My legs are dead, my abs are killing me, it’s too cold for this t-shirt and the wind is swinging me around in circles, but there aren’t many places I’d rather be. Hanging on the side of a cliff with a camera in my hand and someone climbing nearby is something that really stokes my fire and requires just the right balance of technical skills and artistic expression to be challenging and so much fun. Whether you’re taking some nice pictures to look back on or working on becoming the next Jimmy Chin, upping your photography game is not something you’ll regret. Consider this my TED talk…
Tiffany Wells on Pinotage in Rocklands (2017). That perfect moment just before the sun sets.
Know your camera
Knowing your camera and being proficient with its operation is the first step. Trying to figure things out while you’re hanging around (or even worse, while your climber is hanging around) is a sure way to get frustrated or take a bad picture that could have been a banger. The quality or overall goodness of the camera you have with you is less important than knowing how to work it. If you really want to get into this photography thing then a better camera does make a difference, you just don’t need to spend R10 000 to get started.
Evan Margetts on Something of Value (21) on Blouberg: This was taken with my pretty average Huawei phone (P-smart 2018) at 1/150 f2.2 ISO15
Photos are captured when the sensor (or the film if you’re going old school) on the camera is exposed to light, so understanding how to manage that light is pretty important. If you’re new to photography then check out this article or just google the exposure triangle: https://www.photographytalk.com/beginner-photogra...
Shooting in manual mode (or pro mode if you’re on a cell phone) allows you to control these three settings in your camera, which gives you much more control over the final photo. Want the background to be blurry? Open up the aperture. Is your subject moving too quick and is blurry? Use a faster shutter speed. Is it evening and getting too dark? Bump up the ISO to brighten your picture. AV (aperture priority) mode and Auto ISO are useful tools that are really helpful once you’ve mastered shooting in manual.
If your photo is perfectly exposed but your subject is blurry then it was all a bit of a waste so learn to use your camera's autofocus system. I love using a dedicated button on the back of my camera to focus (not the half-press of the shutter) because I can change my framing without having to refocus every time.
Alice Haefer on Jack of all Trades in Boven. Faces, bright clothes and being a little away from the wall helps this photo a lot.
Getting into position
The eyes are the window to the soul or something like that… moral of the story: butt shots are out, faces are in! Try your best to get your climber’s face in the shot. The admin required can range from a short walk up a hill to get a good angle or a complicated rigging clusterf*ck that leaves you too terrified to even think about framing a decent shot. While it’s tempting to picture yourself hanging by a thread shooting like Jimmy Chin, it’s a lot of work, so make sure you aren’t missing a good angle with less admin. If you’re committed to going over the edge then read on but take care.
If you’re a climber then you probably have some of the basics already. My basic kit is a harness (Mammut Ophir 3), about 40m of static rope, two Petzl Grigris with locking biners, a Petzl jumar, prusiks and a few quickdraws and slings. Finally, I’ll have some gear for rigging the anchor (locking carabiners or quickdraws if there are bolts or some big slings and trad gear if there aren’t). If it’s a big and long shoot I’ll bring a Petzl Croll chest ascender and my DIY photography seat.
Rigging is a topic worthy of a whole article by itself. I read somewhere that if you want to be a better climbing photographer then become a better climber. Does this mean that if you put a camera in the gym crusher’s hands they’ll be an amazing photographer? Not at all, but that trad dad doing laps on the 15 is probably able to rig himself into a better position than you, so expand your climbing in all directions: go multi-pitching, try trad climbing, learn about different pieces of gear and how to use them, spend time at a crag to learn when it’s in the shade or the sun, and watch other people climbing to get an idea of the movements you can capture.
Ben Louw just after onsighting the crux of Eight Miles High on Blouberg with the sun setting in the background. A little Lightroom editing keeps the details and really shows off the amazing colours.
For getting started the best thing you can do is get someone to belay you on top rope while you swing around and get comfortable working a camera at heights. Once you’re a little more comfortable you can get started with rigging your own set-up. When I rig for photography I try my best to have two ropes attached to the wall, this makes me feel a little safer but also really helps facilitate moving around on the wall, being able to move left and right as well as up and down helps get that sweet sweet angle nice and easily.
Some tips to make life easier: 1. Often it can get cold hanging around waiting for your climber to get ready so bring a jacket or wind breaker to help keep you warm. 2. Changing lenses on the wall is very scary and risky, I hang my camera bag from the jumar so it’s right between my legs and change lenses inside the bag so I can’t drop a lens. 2. I’m small and light so I can get away with my regular climbing harness but it does get pretty uncomfortable at times (think hanging belay, but worse). You can cut out 3 foam strips that fit onto the back and legs of your harness to beef up the padding and give you a bigger surface area to sit on. 3. It can be pretty hard to communicate with people around on the ground so bring your phone and drop them a voice note or use some 2-way radios if there isn’t any signal. 4. Bring a few different outfit options in case what they’re wearing doesn’t work. Having the right colour clothes on hand is great for getting your climber to pop from the wall.
Having a person on a cool route while you swing around doesn’t automatically lead to a great picture. Thinking about how the different aspects of the photo fill the frame is important too. How the light and shadows interact with your subject, where your subject is in the frame, how close or far away are they, colours, textures and depth all interact to form the composition of the photo. A well composed photo looks much better than a poorly composed one, even if all the other technical aspects are identical. Our brains are aesthetically aware, so try to get your photo to be pleasant to look at. There are lots of rules and thousands of articles out there so go do some googling and some reading, but most importantly of all, go practice.
A few things to focus on are depth in your photo, the rule of thirds, colour of the climber in relation to the rock or the background (there’s a reason all the climbing brands make their clothes so colorful and bright) and leading lines.
Tim Slab on Creaking Heights in Rocklands. Cool body position, some height and the gorgeous rock in Rocklands.
Shooting in RAW gives you a lot more wiggle room in post and there are a host of free options out there, but Lightroom from Adobe is pretty cheap and a great program for editing plus the photography package comes with Photoshop for free basically, there’s a reason these programs are the industry standard, they’re very powerful tools. I try to shoot my photos as well in camera as possible but I’ve saved some unusable pictures and turned a few okay ones into real bangers by having an idea of post processing. There are thousands of tutorials so get googling and dive in. Like framing or climbing, editing is a skill that you get better with and quicker with over time. So jump in, play around and enjoy the magic.
Kieran and Chris on Blouberg, shot with my beloved 10-18mm.
Photography is such a cool hobby and I feel so blessed each time I’m out with a camera and some friends. It really ticks my boxes as a creative outlet and climbing activity. I’ve been fortunate to hang out with some amazing photographers that have helped me on my journey and opened my eyes up to what is possible and how big you can think. Find some mentors and go shooting with them, you’ll learn a lot. For most of us (myself included), the majority of our photos won’t end up in a magazine or on a billboard. Photos are amazing memories of friends, cool adventures and time in the mountains so grab your camera, don’t worry if you’re not getting the perfect shot every time and keep clicking away.