Learn Photography with Kyer

How to photograph lead rock climbers

What is lead rock climbing?

Lead rock climbing is a form of climbing in which the climber ascends a route on a rock face or artificial climbing wall, using a rope and gear to protect against falls. Unlike top-rope climbing, in which the rope is anchored to the top of the climb, lead sport climbing involves the climber clipping their rope to pre-placed bolts as they ascend. The climber is responsible for their safety and must carefully manage their rope as they climb. Traditional lead climbing involves placing gear in the rock, usually cracks, to protect the lead climber.

Lead climbing requires skill, strength, and mental focus. It is typically done with a partner. One person climbs while the other belays or manages the rope from below. The belayer must pay close attention to the climber’s movements and quickly take in or pay out the rope to keep the climber safe. The climber leads the route and plans their moves, managing their rope and trying to avoid falls. If the climber falls, they will fall twice the distance they are above their protection, rope stretch, and the amount of slack in the rope.

I’ve been rock climbing since I was a teenager, and I find climbing a fun, rewarding, and challenging sport. It often pushes climbers to their physical and mental limits. It involves calculated risk.

Crazy Horse Buttress climbing

How to photograph lead rock climbers

Understand the sport and choose the right equipment

Before you start shooting, you must understand the basics of lead climbing. Please know how the gear works, how the climber moves, and the best angles for capturing the action. You should also be familiar with safety procedures and always respect the climber’s space.

You need the right gear to capture great shots of lead climbers. Consider using a wide-angle lens to capture the overall scene and a zoom lens for close-up shots. My favorite preferred lenses for climbing are my Canon 35mm 1.4 prime and the Canon 24-105mm zoom. I’ll use the prime if I know the route well and where I’ll be. I usually use the zoom lens because I cannot control my distance from the climber.

lead rock climbing photos crazy horse

Scout out the location and position yourself correctly

Before the climber starts their ascent, take some time to scout out the location. Look for the best angles and viewpoints, and consider the lighting conditions. Where is your light coming from? Can you shoot the climber with backlighting? Will they be in the shade or sun, or will there be dappled light on them? Please look over the background and foreground elements that can add depth and interest to your shots.

It would help to position yourself in the right place to get the best shots. Consider using a wide-angle lens to capture the overall scene or a zoom lens to get closer to the action. Try different angles and perspectives to create interest in your shots. Try to be at the same level as the lead climber. If you want to hang on a harness for a while, you can be above them or clipped into a bolt to get a more exciting angle.

lead rock climbing photography

Capture the action and focus on the details

To capture the action, you need to be ready at all times. Use a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion. Be prepared to take multiple shots to capture the climber’s ascent. Consider using burst mode to capture a sequence of shots and experiment with different exposure settings to get the best results. 

Capture the overall scene as well as the details. Look for interesting patterns and textures in the rock, and capture the climber’s facial expressions and body language. Try to capture the climber’s gear and equipment, and features.

How to photograph lead rock climbers

Limit your communication with the lead climber and time the shot

Limit your communication with the climber. Consider this a dress rehearsal performance that you don’t interrupt except necessary, and you don’t compromise their flow or safety. Understand their needs and preferences, and always respect their space. Communicate with them to ensure you’re not in the climber’s or belayer’s way and they’re comfortable with you taking photos.

Timing the shot is crucial for capturing the perfect photo of a lead climber. This can include timing the shot to capture the climber at the peak of their movement or capturing the climber’s facial expressions at a crucial moment. Be patient and take multiple shots to capture the best possible photo.

I captured these images at Crazy Horse Buttress, Thailand, in the Winter of 2023