Photographing at Such Great Heights: A Guide to Rock Climbing Photography

June 13, 2017

This article was originally published on December 21, 2016 and has been updated to include current product information.

By Ted Hesser
Instagram: @TedHesser

This article will detail practical lessons learned in the vertical pursuit of rock climbing photography. Special attention will be paid to the task of carrying a DSLR around in the mountains and up on the rock wall.

EOS 5DS 16mm focal length, 1/500 sec at f/4.0, ISO 100, -1/3 EV
Lesson #1: Be a practitioner

Anticipation of body positioning is key, and that intuition is best learned through pushing your own boundaries outside. With rock climbing, it requires a honed eye to look up a rock wall and know where the most awe-inspiring moves will be in advance, then position yourself to capture the moment. Often, the best way to do this is climb the route ahead of time, scouting along the way. The mental practice of intentional photo making (versus spray and pray) can go a long way here. I often spend a few days at a new climbing area thinking about:

• How to best convey the landscape (it’s very easy to underestimate the power of the tiny person, huge landscape photo!)
• When it’s game-time, the optimal order for capturing shots – i.e. how to be most efficient with my time
• The optimal time of day for high potential shots – how to plan the timing of both the subject and myself to nail sunrise/sunset somewhere up high in the mountains
• The color of the climber’s clothes (often blue, red or yellow) and how it will pop with respect to the color of the rock or sky
• Lastly, on occasion, if the angle of the sun just won’t work for the shot, I’ll think through what time of year might lead to the perfect photo (i.e. if the sun is higher or lower in the sky). Some apps help with this kind of planning.

EOS 5DS 16mm focal length, 1/125 sec at f / 11, ISO 100, -1/3 EV
Lesson #2: Always bring your camera

If you are willing to carry your gear further than most, you will be rewarded with photos better than most. It’s directly proportional.

One of the most important habits to get into is always bring your camera. With rock climbing, this can be psychologically challenging. A particular objective may be bigger, or more technical, or perceived as more dangerous than normal and therefore be outside of the comfort zone. This tends to instill a fear that bringing a heavy DSLR will slow you or your team down and ultimately lead to failure. However, just remember, the best photos are typically created during the most challenging scenarios.

Much of the time, it is all too easy to miss the shot because of the mental mountain to climb of simply having your camera ready, and accessible. And that’s even when you have it with you up on the climb! It requires discipline and real grit to take it out of a case (and not drop the camera or the lens cap) when the going gets rough. The psychology is an opt-out, rather than an opt-in mentality. It will become automatic after awhile if you don’t give your brain a choice. Building this habit loop is a critical first step to take. However, it doesn’t stop there. Even when the camera is accessible it can still be a mental hurdle to stop and take it out of the case on a whim. When you see a great vantage, or your climbing partner pulls into an amazing view, or the light changes character for only the briefest of windows, you want to be ready. It may require anchoring into the rock, or, depending upon the terrain, balancing on a ledge with your feet so as to use both hands to take the camera out, change the settings and capture the best shot possible.

EOS 5DS 24mm focal length, 1/1600 sec at f / 2.8, ISO 100, 1/3 EV
Lesson #3: Rig your camera up to remain secure

On a practical note, rigging your camera and case up so that neither falls is worth a special mention. I always climb with a well-padded camera case that naturally fits with a 24-105mm or shorter lens. The case has a specially tied strap with 5mm cord, using a double fisherman’s knot on each end, threaded through by a wider piece of webbing for comfort. The same is true of the camera itself. This setup provides me with substantially more peace of mind than a normal camera or case sling, often attached to plastic connectors, as all of the pieces on my system are rated for the kinds of drops that climbing equipment are expected to bear. With that said, look into using a sling system that carries the same utility with none of the required DIY work.

EOS 5DS 20mm focal length, 1/250 sec at f / 5.0, ISO 100, 0 EV
Lesson #4: Pre-set camera settings – don’t miss the shot!

For camera settings while climbing, I tend to try to keep things as simple as is possible, focusing most of my mental energy on framing and searching for high quality light. The settings that I generally use include the following:

• Single point back-button focusing
• Aperture priority mode, at least a few stops above the lens’ minimum aperture setting if there is enough light to do so (this keeps images and corners crisp) -  typically f/5.6 or so
• ISO 100 unless I have to bump it up in low light
• Evaluative metering mode

The settings that I change the most frequently include:

• EV stop. I find that making colors and sharpness pop requires regular fiddling of the EV stop in + 1/3 stop increments. When it’s bright outside, and I can’t ‘chimp’ the photo in the viewfinder, I check the histogram and adjust the EV stop accordingly.
• AE-lock mode. In environments of dynamic light, I often anchor the evaluative meter exposure on a person’s face, or on a portion of the sky. Particularly around sunset, this dramatically improves exposure quality and avoids the orange-ish skin problem.

EOS 5DS 16mm focal length, 1/100 sec at f / 2.8, ISO 100, 0 EV
Best equipment/lens suggestions

My favorite two lenses for a day on the wall include the EF 16-35 mm f/2.8L II USM lens, and the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. I always bring only one lens up on a wall, so the choice is often difficult. In big landscape corridors, where mountains are relatively close together, I like to use the wide-angle lens. But for a jack-of-all trades lens I tend to go with the mid-range 24-70mm.

However, on the approach hike, I almost always pack 2-4 lenses. This is in addition to climbing rope, harness, protective equipment, helmet, food, water, raingear etc… I also often bring a tripod for dawn/dusk or nighttime shots of the landscape. This adds up to a lot of weight when trying to move fast and light in the mountains. But that is what it takes to get the best photos.

EOS 5DS 16mm focal length, 30 sec at f / 2.8, ISO 800, 0 EV

The equipment that I brought on these climbing trips includes:

• Canon EOS 5DS DSLR body plus two fully charged battery packs & 64GB memory card
• EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM for landscape shots
• EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM as a bread and butter lens
• EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM for people and compressed landscape shots
• EF 50mm f/1.2L USM for portraits
• Lightweight tripod

EOS 5DS 115mm focal length, 1/1600 sec at f / 3.5, ISO 100, 0 EV

In summary, climbing photography requires a lot of planning and physical energy. Getting into the right locations, ahead of your subject (often times an athlete) at the right time of day and with the best equipment, all requires effort. Those who work the hardest and most consistently tend to get the best shots! While this may seem daunting, if you treat photography as a passport to adventure, as a reason to explore, you will find the pursuit highly rewarding. Oh the places you will go.

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