Climbing Photography Basics
As a rock climber and photographer, learning how to jug a line and take photos from above has been a creative joy. I picked up climbing photography when I had a shoulder injury that prevented me from climbing. Climbing photography allowed me to be a part of the experience of climbing, without doing more damage to my shoulder. I find that although the elements of climbing photography are simple, there are tons of ways to look at how to shoot a climb and how to get the best shot.
Below I’ve included the basics of how to set up a static line, how to jug, and what to look for when shooting from above.
I have a Canon R6, which I love. But for years I shot with the much cheaper Canon 70D. I don’t think it really matters what kind of camera you have. The most important part is having your systems in place so you can react quickly when your climber is doing something cool. Most often, when I’m shooting, I want a fairly high shutter speed so that when the climber is moving I can capture it instead of getting a lot of motion blur. I typically don’t shoot climbing with a shutter speed of less than 1/500.
You can technically jug any climbing rope, but it’s much easier (and less damaging to your dynamic ropes) to jug on a static line. I have a 50 meter 9.8 diameter static rope (here’s one from OPL) that works great. When setting up your static line there are tons of ways to secure it to the anchor, but my favorite is the Bunny Ears figure eight (also known as the double figure 8 loop). I tie the bunny ears knot and clip two beefy locking carabiners to the ends. It’s a simple and efficient system. If I’m not going to climb that day, it’s really easy for me to give the pre-tied knot to the climber going up first and say “clip these two lockers to the anchors.” and I know I have a bomb-proof anchor to jug off of.
I have the Misty Mountain Women’s Trad Harness, but I would highly recommend the Black Diamond Big Gun Harness for comfort. Sitting in a harness all day is really painful no matter which way you cut it.
In order to ascend a fixed-line, you’ll need a Gri-Gri, an ascender (left hand if you’re right handed, a right ascender if you’re left handed), a double-length sling, a locking carabiner, and a nonlocking carabiner. To ascend the rope you put the Gri-Gri on your harness and feed the rope through with the working load above you, meaning if you pull in slack on the grigri it will lock into place when you sit down. This is your progress capture. Now place the ascender on the top end of the rope above your face and use the non locking carabiner to secure it to the rope. This is mostly redundant, but we love redundancy in climbing!
Clip the locking carabiner to the bottom of the ascenter and slip the double length sling through the locking carabiner. Now take the end of the rope (the loose end below the grigri) and loop that through the locking carabiner as well. This gives you a foot loop to stand on (the double length sling) and a way to efficiently take up slack (the loose end of the rope). You want to stand up in the sling and pull in slack on the grigri at the same time to move up. It’s more of a hip thrusting motion than anything else. Once you’ve pulled up slack and you’re sitting on the rope, remove your leg from the double length sling and push the ascender up as far as you can go. This motion is awkward at first, but pushing the ascender, and then standing up in the sling and pulling in slack at the same time is how to easily ascend a fixed line.
There are a lot of ways to ascend a rope, and this is just my system. As you grow as a climbing photographer you will see others systems and might like theirs better. There is no one right way to do this. As always, stay safe and use your head, and tie back up knots in your rope as you ascend just in case!
There are a lot of gadgets that can help make your time hanging on a static line way more comfortable. I’ll outline a few here.
If you know what line you’re going to shoot and you don’t plan on moving up or down for a while it’s a great idea to have a bosun’s chair. This allows you to sit in a flat seat instead of weighting your harness and the uncomfortable leg loops. The only drawback is that if you need to move up and down repeatedly and quickly, the bosun’s chair can be difficult to assemble and disassemble easily.
Coiling and stacking rope is a pain, but you really want to make sure you get your rope out of the way when you’re shooting down. If you can hang your rope off your harness and stack it into a bag, it’s really easy to rap down your line at the end of the day.
I have a hip harness that I bought on Amazon for really cheap. It allows me to secure my camera to one side of my body while I need to swing around to jug or navigate rocks. You can get them as chest harnesses as well. I find these to be super useful for rock climbing photography, particularly when you’re concerned with bumping into a wall and damaging your camera.
Climbing photography might seem like a piece of cake, but just being able to shoot down doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to shoot well.
- Don’t tell your climbers to smile, it feels forced and isn’t what people do when they are climbing.
- Direct shade is better than direct sun
- Only take photos when your climber is looking up at the climb or up at you.
- Ropes in motion look really awesome.
- Try not to take photos when the climber has clipped above their head (unless you are getting a shot of the rope in motion, then definitely do that)
- Sometimes the best shot isn’t from above. Many times you can get an amazing shot by scrambling onto a nearby formation or even shooting from far away.
Not So Quick Tips
The best advice I can give is to tell the story of the climb. What can you see from where you are? Can you see the whole climb from start to finish? Or is this shot more about the climber and the horizon line? Can you get a decent foreground, midground, and background in this shot? Is the shot about the beauty of the landscape and the climber is just there to highlight the experience? Or is the shot about the climbers face and the emotions they are experiencing?
I find the best climbing photos come from photos where you can appreciate the internal journey of the climber by seeing their face, and you can appreciate the beauty of the climb.
Generally, enjoy yourself. Climbing photography is an art form, and you can experiment with it as such.