10 Rules for Climbing Photography

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Julie Ellison
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As the photo editor for Climbing magazine, I’ve spent countless hours of my life click-click-clicking through climbing photos to find the best of the best for our print publication. I’ve seen images that range from goosebump-inducing, palm-sweating, mind-blowing greatness to eye-assaulting, soul-crushing lameness. We all know climbing is a breathtaking, visually stunning activity that takes us to incredible places—hell, aesthetics of the places and the people (yes, we’re an attractive brood) are probably half the reason most of you climb anyway. But oddly enough, it’s pretty damn hard to capture the joie de vivre of climbing with just the press of a shutter button. Of course, there’s much more that goes into it: humping 50 lbs. of metal and rigging gear up steep cliffs to faraway crags, waking up before the sun to nail that magic light, spending hours in front of a screen perfecting color and tone, forgoing personal climbing goals to jug ropes instead, sitting in a harness until your lower half goes numb and your kidneys are squeezed into your chest... But I digress.

Photographers, both amateur and professional, ask me all the time for hints and tips to getting their photos in Climbing. “How can I get published in the magazine?” they ask. “I don’t know, dude, try shooting a good climbing photo” is what I want to say, but that’s neither helpful nor constructive (goal for 2015: be less of a sarcastic asshole and more of a warm, friendly fellow human being). There are a few simple guidelines I follow when looking for great climbing imagery. Because I like these photographers and want to help them out, and because I like you, the reader/fan/web troller, and want you to have the exhilaration of seeing more world-class climbing photography, I’ve compiled this easily digestible list of 10 Rules for Climbing Photography.

1. Females > MalesCall me sexist all you want, but if it’s the exact same body position, climb, expression, etc., I will always choose a photo of a woman over a photo of a man. Nothing against you gents, but girls are much more visually appealing—I’d like to think we can all agree on that. So sack up and go ask some ladies to pose down for you.

10 Rules for Climbing Photography

2. Bouldering, sport, trad, alpine, ice—anything and everything is fair gameAll types of climbing, newsworthy events, cool/unique places, people young and old, new routes, old routes, tall routes, bold routes. However, NO buildering and most likely no competition or indoor/gym climbing, sorry. Try to be seasonally appropriate, and limit ice climbing shots; we only run a few every year.

3. A few notes about the climber…Fully outstretched body positions where you can see most or all of the limbs, dynamic moves, eyes looking up, intense but not weird faces, and helmets are great. Minimize chalking up and clipping shots, unless it puts the overall composition on point. Always, always, always go with bright clothes (stop it with the tan/brown/taupe shirts). There’s a reason most climbers’ closets look like the inside of a Skittles bag—don’t fight it. Weird, super-old, ratty clothes or off-putting hair, and I won’t even give it a second glance. Take that with a grain of salt, but it doesn’t hurt to give your subjects a quick once-over before he/she pulls on the rock; bring an extra clean, newish, and bright shirt or pullover so you have options. That said, I can appreciate funny or pleasantly silly clothes, like a Hawaiian shirt or a massive Mexican sombrero.

4. Don’t chop off body partsC’mon, you’re better than that. I actually have a visceral, gut-wrenching reaction any time I see a great shot with even just the tip of the toe or a foot missing. I just won’t run it. On the same note, we very rarely (read: never) run any of those “artsy” close-up shots of just hands on a hold, a foot, or even shots that focus only on the face. Climbing photography is a discipline that demands context.

10 Rules for Climbing Photography

5. Sharp end only! Images of people toproping have a time and a place (e.g., a story about someone learning to climb, overcoming injury, following a cool multi-pitch with major exposure, etc.), but otherwise the climber pretty much has to be on lead, with the exception of bouldering (especially highball bouldering, which I get all giddy for). There’s a reason there are 10 bouldering shots submitted for each top-down, on-lead shot: Shooting bouldering is easy. That means every shot of pebble-wrestling sent to me needs to be that much better. Top-down shots (as opposed to a butt shot taken from below) trump all. Bonus points for big runouts and climbers high above the last piece of gear.

6. Close-up, medium, or wide?In all honesty, I’m a complete sucker for the ultra-wide shot: bright sky in the background, layers of mountains, small climber in the middle of it with a shirt/body position that pops—just beautiful. Close-ups do look really cool in the context of a story, and medium images are useable for almost everything. So this isn’t really a rule as much as it is a reminder to shoot all focal lengths.

7. Shoot for layoutOne of the biggest issues with running photos in a magazine is this thing we call a gutter, aka the black hole in the center of a print issue that nothing can escape from. For a spread (image that runs across both pages), the climber can’t be centered and has to be far enough on one side to not even tickle the endless chasm of the gutter. Same goes for full pages. The takeaways from this are: Always shoot a little wider (so we can crop in) and avoid centering the climber.

8. Bright sunlight is badThis is counterintuitive to what many non-photogs might think, but it creates harsh shadows that print terribly, aren’t nice to look at, and dissect the composition in a bad way. (Disclaimer: Sometimes shadow lines are exactly what make the photo work, but that’s not common.) If you can’t shoot with the route completely in the shade, the best days to shoot are overcast with a thin cloud layer so that the light is evenly dispersed. This causes no distraction from the subject and eliminates problems with post-processing and printing. Plus, it’s just damn breathtaking.

10 Rules for Climbing Photography

9. Posing is fineAs along as it doesn’t look too posed. If you need to, have your climber reach up to a nonexistent hold, or put his foot in a place that isn’t the least bit useful for the actual climb—as long as it improves the image’s composition and climber’s body position. Ask her to look farther up and to the left/right, or if you’re on friendly terms with her and it’s not her onsight/send go, have her repeat a few of the moves. All good photographers do this, and if you’re up in arms at this moment about how this isn’t genuine or isn’t “real” rock climbing photography, then you probably don’t fall into the category of “good photographer.”

10. Cover-specific guidelinesBackgrounds should be ultra-clean (evenly toned rock, solid colors, blue sky, uniform trees) to hold coverlines on top. When looking at your own photo, imagine if the Climbing logo was on top, with words on the left side. Is the climber in the center or upper right corner, underneath where the logo would go? Does she pop? Will it crop to the cover dimensions well?

So there you have it. Obviously following all these rules won’t guarantee you a spot in the mag, but it will definitely up your chances. And remember the true beauty of any art form is not giving a crap what other people think and having faith in your own unique voice, imagination, and style. After all, rules were meant to be broken.

Julie Ellison is the senior editor for Climbing. Follow her failed attempts to take the perfect climbing photo on Instagram: @joolyhart.

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