Snow and ice climbing photography

Winter is only around the corner and already climbers are getting into fitness for desperate mixed lines . But what about the photographers ? Getting good shots in the winter climbing season can be challenging, spindrift, sub zero conditions and poor light can all conspire against you but here are a few pointers to keep you happy and getting images that you can be proud of . Often , routes are going to be on North or NW /NE faces , therefore in the shade with little or no direct sunlight for much of the day .Some routes may get the odd hour or so but routes that have prolonged periods in the sun have risks of avalanche and poor ice. The first thing you can do to stack the odds in your favour for getting  images that stand out is to make sure your climbing partners are wearing bright clothes , not just a red jacket but if possible bright trousers, bright beanie, and bright framed sunglasses. It all helps to give the climber some pop in the image and to see all their limbs clearly against dark rock or shadows


Colin Peck in bright plumage

If there’s just 2 of you climbing, getting bumshots or head shots of your partner leading or seconding isn’t inspiring . Try and get to one side of the line ( and get out of the way of falling ice) and  give some idea of the steepness of the route and also the environment you’re in. If you’re using a wide angle lens this can make steep routes look slabby so you have to be careful to keep vertical lines vertical as 17-24 mm focal length will converge your verticals . One trick you can use is to always keep the climber facing the edge of the frame that they’re closest to rather than having their back to the edge of the frame. Using this trick , you can even make a grade III ice route look steep and gnarly


Derek Bain heading up and across to Jubilation , Ben nevis

If you’re lucky , you may be climbing on a route across from another team and you can shoot down and or  across ( great with a long lens and shallow depth of field)  or up and across at the other team .


Shooting across to another party on an alternate line on Stella Artice WI5 , Cogne

If you’re shooting into the sun , I try and use f16 to give a nice tight starburst , you just need to make sure your iso is high enough to give a decent shutter speed , how high you can push your iso will depend on your camera and some cameras are better than others at handling noise so experiment with your camera and see what your images look like at 800-1600 iso .


Body position is important in conveying a sense of drama to the shot and getting an axe raised in the air creates a sense of anticipated motion  in the frame. I prefer to have the arm furthest away from me raised so the face isn’t obscured by the arm closest to the camera. If the climber is strong and confident and on good ice you can direct things a bit i.e. move the leg out a bit to the side , lift the right arm etc but if they’re on something really sketchy I just keep schtum and get what I can . Ideally you want to try and get 3 of the 4 limbs in shot and a face in full or in profile. Shots of the top of a helmet aren’t always the most inspiring ( unless it has a sponsors logo on it !)


Kev logo’d up to the helmet

Using flash on camera can help to give an extra dimension to your images, especially when you’re shooting against a bright background. Experiment with the pop up flash on your camera but be careful if the climber is close to the camera as it can wash out the image. I carry a canon 580 exii which is more weight for sure but if its only a 3-4 pitch route then it can really help get the image. If I’m ice cragging then I’d also take a couple of wireless triggers to get the flash off the camera and just gives a lot more creative potential. Lighting up ice or rock features helps bring images alive with the blue colour of the ice adding depth to the shot



In this image I used a single off camera speedlite on full power to light up the walls of the cave at Sombr  Heroes, WI5 , Ceillac

But dont just get the camera out when you’re climbing . There’s great diffuse light in gullies and the snow is a massive reflector that fashion photographers would die for as it eliminates a lot of the shadows and gives lovely soft light for portraits . When the conditions are starting to get ‘interesting’ is when you should keep the camera close ._MG_0420-Edit-Edit

Some of my favourite images come from when we’re back at the hut and the climbing is over . These can really help to set the climbing in context and shots of  boots around the fireplace, shots from outside of someone cooking their dinner or a still life all help to bring variety to what can otherwise be a very samey shoot and add different emotional textures to the set of images .


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Photography is all about the light and in the winter months we’re blessed with amazing light sometimes on the descents or walking in . I’m always looking for where the best light is and is there a way I can bring that into my images . It may be after the climbing is done , but  try and read whats happening with the conditions  and anticipate where the drama in the scene is going to be.



An important aspect of directing the viewer is looking for lead in lines to direct the  to the main subject . Lead ins can come from anything , shadows , icicles , spindrift . Its just a matter of thinking of all the elements that are going on around you and how you can use all these things to draw the viwer in to the main subject.

In the images below I’ve used icicles to lead in to the climbers and sustrugi to lead in to the group of walkers. In the image above I’ve used the lines of the ridge and rocks to lead to the climber descending down Ben Nevis

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So there we have it , a few musings about winter climbing photography, if you found it interesting then please leave a comment . Happy shooting and stay safe .