A great climbing shot should contain some primary elements: the climber, the climb, and an open/clear background, such as the ground or sky. If you can get these into the shot, you can add so much more depth to your images. Also, it is always a good idea to compose your shot using the rule of thirds. Some of the best climbing images capture that reeling sense of height while still keeping the climber as the central focus.
If capturing a well-lighted subject is everything in photography, climbing is the fidgety, if not ornery, little child who doesn’t want their picture taken. It can be really tricky to capture the climber while compensating for the background. For example, it is easy to blow out the sky. You also have to consider which direction the rock is facing. Is it facing into the sun? Is it in the shade? Is the sun obscured by clouds? You may have to contend with overhanging rock casting stark shadows. Although there’s no magic solution to win against these problems, there are ways to work with them.
-In really contrasting conditions, set your camera up for the bright areas (using a higher f/stop, faster shutter speed, and lower ISO), wait for the climber to get fully into the light, then take the photo using the stark light and shadows to create dramatic natural lighting.
-Experiment with exposure bracketing to create a higher dynamic range. If your climber isn’t cruxing, ask them to stay as still as possible for the burst.
-Use remote/off-camera flashes to light up the climber and rock, metering for the sky or brighter areas. This is more challenging when you are shooting a climber on a rope than a boulderer, but it creates some amazingly well-lit images.
For me, climbing imagery has always been about capturing the relationship between climbers and the rock. I always try to capture what makes climbing awesome. I’m always looking for ways to meld the elements of scenery and rock texture with the human emotions of determination, struggle, happiness, and/or elation. Finally, unless you're strictly aiming for a product shot, make sure you put a face to the climber to complete the story.
As a climber of 30 years, with experience across many disciplines and adventures around the world, Truc Allen specializes in the art of climbing photography. His work has been published in several publications and he has worked for many outdoor industry brands over the years.
“Rock climbing photography is an opportunity to capture the elemental combinations of photography, nature, and the human form. There aren’t many sports out there where one can see such raw demonstration between human emotion and power against nature and gravity. Aside from getting the proper gear, knowledge, and/or training, here are my three tips on getting better climbing photos.”