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How I Shot This Rock Climbing Photograph and Got a Lesson in Humility

How I Shot This Rock Climbing Photograph and Got a Lesson in Humility

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.

No good. Try again.

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.

Andy Day's picture

Andy Day is a British photographer and writer living in France. He began photographing parkour in 2003 and has been doing weird things in the city and elsewhere ever since. He's addicted to climbing and owns a fairly useless dog. He has an MA in Sociology & Photography which often makes him ponder what all of this really means.

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Excellent story and shot Andy! I am also a rock climber and photographer. I am consistently struggling with trying to find the ideal lens setup and method to carry it.

I'd love to find a method for attaching my camera to a harness during a mutlipitch or when jugging up a fixed line.

I've been using the 24-105 F4 G from Sony, but found myself really wanting the wider aperture for target separation and a faster shutter speed. The Sigma seems like the best option.

Hey Dylan. Glad you enjoyed it. 😊
I think the Sigma would be a good compromise, though obviously you'd lose a lot of zoom. I shoot the occasional competition and f/2.8 is absolutely crucial - climbing gyms are not the brightest places! I'll be showing some shots from a recent comp in Belgium and the SIgma did an excellent job - keep an eye out.😊

Hey, I'm originally from Belgium, where was the competition ?

Fun comp for the launch of the new gym in Kortrijk - https://blackboxboulder.be/ 😊 (It's amazing!)

Looking forward to them! I've shot a few comps in the past and the lighting and positioning can be a real challenge. Always look forward to your articles!

"The final shot — straight out of camera and after editing."

I'm not sure it's SOOC if it's edited. Cool article, though.

There's two shots in that last gallery - the left is SOOC, the right is edited (may look different on handheld devices). I'll tweak the caption to make it clearer. 😊

And thanks. 😊 🙏🏻


Great picture, taking in account the background, the climber, and her place in the landscape. You achieved a nice balance between the elements, congrats !
Also as a climber, I'd love to hear more of this kind of stories. Thanks for sharing yours !

I don't understand the title of this article. You were doing something and your wife told you that you were doing it wrong. How long have you been married?

Guilty as charged.

I love a bit of Vignette too.

Glad it's not just me. Of course, now all I can see in every single image is the vignette. 🤦🏻‍♂️😂

Nice! Did you frame with the final 5x4 crop in mind, or was that a decision you made after the fact?

The 5x4 crop was in mind, though not essential (would have been quite severe on my first attempt at this set-up). I might yet change my mind!

A well written article, thank you. Quite some vignetting you added to the images. A touch too much for my taste, if I am allowed to comment. Have you been here in Switzerland just recently? How were the nights? Not a bit cold? DIdn't she get numb fingers climbing the cold rocks?
There are many more great locations to boulder than just a handful, btw. We used the phrase "to boulder" in the eighties already. I think we got inspired by the C64 game "Boulder Dash". There were no crash pads back then. We kept the bouldering very low to the ground and moved sidewards instead of going up.

Hey Jan,

I think you're right about the vignette. I often go a bit heavy with my initial edits and then dial it back a bit. Seems that I need to do the same with this one!

The nights were cold! Fortunately, the days were relatively warm. We took big gloves with us. 😁

And yes, plenty more bouldering in Switzerland - if not an infinite amount! The major attractions for climbers are Magic Wood (ie, Ausserferrera), Cresciano, Chironico, and Brione.

I live in Fontainebleau so I have some familiarity with its history. 😊 We often go and climb some of the traverses established by the likes of Jo Montchausse. 😁

Just to make sure I understand, this was more of a personal trip than a paid assignment, right?

That is correct.

Beautiful story, setting, and photos! Excited to see the article on the editing process behind it.

Why not just take a variety of landscape shots at different f/stops and positions first, before the climb? Then you'll know exactly where to set up. It's what I do for surfing all the time. You could even do a composite if it tickles your editing fancy

I shot a few but there weren't exactly many positions in which to place myself which didn't involve being submerged in fast-flowing near-freezing water. 😂

You need to come round my place and see my collection of fishing boots and wellies😂😂

Ha! I'm up for it. 😁