If you’re like me and you get endlessly inspired from seeing images of pro climbers in the outdoors on incredible routes around the globe and have stopped to wonder how someone was able to get that great angle, I’m going to give you a rundown and some tips on how to get started.
It goes without saying that taking photos of climbers from off the ground requires knowledge and experience with climbing equipment, anchoring systems and self-rescue techniques. The information that follows should accompany these skills and please make sure to start out small and assess the terrain and your abilities before every shoot. Being safe takes priority over any photo, no matter how good it might turn out to be!
Climbing photography can come in many forms. It can mean mounting a GoPro onto the end of a quickdraw and climbing up to it, standing on a nearby ledge or at the top of an adjacent cliff - even flying a drone next to the climb in a suitable area. But for me it has meant ascending and descending ropes with my DSLR camera over my shoulder to find the perfect angle.
To get started you are going to need some essential climbing supplies. A static rope is preferable over the dynamic ropes used to climb with, since they have less stretch and spring in them as you ascend the rope which makes it more challenging. This isn’t a deal breaker for someone just starting out, it’s mainly important that you have an extra rope on hand since your climbers are going to need theirs. Jugging or jumaring requires two ascenders, or one ascender and a brake-assist belay device such as a Gri Gri. This will be how you get into position and compose your image before the climber comes past.
Rope protection is essential for anywhere that the rope could rub and wear against the rock when you are hanging or swinging on the weighted rope; it’s no joke how quickly a sheath can be worn through if such precautions aren’t taken. As was recommended to me, a chest harness is a really excellent way to shift your centre of gravity when hanging on the rope, it allows you to be able to lean out nearly horizontally and hold that position for much longer than you could without it. This helps with an angle that includes more of the scenery as well and the wall and the climber; a powerful combination! I would encourage learning these techniques in a safe environment and taking those skills to somewhere small and scale it up when you are more comfortable and confident.
Its also important to have prusiks and/or an extra ascender, should a piece of gear be accidentally dropped. It can happen and without a backup plan it could spring up a bad situation if you need to ascend back up to the anchors to get off the wall.
One of the best ways to improve your climbing photography skills is by climbing! I’m not saying to go out and send all your outdoor projects, but the more understanding you have of the crags and the different routes, the better you will be able to work out the best angles, how to get into a good position and what creative ideas will and won’t work with that specific scene.
Climbs with exposure such as aretes and multi-pitches are a very valuable way to improve your head game and become more comfortable on a rope high up. I’ve done multi pitches with my camera with two parties and photographed the leader on the pair below whilst at the anchors above. Other times I’ve needed to lead an adjacent route to fix a line at the anchors, so it does pay to continue working on your climbing ability as you become more involved in the photography side as it creates more creative opportunities - unless you have awesome friends to put up a rope for you!
A good place to start out shooting would be a crag you are familiar with, maybe there’s a climb next to an eye-catching route that you could rig a fixed line to the anchors, and you know in the evening the wall catches the sun and turns the rock into an amazing colour. Cultivating a vision is an essential part of photography and can become the fuel that pushes you to take you work further. I am constantly asking myself how I can photograph a route uniquely, everyone can come away with a different image even if two photographers are shooting the same route at the same time! Consider what quality you can bring that others can’t, how can you separate yourself from the pack?
There lies ahead the path to follow. This is an intimidating form of photography but arming yourself with a strong knowledge of the skills involved will dramatically increase your confidence. And please don’t read this and assume that I haven’t been scared myself, I still have to manage fear and focus on the task in front of me, by getting out of your conform zone it makes the result so much more personally significant, and fun!