Semi-Rad: 8 Tips for Not Bad Climbing Photos

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Brendan Leonard
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This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of our print edition. 

Rock Climbing Photography Camera

You will always take better photos if you remember to bring a camera. Photo: Zach Dischner/Flickr; CC BY 2.0

I am not a successful, respected, or even professional climbing photographer. You might think that disqualifies me from offering photography tips, but let me ask you this: Do we know that the people who write the sex tips in every issue of Cosmopolitan are actually any good at sex? No one knows for sure. We just want to help you take better climbing photos and have better sex. I mean, respectively. I want to help you take better climbing photos, and the Cosmo folks want you to have better sex. So here are a few tips that will help you take better climbing photos.

# 1: Go climbing

I really can’t stress this one enough. Again, I am not a professional climbing photographer, but I think most pro photogs would agree with the statement that it is difficult to take good climbing photos if you spend all your free time sitting on your couch eating Cheetos and binge-watching “Game of Thrones.” Going climbing outside astronomically increases your odds of taking a half-decent climbing photo.

#2: Bring a camera

I took my friend Nick down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon for his first time ever last spring. He neglected to bring a camera, or even a phone, which many of us know contains a camera. Nick has no photos of his Grand Canyon trip.

#3: Don’t drop the camera

I dropped a point-and-shoot camera off the top of the third pitch of Kor’s Flake once. Do you think it worked afterward? Your guess is as good as mine—we couldn’t find the goddamn thing at the bottom when we got there, or even a piece of it. In a much more famous situation on a much more difficult climb, Tommy Caldwell dropped his only camera—his iPhone—off El Capitan during the first ascent of the Dawn Wall. Luckily for Tommy, he’s basically the best rock climber in the world and several photographers were there to take photos so he’d have something to remember the ascent. If you are not the best climber in the world, you’ll have to be more careful. To prevent dropping your camera, hold on to its strap or clip it onto your harness. And if you find a camera near the base of Kor’s Flake, let me know.

#4: Focus on non-selfies

If you scan the pages of this and other climbing magazines, or peruse the published work of Galen Rowell, Bradford Washburn, Jimmy Chin, or Andrew Burr, you might notice that their portfolios contain fewer selfies than, say, the Instagram profile of your average fitness model. Maybe Bradford Washburn was too busy hanging out the window of a tiny Cessna trying to hold a 53 lb. camera while his hands went numb to take a good selfie, or perhaps he lacked the knowledge of which cleanse would give him more defined abs. We don’t know—all we have now are his breathtaking photos of Alaska’s mountains, virtually all of which were made with the camera pointing away from Washburn’s face, not toward it. While you are more than likely no Bradford Washburn, you’ll certainly take better photos following his lead of aiming the camera away from your face.

#5: Don’t focus on butts

You know how, during the holidays, when someone wants a family photo, everyone shuffles around so their faces are visible to the camera, instead of turning away from the camera? This is so the photo will be of everyone’s face, not their ass, and despite my dad’s jokes about being unable to differentiate the two body parts from each other on certain people including myself, the face is the more recognizable of the two. Faces are harder to get into the frame of your photo, unless you use an old climbing photography trick I like to call “Walk Somewhere Other Than Directly Below the Climber to Take a Photo.” This is a lot of times not possible on alpine routes, but usually possible at most crags.

#6: Make sure your finger is not covering the lens

That photo of your friend Bob sending his project will come out a lot better if half the frame is not taken up by what looks like a giant out-of-focus peach. Same goes for lens caps, which, if left on while shooting, will cause your camera to underexpose the image quite severely.

#7: Climb with other people

Free soloing is great and all (as long as you continue to survive it), but it’s hard to get non-selfie photos (see tip #4) while you’re doing it. Sure, you can take photos of your climbing shoes a few hundred feet off the ground, but those aren’t usually that compelling. This magazine, for example, has never used a photo someone took of their own feet on its cover. Also, when you’re free soloing, you usually want to have both hands on the rock during the interesting sections. It’s really hard to pull out a camera during the crux and take a quality photo when you’re climbing ropeless. If you climb with other people, you can take photos of them, which helps provide a little variety, and also some distance from your subject.

#8: Climb safely

Death, along with just being a huge bummer in general, also puts a serious halt on the amount of photos you can produce. Plus, you can’t go climbing anymore. So check your knot and your partner’s, then start again at #1.

These are the basics. Go climbing and you’ll see it’s easy to find inspiring landscapes. It’s much easier than, say, learning what an f-stop is. The most mediocre photo of the Bugaboos is still a pretty rad photo as long as your partner’s butt isn’t blocking the view. And if you follow these tips, you’ll be a few steps closer to taking great climbing photos. A few tiny steps. 

Brendan Leonard lives in relentless pursuit of 5.fun and writes at semi-rad.com. His new book, Sixty Meters to Anywhere, is available now at amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, other bookstores, and at semi-rad.com/books. Watch the trailer: