What makes a good climbing photograph?

Dan Lane is a young, up and coming, Rock Climbing, Landscape and Adventure Photographer based in Bangor, North Wales and is a regular contributor to Climb and Climber magazine, along with other climbing publications and guidebooks from time to time.

Recently, I made a behind the scenes video to support my photographic work, answering many of the questions I get asked on a regular basis such as: How did you get into photography? or What is it about rock climbing photography?or Wow, you’re photos are really good, you must have a really good camera? (That last one particularly annoys me…) One of the questions I declined to bring up in my video was: What makes a good rock climbing photograph? Now, this is obviously a personal as to what makes a good photo but I feel there are a few basics, and if you can master them then you’ll be well on your way to some good shots. In this piece I’ll try to outline what I feel are the most important ones.

1. First of all, I’m going to dispel one of the most deeply engrained misconceptions about photography in general. You do not need a big, expensive camera to produce superb images. Obviously, if you’re getting paid £5000 a day for by a worldwide mega-company then it would only be right to have a top end camera but for you and me, the best camera is the one that you have with you, with easy access. After all, the best camera in the world is no use if it’s at home, and equally, it’s just dead weight if it’s buried in the bottom of your bag. By the time you get to it, the magical shot will have gone. I’ve spent a reasonable about of time trying to work out the best system for carrying a compact camera whilst rock climbing. The compromise between access and ease I have come to is to thread its case onto some 5mm cord and tie it around your waist, next to your chalk bag. This way it is out of the way, but easily accessible. I also tie the camera itself to the camera bag, just in case it gets dropped.

2. The first major factor of a good photo is totally out of your hands, which is rather inconvenient, but good light can make or break a photo. Although it’s impossible to define what the light does it can influence how you frame your photo. For example, if there is sun in the background but the crag you’re shooting on is in shade then I’d recommend framing the image so that the sun in the background is not in the image. If it is then the foreground (in shade) will be too dark and the background (in sun) will be far too bright and most probably be just a sheet of white.

3. The position you shoot from is also vital to the photograph. In simple terms, you need to be level with or above the climber. I’m sure we’ve all seen, and taken, arse shots – they’re rubbish 99.9% of the time. I feel that being level with or above the climber just gives you a view point that nobody else can get. In addition it is the ideal position to capture the next few key points – movement/action, environment and emotion.

4. One of the main problems the average person has with climbing photography is that nothing is happening. An awful lot of photos feature somebody stood on a ledge or fiddling with gear. Although in reality much of a day rock climbing is spent like this is doesn’t make the best photos. You need some action, some movement. Try to take the photo when the climber is in the middle of a sequence, pulling an interesting shape and clearly actually climbing, rather than standing on a ledge. Another good technique is to include all four limbs in the shot wherever possible. Shots of somebody on an arête can look great, but for all we know there could be a massive jug around the corner, or even a piece of gear being pulled on. So, if you can get all four limbs visible it helps to reinforce the situation in question – hard moves and small holds, hopefully!

5. For me, one of the really important elements of an image is the environment. I love to shoot not only some good action, but also the whole feeling and situation. One of my main aims in photography is to show non-climbers how amazing it is – that means much more than just the climber and some hard moves. I’d suggest zooming out a little and including a bit of the surrounding landscape to put the photo into context.

6. The last pointer for a good climbing photo is about on par with the quality of light in terms of how difficult it is to capture. The magical light can come and go again in a split second. The same applies with emotion. Climbing can be a very emotional pastime, from great fear to over overwhelming feelings of joy. Capturing this can almost impossible though. Basically, if you’re lucky you’ll catch it, if you’re not lucky, you’ll miss it! But be sure, if you want a chance at getting emotion make sure the climber’s face is clearly visible. A feeling of emotion, regardless of what it is, can certainly make a good picture great, but lack of it won’t make a good picture any worse.

If you’ve followed all of these simple pointers then you’ve probably got a few good photos. If you’re pleased with them, get them printed and show them off! After all, what’s the point in taking a photo, just for it to get lost into the depths of your computer’s hard drive?

Before you get too keen though, are you a climber that photographs or a photographer that climbs? Be careful how you define yourself…but for now, just get out there and enjoy shooting!

Dan is supported by Redged tripods (http://www.redgedstore.com/) and Clik Elite camera bags (http://www.clikelitestore.eu/). To learn more about his work go to his website: www.danlanephotography.com and ‘like’ his facebook page to keep up with all the latest goings on: www.facebook.com/danlanephotography.