overtook a guided team which had come from the Cosmiques hut, but they went in front again later on when we made a routefinding error which costed us a couple of hours. They decided to abandon their climb shortly before the summit of the Aiguille du Plan due to tiredness.


Nic in front of the bergshrund which then led to significant rock difficulties. We realized later that there was a much, much easier way.


Nic abseiling back on the normal route. We lost 1h30 to 2h to this routefinding mistake (but gained some fun rock and snow pitches).


Nic on one of the intermediary ridges. The route then goes into the wide gully in the shade, littered with horribly loose rock, before reaching the Rognon du Plan.


After abseiling and downclimbing the Rognon, we had to traverse an icy slope on the Col Supérieur du Plan.


A wide panorama of the col supérieur du plan. The summit of the Plan is on the left edge, and the Rognon on the right. The return route involved climbing the steep pillar on the right edge of the picture. Click on the image for a higher resolution version.


Mont Blanc from the summit of Aiguille du Plan. The rock sheet on the left is the rognon du plan, and the whole ridge is visible, up to Aiguille du Midi on the right side.


A sea of granite, the rest of the Aiguilles traverse, which we had to give up. This time.


Nic descending the Rognon du plan, in front of a wonderful Chamonix landscape.


The easy way through the first rock formations, which we had missed in the morning.


The ridge and the Aiguille du Peigne seen from close to Aiguille du Midi as the sun was setting. In the background, the Aiguille Verte.


Nic on the last part of the ridge before well deserved rest at the Aiguille du Midi.