How I Got That Shot: Lighting a Rock Climber in Action

April 13, 2012

© Tom Bol Photography

Tom Bol set up a light on either side of this rock climber in Cache La Poudre Canyon, Colorado, elevated 24 feet off the ground.

Having photographed outdoor sports for 25 years, Tom Bol was looking for a new way to shoot rock climbers. As he began work on a new book on photographing outdoor action, he wanted to find a way to use lights while photographing a rock climber. His goal, he says, was to overpower the ambient light and create a dramatic shot to “match the tension and adrenaline of the sport.” “Lighting adventure sports images has become popular, but mainly shooting lights from below,” he explains. “I wanted to add specific cross lighting with my lights at the climber’s level. I envisioned an edgy look with the background slightly underexposed.” The challenge was figuring out a way to bring the lights to the climber’s level without having to fix them to the face of the rock. Two years ago, on a shoot near Fort Collins, Colorado, he tried using two 24-foot light stands to place a softbox and a bare head on either side of a rock climber. The image he took, shot from several feet above the climber, appears in Adventure Sports Photography: Creating Dramatic Images in Wild Places, published last year by Peachpit Press.

Logistics: A photo like this, Bol says, requires him to work with experienced climbers and to direct them during the shoot. “These types of rock climbing images are not spontaneous moments, but rather well orchestrated shoots to get the right look. Photographing climbers doing hard routes in available light can create beautiful images, but that was not my goal here. I needed to work [with] and direct the climber a lot.” An experienced rock climber himself, he teamed with a climbing guide and friend who anchored the rope with which Bol repelled down the rock face to a point a few feet above the climber he was photographing. “I worked with some rock climbing guides who were very comfortable on this route. They helped carry gear to the cliff, and climbed the route to set up the rope I would ascend for the shoot. Then they climbed the route a second time for the images.”

The most dramatic rock climbing shots, Bol believes, are shot from above, when the photographer has climbed ahead of the subject and turned, or has rappelled down to them from a point higher up the rock face. “It’s easy to drop a lens cap or flashcard. That’s a sin, because whoever is below you is in the firing line.” Hoisting lights around a rock climber could be risky, if the lights dropped or moved in the wind.

Bol, who has done advertising for Manfrotto and Nikon, decided to try mounting lights to the top of Manfrotto’s 24-foot light stands. Once he angled the lights and test fired them on the ground, he could then extend the light stands to their full height so they would be positioned to the left and right of the climber. Weighted with sandbags and placed on level ground, he says, “The stands did sway some, but never fell.” One of the guides acted as his photo assistant, remaining on the ground to turn or move the stands if needed.

The climber in the photo was on an overhang. That meant that though the foot of each light stand was about ten feet from the cliff, the lights themselves were close to both the climber and the rock face she was climbing. “You couldn’t do this on a face that’s less than vertical,” Bol notes.

Lights: Bol used two 400-watt Elinchrom Quadras running on battery packs, set up to the right and left of the climber, each about five to six feet from her. He also used an Elinchrom Skyport wireless transmitter to adjust the power output of the lights. “This was very helpful since I was hanging off a rope above the climber, and it was not easy getting to the packs dangling on a cliff.”

The light just outside the left side of the frame was a bare head with a standard reflector. On the right of the photo, the light was a 24-foot square softbox. He had first tried using two bare heads, Bol says, but “I didn’t like the shadows.”

He wanted the softbox to just feather the climber’s face. “If I’d set it at a standard, 45-degree angle, it would have blown out the rock, so we turned it more so that the left-hand edge was just hitting her.” When the angle of the softbox had to be adjusted, Bol would call down to his assistant on the ground, and ask him to slightly turn the light stand.

Camera: Nikon D3 with an AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G lens at 1/200.

Post Production: Bols does his own retouching. Typically, he says, shooting outdoor sports means shooting “hundreds of frames” in order to find a couple of shots that work. “I review the files on a 30-inch Apple display using Photo Mechanic for quick previews. Once I find the few files I like, I open these in Photoshop to see how things look. Sometimes I need to clone out a bright piece of webbing or gear on the ground below the climber. I also often increase contrast via a Curves adjustment layer to create more separation of the climber from the background.”

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