Let’s face it, taking photos while climbing and hiking requires effort. We all love to have epic-looking photos documenting our adventures, but the act of taking those photos can sometimes feel contrived and can take you out of the moment. However, if you set yourself up for success by keeping your camera handy and knowing how to operate it, you can be rewarded with great shots.

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I was able to capture this candid shot on the summit of a remote Alaskan peak simply because I had my camera handy.

 

Below I will describe my photography kit and explain some of the reasons it works for me. I’m not a professional photographer by any means, but I found a paucity of quality information out there intended to help regular people get better photos while climbing and hiking, but without it actually interfering too much with the enjoyment of those activities.

My Camera and Lens

The best camera is the one you have with you.

I started out using a compact Fuji point-and-shoot. It’s small, quick and easy to use, relatively durable, and was inexpensive. I took some decent photos with it and handing it off to a partner was never a problem because of its small size and intuitive operation. But over time, I became disappointed with the image quality. Photos were never as sharp and colors not as bright as I remembered. Since I like to print my photos, I was somewhat limited in my enlargement size because of it. Nevertheless, this was my go-to camera for over 8 years.

I now use a Sony A6000 mirrorless camera body for virtually all of my shooting. I chose to go “mirrorless” because it offers a level of control and sensor size comparable to a DSLR, but in a much smaller and lighter package.

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The Sony a6000 is a compact, mirrorless camera body. The APS-C sensor is larger than most point-and-shoot cameras, but not “full frame” like professional quality DSLRs. Most entry-mid level DSLRs also use APS-C sensors. 

The lens choice was important to me. I could have gone with a stock zoom lens, but I wanted to have the best glass possible on a budget. Less expensive zoom lenses don’t usually produce crisp, vivid images like a fixed (no zoom) lens can. After reading reviews, I went with the Sigma Art 19mm f/2.8. It’s reasonably fast, produces a sharp image with only moderate distortion, and is an appropriate focal length for a the shots I take the most: climbing action shots, candids, and landscapes. Best of all, it’s affordable.

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The Sigma Art 19mm f/2.8 is a quality fixed lens for people on a budget.

With this setup, I spend most of my time shooting in either Superior Auto or Aperture Priority mode. I always shoot in RAW (.ARW for Sony cameras) or RAW+JPG. That way I am in full control of processing when I get back home.

Superior Auto mode does a good job balancing the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture for when I’m taking photos while climbing or hiking. I don’t always have the time or desire to take the time to determine the most ideal exposure. Superior Auto makes shooting a lot of photos easy and I’m usually happy with the results. While composing the shot, if I feel it’s worth the effort, I’ll switch over to a mode allowing me more control.

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I shot this with my Sony a6000 with the Sigma 19mm f/2.8 lens in Superior Auto mode. I processed it with Adobe Camera Raw. This was shot on a remote alpine summit in Alaska where I did not have time to carefully determine the exposure. 

When I’m trying to be a bit more artistic and meticulous with my shots, I most often use Aperture Priority so that I can control depth of field and ISO. I keep the ISO below 1000 when possible to reduce electronic noise in the image.

 

The aperture I choose is usually dependent on the subject. For landscapes, I most often use f/22 to get the largest depth of field. For group shots and shooting around camp, I’ll use something in the f/4.5-11 range so that I get some depth of field, allowing my focus to be a little bit off without much trouble. When shooting portraits and closeups where I have time to make sure the focus is perfect, I use the largest aperture possible for the given light conditions.

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I wanted a large depth of field for this image, so I shot in Aperture Priority mode at f/22. 

 

Camera Customizations

I utilize my camera’s advanced features in two simple ways that I find really helpful for creating the shots I want. Both are related to focusing.

The most important customization for me was changing the focus button from “Half Shutter” to the “AEL” button. When using the default “Half Shutter” focus button, anytime you release the shutter and press it again, the focusing process begins again. I noticed that when I composed climbing shots, I pressed the half shutter to focus on my subject, released the button to compose the shot, then pressed the shutter again to take the shot. Unfortunately, the act of releasing the shutter button and pressing it again causes the camera to refocus. More than a handful of times, the rock nearest my camera would be in focus rather than my subject. Frustrating!

Moving the focus button to “AEL” meant that I could focus on the subject, then worry about composition, and finally take the shot without worrying about the camera losing focus on the subject.

While not really a customization, this next feature saves me time and frustration when composing shots. When in Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual mode, you can select the “focus area” that works best for the style of shooting. My camera has 4 options: Wide, Zone, Center, and Flexible Spot.

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I almost always use “Flexible Spot” focusing when shooting close-ups. I shot this with the kit described above in Aperture Priority mode. I processed the RAW file using a free, open source program called RawTherapee. 

When shooting a group of people, I typically use Wide or Zone because the camera’s software will automatically recognize peoples’ faces and focus on those. When composing a shot where I want only the subject in focus, I most often use Center. It works for me in this scenario because the AEL button controls focus on my camera. So I can simply center my subject on screen, press AEL to focus, then compose the shot without the camera changing the focus point. For macro shots and portraits, I use Flexible Spot so that I can control and be confident that the camera is focused exactly where I intend.

Camera Bag for Climbing

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The LowePro Adventura SH 100 II is just big enough to hold a compact mirrorless camera and a single lens. It protects the camera from minor impacts and short falls.

Climbing with a camera, especially a larger one, can be a pain. Keeping the camera in a backpack is easy, but usually means I take fewer shots. Wearing the camera unprotected on a strap slung across my chest is great for getting a lot of photos, but comes with added anxiety and worry about destroying my camera.

I decided on a compromise: keep the camera in a small, padded bag. Sling the camera bag across my chest so that it’s easily accessible and reasonably protected.

It took some trial and error to get this method perfected, but it works well for my needs. I purchased a LowePro Adventura SH100 bag to hold my camera/lens kit. The bag is barely large enough to hold it, but the padding is substantial enough that my camera is protected from minor impacts. This bag is not waterproof; I keep a quart sized Ziploc in the camera bag so that I can protect my camera if it rains. All together, this camera bag is no larger than my climbing chalk bag and smaller than a pair of shoes.

I sling the camera bag strap across my chest so that the camera stays on one side of my body. I then take the camera strap itself and sling it over my head, that way the camera is protected from being dropped in two ways, by the bag strap and the camera strap. This setup works well for hiking and easy climbing.

When the climbing becomes more difficult, I add a waist strap to the camera bag (I took waist strap from an old chalk bag). This allows me to keep the camera more or less fixed on my side or back without it swinging around and otherwise interfering with climbing movement.

This setup keeps the camera conspicuously accessible and is tolerable to wear while lead climbing. It constantly reminds me to take photos because the camera is right there at my side. Taking lots of photos increases my odds of getting a shot I’m happy with.

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When the leader keeps the camera, your climbing shots will tend to look more like this, rather than an album full of “butt shots!” Mediocre top down shots are better than most bottom up shots.

 

When lead climbing at my limit where the risk of falling is real, I either keep the camera in a small backpack or give it to my follower. I’m not prepared yet to shatter my camera in a fall!

Other Accessories

I don’t use too many other accessories, but I do occasionally use a small tripod and a polarizing filter when shooting certain shots. The polarizing filter is good for removing unwanted glare from rock slabs and adding contrast to bright, partly cloudy skies.

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A tripod was essential for getting this shot. Heavily overcast skies and an f/22 aperture setting meant I needed an exposure too long for hand-holding the camera. 

For a tripod, I use the Joby Gorillapod 3K. It’s on the heavier side, but it durable and rock solid on a variety of terrains. I use it mostly for shooting landscapes when the light is low and I wish to use a long exposure. An unexpected use I found for the Gorillapod was as a pseudo camera cage/holder when shooting video. With the camera mounted on the tripod, I can hold a leg in each hand, almost like a steering wheel. With this setup, I can keep the camera rock solid for video.