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

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.

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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>

 

 

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.

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

 

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.

 

November 11, 2014

Come to the Dark side – the Kinesis bikes Peak shoot

Filed under: bike, photography — Tags: , , , , , , — danmilner @ 9:05 am

I’ve been riding mountain bikes since 1985. My first story ran in MBUK in 1993 —a feature about riding in Majorca, complete with dodgy action selfies, taken by balancing my camera on a nearby rock, while I balanced a trackstand in between some boulders, again. Although happily published, it made me realise I needed to get better at taking photos (and do trips with other people). Mountain bikes are, and have always been a big part of my life. I don’t ride a road bike very often. But to me bikes are bikes. They are amazing things. They are tickets to adventure. They are mobility marvels. They are part of the only transport solution that sort out our cities properly.

On reflection - Scott Purchas and the T2. Nikon D3s, 24-70 2.8.

On reflection – Scott Purchas and the T2. Peak District. Nikon D3s, 24-70 2.8.

So when I get asked to shoot a road bike session, I have no problem with that, at all. Especially if it’s in one of the most beautiful, and one of my favourite, places of the UK —the Peak District National Park. Last month’s shoot for Kinesis UK was all about showing their latest T2 bike as the do-anything machine that today’s everyday rider needs: commuter / winter hack / mile-munching tourer / summer sportif. But mostly winter hack on this photo brief, which is where the Dark Peak in late October comes in.

Moody, brooding, up against the elements. Thats the Peak District I’ve always know, from childhood day trips to hike over Kinder Scout, to wet camping and mountain bike weekends riding hardtails with 35mm of elastomer suspension up front. And I’ve got to say, even after all the incredible places in the World I’ve shot, this one place in the middle of the UK is still right up there. I think it always will be, whatever bike I’m shooting.

Wet roads, dry stone walls.

Wet roads, dry stone walls.

Alive and kicking – my new website is up

Filed under: bike, life, outdoors, photography, snow — Tags: , — danmilner @ 8:34 am

It was meant to be down for 2 weeks. Three months late my new website is finally up, using a completely new format, look and a fresh set of images. A lot of them.

A thousand of a second to shoot, three months to get up online.

A thousand of a second to shoot, three months to get up online.

What was meant to be a simple task  -dropping in a decent set of images into a photoshelter template and putting danmilner.com back online- turned out to be quite a lot longer process than I’d anticipated. When I start digging, I seem to have, err… quite a lot of photos that would look great full screen bleed on the smart new site, and narrowing my selection down to a manageable, less bewildering but representative edit was more than could be done in my tea-break. Throw in a few select ‘special projects’ galleries, add a sprinkle of more recent commercial work and still keep time aside to actually go out and shoot, and.. well you get the idea.

And then there are the captions. Every single image has a caption of some sort – from simple athlete and/or location details to a little background story to the pic. I guess I need to get quicker at typing.

Whatever, it’s up and live and kicking. All you have to do is make a cup of tea, grab a biscuit (hell, make it a packet) and sit back and enjoy it.

www.danmilner.com

September 1, 2014

I went mountain biking in Afghanistan and all you got was this lousy video

Filed under: bike, video — Tags: , , , , , — danmilner @ 12:47 pm

Here’s my moving image take on the Bikemag trip I photographed.  For your enjoyment. Or maybe mine. Click on image to watch on EpicTV.

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