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

November 11, 2013

Final countdown – making the cut at TPOTY 2013

Filed under: bike, photography — Tags: , , , , , , — danmilner @ 8:59 am

I just heard that I made the finalist shortlist in the 2013 Travel Photographer of the Year contest. With 15 years of pro photography behind me, should I be surprised? Well, the truth is that I am, I guess.

Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan, June 2013. Nikon D600/50mm 1.4 @ f4.5, 1/1600th.

1 of my 4 shortlisted portfolio images. Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan. Nikon D600/50mm 1.4 @ f4.5, 1/1600th.

I’ve never been one to bother entering photo comps. Too busy being out there shooting pics and earning a crust to deal with the paraphernalia of filling in on-line submission forms and adding metadata to images. At least that’s what I tell myself. The truth is that the real time consuming part is the self edit needed to decide on the images you want to submit. It’s not a confidence thing, but merely the requirement to detach yourself from any personal emotions that may be embedded in an image  -the feelings you had when you took the shot, the story behind the subject etc-  and see your image in an objective way, as the judges would do, that is the challenge. Does the photo really convey the feeling of what made you shoot it? Does it technically deliver?

Many people think that shooting a ‘winning’ image is about being in the ‘right place at the right time’, that is to say “luck”. While there’s an element of truth in this (although you have to make the effort to be in that place), images that turn heads, whether catching the attention of a magazine photo editor to land an opening spread or the eyes and imagination of professional judges generally need a little more to them than luck. And to prove it, in the case of making the finalist list in the TPOTY the “wild stories” category, the submission needed to be a small portfolio of 4 images, that when combined ‘tell a story’ of the adventure, with a “beginning, middle and end”. Hmm, in only 4 images?! Thats no easy edit among say the 2000 images I shot on the Afghanistan trip in June.

Having previously photo edited for a UK snowboard magazine, you’d think I’d know what works and what doesn’t, and I do. But that doesn’t make it any easier to edit your own work of course, especially when TPOTY is built around the monumentally wide subject matter that is “travel photography”.

I guess I just have to wait until the winning images are declared in December to really know if my self edits were appropriate. The finalists will be exhibited at the Royal Geographical Society, London in 2014. But until then I’ll just go back to shooting and earning a crust.

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August 22, 2013

The Story Behind- Afghanistan #1

A photo is worth a thousand words. Apparently. But sometimes there’s more behind an image than can be seen. An image conveys its own story, conjures up a feeling, stirs an emotion. But what of the story behind shooting it?  Over the next couple of months I’ll endeavour to bring you a few of the images that are currently showcased on bikemag.com from the recent Afghanistan mountain bike trip I shot in June with Anthill films and pro rider Matt Hunter. It’ll tied you over until the print stories come out in the mags through October and November.

No. 1: Nearly missing dinner.

Milner_Afgn013_0979

The story: Half way through our 12 day loop and we still hadn’t a clue what to expect. It’s hard to know how much energy and time to exert shooting when you have no idea what’s coming up later, what scenes will offer themselves up, or how far it is still to go before catching up with our horsemen and overnight gear. An  early start and a long day in the saddle didn’t stop us working a dusty ridge top until the sun was low, giving us the golden hour of perfect light to shoot. After all, the Kyrgyz herders’ yurt village was in view, or almost, just over the ridge, down towards the river. We shot, and shot, and shot more, Hunter doing his thing and delivering  A-roll material without fail.

And then we began the descent and realised we hadn’t a clue where we were heading. In the distance was not one, but several different plumes of fire smoke, each representing a different Kyrgyz yurt settlement. Our Afghan support and our gear could have been at any. We had no idea and darkness was 20 minutes away, and with it freezing temperatures.  I rode off towards the river valley, towards one smoke plume, the others veered left towards another distant settlement, each of us scouring the landscape for any evidence of our support team. And that’s when this pic happened., Matt and Brice silhouetted against the glow of the mountains we’d just descended. Chance favours a prepared mind. All I had to do was work out if stopping for the shot would mean getting left behind, to bivi out the night alone clad only in my riding gear. I took the risk. Nikon D600. 40-200 f4.

August 9, 2013

Shooting Afghanistan without war

Superlatives are easy. But sometimes they are justified. Finally, the dust has settled on our June mountain bike expedition to Afghanistan, and the first glimpse at some of my shots in a 50 page online Flipbook magazine along with Anthill’s first incredible film from the trip are online now. You can see both here, at Bikemag.

First day, last descent. Off camber, loose and 600m of vertical into a raging river doesn't mean we're not going to ride it. Tough day. Great finish.

First day, last descent. Off camber, loose and 600m of vertical into a raging river doesn’t mean we’re not going to ride it. Tough day. Great finish.

In reality it has taken this long for the dust to settle, for my mind to process what we have achieved. Superlatives or not, this did prove to be the most ‘out there’ MTB trip I have ever undertaken, and shot. And those that know me, know that I am not shy of having tucked more than a few ‘out there’ MTB trips under my belt before. This one, the first ever MTB traverse of the Little and Big Pamirs of Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, was ambitious to say the least. I knew it was before we went, and I knew it was when, after 5 days of rough and scary travelling, we reached our ride-start point and our guide pointed out a series of geographical features on the map, each of which could spell a retreat: raging glacial rivers swollen by snowmelt, 5000m passes buried under snow too deep to traverse.

Bikes are nothing here, but it doesn't stop everyone wanting a go on one.

Bikes are nothing here, but it doesn’t stop everyone wanting a go on one.

Our 12 day ride-hike-camp was punctuated by challenges -including one retreat- and proved physically and mentally taxing at every stage. There is nothing easy about Afghanistan it seems. It’s perhaps what makes the people so incredibly tough. And without them we would have got nowhere. Away from the ugly war that tears the country apart only a few hours to the south, the people in the Wakhan were the most friendly, helpful and welcoming I have ever met. And the beauty of digital photography is being able to share the photo experience with subjects like this, right there and then.

Afghanistan: possibly the toughest place on earth?

Afghanistan: possibly the toughest place on earth?

But being immersed in such trips with their incessant demands on energy reserves sometimes means not quite realising what you are doing, while you are doing it. And that’s what I mean about the dust settling. Sometimes such expeditions are such a sensory overload that it’s only later, when the film and images start to emerge, and you can stand back and look again, that you realise what you have achieved. As a photographer, a mountain biker and as a regular person with a piqued desire to see parts of the world that are deemed ‘off limits’ and engage with the people there, fills me with immense pride. I’ve had the same experience shooting snow expeditions in Deeper and Further with Jeremy Jones/TGR.

Of course, it won’t be long before the niggling urge to kick up the dust once more grows into a nagging compulsion to travel again But in the meantime, if the flipbook images on bikemag.com spike your intertest, then look out for the complete print story, with fresh photos, out in several mags October onwards.

Matt Hunter engages with a local Kyrgyz kid. Wheels are nto seen here. Yaks and horses are the means of transport for everything.

Matt Hunter engages with a local Kyrgyz kid. Wheels are not seen here. Yaks and horses are the means of transport for everything.

Choosing the right kit for trips like this can be testing. For the gear geeks, I used the Nikon D600 (very portable and did well in the dusty/cold/snowy/hot environment) with Nikon 70-200 f4, Nikon 50 f1.4 and Zeiss 18 f3.5 glass for the action, and my Leica M9 with Zeiss 18, 28, 50 and 90 glass for the travel. Lifeventure drybags kept my mind at ease during the many raging river crossings. Osprey Escapist 30 carried it all on my back. Mountain Equipment outerwear kept me dry and warm in the blizzards, and Mavic ride clothing kept me comfy and dealt with the odours of 12 days out without a bath. Mavic Alpine XL shoes are my go-to shoe for hike-a-bike missions. My Yeti 575 was the perfect bike. Again.

4900m up and there is only one way ahead: down.

4900m up and there is only one way ahead: down.

May 19, 2013

The Toughest MTB trip Yet? Watch this space.

Filed under: bike, photography — Tags: , , , , — danmilner @ 10:28 am

‘Learn to duck’ seems to be the most common retort on hearing about my forthcoming mountain bike trip to Afghanistan.

On the 5th June I’m heading  out to the Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan to shoot the first ever MTB traverse of this wild, remote and rugged region, accompanying the legendary mountain biker, Matt Hunter, Bike magazine editor and 2 Anthill Productions filmers. Ahead of us is a 3-week camping trip that will kick off with 3 days of jeep travel overland from neighbouring Tajikistan, and then a 12-day MTB ride through one of the World’s last remaining true wilderness areas.

And wilderness it is. No roads. No cafes. No Hotels. This is no trail centre shoot. And I’m strangely excited and concerned. But my concern is not that we’re “in Afghanistan”.

afghanistan-wakhan-corridor

The Wakhan Corridor is a tongue of Afghan soil that stretches north. It might as well be a million miles from the harshness of war. Instead it has its own challenges for us and the small population of nomads that inhabit the area -16,000 ft passes to cross, washing opportunities presented only by freezing rivers, snow at any time of the year and relentless dust-laden winds. Sounds like fun eh.

I’ll be using Mountain Equipment kit to keep out the cold, Mavic clothing while on my Yeti 575 bike, and shooting with a combo of the Leica M9 set up (portable at 16,000 ft) and lightweight Nikon D600 for the 70-200f4 long lens/motordrive action when needed and the Zeiss 18/3.8 lens.

So if you think my recent non-stop run of work, travel and editing has taken its toll on my blog updates of late, then get ready. You’ll get nothing in June. But to keep you going, here’s a shot of one of the craziest lifts I ever took with my bike, suspended 70 ft up, on the Italian island of Elba, taken while shooting a story (and video) there last month…

Now how firm is that grip? At times like this I wish I'd been to the gym more often. Leica M9, Zeiss 18/4.

Now how firm is that grip? At times like this I wish I’d been to the gym more often. Leica M9, Zeiss 18/4.

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