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Garth Milan Goes Where The Action Is

Famed war photographer Robert Capa is credited with saying, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” That’s never been a problem for action sports photographer Garth Milan whose wide-angle shots of motocross riders often brings him within feet—and sometimes mere inches—of his subjects.

Closing the distance between photographer and subject on a motocross course isn’t the only challenge Milan faces. The most extreme event he’s ever shot is the Red Bull Rampage mountain bike competition where the course was at 1000 vertical feet with 50-foot drops. “We’re basically rock climbing with all our gear,” he explains. “And a lot of times you’re on all fours scaling the mountain.” And then there’s the time Milan was dropped off at 14,000 feet at 2 a.m. for the Pikes Peak International Mountain Climb and wasn’t picked up until 6 p.m. The athlete he was assigned to photograph passed by only one time. He got the shot, of course, but had to endure 16 hours on a mountaintop with no supplies. Oh, yeah, and it hailed, too. But Milan loves what he does and says extreme conditions like these “keep you on your toes” and ready for the next adventure.

While Milan specializes in motocross and the racing industry, those aren’t the only sports he photographs in part thanks to Red Bull. “In action sports, Red Bull is the pinnacle—the best client you can have. They are involved with so many things that there are tons of opportunities.” Because of his expertise, Milan also gets called upon to do commercial shoots. “I get random calls for projects where people see my action sports images and say, ‘I think that would work well for this campaign.’ I did a project for the National Guard photographing soldiers that looked like action sports,” Milan recalls. “So I do a little bit of that as well.”

Like many action sports photographers, Milan participated in the sports he now photographs before he ever picked up a camera. “I was into all the sports already” he notes. “Then I got the camera bug in high school.” About midway through college, he switched majors and decided to commit to a career in photography.

Shooting professionally for about 22 years, Milan got his start as a photojournalist for a daily paper. Being tasked with a different assignment each day prepared him well for his current freelance career. “Every single day was exciting,” Milan recalls. “I think that’s what got me to be able to react quickly to different situations. I kind of feed off that.” So, when he was asked to cover a cliff diving competition recently—something he hasn’t shot very often—he ended up really enjoying the project and captured some awesome images. He attributed the latter, in part, to not having a lot of experience with the sport. “It almost helped that I was kind of new to cliff diving because I thought outside the box. I approached the shoot a little differently knowing that I wasn’t already an expert at it.”

The value of being able to think on his toes goes beyond photographing a sport that’s a little out of his comfort zone. “What makes a great photographer,” Milan has told his interns, “is when you show up on set, there’s no time, the background is horrible and you’ve got flat light but you’re able to deal with those things quickly and efficiently.” That, Milan says, “really separates the person with the real grit, who is going to be really good in the future versus the person who maybe has a good eye but can’t problem solve.”

Problem solving is second nature to Milan who remembers flying into Ohio to photograph a boxer, one of Red Bull’s Olympic athletes. Little did he know that the session was scheduled in a “really, dark, dingy gym with no lights.” Knowing that clients often “don’t prepare you ahead of time” for the conditions you’ll face, “you always have to have your gear ready.” Although Milan traveled with his Elinchrom ELB 400’s and ELB 1200’s for the shoot, the airlines lost the lights. “I started to panic, and immediately began to develop backup plans, some of which included begging the athlete to go out into the freezing cold snow for some very ‘unique’ training shots.” Fortunately, his gear showed up just in time—less than ten minutes before the shoot--and he was able to “take this dingy, horrible training center and turn it into this really awesome shot by using lights and grids.” But it’s not just location that can throw a wrench into a session. “The bigger the athlete, the crazier their schedules so sometimes all I have is an hour at the worst time of day, with the worst light,” he explains—yet another reason Milan always comes prepared with his Elinchroms.

Although Milan prefers to use flash, he also works wonders with ambient light when necessary. “Flash is always preferred because you have so much control over the exact way the light looks--like a magician. But a lot of times, like when it’s a motocross competition and the flash will distract riders, it’s not an option.” There’s usually sufficient light at races and competitions but Milan will sometimes use as many as 8 lights when he’s photographing individual riders.

Safety First:

Whether shooting with or without flash, Milan puts safety first. Granted, there’s always a certain amount of risk when photographing action sports like motocross. “I’ve definitely had some close calls and have been hit a couple of times. It’s one of those job hazards. It doesn’t happen often but it’s always in the back of your head.”

Accidents happen, like the time a rider lost his front brake during a race, missed a corner turn and hit Milan, sending the photographer to the hospital. But that’s rare. “When I’m shooting with a rider, you form a bond. They trust you and you trust them,” Milan explains.

The Lighting:

In addition to knowing the sport—and individual riders’ special moves—very well (to the point where Milan can almost anticipate where a rider will land), “having a really good relationship with the athlete is huge.” He goes on to say, “A lot of times the riders will give you tips like ‘I’m going to do this jump three times and on the third jump, I’ll do a flip.’” This helps Milan determine where to position his lights.

For example, Milan usually lights the background, the jump and sometimes the subject as well. “I might use a grid when lighting part of the jump on the lift so you can see where the rider came from. Then I’ll also want to have 2-3 lights on the rider and maybe another on the landing so you can see where the person is going.”

When creating images for autograph posters, he’ll often create an outdoor studio. “That’s one of those times when I’ll bring out all the ELB 400’s and ELB 1200’s. I might have a hair light, a light directly over the bike and another 2-3 lights on the bike.” Milan always brings grids and a variety of modifiers with him.

When making portraits of athletes indoors, he’ll often use a beauty dish directly overhead along with small Elinchrom reflectors and grids. He’s also a big fan of Elinchrom octabanks, especially the Rotalux Octabox 135cm (53-inch). While Milan sometimes travels with the beauty dish, he prefers to pack the Rotalux Octabox “because it breaks down for easy travel and the light it produces is so awesome.”

The Gear:

You’ll find a Canon EOS 1DX and the 5D IV in his gear bag along with an assortment of lenses including his three favorites: the Canon EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM, EF70-200MM F/2.8L IS II USM and the EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM. “I mix them up a fair amount,” Milan reports, recalling that a college professor “drilled into me: always vary the lens.” Once he gets the shot he wants, he switches the lens and moves to a different angle. But, as you can see from these images, he loves wide-angle shots. “I just love being close and almost distorting the action with the lens to make things look even cooler. You get in the right spot with a wide angle lens and you can make the rider look like he’s jumping higher than he is.”

Milan’s lighting kit consists of four ELB 400’s and four ELB 1200’s. Earlier in his career, he would hack another brand’s lights to make them trigger faster but then he heard about Elinchrom’s Hi-Sync technology. “I hadn’t been that excited about anything new in photography for years.” Although initially skeptical, Milan was “blown away by what you can do with these lights for action sports. This breathed a whole new kind of inspiration into my shooting because I could now do so many things I always wanted to do but was unable to” because of technological limitations.

Milan’s excitement about his Elinchrom lights doesn’t stop there. “I love the Skyport, especially for run and gun stuff.” For example, if there’s no time to take a test shot, “Maybe I’ll see this side is a little hot and need to adjust the lights up or down. With the Skyport, I don’t have to ask the rider to stop what they’re doing; I can just use the dial on the back of the transmitter. That’s been a huge game changer for me.”

He tends to mix and match the ELB 400’s and ELB 1200’s but the compact and lightweight ELB 400’s win out for their portability when he knows he’s going to be hiking to a location like the mountains above Santa Cruz. For this mountain bike shoot he carried four lights, four stands, four sandbags and his camera gear for several miles. But, he adds, “It was worth it because the photos were awesome!”

Portability and ease of use mean nothing if gear can’t hold up under the rigors of outdoors and action sports. Elinchroms are so well made “you can take them out in the grit and get them dirty and wet“ with no problems. Milan explains, “A lot of times the rider will throw a rooster and the dirt will hit the light but it’s so well-sealed that, unlike other lights that get much more beat up, I don’t worry when it happens.”

Regardless if he’s shooting motocross, cliff diving or another action sport, photography is a series of non-stop adventures for Milan. Even after 22 years shooting professionally, he says “There’s always something to learn, something to keep chasing after. And there’s all kinds of crazy problem solving. I love that about photography.”

For more of Garth’s work check out: https://www.redbullcontentpool.com/premium/photography/photographers/garth-milan

Or follow him on Instagram @GarthMilan

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    ELB 1200 Hi-Sync To Go Set

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    Elinchrom ELB 1200 Hi-Sync To Go Set- EL10305.1 with 1 head equipped with a standard reflector and 1 battery pack. All packed in the included Protec location bag. The Location bag is designed with the photographer in mind, made out of durable nylon and YKK zippers. The Hi-Sync set is optimised to freeze motion, overpower the sun, darken backgrounds and use wider apertures with higher shutter speeds, using the optional Skyport transmitter Plus HS for Canon®, Nikon® Sony® Olympus® and Panasonic®. The Skyport Transmitter Plus HS is not part of this set and must be ordered separately.

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    It includes a high quality bag dedicated to location which is fully adaptable to your needs.

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  • Rotalux Octabox 135 cm (53")

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    Very popular among beauty and fashion photographers, as they prefer the round catchlight given by this softbox. When using Elinchrom Lights you can make yourself a great folding beauty dish just by removing the front and inner diffusers and adding one of the optional deflectors avialable in the popular Elinchrom deflector kit.

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