Watch action and sports photographer, Tim Kemple, tell about his route to becoming a professional photographer, and how his work has allowed him to travel to the farthest corners of the world.
PetaPixel: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
Tim Kemple: Sure. I’m a photographer and film maker based in Utah. I grew up on the East Coast and spent my weekends as a kid climbing, skiing and wandering. I started carrying a camera to document my adventures.
PP: How did you first get started in photography?
TK: So after digging up some cash to buy a used camera and getting a deal on a bunch of expired slide film, I spent the summer after high school graduation on the ultimate road trip. It was an endless tour of the mountain west — and when we got home I put together a slide show to share the stories with friends.
PP: How would you describe your photography to someone who has never seen it?
TK: I shoot the world’s most passionate athletes in the most epic landscapes on Earth. My photos are authentic and raw and hopefully beautiful.
PP: What was your first camera, and what gear do you use these days?
TK: That camera I bought in high school was a Nikon N90. From there it was an F100 and then an F5. Since then I’ve shot Canon, Sony and more Nikons.
I’ve been shooting with the Phase One 645DF+ and iQ180 on the trip I’m currently on in Mexico. It’s the first personal shoot I’ve had in a while. I’m finally getting the chance to shoot these images that keep me awake at night. It’s great stuff.
PP: How do you go about photographing the climb of someone like Alex Honnold? How much planning, preparation, and work goes into the shots?
TK: We do an extensive amount of research and prep before any significant location-based shoot. Pre-production is extremely important. We comb the Web and Google Earth to have a good understanding of light, look and feel of a particular location. Then we do our best to clearly communicate goals and expectations with the athlete(s) and really try to foster a collaborative shoot experience for everyone.
We’ve traveled for weeks just to get one shot (e.g. Pakistan, Nepal) so it’s safe to say there is no limit to what I’ll do to capture an image I have in my head.
PP: What kind of risks have you faced in pursuit of your shots?
TK: There is always some risk involved with shooting extreme sports on location. We take all the precautions we can ahead of time and I like to think the risks are pretty minimal. It’s the hazards that you can’t plan for that make things spicy.
PP: Have you had any risky close calls so far during your shoots? Can you give any examples?
TK: It’s always hard to play the game ‘what if’ because often the safe shoots end up being some of the more dangerous in retrospect. On shoots we’ve been threatened by knife-wielding locals trying to steal our equipment in Oman, stripped and had the drug dogs going through our gear in Brazil, nearly electrocuted more times than I can count, and believe it or not we’ve only sunk one rental car (it was in Colorado and it’s a long story!).
The athletes we are shooting have broken bones, lost teeth and (luckily) out run avalanches. But honestly that’s all part of the fun. We are out there working with the world’s best athletes, who are pushing the limits of their sport. S**t is going to happen, so you can’t sit around saying what if. You just have to get after it and enjoy the ride!
PP: How do you make a living? Is it primarily by licensing your photos? Selling prints? Shooting for publications?
TK: I’ve been working full time as a photographer for 10 years. I started out in the traditional path, doing editorial assignments that slowly progressed to more commercial work. Today I do a significant amount of my work with commercial clients. Brands like The North Face or Eastern Mountain Sports will hire my team to help create photography for advertising and brand content. I’m also doing a lot of video work for many of the same clients.
PP: What’s something about climbing photography that most people don’t know/realize?
TK: There are two things that come to mind:
The first is that my action photography is unique in that landscapes often play a role as significant as the subject in the frame. Photography is inherently 2-dimensional so it’s vital to me to make those epic scenes come to life and look as 3-dimensional as possible. Quite often I’m using off-camera lighting, creative angles, and non-traditional lighting scenarios to make the images come to life. I don’t think most people appreciate the care that goes into a single capture.
The second is that our shoots are big collaborations. Often the athlete’s input is as important as my own. In the end we want to shoot images that are worthy of being on the cover of an endemic magazine while still accomplishing a commercial directive.
PP: How much of a year do you spend away from home on photo shoots? How much of your time is spent managing your business versus actually creating photographs?
TK: The past several years, I’ve been on the road about 250 days a year. That includes travel to locations, meeting with clients, and shooting. I answer lots of emails from planes (like this one) or hotel rooms and make conference calls from wherever I can get a solid signal. I’d say that I’m shooting photo or video about 100 days a year.
PP: With so much of your life spent on the road for your photography, how do you carve out personal time for yourself? Do you not really have much of a line between your personal and professional lives?
TK: Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that I do what I love, so in a way every day is a Saturday. The more I travel for work, the more I have friends around the world. So I’m doing more trips where I schedule a few days before or after to say go climbing or go skiing with friends. For example we had a shoot in Japan this past spring and I knew we were going to have a couple down days in the middle of the trip. I told my crew to pack their skis, and I’m not sure they knew why. But when the day came, we packed up the van, hiked up Mt. Fuji, and had an epic ski down. How cool is that?!
PP: How big is your team, and what are the different responsibilities?
TK: As I mentioned before I try to balance my time between the photography and video work that I am doing. My video company is called Camp 4 Collective and we have 10 full time employees that are responsible for shooting, editing, data management, production, client management, music licensing and operations.
The photography side is much smaller. With just myself and a full time assistant doing the photo-specific work and a producer that works mainly on the bigger commercial projects. When we go on location to shoot, I have a pretty good ‘binder full’ of 2nd assistants I’ll bring on. So depending on the size of the project the photo team can be anywhere from 3-6 people.
PP: How do you go about setting up your lighting while hanging off the face of a cliff? What special equipment do you need for those situations?
TK: We have developed a lot of unique ways to get lighting into tricky situations. Specifically for climbing, for the shorter routes or boulders we can usually put the lights on stands on the ground. Because I’m usually shooting from above, the light is off axis enough from the camera that we can get a nice look with this set up. On longer routes or to get better quality light I will have an assistant rappel down the cliff and hold the light stand in his hand (usually with a small octo), with the battery for the flash in a pack on his back.
PP: How often do you deal with damaged or broken photo gear? What kind of insurance do you recommend?
TK: While I’m conscious of the weather, one of the last things I am ever worried about is the effect it will have on my gear. Cameras are tools of the job and are more resilient than most people realize. Of course we have insurance that costs about 1% on the gear it covers (e.g. $100k in gear costs $1k a year to cover) and I see no reason why every photographer doesn’t have some sort of policy to cover their equipment.
PP: What is the most important thing you’ve learned since starting out in photography?
TK: Wow. That’s a tough one. When I started shooting I was in high school… that seems like lifetimes ago. So I’ve learned a lot since I began. Perhaps the most important thing though is to never forget why you started in the first place. Photography is a visual representation of your own interest, passion, and expression. Too often we get bogged down in the day to day, or stressed about things that don’t matter. So savor the moments when you are shooting, traveling, exploring because those are the most important.
PP: What advice would you give someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
TK: If you want to be a photographer, shoot a lot… then shoot more. Shoot what you want to be hired to shoot. Seek out honest feedback from your peers. Be thankful for the criticisms you get and ponder those rather than basking in the glory of Internet ‘likes’. Take chances. Be a good person. Be fun to travel with. Be unexpected.
PP: How crowded is the photographic niche you’re working in? How much competition do you face?
TK: There are thousands of talented action sport photographers out there and it’s amazing to see the images that people are creating these days. What we do that is unique is that we work with the best athletes, we travel to epic locations and we push the limits of what is possible on a commercial project. It’s hard to appreciate the coordination and production work when you don’t see the dozen or so people behind the camera that helped make a shoot happen. But I feel confident in saying that we can do location shoots, in legit, real, jaw-dropping locations like few crews I’ve seen.
For example, if we want to shoot a trail running image, we wouldn’t just pick an open field and shoot the shot. Instead we do research, learn the nuances, and find out what motivates the athletes (where is their dream trail?). Then we might decide to travel to a place like Chamonix because it’s home to the world’s biggest ultra-trail race (the Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc) and has some of the most beautiful single-track trail in the world.
PP: How long do you plan on doing the type of photography you’re doing now, and what do you see your career looking like afterward?
TK: I’m over simplifying, but I think there are two ways to make a living in photography: either get hired to make beautiful pictures or be really good at talking about making beautiful pictures. They are both equally important and for now I happen to be pursuing the ‘get hired’ path. It’s tough to say where I’ll be in 5 years: I’m 31, so I like to think things are just beginning. I suspect I’ll have a camera in my hand and I’ll be shooting photos or videos (or maybe both at the same time if technology lets me?) with some of the most inspiring people I know in environments that I could only dream of.
PP: Who are some other photographers that inspire you?
TK: I’m inspired by photographers that are masters of the craft but then know when to throw all of the rules out the window. The ones that shoot with soul. I also tend to gravitate to images that appreciate a sense of place, and landscape.