Anatomy of a photo - Sentinel Crack
The optimum angle at least in photography is debatable. Its very much a personal thing, I might prefer one angle and you another. Something that I think works really well, someone else really doesn't like at all.
On a recent editorial shoot while taking a photo of a well known rock climbing route called Sentinel Crack, in the Peak District of Derbyshire, England. I decided to shoot the route from the ground with a telephoto, the shot was fine it had everything I needed in it Colour, nice composition and action, it even showed the route from an angle which isn't commonly photographed. But I new almost as soon as I took it, it wasn't what I wanted! When I finally got back to the office and opened it up on a 30" monitor it just lacked a certain amount of drama and drama is, for those that know the route and its fierceum reputation the one thing that's almost always guaranteed when someone plucks up the courage to attempt it - "Sentinel Crack climbs an awesome looking fist size roof-crack and for most mortals proves a desperate fight, the jam past the lip is especially memorable and will doubtless leave its mark one way or another" - Rockfax (climbing guidebooks)
Part of the problem with my original photo of Ali (Left) was that I wanted a little more Ooomph. More bang for my buck, at least a little grimace from my subject would have sufficed, but at 6'2" Ali can pretty much reach past the difficulties without shedding blood.
So the following week I headed back for the re-match and I came prepared, or at least I brought a secret weapon, climber Lucy Creamer. At just a diminutive 5'2" it was going to be a tough call! I'd also decided on a very different plan of attack which involved two ropes, a wide-angle zoom and a flashgun on a 3 foot pole - things were about to get interesting!
But before I could take the photo I had envisaged, a wide-angle shot looking down the length of the crack with the climber battling to hang on, while her belayer looks anxiously up from the ground, I had to think about how i was going to get into a position above the climber. This was why I needed the two ropes. The plan was to drop one rope down either side of the huge overhang. I would abseil down on the right-hand rope using a Petzl "GriGri" and use a second "GriGri" on the left-hand rope to tension myself across left and slightly under the roof enabling me to position myself directly above "La Creamer"
The ropes were rigged and I abseiled in for a "dry run" without the climber. It's not fair, or in some cases safe to ask the climber to begin such a difficult route before you're in position and have worked out your angles, exposure and in this case off-camera flash. I wanted to use a little fill-flash because it was quite dark under the roof, throwing shadow on the climber and particularly onto her face.
For these sort of situations when I want the flash at least a couple of feet from the camera and its not possible to place it on a lighting stand, I use half an old broom handle cut down to about 24" I've screwed a small ball head with a flash shoe to this and wrapped non-slip tape round it. I can attach either a Nikon SB800 or 900 to this and trigger it with a SC-29 TTL cable, an SU800 commander unit or indeed the built in commander in the Nikon D700 which I took the photo with.
So, once everything is worked out I shout down to Lucy that I'm ready and she starts to climb the route. I'm not really interested in shooting her climbing the lower half of the route, a climber of Lucy's calibre will just "breeze" up this section and equally the angle I'm shooting from would mean it rather looked like she was sitting on top of her belayer. I would need a little more "Air" between them before I started to press the shutter.
The route climbs up a corner to a break under the huge roof before moving out left to tackle the "Meat" of the route, the roof crack. If you've never seen the route being climbed before its always good to talk with the climber to discover just what they're "game plan" for the route is. This way you know beforehand just how the climber will approach the climb - an all out sprint for the top or an altogether more sedate affair. It helps to know these things, I'd never describe climbing as a particularly fast moving sport, but believe me if you're not concentrating on the action you'll find the climber is almost on top of you before you've fired off half the frames you've so painstakingly planned in your mind. Some times it is possible to slow things down with a quite word to an obliging climber, sometimes you only get one chance as the situation is just to strenuous to hang around for very long - don't piss the Athletes off, if you do next time you ask them to turn up they'll think twice about it
Once Lucy got to the horizontal break she stops to arrange some protection. Not only does this offer an interesting series of photos it also gives me time to check the images I've already taken for composition and exposure (Histograms). I'm shooting at a 60th of a second because its dark under the roof, consequently I'm also using a small amount of "Fill flash" to boost the colours. I choose to shoot at f5.6 as I want the belayer to be roughly in focus and zoom the lens to its widest 14mm setting, while simultaneously making sure the climber is in the centre of the frame as not to distort the image too much. As Lucy leaves the solace of the break and starts the strenuous crack i fire off 4 or 5 frames before she's too close and the flash's power, which I had set on a 1/4 power starts to "blow-out" the highlights (white shirt) and reflect badly in her helmet.
The Magazine's choice of image
All in all I was quite pleased with my second visit to photograph Sentinel Crack and I'm sure you'll agree the first photo of Ali is very different to the sequence of Lucy climbing the same route. Out of the 3 shots featured here, its the middle image that works best for the article I was illustrating. In the first image the climber is slightly too far away (obviously this could be cropped - the picture is ideal for a magazine cover, leaving enough room at the top for the publishers "Mast-head") The middle image is, for me at least the best of the three (the one the magazine used) and captures both the line of the route and Climber/belayer very nicely (leaving the belayer in gives a scale to illustrate the height of the route) The final shot with Lucy grimacing adds drama, but is too close to show the route, and that after all is the point of the article, its about the climb not the climber.