For Chris Prescott, climbing started out as a hobby. Then he picked up a camera to document it, and discovered a whole new passion. Here, he talks extreme conditions, how to travel light and the importance of being able to shoot at 12 frames per second
How did you get started in photography?
My background is in sound engineering. I started in the music industry, then ended up helping out a few friends with sound for films. At that stage, I hadn’t really considered the photography side of it much, and had only picked up a camera a few times. Being around a lot of camera gear helped spark an interest in me, and I first started taking photos to document my climbing trips. Everything grew from there. I’d been interested in the outdoors since I was a child, and most of my time growing up was spent outside exploring and getting into trouble. It progressed into hillwalking and mountain biking, and then climbing and going on expeditions. It wasn’t until I’d been climbing for a few years that I first picked up a camera.
What drew you to the sports you participate in?
I’m predominantly a climber, mountaineer and skier, although I also bike and kayak when I get the chance. I was attracted to these sports as they allowed me to get into the outdoors and to places I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to experience. I was also fascinated by the history of climbing, and as an avid reader I used to read a lot of stories about the early days of the sport and the exploits of the pioneers. It’s one of the few sports where you can experience the exact same locations and climbs as described by your heroes, and this was a particularly big draw for me. It would be like a fan of Manchester United being able to play at Old Trafford whenever they wanted!
How did you start out photographing these sports?
CP I first started shooting them with a small compact camera, which I’d keep in my pocket and occasionally get out and shoot with when I got the chance. It cost me a handful of lira in Italy and took pretty poor photos. I made lots of mistakes and many of the images I shot were terrible, but it gave me a good basis in learning about composition. I then saved up for about six months and bought my first DSLR, which really changed things for me. It wasn’t only about the massive improvement in quality, but also the flexibility of manual mode and the creative possibilities it provided. Although not related to action sports, I think a standout image for me was one I took within an hour of owning the camera, when I shot a photograph of light coming through the trees in a park called The Meadows in central Edinburgh. The quality of the image as well as the luck of being in the right location at the right moment was a big drive for me to carry on taking photographs.
How did you go from photographing simple records of what you saw to creating strong, standalone images in their own right?
The transition probably happened when I switched from taking photographs while participating in the sport to going along purely with the intention of taking photos. This really gives you the flexibility and focus needed to achieve high-quality images, as well as letting you get into the best possible position for capturing the action, as opposed to where you would want to be if you were participating.
How do you prepare for a shoot?
Logistics are a big part of it and I try to spend as much time as I can in pre-production organising as much as possible while still maintaining some flexibility. This is always important in order to take into account unforeseen factors that might arise on the day. I usually have a conversation with the person who will be acting as the subject in the images and we go over what the goal of the shoot is, what the expectations are and any concerns either of us may have. Once this has taken place, I’ll tailor the equipment for the shoot based on this discussion. For example, if the location requires a long approach or is difficult to reach, I’ll reduce the amount of equipment I’m carrying to allow me to go fast and light.
What are your favourite conditions?
It may sound odd, but I really enjoy shooting in challenging conditions, especially in poor weather and difficult to access positions where you wouldn’t usually be inclined to get the camera out. Although they can be tough at the time, they often lead to the most interesting and stand-out images, as the viewer can often get a sense of what it would have been like to be in that position.
How did you settle upon your camera system?
My kit has evolved through a lot of trial and error, especially by lugging useless gear up hills and never actually using it. After a while, you start to realise what you need and what you don’t, and streamline the equipment accordingly. One of the biggest mistakes a lot of photographers make is overdoing the lenses. When shooting action sports in difficult and hard-to-reach locations, you want to switch lenses as infrequently as possible while maintaining as much flexibility as you can in terms of composition and framing. Lenses are also heavy, so carrying as few as possible in the mountains is beneficial. It’s a fine balance between having enough equipment to achieve the images you want while not having so much that you spend all your time fumbling with kit when you should be shooting. In the future, I may switch to a mirrorless setup, as the cameras are so light, although at the moment I’m too attached to my DSLR to make the change.
How does camera technology help you achieve the shots you want to take?
Camera technology is pretty vital. Although I’d like to say I could shoot the same images on a film camera, this isn’t really the case. The ability to be able to shoot an action sequence at 12fps and then choose the best image in terms of subject composition is a big part of my work process. Often, people’s movements in action sports are very fast, and a subtle change in their limb or head position can entirely change the feel of an image. This is something that wouldn’t be possible to capture without high frame rates and fast buffers.
Do you set your camera up in a particular way for a shoot?
I always shoot in manual mode and adjust aperture, ISO and shutter speed based on the subject and style I’m looking for. With a lot of action sports, the aim is to freeze the subject in the frame, so a fast shutter speed is needed, although this can often be difficult to achieve in low-light situations. To combat this, I predominantly use wide-aperture (f/2.8) lenses and a DSLR capable of producing low noise at higher ISO settings. I also shoot with a neutral camera profile to allow more flexibility in post-processing.
What are the most important pieces of kit in your camera bag?
A lot of what I shoot is in difficult–to–access locations where just getting there is a big part of the challenge, never mind all the camera gear required. Before every shoot, I assess the location and requirements and pack my camera gear accordingly. For me, the most vital pieces of equipment are a standard range zoom lens (Canon 24-70mm f/2.8), a super wide angle (Canon 14mm f/2.8 or Canon 16-35 f/2.8) and soft neutral-density grads to balance exposures. The filters come in particularly useful when shooting climbing on shaded north-facing mountains where the subject is often dark while the background is brightly lit. One of the most important factors when packing is not to take anything superfluous, which also includes excessive cases or protective gear. From experience, most camera gear is pretty robust and able to take a bit of a beating. It’s easy to get a bit precious about expensive equipment, but at the end of the day it’s a tool designed to do a job, and it’s far better for it to be out and being used rather than packed away in a camera case in the bottom of your bag where you risk missing a shot.
To what extent can you control a shoot?
It really depends on the sport and the situation, especially how dangerous it is. With things like biking it’s generally easy enough to get the subject to repeat a certain movement and sequence until you have the shot. In other situations, where the movement is challenging or there is a high risk of injury or death, you have to act more as a spectator and simply capture the moment as best you can. Although this is a more challenging way to shoot, it also often leads to the best images, as the small differences in facial expression and body tension or movement appear more genuine and real.
What have been your most memorable moments?
Shooting photos for Cut Media’s The Ridge on the Isle of Skye in 2014 has to be one of the most memorable. The combination of great talent and good weather (a real rarity in Scotland!) made for a special shoot. Particularly memorable was the day shooting on the Inaccessible Pinnacle, which required a 3am start and was a gamble with weather and logistics that paid off in the end.
What are the trickiest sports to photograph?
Every sport has its difficulties, but shooting winter climbing and mountaineering is probably the biggest challenge, as the combination of intense cold and poor weather makes it difficult enough to look after yourself, never mind taking good photographs as well. A lot of camera dials and buttons are almost impossible to use while wearing thick gloves, so numb fingers and hands are to be expected. It’s also tough to keep the snow and ice away from the lens (especially when it’s windy), so a constant supply of lens cloths is a must.
Does the element of risk mean you have to stick with your photographic plans, or can you be spontaneous?
Although in a lot of situations I try and plan out roughly what we’re going to shoot, often the best moments are spontaneous. I try to keep my camera as close to hand as possible throughout the day and shoot anything and everything, even if it isn’t the main focus. I’ve been on lots of shoots where we’ll have finished for the day and then, on the way back, the light will change or I’ll spot a particular composition that works – they often lead to some of the best images.
Have there been any hair-raising moments?
Quite a few! When shooting climbing, I spend a lot of time hanging on a rope and I’ve had a couple of close calls with ropes being damaged by sharp edges, which can be pretty scary when you’re a long way up. Shooting in winter can also be pretty interesting, with the added risk of avalanches.
To what extent can you predict your results when you’re shooting?
Because nearly everything I shoot is outdoors, it’s often very difficult to predict results, as a huge part of it is dictated by the weather and lighting conditions. Sometimes you’ll go out to shoot a particular objective, which won’t work out because of the weather or light and other times the opposite will happen and you get lucky. I can usually tell once a photo has been taken whether it’s going to be a stand-out image from a day. These are usually the ones I go to first when post-processing.
At what point did you realise you could make a living out of your passion?
I’m not really sure when it happened exactly as it turned out to be a fairly gradual process. I hadn’t really thought it would be possible to combine the two for a long time and I used to take pictures as more of a hobby. I started doing some work for Hot Aches Productions, a film production company based in Edinburgh that makes films about climbing, and this gave me motivation to pursue it as a way of making a living.
Where might you find yourself photographing in any given month?
It often varies between the winter and summer months and the sports that take place. During the winter, it’s usually winter climbing, mountaineering and skiing. This can either be in Scotland or further afield in places like the Alps. Summer is usually a lot busier and involves more travelling to interesting places to shoot different adventure sports, it’s usually somewhere different every time, which is great.
Where would you like to go back to?
I spent five weeks in Greenland in 2005 and would love to go back. It feels like one of the last real wilderness locations on earth, and there is lots of potential there for new climbs and skiing. As far as where I’d like to go next, I’ve still never visited Yosemite, which, as a photographer who specialises in climbing, feels like a bit of a gap in my CV.