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Adventure Photography at 22,000 Feet



The key to taking a good action photo is to stop breathing, according to Jimmy Chin. “Hold your breath and brace against something,” he says.

The 42-year-old adventure photographer often fires away while dangling off a cliff or perched on an icy rock face, with one hand holding a camera and the other managing safety ropes. Mr. Chin has trained himself to hold still just long enough to snap award-winning images. He has shot covers for National Geographic, Outside magazine and numerous advertising campaigns.

He is also a professional climber and skier sponsored by The North Face. He climbs alongside his photo subjects, only he will be carrying an extra 15 pounds of camera equipment. Sometimes he has to scramble ahead to set up a shot or explore off-route for a better vantage point.

In 2006, he photographed pro skier Kit DesLauriers as she became the first woman to ski down Mount Everest. The job meant summiting Everest with Ms. DesLauriers’s expedition and skiing the descent with her.

“There’s no such thing as a typical assignment,” he says.

Mr. Chin is on the road about 200 days a year. His home bases are in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and New York City. A job could last from a week to 10 weeks and range from exploring limestone towers in Chad to shooting an ad for surf clothing in Hawaii.

He has lists of what to pack for all occasions: camera-equipment list, rock-climbing list, alpine list, skiing list, camping list, miscellaneous-items list. “That way, I don’t have to think; just pack the list,” he says.

Regardless of destination, he usually brings a massive North Face Rolling Thunder duffel, a Cobra backpack and a camera bag.

For a September shoot in the Canadian Rockies, he packed a helmet, rack of climbing gear, safety ropes and several ascenders, which are metal clamps used to hoist himself up a rope in midair. Footwear included hiking boots, climbing shoes and flip flops.

He packs clothing in layers, from a Gore-Tex outer shell to a down jacket and thermal hoodie. He usually brings three pairs of sunglasses—he has his own signature line by Revo.

Another key piece of gear is a portable solar charger by Goal Zero for juicing up his iPhone, camera batteries and laptop. Tape is a must-have: gaffer tape, Gorilla Tape or medical tape, anything will do.

He packed four Canon DSLR cameras, eight lenses and one point-and-shoot. His photo equipment doesn’t leave his sight when he’s traveling; the camera bag is carry-on only.

There are two kinds of expeditions, he says. One type is financed by a production, where the goal is creating compelling photos or video for a client and usually involves extensive support crew. “I’ve been on trips where there are 150 yaks carrying our gear,” he says.

Then there are expeditions where the goal is the climb and the photos are secondary. Gear is whittled down to the minimum.

His latest project, a documentary called “Meru,” falls into the latter category. Mr. Chin turned the camera on himself and his climbing partners, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk, as they tried, failed, and tried again to conquer one of the toughest climbs in the Himalayas: the Shark’s Fin of Meru Peak, a sheer granite and ice wall on top of a 21,850-foot mountain. The film won the audience documentary award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. It will be released on DVD, cable and digital platforms on Nov. 17.

“We went ultra-minimalist for ‘Meru,’ ” Mr. Chin says. No Sherpas, no yaks, no support crew on the peak. He climbed with three cameras and a microphone. “Those are the trips I prefer. You’re shooting on the fly.”

Each Meru attempt lasted nearly six weeks, so he packed 12 camera batteries. At high altitudes, batteries have to stay in his sleeping bag at night or they’ll freeze. “There’s a lot of stuff in your sleeping bag,” he says, including gloves, socks, boot liners, hard drives and anything else that needs to be warm or dry by morning. “You look like a giant burrito.”

Mr. Chin grew up in Minnesota, where his parents, immigrants from Taiwan, were university librarians. He resisted familial pressure to become a doctor or a lawyer, instead moving after college to Yosemite National Park to focus on rock climbing.

He sold his first photograph at age 25, to outdoor equipment company Mountain Hardwear. It was of a fellow climber sleeping in a bivouac, taken at dawn with a borrowed camera. It is still one of his favorite times of day to shoot. “At sunrise, you get this beautifully even, soft, creamy light,” he says.

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