Stefan Rohner: Freewheeling Spirit with a Leica

The main goal of photographer and cyclist Stefan Rohner is to capture dynamic images of people, in action images and portraits, as well as luminous landscapes — often from the saddle of a moving bicycle! Though he is an avid user of his Leica MP, Stefan uses a non-Leica compact camera for his shooting while cycling. He was born in Uberlingen on Lake Constance, moved to Berlin in his 20s where he created impressive large-scale oil paintings, and later traveled extensively in Morocco, India and Lourdes as a documentary photographer. He now lives in Ibiza and is a full-time professional, mainly in the genres of portrait, landscape and street photography. Here in his own thoughtful words, is a glimpse at his ongoing creative quest.

Q: When did you first become involved with photography as a serious undertaking?

A: At the age of 20 I started shooting pictures with an old Nikon, but I never got into it very deeply. It wasn’t until around 1999-2000 that I began to dedicate a lot of time to photography. Previously I had been a painter and during that time I acquired an understanding of composition, the use of light, color and expression. That period coincided with the beginning of the widespread use of digital photography, but at that time digital prints were still lifeless when compared to fiber-based paper prints made from film-based images. That’s why I initially studied black-and-white developing and printing and bought darkroom equipment so I could do it myself.

Q: Which came first cycling or photography? And how did get involved with cycling?

A: I practiced riding a bicycle years before photography, in my twenties, first with mountain bike and later with a road bike. It was just for fun, although eventually I did participate in some amateur competitions here in Ibiza and also in Mallorca. In the year 2000 I met my wife and my daughter was born in 2001, so I gradually started spending less and less time on the bike and more time at home with my family. I’ve always loved photography and now I had time for it. Also there was the possibility through the Internet to meet a few good photographers and make contact for arranging exhibitions, giving workshops and selling prints.

Q: When and why did you begin taking pictures of your rides?

A: In 2008 I got inspired to get back on the bike. The cycling pause had given me time for photography, but I had paid the price. I had gained weight and was feeling a sense of frustration I wanted to overcome. Nevertheless, the inertia for starting over was pretty strong, but I had practiced cycling for 20 years before and I guess that helped me take the plunge. I loved it more than ever! But I didn’t want to stop doing photography, so I’d take my camera along while cycling and shoot landscapes and pictures of other cycling friends.

Q: Shooting from the seat of a moving bicycle must be incredibly challenging. Can you tell us a bit about your process of photographing while biking?

A: I use the LCD screen on the back of the camera to compose and sometimes it’s more of a game of luck than a controlled process since I have to concentrate on riding and looking back at the same time. I always keep at least one hand on the handlebars and the other holding the camera. I shoot while looking back as I ride on the far left side of the street. My friends have to control the traffic and warn me of impending disaster! Two times I left the road and careened off into the countryside … bump, bump, bump! By the way, if I’m photographing a moving cyclist while I’m also moving along the road on my own bike I’ll pan the camera slightly so one part of the image looks stationary and the background, for example, looks dynamic due to motion blur. This works best with the lens stopped down and shooting at slow shutter speed. Sometimes I might enhance the colors and use sharpening in Photoshop, but no special effects are used.

I like to show the speed and the power that cycling has. Since I’m a dedicated cyclist myself it was a fun step to try photographing while riding the bike. There are loads of people out there taking cycling speed pictures, but they have a motorbike and a driver so they just have to concentrate on taking pictures. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a lot more challenging and difficult to cycle yourself while taking speed pictures of other cyclists. As I said before, I have to guide my bike, turn around, take some shots while looking at the camera monitor and look back quickly to see where I am going myself. Up to now it’s been fun, with no serious accidents. Let’s hope it stays like this.

Q: How has your cycling influenced your photography and vice versa?

A: Photographing on the bike is liberating; it has an easygoing feeling about it, like you’re just playing around. It’s very different from street photography or portrait photography where my attention has to be very concentrated on my subject.

Q: How has your experience as a fine art painter affected or informed your photography? What are the similarities and differences in how you approach each medium?

A: I would say that creating room and space, and using three-dimensional aspects or depth, are quite similar in both painting and photography. For me, painting was more about expressing fantasy and being wild. In photography I am much closer to reality, even when the results look wild and free.

Q: You chose to present some of your photographs in black-and-white and others in color. When and why did you pick one medium over the other?

A: That’s actually a tricky and difficult question and I don’t think there’s an objective answer. I decide when seeing the images in Lightroom. When I choose to go with black-and-white, it’s usually because to me color is distracting for that particular image. When I go for color, it’s because color adds power or something special that could not be conveyed in black-and-white. In short, it’s my subjective choice.

Q: Your photographs capture the motion of the bikes and also the stillness of landscapes. Have you deliberately tried to capture this contrast in your pictures or is it something that just happened?

A: There is no planning here. Most of the time the landscape pictures are shot in the freshness of early morning. I like to leave home early, so I can get back early and still have the day in front of me. Also, leaving early gives you these soft moods, soft low-contrast light that’s perfect for landscape pictures and you’re alone on the road. Anyway, I try to use secondary roads where you have very little traffic. Sometimes, later on I meet cycling friends and I press them into service playing model for me on their bikes.

Q: Is the photograph of you taking a photograph of your shadow on a bike a self-portrait of sorts?

A: Yes, the “selves” on the bike is a fun game and I find these images thought provoking and amusing.

Q: What are you hoping to convey about cycling with your photographs?

A: Feel free, ride on in freedom and peace … disconnect from your daily work routine, meet friends or enjoy being alone. Feel your body!

Thank you Stefan!

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Stefan’s work on his website, www.stefan-rohner.net.