the dan milner photography blog: tales of an adventuring photo chimp

July 16, 2017

On the trail of the horsemen of Lesotho

“Because it’s there.” Few people haven’t heard Mallory’s Everest climbing quote used to justify… well, pretty much anything nowadays. It seems to fit with today’s lazy, WTF approach to most things, including adventure, especially when it’s just too much effort to really think about the real, honest reason for doing something. And, hey it sounds cool.

Most adventures though, have a back story. And the trip I shot in April in Lesotho, Africa was one.

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Isaac and Kevin. Trip preparation. Nikon D750, 35/2 @ f2.5, 1/2000th.

 

Few people know where Lesotho is (myself included until I got the invite). The landlocked country is overlooked by tourism in favour of its safari-rich neighbours. But despite being encircled by South Africa Lesotho is proudly independent.

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Claudio and Kevin in big terrain. Nikon D750, Zeiss 18/3.5 @ f6.3, 1/1000th.

 

I was invited to ride and shoot a pioneering 6-day mountain bike trip across the country’s rugged southern mountains, from Semonkong to Roma, led and guided by an iconic, blanket-wearing Lesotho horseman, Isaac. The trip was the brainchild of Christian and Darol, a duo of Lesotho-based mountain bikers who already organise an annual mountain bike race, the Lesotho Sky, and can see the potential of putting the country on the adventure tourists’ map. And justifiably so.

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Thumelo and Thabu — 2 locals with their fingers on the emerging pulse of adventure tourism. Together they have set up a company to provide logistic support to adventure tours. Nikon D750, 35/2 @ f2.5, 1/500th.

Our ride took us though gob-smacking, wild terrain riding between remote villages only accessed by horse trails. We rode amazing singletrack and stayed in old, disused trading posts and comfortable modern lodges alike. And we found friendship and warm welcomes everywhere, imbued with a strong sense of pride and hope.

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Isaac and Stan. Nikon D750, 35/2 @ f2.8, 1/400th.

 

We didnt ride across Lesotho because it’s there. There’s a bigger — an more important— story to tell here than just adventure for adventure’s sake. Lesotho is poor. 40% live below the poverty line. It has its problems, but tourism is one thing that can help change and relieve poverty on a local level. And adventure tourism, including mountain biking, can play a big part.

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Mathibeli Khotola, a herder we met on the trail. Nikon D750, 35/2 @ f2.5, 1/1000th

I was accompanied by Scott riders Claudio Caluori and Kevin Landry, and the expedition was spectacularly captured by the Max and Tobias from German film production team, Have A Good One (watch the film below or best in full HD here).

 

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Chief Michael Ramashamole watches the film footage. Nikon D750, 35/2 @ f2, 1/40th

The first glimpse of the trip is online on Outside. The full story of our adventure will be out in Cranked (UK), Bike (Germany), Solo Bici (Spain) and Spoke (NZ) mags and more in the next few months. Watch this space or follow the news on my Instagram @danmilnerphoto


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/216472359″>FOLLOWING THE HORSEMEN</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/haveagoodone”>HAVE A GOOD ONE</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

 

April 22, 2017

Mountain Biking India – Fuji X-Pro2 first impressions

Filed under: Uncategorized — danmilner @ 6:00 pm

10 days mountain biking in Kerala, India: a good test for my new Fuji X-Pro 2  and a replacement for my Leica M9? Let’s see…

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Ricky Westphal and Karen Eller, during a 1500m descent.  Fuji X Pro 2, Fujinon 23 f2.

I don’t like to make life easy, at least on paper. Thats why I shot a lot of my previous remote mountain bike adventures on the Leica M9 rangefinder – possibly the most “unsuitable’ camera for shooting ‘action’. The M9 (and the M8 that I used before it) had no motor drive to speak of or AF, at best rough rangefinder framing of subject and some random tech issues that a camera of that price tag shouldn’t have. But rangefinders are small and light(ish) and discrete, making them great for trips that involve riding a bike over high mountains and shooting travel/street images along the way. A rangefinder doesn’t turn heads like a DSLR does and seems to break down the barriers between you and the subject more easily.

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Sneha Tea Shop. Fuji X Pro 2, Fujinon 23 f2.

But the M9’s deficiencies, at least when it comes to shooting bike action, meant that I finally succumbed to thinking there was a better tool for the job when I didn’t want to pack my Nikon DSLR gear and the weight and bulk and big, indiscrete lenses. My Contax G2 fitted the bill in the days of film, and now comes the Fuji X-Pro 2: a digital rangefinder with 8 FPS, AF (and digital viewfinder enhanced MF) and more user-customisation than I’ll ever need on a single camera.

So I passed on the Fuji X T2 and the Sony A7 (both look too much like SLRs) and armed myself with the X-Pro2, a Fuji 23/f2, a Fuji 90/f2 and a Zeiss 12/f2.8 (giving 35mm, 135mm and 18mm equivalents on a full frame sensor respectively) and shot 7 days of riding through India’s southern tea plantations with a couple of Scott bike pro riders. And with 1800 shots in the bag, here are my initial impressions.

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M9 vs X Pro 2

Portability – mounted with the 23/f2, this camera is portable and discrete.  While its a hell of a lot less discrete with the Fuji 90/2 mounted, packing the 23/2, Zeiss 18/2.8 and Fuji 90/2 my pack weighs in 1500g lighter than my ‘lightweight’ Nikon set up (D750 + Zeiss 18/3.5, Nikon 50/1.4, Nikon 70-200/4). 1.5 Kg is something to appreciate when riding up big hills. I’ve now bought 2 Metabones M-to-X adaptors to use my M-mount lenses, that will save 200g more weight if I use the Leica 90/2.5 instead the Fuji 90 and do away with the AF ability.

Battery – yes the little battery gets hammered, but I never got through more than 1 battery per day, though I carried 3 in case. Shooting in 25-30C temperatures helped for sure, but also avoiding reviewing images much and having the camera auto-off after 1 minute is key too.

Image review – zooming in on the image playback to check focus was hard: the camera wont let you zoom in enough to really assess subject sharpness if you only shoot RAW (RAF) files. If you want to zoom in tight you’ll need to shoot RAW + jpg. The jpg lets you zoom in substantially more, b of course takes up space on the card. Daft and annoying, but there you go.

Focus – after being used to the manual Leica M, using a digital viewfinder to focus took a little getting used to. But on the good side, custom settings allow you to set up so the digital view finder zooms in whenever the lens focus ring is touched, making for fast and accurate MF. I tried using focus peaking and split screen focussing, but for me at least the standard image focussing works best in most situations. Unexpectedly the Zeiss 12/2.8 proved tricky to manually focus, with drastic turns of the focus ring not seeming to have a very obvious affect in the viewfinder image. Both focus peaking and distance scale were hard to trust at times on this lens, with the AF scale in the viewfinder obviously way out at times. I rarely trust AF for my action shots (most AF systems fail to lock onto erratic subjects properly and drift onto backgrounds with similar contrast instead), but I often use AF to help pre-focus, but in this case the zoomed in MF makes pre-focus easy and the AF almost redundant.

Drive – 8 or 3 FPS. Welcome to never missing a shot.

Dioptic – The dioptic dial is in a really daft place on the side of the camera body to the left of the viewfinder and wont lock, meaning almost every time you pull the camera out of a bag it has been moved and needs re-adjusting. I’ll be sticking tape over it to stop this, which is a pretty crap solution for a pro camera today.

Dust –  yes dust on mirrorless cameras will be a problem. Fast lens changes away from the wind and shooting fast apertures with less DOF are key to minimising the amount of post clean up needed, but dust is going to be problem on the X Pro 2 when shooting dusty mountain bike trips. I have no idea how the video people get around this.

Sequential card burning –  I set up with the dual card slots set up to run on from slot 1 to slot 2 when card 1 fills, but found a severe lag when this happens. Shooting a burst, that ran over the 2 cards meant the camera stopped shooting while it decided to switch burning images to the second slot. This was even with fast C10 120/s cards.

Image quality – there’s no doubt the X-Pro 2 can shoot amazing images. Running them through LR6 throws in some new (and unexpected) learning curves to get the best from the camera’s X-trans processor. Big RAF files (50mb) challenge the speed of my once singing and dancing MacPro and finding a way to aesthetically sharpen the images when patterns or foliage are involved seems the biggest challenge. The internet is full of info on using the Detail slider instead of the Amount slider in sharpening, but if I’m honest I’d say that the end result is still an image with backgrounds that look slightly painted, at least compared with Nikon and Leica images.  Of course it’s too easy to ‘pixel-peep’ and be over critical of images when processing and I guess I’ll see how they print when the story is published. After all, when did you grab a loupe and check the sharpness of the 35mm slide images that landed front covers and billboards years back? But take a look at this 100% crop of the above image’s weird ‘painting’ effects on background foliage. Work in progress on this one.

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100% crop of above image – foilage paint effects.

So where to now? I’m liking the X Pro 2. It still has some characteristics to learn -especially in the processing of its files – but its portable, light, discrete and does what I need. And most of all, like the M9 before it, it seems to lend itself to being creative. It’ll be coming with me a lot in the future.

January 10, 2017

Turning heads 50 miles from Syria

My job as a story telling photographer is often about turning heads. Okay, it’s always about turning heads. Coming up with an original story, or a feature’s USP, is key to earning a living as a professional travel photographer. So last month I took my bike to ‘war-torn’ Lebanon and rode it 50 miles from the Syrian border.

Head turning enough for you?

It’s easy to be glib, to play to the lowest common denominator, especially in these bewildering political times. It would be easy to pretend that our trip was one of extreme danger in order to earn some perverted pub-chat credibility. But in reality visiting Lebanon is really not as scary as you might think. And we knew that before we went. Hey, I’m an adventure, not a war, photographer.

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Kamil entertains the locals – Nikon D750, 70-200/4.

Like most of my editorials, this one took a fair bit of research and planning. You can’t just reach for the ‘Guide to Mountain Biking Lebanon’ in the bookshop (mountain biking is still small in Lebanon, although on our last day we did hook up with, and get schooled by, a couple of local riders). In fact my trip was 2 years in the making, from initial idea (after seeing an alluring photo of a mountain and a cedar tree on a wall in a Lebanese restaurant) to booking a flight. And all the time I kept it under wraps in case another bike photographer caught wind and got a jump on us. As if they would. (Paranoia is part of this job I guess).

Accompanied by Tibor Simai and Kamil Tatarkovic, (who came on my recent Argentina and Ethiopia trips respectively) and supported by a Beirut local, Ziad, we followed sections of the Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT) a 440 Km long hiking trail that runs the length of the country. We rode past Syrian refugee camps. We ate houmous with ISIS-fighting Lebanese military. We met only friendly people. We saw incredible scenery. We railed amazing trails. We rode with local mountain bikers who are better than me on a bike. We got lost. And we carried our bikes. A lot.

So the first of my features is now out, online here on Bikemag.com and a different story is starting to flush through the print magazines, already out in Spoke (New Zealand) and Velo (Czech republic). So if ‘print’s-not-dead’ is your thing, then look out for it in MBUK, Bike Germany, Solo Bici, Sidetracked and other titles around the globe. I hope it sheds some light on a country that deserves to have a light shone on it. And I hope it challenges our perception of former war-torn places. Only by challenging perceptions will change happen.

Thanks to Yeti Cycles, Shimano and Mavic for helping keep my adventure wheels rolling. Again.

December 12, 2016

The elephant in the room -shortlisted for Wildlife Photographer Of the Year

Filed under: Uncategorized — danmilner @ 5:52 pm

I’m not known as a wildlife photographer, and probably never will be. Days spent in a hide on the calculated off chance of nailing a shot of a snow leopard just isn’t my bag. Don’t get me wrong: I love BBC’s Springwatch as much as the next wild-bird-feeding, caring person, but a 600mm lens, and days of patience just never made it onto my kit list (although sitting in a tent through a 10 day blizzard for Deeper comes close).

But then this year a shot of mine was shortlisted for the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPOTY) 2016 photojournalism award. It’s this shot (below) of Chartou, a Nepalese mahout (elephant handler) and Pawan Kali, the 48 year-old female elephant he cares for, one each side of the simple wall of his home.

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Nikon D750, Zeiss 18mm f3.5

I photographed this scene in Sauraha, Nepal a year ago. When in 2009 I first visited this village on the edge of the Chitwan national park, like most tourists, I was captivated by sight of majestic elephants that trod its main street. The sight stopped me in my tracks, but their comings and goings, mahouts perched on their shoulders, went largely unnoticed by the locals as if they were nothing more unusual than number 49 buses. I was curious.

I photographed the mahouts at work, and the elephants they drove, and even jumped aboard an elephant safari, encouraged by the blurb that suggested atop an elephant is the least intrusive and so best way to spot a rare tiger or rhino. I wanted to see what elephant tourism was about. Meeting up with a friendly local hotel jungle guide after hours, I got a snapshot of the elephants’ and mahouts’ lives. I was told how the elephants’ welfare is changing for the better, how their role in tourism is replacing the arduous field and jungle work of the past, of how elephants are being seen as part of the new economy rather than a wild, crop-trampling nuisance.

But it was just a half-truth.

And I had a sense of unease. These majestic beasts were, after all, chained up. I left with the aim of returning to Sauraha to immerse myself further in the mahout and elephant relationship, to further explore and photograph the mahout-elephant relationship and the industry of which they were both obviously key parts.

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Nikon D750, Nikon 70-200 f4.

So last year I returned to Sauraha. But I wanted to not photograph the elephants, but the industry. So I pointed my lens at the tourists themselves, or rather the scenes that play out when tourism rubs shoulders with domesticated wild animals. I spent time at the safari, at the elephant-breeding centre and at a mahout’s simple home. I walked the streets and followed elephants. I probed side alleys to see elephants in their stables at rest. I spoke to hotel owners and mahouts. I watched builders constructing new hotels and I saw how the village of Sauraha has expanded massively on the back of wildlife tourism. I watched tourists become uneasy. I watched others laugh and point and snap selfies. I spoke to a hotel owner that didn’t even know the names of the mahouts who worked for him, who in one breath, insisted that the elephant is a wild animal and needs to be chained up, before hugging his elephant and telling me it was “part of his family.” I learned that elephant tourism is not primarily a happy existence for elephant or mahout.

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Nikon D750, Nikon 50mm f1.4.

So I chose to photograph the elephants in a different way to most visitors: as a background to colourful antics of tourists. It was my attempt to mimic the place of the elephant: as plaything/photo-prop/money-winner, something that just exists for us to use.

You can read my photo essay on Nepal’s elephant tourism here. Ensure to click on the down arrows at top of each image to read captions.

You can help by contributing to www.elephantaidinternational.org

 

November 4, 2016

Oh, ‘That’ film premiere -Kendal November 19th

After shooting what I can only describe as ‘my most challenging and emotionally tough expedition to date’ I’ll be premiering my new mountain bike film Porpoise Hunter at the UK’s Kendal Mountain Film Festival’s esteemed Bike Night on Saturday November 19th. For those that can’t make Kendal, don’t worry: no doubt it will be sweeping the BAFTA stage at some point in the near future, to be subsequently released to a wider audience online, and probably cover-mounted as a DVD on the radio Times. Oh hang on..

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I’ll also be appearing in a Q&A session on the Basecamp Stage at Kendal Festival on Saturday 19th, at 10:00, quizzed about last month’s adventurous and pioneering mountain bike trip to ride Lebanon’s long distance mountain trail, a hop, skip and a jump from the Syrian border. Grab a frothy cappuccino to go and come along. To whet your middle eastern appetite, here’s a taster. (A more in-depth repost will follow -watch this space).

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July 29, 2016

Putting mouth where the money is – 100 pages & counting

Filed under: bike, outdoors, story telling — Tags: , , , , , — danmilner @ 9:10 am

The story I shot last year riding a nine day traverse of Ethiopia’s  Simien Mountains has now topped 100 pages in print (+ running on a dozen websites), which is handy because trip sponsors —in this case Giro— like to see some bang for their buck. It’s what helps keep the sponsorship wheel turning for future trips.

Sugar daddies aren’t always easy to find, and most of the trips I shoot are self-funded, based on the calculations that I have enough editorials lined up to make these kind of adventure stories pay the mortgage. But with our Ethiopia trip costing about $5000 per person it seemed like a good idea to take this to someone who might have the budget and vision to make this work. Knowing that ‘adventure” was something that Giro was keen to align themselves with, and that this trip would present some amazing opportunities to do so, I took the pitch to them and they bought it. The conversation went something like this: (me) “Hi Dain, I have this story in Ethiopia’s mountains..” (Dain, Giro Marketing Manager) “I’m coming.”  They sent six people including myself to join guiding company Secret Compass for a ride through the incredible Simien Mountains, camping en route and hauling our bikes to the top of their highest mountain, the 4552m Ras Deshan.

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This shot of Sarah Leishman and Kamil Tatarkovic sums up the riding in the Simians of me: tricky, tough and unforgiving but immensely rewarding I had no idea that Kamil would throw in the jump when we set this shot up. Nikon D600, 50mm/1.4 @ 1/1000, f71.

As the photographer on a trip like this it’s hard to shake off the feeling of responsibility, the sense that the whole budget sits on your shoulders. After all the images are what will drive the press coverage from the trip – the same coverage that convinces the sponsor that their money was well spent. I’ve had it before both for clients and editorial shoots — a $100k budget advertorial trip to Greenland, the expensive Svalbard Further trip for Transworld Snowboarding, and more. It’s the kind of pressure that only experience teaches you to deal with.

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You’re rarely alone in Ethiopia so it was no surprise to see this shepherd sitting at the last pass we reached before climbing to the summit off the country’s highest peak. The SD card loaded radio around his neck blasted out traditional music. The people here are some of the most welcoming I have ever met. Leica M9, Zeiss 50/1.5 @ 1/1000, f4.

 

So what of the trip? Ethiopia is hands down the most spectacular place I have shot. Its also one of the most friendly and welcoming places I have been. None of our team returned anything less than blown away by the experience, no matter how many previous adventures we’d done. And from the photo side, the trip presented a thousand and one unique opportunities to press the shutter. Here I’m sharing just three, as a snapshot of an epic experience.

You can see/read my feature from this trip in English on Mpora here, and in French here,French here, and Italian here.

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Our expedition’s success usually relies on the abilities of our support crew. Our chef nicknamed ‘Ramsey’ could turn any basic barn or corner of a mountainside into a kitchen, fuelling us to push our bikes to the 4500m high point of our ride. Nikon D600, Zeiss 18mm/3.5 @ 1/125, f3.5.

 

 

June 29, 2016

Tales from the dark side -Bristol Bike Night

Head to Bristol (UK) this Friday to hear me question whether the bike is the ultimate tool for adventure, or just a passport to pain.

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This Friday’s event is the inaugural stop for the ‘on-tour’ version of Kendal Mountain Film Festival’s massively popular Bike Night — an evening of films, talks and banter. My show is a look at some of the incredible places, from my year long pedal around Argentina and Chile in ’96 to the last year’s Ethiopia expedition that the bike has taken me, and the painful episodes that sometimes go hand in hand with such adventures.

But don’t let that put you off. See you there.

Info and tickets: www.kendalmountaintour.com

 

February 14, 2016

Behind the Scenes – the Yeti Tribe Nepal shoot

Filed under: Uncategorized — danmilner @ 3:39 pm

In November I joined Yeti cycles 30th Anniversary Tribe gathering in Nepal. My job was to shoot the assembled Yeti riders for the company and capture what was for many of the riders a dream trip. With the first of the features now out online, I thought I’d give you a little backstory to some of the images -an insight into the tech details and how my mind works when I shoot photos in places like this.

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This was my 3rd trip to Nepal’s Mustang region (the last 5 years ago) but in places like this you can always find new photo locations. I found this potential shot a week before the Yeti tribe arrived, while out trying to find a trail down into this valley.  Its actually a lot steeper and looser than it looks meaning the original climbing shot I had in mind couldn’t be done, but the descending shot worked just as well -the key being to shoot when the rider enters the turn to add some shape to the riding. A wide angle was a must for this one to capture the enormity of the surroundings, and I wanted to use the prayer flags as leading lines -to draw the eye into the image and towards the action. It meant waiting for the wind to flow just right, to lift them above me. For about ten minutes earlier the prayer flags were hanging limp and obscuring the sight of the trail. Patience paid off. Mark Nikolls & RJ. Nikon D750, Zeiss 18/3.5 @ 1/1000th, f6.3.

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When joining a group of 30 riders, it would be madness to try to work with the whole group at once. Instead we split and I worked with 4 or 5 riders at a time, letting us have the freedom to work sections of the trail without extra time pressure. It’s easy to reach for the wide every time in landscapes like this, but knowing there would be dust and good shape in this shot, I reached for my Nikkor 50/1.4 to give this shot a natural perspective and allow the riding to take a more prominent focus. The S-shape to the trail lets the 2 riders offset each others position (I just needed to tell them how far apart they ‘d need to ride), the dust adds drama, and getting low to the ground let me throw some foreground out of focus for extra depth but keep the fluvial valley floor in shot too. Mark Nikolls & Mandil Pradhan. Nikon D750, 50mm/1.4 @ 1/1600th, f6.3.

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Dust is a big part of the Mustang region of Nepal. We rode this climb the day before so I was thankful (for once) of this 1000m shuttle ride up the mountain to Muktinath -a 45 minute bumpy, choking experience squeezed 3 people up front, in the cab of a pick up truck. Shooting into the sun backlights the clouds of dust – probably the most dramatic way to show smoke or dust- and tells the story of the journey. Rather than lean out of the window, and coat my gear in silt, I shot this through the windscreen knowing that any flare of the dirty glass would add to the atmosphere of the shot. I shot a faster shutter speed to compensate for the very bumpy ride. Nikon D750, 50mm/1.4 @ 1/2500th, f8.

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I’d ridden this trail a week earlier and had this shot in mind, looking back along the trail one one of the fastest sections we’d ride this day. But to make it work I had to get ahead of the group and be ready for when they came through this cleft in the horizon. They gave me a 5 minute headstart. With the whole group about to pile through in one dusty train, I pre-focussed on the section of trail I wanted to frame and let the subjects come into shot, rather than use the AF to track a single subject and change my composition. Again, getting low let me throw some out of focus foreground into shot for depth. Nikon D750, Nikkor 70-200/f4 @ 1/1000th, f8.

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This descent has made it into my top 3 trails I’ve ever ridden -not just for the scenery, but the variety of riding on one single trail. Capturing this ridiculously loose and dusty section was a must and in my group 4 riders to work with I had the Nepalese National DH champ, RJ, who I knew could let his bike drift.  Grabbing a long lens could allow you to move in tight on the dust, but then that could be a shot taken anywhere. After all, we were in the Himalayas with 8000m+ peaks in the shot, so that kind of factor needs to be included. My 18mm prime let me frame the turn and the other supporting shot essentials – the horizon of snowy peaks along with the ongoing trail in the background, letting the shot tell the story of a long winding ride, rather than just a one shot turn. Nikon D750, Zeiss 18/3.5 @ 1/1250th, f8.

 

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Our trail over the 4200m Lupra pass dropped us to this stunning river valley where the ride out was over a couple elf Kilometres of boulders set in grey mud that had dried like concrete. The most stunning part of it was this vast rock face, that I framed vertically to give scale to the riders and drama to the action. I shot head on to the riders to give the action an ‘escape from doom’ feel, and use the early afternoon light to throw some shadow into the rocks for better contrast. RJ, Mark Nikolls & Mark Cuschieri. Nikon D750, Nikkor 70-200/f4 @ 1/1000, f9.

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Our last day of my 4 day shoot was following the grand Khali Gandaki river valley down from Marpha to Tatopani -a classic route on any guided MTB agenda but one skipped by most Annapurna Circuit trekkers. Much of the route follows a rough 4×4 track, but here and there you deviate away from it onto amazing singletrack trails. With a lot of distance to cover in one day, time is pressured and you have to be confident about a shot to stop the flow on days like this. I wanted to capture the vast braided river in a new way, having photographed it from the high mountains for days, and this one spot made me stop. It took a few minutes to work out the angle. Our trail was perched along a narrow ledge a few metres above the gravel river bed and alongside a stone wall. The wall gave me a higher vantage point to add some perspective to the action and do the river bed justice, and it let me bring the wintery branches of the willows into the foreground of the shot to give it a sniped feel. Chris Conroy & Jared Connell. Nikon D750, Zeiss 18/f3.5 @ 1/1000th, f71.

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Six years ago I tried to follow a rocky trail that spiralled downwards in a set of steps into the depths of the Khali Gandaki gorge just about where the jungle began. Not having a rider with me that time to ride the technical section, I didn’t shoot it and for 6 years I have had this dramatic section of trail in mind for a shot. Working with Chris, RJ and Jared on the last day, I’d have that chance. When we reached the first junction and an obvious trail that dipped back towards the river local villagers told us that this was the only way to the swing bridge that crossed back to the road. We asked and re-asked and in the end had to take their word for it. It’s understandable how villagers are so pragmatic, pointing us towards the easiest route out out of trouble, but as soon as we dropped onto the trail I knew it was not the same one.  Instead we nailed this shot just before we crossed the swing bridge. I clambered up the steep jungle hillside for a vantage point that would capture the S shape of the trail and the steep valley peering through the clearing in the background. I had no idea that one of my riders was waiting patiently, desperate to to “use the toilet facilities”. As soon as I got the shot, he leapt over the wall ingot he bushes to relieve himself. A few Kilometres down the road we peered across the river at the trail I’d wanted to shoot. Its still there, waiting for my next visit. Chris ‘just made it’ Conroy, RJ & Jared Connell. Nikon D750, Zeiss 18/3.5 @ 1/1000th, f5.6.

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So much of the unique experience of trips like this is the riding through villages. So long as you show respect, the locals generally like the novelty of a dozen mountain bikers rolling past -its a sight they don’t see everyday. This village on day was typical of most and this alleyway had the depths I wanted to stack up the elements of the shot. Asking riders to come through evenly spaced, 3 at a time, let me use an AF point to lock onto the middle rider and use the first, closer rider to add depth to the shot. I through a little of the stone wall in the foreground to add more depth and shot ingot he sun to backlight any dust I knew would rise. Nikon D750, Nikkor 70-200/f4 @ 1/1250th, f5.

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Our big 1000m climb out of Kagbeni to the 3900m high village of Muktinath was entirely on rough 4×4 road. It was a grind. I left 20 minutes before the group, thinking I could find an angle from above to capture them leaving the village. But with the village still in shade and no real action to shoot,  I didn’t find anything that worked for me. It was a gamble that hadn’t paid off and now with the group around me and keen to keep moving up their 3 hour climb I needed to find something else that would do this morning of pain justice. I’m never inspired by shooting mountain biking on 4×4 tracks, but looking up the road and silhouetting the riders against mighty Dhauligiri peak was the shot that did the effort of this immense climb justice. Nikon D750, Nikkor 70-200/f4 @ 1/500th, f9.

December 15, 2015

A Tale of Two Covers

It’s like being stood at a Bristol bus stop waiting for the quarter-hourly no. 49 into the city centre: you wait half an hour and then two come at once. And so it is with magazine covers. Despite the apparent demise and “slow death” (I’m told) of print, the kudos of landing a front cover is still something we photographers kind of enjoy. After all it’s the one image that people have to look at for a whole month, unlike the ephemeral online photo-of-the-day. And I landed two last month – both on leading UK mountain bike mags. But the two cover images couldn’t be have two more different stories behind them.

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Kamil Tatarkovic, Simien Mountains, Ethiopia. Nikon D600, Nikkor 50mm/1.4

Magazine covers are a political animal. There are rafts of self-justifying PR companies and media researchers responsible for ‘important’ ideas of how they should look to better sell a magazine – action left to right, subject positioning on the cover to allow cover line text, colours and vibrancy, size of the subject, coming towards or going away (when do you see covers of people riding away from the camera?), and sometimes (dare I say it) the make of bike and clothing the rider is wearing and its connection to potential advertising revenue.

Obviously the cover image is meant to first grab attention and then draw the reader in to want to splash some cash and take the mag home to read instead of racing family pressures to go and eat some junk food while trying to scan read as much of the mag as possible among WHS’ shelves. So while the editorial teams of both these mags thought these images ticked the appropriate cover boxes, these two photos come from very, very different backgrounds.

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James Brickell, Finale Ligure, Italy. Nikon D3s, Nikkor 70-200/f4.

MBR wanted a shot from the Italian riding Mecca of Finale Ligure, to link with an editorial inside the mag. Having just done a shoot there for my regular client Endura, and with Endura’s blessing, I passed over some of the shots that I thought might work for an MBR cover (it helps to know the style of the magazines you work for when you submit images). It’s shot on a trail I know well and this section has a little wall-ride kind of feel to it. OK its not a real wall ride, but it’s enough of an off camber rock slab to be able to throw some shape to the riding. Its surprising how much more ‘dynamics’ can be added to the shot by simply turning the bars instead of riding straight. And so cover number one is from a “catalogue” shoot. Ok, so bike catalogue shoots aren’t exactly a BHS knitwear shoot – we do actually have to go and ride bikes, which means getting to a trail, lugging in the camera gear and riding and re-riding, and usually riding again, sections of trail until the pedantic photographer has nailed the shot they want (i.e., showing the product in an authentic way). Job done. A colourful cover with solid action and a happy client to boot.

November’s MBUK cover is a different fish. Shot during an 8 day traverse of Ethiopia’s high, rugged Simien Mountains, this natural berm was just one corner among a hundred on our descent during day two. It’s refreshing to see MBUK run a ‘real riding’ cover like this -backpack and all- especially knowing where and when it was shot and the adventure side of just reaching that point in our journey. There was no shuttle to the trail, no “let’s just wait for the light to be right” and no “let’s session this a dozen times” kind of luxury for this cover shot. On a genuine point to point ride across some very unforgiving terrain, you have little time to stop and play or to re-shoot. On rides like this there are simply too many time-absorbing unknowns ahead to have that kind of freedom. You have to make assessments on the hoof, to decide if something is worthy of stopping and shooting, to set up quickly and get the shot and move on. It’s a set of pressures that are very unlike the catalogue shoot.

The one common denominator is working with riders that can ride and look good on a bike. It’s not something that comes naturally to most (believe me), but it sure helps make a cover easier to score.

 

September 19, 2015

Behind the Scenes of Nikon’s Behind the Scenes..

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — danmilner @ 11:53 am

Even in today’s selfie-saturated world, most photographers prefer to stay behind the lens. But last month Nikon turned their film cameras on me for 2 days to make a short #IamDifferent film about what goes into a real mountain bike shoot.

The film concept is less about Nikon gear and more about the process of capturing the kind of images that adorn the pages of magazines, decorate websites and shout from advertising spreads  -you know the kind of stuff that makes you go “ooooh”.

Photography is now more accessible than ever before, and I love that, at least as a concept. Only by taking pictures do people learn how to spot photo opportunities and how to take better pictures.

Of course I’m less excited by the inevitable consequence of the popularly blurred distinction between true photographic talent and mutton-dressed-as-lamb snaps. Understand that this has nothing to do with elitism, but is more a concern over the increasing failure of popular culture to recognise a truly good image among the tsunami of flotsam that is smothering peoples visual cortex (wow, that was a heavy sentence). Instagram filters can make pretty crap snaps look good, at least for a few seconds of someone’s attention (but isn’t a few seconds the attention span we’re encouraged to have nowadays?) but maybe if they are taking photos at all they can see the potential of more creative photography, where decisions about light and composition are taken at the moment you lift the camera?

But whatever. Despite the abundance of aspiring photographers out there, there is still a mystery to how action sports photo shoots happen, how they come to be, where the inspiration comes from. There is a mystery behind the process, the communication, the decisions, the choices that make that final shot rise above the immense Sea of Mediocrity.

If truth be told, this wasn’t the typical shoot for me. In fact I rarely go to one spot to nail one image I have in mind. More usually my shoots are either a full day of capturing a brand’s images, working several different spots as the light changes and we dip deeper into a bulging bag of product that needs to be shot, or it’s a day of facing unknowns during a remote, multi-day expedition, while trying to capture the physical and mental challenges of what we have ambitiously taken on. They are very different fish.

So when Nikon’s agency asked me for a location that would both be visually stunning and easy of their film crew to reach on foot, I racked my brain and came up with this spot – a vast, aggressive looking glacier that would make for a breathtaking backdrop to the action, about an hour’s walk from the top of a cable car. I’ve only shot here twice before in my 17 years as a pro, but knowing the trail in the foreground was loose, steep and exposed, it also meant finding a rider confident to make the shot work. I asked Benoit Lasson from the local bike shop.

I planned an early start that would backlight the glacier, adding a dream like ephemeral quality to the ice, that would bring out its blue tones, rather than the pure white that most people associate with great big lumps of ice. I took my D750 to lighten my F-stop bag of kit a little, and I mostly used my 70-200/2.8 lens to pull the glacier into the shot and flatten the image to add more drama and intimacy (I also had the 24-70/2.8 and 16-35/4 with me to cover any eventuality). And with my old Motorola radios failing we shouted a lot to communicate to get timing and angles right, and pinnacle the action at the right spot on the trail, where I could place Ben against the full majesty of the ice.

For me the film works great. It not only shows what goes into a shoot, but the thought processes behind the shot I’m aiming for, and how you can move photography away from Instagram filters and into the real attributes of photography -composition, light and timing. It also gives an idea of what goes on inside my head -but that’s a scarier place than perched on the side of a skinny trail 50m above a sharp, spikes of ice, believe me.  Enjoy the film.

You can see some of my favourite images from the last few years with my backstories to them in a supporting Mpora interview here.

Nikon D750, Nikkor 70-200 f2.8 @ 1/1000, f5.6

Nikon D750, Nikkor 70-200 f2.8 @ 1/1000, f5.6

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