#1 Know what it’s about
The ethos that comes with it forms an integral part of my approach and in my personal set of ethics when photographing.
#2 Don’t just watch, climb
Sometimes, you need to know when to “outsource” certain skills. This makes it easier to pitch up at the crag reasonably prepared.
Climbers have their own language, so being able to communicate in this “tongue” comes in handy on the wall and when planning and discussing possible rope setups for a shoot. “…you should be able to reach the jug from the gaston and a high left foot, no not side-pull, gaston! Yeah now just rock over, nice, did you just reverse clip that..?!”
Michelle van Aswegen does not only shoot rock climbers; she is a climber herself. This helps her know which angles are possible and what she’ll need in terms of gear and skill level.
#3 No posing, ever!
My captures take place under climbing conditions and I feel something is lost when a climber is posed on a move, so I don’t do that.
Most of the time it is about getting THE shot which involves me dangling from above the crag for a good part of the day, but if I’m on the ground, I often find that those moments before or after a climb make for great candid portraits. PS: My archives contain a lot of these type of images which never see the light of day, I think you just gave me an idea for a series, thanks!
#4 Balance is everything
I try to portray the climber as immersed in the landscape by aiming for that street-shot moment where the body position has some possible play on the geometry found within the landscape.
I guess it helps to focus on either the environment where climbing takes place or on the move / the anticipation of the move and having the landscape emphasise the unspoken tension.
Falco Filotto bouldering the Cederberg Mountains. © Michelle van Aswegen
#5 Follow the light
I am mostly after the soft light and tend to stick to early morning / late afternoon sunlight. This helps to calm the harsh and busy rock face, which helps separate the climber amidst the sea of rock. Skin tones take so well to soft light – they seem to almost glow in contrast.
I am lucky to have found some of the best local climbing spots. Here, I can shoot throughout most of the day, as light bounces off water and rock, and direct sunlight does not stay for very long.
With a bit of luck (and hanging in the right spot at the right time) you can get the perfect two-stop difference between your climber and the background – “studio” lighting done naturally! On occasion and depending on the environment, I do bring in artificial lights to separate the climber from the background.
Wesley Black opening a traditional climb in the Cederberg. © Michelle van Aswegen
#6 Use the right gear
Some climbing and rope accessing techniques come in very handy when you want to reach those interesting angles and get closer to the climber. It mostly involves tying your rated static rope to a set of anchors and moving up and down this rope to reach your desired viewpoint.
I have not yet made use of a drone and although I think they are great, the noise does tend to leave me with a bitter taste.
#7 Choose an angle
The most accessible angle is always a good place to start. From here, I normally get a good idea of if the angle will suffice, or if there’s another angle I’d rather want to be hanging from.
If often find that, no matter your angle, the climber will move into a position that complements the shot – just try not to miss it!
There is, however, the classic faux pas of the “butt shot” where you are below the climber looking up. With these shots, the arms and legs seem to originate from the bum.
Matt Hoffman sport climbing in the Free State. © Michelle van Aswegen
#8 Anticipate the shot
When hanging in the air, I normally use traditional climbing gear and slings to try and stabilise myself as the rope has the tendency to slowly start spinning once the climber approaches the frame.
#9 Always stay safe
“There is one fundamental rule in the climbing community and this counts for photographing them too: Don’t f**k up. Knowing and trusting my gear together while staying out of the way of the climber (climbing and falling line) are some of the ways, I adhere to the number one rule.
…okay yes, I have broken the rule before. I thought that I’d cleared the falling line but as it turned out, I hadn’t. I was very lucky! Somehow I didn’t get injured and also managed to hold on to my camera without dropping it onto the people below me. The climber who’s falling was interrupted by my body was able to hop away with a small blood trail and a broken rib. Very lucky for me, he’s my boyfriend and he still loves me.”
#10 Experience is the best advice
Experience is the best teacher and climbers are a welcoming bunch, so just get out there!
LEARN THE LINGO
Bouldering is when a boulder is climbed without a rope and harness and a bouldering pad is placed underneath the boulder to protect your fall (a soft landing).
Sport climbing is when you make use of a rope and harness to climb a rock face. The rock face will have existing bolts / gear drilled into it which you clip into on your way up (for protection).
Traditional climbing / trad climbing is where there is no existing bolts or gear in the rock but you make use of a rope and harness to climb up the rock and you place your own protection / gear (your wedge nuts, cams, hexes in cracks) as you climb up for protection.