How to Stop Taking Butt Shots
Follow these simple guidelines for better climbing photography. Includes advice for getting the most out of light, how to visualize, use a zoom, and even posing down and how to learn from others' photos.
Get hands-on practical advice from Academy Award winning and National Geographic photographer Jimmy Chin. In this online-course Jimmy Chin shares advice for setting up a climbing shoot, how to prep, gear he carries and takes you behind the scenes in the making of Free Solo. Enroll in Climbing Photography With Jimmy Chin today!
Nothing kills the climbing-buzz quicker than a climbing photograph that’s drab, cluttered, boring, predictable, or obviously posed. You’re not a pro climbing photographer, and probably don’t want to be, and you’d rather spend your cash on a new rope or gas than on expensive camera gear. Still, we know you hate it when you return from a killer roadtrip and your only good photo was of your buddy rope-swinging over the pallet fire. Fear not! You can keep the buzz alive by following a few simple guidelines.
Most photographers will tell you “it’s all about the light.” Sage advice, but almost useless for the casual climbing photographer. Most of us will get up at the crack of dawn for alpine approaches, but not for a photo shoot. You’re more likely to be at the crag for the nice evening light, but by then most of the action is over, and your friends are warming down or already back at camp with a cold one. Chances are, the action you want to capture will happen in the heat of the day. So what do you do?
Use the striking light of early morning and late afternoon for landscape-type shots – scenic views of the peaks or crags, and more distant climbing shots that show a lot of terrain. Direct midday sunlight will give you washed-out colors and harsh shadows that wreak havoc on people’s faces. To capture midday action, you’ll have better luck shooting in the shade. Light filtered through trees or reflected off colorful rock is much more pleasing than midday glare, and you’ll get great shadow detail, too.
Have a concept
Your eye and brain see a scene in a selective, focused way, but a camera does not. You need to tell your camera what to do, what to focus on. Instead of just snapping a shot, hoping to take in what your eye sees, take a moment to identify what you’re really shooting. Is it the dramatic valley and peaks behind the climber? Or is it the climb itself you’re trying to capture? Is it a certain wild move, or is it the whole scene including belayer and belay dogs sprawled out in the dirt below? Once you decide what you’re going for, you’ll begin to recognize it when you see it in your viewfinder.
Once you’ve identified your concept, choose a main subject. Generally, this is the climber, but it may be a climber/belayer pair, or just the climber’s face, or even just a hand or foot. Decide how the rest of the scene supports or detracts from your concept, and eliminate everything else that merely clutters.
Even if you can’t change the lenses in your camera, you can zoom in and out, and this does more than make your subject larger or smaller in the frame. Zooming in makes the background peaks look proportionately larger and steeper. Zooming out, when shooting down on a climber from above, makes the climb look taller and more exposed. Back up and zoom in a little if you want a more flattering portrait; get in close and shoot wide-angle for a grotesque, demented effect.
Or grimace, stick your tongue out, clench your teeth, furrow your brow, look askance, frown, huff and puff, ponder. The single most important thing you can do to improve your climbing images is to include the climber’s face. Expressions bring it all to life. You may be infatuated with a certain tiny chalked hold, but if your shot also features the top of your buddy’s head, it will fail.
By the way, pay attention to the faces of other people in the photo, too. Nothing sucks the energy out of a gripping action photo like a spotter bending down to adjust pads or a belayer talking to a bystander.
If you decide to really do it up and set up a climbing shot, keep these tips in mind.
- If you’re shooting from a rope, set it off a bit to one side. Consider where the light is coming from, so you won’t be shooting into it or casting your shadow on the climber.
- Pick one or maybe two moves or sections that will give the most dramatic representation of the climb, and focus on shooting those. Rolling through dozens of frames as the climber works up the entire climb will earn you a lot of editing and few keeper images.
- If you are going to “pose” your climber, one of the best ways to do it is to have her repeat that special move over and over. This way, the climber usually becomes more and more “expressive” (i.e., exhausted) as they pose. Much more effective than the “reach up with your right hand” technique of posing.
Be a copycat
Imitation is the highest form of flattery, so copy your favorite climbing photographers. OK, so your favorite shots are taken from exotic vantage points you’ll never get to, but copy the ones you can, such as sport-crag or bouldering shots. What is the concept of the photo? What time of day was it taken? Where was the shooter relative to the in-coming sunlight? Was a flash used? Was the shooter above or below the climber? Wide-angle shot or telephoto? What really makes this photo work? Just analyzing how a photographer got their image can be quite educational.