Luke and I read a lot of climbing blogs. Well, Luke reads a lot of blogs, and I skim blogs until I find one that I actually want to read. Quite often, this will involve awesome photos of climbing that make me want to read the words that go with them. I probably miss a lot of well-written, awesome blogs because I skip over them (what can I say, I only have so much time). As a result, we make an effort to have cool, exciting photos in our blogs. And this is pretty much impossible unless we think about taking good photos while we’re at the crag. So this blog is about some techniques we use to take good climbing photos.
First, a disclaimer: we are by no means expert climbing photographers, and not all our climbing photos are awesome. But the idea of this post was suggested by a friend and I figured it couldn’t hurt to share the tips and tricks we use to improve on butt shot climbing photography.
Work with your angles
In order to take good photos, you have to put in some effort. Don’t just stand next to the belayer and point your camera up at the climber. Take advantage of the topography – if you can gain a little elevation by walking along the cliffline, do so to try to get a side-on view of the climber. Scramble onto ledges (be safe) or boulders. If you’re bouldering, photos looking down on the climber from the top of the boulder can turn out really great. Whatever you do, don’t be static: move around and try out a lot of different angles. After a while, you will start to develop more intuition about which angles work, but sometimes the best way to start is just experiment.
Another great trick is to take pictures from another routes. This often requires extra effort, but it can really pay off in the long end. If you have a toprope on a route and a friend is climbing a route next to it (especially if he/she is leading), being up on the rock can really give you the angles you need.
Think about the light
I think a major problem with a lot of amateur climbing photos (including ours) is overexposed or blown-out pictures. Let’s face it, we like climbing in beautiful, warm, sunny weather and this often means very bright, harsh light that’s not too nice on our photos. Take advantage of cloudy or shady conditions when the light is less harsh. If you’re climbing in the shade on a bright, sunny day, try frame your photo so all the frame is shade so you don’t have the harsh contrast.
The face can tell a story
Part of the reason butt shots are so unfulfilling is that you often miss the most expressive part of your climber – the face. Sometimes the expression on a person’s face can really tell a story – terrified, elated, in the zone – all these things make a climbing photo way more interesting in my opinion. So snap lots of photos and pay attention to where the climber’s face is. If you can get a different angle on the climber so you see his/her face more often, then try. For example, it can be hard to catch someone’s face when he/she is climbing in a dihedral, but, depending on the orientation of the dihedral, he/she may be way more likely to look in one direction.
Use the rule of thirds
This is a pretty basic rule of photography, but it’s amazing how much it can improve your photos. I think a lot of people (including myself) often automatically center the subject (usually the climber) in the frame and click. This is a no-no. If you imagine dividing your frame into thirds vertically and horizontally, try placing your subject on one of these lines. It might feel weird, but it often makes your photo a lot more visually interesting. This also works for landscapes – instead of putting the horizon or the cliffline in the middle of the frame, line it up 1/3 of the way through. If you don’t actually manage to do this in your original photos, you can always crop your photo afterwards.
There’s often a lot going on in a climbing scene that can be really distracting in a photo. When bouldering, get your friends to move their stuff (bags, shoes, water bottles) out of the background so you can just have climber, boulder, pads, and spotters. When shooting routes, try to use an angle that will eliminate clutter at the base of the cliff. Try to keep other climbers’ ropes out of the frame.
A little color on the climber can go a long way to improving a photo. Stay away from black, white, grey, or tan and choose brilliant colors like blue, green, or red. As nice as it is to climb shirtless, make the climber wear a shirt. Skin colors often blend in to the rock, or the ground, while color cause the climber to pop. Red can be great when you’re climbing somewhere with a lot of green, like the Pacific Northwest (think trees), and blue often works well when you’re climbing on orange-y rock (like the sandstone of Indian Creek).
Get a bigger memory card
Part of getting good shots means taking A LOT of photos. The more you take, the more likely you’ll find some real winners, or at least something you can work with. Use different orientations, different compositions, different angles. It’s often hard to tell what’s working on the little screen on your camera (I’m often surprised at how things turn out when I get them on the computer). You don’t want to be limited by your memory card. This also allows you to shoot in better quality (or shoot in RAW), which often means you’ll have a lot more to work with when you get back home (i.e. the next category). Memory is getting pretty cheap these days and if you ever want to try to shoot video with your camera, then you’ll almost definitely be glad to have the extra space.
Don’t be afraid to edit your photos
Before you post just any photo on your blog, look at it with a critical eye. You can improve its composition by cropping it, or deal with too dark or too blown out issues by adjusting brightness and contrast. You can get your colors to pop a little more – make the lichen more yellow, the climber’s shirt more brilliant, the trees more green, or the sunset more saturated. Don’t go over the top, but a few minor tweaks can go a long way to make your photos more eye-catching. One thing that doesn’t work particularly well (in my experience) is trying to use “sharpen” tools to make up for poor focus, so choose images that are already well-focused.
Don’t be afraid to break the rules, sometimes
Climbing photography is a learning process. We’re constantly pouring over our photos from the weekend, trying to learn what worked and what didn’t. As you learn more, you’ll find lots of situations when the rules should be broken. So, keep the guidelines in mind, but don’t be afraid to experiment!
That’s about it for now. If you have any other good tips to share with other amateur climbing photographers like us, feel free to leave them in a comment below.