Climbing Photography

Climbing and photography go together like coffee and cream. Whether it's of the highest Himalayan peaks or the lowest Hueco lowballs, we love the imagery that transports us back to the scene of the climb. It's a discipline steeped in history, too, peopled by pilots and inventors and former custom auto-shop owners with more than a few FAs to their names.

IAIpenglow (from German: Alpenglühen) is usually misunderstood. Although we often use the term to describe rosy sunrise or sunset light on alpine scenery, true alpenglow occurs before sunrise or after sunset. Sunlight does not directly strike the peaks, but rather reflects off airborne snow, water, or ice particles low in the atmosphere, and then onto mountains, rock walls, and other objects close to the skyline. Accompanying this effect is a glowing red band on the opposite horizon, distinguishing true alpenglow from the normal warm light of sunrise or sunset.

2 The late Galen Rowell, one of the best-known mountain photographers of all time, never received formal training. Like so many climbers before and since, he dropped out of college to pursue climbing and never looked back. In 1972, he sold his high-performance auto shop, and within one year had become a full-time photographer, completing the first of innumerable cover stories for magazines such as National Geographic and becoming so successful that he was eventually referred to as "The Ansel Adams of Color Photography." Along the way, his climbing achievements at least equaled his photography, and included the first one-day ascent of Denali, its first ski-circumnavigation, the first ascents of Great Trango Tower and Cholatse, and countless routes in the Sierra Nevada range.

3 You've seen photo-file extensions such as .jpg or .tif, but what do these mean? JPEGs (Joint Photo Experts Group) rule among amateurs for their smaller file size and ease of scaling, allowing you to easily send thumbnails to friends. They capture less data, however, and therefore are shunned by experts. Tagged Image File Format, or TIFFs, are larger files that contain much more of the original data captured by the camera. A third option, known as RAW format, is actually comprised of as many formats as there are camera manufacturers, though all are minimally processed by the camera and contain the most complete representation of the image. Though huge in size compared to other formats, they allow the photographer the greatest latitude in editing.

Among photography's many technical innovators are a few climbers. Rowell may be the most prominent, and his contributions include popularizing the use of "graduated neutral density" filters that allowed scenes with both bright and dark areas to be captured on the films of the day. In the 1960s, Greg Lowe, renowned climbing inventor and early 5.12 pioneer, invented the world's first internal frame backpack and founded the company Lowepro, which in 1972 marketed the first padded, soft-sided camera bag. Tom Frost was involved in the first ascents of such world-renowned routes as the Salathe Wall and the North America Wall on El Capitan, and the Lotus Flower Tower in Canada's Cirque of the Unclimbables. He also photographed these ascents to capture many now-classic images. In the '70s, Frost (along with location photographer Gary Regester) invented the Chimera line of photography lights.

5 Two of the most popular climbing photo composition techniques, the "red shirt" style (in which the subject purposefully wears a brightly colored shirt that may or may not have any other reason to be worn) and the "panning" technique (in which either the subject or background is wholly or partially blurred to create a feeling of action or energy) can both be traced to heavy usage by the editors of National Geographic.

6 The most popular, and the most controversial, cover photo in Climbing magazine history was the so-called "bikini cover," December 1997. The shot, by Corey Rich, showed the Danish 5.13 climber Rikke Ishoy chalking up on an easy problem at the Happy Boulders, California, wearing shorts and a very blue, very well-fitted bikini top covering her very buff, bronzed body.

7 The late Bradford Washburn, one of the leading American mountaineers of the 1930s-50s, became a pioneer of aerial photography in order to aid in expedition planning. Washburn first earned his pilot's license in 1934, and over the next several decades meticulously documented Alaskan massifs, peaks, and glaciers. His library of large-format images, with their depth of detail, is still the standard for route photos of Alaskan climbing objectives. Washburn's first ascents include one of the most famous mountaineering routes in North America, Denali's West Buttress.

8 The tradition of strong, motivated climbers becoming self-taught photographers began long before the great names known today. One of the first was Alfred Gregory, official photographer of the 1953 Everest expedition. Starting out as a climber in England's Lake District during the 1930s, Gregory made the British expedition on the strength of his climbing experience and skill, and only at the last minute did expedition leader John Hunt notice that he "seemed to take good pictures." Gregory was promoted to official expedition photographer and began one of the most remarkable crash courses in outdoor-photographer history. He successfully learned to judge high-altitude exposures without the benefit of a light meter, nailed the assignment, and came back from Everest a professional photographer, going on to a long career as a freelance lecturer for Nikon.

9 The name Vittorio Sella is known the world over for his exceptional alpine photographs. One reason for their extraordinary quality, described by Ansel Adams as inspiring "religious awe," was simple enough: Sella captured his compositions in 300mm x 400mm format. Using an emulsion of silver salts applied to a glass plate, this method of photography, once common, is highly stable and may still be superior in quality to film. Transporting these bulky, fragile, and heavy plates high into the alpine zone presented quite a challenge, even for a climber as experienced as Sella, who completed the first winter ascents of both the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa, as well as the first winter traverse of Mont Blanc.

Climbing photos have long been used to titillate the general public, to the everlasting derision of climbers. One of the most conspicuous mainstream appearances was the cover of a July 1993 issue of Newsweek, which showed an unnamed, spandex-clad climber lunging for the finishing jug on Chain Reaction (5.12c), a classic at Smith Rock, Oregon. Though unnamed in the mag, the climber was Bill Soule. Soule owned a guide business at Smith, and "ran up and down Chain Reaction, as well as the other routes," says Ted Wood, who took the photo. "He had that place wired."

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