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Climbing Photography Gear

Maaren Van Haeren leading Big Brother on the Little Sister, Canmore, AB

People ask me a lot what gear I use when shooting ice climbing and climbing so I thought I would put this piece together to answer a lot of the questions that people have.

I basically have 5 camera and lens setups that I seem to be bouncing back and forth between lately.

  1. The barebones setup where I am shooting while participating in the climbing.
  2. An all-out setup when the approaches aren’t too long or if I won’t be leaving the ground during a shoot.
  3. An on-rope setup. This is when I am jugging ropes and leaving the ground.
  4. An in-between setup. Maybe there is an opportunity to shoot from afar and then join in on the climbing after.
  5. A setup to shoot from afar only. I won’t be joining the climbers.

My main camera body when shooting is the Canon 5d mark iv. I had the mark ii and waited for them to release the iv model because I was looking for improved iso performance and a faster burst rate.

One of my main niches is ice climbing and often I’m shooting in the shade or in cloudy or snowy conditions. Having a better ISO performance allows me to have a higher shutter speed which helps to make sure I can get sharper images. Especially if I am hanging on a rope moving and the athlete is moving too.

Stas Beskin attempting the full ice version of The Real Big Drip.

In layman’s terms ISO is the sensitivity of the camera sensor to light, the better it performs when the number is higher, say 800 ISO and above the less grainy the image looks and the more detail there is in the shot. I find the 5d mark iv allows me to keep the ISO higher so that I can have a shutter speed of 1/250 or faster in shady or overcast conditions.

I also upgraded to the 5d mark iv for the increased burst rate. When I purchased the 5d ii I had previously been using a Canon 40d. The 40d had a high burst rate meaning I was able to shoot more images per second than the 5d ii. With ice climbing I like to capture when the pick of the tool hits the ice and a faster burst rate allows me to spray and pray hoping to capture the point of impact.

When I changed to the 5d mark ii I noticed a decrease in the burst mode. The 5d ii is 3.9 shots per second. I was happy that the 5d mark iv increased the burst rate back to 7 shots per second allowing me to capture the action that is important to me. Ice spraying when the pick contacts the ice.

Corinna Strauss on the first pitch of Dream On.

An additional bonus is the built in wi-fi of the 5d iv. If I’m on the road I can link the camera to my phone and pull a couple shots off it and upload them to Instagram or Vero etc.

If I am going all out I carry a second body with me too. It’s the Canon 5dsr, I like to use it for long shots as it has a 50.6 MP sensor and the detail and resolution are really high with the 5dsr, allowing me to zoom in on a tiny climber in the image while post-processing and still have great detail. The 5dsr ISO performance is not great though so I often have to shoot the long shots with a tripod so I can keep the ISO low, which adds additional weight to the pack. I often use the 5dsr if I am shooting strictly landscapes with a tripod too.

Minimal setup for when I will be climbing too.

My favourtie style of shooting is when I am participating in the climbing, I like to climb too and jugging ropes is not the same. When I’m out climbing I usually try to reduce the weight in my pack by limiting the lenses I am carrying.

Lately I have been alternating between two lenses if I am climbing. Sometimes I take just one, other times I take two. If I am taking one lens I try to decide between the ultrawide of the Canon 11-24mm f/4L vs the versatility of the Canon 24-105mm f/4L.

If I think there is an opportunity for more landscape style shots, sunrise on a technical peak in the distance style shots I’ll bring the 24-105mm f/4L which allows for a wide enough angle for landscapes but zooms in enough to get a different perspective on the peaks. The other option is bringing along the Canon 11-24m f/4L. I usually bring this lens if I’ll be shooting from the belay and think I can get a side shot while the leader leaves the belay. Going wide, to 11mm means I can still get all the climber in the shot when they are still very close. The images with the 11-24 are awesome especially when using it to shoot top down, it really adds to the exposure of a shot.

If the climbing is not too technical I often bring both of these lenses to give me options throughout the day.

This summer I plan to experiment with only bringing the Canon 5d iv and the 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens when I am climbing for fun. It’s a really light and small setup compared to anything else I have. I won’t be able to have a wide variety of shots but I feel it will force me to experiment with a solo fixed lens and see what I can get. I am going to take this setup when I’m just out climbing for fun to reduce pack weight and size.

Shooting from the belay, Jeff is a lot closer than it appears thanks to the 11-24mm. Piler du Temple in Quebec.

Shots from off the belay or,

Mt Kitchener zoomed in on a failed attempt of the Grand Central Couloir.

Mountain landscapes zoomed in.

When I take all my gear.

All the gear I bring sometimes.

My all-out setup is heavy. I tend to bring it if I’ll be jugging lines and it’s a paid commercial shoot. During these shoots I will bring both camera bodies, The Canon 5d iv and 5dsr, a tripod, a static rope, my personal climbing kit, my jugging kit and these lenses:

Canon 11-24mm f/4L (for shooting top down)

Canon 16-35mm f/4L IS (for shooting top down when I want IS, often I leave this lens home)

Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS (for shooting from the side and top down)

Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS (for shooting top down, from the side, portraits, lifestyle + gear detail)

Canon 400mm f/5.6L (for shooting long shots from afar)

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 art (for shooting in low-light, details, portraits and other artsy type shots)

Sigma 100-300mm f/4 EX DG HSM APO (for shooting shots from afar)

Usually I’ll have a belay seat with me and a 60m 9mm static line to jug using this setup.

Camera setup while hanging on ropes.

When I leave the ground, I can’t shoot from afar anymore so I don’t bother bringing those lenses described above up the climb. Sometimes I’ll take both camera bodies with me setup with a different lens each or I’ll just take the Canon 5d iv and two or three lens depending on the situation. If I think the climbing will be fast and I won’t have time to change lenses I bring both bodies but if it’s shady and I am free hanging semi-spinning on a rope I won’t bring the 5dsr as I need a higher ISO to have a shutter speed that will get a sharp image with so much movement happening.

Lately I have been jugging the pitch and tagging up my Cilo 26 bag filled with camera gear. When shooting top down I want the 11-24mm for when the climber is nearing the top of the pitch and I have been using the 24-105mm or 70-200mm depending on the angles and the length of the pitch. If the pitch is really long I might start with the 70-200mm on the 5d iv and then switch to the 24-105mm as the climber gets closer and then grab the 5dsr with the 11-24mm already setup on it.

Often, it is the Canon 5d iv with 2-3 lenses. Always the 11-24mm for the top and then one of or both the 24-105mm and 70-200mm for lower down on the pitch.

Zoomed in, Jeff Mercier on the third pitch of Big Brother on the Little Sister in Canmore, AB

Zoomed in at the start of the pitch.

Zoomed out, Jeff Mercier on the third pitch of Big Brother on the Little Sister in Canmore, AB

11-24mm with Jeff top down

Shooting from distance to start and then climbing setup.

When shooting from afar to start and then joining in on the climbing.

The fourth setup I seem to be using on occasion is an in-between setup for when I can shoot from the side from afar but then join in on the climbing too. Usually this means shooting the first and possibly second pitches from off in the distance and then running back over to tie-in and climb myself. In these scenarios I carry in a longer lens but don’t bother with two camera bodies.

So I’ll take the Canon 5d iv along with:

11-24mm to use when climbing and then these lenses to shoot from afar. 24-105mm, 70-200mm, 400mm. It depends on the location though, if I know the climb I might forego bringing say the 400mm or the 24-105mm depending on the terrain and if I know the distance I want to shoot from.

I would like to reduce this setup to the 11-24mm, the 24-105mm and the Canon 100-400mm f4.5/5.6L but I don’t have the third lens yet. I keep waiting for Canon to hook me up but no luck…

It always seems like a balance of bringing enough gear to get a variety of shots but not enough gear that I am too slow to keep up, although arguably that’s most days out ha.

What I use when shooting from far away. S

When I am not climbing and shooting from off in the distance.

If I won’t be joining the climbers and I’ll just be shooting from afar I cut out the lenses because they won’t be of use and I add in the 5dsr body because of it’s high resolution and sharpness. I often take both bodies and a tripod.

The lenses I bring are:

Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS

Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS

Canon 400mm f/5.6

And sometimes the Sigma 100-300

I’d like to amalgamate this setup into the 24-105mm and the Canon 100-400mm f4.5/5.6L but have not done that yet. I’ve been renting the 100-400mm from time to time though in Calgary and really like it.

Etienne climbing Topaze, one of the zoomed in shots from the shoot above.

What else to bring.

On top of the bodies and lenses I will often have 1-2 additional batteries depending on the weather and another CF or SD card as well. On rare occasions I have had issues on extremely cold days with a battery or a memory card and they are quickly fixed by grabbing the extra and putting the card or battery in question into a chest pocket and warming it up. I just don’t want to miss the action while that is happening.

I find taking a camera lens pen to clean off the lens in the winter essential. It doesn’t take much to get snow on the lens and then I want to brush it off. I usually bring two putting one in a chest pocket and another in a leg pocket just so I can find it quick without faffing.

Got any comments or questions? Leave one below.

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