John Price is a climbing/adventure photographer based in Canmore, Alberta. He’s been published in Rock & Ice, The New Zealand Alpine Journal and others. His photos of Will Gadd and other leading mountain athletes have been featured in media all over the world.
We recently caught up with him in Canmore and asked if he’d share his top 5 tips for getting great climbing photos.
I’ll let John Take it from here. IG
Adventure photography to me is about telling a story. There is room for tremendous amounts of creative freedom in how you capture that story but there are some basics that will help almost any photographer new to climbing fast track their skills.
Below I’ve outlined a few tips which I think will help aspiring adventure photographers capture the images they’re dreaming up in their heads.
1. Positioning – Be in the right place!
For climbing, the right place is often above the climber. I often will climb routes first, just to get myself into the best position. Shooting top down on your climber instantly gives you a much stronger image than shooting from the ground. By shooting top down you are able to capture the climbers expression which can add a lot of emotion to the image, be it elation or fear. You are also able to give sense of scale and showcase the exposure of climb, which is often the most impressive element to climbing images.
Example: Below is a perfect case of shooting top down. I led the route first so I was able to hang at the anchors and photograph Larry coming up. I cleaned the top few pieces of gear and then Larry led the route. The emotion on his face adds so much to this image. He’s trying hard on a tough route in hot sun and it shows!
2. Composition, what’s in the frame and why?
It is important to understand basic compositional rules of photography as these apply to adventure photography as well. Try and think about where you want your climber positioned in the frame, is there anything giving sense of scale in the image? (Think about including the belayer in the shot to really set the scene). Try and avoid forcing things into the frame, you don’t want to try and squeeze interesting features into the composition if they are too close to the edge, you don’t want distracting elements stealing the show from the main focus, the climber.
Example: Jasmin Fauteux coming up the final pitch on the Greenwood/Locke on the North Face of Mt Temple. While this composition is a little “tight” I still feel it works without feeling too forced. Including the mountain down in the valley, Jasmin’s hands comfortably in the frame, the river running down valley on the left side of the frame helps balance out the image, with the busy mountain face dominating the right side.
3. Consider your background, clear and clean!
One important thing to consider is the backdrop of the climber. Regardless of if you’re shooting from the ground, side on or top down you really want to consider carefully how the climber is going to contrast from their background. Often many good shots are lost to me as the subject simply doesn’t stand out enough from their environment. If they blend in it can look awkward. Think about waiting until the climber is on a solid colored piece of rock or when they have cleared tree’s and are climbing silhouetted against the a blue sky or clouds.
Example: For this image I waited until Kris was high enough on the ice that he was no longer in front of the rock and had only sky behind him. If I had shot him lower down then he would have been harder to make out and I think it would have taken away a lot from the image. I actually asked him to put his leg out, limb separation in climbers is so important! Stemming, reaching, flagging, all make for great poses to shoot.
4. Almost Always… Shoot Wide!
95% of the time I’m shooting climbing I’m shooting wide. I’m a big fan of tight, emotive images, especially portraits but generally speaking when you frame something tight you lose all sense of the environment around the subject and that is usually what we are trying to showcase. The landscapes in which we play bring so much strength to images of this type. My trusted workhorse lens is my Canon 17-40mm L Series. It’s as wide as I want go, almost 150 grams lighter than its 16-35mm brother and produces extremely sharp images.
Example: This is perfect example of shooting Wide, I included a healthy amount of rock, making sure Larry was not being forced into the image but also made sure I had room to include the towers and interesting features in the background, without the landscapes to the left and the desert plains below this image would not have the same impact.
5. Histogram is your friend!
When shooting climbing photos, especially in high contrast situations (Climber in the shade on the wall, super bright background) I am using one of the most useful tricks in the book; exposing for highlights. As it is near impossible to bring detail out of blow out highlights, I’m making sure i’m exposing correctly for the bright areas and underexposing the climber. This technique does then rely on post production skills & a camera with a decent dynamic range but it is the best way to deal with this tough and all too common problem while shooting climbing. I learnt this simple rule the hard way and ruined a few unique climbing shots.
Example: This is one of the harshest examples of a high contrast situation I’ve had. Here I made sure to expose for the highlights (Cascade mountain and the right side of the frame) I was able to underexpose the climber (Jasmin) but bring enough detail back from the shadows during post production.