Next up in our ‘What I’ve learned as’ series, chatting to the pros about their biggest lessons, we speak to cycling and fashion photographer Kathrin Schafbauer about composition, race days and making the most of dramatic landscapes
Kathrin Schafbauer is raring to go. The sports and fashion photographer based in Bavaria, Germany, has been shooting cycling races and editorial shoots for the last seven years. Four years prior to this, her first gigs involved shooting corporate photographs and weddings. Today, she’s been published in Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, GQ Style, Elle, Vogue Italia, Tour, RennRad and many other magazines, plus has worked for the likes of Audi, SCOTT Sports, La Passione, CHAPTER2 Bikes and Oakley. Sitting down with Nikon magazine, she reveals the highs and lows of the last 11 years, and her advice for the next generation of photographers.
If in doubt, play with emotions
“My sports photography style is powerful and colourful,” says Kathrin. “Weather often influences my style, too. Sometimes my photographs are moody and dark, other times they’re bright with sunlight. I like to play with feelings and emotions – capturing the sweat on a rider’s face or the joy of victory at the finish line, for example – but, ultimately, I prefer a natural shoot, less retouched, more candid.”
Get ahead on race day
Shooting races is unlike anything else. “It’s very vivid and fast,” Kathrin explains. “Planning and organising where you’re going to stand before is essential because you only ever get a few seconds to shoot the riders.” Compared to staging a photoshoot for a campaign, you can’t change locations last minute: “Before a race, I double-check my location, the weather and the position of the sun.”
Campaigns require real creativity
While racing shots are all about capturing the moment, campaigns often bring more to the creative process, says Kathrin: “When I work with agencies or clients, I love when they show me their collection and their colours. It’s all about working together to create a whole story around a new product, whether that’s a bike or sports clothing. The coming together of it all is very satisfying.”
Always scout the location yourself
“I always scout a location before the shoot to check I’ve got all the spots required for the campaign. I’d always recommend this, as only you will be able to visualise your own creative vision and be able to see the angles available. Don’t ever let someone else do this for you – I have learned from experience!” Kathrin says, adding that she always checks the weather and the harshness of sunlight. “It’s not always possible to escape the harsh midday sun, but I will always try. Sometimes I shoot in the shade or visit the studio for shots before coming back out to continue photographing in the early evening.”
Make the landscape as important as the subject
It’s hard to detach the Tour de France from the dramatic background of the Alps, and it’s the same for Kathrin’s photography. “The landscape is what makes a photo look spectacular and different,” she says. “Shooting outside, even in cities, offers so much creativity, let alone the ability to draw natural light and shade. In the mountains, I especially love photographing the curve of the roads against my subject.”
Fashion and sport overlap more than you think
Don’t let anyone ever say you can only shoot one genre. For Kathrin, being able to shoot races and sports fashion has allowed her more flexibility over the years, particularly, most recently, while raising her child. “You stage the photo and shoot with models the same way you would with regular fashion shoots, only the models are also cyclists, so you have to pose them in a more natural position,” she explains. “The lighting and composition techniques are the same, and you can also shoot in the studio.”
Invest in your gear
“I use the Nikon Z 7II with the NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S and the NIKKOR Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S,” she says. “It’s my favourite set-up for races, as the zooms provide added flexibility if I’m not in the perfect location when riders fly by. For fashion shoots, I use the NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.8 S, the NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.8 S and the NIKKOR Z 35mm f/1.8 S for their beautiful clarity and how they allow in so much light.
“I also just tested the Nikon Z 8 and I fell in love with the camera! I love how lightweight and not too bulky it is. The Nikon Z 9 would just be too large for when I’m running and moving during race days. The autofocus on the Z 8 is as good as the Z 9 – it’s fantastic. The mirrorless system is excellent for keeping up with the riders and I love being able to see the change in light conditions in the electronic viewfinder (EVF) and being able to adjust when needed.”
High shutter speed is key
Kathrin shoots in RAW and in manual. “High shutter speed for racing is essential, but I always aim to have my aperture open as well,” she explains. “I try to combine both, which makes it more of a challenge, but I always aim to set my aperture at f/2.8.” Kathrin always uses autofocus – even the 3D autofocus on the Z 8 when photographing races – and she often adjusts her White Balance settings depending on the mood of the shot and the light.
There will be challenges
“The speed of the cyclist, nature and the weather always bring their own challenges,” she says. “In sports photography, I also think it’s really important to photograph the athletes in a way that makes them look good, and not in an awkward position on the bike, for example. You have to, overall, create a good image that captures the emotion of the rider, their speed, the landscape and the colours.”
What I’ve learned the most over the years is…
“Don’t be afraid to try something new,” Kathrin smiles. “I never shot cycling before 2016. I only started by discovering the sport myself. I browsed magazines for cycling images and couldn’t find any cool ones! I thought to myself, ‘Hey, I can shoot it on my own.’ For my very first shoot, I contacted this woman in Austria and just told her I wanted to shoot a woman looking cool on a bike! I made up my mind, there and then, that shooting cycling would be interesting and cool. The photos were published in a magazine and that’s how it all started. Over the years, I’ve noticed how cycling photography has evolved. Also, the style of the cyclists has become a lot fashionable or fashion-focused. Ultimately, I’ve learned that you should make up your own mind and do something you like!”