Hardcover Book Is Available!

THURSDAY, May 17, 2017 – Classic Adirondack Climbs: Rock, Ice & Slide Climbing Photographs from the East’s Largest Wilderness was recently completed and this hardcover coffee-table book is now available as a Collector’s Edition. The release of this book marks the completion of the first of the three components in our Classic Adirondack Climbs project. The second component, a collection of 20 fine art prints of our favorite images from the project, is in the final stages of hard-proofing and will be available within the next few weeks. Lastly, our climber’s guidebook in ebook format, Classic Adirondack Climbs – Selected Rock, Ice & Slide Climbs (easy to moderate routes), is still a ways off and we are shooting for completion this fall.

In an article about the book, appearing in Adirondack Life magazine’s 2017 Annual Guide to the Great Outdoors, climber Brandon Del Pozo writes “Each photograph is a moment in time that captures the beauty and wonder of Adirondack rock and ice.” Classic Adirondack Climbs is “a love note to everything classic and steep in the Adirondacks,” he concludes.Classic Adirondack Climbs

After more than three years of effort, we are very pleased to offer this book as the first component of our Classic Adirondack Climbs project.

For a brief presentation about the book, with links to purchasing information:

Classic Adirondack Climbs: Rock, Ice & Slide Climbing Photographs from the East’s Largest Wilderness

CAC Presentation on July 11, 2016

SATURDAY, July 2, 2016 – R.L. and Karen Stolz will kick off the 2016 Keene Valley Library Lecture Series with an hour-long photographic presentation introducing their upcoming book, Classic Adirondack Climbs, on Monday, July 11, 2016 at 7:30pm. This program, at the Keene Valley Library in Keene Valley, NY is open to the public and admission is free. Find Out More

Vertical Perspectives Photography, R.L. & Karen Stolz

Boom Refinements

WEDNESDAY, May 11, 2016 – Most of the rigging we employ to photograph from cliffs is based upon our diverse climbing experience, spanning more than 30 years as career mountain guides. We can usually foresee the pitfalls of various approaches before we even get to a situation and plan, or adjust, accordingly. We’ve refined our equipment and techniques for moving around in the vertical world with cameras and as a result, on rock or ice, we can usually get the shots we are after fairly efficiently. Once in position, when we are hand-holding our cameras, the only special concern is having reasonably easy access to the cameras and lenses we need for the shots – and not dropping anything. An assortment of camera bags, and sometimes a bosun’s chair and/or chest harness for comfort address these concerns quite well in most cases.Karen Stolz and climber, Sabrina Hague

The one area where our equipment and rigging still give us the occasional headache is when we shoot remotely with a boom and, because the resulting shots can be so spectacular, we find ourselves doing that quite often. For those unfamiliar with booms, they are like a really long selfie-stick but considerably more robust. Getting a camera into position, 15 or more feet out from a cliff on a horizontal boom, is often extremely tricky and the stress of having several thousand dollars worth of photography equipment at risk doesn’t help. The boom and jib shots commonly seen in cinematography and videography are typically made using very special equipment, usually weighing upwards of one hundred pounds and not at all suited for use near, much less on, cliffs. Because we sometimes have to carry our booms long distances over rugged terrain, just to get to where we want to shoot, they need to be light weight and versatile. And they sometimes need to be set up while dangling from ropes on the side of a sheer cliff – not a simple feat.

Before you ask why we don’t just use a drone, keep in mind that many of the shots that really work for well for climbing require precise, close positioning and high quality (heavy) wide-angle lenses.  A nearby hovering drone is loud and very unnerving, and one big enough to carry a high quality camera and lens could easily knock a climber off the wall if it strayed too close. Climbing is scary enough already.  Worrying about a drone strike  while climbing is not the look we are after! They are amazing tools for videography but that’s a very different animal. In time, technology may evolve to make them practical for climbing still photos but we are not there yet, and their invasively loud noise will remain a concern in wilderness areas.

Prior to reliable remote controls, climbing photographers made this type of shot by positioning themselves and their camera (as opposed to just the camera) away from the cliff using a variety of methods including stilts, ladders attached to the cliff, various unwieldy triangular contraptions, or sometimes an additional rope to pull them away from the cliff. If you really wanted the shot you picked one these cumbersome methods to get it. Sometimes you got what you wanted, sometimes not.

Until recently, the shutter on boom-mounted cameras could be triggered by wireless remote but controlling them otherwise and, more importantly, composing a shot with a live image, required cables and a special monitor that were compatible with only a few cameras. Even then, it was never a sure thing and it was just not very practical in climbing environments. A few brave souls, Simon Carter comes to mind quickly, forged ahead despite the problems. His early climbing boom designs allowed him to create ground-breaking climbing photos, unlike anything seen before.

Starting in 2012, high quality cameras, controllable through a smart-phone or tablet app via wifi became available and boom shots became practical.  We jumped on the first generation of this technology, which did not include live composing but did send the image to our iOS devices for review. It worked, but the live composing and exposure adjustments available with more recent cameras is really the key to making this technology fully functional. It works well enough that we now prefer to use it, even when we are standing on the ground, instead of a release cable when shooting from a tripod.

R & RL

Over the past several years we have worked with several different purpose-built, lightweight boom systems, all of them designed and built by us. Our first boom, still in use, was designed around a painter’s pole comprised of three 8-foot telescoping sections, allowing us to position our camera up to about 16 horizontal feet out from the cliff. Longer distances become very unstable and don’t really improve the shot in most cases.

By suspending the camera from a triangular mounting system for stability, we can keep the boom and the operator out of the photo without needing to point the camera downward at too steep an angle. The vertical angle of the camera has a big impact on the feel of a shot. This boom relies on an odd assortment of components, including a modified ski pole, a clamp from a drum set, plastic PVC pipe and a monopod head. It is lightweight and the vertical angle is predetermined, and indexed for several lens focal lengths, so we know what to expect. A system of guy lines, once it’s in position, keeps everything stable, while allowing lateral swings for different horizontal angles. The camera, controlled remotely via smartphone app, allows real-time composing.

We have made thousands of exposures with this rig and the results have mostly been very satisfying. The hardest part about using this boom is maneuvering it into position. This requires two (or more) people to manhandle the ungainly rig onto its guy lines. Every situation seems to require a different approach, mostly dependent upon how much clearance is available as it is being moved. When positioned just below an open cliff top it’s fairly easy to set up. With corners, foliage and other obstructions nearby it becomes more challenging. More than once, the whole rig has come frighteningly close to getting away from us.

It didn’t take long for us to realize we needed an additional boom that was easier to set up and use in situations where our long boom was too unwieldy. Our short boom is made from a very light weight 8-foot aluminum pole, which originally supported an outdoor picnic table umbrella! It can be set up and used by a single person, almost anywhere, and it uses a ball head to mount the camera. This head allows us to use a variety of lenses and to shoot in many more directions than our long boom offers. Although it is much easier to set up, use and adjust, it will not duplicate the “big air” effect of our long boom. Sometimes we take both booms to a shoot.

Our most recent boom was designed to give us more reach (12 feet from the cliff) than our short boom, and thus more of a “big air” feel, yet still be relatively easy to set up in the awkward places that often provide the most interesting shots. Because each of its two sections are only 6 feet long (rather than 8 feet) it can be extended during setup rather than having to extend it beforehand. And because this boom uses hexagonal tubing it is stronger and more rigid than our long boom, allowing us to attach a single guy line at it’s end, rather than two guy lines. We also modified the way in which we support the camera below the boom to be more rigid, eliminating the need for a triangular support. We are still testing it, but we are hope this design, which can adjust the camera position from 7 to 12 feet away from the cliff, will permit us to get boom shots in places we previously could not.

 

 

Positive Reinforcement Photo Shoot

Adk Explorer coverWEDNESDAY, March 30, 2016 – Earlier this winter, on a very cold January day, Sabrina Hague and Phil Brown climbed Positive Reinforcement, a Classic Adirondack Climb in Chapel Pond Canyon. On the previous day we set up ropes to allow us to position ourselves for the best photographic angles. R.L. ascended one of the ropes, adjacent to Sabrina as she climbed the route, while Karen rappelled off the top to shoot the upper section of the climb. The ice was steep and brittle, but Sabrina smiled for our cameras (while quietly cursing the uncooperative conditions) as she led the pitch. Phil patiently did his best to keep warm belaying as we repeatedly moved about with our cameras. When it was his turn, he was more than ready to climb. Everybody got cold.

In addition to shooting from our rigged ropes, we photographed the top of the pitch using one of our booms to create the birds-eye views we get when the camera is positioned out away from the cliff face.

We decided, unanimously, the second pitch would be anticlimactic and it would be best to leave with all of our fingers and toes, so we headed to town for a hot lunch instead.

Many thanks to Sabrina and Phil for climbing for our cameras, again!  And special thanks to Phil for telling the story of this climb and illustrating it with our photos in a terrific article in the Adirondack Explorer.

Climbing Photography Evolves

FRIDAY, March 4, 2016 –  Quite a few people have asked us how we have gone about gathering the photographs for our Classic Adirondack Climbs project. The short answer is “slowly”! Our initial conception of this project involved using mostly photos we had collected over more than 30 years guiding the routes we describe. Had we followed that path we’d have completed the guidebook a long time ago. That didn’t happen.

Instead, not long after we started shooting new photographs for  Classic Adirondack Climbs , we realized we were able to create dramatically better images than we had in our files. We also realized that camera technology was in the midst of an evolutionary explosion that would have a huge effect on all climbing photography.  Specifically, the development of very high quality cameras and lenses that are smaller and more versatile than anything previously available, combined with the ability to operate them remotely and wirelessly, while retaining most of the control that is available while holding them in hand, allows photographs to be made from places that were previously unimaginable. This opens the door to mind-boggling possibilities.

A bit of background before we continue… Our climbing photography days began in the 1970’s when the limitations of film, and printing in a darkroom, made it a much slower and more costly process. We sold some images back then but most of our climbing photos served to illustrate the marketing materials for our mountain guiding business. When digital photography became practical around the turn of the millennium we quickly embraced this new option, but kept our film cameras for the “important” stuff. The convenience of instant playback plus the ease and low cost of sharing photos was a very welcome advance. Image quality was not yet on par with film but it was more than adequate for the web, where nearly all of our images were displayed. In 2004 we completely revamped the Alpine Adventures web site and, while doing so, we became comfortable in Photoshop while post-processing the 500+ images on the site. After that experience we dismantled our darkroom for good.

By 2005, image quality, even with the compact cameras we used most of the time, was approaching film. These tiny cameras weighed next to nothing and they were ideal on the long routes we often guided. We shot tens of thousands of photos all over the world and, because we were usually busy with guiding responsibilities (like belaying), we really didn’t have time to leverage the benefits of more sophisticated cameras, but having a good quality, easily accessible camera at all times was huge.

We still carry compact cameras (good ones) when we are guiding, for the same reasons. Handheld photos (often while belaying with the other hand), composed on the fly, are far better than the ones you didn’t take at all because your big camera was too awkward or slow. To really leverage the benefits of a serious camera you need to focus on the creative process and technical aspects of photography, and that takes time you may not be able to justify. If you are an active member of a climbing party, fiddling with camera settings, changing lenses and the like will not endear you to your partner(s)! In fact, if you become too distracted by a great photo opportunity you might just get someone killed.

In many cases high quality small cameras will produce images that are nearly indistinguishable from their larger, more complex and more expensive brethren. This is especially true for climbing in broad daylight when rock and ice climbing typically take place. An alpine start might reveal the weaknesses of small sensor compact cameras but then again, big objectives that require long days don’t allow time for fiddling with cameras of any size. Don’t discount the value of a compact camera when you are an active member of a climbing party.

When we decided to embark on the Classic Adirondack Climbs project in early 2013 we reviewed our considerable collection of images and decided we’d need to fill in some holes in that collection to get the coverage we envisioned for the book. Our compact digital cameras did not offer the creative flexibility our film SLR’s had allowed but film made no sense for our needs and, after more than a decade of shooting climbers using live view, we were unwilling to tolerate a reflex viewing system again. Never needing much of an excuse to buy any new camera, we decided it was time to leverage the emerging technologies in mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. We invested in the Micro 4/3rds system and it turned out to be an ideal choice, even better than we hoped it might.

With the new system we were immediately able to bring all of our excellent quality film camera lenses back to life (after 6 or 7 years of gathering dust). In addition to a few new lenses, fully compatible with the new system, our our older lenses gave us access to a full range of focal lengths and all the creative control we sought. We still use four of these older lenses, especially our tack sharp 300mm F4.5 which, due to the crop factor of Micro 4/3rds, renders an angle of view comparable to a 600mm lens on a full-frame camera. The highly compressed perspective and 12X magnification allows us to make photographs that contrast wildly with the very wide shots typical of climbing photography.

We began to photograph independent climbing parties from ideal vantage points almost exclusively and, before long we realized a lot of our older photos were looking a bit tired compared to the ones we were then making consistently. At about the same time, wireless remotely-controlled Micro 4/3rds cameras became available. This opened up the possibility of reliably shooting climbers using a boom-mounted camera. We have a separate post devoted entirely to this topic.

Once we worked  out how to shoot from a boom (without dropping thousands of dollars worth of gear!) Our photos took another leap forward. At that point we decided to go all-in with the Micro 4/3rds system and we now shoot with 4 bodies and an assortment of 14 lenses from Olympus and Panasonic/Leica. Most of our lenses are top-quality “pro” lenses but we have a few “kit” lenses for occasional use. For climbing photos, weather sealing is worth the extra cost. For ice climbing photography it’s almost essential.

On a typical climbing photo shoot nowadays, with each of us photographing from a rope, we each mount an ultra-wide zoom lens on a primary body. We each also carry a mid-range zoom and usually a long zoom, plus one of us sometimes carries a fisheye and/or a fast fixed focal length normal lens. The other two bodies minimize the need for lens changes which are difficult for rock climbing shoots and fraught with difficulty for ice climbing shoots when it’s really cold. Frosty sensors do not work well at all!

After trying every camera bag system in existence and making a few, we have settled on a lens-down waist pouch on a belt for each body-with-lens, plus extra lens pouches when needed. This is the only system we’ve found that allows access to everything while wearing a harness, possibly with a chest harness and/or a bosun’s chair. This has been our primary bag system since the early 1980’s and we still use this system for all of our active, roped climbing shoots. It allows us to rappel, ascend or stay stationary, and switch from one to the other easily while we shoot.

We still carry only a compact camera when guiding and, although we might have a smartphone, we find them very awkward for climbing photos and very easy to drop. They are, however, very handy for shots when fiddling and dropping are not big concerns.

Some folks ask why we don’t use full-frame DSLR cameras. The answer is mostly that they are big and heavy and, although the image quality of their large sensors is better in tests, it’s often not discernible in the real world of climbing photography. Carrying three full-frame bodies plus two extra lenses (something I did recently) would be almost impossible due to the bulk, not to mention the weight. Smaller cameras are getting very close to their big brothers in image quality. When you are dangling from a rope moving around is a difficult process so an assortment of focal lengths provides a disproportionate benefit compared to typical terrestrial situations. Similar reasoning explains why medium and large format cameras don’t make very good backcountry systems, despite their superb image quality. Image quality is only useful when it can be leveraged effectively.

Large sensors excel where shallow depth of field shots are important (the opposite concern is more common for climbing photos), where a slow and deliberate approach is required (again, the opposite is more of a concern while shooting climbing) or where very large, high resolutions prints will be made from the files. Our 16 mp Micro 4/3rds cameras make beautiful large format giclée prints up to 24″ x 36″ and, at normal viewing distances, much larger prints look fine. If you plan to view a 4′ x 6′ print at 10″ you need more pixels but not many people do that. And did I mention the cameras required are huge and heavy?

 

VPP Web Site Lanched

WEDNESDAY, March 2, 2016 –  The Vertical Perspectives Photography web site went live on March 1, 2016. We’ve posted some photo galleries along with information about our projects and services. We expect to add additional photo galleries as well as more detailed information as it becomes available.

This Happenings & Viewpoints page is a place for us to share more than just our photos. A particularly challenging photo shoot, a newly-modified piece of equipment, a post-processing revelation, our participation in an event, or any of many other reasons might generate news we want to share. Nothing earth-shattering but you might find it interesting.

Photographers and mountain guides, RL & Karen Stolz divide their time between guiding activities through Alpine Adventures, Inc and photographic activities through Vertical Perspectives Photography. Please check out the main VPP site and follow this blog to stay informed.