Lewis Kemper Q&A:
The Eminent Photographer on Photo Tours and Life Behind the Lens
Imagine stepping through the doors of one of your first jobs out of college and finding yourself face to face with your idols. When photographer Lewis Kemper left George Washington University in 1976 after graduating with a degree in fine art photography, he was hired at The Ansel Adams Gallery, where he was surrounded by a veritable who’s who of photography greats.
“I was a 23-year-old kid, fresh out of college,” Lewis remembers. “So, walking into the Ansel Adams Gallery and being there when Ansel was teaching his workshops was like walking into my History of Photography textbook, only all the people I had studied in class were there live in front of me.
“To actually get to sit down and talk to them and hear them speak live was just mind-boggling.”
One of the biggest takeaways from his time at the gallery, and something that remains with him as he continues leading tours and workshops some forty years later, is the individualized attention the namesake of the gallery would give to his students.
“Even someone as well-known and famous as Ansel gave so much time to the students and was so personal with [them]. When Ansel talked to the students, the student really was the most important person in the room, not him.
“That was something I always tried to carry forward in my teaching, making it about their experiences and not about mine.”
In April, Lewis Kemper will be leading Photographer’s India: Land of the Tiger Safari, a 13-day adventure into the heart of India, crafted especially for those with a passion for photography and a desire to further hone their skills.
We recently had a conversation with Lewis about his travels to India, what keeps bringing him back to the subcontinent, and what it’s like to study photography with him.
It seems fairly obvious between your books, your DVDs, your workshops, and your blog that you enjoy sharing your knowledge with others. What can a traveler expect from Lewis Kemper, the teacher?
I’ve been a professional photographer for over 40 years. I’ve been leading tours and workshops for probably close to 40 years as well. I’ve taught for many different organizations around the country. I was a Canon “Explorer of Light” for 10 years.
[On this trip] we’ll be doing in-the-field teaching. When we’re out in the field, we’ll be talking about the lighting conditions, shutter speed, aperture, and we’ll be helping people adjust settings on their cameras. We’ll be making sure everybody’s set to get the best captures that they can of wildlife and of the landscapes we’re going to be seeing. What I bring to the table is being right there to help people and answer their questions.
What advice would you give someone on their first photo safari?
Whenever you’re shooting wildlife, shutter speed is your most important factor. Animals’ head movements and things like that require a faster shutter speed than you probably think. They should probably be starting their shutter speeds at at least 1/500 of a second or higher. I usually like to start mine at 1 / 640 of a second. So, we’ll work with setting the shutter speed and making sure that we take care of that either through shutter priority on their cameras or if they have auto ISO, letting the camera handle it.
We want to give people the optimal chance of getting the best exposures and sharpest pictures they can.
This will be your fifth trip to India. What keeps bringing you back?
Any trip to India will change your view on life. It’s just such an amazing place. It’s such hustle and bustle. Especially when we do Varanasi as part of this trip. It’s just fascinating. To them it’s everyday life, but to us, it’s making order out of chaos. Watching how the traffic goes, how the people go, how all these interactions take place. It’s all done in a fairly peaceful manner. That much traffic in the States would just be road rage and insanity. There you just learn to go with the flow a whole lot more.
You also see people who, to our standards, don’t have much, but are really content and happy with their life and the way their life is. It makes you appreciate your life a little bit more and think about things you can do for people who may not have as much as you have.
Beyond that, the colors, the sights, and the sounds are something you’ll never ever forget. The people have also always just been so warm and friendly and open to having their pictures taken. You pointing a camera at a stranger and just having them smile and accept it is pretty cool.
Travelers always love to hear first hand about destinations and accommodations. You’ve been to Bandhavgarh National Park and Pugdundee King’s Lodge, two highlights of our April trip, previously. What have those experiences been like?
The park is very cool. Obviously it’s a really big business–the tours running through the park–but they do a really good job of organizing visitors into different tracks and there’s only so many vehicles allowed on a given track, so it’s never too much of a madhouse. Sometimes you’re in a cluster with other vehicles and other times you’re the only vehicle there seeing the tigers.
The lodge where we stay has guides who are really knowledgable and helpful and who are also cognizant of photographers and what a photographer needs. They make sure you’re on the right side and at the right angle and the light’s right. They’re patient enough to wait. They take a real pride in making sure you come away with good pictures.
On the first trip I took there, we saw six tigers before breakfast. That was pretty amazing. It can be spectacular that way. We never went without seeing tigers and tigers are just part of it. The birdlife is amazing, the monkeys, the scenery itself. It’s constant sensory overload. You’ll have a blast and you’ll take more pictures than you ever thought you could in a day.
The lodge is really comfortable and really deluxe. When I show people pictures of the rooms, they say, “Oh my God, I never pictured that it’d look so nice.” That’s always the first question: “What’s it like where we stay?” They’re sort of expecting something less than ideal and they see how nice it is and that’s so comforting. It’s a hot and dusty trip. You come back at the end of the day basically covered in dust. You’re ready for a shower. When you can come back to a really nice room and relax, it makes it a whole lot easier.
We’ve talked a lot about getting good pictures, but, as they say, seeing is believing. Could you share some of your favorite shots from your visits to India with our audience and tell us what made them so special?
We were on a boat on the Ganges River in Varanasi and I spotted this person walking on the ghats. I asked our driver to stop, so we wouldn’t pass him. I noticed he was walking towards a section of the ghats with no people, and saw that if I used a telephoto lens, I would be able to isolate the man against the steps and create a very graphic image. There were only a few seconds where all the elements came together, but I’m glad I recognized the potential of the scene and stopped the boat so I could make it happen. I was hand holding a 150-600mm lens at 600mm in the boat, so having good image stabilization in the lens really helps!
After three days in the park we lost count somewhere around 15 different tigers. The most exciting was when this female brought her three cubs out of the woods to a watering hole. Our great guide was able to position the jeep so that everyone had a wonderful view and we were directly in line with the path as they came towards us. Of course everyone gets so excited you almost forget to raise the camera and take pictures! But we watched the four tigers spend quite a while at the watering hole, which gave us many opportunities to make great images and memories to go with them.
Besides just tigers, Bandhavgarh National Park offers many other opportunities for wildlife spotting. We saw and identified over 100 species of birds–thanks to our great guide–and many other kinds of animals. I especially liked the interaction of this mother and child Langur monkeys and how human they appeared. We were very fortunate that they stayed in that pose for several minutes allowing us to get great images.
After Photographer’s India, what’s next for you travel-wise?
We’re still figuring out specifics, but it seems very likely that I’ll be in Mongolia in summer of 2020 to lead another trip for Nomadic Expeditions. A trip to Mongolia just sounds so interesting. I’m really looking forward to it. I can’t wait.
We–and our travelers, we’re sure–can’t wait, either.