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

March 5, 2019

Talks at The Photography Show

I’ll be doing slideshow talks on the how’s, why’s and where’s of adventure photography on the Panasonic Lumix stand at the UK’s Photography Show on March 17th and 18th. Come along, listen in and say hello.

Sunday 17th @ 14:15 “Adventures with the G9” – a round up of a year of adventure shoots, from enduring blizzards on the most southern trail in the world, to turning heads in North Korea, all shot with the Lumix G9.

Monday 18th @ 11:45 “Adventure photography made easy” – I’ll delve into my 20+ years experience as a pro photographer to give advice on getting the shot, surviving the unknowns and dodging some of the pitfalls of adventure photography. Oh and expect a few anecdotes to keep it lively.

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4303 m altitude, Kyrgyzstan.

To the Ends of the Earth- testing the G9 on the most southern trail in the world  – click here for video.

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January 5, 2019

Courting Controversy- why we went to North Korea, your questions answered

Filed under: bike, life, story telling, Uncategorized — Tags: , — danmilner @ 2:43 pm
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MBUK magazine, January 2019, opening spread.

My feature from our September mountain bike trip to North Korea is starting to turn heads in the press. Some commentators don’t see the merits of a trip to North Korea quite like my team does.

North Korea was always likely to be a contentious destination in some people’s eyes — we knew that when we decided to go. Some people thought us naive, some (largely ignorant) people thought we wouldn’t return. And now we have come back, some want to point out the ‘error of our ways’ in going there, no doubt based on their own received knowledge of this country rather than direct experiences. I expect that, whatever our intentions, there will be other criticism to come and that will play off against the enormous interest in and praise for our efforts, as well as the benefits of the debate and discussion it has created.

So given that this is a contentious trip in some people’s eyes, here are some answers to common questions about why we went, and I hope to provide some insight into my views on the ethical and/or political debate that no doubt exists with some people around our decisions.

Many of the questions below are quoted from the one Instagram critic’s comments and accusations.

Q. “North Korea? There is no glory in that, only shame.”

A. We were not seeking glory and we do not feel shame for going — far from it. I have spent 3 decades of my 52 years of life going to different countries to better understand different people, customs and politics. I travelled through Chile while Pinochet was still dictator and in Nicaragua when the post-revolution Sandinistas held power (first time round, 1989). I’ve met ex-Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and faced a Hezbollah checkpoint in Lebanon. I’ve spent time in Russia and Kashmir and Pakistan. The world is awash with potentially contentious places to visit, but my agenda is to try to find a common humanity, to break down barriers and build bridges, however small, between different people (us and them) otherwise divided by political systems. I approached our trip to North Korea with the same hopes and ambitions.

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Q. “You are just supporting a country that tortures and murders innocent people.”

A. I believe that far from supporting regimes, the benefits of these trips (achieved through the subsequent sharing of our direct and honest experiences) do more to better the world than further harm it. I travel to places to tell the story as I see and experience it, to see places for myself, rather than absorb and regurgitate whatever an agenda-driven press or a government tell us. I don’t doubt there are serious issues in NK, but this was a journalism trip. The reason behind going was not to produce an advert for the North Korean tourist board, nor did we set out to promote or defend its ideology or system, but to obtain a rare glimpse inside the country. From that opportunity we can tell our story of a visit to North Korea  —which may challenge or confirm other people’s preconceptions/opinions : after all we didn’t know what stories and experiences we would come away with.

Q. By going to NK you are just giving credibility to a regime.

A. I think as a traveller to such places it is your responsibility to be aware of its political and social issues. Travel is about broadening the mind, and seeing a place through open eyes and having intentions to learn about the issues surrounding it is part of that. I agree that to travel to NK without any intention to embrace or interpret these issues would be acting irresponsibly as a human. I do not think we did that. Tourists, anywhere, have much more responsibility than they think.

Q. “There is absolutely no way you saw life in North Korea as it is.”

A. I accept that NK wants to show tourists a presentable side of its country and is keen to improve its image —that’s a given (after all every tourist board across the planet has the same objectives). But I believe that during our 12 days spent in 4 very different areas of the country, we saw a fair bit of ‘normal’ life. We were not driven about in a bus with blacked out windows and then herded in and out of only places ‘they’ wanted us to see. The countless sights we saw across the country from our bus windows (during the 20+ hours we drove across parts of the country), or walking the streets in Pyongyang and hiking and riding in the hills and rural areas, were not set up or enacted for us – that would be impossible and ludicrous. I accept that on a trip like this we were not privileged to see ‘behind the scenes’ of many places I’d have liked to – factories, schools (although we did meet another tour group who had visited a school), farms etc, even prisons, and I accept that our own experience is limited for sure, but it was not acutely curated, sculpted and censored as many thought it would be.

Q. “Were you free to roam the streets?

A. Every foreigner is accompanied by 2 guides (or ‘minders’/’fixers’, depending on how you want to look at them). We had our same 2 guides for our group of 4 tourists. We worked hard to plan our own trip and the destinations we wanted to visit/ride and had their tour company organise the logistics to enable us to do it, with mountain biking as our focus. No we were not ‘free to roam’ the streets as such —you cannot go anywhere in public without your guides— but we could walk the streets, and did, and we could suggest where we went, and most of those suggestions were accommodated. The guides showed a surprising flexibility in where we went and what we saw, even finding a way for us to session the Pyongyang skate park on our whim.

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Pyongyang skate park

Q. “I’d even be surprised if you met any real citizens.”

A. Our guides were ‘real citizens’. We spent 3 days in Pyongyang and walked through parks and along streets and traveled on its underground alongside everyday regular citizens on their way to or from work and during the 70thanniversary celebrations. We rode paths in the mountains and met groups of day-hikers, who laughed and cheered our endeavours. We drunk beer in a microbrew alongside suited men, shared a swimming pool with teenage lads who were just messing about instead of honing their swimming techniques, we cheered on a volleyball game on a beach and were invited to join in a beer and karaoke party under a bridge. And we saw workers toiling by hand on roads, in public gardens, fields and in construction. If by ‘real citizens’ you mean the general public then we mingled with them, but it is hard to “meet” people in NK unless they are in the service industry — guides, waiting staff, hotel clerks etc. After all you don’t usually ‘meet real citizens’ much anywhere else you travel, unless in a bar. The North Koreans are reserved and there is a very real language barrier – we don’t speak Korean, they don’t speak English. But we had many encounters and we were not prevented from trying to talk with them when we did.

 

Q: “You certainly did not get to ‘see for yourself’ any of the realities these people endure. Did you see any starving people?”

A. I don’t know if any of the people we saw were ‘starving.’ I have seen starving people in other parts f the world. We saw many thin people, and no fat people at all. But it’s worth noting that I wouldn’t usually see the realities people endure in poor parts of the U.K. or the USA either, unless they invite me into their houses or places of work, but it seems acceptable for me to report from there without attracting criticism.

Q. “Did you see any work camps or torture chambers?”

A. No we didn’t. However I don’t usually see prisons on any of my mountain bike trips, thankfully. I would love to travel to NK to photograph a more in-depth study of some deeper issues, but our trip was spearheaded by looking for mountain biking opportunities and photographing them. That’s not to say we were blinkered, only to put our trip in context. There are plenty of other photographers recording the social political realities of NK. Try Carl de Keyzer.

Q. “How could you say this is journalism? You most certainly were chaperoned by military personnel”

A. The story we came back with is an honest and factual representation of our experiences, albeit shaped by mountain biking. We were not chaperoned by military personnel, but by civilian guides employed by a state-run tour company. The itinerary we followed was requested and directed by us, with an amazing (and surprising) amount of flexibility shown by our guides, including an overnight bivouac up a mountain a long way from any spying eyes. Some gaps in our proposed timeline were filled in by our guides’ ideas of places that might be of cultural interest —monuments etc, (that also helped them tick their role of educating us on ‘their’ history of NK.)

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A Sunday BBQ and karaoke party we stumbled across under a bridge in the rain, and were immediately invited to join.

Q. “You were only allowed to take approved photos (which was probably only mountains and trees)”

A. Actually I was allowed to take photos of anything I wished, but not military personnel — a sensitivity I think you’d find in most countries. The only other time I was asked not to take a photo was of an old ice-cream vending machine, as this was considered ‘old and ugly’. The North Koreans, like many South-East Asians, are very aware and proud of their appearance and how it is perceived by others. I did take pictures of mountains and trees too, and usually they had bikes in them. One local guide was more sensitive and was not so keen on us photographing some everyday sights that “could be used as negative propaganda against the DPRK”, for example people working on the roads in basic conditions, people driving oxen – in fact the sort of scenes that are everyday sights across much of Asia.

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Tourists want selfies, everywhere nowadays.

Q. “Did you take any pictures of propaganda posters?

A. Yes I took many pictures of many propaganda posters. They are fascinating and are a must-snap romantic subject matter for any western photographer whether they appreciate the message contained within them or not. By comparison, over 12 days I only saw 1 product advertising billboard (for a state made family car). Some would argue this absence of marketing reflects poor material wealth and a deprivation of freedoms of choice etc, but that depends on your background, wealth, the system you live under and what choices are on offer. What this propaganda poster vs billboard disparity did drive home is an appreciation that their political system is completely different from ours. While their leading ideology (called Juche) relies heavily on ‘unity’, all-for-one-and one-for all symbiosis, and the ‘common good’, our western ideology is largely unified by consumerism and the desire to better ourselves in spite of, and often to the detriment of others. I have not been brainwashed, that’s just the basics of  socialism versus capitalism.

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Q. “Ask any questions about how the government treats its people?”

A. The honest answer is ‘no’ at least if you are asking if we queried their human rights record. While interested in such topics, we avoided such direct questions because: 1. We believe that we would have received subjective, party-line answers concurrent with our status as visiting tourists rather than as UN inspectors (so why bother asking?), and 2. Our trip was shaped as an MTB trip and so our initial priorities lay in building trust with our guides to enable our mountain biking to happen how, where and when we wanted it to (a large ask, considering that they had never catered for mountain bikers before and didn’t know what to expect). Asking such weighed questions would not garner trust.

We did ask plenty of other questions about civilian life and got explanations about: housing (its free), work (everyone works for the state, 6 days per week), farming (many are collectives), healthcare (its free), schools (free), marriage (its arranged), money (it exists and people get a basic salary for their work), beer (they like it), universities (free), holidays (they get annual holidays), internet (no internet, they have their own DPRK intranet). We also discussed with our guides the topics of freedom of speech, elected officials, relationships and meeting girls, the Trump-Kim Jong Un summit (our guide praised Trump for helping make that happen), consumerism, tourism and more.

Q. “..and the people you may have spoken to were undoubtedly under the watchful eye and ear of the state.”

A. While I am sure the state keeps an eye on its citizens for many reasons there were quite a few moments when we did interact freely with strangers, especially out on the hiking trails. Perhaps this was because here they were away from the ‘eyes and ears’ of the state, or perhaps it was because they are just human and the novelty of seeing 4 mountain bikers was surreal and entertaining as it is in many places devoid of mountain bikers.

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Q. “Did you have an independent translator interpret any newspapers, TV, or radio transmissions?”

A. We did not have an ‘independent’ translator. Out guides were our translators. We had to trust the honesty of our guides and work out for ourselves if anything they were telling us was curated in any way towards propaganda. I think I have the experience to spot this. Building up a good rapport with the guides helps to open up honest dialogue. We did try to watch North Korean T.V. in our hotel rooms and we saw and had the headlines of newspapers translated.

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Reading the newspapers in the Pyongyang metro

Q. “Meet any citizens that could even afford a bike?”

A. One of our guides had his own mountain bike — a Giant hardtail with city tyres and a pannier rack fitted. I accept that as an official tour guide this guy probably had a decent income by NK standards, but we saw hundreds of other people on bikes in the city and in rural places too (bikes are much more common than privately owned cars, which are rare in NK). We saw plenty of electric city bikes.

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Q. “What you may have experienced, besides the adrenaline rush, is a farce and now you [and the media who run your story] are another propaganda tool for the deep dark state of North Korea.”

A. We do not believe the story we are telling is in any way propaganda. It is up to you how you interpret that story, and I am sure whatever we publish will be interpreted in different ways by people who already have their own political stances, stand-fast views and agendas. I am not naive to think that NK is not without its human rights issues, but those same or similar issues exist in countless other countries that most people, perhaps yourself included, would willingly travel to, from Iran to Israel. Read Amnesty International’s annual reports on China and Saudi Arabia and you’ll see overlap with their take on NK, but we support these countries by doggedly continuing to travel to, and trade with, them as they (presently at least) serve our western consumerist needs. How much of our consumerist goods come from China, how much oil from Saudi Arabia?. And what about our arms trade with dozens of countries with atrocious human rights records, because our current model of economics demands it?

Q. “That’s why we have sanctions now, to prevent countries like North Korea from getting into the global market. And then people like you and the clueless media skirt those sanctions by swapping your western cash to Chinese currency and giving it directly to a very well documented oppressive regime.”

A. While sanctions can encourage or force change through a national or trade level, I do not believe that our visit there contravened any of the ambitions of sanctions. Yes, some people (including the US government) argue that all money spent in North Korea helps prop up its regime, and that is a consideration, in the same way as our own taxes could be seen as paying for either schools or bombs without any input into that decision, aside from voting for party X or Y. It is illegal for any US company to engage in any activity that spends money in North Korea and the USA has banned its own citizens from visiting NK (and ironically in my view, in so doing enacted its own censorship). However the E.U. does not have the same sanctions and travel exclusions in place and as an E.U. citizens we did not contravene any of its laws.

Q. “What a cop out… please tell me about human rights abuses in the western world comparable to NK, China, Saudia Arabia etc? Our home countries are indeed much less oppressive and the best example of fairness this world has right now so don’t even think about shitting on it. And this socialist ideology would be more noble of it wasn’t forced through brainwashing, starvation, fear, and violence.”

A. While I agree that ‘Western’ countries enjoy a much cleaner human rights situation (nowadays, not historically) than many countries, we are not totally isolated from human rights abuses. The Black Lives Matter campaign is real, as is War on Want’s anti slavery campaign that highlights sweatshops in the U.K. as much as those in India. And I believe many of our own countries human rights abuses happen abroad, enacted in our names in countries that we are “policing”. This is obviously drifting off topic, but adds context. The ‘West’ is happy to police and act as a self-appointed jury of global standards, morals and rights, based on our own (ie, western) interpretations of good and evil, whether that be regarding religion or political doctrines or economic models. Yes, our countries might be the “best examples of fairness” but I am not “shitting on” them by believing they are not above criticism of some of their domestic and foreign policies. I know NK is an authoritarian state, but I also believe it remains demonised not because of its defensive/offensive military posturing, but largely because of its adherence to a socialist ideology — and that demonisation would disappear if it embraced capitalism and housed our cheap factories. I do not then its human rights record would not even a talking point.

Q. “The point is, you still dont have a direct and honest experience to share with us. You were not exposed to the truth and therefore cannot speak of it. The only thing you did was give thousands of western currency to a murderous regime in return for false propaganda to take back home to share. You’re not a humanitarian, just a peddler of an authoritarian agenda.”

A. I do not pretend to be an expert on North Korea, only my own experiences, impressions and reflections. I would love to chat to ex-pat North Koreans who have left the country, and I’d love to chat more and in greater depth with North Koreans still inside the country who support the system. I have a very real and honest experience to share. The truth is that I saw a country with a fragile system so alien to many of us that few of us can comprehend it. Their system has definite positives for sure, but at what price? Yes I admire the root aspirations and the communal benefits of their socialism, and its longevity against all odds, but I am also acutely aware of the authoritarianism that goes with it.

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Q. “Letting you all know the MTB world is appalled by your funding of North Korea’s murderous government. Please explained how you skirted sanctions, how you transferred western currency to Korea?”

A. I’m sorry you feel that, but I am sure you do not speak for the ‘MTB world’. As E.U. citizens we did not ‘skirt sanctions’, but acted entirely within the law and within any UN and E.U. trade restrictions in place, and exercised our rights to travel to NK. We were quoted for and paid our tour company for the trip they organised for us — our tour bus, hotels, food and guiding.

Q. “If you don’t know Otto Wambier, you should look him up and send his mother an apology.”

A. Tragic as that event was, I certainly don’t feel I owe Otto’s mother, or anyone else an apology. Otto’s trip had nothing to do with my own, but I am curious to know the reason why Otto visited NK.

Diatribes apart, I hope this helps you understand what has driven me to make trips to places like North Korea, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Lebanon and more. Every person seeing media output from our trip will no doubt already have their own political background and allegiances and will interpret both the story and the above Q+A in their own way. One friend believes that our visits to such places are  “imperial vanguardism”, that we leave in our wake countless detrimental changes to often fragile systems  —be they by introducing desire for consumerism in what is the last remnant of socialism, or encouraging commercial tourism to trample the rainforests of Borneo. But that’s another (worthy) discussion.

I’d argue that we have one world and that we are all interconnected. One person’s pollution is another’s bad drinking water. One country’s defence policy is another one’s threat. I don’t doubt that there are places and people that would be better left alone to exist as they have always done, without our interference (and inevitably the sicknesses, both physical, mental and spiritual that usually accompanies it). But there are also plenty of places that are demonised and feared and form part of the jigsaw of our unstable world. I believe fear and insecurities start with misunderstanding and suspicion. I believe the best way to avoid that is to connect with people, wherever they are, and find common ground as a starting block to break down the barriers with which our world is sadly and detrimentally saddled, not build more.

Catch the full story in Bike Magazin Germany, MBUK, Vojomag, MTB-mag.com, Solo Bici, Spoke NZ, Outside Online, Velo CZ.. and others.

 

 

November 1, 2018

If I told you, I’d have to kill you – the art of developing your own photographic style

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a photography student asking how I get ‘the look’ in my photos. Essentially he wanted me to share my trade secrets (which really aren’t that secret if you’re familiar with Lightroom — desaturate, heavy shadows, vignette…) and a short cut to giving his images more impact. But unfortunately there is no shortcut.

So here are my 5 steps to turning heads with your photos:

Lesson 1: Develop your own style.

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Lebanon. Nikon D750 1/1000th f8.

Yeah I know,  you’ve heard this countless times. But this is the one thing that underpins your photography; identifying and developing your own photo-look and style of photography (they are different things, but interconnected). The problem is how do you know what is your style?

Pretty much every photographer out there (including myself and the emailing student) have been influenced by the work of other photographers. At some point in our development we’ve all seen a look and wanted to mimic it, or even tried to take that same shot — you know the shot of the Buddhist monk with the prayer beads, the long exposure of waves around rocks, or the snowboarder airing over you off a cliff. But it’s no bad thing: Being influenced, and even trying to replicate a shot, is part of the learning process. It’s ticking boxes along the way. The tricky bit it is that we can get obsessed with replicating that shot instead of looking for our own direction. And while that is okay for learning composition, timing and processing techniques, it stifles creativity — our own unique creativity.

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Norway. Nikon D750 1/1000th f5.

Of course even having identified our own direction we are visually bombarded by myriad other work, all steering our own other style, especially today when “over processing” (see lesson 3 below) seems to be the popular way to turn people’s heads.

Your style of photography might be dark and moody or light and airy, it might be predominantly wide angle landscapes or blurry street reportage. Defining your own style takes time and unless you set out exuding confidence, a lot of experimenting to realise what seems to be the best expression of your story-telling. Which brings us to lesson 2..

Lesson 2: Decide your story. 

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Zurich ironman. Nikon D3s, 70-200/1.8 @ 1/2000, f3.2.

It’s important to see a good photo for what it is – to see past the over processing and instagram filters to decide if underneath them there is a solid photo. Filters can turn people’s heads but they cant change a bad photo into a good one. A good photo will be good however it is processed because of its creative composition or the fact that it just captured the decisive moment (as Henri Cartier Bresson put it) – those both represent the story telling.

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Navarino Island, Chile. Lumix G9, 1/250th f2.8

So before becoming obsessed with your Lightroom processing, make sure you get to grips with what you are trying to say in your photos. That’s the “telling a story” bit you hear so often. Identify the message you’re trying to convey, or what it is in the scene that has caught your eye —what is happening before you that you want to record and why (the “why” bit is the hardest to identify as it is usually emotionally driven). The “story”behind an image is a combination of moment and context. It could come from people arguing at an Indian railway station or a mountain biker dwarfed and humbled by an immense landscape (the latter plays a big part in much of my sport photography — I’m not known for just shooting action for action’s sake). Did you capture the moment? Did you give it context?

Lesson 3: Be good at, not obsessed with, processing.

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Lesotho, Africa. Nikon D750, 35/2 @ f2.5, 1/1000th

Image processing (often mis-termed “photoshop’ing”) in apps like Lightroom is a powerful tool but it’s important to remember it’s there to enhance an image not replace it. Processing just does what we used to do by fitting filters on our lenses or toiling in a darkroom. So if you could do it in the darkroom by changing grades of contrast or posit toning, or on the camera with a graduated ND, polarising, 81B warm up or soft-focus filter, or in camera by changing film to give photos a different feel (eg. grain size, colour tone, B&W or Infra-Red) then surely it’s totally acceptable to do the same on the computer in the ‘post’ production stage. And it’s here that the boundaries between reportage and art become blurred, and why not. For example I often vignette my images a tiny amount to subconsciously draw the viewer’s eye into the scene – a technique that was used a lot by Ansel Adams in his B&W landscapes, and ironically something lens manufacturers try hard to alleviate in their lens designs (stemming back from when we shot film and didn’t have the option to remove the lens vignetting in Lightroom).

Digital is a great tool and to me is now way better than film was, or at least is now more practical without sacrificing quality; but while digital is getting close to capturing the detail and gradation of light that our eyes do, heavily HDR photos still look too artificial. It’s easy to drop an Instagram filter onto a shot to score some likes or 20 seconds of attention but remember lesson 1: a bad photo buried under a filter is still a bad photo. I’m assuming that after 20 years making a living from my photography that my photos are above par but I still use processing to give my images a feel and stamp my ‘look’ on them — it’s not 100% unique by any means, but it reflects the way I visualise the story. Yes there is huge potential for processing to add impact to images, but the key here is to use it to compliment your photographic style, not try to let the processing do all the talking. Which brings us neatly to lesson 4…

Lesson 4: Commit when you press the shutter.

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Lebanon. Nikon D750, 1/1000th f5.6

Decide the intended feel or look of your images the moment you press the shutter, not afterwards on the computer sitting back with a cuppa and a biscuit. Why? Because the moment you press the shutter is the moment you have decided to record the scene and decided the story you are telling. It is the moment when you will have made decisions, often subconsciously, on how you are telling that story. It is these decisions that will influence not only the composition (lens choice, depth of field and what you include in or exclude from the scene), but also the feel of the photo that will tell that story. Perhaps that story needs dark shadows or silhouettes.

Perhaps elements in the scene lend themselves more powerfully to being shot in B&W or being grittily desaturated. Or maybe the story needs to be told through the light, airy, blown-out highlighted feel of a carefree summer with out of focus golden grass in the foreground. All these micro-decisions taken when you press the shutter will not only , but will (or should) sway your decisions on composition and subject and form the foundations for how you process the image later. For example, deciding to shoot in B&W means “seeing” the scene in B&W, not just deciding it looks better like that afterwards.  ‘Seeing” the scene in B&W will change how you shoot it, picking out lines and shapes and using them as the main architecture of the photo.

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Kyrgyzstan. Lumix G9, 1/320th f6.3

So have your processing style in mind when you shoot: how does it help tell the story, how does it convey your photography style? I am dark and moody and bitter (so people say). My pics are dark and moody and are often shot during tough expeditions in inclement weather. It’s generally why I don’t shoot for many brands that like bright, glitzy colours — that’s just not me. And dark and moody seems to fit well with gritty mountain biking and the endeavour of it all.

But sometimes a scene lends itself to a different feel. See the photo below that I shot in Pyongyang, North Korea last month. The place is surreal. Truly. It is pastel colours and bright light and immaculate white architecture and well dressed people. So I chose to shoot Pyongyang, and the DPRK’s 70th birthday celebrations (and even its military parade) in a way that reflected that feel with almost blown out highlights, light colours and the tone curve just nudging black.

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Pyongyang, North Korea. Lumix G9, 1/2000th f4.

Lesson 5: Don’t rush.

We live in a world dictated by immediacy, but I shot for about 15 years before I really identified my “photographic style” — something that’s now made easier by today’s digital armoury that gives us more control and instant results. It also took me a while to identify with the idea of story telling in my photos, at least consciously. It was there, just that I hadn’t realised it’s potential. So don’t worry if all the pieces aren’t quite there yet for you, it’s something to work on it (and keep working on wherever you’re at in photography). Play around with processing, but identify what works best with the photos you shoot, the story you want to tell and the photographer you are — or want to be. But most of all, go and shoot.

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Ethiopia. Nikon D600, 1/1000th f4.

June 11, 2018

What’s that you said? You want to Mountain bike in North Korea?

Filed under: Uncategorized — danmilner @ 5:07 pm

While talks are on the cards, I doubt North Korea is likely to make Conde Nast’s vacation bucket list, but it’s on mine. Okay, not a holiday, but to shoot a mountain bike story there. A pioneering one. Nobody seems to have tried it before, so given my reputation, why not, right? And to help make it happen I’ve launched a crowdfunder here:

https://gogetfunding.com/opening-minds-in-north-korea/

 

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Hands up who likes to see people carrying bikes up big hills? Lesotho, Africa, 2017.

The idea is to look inside this intriguing country and come back with an amazing story to share with you all. Yeah nothing new there, so why crowdfunding? The problem is that North Korea has an “image problem” in the eyes of many of the usual western sponsors that would back these kind of ‘out there’ mountain bike trips. Or to be exact they are either a little risk averse when it comes to a potential marketing backlash spearheaded by customers with blinkered minds, or have their hands tied due to US economic sanctions. So, falling short of their usual financial support, I’ve turned to crowdfunding the story instead. It’s an original approach to funding adventure assignments, and maybe one that represents a populist answer to ailing press budgets.

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Cultural exchange, Afghanistan, 2013.

I’ve spent 3 decades riding mountain bikes and they have been my excuse to see some of the world’s varied cultures and extraordinary places, from Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor and the Lebanon Mountain Trail to Lesotho’s horse trails and Ethiopia’s Simien mountains. Again and again the bike has been a tool to break down barriers of culture, wealth and language, and to bridge the gap between different peoples. I think it will be no different in North Korea.

Please check out the campaign and help make this story happen. Thanks!.  #bikeNorthKorea #MTBnorthkorea

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The universal power of the bike. Chitwan, Nepal, 2015.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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