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

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.

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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

 

June 29, 2016

Tales from the dark side -Bristol Bike Night

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

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

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

Info and tickets: www.kendalmountaintour.com

 

February 14, 2016

Behind the Scenes – the Yeti Tribe Nepal shoot

Filed under: Uncategorized — danmilner @ 3:39 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

September 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 10, 2015

hey, are road bike models supposed to get frostbite?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — danmilner @ 4:15 pm

I’m guessing few people out there know what really goes into creating a photo for a bike company’s marketing needs. That’s understandable; I don’t really know what goes into a doing heart transplants (other than maybe cutting, swapping and err, stitching up?), or brewing fine micro-beers (although I’m hoping they dont share much, if any, of the same technologies or techniques).

KinesisUK ad, Cycling Plus August 015.

If they could fit refrigerated handlebars you’d get a feel for what James is feeling when you test trde this bike. KinesisUK ad, Cycling Plus August 015.

So my recent Alps shoot for KinesisUK road bikes and Reynolds wheels could be that magical eye opener for anyone wanting a true behind-the-scenes glimpse of it all, though I only realised this as we (rider James Brickell and myself) woke in the back of my VW Transporter camper-fied van for our planned sunrise shoot. instead of heavenly rays of golden light bursting through the windscreen, rain was lashing its windows and the mercury was still sitting at a very unappetising 4C.

Nikon D750, 16-35 f4 @ 1/1000 f5.6

I’m guessing James’ thoughts lie somewhere between “hot coffee, soon” and “would anyone notice if the photographer didn’t come back from this shoot?” Nikon D750, 16-35 f4 @ 1/1000 f5.6

Making images that “pop” with aspirational grandeur is what makes everyone happy. The client is happy and thinks you are a lens-god (which of course I am). The public thinks you are great for making the product they really, really want to buy seem even more irresistible and justified. And the model/rider thinks you are great… eventually (usually only long after the shoot when sensitivity has returned to their extremities and they get to see how ruddy good you have made them look on a bike.)

And to make images pop means invoking atmosphere to the scene. Usually by sacrificing something to the weather gods.

Nikon D750, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1000, f6.3.

“Yes that hill climb, yes do it once more please. OK, and just once more again please..” “Nikon D750, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1000, f6.3.

Considering we’re in the Alps surrounded by majestic mountains, this all sounds easy. So to inject a little realism and dispel some misconceptions, here is how the recent KinesisUK shoot panned out:

Drive an hour to pick up rider.  Drive another 45 minutes to location and scout a bit, looking at the aesthetics of every possible corner of a long twisty road over a remote mountain pass.  Shoot some summery looking, dreamy images as the sun dips (one box ticked).  Drive over pass into land of pizza and eat.  Drive back to pass and camp in van in lay-by so to be ‘ready” and on location for planned sunrise shoot. Wake up at 5am to p*ssing rain and freezing temperatures that weren’t  forecast.  Go for a wee.  Wait another 90 minutes to see if the weather will break in time to still get a pop at some good morning light.  Wonder about life and the meaning of it all.  Leap out of van at first sight of clouds breaking.  Persuade rider that he isn’t cold, really, and tell him to stop shivering and to try to make it look like he is enjoying himself on an aspirational, ‘out there’ finding yourself kind of ride (you know, the sort everyone thinks they want to do, but don’t).  Wait for clouds to part again.  And again.  Allow rider to don warm layers in between hustled shots.  Shoot as for as long as possible at least until either a) rider can still feel his hands to use the brake, or b) the light is still making those images pop.  Finish when either of these give up on you or you’re having to resort to Sellotaping down rider’s nipples flat and invisible through the jersey in an act to convey some kind of warmth to the shots.  Go grab some breakfast.

Reading that back I guess my job isn’t as glamorous as some would think. But I dont think I’d have it any other way.

Nikon D750, 24-70/2.8 @ 1/1000 f5.6

Somewhere at the end of this road is a warm cafe and breakfast. Possibly. Nikon D750, 24-70/2.8 @ 1/1000 f5.6

August 1, 2015

All in the detail – shooting the Zurich Ironman

Filed under: Uncategorized — danmilner @ 10:25 am

Last year I shot the Zurich Ironman event for Mens Fitness magazine. As the feature has long been out,  I thought I’d post some shots from an interesting day of memory card abuse

My brief was to capture the event in all its glory and its pain (mostly pain), as well as nailing shots of the then mag’s editor Nick Hutchins participating. I’ll be straight; I’m no triathlete. Yes I ride bikes, but I don’t run (unless I have to, say, when my bus is leaving, or the pub is about to shut or chased by a polar bear) and I don’t swim that much (unless chased by a polar bear), but these kind of jobs are pretty interesting opportunities.

So as a photographer that is used to photographing radical, extreme sport nonsense, I saw this as an opportunity to not only capture the “extreme” angle (that’s a 3.8Km swim, 180 Km ride, 42 Km run), but also capture what I saw as a kind of weird juxtaposition of immense physical exertion and unlikely dress code in an oddly urban setting, against a backdrop of everyday normal Swiss city life. It proved an unlikely mix and like much of our human existence presented plenty of photo op’s if you looked at these shenanigans through objective eyes.

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Lycra, aero helmets and elephants. When else can you caption like that? Nikon D3s, 16-35/4 @ 1/1000, f4.

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Old meet new. Now go play nicely. Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1000, f4.

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The most vociferous supporters were on “heartbreak hill”, the one meaty climb in the bike stage. These blokes were the most enthusiastic, helped along by a plentiful hoard of beer. They made my day. Nikon D3s, 16-35/4, @ 1/1000, f5.

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I can never resist photographing people with flags on their head. Don’t know why. Nikon D3s, 16-35/4 @ 1/1600, f4.

What gets a lot of competitors up the hill for the 3rd time is the support from family. Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1000, f3.2.

Family support, shrieking loudly and waving life-size pictures of their face is what gets competitors up the hill climb for the third time. Probably. Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1000, f3.2.

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The storm hits the calm. First lap of the 3.8Km swim breaks the still lake surface at about 7 am. Nikon D3s, 16-35/4, @ 1/1000, f4.5

Nikon D3s, 24-70/2.8 @ 1/1600, f5.

I’d give 10 Euros to know what she was thinking. Probably: “I wonder if I left the  oven on?” Nikon D3s, 24-70/2.8 @ 1/1600, f5.

Get in. Nikon D3s, 70-200/1.8 @ 1/2000, f3.2.

Get in. Nikon D3s, 70-200/1.8 @ 1/2000, f3.2.

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Ironman widows. Hey, thats what it says on their shirts. Nikon D3s, 16-35/4 @1/200, f4.

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Sponge. Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1250, f4.

Getting in close sometimes means getting wet. While other photographers use da long lens, getting in close puts you right in the action. I spent 2 hours in wet shoes afterwards. Nikon D3s, 16-35/4 @ 1/1000, f5.

Getting in close sometimes means getting wet. While other photographers used a long lenses and shot from 20m away, getting in close put me and the viewer right amongst the action. I spent 2 hours in wet shoes afterwards. Nikon D3s, 16-35/4 @ 1/1000, f5.

Foil-blanket, beer, enough said. Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/640, f4.

Foil-blanket, beer, enough said. Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/640, f4.

May 15, 2015

From Afghanistan to London without passing ‘Go’

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — danmilner @ 5:59 am

It’s a weird thing being an ‘adventurer’. Expeditions to remote, far-flung places can take months or more of planning but too often once I’m home again, washed my filthy clothes and (just about) got my digestive system back on track my attention turns to planning the next, without giving enough time to reflect on what we just achieved or on the experiences of what just happened. It’s like pulling a “Go straight to next adventure, and do not pass go, and certainly do not collect £200” card in Monopoly. Often I only revisit those experiences when I edit my images from a trip, or am invited to deliver a slideshow or talk on my adventures. This latter is one of the most enjoyable sides to my niche job – getting the chance to really share the experiences of pushing bikes over snowy 5000m passes or huddling in a tent through days of Alaskan blizzards, and doing it in the luxurious comfort of a warm auditorium.

Next week I’ll be one of the 4 adventurers sitting on a unique Q&A panel at a London screening of the mighty best of Kendal Mountain Film Festival. You can get tickets here, and the money goes to charity.

The kids of Robot settlement, Afghanistan try riding bikes, for the first time. Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/2500, f3.5

The kids of Robot settlement, Afghanistan try riding bikes, for the first time. Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/2500, f3.5

Last November I was back at the Kendal Mountain festival, to introduce Anthill’s new film edit from our Afghanistan MTB expedition at the festival’s dedicated Bike night, and then next day to do a 45 minute slideshow talk on the same trip at the KMFF Adventure and Exploration session. My talk balanced nicely with one from ‘micro-adventurer’ Al Humphreys, who will be chairing the Q&A next week.

New experiences are what drives me to head to new places. Adventure is just a tag to the experiences that arise. Of course I know that my kind of adventures sit off the radar for most people, but public speaking events like these are a real way to give people a vicarious taste of what is involved in hauling bikes through places that have never been touched by a bike tyre before, in that first person way that magazine articles and films can’t. Hearing about tough trips is compelling, but I also like to add a little ‘really, you could do this too’ empowerment and aspiration for the audience.

So come and ask awkward questions about photographing awkwardly ambitious bike trips in awkward places to travel and do it from a comfortable, warm seat with a low-fat soy chai latte in your hand. London May 21st.

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April 23, 2015

One Hit Wonders – shooting skiing.. again

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — danmilner @ 6:03 pm

This week I shot the last of this winter’s shoots, this one for Animal, making the best of some, err, pretty “tricky” conditions (read: hiking slopes at 3400m to scratch a mere whiff of some pretty scant powder) and it’s occurred to me that winter has finally come to an end.

But I’ve got to fess up here. Winter doesn’t have the same appeal as it once did for me, and my winters now include a lot of heading off to dusty climes to shoot mountain biking (more about those trips to follow) in between powder fixes. After photographing wintery antics professionally for over 15 years, sometimes it can be hard to get animated about the prospect of shooting more of the “same old”. So when Voelkl skis asked me to shoot for them again in January, you might think I would have passed it up. After all, how much has skiing (and snowboarding) really changed in the 20 years I’ve pointed a lens at it? How many times can I shoot the “same old”?

Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1250, f9

Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1250, f9

But then I remember the creativity of photography, the side that got me into this hobby that became my profession, and that’s the key: creativity.  I accept that at times I’m guilty (?) of focussing on the aesthetics of a scene than perhaps creating an in-depth portrayal of an athlete’s personal ability, but hey, that’s what has given me a name in this field.

So when I headed out with the Voelkl team in January, it wasn’t so much the fact that I’ve been headhunted, or the fact that I am shooting prototype ski hardware that the public hasn’t seen yet, or the ridiculously talented skill set the athletes exhibit that left me feeling fulfilled, as coming home with some (in my view at least) aesthetically banging images.

Nikon D3s, 24-70/2.8 @ 1/1000, f6.3

Nikon D3s, 24-70/2.8 @ 1/1000, f6.3

So shooting the “same old” never gets tiring when you realise that the play of light, the way the snow has fallen, or is thrown up, will be like that only once. Just once. You only get one shot when shooting powder, after that it’s tracked and spent. You only get one shot at making it work, at getting creative, at seeing the potential in a scene. Tomorrow it will be gone. And if you seek the creativity in a scene, however much leg-work and muttering to your self like a nutter while everyone else waits patiently it involves, it will pay off.

January 22, 2015

Behind The Scenes – my 2014 Year In Pictures

New places, new challenges, new clients, and a new website. That’s been my year in 2014. So, a little late I accept, here’s a snapshot of what goes into 12 months as a world-roaming, pro photographer.

Leica M9, Zeiss 50/1.5 @ f2, 1/30.

Peanut kernels, Gran Canaria, Feb 2014. A lot of my time is taken up working out fresh story angles. In Feb I ticked off a couple of months of planning by riding and shooting a 3-day MTB traverse of the island of Gran Canaria. We climbed 5000m and descended the same, and we finished each day of riding in the dark. This was our end point, at dusk, pulling up on the west coast where, still sweaty, grimy and tired, we dived straight into a bar for beer. The peanuts came free. Leica M9, Zeiss 50/1.5 @ f2, 1/30.

Leica M9, Zeiss 18/3.5 @ 1/500, f3.5.

The challenge of simultaneously being both adventure photographer and participant is finding the energy to keep shooting when you’re running on empty. 15 minutes before nightfall at the end of a long day 1 during our traverse of Gran Canaria, Feb 2014. Leica M9, Zeiss 18/4 @ 1/500, f3.5.

Leica M9, Zeiss 18/3.5 @ 1/1000, f6.3

In a first for me, I went somewhere with the main reason to GoPro film a video episode in my regular EpicTV series. Of course I threw my Leica M9 camera in my bag too, and yes, at the end of the week the lure to shoot some still images was too hard to ignore. But this new turn of events made me think how the video is currently re-shaping my job. At the end of it all though, shooting stills is still my lifeblood, helped by the importance of creativity on location, at the moment you press the shutter. That’s when the story gets told, not later in the editing suite. Photo: James Richards and Lucy Martin, Sierra d’Espuna, Spain. Leica M9, Zeiss 18/4 @ 1/1000, f6.3

Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1000 f7.1

I’ve been shooting snowsports for 18 years and to be honest the safety issues involved have taken their toll on my eagerness to keep hitting the backcountry. Years spent shooting in some of the worlds most demanding places on some of winter sport’s most demanding expeditions have delivered me an increased awareness and knowledge of backcountry safety issues, but sometimes nature can have other plans outside of our control. Its the main reason my work has slowly been refocussing away from winter sports. After all, in ski and snowboard photography you don’t get published, or hired, shooting photos of people on pistes. I like to think that I am more cautious now than ever before, an approach that has kept us out of trouble and one that still lets you nail shots like this –end of day home run in Courmayeur, Italy as part of the Voelkl ski shoot. Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1000 f7.1

Nikon D3s, 70-200/4 @ 1/1000, f9

Backpack shoots like this one for regular client Osprey Packs is all about showing the backpack. Hide the pack and you might as well be shooting holiday snaps.  It means thinking about how your models orientate themselves while doing what they do. Making it work is helped by using people who understand this need while being able to make the action look authentic and effortless. Patagonia pro Dave Rosenbarger is one such athlete. Nikon D3s, 70-200/4 @ 1/1000, f9

Nikon D600, Zeiss 18/3.5 @ 1/6, f3.5

It’s taken me 30 years riding bikes in remote places and adjusting to living out of a single bag to work out that actually 3 days is the perfect duration for a tough bike adventure. Yes a month lets you immerse yourself in the wilds, but three days means you can be ambitious and still get out alive. And so it was with our Argentina trip in March, shooting two unique and separate 3-day stories, that both involved some serious physical and mental commitment. Our second night during a three-day traverse of the high mountains to the jungle in Northern Argentina left us in this “hotel” – a family’s spare room crammed with slumping beds in a village of three houses that could only be reached by footpath. Here Hans Rey and Tibor Simai enjoy a hard-earned early night at the end of another long day. Nikon D600, Zeiss 18/3.5 @ 1/6, f3.5

Nikon D600, Zeiss 18/3.5 @1/8 f3.5

When you’re tired and up against another tough day ahead, being served a breakfast composing only dry bread and black tea can leave you digging deep in resources that are already strained. It’s at times like this that you have to look on the moment as a unique learning experience, rather than a bitter challenge. Of course in the grand scheme of things this is no biggie, but it ain’t always easy. Here Hans ‘enjoys’ a quite moment of breakfast contemplation with our quiet host. Watch the film from this adventure here. Nikon D600, Zeiss 18/3.5 @1/8 f3.5

Nikon D600, Nikon 50/1.4 @ 1/1000 f4.

The second Argentina story was probably one of the most ‘out there’ ideas for a story I have ever had – to try to follow a disused, 100 year old railway line through the desert north of the country. While the concept sounds simple enough, the challenges on the ground -from 30C heat to battling headwinds at 3500m altitude- were diverse and made this 3-dayer as tough and as interesting as any others I have shot. Belgrano Norte railway, Argentina. Watch the film from this trip here. Nikon D600, Nikon 50/1.4 @ 1/1000 f4.

Nikon D600, 50/1.5 @1/1250 f3.5

Seeking shade from the 30 C heat in the only place available –a parked police truck in the mining village of Tres Cruces– we consider our options. Riding a decaying railway line means not only seeing a side of a country that escapes most visitors, but also gambling on accommodation options, and on this day we were unlucky. Riding lightweight and unequipped to rough the night in freezing temperatures we decided to jump a local bus back to our start point for the night and hire a local pick up truck to deliver us back to Tres Cruces next morning to continue our ride. It was a frustrating moment. Nikon D600, 50/1.5 @1/1250 f3.5

Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/4000 f9.

Olympic snowboarder Dom Harington waits for the fog to clear to get a photo done as part of the Animal catalogue shoot in late March. Waiting is a big part of shooting snowsports. A very big part. You learn how to deal with cold, numb extremities. Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/4000 f9.

Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1000, f10.

Patience finally pays off. Dom Harington and the flip side of waiting. Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1000, f10.

Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1000 f7.1

Somewhere near the Ligurian coast, Italy, became the location for the Endura road shoot. With clients like Endura wanting images earlier and earlier in the year, the classic cols of the Alps are no longer a possibility for a road bike shoot as early as April. Getting client pics is a mix of showing the product and capturing ‘aspirational’ images that can make billboard size images for trade stands. Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1000 f7.1

Leica M9, Zeiss 50/1.5 @ 1/125 f2

Loch Morar, Scotland. May 2014. It seemed like a good idea, or at least an original one: to use sea kayaks to haul ourselves, bivvi gear and our bikes across the water in search of mountain bike trails. Needless to say, adventure was guaranteed, even if it was only for 3 days. While I’ve been ticking off exotic locations for the last 30 years, this trip and story (to come out in MBUK mag very soon) showed that adventure is not about going exotic. It can be just as good on your doorstep, if you’re willing to think differently. It’s something I was reminded of by micro-adventurer Alistair Humphries, the other speaker at my November Kendal Mountain Festival speaking engagement. Leica M9, Zeiss 50/1.5 @ 1/125 f2

Leica M9, Zeiss 18/4 @ 1/740 f5.7

This trip was a definite leap of faith. Towing inflatable dinghies loaded with gear is no easy going, at least if the wind picks up. It was only half an hour into our 3 days paddle, that my 2 co-adventurers admitted that they had very little kayak experience. I quickly racked my brains for my own kayak rescue technique know how. Luckily we didn’t need it. Watch the film from this trip here. Leica M9, Zeiss 18/4 @ 1/740 f5.7

Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1000 f5

Back in Chamonix, France for a Keela trail running shoot meant working hard to preclude the normal, and over-shot, classic Chamonix background of Mont Blanc. This is one of my favourite “different” backdrops, that makes me think of Peru for some reason. Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1000 f5

Nikon D3s, Nikkor 16-35/4 @ 1/320 f4

2014 was the year I started shooting for Yeti cycles. I’ve ridden their bikes for 6 years now, and they made me an ambassador early in the year. My job was to shoot with their 2 top pro racers Jared Graves and the incredibly named Richie Rude. Their brief needed an Alps location that we could shoot pre-launch bikes without inviting the attention and iPhone pics of a busy mountain bike resort. I took a punt on La Grave, a little ridden, hard core village, where  we could get on with what we needed to do without being noticed. The shoot sat immediately after the Valloire race, and early starts on the gondola to get up the mountain at 7 am for a sunrise session didn’t always go down best with Richie. Nikon D3s, Nikkor 16-35/4 @ 1/320 f4

Nikon D3s, Nikkor 16-35/4 @ 1/1250 f6.3

La Grave resort is a tough place to ride and shoot, with narrow, steep, loose technical trails proving hard to get much flow on for the riders. After one or two sessions up the mountain we turned our attention to neighbouring valleys. While the riders trained during the day, I recon’d the area and by late afternoon, we could set out on an afternon-evening shoot, on what proved to trails that leant themselves better to aesthetics. Nikon D3s, Nikkor 16-35/4 @ 1/1250 f6.3

Nikon D3s, Nikkor 50/1.4 @ 1/400 f2.2

A garage courtesy car in La Grave. Says it all about this little village. Nikon D3s, Nikkor 50/1.4 @ 1/400 f2.2

Nikon D3s, Nikkor 16-35/4 @ 1/1000 f6.3

Summer was a wet one in the Alps in 2014. Our shoot in La Grave was a tough one, dodging bad weather and rain. We climbed to this spot with the idea of a sunset shoot on the mountainside. We were greeted by cloud and a strong cold wind. We cowered in the grass for over an hour, hiding from a bitter, biting wind, before the clouds began to move and we could grab the shots we needed. The photo feature from this shoot is currently up on Pinkbike here.  Nikon D3s, Nikkor 16-35/4 @ 1/1000 f6.3

Nikon D3s, 50/1.4 @ 1/250 f2

Abandoned Merc, North Carolina, June. Trek bikes took me to North Carolina for the annual shoot of the launch of a new bike for two. It’s a unique place and one that is turning its attention towards mountain biking tourism as relief from its post-coal mining recession. Nikon D3s, 50/1.4 @ 1/250 f2

Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/125 f1.6

Hard to believe, but one of the tastiest things I have tried for a long time. I spotted this sign from a quiet roadside and needed to investigate. Its too easy to just keep on driving and remain ignorant – and miss a shot. To get the lowdown meant talking to the peanut vendor, something that not only means learning something new, but also breaks down the barriers to getting the shot. Too many “travel photos” are just sniped with a long lens. Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/125 f1.6

Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1000 f3.2

Mens Fitness magazine took me to Zurich to shoot their editor, Nick Hutchings, competing in the Ironman event. During a 12 hour event that involves a 2.5 mile swim, a 116 mile bike ride and a full marathon run to finish, needless to say opportunities to capture Nick in action were rare. But my brief included capturing the event, from pro-athletes to Ironman virgins suffering. Here a Brit competitor enjoys support form family during the climb up ‘Heartbreak Hill’. Ironman, Zurich. Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/1000 f3.2

Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/2000 f.3.2

I’ve raced some of the toughest mountain bike races in Europe including the 135Km one day Cristalp and the 6-day Trans Alp, and I’m happy to say I’m glad racing is behind me. I know though that the support of locals and spectators is often key to keeping going at times during these endurance races. Encouragement, whether it be from a family member or in this case, an unknown enthusiast imbibed with beer, is always appreciated. Anywhere. Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/2000 f.3.2

Nikon D600, 16-35/4 @ 1/1000 f4

Zurich Ironman competitors and elephants. Nikon D600, 16-35/4 @ 1/1000 f4

Nikon D3s, 16-35/4 @ 1/125 f8

With only 1 bike-friendly lift still open in Chamonix in late October, I knew doing a 2-day shoot for DMR was going to be a challenge. But if a brand wants to move its focus from dirt jumping to all-mountain riding, then carrying the bikes up a chimney like this is all part of the game, at least Milner-style. Only half an hour later Ollie Wilkins, one of the world’s most recognised dirt jump riders admitted this was the first time he’d carried his bike. I laughed, but he shot me down with the quite understandable “.. why the hell would I ever carry my bike?”  Nikon D3s, 16-35/4 @ 1/125 f8

Nikon D3s, 50/1.4 @ 1/2500 f2

I love the Peak district, UK, and need little excuse to go there, for a shoot or not. This was a shoot for Kinesis bikes to capture winter riding and commuting. Rain made some of the traffic-jammed locations in Sheffield we had in mind dangerously unsuitable, but added realism to the shots elsewhere in the town.  Nikon D3s, 50/1.4 @ 1/2500 f2

Nikon D3s, 24-70/2.8 @ 1/800 f3.5

The Peak in all its autumn glory. Worth numb fingers for? Definitiely. Nikon D3s, 24-70/2.8 @ 1/800 f3.5

Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/250 f2.8

With a late afternoon shoot planned we set out onto the moors unaware that we’d be treated to a full moon. Staying on, despite the cold and wind of a late October evening, meant adding a few opportunistic lighting product shots to the folder, and pushing the ISO capabilities of the Nikon D3s to the max. People rate the low noise, high ISO capabilities of this camera, but I’m not 100 convinced. Nikon D3s, 70-200/2.8 @ 1/250 f2.8

Nikon D3s, 50/1.4 @ 1/400 f1.8

Shooting my annual 3 days at Eurobike, the worlds largest bike trade show, for Future Publishing’s MBUK and What Mountain Bike mags, usually includes grabbing a portrait or two. Stuck inside the same sprawling but packed show hall every year means turning to props to get an original portrait. Fox suspension’s Mark Jordan enjoys a little ‘me-time’. Nikon D3s, 50/1.4 @ 1/400 f1.8

Packed in between the many shoots and trips my existence has been punctuated by producing regular bike film episodes for Epictv. To get an idea of the last 2 years of insanity involved in making this work, and get an idea of what drives me to some of these places, here is the latest, a “Best of ” Episode – the falls, fails, scary bits and expletives, that somehow all combine to make quite a solid ‘feel-good’ film.  Click on the image below to redirect to the film.

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