Ask the VR Photography Experts

Q: I want to shoot a panorama from the side of a cliff with climbers on it. I want to have just a rope on the rock face with a safety climber showing above or below me (I’ll retouch myself holding the camera out of the shot).

Can I shoot this with a wide 180-degree lens by doing one shot above my head as I climb, then one to the left, one to the right, and then one shot downward after climbing up a little bit? Or should I try using a single capture system like the BeHere camera on a Bogen Magic Arm above my head?

A: Let me see... hand holding a VR rig while lead climbing and expecting good results...? That's a recipe for disaster in my book (without some rather expensive custom hardware).

The rock climbing VR photography on my site ( involved mounting a tripod vertically against the face of the cliff and shooting the image sequences in a very controlled manner. It was about a three hour process (it helps to have a good harness and very patient climbing partners). Ted Chavalas of Panoscan did something similar shortly afterward, but he managed to lug a Panoscan and laptop into position on the face of a cliff and shoot it digitally. Some shots are more effort than they are worth, but it's fun to prove that they are possible.

But shooting while climbing on lead is pretty foolish from my perspective, unless you are clipped in to a bomb-proof anchor and can hang from it with both hands free. Trying to do VR "quick and dirty" in a situation like this will likely result only in your (and perhaps your partner's) ultimate quick and dirty plummet to the ground. I'd encourage extreme caution.

Trying to hand hold a BeHere rig on a Bogen Magic arm with one hand (and expecting usable results) while your other hand is supposed to be keeping you alive, is sheer folly in my opinion.

No picture or VR scene is worth dying for.

If you want to make the sort of shot you describe, do it right and do it safely. Figure out which stitching/assembly software you can best use ahead of time. Choose the proper camera, lens and pan rig for the result you desire. Take the time to position the camera and VR rig in place on the rock face and secure it there (remember that climbing ethics today prohibit permanent marring of the rock face). Get yourself into position from a top rope, rather than lead climbing. Set up a good three-way anchor and raising/lowering system, and bring some sympathetic (and experienced) climbers to help you out.

You can still position a rope where you want in your shot. (If you're shooting a full cubic or spherical pano, the rope needs to be attached to something in order to look natural, rather than simply floating in space or ending abruptly at the seam of the images. Also don't overlook the advantages of including a human figure in the scene.) Be willing to use Photoshop to accomplish what you physically may not be able to do on location. Don't die over a picture.

I am not aware of any VR photographers who have killed themselves shooting VR yet. Please don't be the first.

- Scott Highton