Luke Rasmussen, aka PhLuke Photos, has two passions: climbing and photography. Although he initially kept them separate, he has since combined the two fields in one spectacular way. Rasmussen produces long exposure images that highlight the beauty of natural rock faces as well as the grace and precision it takes to climb them.
As an avid rock climber myself, I know the feeling you get when you redpoint, or even flash, a climb. For those few minutes you find yourself completely free, as you string together a series of seductive moves in the elusive ‘flow’ state.
It’s something that’s incredibly difficult to capture on camera; a still image rarely does a route justice. But, Rasmussen’s long exposure photographs are different and capture the progression of a climb in a completely new way. We caught up with Rasmussen to find out about how he started climbing and the logistics behind these spectacular images.
Luke Rasmussen interview: Turning rock climbing routes into rainbow trails
How did you get into rock climbing?
I count myself incredibly fortunate to have grown up in the mountains of Colorado. As a kid, I got to try pretty much every mountain sport: climbing, skiing, rafting, mountain biking, and fly-fishing. Climbing is the one that stuck.
I was always a terrible climber as a young kid. I wasn’t at all the kid that you would see climbing around on the jungle gym or climbing up trees. I was the nerdy kid with glasses standing on the ground and watching in awe as my friends clambered up on to their second-story deck or chimneyed up a stairwell. I guess that’s probably why I fell so in love with climbing. I was bad at it. It looked so easy when others did it, yet I couldn’t even get off the ground. And once I did get off the ground for the first time (on a portable wall at a Cinco De Mayo festival while still wearing my soccer cleats), I was hooked.
My father pulled his old climbing gear out of the closet, dusted it off, and called up some buddies who still climbed. I started going climbing outside and learning all the techniques and tricks. As I did, I got better. Something that once seemed impossible was now not only possible but easy. This thing that I had built up in my head as something that I couldn’t do became something that I could do. I was taking on the impossible and working at it until it felt easy. That’s why I love rock climbing. It gives me endless opportunities to face the impossible.
How did you come up with the idea to capture the motion of rock climbing in this way?
This project comes at the intersection of my two passions. I have been a rock climber since I was 11 years old. It has been and will continue to be a lifelong passion. My interest in photography, however, has been a more recent development. And to be completely honest, it didn’t really click with me at first. I loved bringing my camera along on trips, but I would rarely go out of my way to take photos. That began to change as I started getting into long exposure photography.
I had always been fascinated in being able to picture the passage of time in a single moment. Even as a little kid, I loved studying the marks of time all around me. This fascination ranged from simple things, such as the wear in a swing’s topmost chain link caused by a summer of fun, to complex geological monuments, such as the canyon worn out by millennia of raging water.
This study of the passage of time led to an immediate passion for long exposure photography. Here was a technique that allowed me to see an image of the passage of time: stars moving through the sky, cars passing by, water coursing over falls. Soon after discovering this passion, I knew I had to find a way to connect it to my other passion: rock climbing. The experience of climbing is rooted in a flowing state, moving from one hold to the next, fluidly connecting the natural features in a rock face. In order to study this flow, this passage of time, I wanted to be able to visualise it in a single image. Long exposure photography (along with some cheap LEDs jerry rigged to a sweater) allowed me to do this.
Can you describe the process of creating your photos? Do you use a single exposure or multiple exposures stitched together? How long is a typical exposure?
In order to get most of my shots, I use an LED light strip (the second cheapest one off of Amazon) that I’ve taped to a black sweater. The lights usually run up the left side of my back, down my arm to my wrist, back down my arm, across my shoulders, down my other arm, down the right side of my back, and wrapped once around my waist. They plug into a lithium ion battery pack that I wear in a fanny pack around my waist. The lights are programmable and have different settings for different blinking patterns and different colours. Sometimes, I set the lights to change automatically every x number of seconds, while other times I bring the remote with me so that I can change the colours manually as I climb.
I set up my camera on a tripod and take a few test shots to dial in the composition. Then, using an app on my phone, I can link my camera to it so that I can use it as a remote shutter. Depending on my circumstances, I’ll either put the phone in my pocket, give it to my belayer, or set up burst mode so that my camera takes a series of 30 second exposures one right after the other. If I’m by myself, I can just use my phone to open the shutter just before I start climbing, and close it when I reach the top. Otherwise, my belayer can do it for me. If I am doing a much longer climb, or will be too far away from my camera for the app to connect, I will set it up in burst mode to take a long series of photos. The advantage of this is that I can pick and choose the frames where I am actually climbing with the lights on. I can then blend just those frames together using Photoshop.
I won’t use the frames that have my headlamp walking away from the camera, or a mess of lights at the base where I am gearing up, or my partner climbing up behind me. What I can do with those extra frames is create an image with good star trails. I can then use Photoshop to cut out the stars from the image of my climbing with the lights (these star trails will usually be really short and blurry or have gaps in them from where I have to stop at the top of each pitch in order to belay my partner up) and replace them with the better star trail photo. Even on shorter exposures, the stars will start to blur, so I will often take a second shorter exposure to properly expose the stars and then stitch that one in over the blurry stars.
In order for the exposure to turn out well, I have to climb as quickly as possible. This allows me to climb in a smooth flowing way so that there aren’t any overexposed spots where I pause for too long. Instead, I have to climb at a steady and quick pace, only stopping when I get to the top. This results in fairly short exposure times. For short boulder problems under 20 feet, I climb them in 15-45 seconds. For routes in the 50-80 foot range, I’m usually climbing them in about a minute to a minute and a half. For longer routes, 100 feet plus (the longest I’ve done was 600 feet), I’m only picking very easy routes that I can climb quickly. This results in exposures between 10 and 30 minutes.
How has the photography process influenced your rock climbing? Do you plan and practise a route before photographing it? Do you accentuate moves to produce different shapes?
I certainly climb a lot more at night than I used to. Actually, I already loved climbing at night; something about the calmness of a world that only exists in the bubble of your headlamp really speaks to the mental state that I find in climbing. Now, I just have one more excuse to get out after the sun goes down.
Most often, I will lead the climb first in order to set up the rope at the top. When the rope is set up in this way, it allows me to climb much faster without having to worry about safety or what would happen in the event of a fall (the rope is already set above me, so I wouldn’t fall very far). This also allows me to practise the climb first and memorise all the moves and body positions that will allow me to complete the climb quickly. Once I have my lights on and the camera set up, I will usually do the climb a few times (I rarely nail the composition and settings I’m looking for first try). Each successive climb will usually go more quickly and thus result in a better photo.
I do not accentuate certain moves, as I’m really trying to capture the intrinsic movement of the climb. I’m more interested in letting the climb itself do the ‘painting’ rather than trying to force an image from my mind on to the climb. As Heidegger would say, I want the Being of the climb and its motion to reveal itself to me.
I noticed that you often use multicoloured lights, but sometimes you use single coloured lights. What influences your colour choices?
I initially used the ‘rainbow’ effect as a way to visualise different climbing speeds. Even though I’m trying to climb as steadily as possible, I will invariably have to slow down a little at the truly difficult parts of the climb. When the lights are changing colours at a set interval while I climb, you can track those difficult spots. They’re the places that the lights mush (for lack of a better word) together. The places that the different colours are more distinct are the places that I’m climbing the most quickly. I have since grown to simply like the aesthetic value of the changing colours. And that value seems to hold with the people who enjoy my photos as well.
I will, however, use single colours if I’m trying to delineate separate climbs. Sometimes, I will climb multiple individual routes up a single rock face. I take a separate exposure for each climb and then blend them together in post. This way, you can visualise all the routes a face has to offer in a single image. I find it best to use unique colours to better separate the climbs.
Can you describe your editing process? Do you experiment with new techniques or stick to a specific process?
This is probably the trickiest part for me. I have never been particularly computer savvy, but I’ve been getting better in the short time that I’ve been taking these photos. I still have to open multiple tabs of YouTube Photoshop tutorials every time I edit a photo, but the number of tabs no longer crashes my computer.
The most drastic post-processing that I will sometimes do is to replace the stars from the exposure of me climbing with stars from a separate exposure. Because the Earth is spinning, the stars also appear to be spinning. If you leave the shutter open for longer than about 30 seconds (this number depends on the focal length of the lens that you’re using and the size of your sensor), then that spinning will result in streaking lines of light. If the exposure is long enough, that can be aesthetically pleasing. However, if it’s only around a minute or so, then it just appears as blurry stars.
Because many of my photographs are around that length, I will take a separate shorter exposure for just the stars. I will take this exposure without moving my camera to a different location. It’s still the same stars as the original exposure, just properly exposed. I can then use Photoshop to cut out the stars from the climbing exposure and replace them with the properly exposed stars.
Ultimately, I’m still learning a lot and trying out any new editing techniques that I stumble upon.
What are you looking forward to trying next?
Currently, I’m really struggling with getting an image that I’m happy with of longer (100+ feet) routes. From a climbing perspective, these are much more interesting to me. In my personal climbing, I enjoy climbing long multi-pitch routes, so I would love to successfully photograph one.
Beyond even just the photography related issues that I’m trying to work out, there are also more logistical issues with climbing longer routes. Many of the routes that I would like to photograph traditionally take hours to climb, if not all day. And that’s in the daylight without a string of distracting LEDs tied to me. Climbing them in the dark through the night will certainly add a much stronger sense of adventure.
And, I can’t wait to take on that adventure. I got my first taste of it earlier this summer when I met up with a friend in Zion and we climbed a 5 pitch 600 foot route. It was my first time up the route and it was certainly an adventure leading up it with my headlamp on its dimmest setting (I don’t want it to overpower my LEDs) while I searched out the correct path, all while climbing as fast as possible and trying not to stop at any one point. Unfortunately, the picture didn’t turn out as I had hoped, but spending the night climbing under the stars in one of the most beautiful places in the world was certainly still worth it.
I look forward to bringing my photography to the canyon walls of The Black Canyon of the Gunnison and the sandstone spires of Utah. Those places hold a special place in my heart as the sites of much pondering about the passage of time. This has ultimately played a major role in both the development of my climbing as well as my photography. To combine photography and climbing in these magical places will certainly carry a much deeper meaning for me. And hopefully, that deeper meaning will translate into a ‘better’ photograph (whatever that may mean).
Currently, this seems to be an impossible task. But, just like that nerdy kid standing on the playground, I look forward to taking on that impossible task. I look forward to the new skills it will bring me and the places that it will take me. I look forward to the effortlessly beautiful photographs that I may take.
All photos: Luke Rasmussen