Bouldering is a form of rock climbing, performed without ropes, normally on very short climbs. And believe it or not, it shares many similarities with photography.
For one, you can participate in both on a scale of your choosing, from hobby to profession, have fun at any level, and achieve personal to professional goals while doing it. But in thinking about this seriously, I’ve recognized four important elements shared by both activities that we all can learn from: creativity, craft, endurance, and personal experience.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of bouldering is the creativity it inspires. The successful completion of a bouldering problem – “problem” being the vernacular used to describe a climbing route – calls upon your unique vision for what can be accomplished. In other words, two climbers of equal strength and experience may complete the same problem in distinct ways that represent their own beliefs, desires, and physical expression.
This applies equally to photography. A successful image almost always demands more than the simple act of taking a photograph. Two photographers of equal experience, standing amidst the same landscape, may (and hopefully we can agree should) create very different images. When taking a photograph, they do much more than press the shutter-release; they produce something representative of how they think, feel and see.
Photographers voice impassioned opinions about the role of craft in photography. The argument, the outcry, that I have observed is that craft alone doesn’t produce successful photographs. I can agree, but stop short of discounting craft as non-critical: without a masterful application of our tools – cameras, filters, lights, lenses, software – masterful creative expression cannot be achieved.
As a wilderness photographer, it’s easy for me to envision scenarios in which rapidly changing weather conditions impact the outcome of my photography. The mere presence of changing conditions creates the potential for a successful image, but the point is that an inability to definitively apply the tools at my disposal would limit or even eliminate this potential.
I’ve experienced this, and have both captured and lost images based on my ability (or lack thereof) to respond. Bryce Canyon Sunrise is an example of a moment when I rapidly utilized my camera and filters to capture swiftly changing conditions and create one of my most popular images.
White River Valley and Mount Rainier is another example (and one of the first photographs I “pre-visualized”). As with the Bryce Canyon photograph, I used tools in hand – camera, lens, and filters, in this case – to capture changing conditions and create a unique image that expresses the power and mystery of Mount Rainier, one of my favorite places on the planet.
Bouldering has its parallels to this. The shoes you wear are an example of a tool applied in order to climb. There are all sorts of shoe styles, but when it comes down to it, the climber’s ability to use the shoes effectively is what makes a bouldering problem achievable. The simple act of wearing them does not, just as the simple act of clicking a camera’s shutter-release does not necessarily create a successful photograph.
Climbers in the act of bouldering react to what they encounter through a sequence of body positions and balance shifts. Beyond the shoes, tools used to successfully complete a problem are the climber’s body, strength, and balance. This is arguably similar to how a photographer uses a camera, lens, filter or flash to address changing light, movement, and other factors. These examples all describe, in essence, craft.
Bouldering is difficult. Problems foil you. Repeatedly. It’s tiring and sometimes hard on your body. To achieve, to get stronger, to gain technique, when you fall from a problem you must get back on. You cannot quit. You work it until you’re successful.
It’s no different for photographers. To achieve, we work like mad, we evolve, and disallow unsuccessful photographs from foiling our resolve. If you’re meant for the craft, you endure…and practice and learn and refine.
A wise person whom I admire a great deal told me this: “Climbing is something I do for myself”.
Bouldering is a fun, social activity that’s physically and mentally challenging. And, when in the act, it is deeply personal. What you believe, what you want, what you feel – it comes out on the rock. And it’s also about what you take in, the experience you depart with: what you gain not as a climber, but as a human.
Photography is the same. As a practitioner of wilderness photography, a huge and enjoyable part of my practice is travel and exploration in wild places. And of course, creating an image is a deeply personal act of expression. But more rewarding has been what these places show me about myself – as a human, not as a photographer.
Hopefully, photography can or does mean something similar for you. Maybe you’re a climber or other type of athlete and can relate to the parallels described here. Perhaps you find these in other ways. Share your thoughts by leaving a comment!