Red Bull Photography recently joined our community with a verified brand profile of their own. This partnership isn’t just about amazing photography—it’s also about amazing stories. Behind every shot on Red Bull Photography is a talented photographer, a wild story, and a few lessons learned. We’ll be telling those stories every week here on 500px ISO and the Red Bull Photography website. Scroll down for a thought-provoking editorial featuring pro photographers and their insights on the challenges of capturing climbs to the top.
Next time you see a jaw-dropping photo of a climber on a steep, immaculate rock face, take a step a back and contemplate for a moment about how that photo must have been captured. Specifically, how in the world did a photographer get himself or herself into a position to take such a spectacular shot?
A photographer’s point of view to their subject impacts every part of an image—light, composition, background elements, drama, and more. For the professional outdoor adventure photographer, the location they place themselves in relative to their subjects is hardly an accident. The skill required to not only scout options but also physically secure themselves in the right place, might make climbing the most difficult subject to shoot.
Two of the best photographers of modern day climbing, Christian Pondella and Corey Rich, added their thoughts about why climbing might just be the most challenging adventure sport to capture. Christian noted immediately that just about every image of climbing he has captured was both physically and technically difficult.
“By default the approach always seems to be long, sometimes requiring days or weeks to get to a location usually with a lot of climbing and photo gear.”
“One of my most memorable images was shot from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro of ice climber Will Gadd. This trip took years of planning, several days of travel to get to Tanzania, then six to seven days of climbing Kilimanjaro to get acclimatized and into position to climb and shoot photos on the 19,341 foot summit.”
“Finding the shot,” for an alpine rock climbing photo could involve hours spent pouring over maps, scheduling flights, doing reconnaissance helicopter rides, or even putting in miles of hiking. Corey explained that by making informed decisions he is able to set himself up for the greatest chance of success, even with ever-changing factors to deal with, like the weather.
“The mountains are constantly changing. Snow is melting, pieces of the rock fall off, the sun is never in the same place two days in a year… There’s just an infinite number of variables. So you make intelligent decisions from your office about where you’re going to shoot, but then the reality is, until you get there, and you’re physically standing at the base of that formation, it’s hard to really pre-visualize what you’re trying to accomplish.”
So let’s say the scouting and planning has been done, miles have been hiked and now the photographer is at the base of a 3,000 foot pinnacle. Now what? The skills required to ascend a rock wall and ultimately hang in place for a photograph are crucial for not only a great image, but for the safety of everyone involved. Christian admits that while some forms of climbing can be very safe to shoot, there are situations that can get very real in the mountains, and respect is paramount.
“In the mountains whether it is alpine climbing or ice climbing you can be dealing with objective hazards like rock fall, avalanches, crevasses and falling ice that can all kill you. In these environments it is important to be with a solid team of climbers who have experience in these locations and people you trust your life with.”
In order to create images at the highest level, an acute attention to detail is an absolute must for both survival and success. Besides the visual aspects of the image, a photographer has to keep in mind all of the technical nuances of the camera, like aperture, shutter speed, etc. Don’t forget that they are also dangling from a rope, no larger than the width of a small finger, hundreds if not thousands of feet in the air. Corey knows this feeling all too well, as he deals with this unique vertical juggling act, continually switching from safety to creativity.
“It’s tough as a photographer because you’re constantly transitioning from being safe when getting into position to make a photograph, and then I have to switch gears and stop thinking about safety and focus on creativity. You’re constantly going through that cycle.”
In one notable experience, Corey had to really think outside the box to put himself into a position that would get just the right angle he was looking for. The plan was to shoot climber Alex Honnold ascending a 50-foot boulder in Joshua Tree National Park. In order to show the grandeur of the rock but also the route below Alex, Corey had to figure out a way to position himself above and away from the wall—simply hanging off of a rope directly above Alex wasn’t going to provide the needed perspective.
With the help of his team of climbing guides and rigging experts, they came up with a rather radical idea; they figured out that by securing a ladder to the rock wall, sideways, Corey would be able to position himself far enough away to get the perspective he needed.
“It’s just being resourceful and figuring out how to get yourself into interesting situations so that the image you pre-visualize becomes a reality.”
It just goes to show that a small change in perspective can have a huge impact on the final image. Photographing climbing requires an incredible amount of imagination, planning, and execution to simply get into position for a photograph, and when everything comes together, a photographer will walk away with stunning images.
Stay tuned for another story from Red Bull Photography that will blow your mind next week!