If you sat down just about anyone in the mountain bike industry and asked them who the best photographer in the business is, the answer would unequivocally be : Sterling Lorence.
For decades he has been shaping the way we see mountain biking in its most intimate moments, as well as its most intense. Sterling has also gifted us with stunning images of riding on the earth’s most nether regions. Whether it’s editorial or commercial photography, he is hands down the most iconic MTB photographer and a major inspiration to all that are familiar with his work.
We were fortunate enough to catch up with Sterling during this off season and pick his brain to see just what exactly goes into his process behind the lens. Enjoy.
MTB-MAG : What was the very first spark that ignited an interest in shooting mountain bikes?
SL : As a kid growing up on Vancouver’s North Shore, I rode bikes in those forests and was always awestruck by the beauty and intensity of how we rode. I wanted to capture that in a photo and started trying/failing…
SL : I had been shooting for fun for 4-5 years while I got my university degree in resource geography/environmental studies…and a friend of mine, Mitchell Scott, was writing stories about the riding on the north shore. He was getting published in magazines and it became an opportunity to get photos published alongside his words. Editors liked my shots and I got lots of requests, and then I started getting marketing managers wanting me to shoot north shore photos for their marketing…and next thing I know, 15 years of this has passed by. Lucky and stoked.
MTB-MAG : So you’re in a bit of a league of your own in the sense that you’re highly skilled at adventure and editorial photography but you also do some insane work with lights as well as in the studio. Most photographers are either very right brain or very left brain…Do you have a studio at home? How did you become so proficient with lighting?
SL : Yes, I have a small studio space in my home and I have been shooting products for Raceface here for 8 years. As a photographer, I am intrigued by what the sun and clouds do to our photos…and the same applies to what can be created by using artificial lighting. As a professional in my workplace, I feel it is necessary to be able to execute jobs well with artificial lighting for many of my clients demand it. One needs to be very versatile…Given that weather and its offerings will always be very unpredictable and unreliable. Strobe use is very predictable and reliable…
MTB-MAG : Do you have a dark room?
SL : No. I used to use the ones at my school.
MTB-MAG : Do you keep your old equipment for nostalgia’s sake?
SL : I keep the things that have lost all value or are broken. Most used things I sell, for photography is too expensive to always keep things.
MTB-MAG : We read your piece on the old 300mm 2.8 in Bike Magazine a while back. We loved that – would you say it’s your favorite piece of equipment?
SL : I like the 300 2.8 but it isn’t my favorite. I don’t get to use it enough. I gotta say, I am not as keyed into my equipment as to what makes me tick as a photographer. I think I end up trusting my internal instinct as to what equipment I rely on for creating all those images I have. My eyes when I stand and walk around with my heart and imagination are what get me stoked when I am in terrain looking for the shot. I trust in myself and what ends up stoking me, that when I shoot that photo, that becomes the composition and angle that people out there enjoy to view. Editors and my clients like it. Knowing that I have ‘that’ in my bag, is the key piece of equipment that I rely on. The rest is just a bunch of glass and electronics that helps document.
MTB-MAG : What is your biggest source of inspiration?
SL : A ride by myself on the shore for 2 hours or more would be the thing that rocks my world the most. I see and dream up shots more than anything else. The skateboard world and surf also inspire me in ways too. They are heavy lifestyles and I like the vibe that some of those photogs create.
MTB-MAG : Primarily you shoot mountain bike stuff – is there anything else you shoot professionally or even just as a hobby? Is there something else you’d secretly love to shoot?
SL : I am open for business to whom ever calls…and to make it a profession I do need to dabble in other sports and industries. I do shoot road biking too and do some running jobs as well. I have shot sports like the olympic games and the Vancouver Canucks hockey. Once you start working with big creative agencies, art directors that like you will toss other nice jobs at you. I do enjoy shooting products for it is challenging trying to make something look as beautiful as possible. Secretly, i am intrigued by lighting in architectural photography and I have been shooting some interiors.
MTB-MAG : Who is your favorite photographer or if that’s too cliche of a question, who was your biggest influence?
SL : I draw inspiration from many photogs out there. Everyone has his/her niche and do it well. In my early years, i think Derek Frankowski and Blake Jorgenson were competing against me for turf and those two are great artists in this sport. Both those two have the great combination of unique and creative visions for being original in composition but also have a great sense of the action in the sport and knowing how to express the right moment. As I said above, I do look to surf and skate for inspiration, and enjoy seeing what French Fred Mortagne does in Skate and also Morgan Massen for surf. Sebas Romero who has shot MTB in Spain is brilliant with his lights.
MTB-MAG : What is your biggest vice?
SL : This job!! It seems so indulgent sometimes to travel anywhere in the world to some crazy beautiful places…and be paid for it!
MTB-MAG : Have you ever shot world cup DH? It’s a bit of a grind and we can see why one wouldn’t want to do it for too long, but we have to ask if you ever gave it a crack…
SL : I have shot the odd race over time and certainly enjoyed it. My career developed around many other areas of our sport before the days that DH racing was a career opportunity. Now that I am quite established doing many other things in this industry, I honestly can’t pass up the time to become a full time DH shooter on the circuit. Further, I travel lots already and don’t want to travel as much. I have a family and want to be in BC as much as possible. The DH race scene has many brilliant shooters already.
MTB-MAG : Who is your favorite rider to shoot with?
SL : That is a tough one to answer. I have so many amazing riders/friends that I have been able to work with. Andrew Shandro, Thomas Vanderham, Wade Simmons and Matt Hunter have all helped shaped my photography to where it is today and I am grateful – they are also friends for a lifetime. For pure freeride style and talent, Thomas Vanderham is so skilled and stylish. For adventure sense, Matt Hunter is amazing to ride/work with. For awesome personality and trail steez, Andrew Shandro. For a mix of all of the above, the legend Simmons is all time.
MTB-MAG : Your photos are almost too perfect. Can you tell us a quick story about a time that you fucked up royally on a shoot so we can still believe that you’re human…?
SL : Everyshoot is challenging and I make mistakes all the time. During any shoot, when I see something I like, I will work really hard at trying to get the image I saw. I review my work in camera on set and try to dial in shots right there on the spot. I have been lucky to work with really talented riders…so I blame them for making photos appear too perfect sometimes! David Reddick, the photo editor for Bike magazine, mentored me from the beginning of my career. He was an influence on me when it comes to learning what is a powerful image and what isn’t as powerful. I would say the Dave has shaped my eye for an image more than anyone.
MTB-MAG : What’s the hardest shoot you’ve ever worked on?
SL : Too many to mention. but, when I reflect, I would say the hardest days are the ones where somebody has crashed and/or gotten hurt. Sometimes I want to quit shooting the aggresive side of mtb, when I see a rider get hurt. I have been witness to Wade Simmons compounding his femur, Thomas Vanderham breaking his elbow and Matt Hunter getting bad concussions. It is such a devastating day and makes me not want to be in that position. Other tough days are when you are forcing a shoot on a certain day and the elements are hurting you. Pissing rain and freezing cold, dark, and we’re shooting a catalogue page for shredding women mountain bikers…and needing it to look vibrant! tough days!
MTB-MAG : Do you think you’ll teach workshops someday?
SL : I do speak at some workshops already, and I enjoy sharing with others. It is fun answering questions like these.
MTB-MAG : What is your favorite lens to shoot with?
SL : The 50mm lens on a hasselblad is equivalent to a 35mm on a 35mm. That look is truly amazing for portraits and lifestyle. the depth of field and quality of it is stunning. I love that these days…but don’t get enough chances to use it. My growing little family get the best of it!
MTB-MAG : As a photographer, what do you think would be the hardest type of shooting to master?
SL : Our individual personalities drive our expressions in photography, so I would say that answer is different for each photographer. I have massive respect for surf photographers that are in the water and do that well. I have tried it and O couldn’t believe how hard it was to navigate into the best shooting places amongst the crashing surf and surfers. But, beyond sport, I think the top photographers that shoot portraits of people and need to nail expression and soul in their images and also light it all in a subtle but dramatic style would be tough to master…
MTB-MAG : Favorite food?
SL : I love to eat, and enjoy food from all of the world…But I would stay Italian if I couldn’t venture from one nation.
MTB-MAG : Favorite beer?
SL : Heli drop onto Disneyland in Squamish with friends on a sunny summer day.