Avid mountaineer and photographer Andreas Bogenschütz always carries a ZEISS lens with him in his pack on climbing trips. What attracts him about the mountain landscape in his photography is the opportunity to capture extreme, contrasting scenes, as well as the challenge of depicting people and nature in harmony.
The mountainside is so steep it is almost vertical. Bogenschütz positions himself securely a good 30 meters above ground to photograph his partner climbing immediately below who is attempting to perform a particularly daring move, known as a “dynamo”. To the pro, this is an attempt to scale a smooth point in the wall by performing a well-rehearsed leap. This isn't for the faint-hearted, as it requires the climber to momentarily surrender all control.
When it comes to shooting the scene, the man behind the camera leaves nothing to chance, particularly since "must-do" sections of a climb such as this are exceptionally rare. The image is also intended to reflect the appeal and aesthetics of the wall itself, with only a very few craggy areas offering anything at all to cling on to.
Good preparation is everything
As Bogenschütz explains: "To bring out the foreground effectively, I wanted to avoid using an extremely wide angle due to the tendency this has to excessively distort the climber's proportions. And I also needed to be some distance from the wall to accentuate the depth behind the climber." It took several hours before the climb itself simply to get the spatial relationship right. The two of them fixed a small ladder vertically in place above the exit point and, through a series of test shots, adjusted the position precisely to suit the subsequent image. The photographer opted for a fixed focal length without autofocus: the Distagon T* 1,4/35 ZF.2.
Even after such meticulous preparations, the light still needs to be right of course. Owing to the north-west facing position, the sun only strikes the rock face late in the day and casts a heavy edge light on the scene. The aim is to preserve this lighting effect and brighten up the image using a flash, but without generating a counter-shadow effect. This would break up the flatness of the grey limestone surface in particular. Bogenschütz therefore uses a ring flash powered by a mobile generator unit. This provides sufficient flash power to work with a high focal ratio. The specific settings are a flash shutter speed of 1/250 seconds and an f-stop of 8 ½ at ISO 50. The flash generator on low power performs its task flawlessly: it brightens up the deep shadows effectively just as the photographer wanted.
Multiple leaps for the perfect image
Now things get exciting, as the climber attempts to make that long dash from his last available handhold position to the target handhold. Phew, he made it. This time at least. Though sometimes he's a few centimeters shy of the mark and falls from the wall in the relative safety of his harness. Even for the pro this is never a pleasant experience. Andreas Bogenschütz: "I spoke with the climber at length beforehand as to whether he'd be happy to do this over and over again, because it was clear to me that we'd need to go through it a number of times to arrive at the perfect result."
But when it came to taking the actual shot, the cameraman's nerves quickly settled down once he'd seen the cool-headedness of the climber while performing one leap after another. Bogenschütz even had time to change position slightly in order to capture the scene from an even steeper perspective. The result didn’t take long to achieve: just three attempts were needed to achieve a shot with outstanding sharpness and perfect lighting. Nonetheless, the photographer was surprised to see that despite all of the settings being programmed for speed, he was still able to count the individual beads of sweat in the photo and at the same time detect a slight blurring effect caused by the movement. "That demonstrates the level of brilliance and fine detail that can be achieved from high-resolution sensors with the right lens." It also underlines the fact that the use of manually focused lenses is not exclusively restricted to largely static photography. With suitable focusing aids and the intuition for the right moment, highly dynamic scenes can also be captured.
Breathtaking and painful moments in the mountains
Andreas Bogenschütz loves extreme photography, though he has an equal passion for landscape scenes. Memories of a climbing trip with a friend up a huge cliff face on the Wellhorn in central Switzerland last summer remain with him. The last light of day was already fading. Starting out in the early hours of morning, the pair had scaled around 800 vertical meters with some extremely difficult sections to negotiate. Just as his climbing partner began his approach to a critical and poorly secured section of the climb, the evening sun broke through the overcast sky and illuminated the tongue of the Rosenlaui Glacier far below them. "An unbelievable photo opportunity," says Bogenschütz. But the occasion failed to produce what could have been the perfect landscape shot: his camera remained buried deep in his rucksack while he gave his climbing partner his full attention as he called on all his reserves to win the fight against gravity. "By the time I was able to get back to taking some photos, the magic of the moment had been lost." It was a real shame, as he knew there would be no second chance.
Situations such as these have become a frequent cause of conflict since he discovered mountaineering, because when it comes to extreme climbs and creating the perfect image, the two pursuits do not always go hand in hand. Each demands full concentration and it's a choice between photography or sport. Yet regardless of which one he chooses, the underlying thought is always there of how great it would be to do the other right at that moment. Still, he's happy to put up with this internal struggle out of his love for both hobbies.
And in the end, it's usually the longer mountain climbs that produce the best pictures. An unparalleled scene for Andreas Bogenschütz remains the Matterhorn in the Swiss Canton of Valais. "It is almost impossible to beat setting out in the early hours of the morning from a high-altitude alpine hut overlooking Zermatt while taking in the majestic beauty of the Matterhorn's summit as it towers heavenward in the glistening morning sunshine." At the same time, he warns of the danger of allowing the feeling of euphoria to lead to complacency or reckless risk-taking. The absolute priority must always be to get back down again in one piece. As he says: "No picture is worth risking your life for."