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.

Milner_Lebanon016_074

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.

Milner_Sweet017_071

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. 

DMilner_IronmanZRH014_032

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.

Milner_Navarino018_142

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.

Milner_Lesotho017_570

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.

Milner_Lebanon016_096

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.

Milner_Kyrgyz018_682

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.

Milner_NorthKorea018_0009

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.

Milner_ETH015_0333

Ethiopia. Nikon D600, 1/1000th f4.

Advertisements

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.

Milner_Lesotho017_523

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.

Milner_Lesotho017_013

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.

Milner_Lesotho017_People018

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.

Milner_Lesotho017_628

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.

Milner_Lesotho017_570

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).

 

_DSC8615

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>

 

 

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..

screen-shot-2016-11-04-at-18-58-23

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).

milner_lebanon016_041

 

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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 08.37.15

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

 

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

July 31, 2014

Grave Decisions on the Yeti Cycles shoot

Filed under: bike, photography — Tags: , , , , , — danmilner @ 3:52 pm

Chuffed to be now shooting for Yeti cycles and my artistically licensed ’employment’ with them kicked off with a week-long session in La Grave, French Alps. It’s the latest layer of involvement with the brand since hauling their legendary 575 bike along various expeditions for the last 6 years and this year becoming an ambassador of Yeti.

Late light on a trail we didn't know. Sometimes the 2 hour wait in the wind at the top waiting for the clouds to part seems worth it.  Nikon D3s, 24-80 /2.8 @ 1/500, f5.6

Late light on a trail we didn’t know. Sometimes the 2 hour wait in the wind at the top waiting for the clouds to part seems worth it. Richie getting rude. Nikon D3s, 24-80 /2.8 @ 1/500, f5.6

Yeti is one of the early mountain bike brands. It is the name we all wanted emblazoned on our frames back at the end of the 80’s and early 90’s (and since), if we could get hold of/find/afford one in the UK. It’s the name that still turns heads, and summons forth coo’s of admiration on the trail. So to land the job of shooting their two top pro Enduro racers  -Jared Graves and Richie Rude-  for a week was kind of being given the keys to a wind-powered, fair-trade, organic chocolate shop and being told to ‘go make yourself sick’.

With 6 days on location and two top shelf riders to work with, you could think that this shoot was served to me on a plate, but that’s not the whole story. Mountain bike shoots, or at least those that intend to nail authentic riding shots rather than product-test shoots in the local woods, involve a lot of leg work. They mean serious climbs on and off the bike, getting up early and being out late. Try telling the race winning pro racer that his interval, sprint and turbo-trainer schedule needs to accommodate this kind of on-hill antics and see what you get as a reply. Its all about tact and working together.

There is nothing about La Grave that seems easy. Period. Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/640, f6.3

There is nothing about La Grave that seems easy. Period. Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/640, f6.3

With the lads aboard the new SB5c bike not yet released to the public, the choice of location was paramount. I took a gamble and chose La Grave. The impossibly steep resort isn’t hallowed as a mountain bike Mecca, and it threw us some issues, but it has trails, and incredible scenery, and just as importantly is away from the prying mountain bike masses with their iPhones and Instagram accounts. Take these bikes to nearby Les 2 Alpes or Alpe d’Huez and they’d be all over the social media in less time than it takes to pump up a tyre.

I have wanted to shoot up at this road pass for years and we scheduled the hour drive there into our shoot. When we got there  hoping for late sun, it rained. I actually think it turned out for the better. Jared and Richie riding fast and loose. Nikon D3s, 16-35/4 @ 1/800, f5.6

I have wanted to shoot up at this road pass for years and we scheduled the hour drive there into our shoot. When we got there hoping for late sun, it rained. I actually think it turned out for the better. Jared and Richie riding fast and loose and better than I ever can. Nikon D3s, 16-35/4 @ 1/800, f5.6

So to cut a long rambling story short, we did the shoot, planning early morning lift-accessed sessions (that are still too late for sunrise at this time of year) and late light rides into the encroaching night, while trying to juggle an impossibly changing weather forecast to our advantage, and allow an ongoing serious training program to happen. Decisions made, Locations found. Shots taken. Peace prevailed.

Watch out for a full online gallery from the shoot next week at Yeticycles.com and Pinbike.com

July 8, 2014

This Life Aquatic – hauling bikes on boats in Scotland

Filed under: bike, photography, video — Tags: , , , , , , , — danmilner @ 6:45 am

Sometimes ideas for features take a while to come to fruition; like my Argentina railway bike epic in March, and like this slightly out there adventure I shot in Scotland in May. The idea: take some sea-kayaks, pack with overnight camping gear and throw our bikes onto inflatable dinghies towed behind.

Putting new meaning to the word 'floater'. Shot with GoPro HD3+

Putting new meaning to the word ‘floater’. Shot with GoPro HD3+

Combining bikes and kayaks like this might seem a bit like mixing water with electricity, but there was an inner voice that nagged me over the last couple of years to try it (the same voice that leads me to places like Afghanistan to shoot bike features it seems). After all what can go wrong?

Sea kayaks are great for covering distance on water. Sleek, fast, efficient. Add a floating ‘trailer’ of an inflatable dinghy with the displacement dynamics of a barge, load it with bikes and the equation gets interesting. Especially if the wind is against you. And finding a suitable stretch of water to try this 2 day, 2 night escapade presented another challenge. So we teamed up with Go-Where Scotland to help with location logistics and Sea-Kayak Highlands to provide the boats and then we hit the deepest loch in Scotland, Loch Morar, a loch with its own legendary monster. Apparently.

Dont stray form the paths lads. Leica M9, Zeiss 18/4

Dont stray from the paths lads. Leica M9, Zeiss 18/4

So armed with the Pelican-case packable Leica M9 and a couple of GoPro HD3+ cameras our idea finally came to fruition. No it wasn’t quite the miles-from-anywhere-Alaskan-wrestle-bears-for-your-dinner insanity that many now come to expect from me, but it was an authentic little adventure, right there on our doorstep with its own set of challenges and rich rewards. It shows that sometimes you don’t need to travel too far to put the ‘escape’ into escapade. You just have to be willing to get out there, ride some bikes and paddle 20+ miles in whatever weather nature throws at you, and do it with a dinghy in tow.

The feature will rear its monster head in MBUK and other bike mags around the world in the next few months, but in the meantime, here’s the EpicTV episode from the trip. It’s a little… err, different. Click image below to watch.

Click to watch film episode

Click pic to watch film episode

 

June 24, 2014

Come to the dark side -shooting Trek bikes in North Carolina

Filed under: bike, photography — Tags: , , , , — danmilner @ 8:02 am

I’ve never been to North Carolina. At least I hadn’t until last week when my annual session shooting for Trek bikes came through. Two years ago it was the Italian Dolomites, last year Arizona and in 2014, North Carolina the venue. All three couldn’t be more different, and all throw up challenges for the photographer (dodging hail storms in the Dolomites, 100F heat in Arizona, mosquitos and poison ivy in N. Carolina). My job: to shoot the launch of Trek’s new Fuel EX bike and in so doing, shoot the image needs of the assembled worldwide editors (and Trek’s) and well, just capture the feel of the bikes in this location.  Cue: high ISO.

Nikon D3S, 70-200/4 @ 1/640, F4.5, ISO 3200.

Nikon D3S, 70-200/4 @ 1/640, F4.5, ISO 3200.

I flew in expecting moss-bedragled trees and old dudes chewing tobacco sitting in rocking chairs on porches . But of course that’s the deep south. North Carolina just isn’t quite that far south (idiot). So no moss, but it still has the the kind of animals that kill you -copperhead snakes, big spiders, bears, and it has a lot of deep, dark woodland coating the flanks, summits and troughs of the Pisgah National Forest (Pisgah is one of those words that has always had resonance in mountain biking and at last I got to see what it was all about.) And Pisgah is one helluva dark forest to shoot in.

Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/3200, f2.

Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/3200, f2. You’re never far from a church in N. Carolina.

Shooting editors during a guided ride is all about leapfrogging ahead of them. No fuss, set up the shot, shoot and move on. It means moving fast without flashes, and so shooting natural light (which lets face it is my thang) however dark it is. But thanks to the current low-light able DSLRs this is possible. Shooting landscapes in the forest is one thing, but when you need a shutter speed of 1/1000th too, then even shooting f4 or wider, means ramping the ISO up to 4000 (or more). No the shots are not perfect (I’m not sure I agree that 12,500 ISO is quite as noise-less as they claim), but they work fine for a double page spread in the print mags (hey, remember print mags?) and would probably stand up to some billboard abuse, and they are more than good enough for that digital mag resolution.

So thanks Trek for the chance to push my D3S’s ISO to meltdown, and the opportunity to ride, see and experience the Pisgah forest in all its darkness (it is really good riding BTW). And eat hot boiled peanuts. Now that’s something I never thought I’d say.

Nikon D3S, 16-35/4, 1/1000, f6.3. ISO 6400.

Nikon D3S, 16-35/4, 1/1000, f6.3. ISO 6400.

 

June 7, 2014

Wednesday Morning 5am

Filed under: bike, photography — danmilner @ 7:39 pm
Nikon D3s, 16-35 f4.

Nikon D3s, 16-35 f4.

OK so it was a Tuesday not a Wednesday, and it was 5.30am, not 3 am, as per the iconic Simon and Garfunkel’s sixties album, but whatever, it’s the kind of hour that is not nice to see. But that’s what shooting photos is often about -blurry eyed, grumpy models and pre-breakfast morning breath. Being a pro photo monkey means you get to see a lot of places, and often you get to see them at the sort of time others don’t. It’s almost as if photography was just an excuse for insomnia. Thats what gives this job its edge, like capturing aspirational images on this bit of Italian road while shooting for bike clothing brand Endura a couple of weeks ago. Getting up at 5:30 meant catching this light on a section of tarmac I know heads straight east into the rising sun, and doing it knowing we had only an hour before the morning commuter traffic would close us down.

Next stop, Scarborough fair….

Older Posts »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.