A few weeks ago I was introduced to Ben Tibbetts on LinkedIn (of all places), and found myself looking through all the beautiful photographs on his website for a good half-hour. I asked Ben for a short interview and he graciously obliged. This is what he talked about during our Skype session from the Alps.
Nick Santora: What is your job description?
Ben Tibbetts: Adventure photographer. I also work as a high mountain guide for off-pist skiing , alpinism, rock climbing and ice climbing. I work fifty percent as a guide and fifty percent as a photographer, which gives me a lot of flexibility between the two.
What came first, the climbing or the photography?
It’s almost the same. I got my start at both at University basically, so 16 years.
What do you try to capture in your photographs?
I’m currently writing a guide book to the highest peaks of the Alps and the finest routes. So when I’m shooting something like that, I’m shooting images that capture the spirit of the climb. I’m doing it with friends or with clients and I’m trying to find points on the route that give the viewer a sense of what it’s like to be there: the exposure, the scale, the beauty of the mountains, the light in the early morning… Like most photographers, I work at the very beginning and very end of the day. Mostly it’s the very beginning, because with Alpine climbing you tend to get up at 2:00, 3:00, 4:00 in the morning, which means you’re well on the route by the time it gets light. The opportunities for getting both action and landscape shots are magnificent.
With the stuff that’s more commercial, it’s quite often focused on a product like clothing or climbing hardware. You still have the context of where you are on the mountain, but maybe you’re using a much tighter focus and playing with movement a lot more and trying to express that garment or whatever it is. That’s work, where as doing big routes and bringing back great photos is what I’m really passionate about.
What kind of equipment do you use?
I’m using professional top-end Nikon cameras and lenses. I tend to carry a full-weight SLR, a wide-angle lens and a telephoto. I probably only use the telephoto for ten minutes every day and it weights a kilo, so it’s a pain in the ass, but during those ten minutes in the high mountains at dawn, you’re guaranteed to get some image, in some direction, so it’s always worth carrying. The wide-angle lens is usually for trying to get whoever I’m with, in the context of the route. I try to make an image that characterizes what the route’s about.
All the climbing gear is professional because it’s all regulated. There are international norms for the strength of the equipment. Your axes have to resist a certain bending force and your harness has to take a certain weight and stuff like that. Because my cameras are so heavy, I tend to carry lightweight gear, so there’s not much margin for error if I get caught out in bad weather. I work with quite a few brands so I can really use whatever is newest on the market.
Who are some of these brands you work with?
I just did something for Patagonia. I tend to work with a variety of brands – Rab, Lowe Alpine, Mountain Equipment, Scarpa, which is a shoe brand, DMM, who make hardware…there are quite a few ski brands, and then some eyewear like Julbo. Most of these shoots I do in my backyard, which is sort of the Mont Blanc Massif above Chamonix because I know it well and I can get out there, get a good shoot and not waste time hunting the conditions I’m after.
When did you realize you could make a career out of this?
It took about ten years to get to the stage where I could demand a sensible wage. The guiding and the photography are slightly different stories. In the U.K., which is where I studied and grew up, working as a guide is similar to the U.S., where’s it’s been beaten down to a fairly democratic price-point. Because the level of qualifications is quite low, a lot of people do it and the price gets driven down. I pursued the qualifications in the U.K. for five years and then realized I would remain on a student wage for the rest of my life if I did that. I started thinking of whether I had the skills to become an Alpine guide and for the next five years I realized that I probably wasn’t a good enough climber.
In the middle of this, I spent about a year and a half in the Antarctic and that was the point I realized that I had the skills to guide people. I was working down there as a guide and I took something like 30,000 photos and that changed the game for me. I realized I had these two skills and I wondered how I could work to put them together. I’m still working it out. I’m not Jimmy Chin. National Geographic isn’t beating my door down yet. You have to work really hard in this industry because there are a lot of people who are really good. It’s fun, outdoors and adventurous, so a lot of photographers want to take it into a career, so it’s very competitive. It’s like living the dream. Everyone wants to live the dream, take photos in high mountains and get paid to do it.