Matthew Roebke is a photographer who lives and works in the Pacific Northwest, and we've teamed up with him to create a portfolio of unique photos that encapsulate the feeling of riding our local trails. Specializing in action sports photography, Matt often finds himself shooting mountain biking photos deep in the Cascade Mountains or skiing in the backcountry of Highway 542 and Stevens Pass. We took a chunk out of his busy schedule to learn about his journey in photography and how it's lead to the conception of the stunning photos he designed for us.
A Coffee Date with PNW Photographer Matthew Roebke
PNW: To start, we need to clarify something for our readers, how do you pronounce your last name?
Matt: I pronounce it "Robe-Key".
PNW: Alright next brain buster: How long have you been pursuing photography as a career?
Matt: Since 2013, so seven years at this point. It's been a minute.
PNW: One of the first things we noticed about your website is that you talk about being a "rider first and a photographer second". It might be obvious, but exactly do you mean by that?
Matt: I grew up skiing and mountain biking on the local PNW trails and mountains. Looking back on it, the fact that I was able to have these sports in my life, and that I was able to grow up doing it, was huge. Then later on, after already skiing and biking for a while, I fell in love with photography. I ended up making a skiing movie which lead to my love of cameras, and then from there I realized I wanted to take photos. I immediately knew that this was what I wanted to do.
PNW: That's pretty rad that it was a natural progression from riding to shooting. How do you think that transition has influenced your style as a photographer?
Matt: It’s been fun having that experience as an athlete because it really helps me understand the rider in my photos and what I should look for in their movements. Like what makes it look like a real, not staged, moment and what makes it engaging. You’ve only got one canvas to work with, so you and the rider need to work together to make something weird happen in that space. I think having a background in skiing and mountain biking has really helped me come up with a plan for my photos.
PNW: Along that same note, has living in the Pacific Northwest influenced your photography style at all?
Matt: I think that’s a part of all of it. Every aspect of my style is based around the northwest because this is where I grew up. It’s pretty sweet. It’s evil, fun, bright, and inspiring. The trees and plants have helped show me how to incorporate space in my photos for the subject to live in and I feel like my editing style is impacted by it too. I try to edit in a way that compliments the different aspects of the northwest. I think accentuating certain colors and playing to the traits of the PNW works out well.
PNW: A bit ago you mentioned that filming a ski movie really kickstarted your journey into photography, but was there anything that inspired you to pick up the camera to film the movie?
Matt: I guess I’ve always been taking pictures or filming, but not in the same capacity as now. I’ve always been messing around with little film cameras or GoPros, but in my senior year of high school I made the leap and filmed the movie I mentioned. Filming the video felt natural, but I loved the stills that I took alongside the project. I thought it was sweet that I could look back on the moments I captured and still have the same feeling as when I watched them happen the first time. My friend Preston did this 360 over a jump and I was just like, “Whaaaaat?! I get to have this on video for forever?” Those moments are pretty powerful.
PNW: You bounce between shooting mountain biking and skiing depending on the season. Do you notice any parallels between shooting both sports, either stylistically or in regards to composition?
Matt: The different sports definitely come with different photography styles and I can’t think of one specific stylistic point that ties the photos together, but I definitely get the same feeling from shooting both. Both sports have the same flow from a rider’s perspective: whether you’re skiing or biking and you rail into a turn, it’s the same kind of flicking motion and it has the same result. When you’re shooting, whether you’re taking skiing or biking photos, you’re looking to capture the same point of attack, almost the same movement or body position of your subject. I think that’s one of the biggest similarities.
PNW: Some of the latest photos you sent our way are in a really unique dual exposure format that combines our locally loved ferns with riding bikes. Could you tell us a bit about them and their inspiration?
Matt: Honestly I think the idea just kind of hit me. I’ve been shooting ferns for a long time because I think they’re really cool plants, and I love riding mountain bikes, so I wanted to find a way to combine the two. I thought, “What if I could get these really powerful, small, pretty northwest specific plants involved with biking to make really northwest specific riding photos?” It’s been a really cool process to try to bring the two unique things together. I initially created a dual exposure photo of my friend Max jumping over the moon and I’ve been trying to improve on that technique ever since. I think it’s a fairly unique way of doing something that’s been done before.
PNW: Without giving away any of the "special sauce" that goes into the photos, can you talk to the process that you used to create them?
Matt: I use the term “finding space” a lot and in this project I’m sticking pretty true to that term in that I’m finding space for the subjects within another photo. It’s been a pretty fun challenge remembering which photos of the ferns line up with a particular riding shot so that the ferns frame the rider perfectly. I shoot on film for the fern photos and then I use digital for the riding so I can be sure to get a really clean shot. Then I scan the film onto my computer and bring it all into Photoshop where I layer it. That’s the gist of it. It’s an interesting process. I’m finding that the more I let go of trying to make everything perfect and just create, the more the process works out.
PNW: So you're jumping from film to digital and then processing the photos on the computer?
Matt: Yep, I scan everything as individual layers and then combine them in Photoshop. I line up the different film cells of the ferns to where I enjoy how they interact with the other layers and then I scan them to digitize them. At that point I dodge and burn the layers to either remove some of the ferns or add more of the riding photo. Have you ever seen the process where you can print photos on glass and layer one on top of another and looking through it creates a single image? It’s similar to that but with scanning. It’s the same kind of principle in using a tier system, just a different method of doing it.
PNW: That sounds pretty complicated.. How did you figure out how to do that?
Matt: I kind of stumbled onto the beginning of the process by messing around with a film camera one day. I shot a roll of film and then wound it back up, forgot the original film roll was still in there and then shot with it again. The frames weren’t quite aligned so the photos were a little off, but I thought, “Oh! That’s how people do double exposures with film.” And after that I started to really try to get the frames to line up properly. So I started planning and writing down what the subject of each frame was and then on the second time through each frame I would try to shoot something that lined up with the previous subject. From there I started doing part of the process digitally. I feel like it’s kind of cheating since it isn’t all done on film, but shooting the riding photo digitally gives me more than one chance to nail it. The combination of film and digital still looks really unique and I have more room to move things around and get it just how I want it. It definitely gives me more freedom which is always nice when you’re being creative.
PNW: Beyond the editing process, what's the biggest difference between taking these photos and a regular riding photo?
Matt: I think the biggest difference is that I have to think about both frames of the final photo at once. That’s an extra fun challenge. I’m constantly thinking about how the rider in one photo is going to line up with the ferns in another photo that I’ve already taken. I have to try hard to remember which photos I want to be paired together, what I already have, and what I still need. It’s a decent amount of planning and I think a lot about where I want the space for the rider and the plants to be in the composition.
For instance, in the initial photo (see above) that I sent to you, I shot Alex riding from above and then I knew I wanted to find some plants that had an open space in the middle so I could frame him within the ferns. So then the challenge was having to find a grouping of ferns, in a forest full of ferns, that worked well for the purpose I needed them to serve. If I already have a fern photo that I know I want to use, then when I’m shooting the rider I need to frame them in a way that compliments that photo.
PNW: Switching gears here to start wrapping this up; did you set any goals for yourself either personally or professionally since we're in the new year and new decade?
Matt: I don’t have any specifically for the new year, but something I’m working on is being a little bit easier on myself and having more fun with what I do. I tend to get pretty critical with my photography, so I want to be able to let go and just let things happen naturally. I get caught up in trying to make everything perfect and I want to be able to let go of that a little bit.
PNW: Do you have a dream publication, gallery, or space where you want to be featured?
Matt: Dude, I would freak if I got stuff in the Ski or Snowboard Journal or Freehub Magazine. That would be insane. And I’ve always loved Evo, so putting up prints in their space would be pretty awesome as well. I’d be pretty happy to see my photos anywhere though. It’s always an amazing feeling to have something you worked hard on displayed on a wall or in a magazine.
PNW: Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers? What would you tell them, or even looking back, what would you tell your past self?
Matt: I guess I would just say to put the pedal to the medal and to really go after what you want. There will be ups and downs for sure, but keep pursuing the dream and you’ll make it happen. You’ll want to quit a lot, but don’t stop, just keep going. I think that’s the biggest thing. That and focusing on what you want to make happen and on taking small steps to get there. It won’t all happen at once. If you take small steps and make small improvements you’re more likely to meet your goals than if you immediately expect to be a pro. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and things will click, other times you could be sitting there five years deep questioning whether or not you should keep going. Just keep going.