How to: Sport Climbing Photography

When I got into climbing photography 4 years ago I stuck to shooting on the ground. Butt shots and close-ups of smearing shoes littered my hard drives. There's got to be another way to make my photos more interesting I thought. I started browsing the internet looking for techniques so that I could safely shoot while hanging from a rope. Most of the youtube videos explained big wall jumar techniques, without going in depth about the systems used, or how to incorporate a camera. So I slowly had to learn all of these techniques by myself. After I mastered them I wanted to make a better way of explaining how it’s done, and the best products to use for high angle photography.

My friend Eric Dunn and I have been filming a documentary over the last three years about his journey to climb 5.14. We unknowingly started the film in 2016 when he climbed his first 5.9, I of course was just there with my camera and pressed record. Once Eric became a proficient 5.12 climber, he admitted to me over beers that all he wants to do is climb at a 5.14 level. We agreed on shooting a film about it, and it’s been increasingly getting harder as Eric struggles with health issues. So this past week when Eric called me about shooting a 5.13d route he had been working beta on, I knew we couldn’t miss the opportunity to film it. I also found the time to explain via short videos the techniques and equipment I have been using to film this documentary.

Gear needed to get started with high angle photography:

  • Prior experience with climbing outside and exposure (2-5 years)

  • Camera (duh)

  • Ascender

  • Petzl GriGri

  • 4 Quick Draws

  • Personal Anchor System or Daisy Chain

  • Harness

  • Belay Seat (Optional)

  • 8 Locking Carabiners

  • Static rope (long enough to shoot the desired terrain)

  • 5-8mm Cord (to build anchors if chains or mussy hooks aren’t available)

  • Mountainsmith Descent sling pack

  • Aid ladder

  • Willingness to have your legs go numb

    In the video below I explain how to set up a static line on a fixed anchor with chains.

This example uses anchors that were available at the top of a sport route. If chains aren’t available you would build a standard anchor and tie a figure eight on a bight and clip it into two opposed locking carabiners. Also, note that I didn't clip the rope into the carabiners on the chains already. I normally would tie a figure 8 and clip into those carabiners, but my climber was climbing to that anchor and I wanted to make sure he could clip when he got to the top.

In the next video I show you my backpack of choice for all of my adventures

Mountainsmith Mayhem 30:

I usually like to keep my camera gear well organized and protected, in the video below I explain the system for doing so.

Mountainsmith Kit Cube Medium :

I like to pack generally light when I know I’ll be hiking to a route especially to shoot from a rope. I try to trim down my kit as much as possible to save myself from exhaustion. In other circumstances, I might have a gimbal or a lighting kit. When I need to save room and weight for an expansion of climbing equipment I pack the following for my camera kit:

  • Sony a7rii

  • Sony a7sii

  • Canon 24mm 1.4

  • Rokinon Cine 35mm 1.4

  • Minolta vintage 50mm 1.4

  • Canon 70-200mm 4

  • Paracord (for leashes)

  • Cleaning Kit

  • Blowy squeezie

  • Small Rig Sony cage

  • SD Cards

  • Extra Batteries

  • Rode Microphone

  • All of this will fit into my Mountainsmith Kit Cube Medium and Mountainsmith Descent Small.

One of the things that I have been searching years for was a pack that works on the wall for shooting. Previously I either work a neck strap for my camera or I hung it directly from my harness. While this worked for years I was quite limited to only one battery, SD card, and lens. Which is sort of nerve-racking when you might be hanging for a long time. I hadn’t found any solutions until I came across the Mountainsmith Descent Small sling pack. This has by far been my favorite pack I have ever owned. Beyond the climbing aspect the pack offers, I love it just as a run and gun pack. I usually keep one body and lens in there to grab in a moments notice. I have used it as a carry on and to roam the streets on editorial assignments. It’s versatile, and it has an expandable feature that gives me extra room when needed. I have fit two bodies, and three lenses inside when fully expanded. On the wall, it is a godsend. It slings around your shoulder and whips to the front of your body easily. When placing it in front of you, it acts as a work desk. It stays level and doesn’t tip over, which makes lens changes a breeze in a moments notice. Not having to worry about little things like dropping something makes life shooting climbing so much easier. Perhaps one of my favorite features of the pack though is a small, often overlooked feature. The zippers pulls are huge and makes opening and closing the pack in uncomfortable positions so much easier. The zippers glide smoothly and stay in place. This is crucial. I love that I can close the pack without effort and feel safe about slinging it back over my shoulder.

Below I explain the features of this magical pack and how I use it to shoot.

Mountainsmith Descent Small:

Once we have our camera kit squared away I explain how to set up to jug with the leapfrog technique

The key to the game here is all about redundancy. Backup everything, and check your work not twice but three times. While the odds that a piece of equipment breaks are very slim, it’s good to make sure that if it happens, you have a backup to save you. I am very safety driven and this way of photographing can be fatal. So take the time to triple check everything. One thing I did not explain in the video is that my ascender is connected by my PAS to my masterpoints in my harness. In the off-shot that my belay loop breaks, I will be saved by my ascender and masterpoint. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. I use a slimmed down kit for ascending ropes. I strictly use this to jumar short distances of rope. If you are planning on shooting multiple pitches of climbing I would look into additional gear and techniques like two ascenders and daisy chains.

In this final video I explain jumaring and shooting while hanging

This is how I’ve found a way to easily document climbers on sport routes. There are many techniques and styles, and you don’t have to follow mine. I just wanted to give an inside look at how some of my work is created and maybe give someone who wants to take their climbing photos to the next level to do so.

One thing that I didn’t not in any of these videos was tethering. On overhanging routes, I recommend to tether yourself to the wall somehow to avoid spinning. I used a long piece of cord into a bolt on an adjacent route. I’ve seen others use sticks, and painters poles to achieve a steady shot. Just something to think about. If you’re just getting into shooting climbing I’d recommend staying on lower angle climbs that you can position your feet against and practice technique.