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.
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.
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.