My Climbing and Hiking Photography Kit

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.

Better Leading

“Falling!” I yell. A pathetic fall more indicative of giving up than giving your all. My waist was barely above the piece and a bolt only a body length higher, but I was pumped out. I spent too much time hanging out on small holds, trying to make it more secure than necessary, rather than just going for it. After hanging for a few minutes, I committed, moved up, clipped the bolt, and completed another challenging sequence before the climbing eased. Rather than proud, I felt defeated. Why didn’t I just commit to doing the moves the first time?

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Time to commit above thin gear on Fred (5.11a), Tahquitz Rock.

I hate the giving up style of failure when I attempt routes at my limit, but I do it more than I should admit. It’s frustrating to know that you can climb better than your performance suggests, and even more frustrating to know you just gave up. I sought to find out why I was struggling and work to fix the problem.

It’s been a problem for years. I’ve seen little to no improvement in leading difficult routes, all the while knowing I could climb harder. Looking for answers is harder than chalking it up to the vague “I just not strong enough” excuse. Rather than make yet another commitment to get stronger, I sought to identify the real problem

I made a list of my hardest redpoints and onsights. It soon became obvious that I could lead slab and face climbs at a greater difficulty than I was willing to attempt with crack climbs.

I’m a proficient slab climber, but I prefer crack climbing. I could cleanly toprope cracks 3-4 letter grades harder than I was willing to attempt on lead. But with slab climbing, I could lead within a letter grade or two of what I could toprope, if the protection was adequate. And it wasn’t simply that I’m a better face climber. In fact, I could cleanly toprope cracks at a harder grade than slab and face climbs. Why was there there such a disparity in my leading ability?

For me, it boiled down to that slab climbs have fixed gear and almost no options for pro anywhere else. I don’t enjoy long runouts, but I’m not overly fearful of them or of falling. Runouts force me to focus solely on climbing. This singularly focused mindset was missing from my crack climbing leads and is the missing piece of the puzzle.

I realized that on traditionally protected routes, I rarely focused solely on climbing moves. Most of the time, my mind fluttered rapidly between climbing and thinking about placing pro or the quality of protection. An unfocused mind cannot climb hard.

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Focusing on climbing through the crux with pro below my feet in the intimidating chimney of Dark Horse (5.10-), Cochise Stronghold.

I reflected more deeply on that problem. I discovered I actually spent way more time thinking about when and how I could put that gear in, and comparatively little time focusing on the actual climbing moves. It was like climbing was an afterthought to placing gear.

I took the mantra “place early and often” too far. I placed gear too early, too frequently, and from poor stances, often when a better stance was just a move away. This approach, while safe, was not conducive for me improving my lead ability beyond easy 5.10s. It made climbing harder more stressful and way more tiring than necessary. The too early and too often approach wasn’t making me a better climber, it just made me better at placing gear.

The answer to my leading woes was deceptively simple: climb continuously between rests and place pro during those rests. Make a conscious effort to focus on the one task that is appropriate at that specific time: climbing, resting, or placing pro. Pick one and give it 100%.

But the mindset needed for doing just that doesn’t come easily, it takes work.

Consistent, positive self-talk and visualization have been the key. At the base before leading a challenging route, whether I have climbed it before or not, I visualization the climb. I plan out where rest stances may be, where I must place gear to keep risk to a minimum, and how I might approach certain sequences. I don’t stop visualizing until I reach the end of the pitch successfully.

When it’s time to start climbing, I focus purely on movement until I reach the next rest stance. During the rest, I look up at the next moves and visualize how I will climb to the next stance. As I move up, I place enough protection to keep my mind at ease and to keep me as safe as possible. I consciously reject over-placing gear out of unreasonable fear or just to delay committing.

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Committing to keep moving to the next stance when the protection is good on Amanda (5.10a), Joshua Tree.
When reaching the crux, I find the closest rest and place a solid piece of protection. I study the rux and the surrounding terrain. I take special care to consider any dangers for falling during that crux. After assessing potential fall danger, I look for additional gear placements if necessary. Many times, I can place that protection by making a few moves into the crux, then downclimbing back to my rest stance. Other times, I see that I may need to place a piece from a tenuous stance during, or shortly after the crux. Regardless of the scenario, I make a plan, take a breath, and fully commit.

When it’s time to climb, all energy and focus must go towards moving up. I want my hand and foot placements to be as good as they can be, but I resist the temptation to fiddle around. Good enough is good enough. Now is not the time to make sure everything feels bomber.

When the climbing is hard, I must push myself to keep climbing. Fear tries to take over and cause panic, but if I have appropriately chosen the route to my ability and am protecting it adequately, it is reasonable and necessary to push that fear out. If I do end up in no-fall territory, I better just keep on climbing until I can rest or place gear. Losing focus is the worst thing you can do if you’re in no-fall territory, especially on difficult terrain.

If pro is needed mid-crux, I commit to placing it quickly and keep going. If I find a decent stance I did not anticipate, I may rest and place gear, otherwise I continue climbing until the difficulties are over.

While the answer to my problems was simple, practicing this mentality requires conscious thought and constant reinforcement. I’m not always successful and I fall back into comfortable patterns. Old habits are tough to break, but with consistent practice I’m seeing improvement. When I do fail, I avoid negative self-talk as much as possible. Instead, I redirect my focus on specifically what I should do right the next time.

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Keeping it fun through a wide section of Ides of Middlemarch (5.10-), Cochise Stronghold.

Becoming a better climber is hard and is different for everybody, but the challenge is part of the reason we love climbing. When frustrated, I try to remember that climbing is a process and I’m doing it for fun, so there is no need to stress out over minor failures. I learn from my successes whenever they come; I try learn even more from my failures. Most importantly, I remember how fortunate I am to be climbing and I try enjoy the process as much as possible, success or not.

Fast and Efficient Climbing Anchors

 

 

I’m no speed climber, but I enjoy moving quickly on multipitch routes. I can’t always climb faster, especially on challenging terrain, and climbing faster sometimes opens me up to more risk than I’m willing to take, with bigger runouts and hastily placed protection. However, I can almost always save time at the anchor.

Many of the multipitch routes I climb have bolted anchors, even on traditionally protected routes. This offers a huge advantage for moving quickly if done right. The methods below can be applied to traditional gear anchors, but you must be cautious! There is significantly more risk when doing this! I use these methods mostly for bolted anchors, and occasionally for absolutely bomber cam anchors when I’m on a ledge with little to no risk of falling off of the belay stance. Below I describe how to work more efficiently with bolted anchors.

Use this information at your own risk! You must judge when it is reasonable to use these tactics and when you must be more conservative. Never accept more risk than you are willing to take and always err on the side of caution.

For the Leader

  • Don’t use a cordelette. They require more fiddling to equalize and tie and are usually much longer than needed for a 2 bolt anchor.
  • If swinging leads, use the rope:
    • Clove hitch into the bolt furthest from the line your partner will climb. Give yourself enough slack so that you can comfortably belay. Use a locking carabiner for this attachment point.
    • Clove hitch into the second bolt with about 3 feet of slack between it and the first bolt. Any carabiner will do; I usually use an extra non-locker taken from a sling. Go off-belay.
    • Tie an overhand or figure 8 on a bight to create an equalized master point between the two bolts.
    • Belay off the master point using an appropriate device, such as the ATC Guide or Petzl Reverso. It makes rope management easier while belaying.
    • Coil the rope across your tie in point as you belay, use really long coils that become progressively shorter as your second climbs.
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A basic, equalized anchor using the rope. I led the pitch and created this anchor. My partner led the next pitch. 
  • If leading in blocks (i.e. you are leading the next pitch), use a double-length sling:
    • Clip the sling into two bolts using at least one locking carabiner. Create a master point.
    • Clove into a locking carabiner and clip it to one of the bolts or to the other locking carabiner holding your sling. Tie a backup knot (overhand or figure 8 on a bight) and clip it to the other bolt or master point.
    • Belay off the master point using an appropriate device.
    • Coil the rope across your tie in point as you belay, use short coils the become progressively longer as you second climbs. When s/he gets to the belay, you can flip the pile of coils and the rope is ready for you to continue leading.

Tips for the Follower:

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A quick transition when reaching the anchor can save a few minutes each pitch. 
  • When the leader goes off belay, immediately start organizing any loose equipment and clip it to you harness or put it a pack.
  • As the leader pulls up rope, remove your master point. At this time, you should still be connected to two points.
  • OPTIONAL: If you are at a good stance (i.e. NOT a hanging belay), you may want to go ahead and un-clove from the bolt you are not directly attached to. Only do this if you are certain that you will not fall and are okay with the slight increase in risk.
  • When the leader has pulled in all the slack and put you on belay, un-clove from the bolt(s) you are clipped to and start climbing.
  • If you won’t be leading the next pitch, clip the gear to a sling around your shoulder. That way you can hand over all the gear back to the leader at once. It makes for a faster transfer than handing pieces over one by one.
  • When you reach the next belay anchor, clove into the master point as soon as you arrive. Back the clove up with an overhand on a bight clipped to one of the bolts. You can adjust the length of the clove hitch as needed while off belay.

In my opinion, saving time at the anchor is much more cost effective than climbing fast and is less risky than pushing yourself to move too quickly on lead. When on lead, go off belay as soon as possible, and when following, climb as soon as possible. Depending on the anchoring method you currently use and your proficiency with it, the methods described above save me 5-10 minutes on every pitch. More time to climb and more time for beer at the end of the day!

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Climbs with bolted anchors can be climbed much more quickly with efficient anchoring.

As always, don’t do anything you are not comfortable with. Every situation is different and every climber is different. You are ultimately responsible for your safety! You should discuss and agree on anchoring methods and how you will go on and off belay anytime you consider speed climbing. Good communication with your partner before and during the climb are essential parts of safe, efficient climbing.

Be safe, have fun!