Markus Berger grew up in what he describes as “a classic average Austrian family in Salzburg” with a father who worked as a lawyer and his mother having worked in sales. Growing up he spent time in his father’s workstation at home painting and building alongside him. Although he was an independent and thoughtful child, participating in sports made him more outgoing and helped him gain self-confidence. He shares this anecdote from his days in school, “I remember being very passionate, especially about painting. One day — I think I was 10 years old — the art teacher gave us large sheets of paper and just asked us to fill them with whatever we wanted, so I started painting structures, lines, mixing colors and so on … just going with the flow. The result was a painting that was completely expressionistic, without any clear lines or subjects. But I really liked the way it looked and it definitely showed how I felt while painting it. When the teacher eventually asked me how I liked it I simply said, ‘Being creative is fun!’ I guess he didn’t really expect me to say that, and he actually wrote that sentence on the back of my painting, which made me proud. It was a moment I’ll always remember”.
Markus then went on to study digital television and media in Salzburg where he learned about lighting, cameras, lenses and the production side of things. Being passionately interested in 3D and CGI arts, he started combining photography with 3D renderings, and got deeply into the world of digital images. But before finishing his studies he signed on to work at a photo agency dealing with photos every day and shortly afterward sold all his video gear to get his first SLR camera. The rest, as they say, is history. Here Markus shares that history: his life’s story, his creative process, and how he came to shoot a series of iconic commercial sports images that capture the essence of athletic competition and vivid sports action — all in the studio with the Leica S-System!
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: I am a commercial photographer specializing in action sports and commercial photography. I have a sports freestyle background and like to bring that into my photography. I strive to capture images that are creative but at the same time authentic and real. I like to embrace my inner child and approach every shoot as a new and exciting challenge.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography?
A: Thinking back, my fascination with the visual media infected me at quite an early age. I guess it started when I was about five years old when I got heavily addicted to comic books. Later at school I enjoyed art class a lot and I had the opportunity to paint and experiment on a 2D canvas. Later I got more into actual still photography and also into digital 3D art, but at that time it was still on a very experimental basis. The other big passion in my life is sports and I’m always looking for sports that allow freestyle creativity. Eventually, I was able to combine my passions for photography and sports and it is a dream come true.
Q: What camera and equipment do you use? Specifically, which camera and lenses did you use to shoot this portfolio?
A: I used the Leica S2 with 35 mm, 70 mm and 180 mm prime lenses.
Q: What specific characteristics of the Leica S2 and the lenses you used did you find especially useful for your style of photography? Do you believe, as many have stated, that Leica lenses have a distinctive and identifiable way of rendering subjects, and if so, do you think this is important in your type of work?
A: I believe that for professional photographers, it is essential to have a unique look or style. So having a device like an S-System camera, a handy medium-format DSLR combined with premium lenses that capture super sharp images and offer possibilities to play with depth of field and a unique bokeh, is an absolutely wonderful opportunity. I love the look and feel of the Leica S-System shots and the quality and handling of the lenses is unrivaled. To have the option of using central shutter lenses with higher flash sync speed is very important for me since it gives me more flexibility and freedom to freeze action when using electronic flash.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: Photography means living a dream and trying to capture my visions in still images. It’s not just about capturing what’s in front of the camera, but actually revealing spirits within.
Q: Your observation that for you photography means, “Not just capturing but actually revealing spirits within” implies that you are creating art, not merely commercial images aimed at fulfilling a specific purpose. How do you balance the needs of your clients with your personal goals of creative expression?
A: I definitely strive to create images that don’t just fulfill one specific purpose — I always want to include some sort of truth or message. In my opinion, there should always be a balance between the client’s needs and the photographer’s input. On commissioned work, you are usually given certain elements to work with, but most of the time there is also enough creative freedom to create something interesting. Often you have to fight for this kind of creative freedom and sometimes there’s no freedom at all, but as a photographer you still have to be creative and find ways to work around it. My aim is to always create more than just a default image construct.
Q: Assuming that the images in this portfolio are representative of your work, you have certainly succeeded in developing a dynamic and identifiable style that seems to combine elements of visceral reality and creative fantasy. The influence of your early fascination with comic books seems evident as well. Would you agree with this assessment and can you tell us something about how you evolved this distinctive and very graphic style?
A: Looking back, my early childhood passion for comics and cartoons has indeed had a great influence on my photography and personality. It formed my sense of image composition, perspective and image language at a very early age. Apart from that, I also believe that it helped me realize how important it is to stay playful, hungry and foolish. If you truly connect with a project, it will show in your work. That is what I consider as embracing your inner child and revealing something of your personality in your pictures. In the end, this is the true purpose of my photos — it’s never just about capturing the subject but about how you do it.
Q: Most of these images have the stagey and poster-like quality of studio shots taken against artificial backdrops yet they manage to embody the feelings and emotions of sports action quite effectively by implying action rather than capturing it on the fly. Can you explain how these images were created? Did you shoot any of these images in the field, or were they composites created in post-production?
A: All the images for this project were shot in the studio. I’d like to thank Red Bull Creative for their friendly support on this project. Our goal was to create photographs with a minimal post-production that would not involve any subsequent change of scene or composition — we wanted real photos. To add another dimension to the images, we also wanted to show some of the setup and production equipment involved. These details tell the actual story that surrounds the action and they create a nice kind of tension between the spirit of outdoor sports and commercial photography.
Q: Your use of color is very striking and you seem to favor bright primary colors — another comic book element that enhances the strong graphic appeal of these images. What are your feelings about the use of color and do you have any thoughts or philosophy on using color as a stylistic element in your work?
A: Color is very important in my photos and I always try to have a clear color concept in mind, even if it’s just working on the white balance, choosing the right time of day, or deciding on the right kind of athletic wear. Working with strong colors can be challenging, especially when you’re shooting for high-end print. You can easily exaggerate the colors, causing them to contradict the actual message of the picture. I like to mix colors and use them to my advantage in terms of directing the viewer’s eye, especially the use of warm/cold colors or slight differences in saturation can help to achieve a clearer focus in the picture.
Q: One of the most powerful images in your portfolio is the image a close-up of a snowboarder with a light beard gazing intensely at the camera with one eye visible, the other in shadow. What makes this image so compelling, aside from the masterful composition, is the lighting and the textures. How did you light this image, and how did you achieve the almost otherworldly textures on the athlete’s skin?
A: The concept for this portrait was based on the comic hero “Silver Surfer”. Since the subject, Benjamin Karl, is currently dominating the discipline of Alpine Snowboarding, we decided to turn him into a “Golden Surfer”. Gold always has two sides: in addition to fame and honor, it also implies competition and domination. Therefore we set the lights to create strong contrasts and make the athlete look more dramatic instead of just shiny and likable. The structure of the skin was added by our make-up artist and enhanced during post-production by adding micro contrasts.
Q: This image looks like a mixed-media creation or a photographic collage with discrete elements assembled into an overall image, but where the individual identity of each element is emphasized by being outlined or separated. Was this tension between the overall impression and the integrity of each individual element deliberate, and would you consider this one of your stylistic hallmarks? If so, what is the concept behind it?
A: You might call it a hallmark since it was also part of my original concept to show the individual elements of the setup. To achieve this effect, the lights were set to cast clear shadows on the background so that viewers can easily relate to it.
Q: What were you trying to communicate with this image of a buff boxer contorting his torso as he punches a bag? What does it mean to you, and can you share some of the technical details?
A: The guy shown in this image is one of today’s top biathlon athletes. He is known for his warrior mindset. To make this come across in the photograph, we had him drag a huge tire and I also did a boxing shot of him since that’s a sport he enjoys as well. So we put him in this winter setup and had him punching the bag, with the fog looking like sweat and the punching bag broken by his fierce power. The lights were set for a more detailed torso shot and we added a grid for a more spot-on vignette look.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years? Do you plan to explore any other kinds of sports or other genres?
A: I never stop learning and I definitely want to push personal projects that offer me more freedom and flexibility to express and develop. I am generally interested in a wide range of photography and art and I don’t know yet where the wind will take me. I try to stay open and not to pigeonhole my thinking. I want to stay flexible, to be able to adapt and change. In the end, it’s all about having fun with what you do.
Thank you for your time, Markus!
– Leica Internet Team
Watch a behind-the-scenes video from this shoot. Visit Markus’s website and Facebook page.