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These unshaped islands

1 May 2021

One of the world’s top commercial automotive photographers, Stephan Romer, has found a home amid Aotearoa’s scenic pleasures and now turns his veteran gaze on our panoramic vistas and breathtaking views


Te Henga (Bethells Beach), Auckland

Commercial automotive photography is created to make us fall in love with the car: the raw power of a vehicle charging through rustic countryside, elegant curves reflecting the day’s gorgeous light, whipping through undulating terrain with speed and precision. Yes, the car is the star, but, if you’re paying close attention, you might notice that it’s the landscape you’re truly enamoured of.

Stephan Romer knows this only too well. As one of the world’s leading automotive photographers, German-born Stephan has been shooting the landscapes that make us fall in love with cars for years. Porsche, Aston Martin, and Mercedes-Benz are just a few of the brands that Stephan counts among his clients, their luxury vehicles populating his dazzling landscapes throughout the globe.

It was on one such assignment, for Porsche in 2002, that Stephan first experienced the allure of Aotearoa’s natural environment.

Hollyford river, Fiordland

“This is where I first fell in love with the country, particularly the South Island landscape,” he recalls. “I followed with a few more projects here with the same client, and this is where I fell in love with my wife, Nadine, who was producing one of these projects for us.”

With his heart sending him some fairly clear messages, Stephan moved to Queenstown in 2006 and has called New Zealand home ever since. The country’s craggy mountains, arid plains, luscious bush, and rolling rivers have become his muse not just for many of the photographer’s high-profile assignments but also for his personal medium-format landscape work.

While Stephan is far from the first to be entranced by the land’s beauty, most are attracted to scenes of the idyllic and pastoral, which the country offers in abundance. However, for Stephan, it’s the climate’s changeable nature, and the great variation it can offer within such a geographically small piece of land, that holds his attention.

“I try to avoid the postcard photography that can easily happen in this beautiful country. As the sky is such a big part of the picture, I would rather have a storm coming through than the usual blue sky,” Stephan explains.

Within his pristine images, the photographer creates a vision of Aotearoa’s wilderness that is at once strikingly dramatic and gently ominous. With his dual status as both an outsider and a resident, he is able to offer a vision of the land that is both idiosyncratic and instantly relatable; an intriguing, disquieting take on the familiar.

Forbes Mountains, Otago

The path to landscape photography was not always a straight one for Stephan. Raised and educated in Germany, he started out in the field of industrial design, before being offered the chance to intern with Brigitte Richter and Thomas Caspari, two of Germany’s top commercial photographers at the time. Able to immerse himself in various aspects of the industry, Stephan discovered in the 1990s that his photographic niche was in transport and landscape photography, and connected with some of the influential sports car manufacturers that he still works with.

The photographer carries with him the technical skill and efficiency that he has honed over a three-decade career as he explores the land for personal work. He treats both styles of shooting in much the same way; there might not be quite so much of a production around his personal work, but he still ensures that his suite of medium-format cameras and lenses is shipshape and as much research as possible has been done before he heads out. The latter includes visiting spots before a shoot, working with local location scouts, hitting the internet, and closely monitoring weather forecasts.

In general, Stephan likes to shoot his landscapes in the golden hours at the beginning and end of the day, as the sun is rising or setting. Not only does this provide a scene with beautiful soft golden light but elements of the landscape can also interact with the slowly changing sun in interesting ways. 

Of course, Stephan also loves the more dramatic lighting provided by inclement weather. In these instances, it is important that he is adaptable enough to work with rapid changes within the scene and prepared to quickly capture a fleeting moment of perfection amid, for example, a roiling storm. 

Licancabur, Chile/Bolivia

Composing the right scene at the right moment isn’t a process that Stephan is able to describe but, rather, something that has been etched into him over 30 years of professional shooting.

“I see it when I’m out there,” he explains. “Sometimes you just have to act spontaneously and have to be lucky.” 

Stephan shoots with Phase One cameras — he has four systems — as well as a Cambo large-format system, used with a 100MP back. The generous sensors in these cameras allow a sweeping field of view, gorgeous image detail, and an extremely large dynamic range. He is fortunate enough to be able to approach some of his shoots by air, chartering a helicopter to explore areas of interest. For these shoots, he has a set-up that works magic: “My top-secret weapon for aerials is my fully mechanical 24mm on a medium-format sensor — a super-wide angle that is not corrected; therefore, you get super-sharp results even in the corners, which is very unusual for such a wide lens.”

Depending on how you feel about heights, being strapped in with some extremely expensive photography equipment so that you can lean out of a helicopter as it flies hundreds of metres above the ground might sound like a dream or nightmare — but Stephan says that his approach to aerial is very similar to conventional tripod shooting: “The big difference in a helicopter shot is that you only get one shot, so you have to make sure that all the information is in this one capture and make sure the shutter speed is fast enough [to compensate] for the vibrations of the helicopter.”

Earl Mountains, Fiordland

As though commercial shoots for some of the biggest automotive brands in the world, along with journeys throughout his adopted home to create his impressive personal archive, were not enough, Stephan has also been busy setting up shop. Three years ago, the photographer opened his first gallery space, the Romer Gallery, in Queenstown, followed by a second in Düsseldorf, and a third in Auckland last year. 

The photographer welcomes the interested public through the doors at any of his locations to experience the lavishly printed large-scale representations of the land as he sees it. Stephan hopes that the exhibition experience will help viewers understand his connection to the land and come to love the scenes as much as he does.

Waiheke Island, Auckland