JOHN THORNTON wins the Arco Rockstar photo competition

Arco Rockstar, an international climbing photography competition whereby you have 2 days to shoot, edit and present your best 4 photos. Oh, and some of the best climbing photographers from around Europe are invited to compete.

If you think the pressure was high, you’d be correct! So I approached it like any other project. Creating a detailed Shot List I could envision the images I wanted and more importantly how I would capture them. The shot list gave me a structure to build from, allowing me to spend more crafting high impact images that I hoped would impress the judges.


Having only been to Arco once before I didn’t really know my surroundings that well. Google Earth is a very useful piece of software which allows you to see the terrain and work out when and where the light will hit. Now, as good as the internet may be at times it’s not always that accurate. Fortunately I had a local by the name Francesco (a.k.a California) on my team. We reviewed my shot list and then went out to see the locations in real life choosing exactly where we wanted to be and when.

The Competition begins.

By 6am my rope was set up, climber in position and ready to shoot. I had this idea of Arco lit up by the morning glow and the climber in the foreground illuminated by a spotlight. To do this I attached a flashgun to a drone and positioned it behind the climber. This technique is certainly nothing new, but a little experimental. As experiments sometimes go it didn’t work. However we got some fantastic shots that showcased the beauty of Arco at first light.


I wanted each image to convey a different emotion. Climbing is not just about battling your way up, there’s so much more going on. Spectator scenery, exposure, friends and laughter – that’s what its all about.

Getting involved.

The sun began to rise up the crag fast! Racing up the wall of Abissi in the sweltering heat we quickly lined up the shot and got to work. We produced a series of images that capture the exposure that you often find in climbing especially on longer routes.


It’s not all that serious.

I remember first visiting Arco and seeing these funny little vehicles everywhere. I imaged how funny it might be racing to the crag with your friends and all your climbing equipment…that’s when the idea came to me! If I could fill an ’Ape with climbers it would make for a very ‘interesting’ shot! What do you think?


After a rather rushed morning we could relax a little and get a few more ‘around climbing’ shots on the way to our next location.

Chasing the sun down.

Moving on and up we approached Nago to the classic route Cato Zulu. This route wasn’t the most difficult but it was iconic. A large arête/prow that ascended from the forest below to overlook Lake Garda. We had 3 main ideas for this;

  1. Shoot from aside (where everybody takes a photo I’ve been told),
  2. Shoot from above,
  3. Shoot from a distance.

We got some fantastic panoramic images of Matteo as the sun beamed through the mountains behind. Matteo was the second climber on my team and up until this point had been doing a great job on belay duties!

Moving on I really wanted to give a sense of height and exposure in this next shot. So, using a Graduated ND filter I reduced the intensity of light that was being bounced from the trees below. This hopefully emphasised the climber as the subject of the image.

The sun was dropping rapidly and again, racing into position Francesco began climbing up to join Matteo for our celebration shot. We didn’t have to fake this shot…finally we could go for a beer!

It had been a long day of shooting images. Some 12 hours of shooting and over 2000 images later we decided to call it day. When you have a good crew full of motivation it’s surprising how much you can do in one day.

The Countdown

Now, you would think that’s the hard work was done. But no, I now had over 2000 images to go through, edit and select before 4pm that day! By 3pm I met up with the team to begin selecting our favourites. Just a few minutes before the deadline we still couldn’t choose between 6 images!

Biting the bullet I selected what I thought was the best choice; A mixture of both climbers, exposure and panoramic, fun and scenic. We now waited to find out if it was the right selection.

The Presentation

Starting with the Open Category we got to see the Top 3 placing images which we all really good! Prizes were given out before moving onto the Pro Category where everybody’s images were viewed. Some of the images presented were insane! Third place went to Matteo Mocellin who produced some great images all in vintage style. Second place went to last years winner Giovanni Danieli who again delivered stunning images. Then, as per usual there was a big pause for First place. Suddenly I was confused, why was Francesco on the big screen?! Why was my image on the big screen?! Unbelievable! We took First place! We were the Arco Rockstar 2018 Winners!!!

It turned out that I had made the right selection that day!

Arco Rockstar, an event organised by Adventure Awards and sponsored by Garda Trentino, La Sportiva, Climbing Technology, F-stop Gear and Verticle-Life Climbing App.

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