Climbing photography doesn’t come easily, especially when the climber is the photographer. In this tenuous art form, there’s only one rule: Don’t kill your partner. After all, their life is in your hands (vis-à-vis the rope), which makes juggling a camera and a belay device risky business.
By now, my climbing buddies all know I’m guilty of playing “belay-grapher” — that is, simultaneously belaying and snapping photos — so I no longer try to hide my multitasking. I can only hope that any surplus fear my sporadic distraction causes is somewhat eclipsed by the possibility of a hero shot.
To be clear, I’ve never actually put my partner’s life or limb at risk for a photo. It’s just … well … occasionally I’ll commit one of two (wholly avoidable) belayer transgressions: 1) the dreaded short-rope, where there’s not enough slack to clip high gear, leaving my partner just shy of that thank-god protection, and 2) the sport loop, where excess slack accumulates, affording potential for a slightly longer-than-necessary fall.
Thankfully, never has my amateur photography resulted in even a minor catastrophe (I do, after all, keep my brake hand on the rope). Fortunately, since climbing tends to demand one’s full attention, my “belay-grapher” antics often seem to go unnoticed.
An observant alpinist once said, “Mountain climbing is extended periods of intense boredom, interrupted by occasional moments of sheer terror.” This pretty much sums up the climbing experience. And because the views from this rollercoaster tend to be picturesque, I learned early on, to carry a camera.
At first — we’re talking late 1980s — I had a rectangular Kodak film point-and-shoot you could buy at the drugstore for about the price of Madonna’s latest album. The photos sucked, but the idea of lasting memories appealed to me. As my climbing evolved, so too did my camera.
After one or two iterations of beginner point-and-shoots I went all in and began clipping a Nikon SLR to my harness. It weighed more than our hefty rope, but somehow I thought it worthwhile. Training weight, if nothing else.
Eventually, being the technophobe I am (I still rock an iPod, thank you very much), I acquiesced to digital and began once again toting a small camera on climbs. Today, my Sony compact is part of the climbing kit.
Younger climbers scoff, of course, dumbfounded that anyone would bother with an actual camera. They just don’t get: A) why an iPhone won’t suffice, and B) that I’m afraid of dropping said supercomputer into oblivion.
Having shot countless frames tethered to a rocky, sometimes icy belay, I’ve learned a thing or two about the kinds of climbing images (roughly 99.9 percent are utter garbage) that result from such a limited perspective and tight timeline (the short-rope or sport loop happen in seconds), while still giving a safe belay. I’ve split them into 5 categories:
1) The Butt Shot. The classic climbing photo and, unless your partner’s butt is their “good side,” the least likely to be worth it.
2) The Non-Butt Shot Butt Shot. This visionary photo steers the eye from your partner’s butt to some other focal point … but alas, it’s still a butt shot.
3) The Artsy-Fartsy Photo. This one presents in many ways — you’ll know it when you see it. The Artsy-Fartsy often features an exact focus in an otherwise blurred image, with some sort of creative foreground: rope, gear, bloody fingers … just leave the extra slack out of the picture. You wouldn’t want to scare your partner.
4) The Top-Down Shot aka “The Gimme.” The easiest and safest option. You’ve led a pitch and are belaying the follower — your subject — in auto-lock mode. You’re finally free to safely use both hands for this photo. Two hands? Point-and-shoot camera? This one’s a gimme.
5) The Selfie. By now this once-rare photo is a cliché, a meme, and is overdone by like, literally, everyone. And yet, The Selfie remains an effective technique for marking memories, especially during those moments of sheer terror.
*Pro tip: Highlight your partner in the summit selfies. Their elation upon having survived your reckless game of “belay-graphy” will be unmistakable — and worth every single click of your shutter.
Contact Chris Weidner at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @cweidner8.