A couple of weekends ago, I went down to The Red River Gorge in Kentucky on a climbing trip with some friends. Like on all trips, I brought my camera and spent most of my time taking photos. This trip’s theme? Experimenting with dynamic action shots. I am very much so still a newbie in the realm of photography, but, this trip provided some much-needed experience in shooting in different lighting, from various angles, and in make-shift environments. Over the past few trips where I have done this, I have put together a list of tips that will help me, and others, in shooting dynamic photos.
1) Plan the trip around taking photos
As you get started in taking these adventurous, action photos, it is easy to get sucked into the frame of mind of, “Well, maybe I’ll make this trip a ‘two-birds-one-stone’ kind of deal” where you bring your camera and maybe snap a few photos but also spend your time climbing or fishing or doing something else that might take you away from the photography. If you really want to get the right shots, you have to be prepared to spend your time away from that favorite activity and devote it to the photography.
For example, my first couple of trips, I threw my camera into my gear pile as I was packing mostly as an afterthought. I said to myself, “I am going on the trip to climb dammit and if I get some free time, I might take a few photos.” After being disappointed by all of the lazy “shot-taken-from-ground-clearly-in-a-rush-while-trying-to-gear-up-for-climbing” photos, I decided to shift my focus to the photography rather than the climbing. Yes, it means that I won’t be able to climb as much, but it will free me up to commit myself to doing what it takes to get the shot, even if that means foregoing some of the fun of the activity.
2) Plan the gear around taking photos
Similar to the above tip, in order to improve your photography in these action-shot situations, you need to shift your mind to, “this trip is for photography and photography only.” One area that this frame of mind affects a great deal is in packing gear. The gear for a fun weekend of climbing is VASTLY different from the gear for a weekend of taking climbing shots. Don’t do what I did and treat the photography, and therefore the gear, as an afterthought; plan ahead.
One specific example is on my last trip to Kentucky. I wanted to capture a friend on a classic route that had a really impressive fishing move. I knew that in order to properly capture that, I needed a high vantage point on the neighboring route. I climbed the route right next to the classic, brought the gear I had, and anchored myself in. Once my friend got towards the top of the climb, I started shooting. I very quickly discovered that I was ill-prepared with my gear. I didn’t have enough slack in my personal anchor to get myself far enough from the wall to capture my friend at the proper angle. In hindsight, I should have prepared my gear for this, brought a short static rope, and built an anchor that would have given me more freedom in my movement.
Think ahead. Plan your gear for photography.
3) Don’t be afraid to put yourself in uncomfortable situations
This tip applies to both physical and social situations. Physically, you have to be prepared to climb up to an anchor point, set up shop, and hang in your harness for upwards of an hour. Yes, your legs fall asleep. Yes, you get hungry. Yes, you could get bored while you wait for your friends to gear up and listen to them gab away while in your head you are saying, “Hey y’all, my legs are numb and I need to pee!” However, that is what it takes to get the shots you want and you must be willing to be physically uncomfortable in order to get them.
Socially, you also must be willing to put yourself out there. Yes, it is awkward to constantly be putting your camera into everyone’s conversations, faces, and climbs, but that is where the emotion is and you must follow. Sometimes you might be hanging at the top of a climb and people will be shouting below asking you to hurry up. To them, your photography doesn’t matter. Even if you have to tell the peanut gallery to buzz off, (which, if you are like me and hate confrontation, then this probably sounds like hell) you must be willing to be socially uncomfortable to take your photography to the next level.
4) Train yourself to do everything while carrying your gear
Especially in climbing, if you are used to climbing in only your harness racked with draws, cams, and cordelette, then it can be a huge shock when you start climbing with a backpack on stuffed full of extra gear, camera equipment, and extra weight. It throws off your whole center of gravity, which completely changes your climbing when you are trying to get to a specific angle. There is a huge learning curve when you start trying to do everything your subject is doing, but with much more gear strapped to yourself.
Practice. Train. Practice some more. Don’t let your photography suffer because you are not used to carrying an extra 25 pounds on your back. Or, bring a friend who can tie your gear to the end of the rope so you scrape it up the side of a mountain like me.
It is a daunting and steep learning curve to improve your dynamic shooting. But, by planning your trip and gear, putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, and training, you can get better shots. Trust me, I’ve done this almost four times.