Legends Behind the Lens: Dan Milner Interview
In the Legends Behind the Lens series, supported by Nikon, we talk to celebrated action sports photographers about their craft - and their all-time favourite shots
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Dan Milner has seen a lot more of the mountains than you’d expect from a man born in Luton. From shooting political turmoil in Latin America to an era spent snapping backcountry powder around the world, he’s certainly earned his stripes behind the camera lens. Dan made the switch to follow his passion and shoot mountain bikes some years ago now, and the job has taken him from Argentina to Afghanistan and to endless Alps along the way ever since. His work showcases the fragility of the human race by contrasting some of the most stunning views in the world with intimate angles and vantage points. He talks us through 10 of his favourite shots below.
Weirdly for a mountain photographer I come from a very flat place: Luton, England. I was lucky to grow up near a forest though, and that was the place I started riding pushbikes off-road, by sticking cross-country tyres and cow-horn handlebars onto road bikes.
I grew up in the 1970’s, so I had no idea that years later I’d be photographing wild mountain bike trips to Afghanistan. I didn’t know that mountain bikes would exist and I didn’t even know Afghanistan existed.
Compositions always interested me most – they still do. In the 1980’s I travelled a lot, including a seven month solo trip around South America. It was a tumultuous period in Latin American politics, so I got tangled up in street protests, riots and military interventions from Ecuador to Panama. It pushed my photography into new challenges.
Flash to me produces results that look unnatural, even in the natural environments where I shoot…
I spent 15 years shooting snowsports all-year round, travelling to the southern hemisphere to chase winters. I shot my first feature for a mountain bike magazine around 1993, and dabbled for a few years until committing to the professional lifestyle in 1999. Over the last decade or so, my work has moved away from the inherent risks of shooting backcountry snowboarding and skiing to embrace my life-long love of bikes.
I switched to Nikon about seven years ago after both being amazed at the stunning edge-to-edge sharpness of a Nikon 14-24/2.8 lens. I like the way Nikon still have separate dials and levers ergonomically tucked away around the camera body to change settings rather than it all being menu driven.
I’d say my style is dark and moody. I like shadows and silhouettes and almost always shoot into the sun to backlight the subject if I can. It gives images a more dreamlike quality even if you have to blow out highlights. I’m a natural light photographer. Flash to me produces results that look unnatural in the natural environments where I shoot.
My big photography hero is Martin Parr – he’s an iconic photo-reportage photographer that inspires a lot, even if he has nothing to do with ‘adventure’. If it came to adventure photographers though, I’d go for Frank Hurley, the plate-photographer that shot Shackleton’s Endurance Antarctic expedition. His work is incredible and inspirational, and still would be if it were shot today.
No matter how much I am in Chamonix, France, I still find new corners of this stunning valley to shoot as long as I put in the extra effort. I shot this as part of a two-day shoot for a client Acre Supply bags. This trail sits about 1300m above the valley floor and can only be reached by riding and carrying the bike the whole way up.
It was a gamble with the weather forecast predicting late storms, but it paid off. Moody weather shots for me carry so much more weight and meaning than sunny shots that, to me, look like 1980’s catalogue photos. I’m inspired more to shoot on stormy, moody days as they convey real mountain biking and being up against the elements to do what you do – riding a bike.
This photo of an Afghan horseman and boy and my bike strung over their horse represents a pinnacle moment of our 12-day traverse of Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. After being snowed into our tents a day earlier, this photo captures our departure for a re-attempt to cross the next 4800m high pass. This was an incredibly tough bike trip, both physically and mentally, and sometimes I wonder why I’m always pushing these barriers in mountain biking when other photographers are make a living shooting from the trackside at a race. But even after a couple of decades doing it, shooting such endeavors is still a privilege to me. The challenges are plenty but the photo opportunities such trips bring are unique and immensely rewarding.
Being a pro MTB photographer means getting the chance to work with riders at the top of their game. Having to do these riders justice with your images adds pressure to the job and demands confidence in your gear and own abilities. Last year I shot Enduro racers Jared Graves and Richie Rude for Yeti cycles in between their race schedule, grabbing some early lifts up the mountain to make use of early light.
It’s at these times when you have to really look at a scene and work out what story you really want to tell. We shot some fast riding shots, the riders railing turns in the trails, but the simplicity of this scene grabbed my attention more. Even when its hectic and you’re racing the light it’s worth pausing to see the bigger picture for the next shot.
With dusk approaching fast this was pretty much the last shot of a long day of shooting. After riding and shooting a 95km long circuit of the Lavaredo Trail in the Italian Dolomites I stayed an extra couple of days with pro riders Josh Ibbet and Rob Dean to shoot for their sponsor The North Face. We started out before sunrise and finished with this shot about 10 minutes before sunset.
I love to shoot at these times of day, despite the demands it puts on your body, sanity and on athlete-photographer relationships. Knowing my camera gear will do justice to our efforts means a lot to me. Low light photography is being pushed further every year and that just makes my job a tiny bit easier, or at least gives me the excuse to stay out longer. When I import these kind of images into Lightroom I’m blown away, and all I think about is ‘where can I take it next?’.
There are so many different genres to mountain biking, but to me as a photographer that shoots a lot of remote expeditions, the fact that someone might never have carried their bike seems unthinkable. This moment captures that virginal moment for one of the riders in this photo, when an obligatory hike-a-bike sat between us and the rest of the trail during an autumnal shoot for DMR bikes. I always try to look for drama in the scene, and using a wide lens to be able to bring the safety rope into the shot does it well.
I come up with a lot of the ideas behind my trips, partly because of the necessity of pitching an original story, and partly due to my own desire to travel and photograph new places. While photography is my job, it’s less about being in a new place so much as the experiences we are dealt when we’re there that drive me to photograph them. Recently, a plan to try to ride along a 100-year old, disused railway in Argentina’s desert north was one of my ideas and to me this one image captures the essence of the whole trip.
Once the only reliable way between Salta and the Bolivian border, this old railway is now disappearing, crumbling, rusting way. It was being swallowed up by the wild terrain it runs across. To my companions the trip was about challenges and personal achievements. To me it was about recording the unique moments that this chapter of our lives would throw at us, set against a background of unstoppable change.
Another chapter to our Argentinian trip took myself and riders Hans Rey and Tibor Simai on a three-day traverse that began in the high Andes mountains and finished deep in the jungle. On point-to-point rides like this the constantly evolving landscapes and changing scenery means never knowing when a photo opportunity might come up, and with time pressures you have to be able to see those opportunities fast when they do. I like to put my subjects in context and this one shot of the trip conveys the dense jungle through which we were riding. To me the impenetrable green foliage tells as powerful a story as the high mountain images we shot a day earlier.
Shooting mountain biking is as much about capturing the whole story as the action. I spent a weekend shadowing twice Enduro World Series winner Tracy Moseley as an assignment in Italy for her sponsor Bontrager. I stalked her so closely that it meant following her to the launderette, but this otherwise mundane moment gave me the chance to capture the less glamorous side to being a top pro-level athlete – that of the daily chores that all of us have to do.
The 50mm is close to the human eye’s field of view and that encourages me to look at scenes from a reportage perspective. I let the image do the talking rather than adding drama with a wide angle or long focal length. It’s fast f1.4 aperture gives me total control over the depth of field of my images. What I loved about this shot is the fact that the bike outside was a new top of the range $1000 pro-model not yet seen by the public, just unassumingly leant outside a launderette as if it’s a shopping bike.
Three hours before this shot we were cowering in a natural cave on the mountainside sheltering from rain and lightning. After the storm cleared and we made it to our refuge this natural studio showed itself and I began an hour long session shooting with Dirt Magazine editor Steve Jones.
With the remnants of the storm clearing we shot until it was dark while the other editors were already getting stuck in to the after-ride beer drinking. While adverse weather can really throw a spanner in the works, the aftermath can sometimes be dramatic. I’ve learnt to be patient. You have to be.
I like to use natural light to add drama to my images, so in summer when the light is harsh and the contrast strong, shooting in the shade gives me a more uniform light and cooler tone. We shot this trail a couple of times, once with the late sun streaming across it, and the second time after it had slipped into shade. I prefer this shade shot and the way the background and foreground play against, but still compliment each other. The winding trail ahead tells the story – that of another late ride to get home before it gets dark, while the short sleeves tell you its summer.
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