To shoot photos this epic, sometimes you’ve gotta break some ankles

One of master action photographer Tim Kemple’s favorite quotes: “Story is always king.” To him, this best describes one of the many ingredients required to find success in the world of extreme sports photography. Famous for shooting extraordinary athletes, Kemple takes great risks for his reward, resulting in photographs that tell epic stories. From repelling down cliffs and suspending from wires to dangling out of helicopters, Kemple fully immerses himself alongside these dedicated athletes to achieve historic action shots, regardless of the side effects — i.e. injuries.

His images have been described as multisensory as each photograph highlights countless intricate movements, fearless intensity, anomalous landscapes, and the ever-present danger facing his subjects — many he considers heroes and friends. Well known for his framing and lighting techniques — and a professional climber himself — Kemple dedicates all his energy into finding new landscapes, techniques, and camera gear to capture athletes and spaces no one’s seen before.

While in-between adventures, Digital Trends caught up with Kemple to discuss his latest projects. Talking everything ranging from ice climbing “alien-like” caves to overcoming injuries during shoots, he also shared a bit about the latest in off camera lighting gear and how combining storytelling and tech is the future of extreme sports photography.

Digital Trends: You’ve been a professional climber for years, then transitioned into photographing and filming professional athletes in wild places — why the shift?

“The summer season created overhanging walls of ice unlike anything I’d seen climbed before.”

Tim Kemple: I grew up in New England and was drawn to photography and film as a way to share my adventures from road trips across the country I used to take with friends. Back then, I shot slides not because I had visions of having my work in print, but because I could load up a slide carousel and tell stories about climbing, skiing, and the new friends we met along the way.

In hindsight, I think I’ve always been a pretty quiet person. I’m an introvert. So, photography and film have become my voice. I can turn up the volume or dial it back. It just depends on the stories I’m trying to tell. Athleticism in epic landscapes has always been a common theme in a lot of my work. Many of my friends are some of the best action and adventure athletes in the world, so as technology has enabled new ways of telling stories, it’s been a natural fit to have them as the subjects of the work I do.

A recent photo shoot in Iceland with world-class climbers, like Samuel Elias, captured incredible ice formations but also highlighted new territory to climb — tell us more about this experience and how it all began.

A few years ago, I was in Iceland shooting on hiking trails in the southern part of the island for The North Face. While there, I noticed a few brochures from mom and pop style companies offering “ice treks” across the glaciers. There were people standing in these big ice caves, with crampons and ice axes, around the bluest ice you’ve ever seen. I was curious and wondered, “could you ice climb in these caves?” Traditionally, the steepest ice climbs are vertical but here it seemed like running water in the summer season created overhanging walls of ice unlike anything I’d seen climbed before.

I returned a year later with experienced climbers and what we discovered was an ice climbing paradise. Caves, moulins, and icebergs in all shapes and sizes. It was a short trip but one of the most memorable I’d ever had as a photographer. We just scratched the surface of what was possible as a photographer and in many ways, the athletes felt they had found the next step of what’s possible as ice climbers. This past year, I pitched the idea to go back and explore the glaciers to The North Face. We needed a solid team of experienced climbers and more time. The project was approved.

Once you received the green light to explore this new frontier, you suffered an accident on location. What happened and how did you work around your injury?

We had perfect weather and a team of athletes but on the very first day [of shooting], I took a fall on the glacier and broke my ankle. I was devastated. Here I was, back in the place I’d been dreaming about, with a group of strong athletes and perfect weather — unable to walk without crutches and probably needing surgery. My stress and disappointment quickly turned optimistic, though. The day after the accident the crew loaded me up in a sled and dragged me to a location along a frozen lagoon. The next day, the spikes for my crutches arrived which meant I could walk one-footed on the ice.

Tim Kemple
Tim Kemple
Tim Kemple

How did you physically maneuver yourself to get the shots?

In a way, my broken ankle gave a common goal for the climbers to rally around. With each day, I learned how to best move around with a combination of crawling, crutching, and being pulled in a sled. It was far from glamorous but I’m so proud of the work we produced. It may not have been the way I had envisioned it but we were slowly getting the photographs I’d been waiting so long for and had been so excited to capture.

What camera gear did you use during the shoot in Iceland? What works best for you in these icy conditions?

I use a variety of gear depending on the subject matter. For landscapes and “epic” moments I try and use the 100MP Phase One XF100 medium format camera system. It has detail and dynamic range that’s impossible to beat. In the wet, tight environments, or while shooting from a rope, I use a Nikon D810 and Sigma Art lenses — almost always primes. We also shot a fair amount with the drone while in Iceland, using the DJI Mavic and Inspire 2.

Switching gears and climates, tell us about your recent sports photo shoot in Mallorca, Spain with extreme climbers who were ropeless and 50 feet above the ocean? What were the goals of the project and most memorable moments?

I couldn’t turn down the opportunity — even if I still had a busted foot.

Right after my Iceland project, I flew to Mallorca, Spain to shoot with the new Profoto B1x flashes. I’d been using Profoto lights my entire career and when the brand offered me the opportunity to try them out, in one of my favorite places, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity — even if I still had a busted foot. I wasn’t sure what Profoto was going to say when I showed up with a broken ankle but they were super supportive and in the end, it didn’t slow us down one bit.

The goal of the shoot was to combine the ability to use flash at high shutter speeds with creative and unique angles of the climbers — who we tasked with climbing ropeless over the ocean with nothing but the salt water of the Mediterranean to catch them if they fell. During the shoot, one of the highlights was setting up a zip line to get us an angle that was about 20 to 30 feet away from the wall. Crazy.

Speaking of lighting, what are your thoughts on the evolution of camera lighting technology? What features do you like about the Profoto B1X units?

Camera lighting has evolved rapidly the last few years with advances in technology. For me, as a photographer that shoots lots of action, the biggest advancement has been the speed at which I can sync the lights with my camera. The new Profoto lights are using High Speed Sync technology that allows you to shoot whatever shutter speed you want, up to 1/4000th of a second and still capture the flash in your frame. It wasn’t too long ago that flash syncs were 1/60th of a second.

Tim Kemple
Tim Kemple
Tim Kemple

Finally, you’ve added VR technology and 360 content for Jaunt VR to your creative tool belt. What role do you think this technology and future tech platforms will play in extreme sports photography? 

We live in such an amazing time if you’re a creative or artistic person. There are so many outlets to tell stories and they each have a unique look and feel. I’ve been shooting 360 VR for the past few years and if you can get someone to sit down behind a set of goggles, you can’t find a more immersive way to tell a story. It’s nuts. I think technology by itself inspires the unseen in photography and film — but that’s fleeting. Now, if you can use tech and combine that with great storytelling, you can create art that stands the test of time and can be the foundation for the future of film and photo. Story is always king.

Currently, you can find Kemple walking 100 miles along the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park. According to his Instagram page, “It’s far, it’s hot, it’s strenuous, it’s damn near impossible according to certain park rangers. It’s also liberating, beautiful, fulfilling, and (get this) fun — if you let it be.”

For more information on Kemple’s latest work, adventures, and bookings, head on over to his website.

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