In January 2015, the photographer Brett Lowell dangled in space, 1,200 feet above the Valley floor and 100 feet out from El Capitan’s Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d). Using advanced rigging techniques, Tommy Caldwell, Eric Sloan, and I had helped position Lowell so he could photograph the Crystal Dike Traverse, the crux of the route. The picture came out perfectly, showing Caldwell dancing on small edges from a unique vantage accessible only through ninja skills.
Working on the Dawn Wall and various other shoots, I’ve learned a few tricks about climbing photography. While you’ll probably never need to drag 70 pounds of rope up El Cap like we did, you can elevate your photography from amateur-level buttshots to pro-level artistry with just three simple tips.
1. Scope the route
First, do your research—the more groundwork, the better the results.
Choose a route
Home in on the route you want to shoot. Look for climbs with aesthetic features like splitter cracks, clean arêtes, long colonettes, fluorescent lichen, and unique lithic features like chickenheads. Stay away from broken rock, as it doesn’t shoot well.
Check the light
See when the climb receives sun and shade, letting you know whether your subject will be backlit, overexposed, or even lit at all.
Identify vantage points
Walk around the base and sides of the climb to search for the optimal vantage points. Take out binoculars and see which sections will be the most photogenic—usually crux sections or those with the most unique rock features.
Sort out your climber’s body position
Some routes can be challenging because the climber—usually right at some key moment—hides around a corner or under a bulge. If possible, have your climber pre-run the route to gain a sense of the moves.
2. Add Production Value
This next step adds the technical and logistical foundation to ensure you have the cleanest, most visually alluring image possible.
- Work with climbers who are excited to have their picture taken. Nothing’s worse than that buddy who’s perma-scowling in every frame because you asked him to “just do the crux again” so you could nail the shot—even though he didn’t want to be there in the first place.
- To help her stand out, have your climber wear bright colors that contrast with the landscape. Bring a few solid-colored shirts with little to no writing or patterns on them.
- Clean up the base area, so you don’t need to Photoshop out a junkshow later. We get tons of submissions here at Climbing, many of which would be print-worthy if not for the distracting backpacks, random crag dogs, and wandering climbers below the route.
- Skip over shots of chalking, clipping, placing gear, or resting in favor of pure action (unique body positions, big moves, setups for dynos, etc.). These photos often lack the core dynamism of the experience. Aim to catch your subject’s eyes, which help convey our sport’s emotion.
3. Determine the Best Angle
Some routes shoot best from the top, while others shoot best from the side or the ground. A few things to consider before you commit to one option or the other:
Some of the best shots can be side views. For example, Spank the Monkey, a classic 5.13d arête at Smith Rock, shoots well from a ridge a few hundred feet away because it’s possible to catch both the climber and snow-capped Mount Jefferson in the background. So find a spot where you can see as much as possible of the climber’s body and face, plus the rock. This could mean shooting from far away, across a canyon; on top and to the side of the climber; or from the cliff top—consider using a long lens. Also, this will allow you a chance to watch the climber on the route to decide whether to also shoot from a rope.
One of the best ways to enhance your climbing photography is to get on a rope (see “Ropework 101” sidebar), with the one caveat that shooting from directly above often turns your climber into a set of shoulders with no legs or makes him look like he’s crawling. Instead, change your vantage slightly: An angle slightly above and to the side allows you to frame all four limbs, plus your climber’s face.
- Get into position: On most sport and single-pitch trad climbs, there will be a two-bolt anchor. Either rap off the crag top to access this anchor or have the climber tag up your rope (an easy-to-jumar static line) and clip it in.
- Fix the rope: You can fix the rope a few ways: A bunny-ears figure 8 with each loop clipped into a bolt, a cordelette master point, or a figure 8 clipped to one bolt and a clove hitch into the other. The first two options are fully equalized, while the latter—though the fastest, and easiest in terms of knot removal—requires two solid bolts in bomber rock.
- Keep things tight and tidy: On steep routes where you can’t touch the wall with your feet, anchor the bottom of the rope and/or clip into bolts/pro on other routes as directionals. This will stop you from spinning. On lower-angle routes, brace yourself against the wall to steady your camera. Finally, in all cases, keep your own rope out of the frame. You can either coil it in your lap or over your neck, or place it in a sling attached to a gear loop. Additionally, minimize the amount of rope out by using only enough rope for the section you’ll shoot, coiling the rest at the anchor. (Stopper-knot your rope bottom if it doesn’t touch the ground!)
- Rap it up: To descend, either thread the anchor and rappel, or rap your fixed line and then have the climber clean it.