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

March 5, 2019

Talks at The Photography Show

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

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

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

Milner_Kyrgyzstan018_LUMIX_23

4303 m altitude, Kyrgyzstan.

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

Milner_Navarino018_020_movie

Advertisements

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.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.