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Monday, 17 December 2012

Back against the wall

Friend of mine is writing a book. I've turned out a couple of my own - nothing very impressive, just a couple of picture books - but I know what's it like. It's always a stressful process, what with deadlines looming and work avoidance tactics kicking in to try and distract away from the reality of actually having to produce the thing - just before Christmas too!


This book - it's not a novel or anything like that. It's about climbing walls. So naturally I volunteered to help out a little bit with some shots. I thought of it as a challenge, a chance to try out some ideas and see what could be done. It would definately involve off-camera flash, that was a given.

So I rounded up some camera-friendly contacts and headed down to the wall on a Saturday morning.

Here's an overview of what we are up against. This is the Lakeland Climbing Centre in Kendal, the UK's tallest wall ( I think). This place used to be the cooling tower of a creamery and is very high. Lots of natural ambient sunlight coming through those big windows.

My first thought was to use that big overhang with the window behind to create a silhouette and put an SB800 with a snoot on the top balcony to make some rim light behind the climber (my good friend Nick Wharton - a name British climbers of my generation might recognise from the 80's and 90's). As it turned out, that flash made a pretty convincing "sun' flaring from behind Nick's head. I threw up a couple of other speedlights on stands to fill in the walls as per the photo illustration above. Worked OK.

Next we went up on the top balcony and used some natural light to shoot Neil Cooper cruising the top moves from shadow into the light...Popped a fill flash (SB600 on a Justin clamp) to the camera right of the photo to add some light to the shadowed face. I liked the strong shadow/sun contrast which works well with the wacky colours you get on these indoor walls. That red T-shirt works well with the colour scheme too, don't you think? So many climbers wear black and grey these days - bring back the 1980's lycra I say - add a bit of colour to the photos.

We were pretty keen to get a fall shot. Neil was told he would be doing it. I don't think he was given any say in the matter. Apparently he's not too keen on falling off so this was supposed to be good for him! As it turned out he was almost too good at it - launching off into a mighty swing that came pretty close to hitting the opposite wall - but un-phazed he re-climbed for three massive lobs for the camera. Neil, we salute you!


I find "falling" shots particularly difficult. Somehow they rarely convey the right feeling or have much impact and I'm not really convinced about this one. Trouble is, the climber drops away from you so suddenly that you have to guess the pre-focus point and usually get only 1 or 2 useble shots from the drop. The climbers body and face expression is unpredictable and freeze frames don't generally convey anything in the way of motion, height exposure or speed. Maybe it needs some motion blur instead, or more of a side angle...anyone out there done this successfully? I'd love to see the result.

Anyway, back to the wall, we moved on to the bouldering rooms. Now these are the most fun for me. I get easy access, I can move around easily, put lights anywhere I damn well please and get climbers to do stupid moves they'd never do 20 meters off the deck. The colours look great and I can play around with the flash/ambient white balance and exposure balance to my little hearts content. Excellent. Honestly, I could have spent all day doing this - just playing with lighting and exposure, while these guys bouldered around and did their thing, falling off and getting back on.

In this shot, I used three speedlights. Number 1 was an old Nikon SB28 film flashgun, on a short stand shoved into a corner right at the back of the room. It's a bit "hot" actually with some over-exposed reflection on the back wall but hey, I was playing. Flash number 2 (Nikon SB600) is Justin-clamped to the floor mats below and behind the climber (Nick) and flash number 3, the SB800, is mounted ona stand and shot through a brolly to camera right. You may notice the slick use of colour-matched shorts and T-shirt to go with the wall decor! I'd like to boast that I think of everything but sadly not - it was pure coincidence. Good though.

The second bouldering room was tastefully turned out in green and yellow. Neil still had his red T so that would work great with green, but you see what I mean about the grey/black thing with Tim Whitely, my second victim? Anyway, I had some fun with the flash placements. Shall I give you a minute to de-construct the lighting - remember, the shadows will fall away from the flash - OK, times up.

For this one, I put the SB800 on  a stand at camera left, the SB600 clamped to a hold just behind Neil's (red T) right foot, pointing up and the SB28, on half power with a portable softbox, front diffuser panel removed, on a stand, shooting through the doorway towards Neil - causing the big climber shadow. I really liked the big shaft of light/shadow look of this light being thrown through the open doorway and I'm going to use this again in future.

Finaly, I wanted to get some shots of the Lakeland Climbing Centres' training room, which is more like some sort of torture chamber with soft mats! "Take Neil" they all shouted, "and make sure he takes his shirt off!" Err, right.

Turns out that Neil is something of a training fanatic on the finger boards and whatnot. This definately called for some lighting.

Immediately, I knew I was going to work with a rim light effect. I went with a speedlight on a short stand in the far left corner to accent the back wall because I wouldn't achieve a black background in here and an unlit "brown" background would look crap. Then I set up the SB800 on a stand directly into Neils chest. The last flash, the SB28 manual job, went on a stand with a shoot-thru brolly, just to camera left, low down to throw some "halloween" light up across Neils back and accent his considerable physique! I like the leg shadow on the right wall that this throws up.

Well, that's it. A pretty useful day out for me, learning a few things about lighting climbing walls and falling bodies! I guess a few of these shots will appear in the book when it sees the light of day and I hope they'll provide some creative inspiration for other climbing wall photographers. Many thanks to all the staff at the Lakeland Climbing Centre, particularly Kate Philips, without whom there would be no LCC and to Mark for his help on the day - and of course to the climbers, Nick, Tim and Neil who selflessly desported themselves to the amusement of onlookers...good day out.