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

February 28, 2021

New Instagram Channel !

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — danmilner @ 10:05 am

@pixelatedpostcards is my new Travel, Adventure and Street Photography IG channel.

Don’t worry, my existing @danmilnerphoto channel still posts regularly but as it has found such a bike-adventure following I thought a new space was needed for all those photo insights into lesser seen or overlooked worlds that I encounter on my travels —from North Korea, Afghanistan and Alaska, to Kyrgyzstan, Iraq and even Wales. The world after all is a curious place.

So head over to IG and follow @pixelatedpostcards and I’ll endeavour to furnish you with snapshots of places beyond the fringes of tourism, behind the scenes moments from many of my expeditions, and the curious moments that are enacted on our streets.

See you there!

It’s moments like this that seem to make the travel photography all worth while. never mind that it was -5C outside and the only shelter —this old stone shepherds hut— was filled with choking smoke from the yak-dung cooking fire. Nikon D600, Zeiss 18/3.5 @ 1/30th, f6.3

September 14, 2020

Adventure Photography : The live Q+A – Sunday 20 September

Tune in & drop in next Sunday — I’ll be doing a live online talk and Q+A for Lumix about adventure photography on Sunday 20 Sept, at 14:00 BST (!5:00 CET) as part of the UK’s new virtual Photography Show.

So whether you want to know what adventure photography is, how it differs from travel photography, or want an idea of how to get into it or what gear cuts it out there, or just want to hear my anecdotes of shooting adventures in sketchy-sounding locations from Afghanistan to North Korea, then tune in and of course feel to fire over questions during the talk.

The link to join the (free) talk on Sunday is here (scroll down for the link to my talk – and feel free to join other Lumix ambassadors listed for theirs!).

January 14, 2011

P.O.M. – a year in pictures

Filed under: bike, life, photography, snow — Tags: , , , , — danmilner @ 4:25 pm

It’s that time again, when the simple passing of midnight releases a barrage of ‘A Year in Pictures’ type image galleries collated from the previous 12 months of World happenings.  There’s hardly a journal (well, at least one that’s worth its weight in ink anyway) that doesn’t take this opportunity to celebrate the irreverence of photography and run an image gallery come the New Year, and I love it. Such galleries are a chance to glimpse what slipped past your radar first time around, chance to reflect on the beauty of the planet we inhabit and the (usually) ridiculous and often senseless way we seem to go about it, and all of it composed and depicted as the photographer saw and experienced it. One such collection I keep my eye on is the World Press Photo (catch the roving exhibition if you can), an annual collection of some of the most moving photojournalism you’re ever going to see. It’s not for the faint hearted that’s for sure.

So I thought I’d dip into my own previous 12 months of shooting assignments and post a kind of round up of my year: a year in which I shot feature commissions for a dozen titles, experimented with different lens techniques, and shot the most ‘out there’ bike expedition I have ever done. It was also a year that dealt me a true up and down set of experiences, including some very deep personal loss. I won’t pretend that it’s another World Press Photo exhibition, but maybe it provides an interesting insight into a year of a travelling professional ‘mountain’ photographer all the same.

Hit the ‘more’ tag to browse the round up of 2010 images below… (more…)

November 6, 2010

Bag it to go: the search for the holy grail of camera backpacks

Filed under: outdoors, photography — Tags: , , — danmilner @ 7:37 pm

After our eyes, us photographers are an understandably precious lot when it comes to our backs.

You see no matter how dreamlike a job we have, our pursuance of photographic delights in an attempt to eek a living from our passion means that inevitably we get to carry a lot of sh*t. And it being expensive, optically perfect sh*t means that its also heavy sh*t. It seems that there is a perfect correlation between weight and quality when it comes to pro photo gear and lugging it around means needing something that won’t leave us zimmer-framed by the time we reach 50 (wow, I’d better watch it, that isnt far away..). Take your average mountain biker’s or backcountry skier’s day pack. Seems like a fair bit to carry, especially up hill. Triple that weight at least and you have an idea. Skinning across snowy glaciers or pedalling up 700m climbs on some remote mountainside to altruistically make a rider look good in a photo, you can be sure the pack on our back weights a good 10-15Kg.

So it happens that in my 15 years shooting this kind of stuff  in places as diverse as Greenland and Kashmir, Morocco and Chile, I have tried a good variety of dedicated photo backpacks: Burton’s F-Stop and Zoom packs, Dakine’s Sequence, the geekily named DR-467i from Kata, and plenty more. Backpacks are to me, what shoes were to Imelda Marcus (google her, kids), albeit with a lot less evil involved. I just love them. They are probably the only bit of “outdoor kit” that gets me excited (OK, apart from Yeti bikes). Not even cameras raise the same kind of bubbling fervor, and finding a good pack fills me with a sense of ease. I know my job just got a tad easier. Such packs are paramount to my work; needing to be accessible quickly, carry all the camera and other sh*t I need on the mountain and be able to survive a good shoeing at the hands of blizzards, mud, dust, helicopter and snowmobile thrashings and assorted other luggage-war crimes. And they need to be comfortable for days on end and stable on the ups and downs. In fact on many bike escapades I use a regular backpack from Osprey and slot my Leica M8 and lenses inside in a padded case.

Seriously comfy big gear eater: Flipside 500AW

But when it comes to the big SLR kit and dedicated shoots you cant beat a dedicated photo backpack for ease of use and quick set-up times. But despite the dozen or so specific camera packs I’ve abused I have still to come across the “perfect one” that works for adventure photographers. But I’ve come close. The latest incarnation is the LowePro Flipside 500 AW (link is for the 400) handed to me by LowePro as part of a “limited Pro-only run”. Chuffed I thought, I have finally earned the recognition my loyal time in the blustery field serving the adventure photography cause deserves, that is until I noticed the run was limited to 1200 packs and I got number 1096.

Still, ego aside, this is a damn good pack and after years of being ‘away’ from LowePro since early use of their Nature trekker pack, it has made me look again at what they have to offer. The Flipside 500 isn’t perfect, not at least for a lot of what I do: it cant carry a snowboard, struggles to sleeve a water reservoir and it has far too few organiser pockets (it was developed for the regular sports photographer). But, it is probably the most comfortable and stable medium sized camera pack I have ever tried, period.  The inside swallows down 2 Pro 35mm bodies plus 3 or 4 lenses (70-200/2.8 included) without gagging, and the pocket a couple of flashes, radio slaves and mini-tripods. Even with all this weighty punishment, it stays comfortable and stable on the back, doing an admirable job to disguise the physio session-inducing mass inside, even when on the bike.

Time to look again at LowePro I think. Now, if they could only make one that…. (insert random request here)

July 26, 2010

When Saturday comes: 160,000 and counting

Filed under: bike, outdoors, photography — Tags: , , , — danmilner @ 5:31 pm

It wasn’t meant to be like this, I promise. Landing the front cover shot and inside lead feature in this Saturday’s Independent Travel supplement was not on my original agenda. Not that I’m complaining of course.

The feature is on the Tour Mont Blanc bike adventure -a five day circumnavigation of Western Europe’s highest mountain, off road, by mountain bike. With 9500 m of climbing along its 166 Km route it’s no small undertaking, but being right on my doorstep it’s one that I have ridden, sweated along and shot 3 times previously on other assignments. So when I pitched this idea out to a journo mate, he rummaged around among his contacts and hooked commission interest from a couple of big titles including The Independent’s Saturday Traveller magazine, (yep, you guessed it, weekly circulation of 160,000). “Hmm,” I thought, “thats nice. So what they gonna pay then?” Mercenary is after all my middle name, and anyway I have a bird table to keep stocked up with seed; not a cheap acomplishmentI can assure you.

And then it got complicated, or sort of.

Thankful I wasn't burdened with flashes and radio slaves on the climb up meant some creative processing on the DNG Raw file later to bring out the shadow detail in faces and avoid burning out the snow in the background. The Leica bags another cover. Leica M8, Zeiss 28/2.8

Him coming out to my adopted home of Chamonix for to ride the TMB (with local guiding outfit  www.mbmb.co.uk) armed with 2 assured wordsmith commissions is all well and good, but neither of his interested titles were, at that stage at least, willing to commit budget to a photographer (that’s me, BTW). “Odd” I think. What are they going to do, buy in another stock fisheye image of a cow licking its nose, in that oh-so-Alpine cliche?

So as a photographer whaddayado? OK, so if it was an assignment shooting a dive with blue whales  for some conservation society or other, I might have said, ‘hell yes let’s do it and worry about the image commissions afterwards.’ But as I say, I know everyone of the TMB’s pain-inducing metres first hand already and while it is one of the best bike adventures you’ll find and always sends me home with a heady buzz of endorphins, I could do without 5 days away with no guaranteed pay for the time and effort. Anyway as far as I remember Blue whales don’t feature on the trip anywhere.

So with 3 trips worth of admirable stock images from the TMB already on file all I need are some nipped in the bud kind of shots that I know the photo Ed’ can’t ignore. So I choose not to do the whole shebang and opt instead to head out early on the last day of their tour and meet them at the top of the last pass they cross: the Col du Joly above Les Contamines. Just jump on the ski lift and meet them at the col, shoot a few specifics of the journo gurning his way through the pain barrier… and job done!

Hmm maybe not. I arrive at the lift to find it closed, my riders and journo some 700 metres above me, somewhere nearing our planned rendezvous. It being late june meant I hadn’t foreseen the fact that the ski lift wasn’t yet open for summer business, unlike those in my home valley. Unperturbed and being a professional, reliable photo-monkey with principles, I start the long solo ride up a winding 700 m climb to meet the group: 700 m of loose, steep, wheel spinning gravel road under a midday 30-degree sun with a bag of camera gear on my back. I’m no stranger to arduous climbs on the bike, but this is not one I am in a hurry to repeat.

I get to the top, take a breather and we get started. We session a few bits of trail to make sure the editor has enough variety to make the feature work -ride a section, hike back up, ride it again kind of stuff- until I’m happy the job is finally in the bag, concentrating on getting the right balance of action and epic scenery without alienating the  mainstream readership with any hint of uber-gnarl. Uber gnarl I’m guessing doesn’t cut it with 160,000 Independent readers sitting down with their toast, marmelade and Saturday morning cups of tea before nipping out to Tesco’s.

OK, so harsh midday light and riders wearing ropey looking non-bikey gear isn’t the kind of imagery that has carved out the Milner name, but it seems to work for editorials like this. No I didn’t re-ride the whole 166Km loop, but thats not to say there wasn’t enough pain etched into the backstory of this photo. At least the front cover doesn’t have a cheesy fishey pic of a cow licking its lips.

July 7, 2010

Unleash the tirade: is there still a place for travel focused features… or should we all just ride the local pump track?

Filed under: bike, outdoors, photography — Tags: , , — danmilner @ 11:44 am

So, here’s the point: much of my work involves travelling, it’s what got me started in photography (ducking my way through a political tumultuous Latin America in the late 1980’s snapping pics of all things political as I went), and it’s still a large part of what I do. The reason is two fold: Firstly, I love to experience (and ride bikes in) new places, and secondly I still think others like to hear about new places. But a recent e-mail conversation with a French bike industry friend got me thinking. So I thought, why not paste that conversation here as food for thought. I’ll set the scene by saying that I’d just got back from a month in Nepal (shooting stories for MBUK and Cooler magazines), but it goes something like this…

>Me: Nepal trip was amazing.. we should go back! In fact I have some ideas to… here are a couple of photo teasers from our trip…

>Him: Yep, Nepal sounds nice indeed but why go to such a remote place? I remember a time when windsurf mags were always going to Hawaïi and all those mags finally crashed. Why? Simply because all these dreams weren’t affordable to most rider’s pockets, or took into account their riding ability. As usual think global, act local. Just a point of view, no criticism.

Now as I am an arty, sensitive kind of bloke, did of course take this personally. But I flashed back with..

>Me: Interesting comment indeed and a good point… and one I think about a lot. Act local… ? Well, on that note for the UK mags I just did a massive 8 page feature on how good the riding is in the UK (for What Mountain Bike) And another on riding in Chamonix (MBUK) and another on trails in Switzerland (for MBUK again) and another on Mallorca. OK they are not all 100% “local” but if you live in muddy UK, you have to dream about riding somewhere that’s not muddy and wet at sometimes! And for many readers/riders I do think its about the dream too..  it’s about getting the balance between the inspiration and aspiration… about using the bike as a tool and an excuse to travel. I think you are one of those people who likes the ride but also the adventure associated with places like Nepal.. the unknown ahead, the variety of trails, the different riding..  and the chance to experience a completely different corner of the world with very different way of life. I like to do trips like this to show people actually how realistic such trips are, and that places like this aren’t just for the pro riders (like so many of the heli-ski winter things are). (by the way it doesn’t financially cost anymore to go to Nepal for 2 weeks than do a bike trip to the Alps. Of course the environmental cost is a little different!

Riding through some remote part of Morrocco's Atlas mountains a couple of years back saw us accompanied by this lad on his bike. No he's not on a Specializ-a-dale, but the mutual bike thing meant we shared at least more than trying to buy or sell something. Shot with Contax G2, 21/2.8, Fuji Provia 100F

>Him: yep… good point too.. to open minds and offer some dream moments that above all could be affordable. I’m just always a bit doubtful about riding and having fun among people that don’t even have enough for living… but sure traveling by bike is more accepted and easier for human contact than, as you said is heli-skiing.

>Me: Ah, the age old question…. us and them. But you could ride your 3000 Euro bike in parts of England among people who are having trouble getting enough money to live properly! I think the imbalance of north and south, and east and west are to be aware of, but they shouldn’t stop you visiting them with a bike, at least if you act responsibly. Yes, people in Nepal may never (?) understand the price of our bikes (just like they can’t understand how we pay 3 Euros for bread)… but they do understand the bike. It’s bikes that are THE way for most people to get about, and the majority appreciate the fact that you are on your bike. The bike is something that they can identify with: it breaks down barriers in communication with strangers. Kids on bikes anywhere want to race you!  I don’t think we should be guilty about having fun in places like that. If so then we should not look at travelling at all, except only to places that are more wealthy and hedonistic than us… and that just leaves us with the USA.

Sure it is uncomfortable at times, but then you could say that hiking through these village s in your 100 Euro boots is doubtful too. In fact Nepal relies heavily on the tourist income: it’s a massive part of their earnings. For 10 years while they were at war, tourism dropped off massively and they suffered. They don’t have much in the way of natural mineral wealth or oil to make them rich. Tourism is important to most of them. Of course it has to be responsible tourism. In Pokhara we rode with kids from the local mountain bike club. Sure the bikes had been brought over by a French guy who now lives there, but some of these kids, who are from villages that scrape together a living, get to ride proper mountain bikes and are really good at it. Yes, it’s only going to be a few, but its change too.

And so the discussion continues. Yes it’s easy to think of any of these ‘exotic’ locations as out of range for a lot of riders, but realistically, with the right mentality there is not reason for them to be. After all no-one is proposing a ride through the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan right now. For photographers like me of course (though I’d most likely sign up if they did), it’s about getting the balance right: a mix of aspiration and inspiration. I got back into kayaking a few years ago. No, I probably wont paddle the grade of rivers I did twenty five years ago when I was competing, but it still doesn’t stop me looking up uber-gnarl footage on You Tube and getting that tingly feeling while watching.. a mix of I-want-to-do-that-but-would-be-too-scared-to-even-try, and just simple admiration of what is going on in that river. The same applies watching Danny McAskill trials riding up a tree, or seeing Jeremy Jones drop into a mentalist snowboard line in the backcountry. We all live vicariously at times, but if you want it, the chance to travel, to broaden your mind, to experience some genuine testing times and learn about yourself and about others from the experience is out there.

Phew, as I said unleash the tirade. Have I justified my own job yet?

January 3, 2010

Lateral thinking: photo opportunities on the hoof

Filed under: bike, photography — Tags: , — danmilner @ 10:42 am

Four weeks in Nepal wasn’t enough.

When you’re out and about in some far-flung foreign country armed with a camera and a magazine commission some of the best things that come up are the unexpected and unforeseen opportunities that present themselves to nail other photos. And of course, come up they will.

There’s the odd shot, the random travel image that tells a story, but what’s always more meaty than these often spontaneous-snaps is a chance for a little photo study: a set of shots of a subject that gets behind the scenes, and gets the photographer all hot and excited in an orgy of creativity. For the pro-photographer experience helps in spotting potential photo stories on location, and while we pro photographers like to think we’re on holiday, it’s rare for us to actually disengage from seeing potential image sales; often a call or email to an editor will find a home for the holiday-disrupting commission.. damn this digital, speed of light planet). Hmm, maybe that makes us sound a little mercenary, when if truth be told, the potential commission just gives us the excuse to get stuck in with the subject in hand, to try to capture the subject in its true light. And we just love that.

A few years back in Alaska, while bad weather raged,  I saw the potential of a B&W feature on the “real heroes” of the AK big mountain ski scene. the people without whom the whole extreme media thing couldn’t happen. A call to The Snowboard Journal found the feature a home so I arranged portrait sessions with a skiplane pilot, a boss of the heli ski operation and a ski guide, and shot each of them in their “office environments” (in this case a plane hanger, a diner’s payphone, and in front of a beaten old pick up truck waiting, respectively). You’ll see these portraits on my website in the people gallery (www.danmilner.com). More recently I shot a series of  images capturing street scenes in various towns in Argentina after nightfall (a time when the real Argentina usually comes alive). Of course, the Nepal trip I did last month to shoot a feature for MBUK mountain bike mag was no different. 

Travelling with a bike usually breaks down a lot of barriers; Kids want to ride with you, old men want you to pull wheelies. Everyone wants to pull on your brakes and squeeze your tyres. Stopping to chat with people opens up scores of opportunities, not just in being able to photograph the essential elements of what makes a country tick, but also, more importantly, in starting to understand a country and its people, to open up an exhange of information and experiences. Somehow you manage it, despite only having a few words of a common language.

So, on our way through Pokhara, a city whose tourist area is festooned with trigger-happy camera wielding tourists, we passed by a half dozen bike-repair shops, where grimy-handed men wrestle ageing bikes in an attempt to return them to the road. As a bikey person, these are fascinating places -a million miles from the colourful bike shops of Europe that are piled high with expensive state of the art kit. Stopping by one to see what the owner/mechanic, a man named Shree dal Subedi was doing and to try to understand a small slice of life in Nepal. I said hello, watched as he rubbed down a frame for repainting and asked if it was OK to capture it all in images. He looked over our bikes and showed me how the Nepalese fix punctures. He spoke only a couple of words of English and me the same in Nepali, but we exchanged smiles and an appreciation of the bike as a means of travel.

Puncture repair Nepal-style. Leica M8, Voigtlander 40/1.4 and 12/5.6

 

For me it’s moments like this that are the most rewarding. Of course riding epic trails is a blinding buzz as is photographing them, and travelling to fabulous places makes me rarely want to swap my job for anything else, but these are the photos that end up being the most satisfying. They’re just small photo studies, shot on the hoof, that may one day find themselves a home in a mag.. or not as the case may be. But sometimes it isn’t only about paying the mortgage.

Shree dal Subedi's workshop... making bikes feel like bikes again

December 20, 2009

Dusty sensors and big mountains.. very big mountains: Nepal.

Filed under: bike, outdoors, photography — Tags: , , — danmilner @ 9:53 pm

Dust.. anybody? I just spent most of today editing and processing the one thousand images that fill the memory cards from my latest trip.. well, processing is more of a diplomatic way of saying “spotting out dust” on the images. A couple of days ago I got back from Nepal, one of the windiest and dustiest locations I have ever shot, and as you guess, wind and dust and interchangeable camera lenses don’t make the best bed fellows. 

For a small country (about the size of the UK), Nepal packs some big punches in terms of scenery. It’s a place that has been on my hot list for riding bikes, shooting pictures and eating curries for years, and so with the country now at (relative) peace again after several years of civil conflict, this November-December seemed a good moment to go and see what this Himalayan country is all about.

With a feature commission from MBUK in hand and a couple of vaccinations in the arm, we landed in Nepal with a Yeti 575 and a Trek Ex 8.5 but very little plan of what to do next. Well, at least “wing it” seemed like as good a plan as any, after all the whole country is cross-hatched by trails. Of course many are perilous, vertical helter-skelters of stone steps, both up and down, with drops of several hundred metres straight down to certain death in raging torrents below, so ideally in Nepal you need at least a little heads up on where to find good trails. The beauty of the global bike culture though means if you have a bike in tow, you’re not left out in the cold for long. Meeting up (and riding) with local riders like Santaram at the Nirvana Cafe (and Commencal bike centre) in Pokhara soon set us straight and before long we were immersed in the incredible scenery of the Mustang region, an area that sits West of the 7000m Annapurnas and stretches North to the Tibetan border. Mule and yak trails score the landscape here, making for epic singletrack riding if you can handle the altitude… the secret of that is to hitch a bumpy ride in one of the local jeeps to cover the climb up to places like Muktinath at 3800m.  High and dry, Mustang is treeless, making for one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen (and thats coming from someone who likes trees a lot) but the absence of trees  however means little protection from the wind and dust storms that rage daily, and inevitably many hours to be spent spotting out dust that has found its way onto my Leica M8’s sensor (you’d think for the price, the M8 would have some kind of dust removal device on its sensor, but no… why make it easy. In fact there was so much dust-spot healing going on in my Adobe Camera Raw program today, the images had adopted a very “snowy” seasonal look).

Tibetan culture, buddhist monasteries and stupas and great autumn light made off-bike shooting as rewarding as the riding, while on the bike, we found that the more trails we rode, the more we saw sitting just out of reach to be ridden another time. Damn there are a lot of trails there; a revisit is on the cards for sure. But the riding in Nepal is changing, albeit slowly. While the tourism industry of Nepal gathers momentum once more, new 4×4 roads are being forged through much of the country, replacing many of the age-old singletrack mule trails that connect remote villages. While this is a spanner in the works for many of the trail-trekking-tourists (most of whom seem to welcome the hot showers that the jeep-transported gas cylinders supply) and mountain bikers, it comes as a blessing for the locals, tired of lugging provisions for days up vertiginous mountainsides. And while our own experiences included many sections of broken 4×4 tracks, we were never short of epic rides with a huge helping of adventure to boot. The MBUK story is penned to come out around April, but in the meantime here’s a taster…

Nepal: great trails, great people.

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