English Version of
Dean Fleming Interview
(Climbing Photography #1)

We are starting a new interview series, where we are talking to climbing photographers of all levels, professionals, amateurs, beginners and experienced camera artists. The series kicks off with Dean Fleming, self proclaimed ambitiously advanced photographer and really experienced climber from Sonora, California.

He publishes in a couple of magazines and displays part of his awesome work on his Blog, www.deanfleming.wordpress.com

Dean sent us some impressive pictures, make sure to check them out in the later part of the interview.  

Dear Dean! First of all, a big thank you for giving us this interview and revealing a lot of your secrets for taking awesome climbing pictures! Could you please introduce yourself to our readers? I’m 26 years old and for the last 15 years I’ve spent about 250 days each year climbing rocks. At this point, you would think I’d be better at it! Since climbing took over my life at an early age, I’ve had an opportunity to see the sport go through some major changes and I’ve obsessed over climbing photographs and articles for as long as I can remember. I currently work as a freelance writer and photographer in the small town of Sonora California, most consistently as an adventure columnist for the Sierra Lodestar and also as a freelance contributor to Climbing Magazine, Sierra Seasons Magazine, the Union Democrat and the Sierra Mountain Times. Additionally, I work as a seasonal climbing guide at Smith Rock State Park for First Ascent Climbing Services and as the rigging/safety supervisor for the rough terrain construction company Mountain Methods Inc based out of Tuolumne California. I also do some freelance rigging for photography and films (most recently, a commercial for Mad Rock Climbing Equipment in Yosemite National Park).  

On a scale from one (amateur) to ten (professional), where would you place yourself as a photographer? How much time do you spend taking pictures/climbing pictures? On a scale from one to ten… I would probably rate myself around a four. I take pictures nearly every day – and I do so for professional purposes – but I am no where near the level I hope to be someday. If I compare myself to truly professional climbing photographers (which I try not to) I think of people like Jerry Dodrill – who has mastered the digital camera to a point that is so remarkable it is practically incomprehensible to my novice brain, or Jim Thornburg – who has published more magazine cover shots than I have newspaper photos… in the grand scheme of things I’m a pretty small fish.  

On a scale from one (amateur) to ten (professional), where would you place yourself as a climber/boulderer? How much are you/were climbing? Now here’s a scale I can get on board with! From one to ten… at least an 8- but if you’re giving out A’s for effort, I’m a 9+. I am by no means the strongest or most talented rock climber around, in fact, there are probably a few stronger and more talented climbers in the coffee shop where I’m writing this interview; but I have been climbing consistently for 15 years which has given me great experience and knowledge of the sport. I became certified by the American Mountain Guides Association at the age of 19 and have worked as a professional climbing guide for 7 years. I have experience with rigging and have supervised rigging work for some industry films as well as major hazardous terrain construction jobs involving helicopter operations and high-angle rope systems. Aside from maintaining a semi-professional carrier as a rock climber, I am absolutely obsessed with the sport and try to climb as much as my body will allow. My favorite areas are mostly scattered along the Highway that passes through my hometown of Sonora California, more specifically, an area called Burst Rock where I have been developing new routes for the last 4 seasons. In my opinion, Burst has some of the finest alpine granite around and the views can’t be beat.  

How did you get hooked on climbing and photography? What came first, what is currently taking up the bigger part of your life? Climbing definitely came first and I have been hooked on it for as long as I can remember. I’ve wanted to be something between Indian Jones and a Ninja since I was 3 years old; rock climbing seemed like an obvious choice. I studied Earth Science (primarily geology) in college, yet fell into writing and photography while working on a guidebook to a limestone bouldering area near my home town of Sonora. This book “Columbia Bouldering” opened some doors for me publicly and influentially. Within a year of printing the guidebook my photographs had been published in international magazines and various local newspapers. I also started writing and shooting photos for a weekly outdoor adventure column titled “Light on the Path” in the Sierra Lodestar which has now published in over 50 editions. I still climb at least 3 days a week, but it’s rare to squeeze in a day of climbing where I don’t pack the camera.

What equipment are you currently using for your photography? Are there any special kind of items (things put out of use -any “McGyvers”, inherited gear, things you use for years, some sort of “good luck charm”….) I use a relatively cheap camera (Canon t2i) but never compromise on lenses – usually opting for more expensive L quality glass. Shooting outside 100 percent of the time a polarized filter is practically fixed to all my lenses and neutral density / graduated neutral density filters are always in the bag. I haven’t rigged up anything spectacular for still shots, but for shooting video I did create a dolly out of a PVC pipe and a block of wood. It can be a little shaky but does the job if you have a steady hand.

How would you describe your style of photography? I try not to have a particular style in mind when shooting new locations because each climb has more than one great angle and crop. I want to be open to lots of possibilities and let my instincts grab at every option; however, I love large landscapes where the climber is not the main focus of the shot and I often gravitate towards that style. I feel that the spectacular locations climbing brings us are just as (if not more) important than the climbing itself. I try to capture as much of the scene as I can and therefore, have something of a wide-angle fetish (See Picture 1).

Bild 1: Dean Fleming als Weitwinkelfetischist

Picture 1: Dean Fleming as a wide-angle fetishist

 

Is there a climbing-picture that is your favourite (and why?) ? Is there a picture you took with a special kind of story attached to it? Absolutely: I shot a photo of Hayley Brown climbing The Arch at Panther Beach in Santa Cruz California. The photograph is really neat as it is; a pretty nice silhouetted shot of a great body position on a spectacular feature; however, if you zoom in close enough on Hayley, you can see the fin of a shark coming out of the ocean just underneath the arch of her back. Most people would never look close enough to catch that, but for me it makes the photo my favorite (See picture # 2).

Klick to enlarge and see the shark!

Picture 2: Klick to enlarge and see the shark!

 

What is the biggest technical effort you took to take a picture? Surprisingly, the biggest technical effort I’ve put into a photo was on a single pitch sport climb. In order to get the lighting and angle just right, I lead up a hard route to the left of the climb with my camera attached – then hung out in space for nearly an hour waiting for the light to change in my favor. I knew the crop I wanted, but the space I had was very limited and the climb was tucked back into a corner. I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to get the climber in the frame with the background that I wanted. With the last light of the day fading quickly, I opted to shoot 7 portrait orientation photos in a panoramic fashion (without a tripod) and then hopefully stitch those pictures together in photo shop. It worked great and I came away with a wonderful shot (See photo 3).

Picture 3: A little bit of Stitchin helped here...

Picture 3: A little bit of stitching helped here...

 

How much do you work on your pictures after taking the shot? Maybe you can show us a „before/after“ example? In the realm of modern digital photography, I do very little in post production. Most of the time photo shop consists of simply sharpening, saturating color, tuning white balance and possibly cropping out any out-of-focus or detracting elements. It typically takes me one to three minutes to finalize a picture and convert it to JPG (See pictures 4 and 5 for a comparison).

Picture 4: before photoshop

Picture 4: before photoshop

To make this image I tuned white balance towards a slight yellow tint, cranked sharpness as far as RAW format allows, did the same on saturation and then cropped out a small out-of-focus Joshua Tree on the left portion of the frame.

Picture 5: after photoshop

Picture 5: after photoshop

 

Shutter=1/400 Apt=5.0 ISO=100 with a polarized filter.

What are you doing with your pictures/climbing photography? Most of the time I shoot locations and climbs that I think will be aesthetically pleasing and unusual – largely just for fun – then later on I decide where to submit them. The best photos I have created, I’ve taken before the idea of submission. I do shoot regularly for my column and monthly features in the Sierra Lodestar, but if I come away with something spectacular I’ll run it by Climbing Magazine for use in their Gallery section. That said, when I get an idea for a magazine article I will also shoot specific photos that support the written content.

In my experience, the typical climbing pictures of „newbees“ all have the same common „ass on rocks“ style. What would you tell

A) a newbee

B) intermediate

C) professional

photographer to take better pictures? Any tipps, experiences you would like to share without giving your secrets away (or even giving some secrets)?

A) For the newbees. Getting higher off the ground usually produces better climbing pictures and nearly eliminates the “butt shot.” While I have taken some of my best shots from the ground, a perspective that shows the exposure of the climber’s position and the climbers face (either top-down or from the side) will typically yield better images.

B) For the intermediate photographer. There are many “rules” I have established over the last few years, but not all of them apply to every situation and there are obviously amazing images that break all the rules. In fact, one of my “rules” is: Be willing to break the rules! Never-the-less, here are some helpful tips:

1. If the climber is a major part of the frame, it is very important to see the climber’s eyes (or at least understand the object of the climber’s focus. Example: It is obvious the climber is looking at a foothold or handhold). This is hard when the climber is very far away in a huge landscape. To start, when the climber looks in your direction – start snapping shots as fast as you can.

2. Carry bright colored shirts in your pack and make your subject (climber) wear them if their clothing is dull. This is HUGE.

3. This is something I need to work on myself: Try to get someone to climb the route or boulder problem at least once before you set up to shoot it. I like to view the route without the stress of shooting and watch for the most spectacular move or location – then set up with that section in mind. Notice which direction the climber is facing/looking so you can capture the eyes during that move. Remember, the crux move isn’t always the most aesthetically pleasing move or position on the route.

4. Don’t be afraid to direct the climber! This can be weird, especially if you’re shooting a route that is difficult for the climber. In that case, shut up and let them climb; but if you’re shooting something within the climber’s ability and you have the time, suggest movements and body positions. Additionally, if you don’t get the shot, don’t be afraid to ask them to climb the route again.

C) For professionals, you’re probably already better off than I am! But if you haven’t used a graduated neutral density filter for evening skylines on bright landscape shots or on sharp arêtes I would suggest looking into it.

Your “Famous last words” to our readers: They say if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life… well it’s not exactly true, but at least you can go home at the end of the day and be stoked you’re doing what you truly enjoy and be proud of it. I suppose, to anyone interested in getting into climbing photography, knowing how to work a camera is a great start, but learning how to climb – simply immersing yourself in the sport, learning the culture, history and technical aspects (ropes and systems) will by far create the most helpful tools to get you amazing climbing images. And to everyone who has given me advice or encouragement and helped me start my still-barely-making-it career: Thank you so much!

 

And thank you Dean, for freely sharing your insights and stories! It was a memorable start of our interview series with climbing photographers of all levels. And to our readers, if you want to comment Deans insights, feel free to do so below:

Category: Interview, Kletterfotografie

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