Rock Climbing, Abseiling & Canyoning

Shutter Life | Climbing Photographer Nadir Khan’s Life Behind The Lens

From broken faces to wild spaces, lensman Nadir Khan takes us through the shots that shaped his career

Previously a surgeon dealing in fixing damaged and deformed jaws, when he chose to pick up his camera full-time in 2011 Nadir Khan was no stranger to working with faces.

“I worked for the NHS for 18 years, specialising in operating on deformed faces and faces after bad road accidents,” Nadir tells us, from his home in Edinburgh. “It was interesting work, and for a long time I loved it. But a lot of things changed in the hospital over my years there, and I knew it was time to switch things up. I’d found photography in the mid-eighties, after my dad gave me my first Canon – a camera I went on to smash up along with my head after a climbing accident. I would always take photographs as a hobby when I went into the mountains on the weekends to climb with my friends and when my work load dropped to three days a week, that was my cue to use my camera in a more serious way.”

“You want to make the viewer feel a sense of huge relief that they’re not in the climber’s shoes”

“You want to see at least three of the four limbs of the climber,” he says, when we ask what he thinks makes for the perfect climbing image. “You also need to capture a sense of the location, and the seriousness and scale of the situation that they’re in. You want the viewer to feel the image, rather than over-intellectualise about it. And it really needs to punch them in the gut. You want to make the viewer feel a sense of huge relief that they’re not in the climber’s shoes.”

It’s a tick list that you’ll work through in a flash as you flick through Nadir’s catalogue of work. A catalogue that’s seen him commissioned by the adventure industry’s biggest brands, in some of the world’s finest climbing destinations, and that you may have seen splashed across the covers and websites of some of the planet’s most respected media titles. It’s also a catalogue that you’ll get a sense for below, as he takes us through ten of his favourite frames from his career on the wall…

The Near Catastrophe One

James Taylor, Wales, 2017

Credit: Nadir Khan

“This is in North Wales, in a place called Gogarth. It’s on a climb called Main Cliff, an area that’s a pretty complex area to photograph – you don’t get many good shots of it because it’s very difficult to work in and to access. And it’s really intimidating. To be honest, everything about it is a nightmare. And it’s where I nearly met my death. When you’re photographing a climber, you’re going to be climbing yourself. Or you’re going to be abseiling, which I feel gives me a little more mobility.

“It really hammered home how vulnerable you can be while climbing. It definitely gave me a fresh respect for rock”

“However, when you’re using jumars – ascending tools that let you go up and down your rope – it tends to bounce your line around. Although I had loads of protectors on my rope, at one point, unbeknown to me, a section had cut about halfway through against some razor-sharp quartz, as I was jumaring up this face. Luckily my assistant spotted it and lowered a spare line down, but it really hammered home how vulnerable you can be while climbing. It definitely gave me a fresh respect for rock.”

The Different Direction One

Emma-Jane Flaherty, Yorkshire, 2014

Credit: Nadir Khan

“I like using a flash in the outdoors – I think it can add an other-worldly feel to an image. You don’t see it used much in adventure sports through, partly because it’s quite a big faff to carry all the kit around. That said, when you’re shooting in the mountains you’re always battling against the light and conditions – you might have planned to use a part of a route that turns out to be the only area of the face that’s in shadow – and using a flash regains some of that control and flexibility. And brands like it too, as it illuminates their product.

“You can almost feel the body tension”

“I’m pretty happy with this one in particular, from Yorkshire’s Earl Crag. The lighting is good, there’s good action, and the sky is dramatic too – all things I like to see in adventure photography. The hair blowing in the wind adds an element of dynamism too, along with the shape of her body. You can almost feel the body tension. I shot this for a company called Wild Country, but it ended up in a Women In Climbing calendar.”

The Against All Odds One

Ines Papert, Scotland, 2015

Credit: Nadir Khan

“Ines is a German world-champion ice climber, and this climb, The Hurting XI in the Cairngorms, is one of the hardest winter climbs in Scotland. There had only been four ascents before Ines, and she was the first woman to climb it. The day this was taken was definitely a day that’d make you wish you were in a café drinking coffee rather than in the mountains. We got to the carpark at 6am, and the storm was so strong that it was rocking our van back and forward. I was so sure she wasn’t going to climb, but she and her climbing partner took off to take a look at the route and fancied it, so I thought, “okay, game on.”

“It made the cover of a number of magazines, and was in Landscape Photographer Of The Year 2016, too. So yeah, it was worth the pain”

“My climbing partner set me an abseil line from the top, and I jumared up alongside her as she ascended. Snow was being blown all around, my camera eyepiece and controls were freezing up, and it was a total battle just to point my lens in the right direction. I didn’t think we were going to get the shot, but I kept going and ended up with this. It made the cover of a number of magazines, and was in Landscape Photographer Of The Year 2016, too. So yeah, it was worth the pain.”

The Breakthrough One

Connor Skinner and Keir Coupland, Scotland, 2012

Credit: Nadir Khan

“This is Scotland all over. It really captures how brutal and deadly, but beautiful, Scottish winters can be. It was shot in December, on a day where I was supposed to be climbing but the amount of fresh snow had meant the avalanche risk was too high. I phoned a friend to see if he knew anyone who might be out in the hills that day, and he told me his son had taken the day off school to snowboard. So I met him at the Glencoe Ski Centre as the wind picked up to a point where we thought the lifts might have to close.

“I absolutely love working in these kinds of conditions, but it’s really hard work”

“Being in December, the sun stays really low in the sky. Even at midday, it was barely above the skyline. I really love working with backlight like this, as you get really dramatic shadows. And because the wind was blowing into us, it was sending all the snow into the air. It was such a challenge to keep it off the lens for a clear shot, but of the dozen shots, and wiping the lens between every capture, this was the only usable image. I absolutely love working in these kinds of conditions, but it’s really hard work. This was in Landscape Photographer Of The Year 2013.”

The First Award-Winning One

Colin Peck, Peak District, 2012

Credit: Nadir Khan

“This is an early shot from me, on a route called Arch Angel in the Peak District. It’s a solo climb that basically consists of one long exposed arete. My mate had just started climbing as it started to snow, which meant the holds were getting filled in. But this image of him won Best Trad Photo on UKC in 2012. How many doors did that award open for me? None whatsoever. I think I got a t-shirt out of it and the chance to say “I’m an award-winning photographer” without lying about it.

“How many doors did that award open for me? None whatsoever”

“Anyway, the shot works thanks to the wide-angle lens pulling in a cathedral of lines and the dramatic sky above. The way it’s edited makes the climber the only pop of colour in the whole image, too – it’s a sometimes cheesy technique that’s often used horribly in wedding photography, but it works okay here because of the moody nature. Also, generally speaking, climbing photos that look straight up don’t tend to work very well – you just get a lot of arse in frame. Because it’s a wide-angle lens, it seems to have worked out.”

The Trippy One

Giles Cornah, France, 2014

Credit: Nadir Khan

“This was a shot for Rab in the Dauphin. Giles is a phenomenal climber. He’d been a bit ill so hadn’t been on a wall for a while, but jumped on this super hard route – which goes up the roof of a cave, and onto a hanging dagger of ice – and nailed it. As the image goes, I’m pleased with it as it feels kind of… strange. You wonder what the hell is going on. It makes you want to tilt your head, and you almost feel like I’ve rotated the image, but then the skyline would be all wrong. It challenges your perception.”

The Killer Cover Shot One

Naomi Buys, Yorkshire, 2016

Credit: Nadir Khan

“Naomi had been trying this route, Wicked Gravity, for a number of years, but illness, injury and bird bans had meant she’d not been able to get on it. She finally got it a week before this shot. Malham is such an incredibly dramatic place, and everything is so steep. This route is no different. I was abseiling down and jumaring back up, trying to get a really impressive sweep of the location as she came over the roof.

“She is not wearing clogs”

“The composition really works, and in 2017 it was a cover for Asian Photography magazine and was in Climber magazine as well.  Naomi’s focus on the next move really helps you imagine what she’s thinking. And then you see how crazy her holds are, and realise what her next move actually entails. I like all that, and how the exposure and height is put across. But it does look like she’s wearing clogs for some reason. She is not wearing clogs.”

The Mega Mainstream One

Derek Bain, Scotland, 2013

Credit: Nadir Khan

“This is on the north face of Ben Nevis, shot for Glenmore Lodge. Again it shouldn’t work as it’s looking straight up, but the wide angle means you get a lot of interesting stuff in shot. You’ve got to be careful to not alter the perspective too much when you use a wide angle lens, but it meant I got the sky, the ice and the ice falls in the frame. The North Face ran this as part of a marketing campaign in 2013. It was definitely cool to see the image blown up and used in their stores, for sure.”

The Exhausting One

Unknown climber, Switzerland, 2012

Credit: Nadir Khan

“Although this is a pretty iconic set up – a climber silhouetted on a fairy tale mountaintop – my psyche levels were definitely low for this shot. This route, in Switzerland, is a very long multi-pitch. We weren’t acclimatised, we’d been travelling all day before, and we were running on no sleep as you always sleep badly on your first night at altitude. The climbing was amazing, but I felt awful. That aside, I like the movement in this shot. A lot of images you see on Instagram these days, they’re static, just looking out across the horizon. That works at times, but I prefer a sense of dynamism in my work.”

The Surprisingly Successful One

Robbie Philips, Scotland, 2018

Credit: Nadir Khan

“I made a book last year called Extreme Scotland and this was the last shoot for it. Robbie had been climbing the route, and just gone behind the arete. I was looking through my viewfinder, waiting for the final summit shot when I heard an ear-piercing scream. He’d fallen from the face – the very last hold was covered in dirt and as he pulled on it, his hand had slipped off.

“I was looking through my viewfinder, waiting for the final summit shot when I heard an ear-piercing scream”

“It’s not a nice feeling, especially on this route, which is called Wild At Heart and where you need to put your faith in some really old and rusty pegs. The fact that I got the climber sharp in the image is a miracle, not only because it was totally unexpected, but because my camera was on autofocus at the time. This image ended up in the book, and it was Trad Photo Of The Year for UKC in 2018. I got a rucksack for that one.”

Nadir is an ambassador for Ellis Brigham, F-Stop Gear, and Ellinchrom. He’s currently working on a new book called Extreme Lakeland.

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