5 Tips to Improve Your Outdoor Photography (Climbing Edition)

BUFF® Staff / 3-11-2017

Change Your Perspective.

Let’s be honest, no one really likes to look at your butt shots. There is just nothing interesting about them. We have all belayed someone before, we all know what looking up at a climber looks like so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find out images from that same vantage point don’t strike a chord with a viewer. Getting a unique perspective is a key element in creating an eye-catching climbing image.
There are two easy ways to do this. Get above the climber, or get to the side. Which technique you decide on will be determined by the surrounding terrain, composition goal and most importantly, your comfort level and ability.
Getting to the side of the climber will often be the easiest most straightforward approach to changing your perspective. Often times there will be some sort of a natural feature like a boulder, easy start to a climb or simply a change in angle along the cliff.
The next and most versatile option is to place yourself above your subject. If you are lucky enough to have access to a climbing area with easily accessible top anchors you are already at an advantage. Depending on the specifics of the composition you have in mind, getting an eye-catching image can be as simple as creating an anchor, attaching yourself securely and leaning over the edge. When doing this, it is your natural instinct to want to be directly above the climber. While this is great and is certainly my go to when photographing climbing, try to explore your options and see what results being one route to either side gives you. You may be surprised.
More often than not you will find yourself in an area where you do not have easy access to the top of your climbing area. This is where you are going to need some creativity, knowledge and a lot of patience. It is crucial that you become proficient in rope ascending techniques and general climbing systems before attempting to add a camera. I recommend hiring an American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) certified or trained guide to teach you these skills.
The most important thing is to get a system established that is separate from the main climbing system. Avoid the temptation to climb to the anchor and attach yourself and pull the rope. Although unlikely, you run the risk of your climber not being able to finish their climb, leaving you stuck on an anchor with no means of descent.
The safest method is to have either yourself or another trusted climber climb the route first and have them build an anchor (not just two quickdraws) and attach a separate single line to the master point of that anchor and return to the ground. Now you are free to choose your own vantage point from which to photograph.
If this is something outside of your ability and comfort level, consider climbing an adjacent route on top rope and asking your belayer to take. Depending on the area, the closest route could only be a couple of feet way and will put you in a similar position you would be if you were to ascend a fixed rope.

Know it All

Knowing the area well before you set out to take pictures can be the difference between coming back with gold and hitting delete. If you are new to the area you may want to consider arriving at the location the day before and spend some time walking around taking notes on what the light is doing at different times. Maybe the light only hits the particular climbing you want to photograph for 30 minutes out of the entire day. Knowing when that 30 minutes is a critical piece of information you will want to have.
Maybe the climbing area faces west. If that’s the case you may not be photograph first thing in the morning when it’s in the shade. You are likely going to wait until the late afternoon when it is in the sun, yet the light is still soft enough to not give your subject harsh shadows.

Knowing the area can go beyond lighting. Becoming familiar with the terrain also gives you the opportunity to get a better idea of how and where you are going to position yourself to photograph.
I once did a shoot in the Sandia Mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico and spent 9 hours the day before setting up various rope systems to figure out what positioning gave me the best vantage point. I knew exactly what composition I wanted, I just did not know that best way to get into that position with terrain available to me.
In the end I had 3 separate rope system I used to put me in the spot I needed to be.

Make it Pop! 

Making your subject stand out goes a long way. More than you realize.
Having your subject stand out and have contrast against the earth-tone rock face can probably do more for an image that anything else.
We all know that your eye is immediately drawn to the brightest part of an image. Well that same principle holds true for color. You want the viewers eye to be immediately directed to the most important part your image, the climber.
Be careful what color you choose in what area. If you are photographing in an area with a red rock you may want to consider clothing that is not red.
If you can, try to coordinate with your subject the day before and ask him or her to wear a brightly colored shirt. Try to avoid any white or neon colors as this will wreak havoc on your camera’s metering system and result in an over exposed shirt.
If you aren’t able to touch base with your subject ahead of time, plan ahead and pack your own shirt that you know will work well. Every time I head out to photograph I always carry 3 pieces of emergency clothing items with me: A shirt, a beanie and a Buff. Now, in case my subject forgot to do his laundry and didn’t bring the correct shirt, I have one for him. At the very least I can ask them to put the Buff around their neck or wear it as a headband.

Balancing Act

One of the most beautiful parts of climbing is that it takes us to magnificent locations. Places that most people will never see. So why not show them?
It is so easy to get caught up in making sure we get the subject in that perfect body position, struggling through the hard moves that we forget to show the beautiful landscape behind them.
One option is to achieve this is with a telephoto lens. By simply zooming out and increasing your aperture and your depth of field more of the background will be in focus. However, the best option is utilizing a wide-angle lens (less than 30mm.) This will show the landscape while simultaneously creating an interesting effect and will you to get closer to your subject while still being able to show the surrounding area.


Zoom Out

One mistake I see any sports photographer making is they frame their shot in camera exactly how they want the final image to look. Be careful doing this.
Body positions change quickly in any sport. Climbing included. Your perfectly positioned climber can look great through your viewfinder but before you know it their foot is stretched out wide, and out of your frame.
When shooting with at a telephoto lens I will often back off my focal length just enough to compensate for those quick body position changes. I would much rather spend extra time in Photoshop than to have an image ruined but a limb being out of frame. 

Kerr Adams Bio:

Kerr was born in Torquay, a small fishing and tourism town in Devon, England in 1989. At the age of 6 Kerr and his family relocated to the United States. During high school, Kerr found himself pursuing tournament paintball, traveling the country to compete in the Paintball Sports Promotions (PSP) and National Professional Paintball League (NPPL.) After high school Kerr moved to Albuquerque to find a new adventure. Kerr began instructing and guiding in 2011 and has since guided rock, ice, alpine climbing, and high altitude mountaineering. Kerr has worked throughout the United States in California, Colorado and New Mexico and internationally in Pakistan and Ecuador. Kerr has a B.F.A in studio art with a concentration in photography and digital arts from the University of New Mexico and is pursuing international Mountain Guide certification with the American Mountain Guide's Association (AMGA), which includes certification in rock, alpine, and ski disciplines. 

Wesbite: https://www.kerradams.com/
Get in touch: adamskerr@yahoo.com
Instagram: @kerr_adams

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