Posted on: June 1, 2007

Lisa Rands, Roof on Fire, Rocklands, South Africa. [Photo] Keith Ladzinski

When I took my first pictures, in 1995, with a pawnshop camera I could barely afford, I was immediately drawn to outdoor photography, but my initial efforts captured none of the beauty I saw through my viewfinder. The high-noon sun that had seemed so dazzling as it flashed across streams and silvery granite, turned, in my photos, into something harsh and cold; the shadows that had etched delicate lines between tree branches and blades of grass became wide and flat, so deep that all detail was lost within them. I quickly realized that in order to take better shots, I had to understand light.

With no one to teach me, I learned from books and by trial and error. I wandered the mountains at different times of day, noticing the gentle definition of dawn and the more nuanced shadows of sunset. As I started to discover light's qualities, my images took on the broader depth and vibrancy I sought, and I began to apply my photography to all aspects of my recreation—from skateboarding to travel to climbing. Climbing photography, however, presented a particular challenge: how to find the ideal light in exactly the same time and place as the ideal climb.

In Hueco, Texas, or in Rocklands, South Africa, the variegated topography of caves and slots can lead to mixed lighting; in Ouray, some of the most interesting terrain is lost in the deep canyon's shadow. The solution? Strobes. Spilling splashes of light across the subject allowed me to work in low-light conditions regardless of the time of day. Moreover, their dynamism seemed to stop time in even smaller increments. I could freeze the instantaneous strain of a tensed muscle, a parted mouth, a blurred swing—and create a look I hadn't seen anywhere else.

I knew then what I was really searching for: the kind of freedom that painters have to pick and choose from an array of elements and merge them to create new realities, still mostly natural in appearance, yet transcending nature's limitations. I could treat my scenes as canvases: splash a sunset glow across a box canyon floor, where it would never, naturally, reach; cast the ripples of reflected water against an inland wall; take the fiery orange of a Fisher Towers' sunrise and save it for later—at my climbers' leisure. If I threw an unusual radiance on the rock, my viewers could suddenly see even too-familiar problems like Midnight Lightning in a new way.

I now have a new obsession: to blend the flawless compositional harmony of art and the uncontrollable serendipity of nature, wherever and whenever I need.

Brian Rhodes, the Cobra, Fisher Towers, Utah. [Photo] Keith Ladzinski

Cedar Wright, first free ascent, Speak No Evil, Three Gossips, Arches National Park, Utah. [Photo] Keith Ladzinski

Chuck Fryberger, Ulaan Baatar, Rocklands, South Africa. [Photo] Keith Ladzinski

Chris Alstrin, Tooth Decay, Ouray, Colorado. [Photo] Keith Ladzinski

Hari Berger starts his rappels, Castleton Tower, Utah. [Photo] Keith Ladzinski

To read the full text of this article, DOWNLOAD the digital issue in our app or BUY THE BACK ISSUE in our online store. Or even better, SUBSCRIBE to join our community and get this "coffee-table book masquerading as a magazine" (Lynn Hill) four times per year.