I recently returned from 10 days of camping in the Swiss mountains, having just taken one of my favorite climbing images. As is often the case, it was another lesson in humility: sometimes, you need the person in your photograph to tell you what you’re doing wrong. Here’s how it came about.
Hardcore fans of climbing will know that there’s a handful of valleys in Switzerland that contains some of the best bouldering (low-level climbing without ropes) in the world. People travel from across the globe to lose skin on some very demanding test pieces.
I traveled with climber Zofia Reych (conveniently, she’s also my wife) to live in a tent for a week or two in the tiny village of Brione, nestled deep in the Verzasca Valley. We were there to climb hard, read by the campfire, and try not to freeze each night in our rather small tent thanks to hot water bottles and multiple sleeping bags. In addition, we wanted to shoot some photographs of her for personal use, to give back to the various companies that support her, and to field test the new Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 for Sony full-frame cameras (review to follow shortly).
Within a half-hour walk of Brione, there is endless rock. Angular boulders sculpted by tectonic shifts during the Oligocene and Miocene epochs litter the sides of the valley, creating difficult, steep terrain and excellent bouldering. The sharp edges and brutally coarse surfaces are not kind to the skin on your fingertips, however.
By contrast, the rocks that have sat in the river for millions of years have become quite smooth. As a result, the boulders scattered along the riverbed and on the river’s banks are often beautifully polished by the fast-flowing water and feature remarkable textures produced by years of erosion.
Most of our trip was spent attempting climbs that were at our physical limit, often setting up under a specific boulder for hours at a time. Opportunities for photographs were limited, not helped by the fact that, rather frustratingly, there is no golden hour in this steep-sided valley. The sun hit our tent each morning a little after 9 am, and the valley returned to shadow not long before 3 pm. For the first week, we had nothing but crisp, sunny days, and the valley was deep shadows contrasted by strikingly bright mountaintops. Occasionally, this can work to your advantage, as the rock radiates light much like a giant reflector. However, the right rock radiating the right light in the right place at the right time is hard to find. Often, it’s a dark foreground with a bright background.
By luck, on the day that we decided to go and play on an easy boulder nestled in the river, conditions were wonderfully gloomy. A slowly shifting mist partially obscured the peaks, and the harsh shadows of the midday sun were eliminated by a layer of cloud. This was our window.
No other boulder in the valley was so well placed, with its incredible orange seams, and ideal angle for climbing that allowed me to frame the mountain in the background. I knew that this shot could bring together lots of different elements that can often be tough to combine: the stunning vista, the fast-running river, the beauty of the rock’s texture, and the movement of an athlete — notably a female athlete — looking both vulnerable against the harsh texture of the boulder but absolutely in control through her experience as a climber.
The boulder problem (i.e., a recognized, graded climb) that Zofia was ascending is relatively easy — unless you’re short. It was still well within her abilities, but the climb left her quite stretched on poor footholds before she could reach the good hold at the top, and the thought of coming off was slightly intimidating. There’s a portable crash pad underneath her, but the rocks below are very uneven, and unexpected falls can be difficult to control.
Zofia figured out her method while I spotted her in case she fell. I then had to choose my position and figured out two possibilities, with the river and the rocks making my choice somewhat limited. Had it not been February, I might have stood in the river, but given the temperatures, the slippery rocks, the fast-flowing water, and the fact that I was shooting on a lens that wasn't mine, I thought it best to stay dry.
Zofia did the climb three times in total: once in her coat with me underneath to catch any fall, then twice in clothing that made for a better photograph. After her second ascent and my first attempt at photographing, we checked the images. Zofia’s immediate reaction was that she was too close to the edge of the frame, and I agreed, having already wondered if my other choice of location and composition might not be the best option. As well as her being poorly placed in the shot, I didn't feel as though I was doing justice to the landscape.
Much of my photography is achieved through collaboration with an athlete, and it’s not unusual for them to know what makes a good photo. Zofia was right: I'd shot from the wrong place. Zofia said she only wanted to climb the rock once more, so I moved position and set up for what would have to be the perfect photograph.
My lens of choice was the new Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8, currently on loan for review purposes. As a Sony a7 III owner who’s pondering which standard f/2.8 zoom to purchase (this has been and will continue to be a very long process, unfortunately), I’ve been pondering the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8, but was always concerned that I’d miss the 4mm at the wider end. Having borrowed the 24-70mm over the last month, this confirmed my fear: I need that extra width, and sadly, the extra money that goes with it.
This lens is sharp and incredibly versatile and as my review will discuss in detail, sits nicely between the compromised but affordable Tamron and the heavier, more expensive Sony GM. Carrying this lump around was a bit of a chore, especially when trekking with several large crash pads, a day’s worth of food and water and extra clothing given that temperatures were typically hovering around freezing.
Choosing an aperture was a bit of a conundrum. Often, when I shoot parkour, I like having a lot of depth of field, and an aperture of around f/5.6 with a wide-angle lens gives my work an architectural feel. All but standing in a river, this definitely wasn’t architecture, and I’m definitely not a landscape photographer. At 24mm, I opted for f/4, wanting to very slightly soften the mountain in the background and the boulders in the foreground so they didn’t drag the eye away from the climber, but without losing much of the detail. I think in the end, it was a good compromise.
I’ve come to trust the metering and the EVF on my a7, often shooting in aperture priority. On this occasion, I used it as a guide while setting up, switching to manual and keeping a close eye on the histogram while Zofia was climbing. The latitude within the shot was quite low, giving a histogram that had lots of peaks sitting pleasantly in the middle, making me confident that I was achieving a very even exposure that would give me lots of flexibility in post.
Zofia climbed, and we got the shot that we were both after. If people are interested, I’ll follow this up with another article that explains my editing process, though I might yet make some changes. If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below.
Zofia is supported by Barrabes Ski & Mountain, Friction Labs, Alpkit, and Sublime Climbing.