The basics for a budding climbing photographer
08 December 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
“Shots taken vertically upwards are of limited interest. The aesthetic appeal and record of the leaders pants, and the nailing of his boot heels is not great.”
C. Douglas Milner
When it comes to cameras I’m a total dunce, with all this ‘F stop’ this and ‘wide-angle that’ totally baffling me no matter how many articles I read. It seems to me that as soon as any proper photographer puts pen to paper they forget that most of us have trouble loading a film let alone ‘bracketing our shots’ – quickly leaving us feeling more photogenically inadequate than when we started. Luckily as climbers, we are lucky, we go to amazing places and get the opportunity to cast our eyes on things most people will never see. This gives us the opportunity to take great photos – maybe not technically great, but amazing documentary images far more powerful than some posed Euro rock star calendar shot. So here’s a very brief look at the idiot basics, a very focused (sorry) review of climbing cameras and some words of wisdom from some non-idiots photo gods.
Climbing cameras come in four types in my book, their value determined by the photographer’s response when they see it rattling down the mountain.
A good option if your heading somewhere wild where you just want to take some nice prints without worrying about wrecking your proper camera – or if you don’t actually own a camera! The image quality is generally not that bad considering and it’s great when you get better results than your partners expensive SLR. Remember that a camera is simply a lightproof box with a hole in it. The photographer takes the brilliant picture – not the camera. Get a model with a flash unit and check out those waterproof disposable models if you really want to capture those bad Cairngorm days or lake district canyoning trips.
This is the type of camera your parents have. A black plastic jobby with red writing on the side designed to make it look posh and which never seems to take good pictures. Cheap cameras have cheap lenses, the sort of lens you could make yourself out of the bottom of a coke bottle and this is why 95% of the time they give you rubbish shots. Prices range from ‘almost free’ to ‘not too dear’ but these units are only one notch above, with some actually being below, a disposable camera. Their strong points are they are usually pretty robust – with their design and electronics (a battery) being copied from some piece of antiquated Chinese military hardware – and are simple to use. This type of camera is perfect if you don’t take pictures or only buy one role of 24 exposure film a year. If your reading this article then this is not what you want – if you’re not reading his article then you’ll no doubt already have one so your not missing anything.
The price of a Nice camera ranges between ‘Not cheap’ and ‘I’m not telling you and it’s important to remind yourself every time you use it that you get what you pay for. A nice camera has a good lens - a piece of glass that allows you to get images that look like they did when you took the picture - a plastic body and a rubbish fake mouse skin camera case. Now you’re paying more you can choose a ‘sporty’ model with big buttons, a slim profile and is more abuse-resistant. A nice camera will give you results and because of this, you will use it more, therefore repaying the investment. If you want to write articles for magazines and have your pictures published then a nice camera will improve your chances. Most nice cameras are totally automatic and will die as soon as the juice in the batteries fades. For this reason, it’s well worth always having a spare.
A very nice camera is the choice of the semi-professional climber who wants or needs to get really great results every time, often in difficult circumstances. Prices range from ‘I’d better hide that Visa statement’ to ‘No I’m not pulling your leg’. Although far from cheap what you get is a work of art – a box as well built and designed as a Swiss watch. A very nice camera has a tough metal body – which greatly increases the strength and robustness of the camera - and a superb piece of glass. The camera’s controls will be fully automatic and semi-manual – allowing you to play around with the metering in difficult conditions if you want to feel like Ray wood or just blast away haphazardly if you’re more Ed Wood.
Digital cameras are still ruled out for real action photography, so this article will focus just on film If you’re the type of climber who buys their film in packs of three for a quid or just uses the film you get free with a set of prints, and you’ve always wondered why your shots are always rubbish, then read on.
What film you use is probably as important as what camera you use. The emulsions, the light-sensitive chemicals used to create the image, vary enormously from brand to brand. The cheap print films use low-quality emulsions resulting in poor quality image reproduction. If price is crucial then stick to good own brand films like Boots own. All the modern Kodak and Fuji films will produce nice prints relatively cheaply – with many of the modern films being very adaptable, allowing a higher probability of those ‘maybe’ shots coming good. And although magazines will only accept slide film you make a slide from negative cheaply (a slide from a print is more costly) – a useful trick if you have an image you want to use in a slide show. If you value taking good pictures and you want the best results possible then you have to use slide film. There is a dizzying variety of films out there which can be roughly divided into professional films and non-professional. Kodak Kodachrome and Fuji Sensia are the most common non-pro films, with the higher price generally including processing. I find both these film produce ‘real’ images, by which I mean they give a true representation of colour, as opposed to the more professional films like Velvia and Provia. With these films, you begin to get images where the colours are richer and stronger – which generally provides nicer shots. Some photographers say that these films cheat the eye, but if you’re an idiot I find they can really boost the quality of your shots at only a minimal cost compared to a cheaper slide film. Shop around for good deals on slide film. I find the photo magazines often have good deals if you buy multi-packs of film. If there’s a group of you going away it’s worth contacting your local camera shop about bulk buys, and if you want to be really cheeky and you think your holiday sounds impressive then try contacting the film manufacturers themselves, as sometimes they supply expeditions with slightly out of date film for free. If your film is processed paid then I’d send all your films separately just in case, and if it isn’t make sure the people you entrust your beautiful but unborn images won’t let you down.
How you carry your camera is probably more important than how good your lenses are or what film you’re using, because if you don’t or can’t take those shots non of that matters. Rucksack Method: Loved by those climbers who like to take the odd snap of their friends sat on the summit or eating sandwiches halfway there. The camera is stowed inside the lid of the rucksack where it remains for an eternity. Not recommended!
The most popular way of carrying a camera, with the pouch being secured to anything from a rucksack, harness or separate belt. A medium-sized alloy Maillon rapide is the best way of attaching your camera case to yourself, giving far more security than a plain carabiner of screwgate. Having lost a good camera when the case was ripped of my rucksack I never trust the plastic D-rings or nylon loops on camera cases, and always back them up with a piece of cord threaded through the pouches belt loop. CCS, LowePro and many others produce camera cases of varying sizes and shapes. All provide enough protection in case the camera is dropped on the floor and some rudimentary weather-proofness. If things get really bad most of these cases will leak, at which point it’s a good idea to stick your camera somewhere else. If you’re wearing a rucksack either place it at the bottom of the shoulder strap, where it will sit at the hip out of the way, or on the shoulder strap itself at nipple height.
Camera batteries don’t seem all that cut out for the cold of winter climbing and walking, and when they fade away your camera becomes nothing more than an expensive and heavy film canister. If your keen on taking photos in winter then the best system is to carry your camera on a piece of cord around your neck, although unfortunately, this becomes impractical if your compact is on the bulky side (both the MJU-II and GR1s work well). By placing the camera next to your body (generally next to your base layer or next to your skin) the batteries shouldn’t be affected by the cold and the camera-less liable to damage as tend to naturally protect your chest area rather than your hip belt or shoulder strap. When you want to take a snap just pull up the camera, take the shot(s) and put it back. Because the camera is next to your core it shouldn’t get condensation problems (often a problem when the camera is just placed in your jacket pocket).
The number of cameras out there is dizzying, so instead of trying to run an in-depth and boring review, I’ve decided just to cover two models I feel are the climbing oriented models.
Price: Around £100 (Nice category) Weight: 135g Lens: 35mm f2.8
This has to be the AK47 of climbing cameras – totally foolproof, robust, cheapish and able to produce good quality shots in even the hands of a photographic peasant. The plastic body is super minimalist, resulting in a very water-resistant package – a boon if you’re the type of climber who wants to capture those ‘full-on’ conditions to prove how hard it was to your mates afterwards. The lens hood and shutter button are easy to operate even wearing thick gloves, in fact, those Japanese boffins must have had us, poor climbers, in mind all along. I’m not an expert on lenses but the glass seems good, producing nice sharp images, which when used with high-quality slide film can produce some really stunning images for a compact. If you’re not a professional and just want to improve your chances of getting some nice pics’ then I can’t recommend this camera highly enough.
Price: Between £350 and £400 (Very nice category) Weight: 178grams Lens: 28mm f2.8.
Although no longer made you can find quite a few still in the shops, and this camera is for the idiot who thinks they’re a professional the GR1s is their ticket into the big league. An indication of how popular this model is can be seen by the numbers of professional climbers who are using it at the moment, climbers like Andy Cave, Mick Fowler, Greg Child and Paul Pritchard, people whose lively hoods (apart from Mr Fowler) depend on good images for magazines, books and lectures. The camera features a tough, mega slim, metal body, with a retractable lens. The glass in the camera produces beautifully sharp images – often rivalling those from a good SLR. One of the strongest points, and perhaps one of its biggest faults, is the huge amount of control features this camera has. The flash has three settings, you can adjust aperture and exposure (perfect for bracketing) and there are several modes of operation including spot metering. The lens also has the added bonus that it can accept filters, allowing you to use black and white film more effectively, and giving you some of the flexibility people seek in an SLR. All this allows the enthusiastic user to be really creative – often resulting in images that would be impossible to achieve on most compacts. Unfortunately, these dials and buttons can also be the cameras downfall, being easily knocked – resulting in over and underexposed images. The best way to overcome this, a method adopted by Mick Fowler. Is to simply stick duct tape over the exposure and aperture dials, which although crude does work.
If the price is too high – but you’d like something almost as good then trawl around the camera shops for any second hand Ricoh R1’s, a plastic-bodied model that shouldn’t cost more than £100. Although not as tough or weatherproof as the MJU-II it has a much nicer lens and more control. Another option is the for runner of the GR1s, the GR1, a simpler model that features a metal body and superb glass (around £250 second hand).
If you want something in the cheap category then shop around. If money a problem then spend it on a second-hand model from a reputable shop – and ask their advice on what they think would be suitable within your budget. A waterproof model is excellent if you’re extremely rough with your camera, allowing you to really lay on the abuse without too many worries. Unfortunately due to the way waterproof models are designed they will never produce images quite as clear as standard quality compacts. But then again you will be able to take shots where nothing else would could – resulting in images that are judged on more than the quality of the glass they were taken with. The Yashica T4/T5 has been a popular model having good optics like the Ricoh but at a lower price. Personally, I found its metering not as good as the Ricoh or MJU-II for low light pictures and the body is bulkier and less robust than the metalled bodied Ricoh, although it is more weatherproof. Saying that a second-hand model would make a good model to buy if you’re just getting into taking photos. Compact zooms are really popular these days giving a little more lens versatility than a fixed lensed compact. Personally, I’ve found both my zooms paid for this increased range with a slightly lower quality image – caused by both the fact that there is more material for the light to pass through and the fact that many cheaper zooms have some plastic lens parts. They are also far more prone to faults due to their increased complexity – a quality that never sits easily in the rough and tumble of climbing. Saying that I know a few climbers, people like Al Powel and Andy Perkins who really like their compact zooms and manage to produce some really professional images. The best climbing cameras of this type at the moment are probably in the Olympus MJU range. Remember if you do get a zoom that a massive lens is not what you want unless you’re going to use a tripod – especially in low light (every day in UK conditions!). With any specialist purchase, it’s always worth seeking out a good camera shop that will give you sound unpushy advice and help guide you through the complex world of cameras.