Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Making a better bouldering image.

I recently posted a photo from my Hueco Tanks trip here on the blog, and with much surprise to me, I received some email inquires regarding the shot. "Did you photoshop the sky? What lens is that? Where was the flash?" Well, I figured this could be a cool opportunity to share some of the technical details and thought processes that go into a shot; the kind of stuff I normally don't do here on the blog.

Here's the run down for that particular hour.

I typically warm up with everyone, do 5-10 easy problems, stretch out, shoot the shit. I generally think it is best to not shoot during warm-ups because of several reasons.
A: The climbers are only warming up and probably in a short routine that is best not interrupted or interfered with
B: It shows your not trigger happy paparazzi.
C: It shows you have your own agenda: that you're out to enjoy the day as well, and not following them around like a puppy.
D: If you do shoot the rest of day, it never hurts to scratch the skin a little bit!

So, after warming up in the Maze, GP Salvo headed over to try the moves on Nagual, V13. I usually set back and shoot wide at first. If a climber is "working" the moves on a project they haven't sent, it is best to not jump in there immediately for close ups. Climbers can be a little self conscious about being published on a climb they can only do a few moves on (at the moment). Additionally, it can be super annoying to jump in there right away, giving direction, moving ground clutter, etc.

Practice the shot you have in mind, and have a rock solid idea of what you'll need from the climber to get it. So, if you get a cooperative moment of their time, preferably at the end of the session, you'll nail it. Then chill, be patient, help spot, walk away, whatever. Just don't stand there, bobbing up and down like a child in line for the bathroom, quietly signaling "the end-all" if you don't get the shot right then. This is the hardest part, trust me. You're a loaded gun, cool, but be patient, the sun's not going down just yet.

Below is a test frame I fired while GP was working the upper moves of the problem. He likely didn't even know I was there. Here are the notes I made in my head based on the image...

- The Contrast between the blown out rock and the dark shady overhang is way too much.
- The Black shirt GP is wearing isn't working out.
- The spotter is a little close, distracting, and not helping to show the problem's height.
- The sky is a little blown out. Bummer cause there are some nice blues in there.
- I like the angle, but the boulder is a bit cut off at the bottom. Something's not balanced.
- I dig the body position. A rose move on a V13 is pretty cool. The cross through may cover his face though when it counts. Maybe low percentage.

I know right away I can correct the technical issues such as: composition, exposure, contrast balance, lighting, etc. (Experience learned the f-n hard way! Take a course, read a manual, just don't take three years to learn what the M or the A settings on your camera actually do.) However, I will have to ask the spotter to step back and also see if GP is cool with that. I'll have to him to do the "rose move" again, as well as change his shirt. (I've barely known GP for 10 minutes BTW)

So before I drop all this, I show him the test shot, once he takes off his shoes for a rest, and explain how I like it, but would change it. I reassure him how dope it would be. (Confidence and enthusiasm go a long way.) I ask him, once he is done his session on the boulder, if I could have his cooperation to make the photo I have in mind. It may be best in some cases (100% true in this case) to speak of making a beautiful image of Nagual and Hueco Tanks: something artsy and agreeable. We are not shooting GP pretending to send a V13 here. We are setting up a shot to make this classic Fred Nicole problem look sick and unique. This takes out GP's role as a "Sick Crimper Cranker" and relieves him to a smaller role in the landscape. (Some people like that role, I could tell in 10 minutes that GP was not one of them.) I will also share the test photo with the spotter and explain (and hopefully have him agree) that he isn't helping the image by standing there with his hands up.

My advice is to not just ask a spotter to "get out of the frame." Spotters sometimes like to be in the shot. I mean, honestly, what's not cool about being in a magazine spotting someone on a sick V13? Explain yourself, make fun of yourself, make it light-hearted, and try to involve them elsewhere on the moment. If they seem keen - "Would you mind holding a flash?"

Yeah, it's gonna be a pose down shot, but the look I'm going for this go'round is gonna be hard to get via "nitty gritty doc-journalism." Accept it.

So, after GP is done on the boulder and about ready to split, he asks if I still want to try to get the shot. (I'm not standing there looking at my watch or pressuring him to do this) I say, "Hell yeah man, I'm ready when you are."

The spotter takes his position behind the bush with my flash (with some direction), and I toss my shirt to GP. He poses the rose move, I crack off a frame, and it's done. "Damn, that was painless" they usually say. I run right over to share the image with both the climber and "the spotter". Moral is high and I just directed the image to exactly how I wanted it. The conversation usually leads into: "What else can we shoot today?"

Below is the final image and adjustments I made to the test frame.

- I cranked my Aperture to f8 to over-power the bright sky and the harsh sun hitting the boulders and ground. Thus, leaving myself a dramatic, slightly under-exposed canvas in which to pop some light onto the underbelly of the boulder.
- The Black shirt GP was wearing was switched for my lime green one. (Wore it just for this reason.)
- The spotter is gone from the frame, but playing a role by holding a single radio- fired SB800 speed-light behind the bush. I had to crank it to half power to compensate for the loss of light my F-stop choice was gonna bring in. I almost always shoot "profile" when using one flash, hard body shadows on the rock are a little "hoopty."
- I stepped back a few feet in order to rest the entire boulder in frame comfortably. I used a 10.5mm 2.8 Fisheye Lens and centered everything on a horizontal plane as to not "warp or fisheye" the edges of the frame too much.
- I stuck with the body position I liked, and had the spotter aim the flash through the climber's arms to try to light his face.

That's how it happened with a pinch of my 2 cents. And, don't take my job because I love it dearly. Cheers - A


Rob said...

Andy, thanks so much for sharing that! I like reading what the pro's are out there doing. I have so much to learn still. I spent most of last Sat hanging from a rope at Rincon trying to get some good shots.


Narc said...

Very cool, Andy. Thanks for sharing!

leif said...

nice work. the hint of flash at that angle is exactly what it needed, and brings eye-focus to the climber where it belongs. so if you were using the fisheye, you were super-close... amazingly un-distorted.

chuffer said...

very cool Andy!

Ricky said...

Great tips Andy, thanks for divulging!

Vanessa said...

As a fellow artist, it's great to read about your process. I always appreciate how chill you are when I go out with you and how you combine work and play so effortlessly. It was great to read about what's going thru your artist mind, keep it up A!

Jesse and Colleen said...

Your post reminds me of 'Anatomy of a Scene' ala the Sundance Channel. Brilliant, Thanks.

Mannphoto said...

Rad. I think I'll do more of these kinds of posts. Thanks for your support. Here's to ya!

Mr. J said...

Great tips! Thanks for the ideas; I'm headed to HP40 next week and want to fill my CF card with some awesome shots. Too bad I don't have a speedlight!

Alton G. Richardson said...

Hey Andy thank you for sharing how you interact around climbers that you don't really know. That was a great bit of information.

n8b said...

This is the second link google gave me when I searched out "how to take better bouldering photos". It should be the first. In one short post you gave me some great insight. Now I'm going to poke around and see if you've talked about off camera flash technique ;)

You have a talent for teaching, Thanks for sharing!