The most essential part of your rack ? Your #5 Nut ? A #3 Flexi-friend or maybe a Hex. No. The most essential piece of kit is a camera. Long before the days of posting selfies on Facebook, capturing a moment on the big wall was what it was about.
Which camera ?
As the saying goes… the best camera is the one you have in your hands.
The journey begins in 1987. Pentax released the first automatic zoom point and shoot.
Unbelievably a few years later I received this as a present for a birthday. However there is no shot from the summit of Mont Blanc du Taccul (my first alpine adventure over 4000m), or camping on the Mer-du-Glace, or of the midi-plan traverse or even finally escaping the storm, fighting our way up the ridge to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi.
No camera = No photographs. The camera was heavy, or so I thought. Loaded down with a wild country expedition super quasar mountain tent, axes, crampons, two fresh baguettes, onions (just don’t ask) and a ton of nerves I stood in the campsite in Les Houches, I tried to pick up the rucsac packed for three nights and four days of super-alpine adventure. However, I couldn’t lift the bag. I opened it up, pulled out the heaviest thing I could grab and left it behind. Goodbye Pentax. Clearly a mistake.
The following year, a little older a little wiser, the camera came with me. Here is the view from the top of the Aigulle du Argentier. Not bad for a film point and shoot.
Moving into the mid nineties I started to get into proper photography and settled on an (old) second hand Olympus OM1N a SLR. (Single Lens Reflex). This was a serious camera. Three dials controlled everything : Shutter speed, Aperture and ISO (Sensitivity). Plus the option to purchase Zuiko prime lenses (this was the 90s… Zoom lenses were very poor). Black and white photography was the order of the day. Ilford 125 and HP400 were the preferred film choice and in a cupboard tucked away in the corner of a building in Manchester I developed film and processed prints.
The camera took a battering, but as a ‘professional’ camera it was built to withstand tougher stuff (allegedly Bonnington took three of these on his first British ascent of the North face of the Eiger in 1962.)
The shutter controls the amount of light that hits the film/sensor. Typically open for very short amounts of time, just a fraction of a second.
The first rule is ‘watch’ your shutter speed. Try to keep it above 1/30 of a second, slower shutter speed leads to camera shake and blurred photos. To freeze sports action you want to use a fast shutter speed e.g. 1/1000 of a second.
On a sunny day at the crag most photo’s can be a 1/250 – 1/500 of a second or even faster.
Aperture is the size of the Iris(hole) that the lens lets the light through to the film. F1.8 is considered a bright lens, a big hole, letting lots of light through, F1.2 is brighter still, but makes the lens larger, heavier and more expensive. Aperture affects image quality. A shot ‘wide open’ at F1.8 will generally be a little ‘soft’ not as sharp as the picture could be. SLR cameras used to get to optimal sharpness at around F5.6-F8, above this F11,f16… image quality sufferers due to diffraction. So rule of thumb, keep your aperture in the middle for quality. However watch your depth of field…
But still I didnt pay attention to my early lessons. Another year, another trip to Chamonix. Another year without a camera. By this time I was working in London and the camera, stolen or lost on the tube. Fortunately my climbing partner ‘borrowed’ a Canon AE1 from his university. This was made of similar stuff to the Olympus, but with a computer ! Set to Shutter priority mode, it would automatically calculate the aperture – oh the computing power. Still manual focus mind.
On the copy he obtained the computer was broken and so was the light meter. So we took a heavy SLR camera to the Alps with no light meter. Back in the days before ‘automatic cameras’ (Here Auto is referring to the light meter not the focus !) most camera film came with a ‘light chart’ on it.
So, following the instructions, we set the shutter speed to 1/250 of a second, on a bright day, sun reflecting off glorious snow covered peaks… I think F16 should do…
Depth of Field
So Why isnt every shot at F5.6-F8 if thats the best for quality of shot. The answer is depth of field, How much of your subject is in focus. The lower the F number the narrower the depth of field. Portrait photographers shoot at F1.8 to separate the subject from the background. In our field, landscapes, you want as much in focus as possible. No point putting that landsacape out of focus on the climbing shot, we want to show everyone how exposed the climbing is…. So here, move to the end of the middle range F8.
Film sensitivity to light is measured by ISO. ISO 200 is a ‘normal’ film, everyday good lighting conditions. When you wanted a high quality print, with no grain, you went for ISO 80. When the light was poor you could go for ISO 400. ISO400 films had a bit of grain. If ISO 400 wasn’t enough you could ‘push’ your film. This means setting the light meter to 800 or 1600, and effectively underexposing the film. Then when you come to develop the film in the chemicals you leave it for longer. The grain gets larger – leading to very grainy images.
After ‘losing’ the OM1N I sought out the next model, the OM2N. This one with its own version of ‘Auto exposure’, automatically setting the shutter speed as the aperture is adjusted by the operator. A simply beautiful camera. Tiny in comparison to the autofocus beasts from Canon and Nikon in the 90s (and modern digital cameras), albeit made out of solid metal this thing is heavy.
Light can be measured by its ‘Temperature’. Daylight is about 5500-6500K (degrees Kelvin). Old tungsten bulbs 2400K, LED lights 3000K.
Modern digital cameras have a white balance setting to adjust the scene so you get neutral pictures rather than an orange picture when under a tungsten light.
Auto white-balance. Makes the adjustments for you, but exploring the white balance settings helps you to adjust when the camera might get it wrong.
In the past the light meters looks for one thing. GREY. They tried to make every picture equally grey. Exposing for the highlights as well as the shadows. But sometimes your want to do something different.
Want to brighten up your photo add +0.5-1 stop of exposure. (This is a good tip to get white snow, as opposed to to grey snow scenes).
Want to make a moody photo, darken the image, remove 1-2 stops (see the Helvellyn picture below for an example)
Lets be honest though, the OM2N is heavy, bulky and a manual focus camera. Not climbing friendly. So I resisted to temptation and bought a camera considered by many to be the AK47 of climbing cameras. A small pocketable weatherproof mju.
However, this just didn’t cut the mustard. It was so bad that I took the first copy back. It overexposed everything (pale pictures). The second one was slightly better but still unreliable. Such a shame, the smallest camera ever with a great lens protector.
A better (more expensive) version : The Yashica T4.
For a brief period I tried a ‘bridge’ camera. The Olympus IS5000. This had a huge zoom range, and was fully automatic, i.e. auto-focus… no need to worry about poor eyes. The premise with this ebay purchase was simple, a ‘disposable’ camera. That can be turned on, pointed at a subject (climbing), will capture focus all while I’m belaying (safely) with my other hand on the ATC.
By 2012 Digital had arrived. I had skipped the ‘Autofocus film SLR’ stage and digital had seemed to settle on 6MP rated as enough for a decent picture. So the E410 with 10MP and a twin zoom lens kit, well that gots to be good.
The link to the past was obvious, the Olympus cameras, the heritage, but now came something new… sensor size and shape. 35Mm film is 36mmx24mm. That’s a lot of space, and back in 2000s it was nigh on impossible to have a digital sensor that large. So Nikon and Cannon created the APS-C sensor, a smaller more compact sensor for more affordable cameras. Olympus ignored the trend and created its own sensor size/ratio known as FourThirds (4:3 ratio). Smaller than 35mm it effectively doubles the magnification of lenses, so a 25mm 4:3 lens = 50mm standard lens. Making much smaller, lighter and cheaper camera equipment. Ideal for climbing !
After 5 years with the E410 at the end of 2016 it was time for an upgrade, but what to choose ? One of the faults of the E410 was over-exposure of the highlights, really lack of dynamic range, but it meant loss of detail. (Another was the losing the rubber eye-pieces that kept falling off !) I had decided I was going to leave Olympus. Canon and Nikon were out the question – they were still flogging digital SLRs and the APS-C cameras had really poor lens options. I had settled on Fuji (APS-C) or Lumix (4:3) but I was however struggling to choose between the XT1 and the G80. Both 16Mp cameras.
The Fuji was gorgeous. It felt like the old SLRs with shutter speed and exposure dials on the top…. But it was about 5 years behind the curve. The Lumix was on the other hand a modern masterpiece. 4K photo (it takes pictures before you press the shutter button!) , in-body stabilisation, 4K video, and a great wifi system to get pictures off the camera on sent on WhatsApp to the family within seconds of taking the photo. A decision was made. The G80 with a weather resistant 12-60(24-120)mm, a 14(28)mm f2.8 and a 20(40)mm f1.7.
The majority of my ‘climbing’ shots are with the G80 and the 28mm lens on it. This is though, bigger than It should be. The camera has a large grip, great for getting those ‘steady’ shots but is still bulky. It impacts my climbing. If I’m getting gripped it moves from the ‘over the shoulder’ always ready position to – ‘in the small rucsac’ which obviously is no good for shots. If I’m pushing the grade, the rucksack stays on the floor.
Some alternatives are..
… the Olympus OMD-EM5 (Mark II and now III). A classic robust weather-resistant enthusiast camera. Smaller than the G80 with no ‘grip’. However, painfully overpriced for the Mark III and the Mark II doesn’t have 4K movie mode. Worse of all, the on-off button is on the Left Hand Side. You cant operate this with one hand (you may now be able to re-assign the on-off button, but its then not the lever).
… or the cheaper Olympus OMD-EM10 (Mark III and now IV). The latter goes up to 20MP, these are not ‘robust’ or weather-resistant – but are a fraction of the price of the EM5. If you can get a good discount they are well worth an investment. (Especially as a twin lens kit with the 45-150).
.. or the more consumer orientated Fuji bodies. XT20 / XT30. All the power of the XT2 and 3 but not in a weather sealed body. unfortunately I found the eyepiece too small for use with my glasses.
.. or the more expensive Rich GR (Mark 1 or II) APS-C with a fixed 28mm prime in a tiny body (really the best climbing option – but oh so expensive and specific… almost impossible to pass the family member and then to explain it doesn’t have a zoom)
Now its 2021, four years on with the G80. How am I getting on ? The outer casing on the grip is slightly coming away from the frame (no sign of light leakes yet) but I’m not sure its weather resistant any more. What do I think, will I upgrade ? Change system ? maybe APS-C or full frame for better quality.
Some 2021 options
… the Lumix S5. Full frame. Not cheap and with those large lenses.
… the Fuji XS-10. All the best bits of the Fuji’ in a SLR style body, with image stabilization, a serious option to move to APS-C and access to those great lenses (unfortunately not weather resistant)
… the Nikon Z series or Canon RP…. Mmm Phase detect auto-focus but…
… the Lumix G9 M43 – massively discounted – yet still very expensive
… the Olympus OMD-EM1 (Mark II) … 20MP but it was released in 2016 !
… the Olympus OMD-EM1 (Mark III) … still 20MP and the price !
… the Sony a6000 series… or their full frame bodies…
Maybe, maybe not. One thing though, whenever I can, I take the camera with me, rain or shine.
If I point the camera at you, please just ignore me. 99.9% of the photo’s I take go nowhere, the remaining 0.1% that make it to the ‘good’ folder sit on my computer as memories, occasionally a few (0.001%) are deemed good enough and are WhatsApp’ed to the climber as a memento and printed and put in a scrap book that sits on a shelf for leafing through on a rainy day.
Some I print at home and if I thrust a dreadful quality A4 print into your hands and mumble something about having made a few prints would you like this…. Its ok if you dont want it… just nod and chuck it in the bin after I’ve left. I’ve still not won the Annual LMC photography competition, there seems to be some technical discussion on the merits of the inclusion of Rock-Climbing photos in the ‘Mountain’ category… but I’m not bitter.
So what’s the moral of the story ? Take a camera with you. Any camera. Get it accessible and snap away. If its a separate camera not your phone, you can give it to someone else and nudge em and say,
“Erm, excuse me, I’m about to climb this route, if you wouldn’t mind walking to the top of that cliff and waiting till I’m about half way up and then could you please take my picture, that’d be fantastic thanks”.
And then that’s it, immortalised forever, leading an HVS or a grade IV or even an Alpine ridge… then you can show it to your mates and say…
“Yeah at the weekends I go climbing… “
sounds a lot cooler than saying
“Yeah I read three or four in-depth technical camera reviews on the web almost every day,
but I can handle it, I’m in control, I could stop anytime I want.”
You got to the Appendix, you actually read the above and are now reading more. Remarkable, ok, here we go
Appendix 1.1 Andy Kirkpatrick
He knows a think or two about climbing cameras. Apparently he can climb as well.
Appendex 1.2 Tip’s from the PROs
This chap has used a variety of equipment, He started pro-phorography with the Canon 5d Mark III. To imagine that, pick up a pack of spuds (a large pack), attach them to a sling then throw it around your neck and then try and climb an E1. Nice camera mind… Then he moved to Full frame Sony mirrorless, a little smaller for the body but a full frame lens is still large regardless of the size of the body of the camera. Finally, for his own adventures and his own photographs – an Olympus OMD-EM5. There you go 4:3 wins the day.
Appendix 1.3 Digital Photography Review
Ok, this is the site. Be careful though its a trap. Soon you’ll be saying things like
“The updated Canon lens does a very good job with respect to the Chromatic Aberration across nearly the entire focal range. At 16mm you do see a bit of CA in the corners wide open, which persists as you stop the lens down, but overall the lens is very well behaved. “
really doesn’t go down well as a conversation piece at parties.
Appendix 1.4 35mmc
Digital too modern. Need to something a bit more retro. Film is where its at. Read about old cameras and all the joys they bring.
Appendix 1.5 Jimmy Chin
Want the best job in the world ? You’d do worse than follow this guy. Seen all those photos of Alex H in Yosemite ? Yep Jimmy took em.
Appendix 1.7 The one that got away : Nikon FM2N
Appendix 1.6 LMC Blog
What can I say. This is the place where its at. Modern climbing photo-journalism in all its glory.