Michael Rauschendorfer's eye

Michael Rauschendorfer is 43 years old and lives in Freising, a Bavarian town of 48,000 a few kilometers north of Munich. He has been shooting triathlon for 9 years and has been prominent internationally since he was perhaps the only photographer to catch Chrissie Wellington during her flat tire emergency at Kona in 2008. In a fast-growing field of excellent lens men and women who cover the sport, Rauschendorfer has distinguished himself for his artful use of light and color and landscape to capture the drama and romance of the sport of swim, bike and run.

Watching him at Kona, he is a large fellow who uses his strength to handle a donkey’s burden of three cameras, four or five lenses and two on-camera strobes totaling nearly 30 pounds with a surprising grace and a dancer’s effortless proprioception. You can see his editorial work in triathlon magazines all over the world and in ads for many of the same magazines and on their websites.

This interview started on the Kailua Pier in Kona and concluded with a series of emailed questions from various spots around the globe over the next month.

Slowtwitch: When did you start to work as a photographer?

Michael Rauschendorfer: When I was 19, I asked at the local bureau of the quite well known "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" [South German Newspaper] near my hometown for a freelance job, but not as a photographer. I wanted to work as a writer and I was especially interested to write about concerts and theater. They said you may try it, but you also have to take also pictures on your assignments. They had a press photographer but he had too many assignments. So I thought: "OK. This is the bullet I have to bite." I was never before interested in photography – when I was 16 I traveled around half of Europe in one month with friends and I was the only one who did not take a single picture. At the time, I was much more interested in music and literature. But from the first assignment as a freelance journalist I was trying my best to get at least halfway decent shots with my hastily acquired theoretical knowledge based on how-to books on photography and black and white processing. I thought if my pictures will be interesting, the people will also read my stories. But to my big surprise, press photography started to really interest me. To make progress was appealing. But a much bigger appeal was to see my pictures published. And that thrill of seeing my shots in the morning paper never faded.

ST: How quickly did you improve?

Michael: I learned on assignment but I always had to find a good balance between trying new things and making sure to have a useable result. During the film era, it was not possible to check and react immediately as we can nowadays with digital photography. Back then, when you discovered that something didn't work well, it was too late, so improvement took some time. But my editor was himself a dedicated photographer. His critical and also supportive attitude was a big aid for me, much more than any book. As time went on, he got an even friendlier look on his face when I placed my efforts on his desk. So after some months, he asked me whether I would also like to do assignments as a photographer. At that time I was already taken by it. I liked to shoot without flash to catch the atmosphere of the concerts, and I loved the moment when I saw the black and white shot appearing in the developer. So I was really happy about this.

ST: How did your interest in photography grow to include more than concert pictures?

Michael: The area where I lived was quite large and I lived in the east of it, so in addition to my concert and theater photography I got assignments of all kinds. I also shot sports, but for a long time this was not my main scope. At that time sports photography for local news was primarily soccer and, as I had been a middle distance runner in my youth, my interest was more in track and field and endurance sports.

ST: When did you start doing triathlon photography?

Michael: This was 9 years ago. At that time I practiced triathlon by myself just to start to do some sports again. I finished an Olympic distance and in the second year a middle distance race. I was in the last third of the field, but I felt great! There was also a local photographer selling pictures to the athletes, but I was disappointed with the photos – not only mine. I thought, ‘Even if it’s only a small minor race in a village in the countryside, and most of us are only amateurs racing for fun, this is a really beautiful sport, so how one can shoot it like that?’

ST: So you decided to shoot these beautiful sports yourself?

Michael: Yes, soon after that I sold my photos at another triathlon. This was quite successful. It was some work to sort all the shots by race numbers but the sales were good. I soon expanded it, specializing in smaller events up to 1000 athletes that I was able to shoot alone. With this I came into contact with the German triathlon online website tri2b.com. And so I started to shoot the big races for media. But even today I still do photo services. I just like the atmosphere at these smaller events.

ST: Can you describe your style?

Michael: Honestly, this is difficult for me. I fiddle a lot with my photography -- how to shoot a race differently, if possible better than the year before. But for that I need no words, most ideas are just sketchy pictures. OK, usually I prefer low angles to portray the athletes against the sky because I think they look stronger like this. But I try not to stick too much to one scheme. I try to keep it simple and strong -- remembering the great jazz musician Charles Mingus who said, "Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple."

ST: How much is thought out and how much is instinct?

Michael: Most of my work has a lot to do with intuition. When shooting, but also when choosing pictures after the race for the first online galleries or for an agency, I usually have to hurry. So I try to rely on my sense and choose the shots that I like the most without thinking much why. But I don't take this for granted and I'm very grateful and take it as a gift that this seems to work and I don't have to make compromises to have success.

ST: Do you draw on any of the other arts?

Michael: Sometimes when I think about my photography and the targets I set for myself, music comes to my mind. As in the days when I wrote about concerts I believe music has a strong emotional influence on people. I think this is what I strive for with my best shots: to shoot pictures that can touch people like music does.

ST: Was there a turning point in the quality and depth of feeling in your triathlon pictures?

Michael: Yes! It was 2009 Ironman Lanzarote. The year before when Chrissie had her puncture in Kona and had problems inflating her tire, I was coincidentally the only photographer there. With that shot, I came in contact with Triathlete Magazine. A few months later, I asked whether they were interested in shots of Ironman Lanzarote and they said that they would like to have a good scenic shot as a double page spread for their "First Waves" Section.

ST: What impact did that have on you?

Michael: I was excited! At that time my pictures were published mostly in Germany but not internationally. So a double page spread in Triathlete Magazine was definitely a very big thing for me! But something was completely new: All depended on just one shot! This was a challenge. At that time I usually photographed to illustrate the pro race with a gallery of at least 25 pictures and my ambition was to get good or at least solid shots of any pro athlete later mentioned in the report and, if possible, during the swim, bike and run. And it was of course best to get them in decisive race situations. There was usually very little time for scenics or trying to get a really extraordinary shot.

ST: I imagine you still had to come up with shots of the leaders. How did you use that day in Lanzarote differently?

Michael: I shot this race completely different. I decided to get my bike photos of the pros on the first 20 miles of the bike course from the motorcycle and then to concentrate completely on my shot for the double-page spread. I let my driver stop in the wonderful volcanic scenery of El Golfo and shot the first frames with pro athletes. But I didn’t like the light, it was cloudy and I needed at least some sun to get a clear range of tones in the jet-black lava. And so I waited 15 minutes. I knew that I would never catch the pro athletes on the bike course again, but I didn't care. When I thought about this assignment, I came to the solution that scenic shots work very well, if not better, if instead a pro, I shot a single age group athlete, or a group of them, against a beautiful background. I thought that for the reader, usually an active triathlete, it’s easier to identify with the age group athlete. After some more stops, I took the last shots of the bike course on Mirador Del Rio with a unique view from high above down to the neighboring island. I used a fisheye lens to get as much as possible of the scenery on it, but then I turned to the left, saw the athletes climbing between the stone walls with this wonderful view on the cliffs and down to the sea and coastline. So I put my 70-200mm lens on my Nikon and took my "First Wave" shot.

ST: How did this change your approach in the future? Did you aim higher, take more chances?

Michael: Of course Lanzarote was a very good race for the scenery but I think sometimes you just need a new impulse. From that time on I started to hunt in every race for at least one very special shot, something extraordinary. I think this raised my level and also improved my shots of the pros. And it keeps me pushing.

ST: Do you scout the course?

Michael: Races like Ironman Hawaii and Challenge Roth or Ironman Frankfurt I have shot many times, so I know these courses very well. But usually I inspect them on the day before the race to see whether something has changed. But that’s not the most important part of my preparation. If I have shot a race in the year before, several weeks before race day I look on my photographs of this race -- not only the best ones, all of them -- and try to find out where there is potential to improve. I need this time before the race because after this often ideas come just like this when I’m driving or going for a run. But I am never able to shoot everything I want in a race. It’s good to have ideas but you must be aware that as a photographer you cannot completely plan your race day photos -- there are too many uncertainties. On the other hand, I think I need this spontaneity to be creative.

ST: How do you work together with your motorcycle driver?

Michael: On the big races I usually ride every year with the same motorbike driver, so we are already a well practiced team. These guys do an awesome job for us photographers as their driving skills safely bring us into good positions to shoot. They are a huge factor and a vital asset for triathlon and cycling photography. Let me explain it with a good example of this teamwork: In Frankfurt I’ve had the same excellent driver now for eight years, Werner Schott, an enthusiastic motorcyclist running a hotel directly at the race course. He also drives me at the Ironman 70.3 in Wiesbaden. Two years ago race day in Wiesbaden was tough, with heavy rain pouring on everyone in the middle of the bike split. I tried to make the best out of it, and trying some experimental stuff like shooting through a rain covered glass plate with athletes in the background. But I still needed a good standard bike shot of Michael Raelert, the favorite. I saw my chance near the end of the bike course on a fast descent where the athletes take an aerodynamic position by lying with their upper body on the aerobars. We managed to be there early enough for a last inspection and found that the road was very broad there which gave us enough distance for safe photographing even at high speed in the rain. But we had only very short time for that shot because soon after the road narrowed again. I considered sitting facing backward with a long lens, secured by the solid cargo case over the rear wheel of the motorcycle. I discussed my plan with Werner and told him where in relation to the athlete I would like to shoot. When Raelert came down at full speed, Werner accelerated his BMW and immediately managed to put the moto exactly in this position and held it perfectly with constant relation to Raelert to enable my shot that later made it on the cover of the German Triathlon magazine. All of this in the rain at 55 miles per hour! On shots like this it would more than appropriate if two names would be in the photo credits.

ST: What equipment do you take on a race?

Michael: My basic set is 3 cameras. I always have my Nikon D3 with me and 2 DX cameras, the D300s and the D300. The lenses I carry with me are an F2.8 70-200mm zoom lens and a wide angle zoom for DX and each equipped with on-camera flashes. On the third camera, I put a fish eye lens. This would work also with two cameras, but with a three-camera setup I don’t have to change lenses. That is a big advantage especially when it’s raining or when it's dusty. In total, this is still reasonably light load, about 6 kilograms (13.2 pounds).

ST: How do you balance carrying all the right stuff with being able to respond and move quickly?

Michael: The problem starts with the 300 mm F2.8 lens. This adds another 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds). Usually I use a backpack to carry it. For the major races I put a fourth camera on the 300 mm because, compared to this big piece of glass and metal, a DX camera is quite light and small and adds not too much additional weight while allowing me to save time when I use the lens. On these days, I carry about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) with me. Usually when I shoot the run course by foot, my opinion changes rapidly into, “Too much!”

ST: So why do you carry the whole magillah sometimes?

Michael: I just love the possibilities the 300mm F2.8 lens gives me. With the D3 camera, it’s a blazing fast combination. It’s also very sharp at the focus point – and with the wide open F-stop at 2.8, it creates a very soft background. With a DX camera with a smaller CMOS sensor, there is a 1.5x focal length multiplying effect. So the 300mm lens acts like a 450mm lens on a 35mm-camera, and this makes for a good combination for frontal bike shots. I don’t know whether this is the best setup, it just grew on me with the years. But at the end of the day, it just counts what you bring back on your digital cards. If I come to the conclusion that carrying all this stuff is handicapping me too much and a smaller setup is enabling a better outcome, I will gladly slim down my race day equipment.

ST: When you shoot from the water or in the water, what housing do you use?

Michael: I use a EWA Marine under water housing, this is a waterproof plastic bag to put the camera with am on-camera flash inside. One advantage is that it is less expensive – about $450 US Dollars. But one drawback is that while above water level you can still release the shutter quite well with the camera in it, to release the shutter under water is hard. With a metal housing like the Subal, you can make exposure adjustments much better but it costs as much as a D3 or a 300mm F 2.8 lens -- about 6,000 US Dollars. So usually you must use this housing for a very long time to get your money’s worth. But because they are tailor-made for only one camera, this purchase must be carefully considered.

ST: What photographers inspire you in their work and why?

Michael: When I bought my first triathlon magazine I saw the pictures by Frank Wechsel and I was impressed. And I’m still impressed and inspired today by his work. Frank has an unique eye for situations, even if they are hidden at the edge of the race courses. And he has a special talent to tell stories and craft photo essays with his shots.

ST: So Frank was your first role model. Who else?

Michael: And of course Delly Carr - there is much that I like on his work but what impresses me as a Nikon shooter is how he pushes even an excellent camera like the Nikon D3 to its limits; for example at his swim start shot of Madrid 2009 when he managed to catch the lowest swimmer in the middle of the field, only centimeters above the water so that the reflections of the surface were to be seen on the athlete -- tack sharp, with a depth of field of a few centimeters only.

ST: Certainly there are more?

Michael: Then the great shots and photo series of Donald Miralle – especially his cover shots for the Kona issues of Lava Magazine -- so unique and surprising. But there are a number of triathlon shooters that are doing impressive work: John Segesta and Rich Cruse for example, my colleagues at Endurapix and LAVA Magazine, and the shooters of Triathlete, Slowtwitch, the French and so on. I could mention at least a dozen names. I think triathlon photography is on a very high level and I really like the fact that almost all of these shooters have evolved different styles. At the end, we all meet at the finish line, but in the hours before there are so many possibilities how to shoot a race. I think that many readers use several media and I hope that the broad variety of styles keeps the interest in professional triathlon photography high -- to the benefit of all of us shooters.

ST: Are you influenced by photographers outside this sport?

Michael: Yes, for sure -- whether consciously or not I am getting input of many sources, even if my main subject is sports photography. I’m also interested in photographic art. I love the work of Jeff Wall and Andreas Mühe. Outside of photography I am very interested in landscape painting, especially JMW Turner [early 19th century English romantic landscape painter]. It’s not that when I see a painting I evolve an idea for a shot, I just try to continuously feed my aesthetic sense with fresh input.

ST: Who are some of your clients?

Michael: I shoot for the photo agency Endurapix, and regularly for print for LAVA Magazine and the German magazine, Triathlon. I also shoot for their online portals and for tri2b.com. Many of my photos are published online. But to see my pictures in print, especially if it’s a cover or a double page spread, is still something special. That has not changed since my first shots in the local newspaper.

I also have clients who are sponsors for the Erdinger, Abu Dhabi and Commerzbank triathlon teams. I also do photo shoots for books and the industry. My longest assignment was a shoot last year for a very well known German book on running called "Die Laufbibel" [The Running Bible]. For that shoot I spent one week on Fuerteventura with three models and three days in Munich to shoot the pictures for this book of more than 500 pages -- nearly all of them illustrated. These photo shoots also give me new impulses. As a press photographer the action just happens. On a photo shoot you have to direct the action -- but it offers a great possibility to develop new ideas that also help my press photography.

ST: For whom do you shoot ads?

Michael: I sell pictures mainly to bike companies like Scott, BMC, Giant and Felt. I like it when bike manufacturers use race photography for their ads and so they support the photographers. But with Scott and Felt and the sports watch manufacturer Garmin, it was special. Their sponsored pro athletes - Sebastian Kienle, Andi Böcherer and Timo Bracht -- took the initiative to make the contacts because, they told the sponsors, they like my shots. Generally working with pro triathletes is quite good. They are nice and relaxed people but when they endorse your work it is a special honor for me. Of course I’m happy if I get a good feedback from a colleague or an editor, but I always keep in mind that I shoot for the readers and that in triathlon most of them are active athletes, so this is what really counts.