Lewis Kemper Talks Nature Photography, Photoshop, and The Photography Business

Lewis Kemper has been photographing the natural beauty of North America, and its parklands for over 30 years. During his extensive travels, he has been to 47 states from Alaska to Florida.   His work has been exhibited and published in magazines, books, and calendars worldwide.

Before moving west, he received a BA in Fine Art Photography from the George Washington University in 1976. The grandeur of the west beckoned and Lewis moved to Yosemite National Park, where he lived for 11 years. His work has been published in numerous books including publications by The Sierra Club, The National Geographic Society, Prentice Hall, and more.
His pictures have appeared in calendars published by Audubon, The Sierra Club, Self Realization Foundation, Golden Turtle Press, The Sierra PressAvalanche Publishing, Browntrout, The Nature Conservancy, and others. His work has appeared in magazines that include: Backpacker, Women’s Sports and Fitness, Sierra, National Wildlife, National Geographic Traveler, American Photographer, and Outdoor Photographer.
Currently Lewis is a contributing editor to Outdoor Photographer and Digital Photo magazines and NANPA Currents magazine. We asked Lewis if he could tell us a little about his photography and career.

Please tell us how you got started and how long you have been in the business.

I got interested in photography in high school where in my senior year I took a class that half the year was photography and the other half of the year was astronomy. It must’ve been a good class because I make my living with the camera and I own a telescope! As far as career goes, I got my start with a job at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite National Park in 1978. I started working on my own as a freelance photographer in 1980.

Early on you worked at the Ansel Adams gallery in Yosemite. What was that like and what did you learn?

Working at the gallery was one of the greater experiences in my life.  Back then Yosemite wasn’t quite as busy as it is today, and in the winter months there would be very few visitors coming into the gallery, which gave me a lot of time to go through their amazing collection of photographic books. And not only did I get to go through the books, but one of my jobs was to check in the fine prints that Ansel would send to the gallery to fill sales orders. So I got to examine all of those prints very closely! And one of the other main benefits of working at the gallery at that time, was that Ansel was still conducting his workshops. I studied photography in college, and the workshops were like having my history of photography book come to life! In fact the man that wrote the book, Beaumont Newhall was even there at the workshops. I got to meet people like Paul Capinigro, Ernst Haas, Ruth Bernard, John Sexton, and many others. And another thing the gallery did, was cohost a workshop with the Yosemite Institute. I got to teach at a few of these workshops, and I got to teach with Cole Weston, and Philip Hyde. Meeting Philip was one of the great highlights of my life, and we got to be friends and stayed in touch until his death. One thing I learned from Ansel during that time, was how to be generous with your time and give to your students.

You were one of the earliest nature photographers I know of who embraced Photoshop almost from the beginning. It’s obvious what Photoshop brought to photography, but what did it do for you way back when you jumped in?

When I first started using Photoshop, it was version 2.5. As you mention there weren’t many other nature photographers that were using the program. In the beginning I used it to create some collages, and some of them were not very realistic, like putting the howling coyote before a giant moon, etc. But I also used it to enhance my images and give me colors that I always wanted to be able to represent with film. In the beginning most nature photographers were not into Photoshop and didn’t appreciate what I was doing. I remember going to a NANPA, North American Nature Photographers Association meeting in San Diego and having some people refuse to talk to me, and others tell me I was wrong to use that technology on nature images. Now it’s kind of ironic that I write a technology column for their Currents magazine! I guess it’s more acceptable these days! But the big advantage of starting back then was I was ahead of the curve and I make a good portion of my income teaching those people how to use Photoshop!

You are now one of the most popular Photoshop instructors out there and you started early on teaching. What is it that you think nature photographers need to learn?

I think the big lesson would be to do what is right for you. Some nature photographers feel that they are journalists and therefore they don’t want to do anything to change their “reality” but of course neither film or the digital camera captures the world we see it. In fact I think with the digital technology of the cameras and definitely we can do in post production I can make images that look more like reality than I ever could with film. But I never got into photography to be a journalist, I took up a camera because I could draw and I guess I always had a creative desire and photography, especially the digital world allows me to be creative in the ways I want.

So I think every photographer needs to know how to use Photoshop and or Lightroom to make the most of their images.  That is why I have made a good portion of my living by teaching Photoshop and Lightroom classes around the country and through my training DVDs. Whenever I lecture and demonstrate my Photoshop/Lightroom techniques I end up selling thousands of dollars of training videos to photographers that realize they need to learn this! This even prompted me to offer one to one online training, via computer screen share technology, and now I give lessons to students all over the country without ever leaving my home!

Are there any uses of your work or assignments that you are proud of?

I think I like it best when my work is used to help environmental organizations, even if it’s a something like being printed in their calendar, where I donate a lot of images to local websites, and pictures for auctions and those type of things. The greatest commercial use was when Canon used one of my volcano images in their Systems Catalog, and the image was seen by millions of people!

Early in my career we would job out the Photoshop work, but since then I have learned that it is absolutely essential that I become proficient at Photoshop. What are your thoughts?

I think as a professional you better know Photoshop, or have someone on your staff that is proficient if you want to survive in today’s business!

Marketing and self promotion is critical to any business and especially photographers. What is your philosophy here?

I’m a little bit of a unique situation as I do not try to compete for picture taking jobs, or even submit much for picture publications, but my biggest market is in education, teaching people how to use the digital technologies. So I market to organizations, camera clubs, workshop groups and individuals. So I use a lot of e-mailing and social networking, as well as writing my articles for different publications to spread the word about what I have to offer.

Years ago you were selected as a Canon Explorer of Light. That is a pretty prestigious honor. Does that allow you to travel the globe far and wide on their behalf?

It is a very prestigious honor, but unfortunately global travel is not one of the perks. Canon sponsors 62 photographers and cinematographers in the US, from all aspects of photography. There are wedding photographers, war photographers, food photographers, sports photographers, commercial photographers, and people like me that take pictures of trees and rocks. Our duties are to promote photography and then use of Canon equipment around the country. So for me that means speaking to camera clubs, universities, and trade shows talking about, and educating people on the use of the digital technologies. Sometimes there are some travel perks involved when photographing with some of the new equipment. I’ve been paid to go to Hawaii and Alaska to provide images and/or articles on new equipment.

You are also a frequent contributor to Outdoor Photographer Magazine. How long have you been doing that and are your primary contributions related to Photoshop?

I got started writing for Outdoor Photographer in its first year of publication. Early on I wrote many articles, mostly on shooting techniques from back in the days of film. As digital is coming along I tried to interest the magazine in some digital darkroom articles, but at the time they weren’t interested. Soon after they created a new publication called PC Photo, and I began writing a regular column for the magazine. Unfortunately that magazine is no longer published. In the past few years I have not been as active writing for Outdoor Photographer. But I do write a technology column in the North America Nature Photographers Association trade magazine Currents.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle for established professionals to remain successful in today’s markets?

I can only speak for the market that I know which his nature and outdoor photography type pictures. I think the biggest obstacle for this group is the millions of amateurs putting their work up on sites and willing to sell them for pennies. There are a great many talented amateurs out there and for many of them just the thought of selling a picture or having a picture in publication is all that matters and they are not trying to earn a living, recoup expenses or plan for their future with the income they make from photography. And this has hurt the professional, especially one who is relying on stock in this aspect of photography. The other factor is the consolidation of stock agencies, and the willingness of the mega-agencies to sell pictures for so little.

With your successful career, you certainly are asked by others, how to succeed in the business. What advice would you have for them?

I would recommend anyone entering the business today, to number one, do do what you love and love what you do, and practice your craft as much as you can. I would also recommend starting off trying to build your business locally and regionally and gain a reputation for being the best in your area before trying to go national. I also recommend being flexible these days having your hand in as many pots as you can. Which in nature photography would mean having a web presence, teaching workshops, selling images, selling prints, posters, ebooks, cards, anything you can think of to make a buck. And also remember the person that can market the best will be the most successful.

Can we look at some of your images and have you describe them?

This is the image I took in Hawaii when I was shooting with a prototype Canon 50 D. Canon was going to announce the camera soon, and I had made arrangements to take a prototype to Alaska and take some pictures that were going to be used on their website. Just prior to going to Alaska, Canon asked me to go to Hawaii, in my role as an Explorer of Light, for their big sales meeting. So I asked if they could give me the camera a little early so I can shoot both in Hawaii and Alaska. Then they decided they wanted to use the Hawaii picture for the sales catalog.

I began making exposures of this eruption at Waikupanaha on the Big Island. When I first started taking images there were no people in my scene. And just before the eruptions began to get higher these people appeared. At first I was rather disappointed that they were going to be people in all my pictures. But as the eruptions got higher and more dramatic I was glad the people were there to add scale to the image. I have also used this image as the cover of my book “Capturing the Light” which won the People’s choice award in the 2009 Blurb Photography Book Now contest (http://www.lewiskemper.com/content/capturing-light), as by Canon at trade shows.

The image was taken with a EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @350mm, ISO 640, f/6.3 at 2 sec

In 2004 I did my first program at the Canon Explorer of Light in Metairie, Louisiana. I went a couple days early to photograph, especially wanting to go to this location, Oak Alley Plantation, that I had seen in a photograph. I met some great people on that trip that I am still very friendly with. One of them, Charlie Martin, guided me on my trip to Oak Alley Plantation. This image was made early in the morning on a very hot and humid day. I was impressed by the strength and majesty of the stately oak trees.

Taken with a Canon 1Ds; Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @ 105mm; ISO 400; f/32 at 1 sec

This image was made on the same trip. The next day, following my lecture, I went out into the swamps with some of the better customers from Bennett’s Camera. Once again, Charlie Martin was our guide. We left in the dark and boated to this remote location on Lake Maurepas. I was wearing chest waders, and up to my chest in the swamp, tripod and all! I remember getting back to my fancy hotel, and having my tripod drip swamp water off through the lobby!

Canon 1Ds; 24-85mm lens @ 24mm; ISO 100; f/8 at 1/2000 sec

A week after being in Hawaii, I found myself in Alaska, in Denali National Park for autumn color. It was the first time I’ve been in the park at that time of year and I was amazed at the sight of the tundra turning all these glorious shades of red orange and yellow. When I saw the pattern of the erosion of this landscape, I wanted to “abstract” the image, and remove the scale by zooming in tight in the composition. I like making the viewer think a bit when they look at one of my images, and playing with scale is one way to do that.

Canon 1Ds Mark 3; EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 105mm; ISO 100; f/16 at 1/15 sec

This is now a commonly photographed scene in Yosemite in February. Back in the days when I lived in the park, this phenomenon never attracted much attention. But after Galen Rowell, and Michael Frye wrote about this in Outdoor Photographer it become a very popular photography destination. I went back to photograph it digitally in 2009, and there had to be at least 500 photographers in the Valley trying to make the same image. I decided to photograph this popular scene from a slightly different vantage point. I was further away and across the Merced River when I made my image giving it a little different look. But even there I was not alone, there had to be about 60 photographers in this area. The following day I went to the “popular” location and there had to be 300 photographers there, and the cloud came and the waterfall never lit up!

I recently donated a 24 x 36 canvas of this image to our local PBS station’s art auction. It sold for four figures, and afterwards I had a viewer contact me wanting a copy and I made a good sale. I am putting a copy in my upcoming show, and hope I have as good of luck! This was also used in my book “Photographing Yosemite Digital Field Guide,” and has been used by Canon at trade shows.

Canon 1 Ds Mark 3; EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @250mm; ISO 100: f/10; 1/30 sec

This is another commonly photographed scene that I tried to photograph a bit differently. The Moulton Barn on Mormon Row in the Tetons has been the subject of thousands of images. But by using my 17 mm tilt shift lens I was able to frame a unique composition. I was literally inches from the foreground tree and was able to achieve extreme depth of field to the mountains in the background. This is an HDR image comprised of five photographs. I’m a big fan of HDR to make realistic looking images and capture a tonal range that was not available to me in film.

Canon 1Ds Mark 3, TS-E17mm f/4L, ISO 100; f/16 shutter 5 exposures with speeds from 1/6 sec to 1/250 sec put together in PhotomatixPro software

Again, I find myself in a familiar location trying to make a picture that is a little bit unique. I did a couple of things to add my own spin to this image. Traditionally, this view from Gates of the Valley has been an afternoon or evening photograph due to the location of the sun. But in this image I made the photograph as the sun was rising. This is only now possible due to HDR allowing me to photograph into the direct sunlight and still hold detail throughout the image. The second thing I did to differentiate this image was to photograph it with a 14 mm lens, and get my tripod right down to water level giving me a different perspective on the river. As I mentioned earlier, I feel that HDR is one of the best things to happen to nature photographers in a long time! I am now able to make so many images that were impossible in the past.

Canon 1Ds Mark 3; EF14mm f/2.8L II USM; ISO 100; f/18; 5 exposures from 1/40 sec to .4 sec Put together with Lightroom Enfuse software.

I’ve been very fortunate the last couple of years teaming up with a wonderful travel company to lead some amazing international trips! For the past two years I’ve led trips to Tibet. The travel company, Destination Himalaya, does a great job of putting together wonderful tours with great in country guides. Our guide found us this great location from which to shoot the Potala Palace. Once again the use of HDR made this image possible. I had been to this location the previous year, but we had a cloudy overcast morning in the images were not as dramatic as they were this day. Next year, I am leading a trip to India for the Pushkar Camel fair, come join me!

Canon 1Ds Mark 3; EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @28mm; ISO 100; f/14; 5 exposures from 1/20 sec to 1/320 sec put together with PhotomatixPro software.

I tend to like to shoot in dramatic light, and quite often backlighting situations. The unique lighting condition here, of the strong color in the sky was enhanced by the abundance of clouds, which bounced the light around in this lagoon at Jokulsarlon, Iceland.  The light bouncing around and the ability to pick out detail and color in shadow areas within a raw file allowed me bring out the amazing blues of the icebergs.  This image has been used by Canon and various trade shows and was printed about 4’ x 6’ for the CES show in Las Vegas. I spent three days at this lagoon photographing under many different lighting situations. This was the last morning, and by far the most colorful and dramatic light that I had seen.

Canon 1Ds Mark 2; EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 80mm; ISO 100; f/13; 1/6 sec

Yosemite will always be a second home for me! It is fun to go back with a new digital technology and make some pictures that were impossible to make in the past. Once again this is a situation where HDR allows me to make an image that I couldn’t do with film. Here I am pointing directly into the sunrise, but because of HDR I’m still able to get detail in the foreground and everywhere else in the image as well. It allows you to go to old places with a new eye! This image has done well in the fine print market.

Canon 1Ds Mark 3; EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 24mm; ISO 100, f/22; 5 images from 1/100 sec to 1/6 sec put together with PhotomatixPro software

I have always liked making panoramic images, and for the past six months have been doing so more often. I never really did much with these images in the past, but I have a show opening at a gallery in January and I’ve made 10 of my panoramas into large canvas images. This one is 2 feet by almost 6 feet, and the longest in the show is 9 feet long. I had one panorama that would have printed 23 feet long I was planning on making it for the show until a friend of mine asked a rather practical question when he said, “How are you going to get it there?” And I realized he was right! This is made up of nine vertical images. I have a leveling base on my Feisol tripod and also use a bubble level on my camera with my Really Right Stuff ball head. That keeps me pretty level, and I put the images together using Photomerge in Photoshop.

9 vertical images with a Canon 1Ds Mark 3; EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @ 115mm; ISO 100; f/14; 1 sec

As I mentioned earlier, there are times I like to make my viewers think and guess when looking at an image. I took a whole series of pictures at this location making many different abstract patterns and colors. This is an image of a reflection in a creek in the Smoky Mountains during autumn color. I got down low to pick up the reflection of the colors, and used a mid-telephoto lens to crop and isolate small sections of the creek, eliminating all sense of scale. Different shutter speeds yielded different results, and I took many pictures experimenting with all the different looks that I could achieve. I think the willingness to experiment, and try different things at a location is something everyone should learn. I get so amazed when I see a photographer walk up to a location take one picture and walk away. When I get to a location where there is something that attracts my interest I spend a lot of time there. I look at it through different lenses, from different height perspectives, and think if different exposures will give me different kinds of results. I think every photographer needs to do this!

Canon 1Ds Mark 2; EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @ 190mm; ISO 100; f/9; 1/40 sec

For more information on Lewis Kemper’s training DVD’s, books, classes, tours, speaking engagements and online training go www.LewisKemper.com

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