Originally used as training for alpine or big wall climbing, bouldering is now well established as a sport in its own right. You climb a “problem,” typically on a free-standing boulder (hence the name) or the base of a cliff. Problems range from a single move through extended sequences. The compressed nature of the problems means the style of climbing can be much more powerful and/or gymnastic than other types of climbing. For me, it is climbing distilled, and the joy of solving a physical and mental puzzle never gets old. It also provides opportunities for some pretty cool photos. In this article, I will go through some useful tips for photographing bouldering (and climbing in general) so that you can take the best possible pictures.
A quick caveat – this is (clearly) not a full “how-to” of climbing photography, but rather some key points to pique your interest and help you get started. If even a few people get curious about climbing from reading this, I’ll consider it a job well done.
Basic Climbing Photography Tips
The first rule of climbing photography is (or at least, should be)… no butt shots. Sometimes they work, but most of the time they’re boring. You need to think about what the climber is doing and where they’re going.
With that out of the way, the basics of shooting bouldering are similar to other sports. Try to keep the shutter speed high to capture action, and the aperture on the larger side to isolate the subject. Saying that, it’s worth experimenting with shutter speed, as a slower setting can bring some interesting movement to your shot – the picture above is at 1/50 to give a bit of motion blur to the scene and (in theory) a sense of movement.
The closer-to-the-ground nature of bouldering provides some great opportunities for a photographer to get creative. Powerful moves and interesting body positions can create some fun compositional challenges.
I love to get above the climber. You capture their face (climbers can make some interesting faces when things get hairy), their hands, and/or the holds. Plus, a climber’s feet tend to be pretty boring. And, once again, no butt shots.
Recommended Camera Equipment for Bouldering Photography
I’m not going to delve too deeply into a discussion on camera bodies; if you’re reading a site like Photography Life, your camera is probably fine.
As a general guide, though, something with decent FPS and that can handle upping the ISO a bit to keep the shutter speeds high while in shadow will serve you well. I have a Nikon D610, and it’s been great, occasional moments of GAS notwithstanding (talking to you, D850).
For lenses, I tend to favour a wide-angle, as it enables you to get in close to the action while still capturing the climber and their surroundings.
My go-to is the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8. The wide aperture really isolates the target and helps keep shutter speeds faster in shadowy conditions. And it’s built like a tank, which comes in handy when I bash or scrape it against rock as I jump around trying to find the best angle – which happens every single time I go bouldering.
The weight can be a lot when you’re hanging from a hold with the camera in one outstretched arm, trying to get an interesting angle, so you may want to go lighter, but for me, I know I’d end up breaking anything more delicate.
I’ve played around with Nikon’s “nifty fifty,” also (the 50mm f/1.8). It’s nice and light and brings that beautiful bokeh, but I keep coming back to the wide angle. I just think it gives the shots a sense of energy that a longer lens doesn’t always do.
A 24-70mm would serve you well, also – wide enough on one end, but can get in to capture details like the strain in a hand or an interesting hold. Plus it’s also a beast and would stand up to some serious abuse. Any of the other 24-whatevers would work, but might not stand up to the same level of punishment.
I definitely recommend using a hand strap over a neck strap, as every time I go out I end up hanging from a rock somewhere, arm outstretched and shooting blind as someone climbs. The hand strap means I can do that with a lot more comfort and am less likely to drop my kit in the process. Breaking stuff (cameras or people) is never a fun end to the day.
Include the Surrounding Scene
Getting in close can really capture the energy of a move or climb, but climbing tends to take place in some beautiful locations, so don’t forget to take a step back and look around.
Stepping back can give more of a sense to an area – for instance, the jumble of rocks in the forest of Fontainebleau, France:
Sunrise warming the rock and sand at Palm Beach, Sydney, Australia:
This is a personal taste kind of thing, and there are plenty of articles PL that go into more detail than I’m capable of, but I thought it might be useful to include some basics. I use Capture One, as I really like the way it treats colours and the level of control it provides in the editing process, but this is pretty much like camera bodies – whatever you use is going to be fine.
In general terms, my editing workflow for bouldering tends to be along the lines of:
- White balance: Bring out the colour in the rock and trees, but don’t get too warm
- Brightness: If the climber is in shade, you might need to play with this. Depending on the shot, this could be for the whole image or using a layer to isolate the climber
- HDR: It’s a personal preference, but I’m not keen on HDR-heavy images. That said, some tweaking of the shadows and highlights can really bring out the climber when you’re shooting from low in the shadows looking up at the sky. But keep it simple, as you can lose texture on the rock if you go overboard
- Levels/Curve: I tend to play with the Luma curve a little to bring out a bit of contrast without sacrificing colours
- Colour Editor: Depending on the image, I might tweak some of the colours to help them stand out, but for the most part, I tend to leave things as they are initially
There is, of course, plenty more you can do to your images, but the above is a good starting point and will help get more from each shot.
Plus, I’m usually pretty tired and sore after a good bouldering session and don’t feel like sitting at my desk for hours adjusting colours by tiny degrees. That cold beer earned from a hard day’s climbing won’t drink itself, you know…
Please remember that rock climbing, while ridiculously fun, is a dangerous activity. Photographing it can be just as dangerous, as you tend to focus (hah!) on what you’re shooting instead of where you’re walking or standing.
Make sure you keep aware of your surroundings and remember that even the best photo is not worth a long wait in an emergency room.
Climbing is a fantastic sport. Some of the best people in my life (including my wife) have come to me through climbing. To be able to capture images of the sport and people that mean the most to me is an amazing experience. I hope you enjoy it as well!
Thank you to reader Neil Massey for this excellent article on photographing bouldering and climbing! If you would like to see more of his photos (including some very nice landscapes), please take a look at his website: Neil Massey Photography. You should also check out his Instagram page.