Climbing to the top with Tim Kemple
Tim Kemple is the kind of photographer who will do whatever it takes to get his shot, whether it’s climbing, crawling or dangling in mid-air with his gear. He’s an action photographer who can be found in places others won’t go—or can’t go. We sat down for a small chat.
Tim Kemple's photographs take viewers right to the centre of his adventures, which began with childhood weekends spent climbing, skiing and hiking. By high school, he had begun carrying a camera and a video camera to document his adventures. At the age of 19, he got his first cover in Climbing magazine. Today, he travels the world on assignment and on his own adventures in both photography and video, with Camp4 Collective, and has more than 240,000 followers on Instagram. Profoto caught up with him for an interview shortly after a shoot where he hung out with rock climbers high above the sea in Mallorca.
How come you chose photography as a career path? And why outdoor action photography?
I don't think it was a choice honestly. It was something I was doing, wanting to be better at and pursuing actively. I just happened to eventually be able to make money from my art, and before long it became a career.
What do you consider the most fascinating thing about being a photographer?
I think as a photographer, what fascinates me has changed over time. I'm someone who is always curious about the unseen or the unknown. In the beginning all I cared about was action. I wanted to capture images that were poster worthy and my friends would want to hang on their walls. Then for a while I explored technology in over the top ways, using cameras and lighting to create scenes that were hyper real. More recently, though, I've been in search of stories. Real stories of people and places that aren't necessarily what you would expect or what you have seen before.
How did you learn about photography and lighting? Why is light important?
Haha! (laughs) I read skate and fashion magazines and then would go out and try and re-create the images I'd seen – except with the environments I had in my backyard which were more outdoor based. I laugh because my first flash was just a cheap old, speedlight that I had no way to trigger so I'd just place my camera on a tripod, set a longer exposure and just count down... 3,2,1, and at 1 I would push the shutter and my friend would fire the flash. I actually had a couple of these images run in magazines I think.
You started shooting slide film. What influence has digital photography had on your work?
The reality is that digital cameras revolutionized what was possible with lighting because you could experiment in real time. Move lights here, increase power there. All in real time. I know the fashion guys were already doing that with Polaroids, et cetera, but for me and my friends, coming from slide film, having that immediate feedback was life-changing.
What was your "big break" and how did it happen?
I can't say that I ever had a 'big break'. It's been a matter of luck and a little skill every step of the way. I started by shooting for magazines, then eventually I had advertisers wanting to use my photographs. I travelled in camper van for a couple of years. Just shooting photos, climbing, skiing, exploring the western United States. Eventually, it got a bit stressful to have all of my gear in a van, and I was having to leave it for a couple weeks at a time as I got more and more photography opportunities, and I started traveling outside of the US.
What is your ambition as a photographer today?
Today? I will say that when I started as a photographer I wanted to make my audience happy. That was how I measured success. If they were happy, I was happy. Today I want to capture images and stories that make me happy. This is my art, this is my opinion, if you like it great. If not, no worries. I'm excited to continue to use technology to capture perspectives, and draw attention to people and places that are less known.
How did you get introduced to Profoto gear?
My first "studio" light kit was a used, and abused, original Profoto Pro-7B that I bought off of eBay. No joke. I used that thing for years. Hauled it for miles and miles into the woods. To the tops of mountains. That thing was a beast, and it survived all the punches I threw at it. This was in my more "experimental" phase, so I really liked the idea of having a ton of light to play with. We also didn't have HSS at the time, so shooting in the midday sun required more power than today. After that, I got the Profoto B1s right when they came out. They have been all over the world with me, and back.
How much difference did the B1 and HSS make to your photography and your ability to get the shots you want?
Let's be honest — the B1s didn't reinvent the physics of lighting. What they did for me was make bringing lighting, real high powered lighting, to places that required more people, more crew, better weather, more time, in the past. Essentially, they took all the advantages of speedlights and put them in a more powerful package.
I also shoot a lot of fast action, so where HSS is often used to reduce the ambient light from the sun, I'm also using it to freeze the key moments in action sports. Whether it's an Olympic Athlete in the superpipe or an ultra runner in the Alps, HSS is a feature I'm using every day I shoot on location.
How important has the B1's portability been over the years?
One shoot I remember in particular was with The North Face in Hokkaido Japan last year. I was working with Olympic Gold Medal snowboarder Kaitlyn Farrington and we really only had one afternoon to get "the shot." Kaitlyn was diagnosed with a congenital spine condition not long after winning the gold medal in Sochi, which means she doesn't compete anymore, but she can still rip big mountain lines incredibly well. So I wanted to capture the enthusiasm and energy of Kaitlyn's personality and riding style in the images we shot... just ripping turns, not in the halfpipe how she has historically been photographed.
Unfortunately, it was a cold, windy, snowy day and we could barely see 10 feet in front of us. Somehow, despite all of this, we found a beautiful tree in the middle of this steep slope that was completely untracked. We marched the B1 up the hill and all it took was one turn. One turn to get the perfect image despite the snow, cold, and waning light.
If you could give any tips to photographers that want to succeed in photography, what would you say?
It doesn't matter what type of photography you are into, be true to yourself and your own personal interests. Create work that has an opinion and don't strive to be like everyone else. Photography is like music – everyone has their own personal taste. Some people like Metallica, some people like Katie Perry. And whether you like them or not, you can't argue with the fact that they are both successful artists. So be yourself, have an opinion about what you are doing, and create memorable work. Some people will love it, others not as much, but that's a good thing right? The last thing you want is to create work that you, and your clients think is just "OK."