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?



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