I’ve been shooting climbing for 12 years, and this is my simple advice for avoiding the most basic climbing photography no-no—the dreaded “butt shot.” It’s an easy mistake to make; from the ground, the climber’s backside is basically all you see, but it doesn’t have to be all you show. There are easy ways to wow your friends and produce quality, interesting, and (if I do say so myself) downright awesome photos, all from below. This is one of the most painless places to shoot, one of my personal favorites, and best of all—there’s no rigging required.
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Shooting up against the wall
Patience, my friend. Tuck in right up against the wall, and shoot along the plane of the rock, waiting for just the right moment. Try slapping on the big glass and shooting long and tight. Your perseverance will be rewarded with both a shot that surpasses the standard butt shot and a wicked kink in your neck. The key is to capture the climber’s face when it appears for a split-second in between his feet mid-move, or when he’s fiddling for gear on the back of his harness. This shot really starts working when the climber is at least 30 to 40 feet out from the belay. Frame it with space around the climber’s body so he appears isolated from the rock. This technique works on all sorts of terrain, not just overhanging routes (as long as the route isn’t too ledged out), and if you don’t have a long lens, you can zoom in with a point-and-shoot or phone and then fiddle with the shot in editing. As you can see, there’s still plenty of butt, but you can also sense what is going through the climber’s mind and feel like you’re a part of climbing this route. Any photo that draws you in like that is much more than a butt shot.
An in-the-moment perspective of Ari Menitove on Fingerberry Jam (5.12-), Pigeon Feather West Peak, Bugaboos, Canada.
Use your imagination
People like to see other people having a good time. Like it or not, climbing (and hence climbing photography) doesn’t always have to be about first ascents and epics. At the end of the day, if it weren’t fun, we wouldn’t do it. No, this shot probably won’t get discussed during a first Friday art walk, but its light-hearted nature shows the viewer what climbing is all about. And don’t worry, the face is just chalk.
Cody Roth on Steep & Cheap (5.12d), Victoria Canyon, South Dakota.
Get behind the curtain
Ice almost always looks significantly better from below. The drips, cones, curtains, and chandeliers get lost when shooting from above, hidden by bulges and rounded edges. Consider wide, medium, and tight shots to suit your situation, orientation, and features. If there are interesting shapes and characteristics near the ground, get in close and shoot wide. Often for steep, mixed terrain ending at a curtain draped over the lip, the belay is the perfect spot to shoot this transitional moment between rock and ice, as it can only be seen behind the frozen stuff. Focal length depends on how far out the climber is when this happens, so be prepared to experiment.
Kyle Dempster kicks out on Harddrive (M8), Santaquin Canyon, Utah.
Shooting through the belayer’s hands
There’s an interesting relationship and bond between climber and belayer that are lost in the world of top-down climbing photography. However, when you’re on the ground or hanging at the belay right next to the belayer, this provides you with the perfect storytelling opportunity. Remember: Every good photo tells a story, and the importance of this partnership is a cool one to explore.
Get close, and shoot wide. Position yourself below the belayer’s waist, and use his hands and body to compose the shot. It’s essential to make sure the climber is visible, or the story is lost. Focus can either be on the hands or the climber—doesn’t matter—just make sure your aperture isn’t too wide open, as you’ll lose the subject in a blurry mess. This technique works best when the route is vertical to overhanging.
Chris Kalous and Sam Lightner, Jr., nab the first ascent of The Ivory Tower (5.13b) on Castleton Tower, Utah.
The Third Wheel
Use being in a party of three to your advantage
Three’s a crowd, right? Shirk your belaying responsibilities and look around in every direction. Hike and explore to find a good vantage point that will allow you to capture an image that takes in the whole scene.
Be observant on the approach hike. Make mental notes. Get off the trail. Bushwhack. Seek high points on either side, or across from the base of the wall. (Hint: It doesn’t take much elevation to find a good vantage point.) This will put you in position to look straight across at the climb (as in this photo), or slightly down at the climber when he is low on the route. Check behind you, too. Maybe there is a ridge or another cliff. It can be far away and still manageable. Slap the long lens on, and wait for the climber to make a huge move. Capture him at the apex, stretched out long and wide. Do some pre-planning, and make sure your climber is wearing a color that contrasts with the environment. Avoid neutral colors and instead skew your selection toward pastels. Also be wary of super-bright neons; they wreak havoc in post-processing.
Peter Vintoniv stands out on Perfect Child (5.13a), The Horn, Henry Mountains, Utah.
Be ready, you never know
Perhaps the best advice I can give is simply to be prepared to shoot at any given second. The nature of amazing things is that they happen spontaneously, without fair warning. Observe your surroundings, keep an open mind, and watch the sky. For this type of shot, remember that it’s all about the landscape. Minimize the rock and climber by shooting wide, and let the scene do the talking. You’re capturing a moment in time. Be ready for those puffy cumulous clouds or wavy lenticular clouds, the sun and moon, or, as seen here, the occasional flock of birds overhead.
Peter Vintoniv pauses for a moment on McCarthy North Face (5.11a), Devils Tower, Wyoming.
Let the rope direct the eye
A workable option in almost any climbing situation is using the rope to lead the viewer’s eye into the photograph and into the action. Whether you’re shooting the leader from the ground or from a hanging belay, get in there and play with the rope, both the lead and tag lines are fair game. Without messing up the climber and his focus, give the rope a shake to get a variety of shapes. Don’t forget to use the second who is following the pitch as a subject, too—it can all work. For any of these, a wider shot is better, and the more exposure and air you can include, the more drama you’ll bring to the table.
Carlos Simes traverses Fessura Della Disperazione (5.10d/6b+), Valle dell’Orco, Italy.