Photographing the IFSC Climbing World Cup Toronto 2014 Boulder Competition

I recently had the opportunity to photograph the IFSC Climbing World Cup Boulder Competition held at Gravity Climbing Gym.

It was a very exciting competition, and a lot of fun to photograph some of the worlds top sport climbers.

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In this article, I will explain my strobe lighting setup for photographing the action, and my remote camera setup as well.

The IFSC Climbing World Cup Toronto 2014 Boulder Competition

In case you are not familiar with bouldering, boulder climbing is a form of rock climbing where climbers attempt to climb short but extremely difficult “problems”.  The bouldering problems are typically less than 20 feet tall and are climbed without ropes or harnesses.

The IFSC Climbing World Cup Toronto 2014 Boulder Competition is the Super Bowl for boulder climbers (well maybe more like the World Series, since it is actually a series of World Cup events), and many of the competitors are professional athletes.

For competition, a bouldering wall is set up with a series of problems and the climbers are given four minutes to attempt each problem.  Even at the World Cup elite level, it often takes the climbers multiple attempts – with multiple falls – to top out on a problem, so it is really an exciting sport to watch.

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Lighting for Photos of the World Cup Boulder Competition

You might remember Gravity Climbing Gym from a previous post on DIYP about Photographing Ontario’s Largest Indoor Rock Climbing Gym.  In that article, we went through a lighting setup for lighting a very large space with a series of small strobes.

So, having photographed Gravity before, I decided to use a similar setup for the bouldering world cup.

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The key point about taking photographs at Gravity is that the indoor ambient light is very dim and poor quality, so photographing athletes on the boulder wall with ambient light was never really an option.

Instead, I opted to go with a series of five Nikon SB-800 speedlite strobes in two groups.  I would have preferred to use studio strobes for faster recycle times and to avoid the unreliability of batteries, but mounting small unobtrusive speedlite strobes where I wanted them (ie. taping them to the stands with gaffer tape) was much easier than mounting full size studio strobes and running extension cords.

I needed the light to be even enough that every photo would be lit with good quality light.  But, in order to bring out the texture in the wall and the athlete’s physique, I also wanted to have the option of hard directional light.

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Here is a lighting diagram for the setup that I used.

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Where possible, the strobes were screwed to the wall of the gym, just out of reach of the spectators.  The others were either taped to the stands using gaffer tape, or mounted on extension poles that were taped to the stands using gaffer tape.

With both strobe Groups A and B firing, I had nice even strobe lighting over the entire bouldering wall.

By turning off Group B, I could easily switch to hard directional light by only using Group A – depending on where I was shooting from and where the climber was on the wall.

Once the strobes were set up, I was able to lock down the ISO and aperture on both cameras (although I did vary the shutter speed – more on that in the gear settings coming up) because the exposure anywhere on the bouldering competition wall was roughly consistant.

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This photo was from one of my initial lighting tests.  I ended up moving the strobes around a bit and the final configuration was as detailed in the lighting diagram.

Triggering Five Off Camera Strobes From Two Cameras

Triggering five off camera strobes from two different cameras actually posed a bit of an issue for me.

In this environment, optical slaves are not an option – so every strobe needed it’s own radio trigger.

The problem was that I was using five strobes, but I only own two Nikon specific PocketWizard Mini TT1s, three Nikon specific PocketWizard  Flex TT5s and four new Cactus V6 units.  Plus I was using both Canon and Nikon camera bodies.

So, I decided to use both Pocket Wizards set to full manual (click here to learn how) and Catus V6 triggers stacked together (yes you can stack triggers – cool huh!).

Here is the complete breakdown:

Strobe Group A:  Three Nikon SB-800s set to 1/4 power triggered by three PocketWizard Flex TT5s set to full manual.

Strobe Group B: Two Nikon SB-800s initially set to 1/4 power (with remote power control), triggered by two Cactus V6s transceivers.

Camera 1: Nikon D800 with a PocketWizard Mini TT1 transmitter and a Cactus V6 transceiver.

Camera 2: Canon 5D MkII with a PocketWizard Plus X and a Cactus V6 transceiver.

It wasn’t pretty, and I wouldn’t recommend this as a preferred setup, but I was able to control all of my strobes in the groups I wanted with the equipment I had on hand.

However, I did end up having some problems with the Cactus V6 units (you can read the full DIYP review of the Cactus V6 wireless flash radio trigger system here) – first due to the default standby setting (my fault that I didn’t realize I had to turn it off), and then due to a firmware bug that doesn’t allow hotshoe triggering in the manual profile mode (there is a simple work around, but at the time I had no idea why the V6s weren’t working).  So in the end, most of my photos ended up being just with Strobe Group A.

Camera Gear and Settings

I photographed most of the competition with a Nikon D800 with a 70-200mm f2.8 lens.  I also used an old maual focus Vivitar fisheye for a few wide angle shots.

All of the strobes were set to 1/4 power and zoomed in to 105mm.  I used 1/4 power because although I would have preferred more light, anything over 1/4 power would have had too long of recycle times.

The D800 was set to ISO 1600, f2.8 with a shutter speed between 1/60th and 1/250th.  A high ISO was necessary to pull in enough light from the strobes.

Remember that shutter speed controls ambient – so at 1/60th, I could use some of the ambient light as fill – but at 1/250th, I was shooting just strobes.

Here is an example of the different looks that changing just the shutter speed provided:

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In this photo, the shutter is at 1/60th and you can see that the ambient fill softens a lot of the shadows.

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In this photo, the shutter speed is at 1/250th, which provides definition and produces cool shadows from the hard, directional light.

Remote Camera Setup

In order to capture a completely different perspective of the climbers, but without interfering with the competition, I decided to set up a remote camera.  The remote camera was placed at a strategic location that would provide an interesting perspective of one of the climbs.

At one of the breaks, I was able to relocate the remote camera, but other than that it stayed in the same place.

For the remote camera, I used a Canon 5D MkII with a 20mm f2.8 or 28mm f1.8 lens.  I also stuck a GoPro to the side of it.

I did shoot a little bit of GoPro footage, but the main purpose of the GoPro was to use the GoPro as a remote view unit via the Android GoPro app.  That way, I could see where the climbers were in relation to my remote rig from the other side of the gym while photographing other climbers with my main camera.

To trigger the remote camera, I used a Vello Wireless ShutterBoss remote shutter release / timer / intervalometer.  The ShutterBoss worked perfectly all day, even from the other side of the gym.

Here is what the whole remote camera rig looked like:

remote camera rig; pocketwizard cactus v6

That is a Canon 5D MkII with a 28mm f1.8 lens, a GoPro Hero3 (with a lanyard), a Cactus V6 trigger, a PocketWizard Plus X trigger and a Vello Wireless ShutterBoss remote shutter release

And here it is mounted in place (I took off the Cactus V6 since I was having problems with them):

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And here are a few setup versus competition photos taken with the remote camera rig:

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sean mccoll; bouldering; bouldering competition; bouldering world cup; champion; championship; climbing; competative bouldering; ifsc; ifsc climbing; indoor climbing; rock climbing; rock climbing competition; rock climbing gym; jp danko; toronto; toronto commercial photographer

 Comments or Questions?

If you want to see more photos from the IFSC Climbing World Cup Boulder Competition, click here.

I hope I was able to pass on some useful information for setting up a flexible lighting arrangement in a very large area – and maybe a few unorthodox ways to get the photos you want using the gear you have.

If you have any questions or comments – leave them below!

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  • paul_wall

    I was watching the event in streaming and wondering “how do you light that wall?”..well this article is the answer! Good Job JP!

    • http://www.blurmediaphotography.com/ JP Danko

      Thats really cool – thanks!

  • Michael

    Cool and impressive setup, and really nice pictures! One question that popped up when I read your article: Were the athletes not bothered/troubled in their concentration by the flash strobes (light pulses) in the gym? Did you get feedback from the athletes regarding this question?

    Cheers, keep on your good work.

    • http://www.blurmediaphotography.com/ JP Danko

      Thanks – and good question. I was worried about the same thing so I spoke to the event officials beforehand. They assured me that the athletes are professionals and are used to strobes at events. Besides that, my strobes were relatively low power and on the other side of the gym – something closer and in their face might have been an issue. Plus, there were tons of people taking photos with on camera flash in the crowd.

      • Michael

        Thanks for your answer :)

        Cheers,
        Michael