Q&A: Francois Lebeau on Becoming One of Climbing's Top Photographers

The celebrated French Canadian discusses his early days in Montreal, tricks to getting good images outdoors, documenting climbs in iconic destinations

Q&A: Francois Lebeau on Becoming One of Climbing's Top Photographers


Leah Balagopal

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Find more of Lebeau's work on Instagram and his website

The popularity of rock climbing has surged in the past few years. We have films like Free Solo and The Dawn Wall to thank for that, as well as the sport's inclusion in the Olympics. As a result, climbing imagery is everywhere. But when people see photos of a person standing on a tiny ledge or scaling up an overhang wall on impossible crimps, they often overlook the fact that there's another person behind those images. Québec-born photographer Francois Lebeau is often that person–dangling on a fixed line of rope off to the side as the strongest climbers in the world scale impossible cliff faces.

As a youth, Lebeau started climbing at the age of 15 while transitioning away from competing on Canada's national track and field team for javelin. Within climbing, he quickly became enamored by the technicality and power of the sport, and it didn't take long before his passion for climbing merged with his other long-term hobby, photography.

Lebeau began by taking photographs at local crags—between his own climbs—before documenting well-known climbers started broadening his horizons. In the years since, he's witnessed and photographed some rock climbing's most impressive historical moments, many of which are documented in Lebeau's book, Climbing Rock, which documents climbing destinations throughout North America.

Recently, we caught up with Lebeau to talk about those early days, his pivotal choice to prioritize photography over being a climber, why rock climbing photography is particularly tricky, and much more.

Ethan Pringle on Moonlight Butress in Zion and Cover of Lebeau's Book Climbing Rock

What first inspired you to merge your passions of climbing and photography?

At some point, my sister brought me to the climbing gym and I fell in love immediately. I was in the gym and they were blasting Radiohead and I remember thinking, this is sick. I worked at Allez Up in Montreal for seven years and it became a second home from ages 23-28. That is how I developed my community around Montreal.

I have been doing photography since I was 10 years old. My mom gave me a film camera and I started by [photographing] birds through the windows when we were going to a cottage back home. My uncle who was a photographer took me under his wing (funnily enough his name was Francois as well and we had the same birthday). He showed me how to print in a darkroom and develop film at a very young age.

Through my teenage years, I kept doing photography but very loosely and not climbing-related. I always liked to have a camera with me just to document my climbing trips casually. I was studying cinema back in Montreal, but I ended up applying to a photography program and that was around the same time I got into climbing.

For my final school project, I did it about climbing. I printed three big-size black and white images. That is how I started climbing photography. I became obsessed with climbing and photography. It was my outlet for creativity.

How did you transition to photographing climbing outside?

My first was in Horse Pens 40 and I was filming everything. I made a movie but just for friends, nothing professional at that time. In 2008 I went to the Red River Gorge for the first time. I spent a lot of time climbing there between 2008 and 2012. In 2012, I met a bunch of professional climbers. I was basically not climbing and that was the year I understood I needed to pick [between climbing and photography]. Before, I was climbing and shooting at the same time. It was very annoying. In between my burns, I was cleaning my hands, jugging lines, and taking photos. Then I would come back down and try to climb but it was hard.

"I knew I wasn't going to be a professional climber, but I had a chance in photography"

I figured I needed to focus my energy on one thing—and I knew I wasn't going to be a professional climber, but I had a chance in photography so I decided to dedicate the time. When I decided to shoot climbing, I would only shoot. On my rest days, I wouldn't even bring my shoes to the cliff so I could focus.

From that day, I saw that I could have momentum. I had a bunch of images from that month published with some big names in climbing like Daniel Woods, Courtney Sanders, and a bunch of European climbers who were doing all the big lines—and I was there to shoot it.

Jacopo Larcher and Babsi Zangerl on Zodiac in Yosemite

This was before climbing photography took off, right?

You didn't see that much climbing photography at the time. There were the big names like Keith Ladzinski and Tim Kemple and at that time they had guidebooks for some places but it wasn't like today, where there are guidebooks from every single area. Some people from Montreal called Dr. Topo—they were doing pdf guidebooks that you could download for free online. They had a bunch from the states, mainly bouldering, and also were doing some videos. That mixed with Dosage and Chris Sharma's videos made me so stoked. I was like, me too, I wanted a piece of the pie. It was my inspiration.

Beyond the obvious (hanging off a cliff from a rope), what makes climbing photography difficult?

Well first off, if you want to do climbing photography for yourself, it is very time-consuming. If you want a good shot, especially at the beginning, you will need to spend a whole day at the crag. For a good image, you will have one day of work behind it—sometimes more, but one day on average. That is how it was when I was working on my book Climbing Rock—every page was one day of work.

"For a good image, you will have one day of work behind it—sometimes more"

Another thing that makes it hard is that it is physical. When you do it often you get used to the whole thing, but in the beginning, it was hard. I was also intimidated because I wanted to shoot pro climbers. Harder lines I feel are more aesthetic. When you start climbing, if you are shooting easy routes, sometimes it can look like a big pile of coal. It is not very clear what you are shooting—but when you get into harder grades and more specific movements it allows the body to move in a specific way and it makes the images way more aesthetic.

In the beginning, I didn't know how to set a rope on a wall with fixed lines, which is what you need to be able to shoot from above while someone is climbing. I figured it out a little later. When you shoot, people want photos of themselves so they will obviously help you set the rope. Now when I go on a wall I am not climbing the project, [and] the pros will set the lines.

Another challenge is knowing what gear you need to bring on the wall, and you need to develop a method to manage your gear on the wall. Once you're on the ropes, you are just fixed in one spot and you need to figure out your angles before you get up there. There are a lot of things to think about and it is like learning a new language. It is hard at the beginning, but once you learn the language for climbing photography it is not super hard. There are a lot of little tricks you learn, like you don't want to shoot midday. The sun is going to shine on the face of the climber, it creates hard shadows and you don't see the wall as well—stuff like that.

Lebeau's Shadow in the New River Gorge

Nina Caprez on Tales of Power in Yosemite

What was one of the most complicated shots you've had to set up a rig for?

Well, I can think of two instances and they aren't in the same category. In the first one, you can't see in the photos how complicated it was but it was funny. I wanted an angle off the wall because on the wall it is very two dimensional and if you pull off the wall you will have a better view of the whole cliff. My friend was working in parks at that time and he was rigging trees a lot. He rigged me a rope in the trees and cinched the trunk of the tree with two Grigris, just to get me to a high point—it was pretty funny because in the photo you don't see what a silly position I was in for the shot. I probably could have just pushed myself off the wall with sticks but it was at the beginning of my adventure with climbing photography.

The most complicated shots to get are anything on big walls. It is a lot of work and I remember I went to the Bugaboos and I was asking someone to fix my rope but he didn't really understand the whole thing of setting ropes with static lines. When I jugged my line, I realized my rope was rubbing on a sharp edge and I was like well, that could have been it. When you jug up a rope the rope bounces and is rubbing. I was like fuck this.

It is always a multi-day adventure and you need to think about all the ropes and gear you need to bring. A 200-meter rope can weigh around 14 kilograms (30 pounds), and sometimes you need a few, so that's where it gets more complicated. The big walls most of the time are all rigged up. You have a highway of static lines so we can go up and down as we please instead of just having one line and having to change it for multiple angles. But yeah I would say that logistically, big walls are the hardest thing to do.

Lebeau Shooting From a Fixed Line

Have you ever gotten up there and realized you forgot something crucial like a camera or a lens?

Haha no, never—you check a million times before you get on the wall and if you forget something you figure out a way to work around it. You don't forget batteries and cards.

What has been one of your favorite climbing destinations to shoot?

I would have to say the Red River Gorge. It is not very special but it is special to me—I have spent a lot of time over there and think the rock looks insane and majestic and the light is always awesome. But I think it translates more into the community for me. Beginning in 2010, I built my reputation as the photographer at the Red River Gorge, and strangely, when you're a photographer in any field, it opens doors that would never open if you were not. I kind of enjoy that, and in climbing anyone that I wanted to take photos of, they weren't saying no. Everyone is always stoked to have their photo taken.

"The biggest mistake people make is shooting the back of the head...you need to shoot from above to catch the face of the climber."

Another favorite place, for purely aesthetic reasons, is Spain. Being there and shooting pro climbers tackling lines that I had only seen or heard about through the internet or community was incredible.

What's the biggest cliché in climbing photography?

A wide angle of a climber going to the crux with the hand reaching up. I hate those photos, I do it sometimes too when it applies, but I can't stand it. Some of them are inspirational but most of them are just the same. One of the main images that inspired me to duplicate when I started was a photo by Corey Rich. It is a similar image of a dyno but with a quick draw, but the guy was crossing and putting the rope in the draw. I have never been able to replicate it.

Corey Rich Inpiration Photo

What are some tips that climbers who want to get into photography or photographers who want to shoot climbing should know?

The biggest mistake people make is shooting the back of the head. If you are doing a standard classic climbing shot you need to shoot from above to catch the face of the climber. [The difference] is day and night.

If you don't know how to set a rope up don't be shy to ask friends to set it for you, but make sure they know how to do it properly.

Find a good bag that allows you to change your gear on the wall. If you bring a couple of lenses, have a bag that allows you to flip in front of you and have it secure so you can easily change the lenses in front of you.

Make SURE you don't drop anything.

"I would say to those aspiring climbing photographers, don't hesitate to mimic what has been done. Experiment and understand what is involved to get the shots you want to replicate."

Knowing what the climber is going to do on the wall is going to dictate how you need to position yourself on the wall as well as the lens you have. I don't shoot the whole climb if I know what is going to happen so I am deciding what I want first. You watch them and look at what they are doing. Once they've set the rope you know a little bit about what you want to shoot. Don't be afraid to think outside the box. Maybe your best shot is not going to be the one on the rope. You can shoot from different angles, you can go far away and climb on stuff, but the shot on the rope is not the only solution.

Babsi Zangerl on Desert Gold in Red Rock

Can you share a few gear essentials you can't live without?

ICU unit in an FStop bag, $90

This bag has been very key. They are super sturdy and there is a unit you can put in there. I am just taking the unit with me on the wall and it acts as my bag. I started with a sling bag, but when you have a bag on your back on the rope it changes your stability so I prefer to clip stuff onto my harness or my rope so I don't have the weight on me. I'll take the ICU unit out of the bag and just clip it on with a carabiner and set it on my legs so I can change my lens straight above it.

Petzl Bench Saddle, $220

I bought my saddle like 15 years ago and I still use it. It is like a sturdy bench. It is basically like sitting on a swing and is so much better than a harness. Every time I clip my saddle I'm like yes! I dread being in my harness for a full day.

Grigri, $100

Everyone has their own way to climb a rope but a Grigri is indispensable for jugging up a rope, repelling or belaying. An ATC is also useful to have as a backup.

Petzl Ascension Handled Rope Clamp/Ascender Grab, $95

Simple, effective, and it gets the job done. The handle is perfect for ascending a rope and gets me to places I need to be to shoot. It is ergonomic, simple to use and sturdy. I know there are other companies that do similar products but I will always trust Petzl.

Elise Oren on Orange Juice in the Red River Gorge

Jérôme Pouvreau on Pure Imagination in the Red River Gorge

Photo by Tim Kemple of Lebeau on a Fixed Line

Mandoline Masse on Clark the Lorax in Squamish

Adam Ondra on the Dawn Wall in Yosimite

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Q&A: Francois Lebeau on Becoming One of Climbing's Top Photographers

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Leah Balagopal

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