Behind the camera

10 June, 2012
Alex Megos Killer F8b
Alex Megos pocket pulling on a Güllich Frankenjura classic, Killer (F8b), Schüttersmühler Wand. © Ray Wood
Alex Megos Killer F8b
Alex Megos pocket pulling on a Güllich Frankenjura classic, Killer (F8b), Schüttersmühler Wand. © Ray Wood

Rock climbing and mountaineering have a closer association with photography than most sports and it's one that dates back to the late 1800s. Climbers have always been keen to document their activity, be it a weekend at their local crag or longer trips overseas.

The advent of digital technology has made photography far more accessible than it was with film. 'Everyone is a photographer these days' is a common phrase; although how much thought and effort goes into it is of course down to the individual. We thought we'd ask professional snapper, Ray Wood, who documented our recent Frankenjura trip in stills and video, to briefly reflect on what goes on behind the camera and give some pointers on how we can get the most from our photography.

See With Your Head We say we see with our eyes but in reality it's the brain where the seeing occurs. Our eyes are only as useful as the thought process behind them. The f-stops and shutter speeds are cold mechanics that can be learnt anywhere.

Thinking story provides a personal framework for documenting any trip, project or event. A story can be done in some instances through one photograph or more often as a photo essay. One of the best ways to improve your photography is to get yourself a project that involves trying to tell a story. I also find it's better to think in terms of making rather than taking a photograph; what we leave out of the photo is as important as what we include.

Local Knowledge Visiting a location you're unfamiliar with can be disorientating both literally and in terms of photography. Not knowing your way around or the answers to considerations such as when crags are in the sun or if they are shaded by trees can all mean wasting valuable time.

In the Frankenjura for example, the dreaded enemy for a photographer, leaving the ticks aside, is the dappled forest sunlight with bright highlights and dark shadows. Expose for the highlights and the shadows show no detail while if you try to get detail in the shadows then the highlights will be blown-out. Using flash provides some salvation as does simply ensuring the crag isn't in the sun. Research before going on a trip can make a big difference, look at photos other people have taken to get a feel for an area and get plenty of local knowledge when you are there.

Less Can Be More Sometimes In 2008, when I picked up my first phone with a built-in camera, it was with the attitude that the camera wasn't likely to get much use as it wasn't a 'proper camera'. I was wrong. The simplicity and spontaneity of mobile photography I found to be a lot of fun and liberating. It's now an essential part of my toolkit: for useful photos in their own right, visual notes and social media. Admittedly, for action such cameras have limited use but for candid portraits and taking a photo without drawing attention to yourself they are great. Last year, a third prize in the Pictures of the Year International awards was won with a set of iPhone photos from Afghanistan for The New York Times.

Heiko Queitsch
Portrait of Heiko Queitsch taken and processed on the iPhone 4s. © Ray Wood
Heiko Queitsch
Portrait of Heiko Queitsch taken and processed on the iPhone 4s. © Ray Wood

If I was to give one piece of advice for people looking to improve their mobile snaps then get an app that crucially lets you separate out the exposure and focus. ProCamera is one of my favourites and I've recently started using 645 PRO that lets you save a relatively unprocessed version as a tiff alongside your jpg. For post processing on the phone Snapseed works a treat. The built-in camera on the phone was invaluable during DMM's Frankenjura trip in providing 'of the moment' updates through Twitter and Facebook.

Get Involved Some days it's all too easy to find an excuse to put off going out with the camera: the light isn't quite right, psyche is low and suddenly that unanswered email assumes an out of proportion importance. And although it may sound obvious, you'll never take a decent photo unless you are out there and getting involved. That old adage about 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration so often holds true. The consolation on less successful days is that at least you'll probably be taking a learning experience away with you.

Memory In many ways it could be said we photograph what we want to remember. Photographs definitely help us to not forget and I'm sure some of my memories would have never resurfaced without the aide-mémoire of a photo. I only really came to appreciate this fact with the perspective of looking back; something you don't normally do in your early twenties. And portraits is one area of photography where this is particularly true. So don't neglect to make the effort to get plenty of people shots and good portraits of your loved ones and climbing partners. Ten or twenty years later they'll be a lot more valuable to you than the day you took them.

The Future A lot of photographers and photojournalists nowadays are expected to produce video. Similar principles apply in terms of thinking of the story, exposure etc. but it's hard work to do both and virtually impossible to do both at the same time. Looking through a movie camera and seeing a good missed photo opportunity can be very frustrating. Being able to concentrate on one or the other is a luxury that commercial pressures don't always allow. In not so many years we'll probably only take moving images and simply be able to pull a high quality still from where ever we want on the timeline.

Stefan Glowacz dws comp Marmot Kletterfestival.
Stefan Glowacz against the clock in a 'deep water soloing' comp at Betzenstein swimming pool as part of the Marmot Kletterfestival. © Ray Wood