Light Work - Make Your Photography Stand Out

© Alex Messenger has nearly 80,000 photos uploaded into the database. How do you make your climbing shots stand out from the crowd? 

Look through the top 200 photos on and you won't see too many out-of-focus bum shots. The coveted five-star rating is only dished out to shots with impressive climbing action, great use of light, or eye-pleasing composition; to get in the top 20 you'll need all three.  

Capturing impressive climbing action can be summed up in two words: luck and abseiling. Capturing great light and composition is a little trickier – you need to take control of the camera – but get them right and you're well on your way to success. To help show you the way, here are ten shots that work because of the light or composition, not necessarily the climbing action.  

Enough talking – on with the pictures.  

All photographs © Alex Messenger

1. Wide works 

Ben Heason, Morning Dove White (V8) Happy Boulders, Bishop, California.

Nikon D70, 18mm, f8, 1/1250s, polariser 

The Happy Boulders near Bishop are a pretty inhospitable place by day: volcanic, dusty and dry. To get good shots you either need to hang around until sunset, or try something different. One such different trick is the trusty silhoetted climber shot. To get the exposure, point your camera at a patch of blue sky, away from the sun, retain the exposure and recompose with the climber in it. For bouldering shots like this, choose a wide-angle lens (the wider the better), crouch down low in the dirt (the lower the better) and shoot away. Watch out for your subject's arms or legs crossing the sky-ground boundary: this always looks messy. Clear blue skies work best so pick your day carefully or get that flight to the States booked.


2. The devil is in the detail 

Aly Dory, Squamish boulders, Canada

Nikon D70, 80-200mm, f2.8, 1/200s 

It pays to take your gaze off the climbing and look around for the details: the landscape, the equipment, and the spectators. Here Aly is waiting in line for a classic boulder problem in Squamish. This shot works since it's got an eye-pleasing composition: the branch and left hand mirror each other, and the right hand intersects these two on a diagonal line, all adhering to the classic rule of thirds. Keep an eye out for legs, arms, or even fingers, in unusual configurations, they add interest to a shot. Of course, it's also slightly sexy, but there's no harm in that. Technically there are no surprises: the 200mm zoom isolates the composition, and the even lighting suits the subject.  

3. Reflect on it 

Jacky Moore, Dragonfly (V5), Hueco Tanks, Texas

Nikon D200, 80-200mm, f2.8, 1/400s, Lasolite reflector 

Hueco Tanks is a bouldering mecca, and, like all bouldering meccas, it doesn't immediately lend itself to photos. Most of the action takes place in dark pits and asking climbers to move out into the sun is met with flat refusal and mutterings about 'friction'. So if the climbers won't come into the sun, you must take the sun to the climbers. One pretty easy way of doing this it to pack a small Lasolite reflector and bribe someone to stand on a nearby boulder and use it like a spotlight. Once the lucky climber is illuminated, spot meter off them and set the exposure for their skin. Here this has the added effect of throwing the floor into deep shade, making the problem look impressively high. Composition wise, strong diagonal lines lead into Jacky's eye. She's focusing on a hold and it's obvious what she needs to do next.  

4. Let there be light 

Daniel Woods, Coeur de Lyon (V14), Hueco Tanks, Texas

Nikon D200, 35-70mm, f2.8, 1/200s 

A reflector is great way of getting additional light into an area; in some rare cases it can actually provide the only light for an area. This is definitely my favourite artificially lit photo: it's got bags of impact, yet looks totally natural. I was traipsing around Hueco one day when I heard some strange sounds coming from below my feet: “Yeah, man, that's it, go for it dude.” After a bit of caving I discovered Tyler Landman and Daniel Woods sitting in the dark, wondering how to climb Coeur de Lyon (V14), I was fresh out of V14 climbing tips, but I did have my remote flashes and trusty reflector in the bag, and started playing around with them: would it be possible to make this dark pit photogenic? The remote flashes didn't work too well, they looked too artificial, but then I noticed a single shaft of light hitting the sand floor a few metres away. The lasolite was whipped out, and hey presto – instant light. Daniel sent the problem the next go too. Result.  

5. Remote Control 

Naomi Buys, Cliffhanger, Sheffield

Nikon D200, 18-35mm, f5.6, 1/250s, 2x SB-800 Speedlights 

On-camera flash is rubbish – only good creating harsh, unflattering portraits – so remote flash is very in-vogue. This is just using one or more flashes off the camera, yet still controlled by the camera (it's all wireless). Sounds great, but the results can look a bit artificial and effect-orientated, especially on UK rock which usually gets fantastic natural light. No such problem indoors though, climbing competitions are the natural home for unnatural light. This shot was taken at Cliffhanger in Sheffield, and the remote flash was clamped to the top of the wall, lighting the shot from the side to cast dramatic shadows. Indoor shots often feature bold colours and benefit from simplicity – so keep an eye out for spotters or other climbers creeping into the shot. This shot is divided into thirds, so it looks balanced and the bright red and yellow colours give it some punch. Finally, Naomi's eyes are focusing on the hold; you can really feel the tension. It all adds up to give a sense of drama.  


Zoe Ogden, British Lead Climbing Championships, Blackpool

6. Roll with it 

Zoe Ogden, British Lead Climbing Championships, Blackpool

Nikon D200, 80-200mm, f2.8, 1/400s 

Driving over to the British Lead Climbing Championships at Blackpool Towers, I mulled over the great shots that would be possible. Climbers grasping the final holds with Blackpool Tower in the background, that sort of thing. But by the time I rolled up, the towers were wrapped up – in a blue tarp to fend off the squalling showers. Stuffing my face with a burger, I wandered around, checking out angles and noticed something unusual: on the female route, the sun had broken through and was blasting through the blue tarp, silhouetting the climbers near the top of the route. A 200m lens isolated the climbers, all that was needed was a climber who looked good silhouetted – enter Zoe Ogden, hanging straight-armed and looking relaxed. The result is a fairly abstract shot, but I reckon that's a good goal for any photographer: to take a subject and distill it down.  

Tyler Landman, The Swarm (V14), Bishop, California

7. Single option 

Tyler Landman, The Swarm (V14), Bishop, California

Nikon D200, 35-70mm, f2.8, 1/50s 

Take a world-class boulderer on a world-class boulder and it can be hard to go wrong - unless it's practically dark. As we all squeezed into the hired convertible and raced up the dirt track to the Buttermilks, the sun was already low. As we walked in it was disappearing behind the horizon, and by the time Tyler had his boots on it was practically dark. Sometimes there's only one shot to take – and this was it. Metering off the sky silhouetted Tyler; a 35-70 zoom isolated him from the surrounding landscape without introducing camera shake; a high iso made it possible to take the shot in the first place. To me, this sums up all that is Bishop: wild moves, huge boulders and crystal-clear nights. Sometimes having only one option really is best.  

Jacky Moore warming up, Squamish boulders, Canada

8. Happy mistakes 

Jacky Moore warming up, Squamish boulders, Canada

Velvia 100, Nikon F100, 35-70mm, f2.8, 1/60s 

On a trip to Squamish in 2005, I took a bunch of Velvia film (a lovely, fine-grained film that was perfect for climbing photography). Yet the Squamish boulder action takes place under a dense rainforest canopy; climbers are only temporarily lit by shafts of light. Somehow I got all the exposures wrong and underexposed every single frame from fifteen rolls. Most came back completely black, but then there was this one, a happy mistake. It's got a painting-like texture, partly from the grain of the film, party from the lighting. The moral of the story? Look for interesting light and use it – just don't mess the exposure up.  

9. Nicely toned 

John Roberts, Buckstone Dyno Font 7a, Stanage

Nikon D3, 17-35mm, f3.5, 1/500s 

There's nothing too fancy about this shot: expose for the climber, use a fast shutter speed to capture the action, pick a wide-angle lens and low viewpoint to maximise impact. Yet this one is one of those strange breed of photos: those that look nothing special in full colour but respond well to a bit of toning. Don't overdo it though, toning seems to work best when it exaggerates the existing colours rather than completely replacing them.  

10. Tattoo you 

Tomas “the machine” Mrazek, Arco Rockmaster, Italy

Nikon D3, 80-200mm, f2.8, 1/300s 

Climbing competitions are great places to experiment with capturing the intensity of the moment. This shot was taken at the Arco Rockmaster in Italy, where the world's best come to battle it out. Here, Tomas “The Machine” Mrazek is not happy. He'd looked set to win, but back clipping had cost him the competition. Like shot two, his arms are at an unusual angle, giving really dynamic lines. There's great colour: the red trousers bring out the red in his tattoos. A quick boost of the contrast gave the shot an almost painter-like quality. Job done.

25 Mar, 2009
Great article Alex! Some useful tips.
25 Mar, 2009
Cheers Adam. I wasn't sure whether to feature pure climbing action or go for something more general on light and composition. It's a little different anyway, hope it helps.
25 Mar, 2009
Really superb photos. Inspirational stuff.
25 Mar, 2009
Excellent little tutorial, great pictures coupled with helpful tips. Nice one!
26 Mar, 2009
Thanks for this Alex, Really helpful. Some good short tips, nice and simple - just how I like it! Photos are amazing. Jack
More Comments
Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email