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

November 1, 2018

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

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

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

Lesson 1: Develop your own style.

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Lebanon. Nikon D750 1/1000th f8.

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

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

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Norway. Nikon D750 1/1000th f5.

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

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

Lesson 2: Decide your story. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson 4: Commit when you press the shutter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson 5: Don’t rush.

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

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Ethiopia. Nikon D600, 1/1000th f4.

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July 16, 2017

On the trail of the horsemen of Lesotho

“Because it’s there.” Few people haven’t heard Mallory’s Everest climbing quote used to justify… well, pretty much anything nowadays. It seems to fit with today’s lazy, WTF approach to most things, including adventure, especially when it’s just too much effort to really think about the real, honest reason for doing something. And, hey it sounds cool.

Most adventures though, have a back story. And the trip I shot in April in Lesotho, Africa was one.

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Isaac and Kevin. Trip preparation. Nikon D750, 35/2 @ f2.5, 1/2000th.

 

Few people know where Lesotho is (myself included until I got the invite). The landlocked country is overlooked by tourism in favour of its safari-rich neighbours. But despite being encircled by South Africa Lesotho is proudly independent.

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Claudio and Kevin in big terrain. Nikon D750, Zeiss 18/3.5 @ f6.3, 1/1000th.

 

I was invited to ride and shoot a pioneering 6-day mountain bike trip across the country’s rugged southern mountains, from Semonkong to Roma, led and guided by an iconic, blanket-wearing Lesotho horseman, Isaac. The trip was the brainchild of Christian and Darol, a duo of Lesotho-based mountain bikers who already organise an annual mountain bike race, the Lesotho Sky, and can see the potential of putting the country on the adventure tourists’ map. And justifiably so.

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Thumelo and Thabu — 2 locals with their fingers on the emerging pulse of adventure tourism. Together they have set up a company to provide logistic support to adventure tours. Nikon D750, 35/2 @ f2.5, 1/500th.

Our ride took us though gob-smacking, wild terrain riding between remote villages only accessed by horse trails. We rode amazing singletrack and stayed in old, disused trading posts and comfortable modern lodges alike. And we found friendship and warm welcomes everywhere, imbued with a strong sense of pride and hope.

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Isaac and Stan. Nikon D750, 35/2 @ f2.8, 1/400th.

 

We didnt ride across Lesotho because it’s there. There’s a bigger — an more important— story to tell here than just adventure for adventure’s sake. Lesotho is poor. 40% live below the poverty line. It has its problems, but tourism is one thing that can help change and relieve poverty on a local level. And adventure tourism, including mountain biking, can play a big part.

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Mathibeli Khotola, a herder we met on the trail. Nikon D750, 35/2 @ f2.5, 1/1000th

I was accompanied by Scott riders Claudio Caluori and Kevin Landry, and the expedition was spectacularly captured by the Max and Tobias from German film production team, Have A Good One (watch the film below or best in full HD here).

 

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Chief Michael Ramashamole watches the film footage. Nikon D750, 35/2 @ f2, 1/40th

The first glimpse of the trip is online on Outside. The full story of our adventure will be out in Cranked (UK), Bike (Germany), Solo Bici (Spain) and Spoke (NZ) mags and more in the next few months. Watch this space or follow the news on my Instagram @danmilnerphoto


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/216472359″>FOLLOWING THE HORSEMEN</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/haveagoodone”>HAVE A GOOD ONE</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

 

January 10, 2017

Turning heads 50 miles from Syria

My job as a story telling photographer is often about turning heads. Okay, it’s always about turning heads. Coming up with an original story, or a feature’s USP, is key to earning a living as a professional travel photographer. So last month I took my bike to ‘war-torn’ Lebanon and rode it 50 miles from the Syrian border.

Head turning enough for you?

It’s easy to be glib, to play to the lowest common denominator, especially in these bewildering political times. It would be easy to pretend that our trip was one of extreme danger in order to earn some perverted pub-chat credibility. But in reality visiting Lebanon is really not as scary as you might think. And we knew that before we went. Hey, I’m an adventure, not a war, photographer.

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Kamil entertains the locals – Nikon D750, 70-200/4.

Like most of my editorials, this one took a fair bit of research and planning. You can’t just reach for the ‘Guide to Mountain Biking Lebanon’ in the bookshop (mountain biking is still small in Lebanon, although on our last day we did hook up with, and get schooled by, a couple of local riders). In fact my trip was 2 years in the making, from initial idea (after seeing an alluring photo of a mountain and a cedar tree on a wall in a Lebanese restaurant) to booking a flight. And all the time I kept it under wraps in case another bike photographer caught wind and got a jump on us. As if they would. (Paranoia is part of this job I guess).

Accompanied by Tibor Simai and Kamil Tatarkovic, (who came on my recent Argentina and Ethiopia trips respectively) and supported by a Beirut local, Ziad, we followed sections of the Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT) a 440 Km long hiking trail that runs the length of the country. We rode past Syrian refugee camps. We ate houmous with ISIS-fighting Lebanese military. We met only friendly people. We saw incredible scenery. We railed amazing trails. We rode with local mountain bikers who are better than me on a bike. We got lost. And we carried our bikes. A lot.

So the first of my features is now out, online here on Bikemag.com and a different story is starting to flush through the print magazines, already out in Spoke (New Zealand) and Velo (Czech republic). So if ‘print’s-not-dead’ is your thing, then look out for it in MBUK, Bike Germany, Solo Bici, Sidetracked and other titles around the globe. I hope it sheds some light on a country that deserves to have a light shone on it. And I hope it challenges our perception of former war-torn places. Only by challenging perceptions will change happen.

Thanks to Yeti Cycles, Shimano and Mavic for helping keep my adventure wheels rolling. Again.

November 4, 2016

Oh, ‘That’ film premiere -Kendal November 19th

After shooting what I can only describe as ‘my most challenging and emotionally tough expedition to date’ I’ll be premiering my new mountain bike film Porpoise Hunter at the UK’s Kendal Mountain Film Festival’s esteemed Bike Night on Saturday November 19th. For those that can’t make Kendal, don’t worry: no doubt it will be sweeping the BAFTA stage at some point in the near future, to be subsequently released to a wider audience online, and probably cover-mounted as a DVD on the radio Times. Oh hang on..

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I’ll also be appearing in a Q&A session on the Basecamp Stage at Kendal Festival on Saturday 19th, at 10:00, quizzed about last month’s adventurous and pioneering mountain bike trip to ride Lebanon’s long distance mountain trail, a hop, skip and a jump from the Syrian border. Grab a frothy cappuccino to go and come along. To whet your middle eastern appetite, here’s a taster. (A more in-depth repost will follow -watch this space).

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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

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