Pete chats to South African snapper Sven Martin in this latest series of chatting to top flight MTB photographers par exellence.

Unofficial King of the Squids, Sven Martin certainly likes to keep himself busy in between shooting World Cups and Enduro World Series events, there’s Crankworx, Whip Off Worlds and organising the NZ Enduro.

Pete had a chat with Sven about where he picked up a camera, calling time on racing, being charged by elephants and a whole load of other capers.

Words and photos by Sven Martin.

Sven with the fake enduro scrub on some 18th century church steps in Olargues EWS, France: Photo Boris Beyer.

Who is Sven Martin?

This is actually maybe the hardest question and I’m revisiting it last, but to keep it simple is someone who has happily followed and married his passions together of bikes, photography, travel and adventure and lucky enough to be supported and inspired by my partner Anka.

What came first, bikes or cameras?

Technically cameras, first as a little kid learning from my dad, shooting wildlife then rallying around riding and racing BMX as a pre-teen, this was before I found skateboarding which consumed the next 20-25 years.

In terms of MTB photography, definitely bikes came first for a good while. Eventually and naturally I started shooting at the races and places I was at and one thing led to another.

Botswana, Chobe National park. Canon from day one!

How did you get into photography?

I don’t remember a specific time, we always just had cameras around the house and on holidays. My dad was a semi-pro shooter and he raised us with cameras. School holidays were spent in the bush shooting wild animals, learning the relationships between light, exposure, shutter speed, aperture and composition.

Easy to learn shooting birds in trees or animals at a waterhole, with a full manual film camera but when you happen upon a lion chasing a springbok the stakes were raised, you didn’t want to screw up so you learnt fast not to blow it.

My brother then took it one step further shooting skateboarding and starting the first skateboard magazine in South Africa. Skateboarding was my life from mid eighties to mid 2000s and I also started to shoot skateboarding too like my brother, mainly to document the trips and demo tours we were doing around the country for the local magazines in South Africa, but I was mostly just skateboarding but always with a camera nearby.

Stalefish at the old Oakley Warehouse mini ramp. They were one of my earlier skateboard sponsors. I signed a contract with them around 1989 in South Africa and now they are also a long time photo client, coincidentally, I signed my contract with the same person from 1989 who is now the global marketing manager. It’s all about relationships in this small business.

I really got into the photo side again in the late nineties. We had moved to the USA, Anka for fashion school and myself for skateboarding. During injuries (which are fairly common as a skateboarder) I would pick up a camera and shoot the sessions. We were living in Orange County, California (Newport, Huntington and Laguna Beach) which was the skateboard industry epicentre back then so I was rolling with all the top skaters.

Eventually my shots started to make it to print and I started shooting some adverts with the big brands and top riders and began regular contributing to Thrasher Magazine and a few other outlets. I got some covers with Tony Hawk, Ryan Sheckler, Chad Muska, Ed Templeton and almost took a job as the Etnies/E’s Team manager.

This was around 95-2005, I was still mainly skating but that was when skating started to get real gnarly again, I could lip slide, feeble, smith etc. 15 stair rails and do 540’s and flip grabs etc on vert but kids were doing switch stuff and flip in flip out tricks on big rails, skating was progressing fast and I was being left behind, so I began to focus more on shooting the gnarly stuff rather than doing it.

Chris Miller, SWATCH flow tour, Long Beach. 2000.

I learnt a lot about the business and ethics of photography back then there was a lot of stuff you cant do in the skateboard industry back then that happens now in the bike industry. Unique unseen shots at new spots were sacred. The technical aspects of the shots had to be perfect to make the magazines back then. The action had to be good, the style, the location the lighting (off camera flash) everything had to be spot on and perfect in camera as we were shooting film back then. The level was super high.

Big Wave World Champs, Todos Santos, Mexico. 1999. Cass Collier and Ian Armstrong won one of the first big wave world champs competitions much like charger Twiggy Baker today. I was covering it on a boat in the rough channel shooting slide film for Zig Zag Surfing Magazine.

Around this time I was also shooting some surfing and snowboard stuff, shot some big wave contests at Todos Santos and also would shoot with the top visiting South African surfers for the magazines back home when they were in California for the contests.

Anyway fast forward to the early 2000s, Anka would disappear to the mountains with a bunch of guys and girls with this newfound hobby of hers, mountain biking. I thought that I should probably tag along now and then to see what was going on. Eventually instead of just watching her I got a bike too, which I thought was super dorky and expensive compared to skateboarding, I never admitted mountain biking to any of my skateboard friends.

Anka, Bend, Oregon. where we lived for six years before moving to NZ. This image was for an Ironhorse catalog. 2006.

I pretty much didn’t shoot any MTB stuff for the first few years, I just rode bikes and continued to shoot skateboarding for a job but I was slowly starting to spend more time on a bike than on a skateboard (my body and knees were battered by now and low impact cycling was good rehab) so in time I began to shoot mountain bikes too. First just our crew then the local pros, Lopes and Hans Rey then some national races and eventually international events and riders.

But photography was never my sole income at all during this time. I had a skateboard distribution business and always worked at some kind of bike shop etc to make ends meet to allow us to travel to the races and afford film and processing.

Hans Rey (what a legend) Adidas photo shoot, Botswana 2009.

What’s your background in cycling?

So before skateboarding we rode and raced BMX, it was in its infancy in South Africa but exploding. This was when I was around 6 years old until about 12 years old maybe. We would build tracks, river jumps and go to all the races all around the country.

The Hutch Pro Team came to South Africa and I beat their under 12 rider they brought with them at my local track. I remember I was the youngest rider to clear the big double at our local national track, it was on the last straight away and I had only ever done it before by cutting the track and slingshotting the berm.

I thought I could do it in a race run one time but was gassed from a full lap and not slingshotting the berm and came up short and broke some ribs. Almost forty years later nothing has changed, I’m still breaking ribs on bikes coming up short.

Honda Turner 2007, Deer Valley, Utah Norba.

The next 15-20 years was just skateboards but in 1992 when living in San Diego for a year skateboarding I shared an apartment with some travelling pro BMXers from Canada and England, one was Simon Tabron who became a pretty big deal in BMX, another was Bart DeJong who still is big in the European BMX scene.

I would tag along with them sometimes to famous dirt jump spots (Mission Trails) and they would tag along with me sometimes to go ride at Tony Hawk’s house and ramps, who I knew. It was these early days of pursuing your dreams and living the life you wanted that shaped my future I think and also taught me the World had a lot to offer than just your home town.

I picked up my first MTB at the age of 28 around 2001, (following Anka around). Ironically she bought her first bike, a GT from one of my Vital bosses now, Todd Toth. Small world. I bought a close-out on sale Specialized FSR EXPERT Stumpjumper for $600, put some Thrasher Magazine and Spitfire stickers on it, and pretty much just rode DH on it, raced my first Big Bear AM Cups and Sea Otter Classic DH on that thing.

Post-Megavalanche, 2008.

Three chainrings, chopped seat post, I managed to send all the jumps on the Sea Otter DH track with skinny tires and 120mm long stem, I won that and a few DH races in beginner class passing people then stopping put the chain back on. That first year I progressed (got a shorter stem and bigger tires) through Beginner, Sport and Expert race categories, winning local races and some nationals.

Along the way kept upgrading used bikes that I could afford, Foes Weasel for about a month then my first proper DH bike, a Chumbawumba which was like being given a Ferrari. All that travel, my first DH bike, you could smash over anything. Then in 2002 I got Turner DHR was was next level and raced in the Semi Pro Category.

MTB felt safe and easy compared to skateboarding, you were riding on soft dirt with full face helmets and full Dainese body armour, I felt invincible compared to doing skateboard tricks down big rails on concrete with no pads or helmets. Starting so late I felt I had to make up for lost time so we just rode and raced every weekend, I crashed a lot cause I could go fast but didn’t have the skills to turn fast.

First World Cup I ever shot attended and Ankas first ever World Cup raced, Telluride, 2002. Probably her first “road gap too”. All these early years were shot on film.

Anka was already sponsored by Santa Cruz before this on a women’s team, then we both got on this local Southern California team sponsored by McDonald’s. Well she got on, and I got on by default when after the first race someone broke their leg and freed up a spot. We used to throw out McDonald’s cheeseburgers at the podium.

Over the years this team evolved from a local grassroots one, to a professional team (still with a grassroots component) that Anka and I raced on and over the years, we had many good riders like Jason Codding, Steve Wentz, Andrew Neethling and Duncan Riffle racing for us at Nationals and World Cups.

I ended up running the team for a few years and we had great sponsors like SRAM, RockShox, Turner then Ironhorse and Honda. I raced a bunch of World Cups and World Champs, my first World Cup was in 2003 Kaprun, just two years after picking up a mountain bike for the first time. My qualifying run was the first time I ever used flat pedals and it was also the first time I had ever ridden on spikes in proper mud.

Andrew Neethling on our team smoking the much bigger full factory Honda and fellow South African. Greg Minnaar, Idaho Norba.

I asked Minnaar and Neethling (who I didn’t really know as we just started with MTB in USA, but Saffas stick together you know) what I was meant to do and they both said pretend its dry, and if you start slipping just get on the gas. I was the only rider coming from the USA for that World Cup that qualified. I’m proud of the fact that I qualified for every World Cup final I entered.

Race runs I would mostly crash or flat, couldn’t handle the pressure and still didn’t have the skills, starting so late in life, but got a top thirty so was stoked with that. My last professional Elite DH race was Fort William World Champs in 2007. From 2008 I committed to just shooting World Cups races and I’ve shot every World Cup since then, before that I was trying to shoot and race at the same time.

When did you realise you could make a go of being a photographer?

Well I had a business and marketing degree when I first came to the USA in 1998, but it was tough to get a work visa with that, so I ended up getting a P1 visa, which was a Work Visa for people with international and special talents in the arts (Photography). So really the only job I could legally first do in the USA was shoot photos which I was doing as a skateboarder but living dirt cheap with no money for more gear or much travel.

Then as I got into bikes I also worked in a bike shop to make ends meet and still shot photos while racing bikes. Slowly I began to shoot more MTB than skateboarding because that was what I was around more. Magazines like Decline just started and I used to also submit to Bike and Dirt Magazines.

Those three magazines represented dirt culture for me, they were more like the skateboard magazines at the time and Dirt and Decline were heavy on lifestyle too. No lycra and a heavy focus on gravity which was what we were doing.

One of my first Dirt covers, Boulder City, Nevada, Chis Kovarik, 2005.

So I was getting a small but semi steady income off magazine editorial submissions and the bike shop sales job to keep funding the travelling to races, first to Nationals then to World Cups. Most of this early stuff was still slide film. I remember coming back from Lugano World Champs one year getting my film developed (days later) then the lab technician circled the one frame and said “amazing shot” or something like that.

These guys processed the best skateboarding, surfing and moto photographers work at the time and I remember being stoked that they liked my mountain biking work. The shot was of Cedric Gracia crashing in the semi finals. Off camera flash, second last turn or something. He almost ran me over looping out and the shot was weird and unique shot at night, just a tricky shot and lucky to be in the right place at the right time which of course is a big part of race photography, anyway I remember then thinking that I could perhaps pursue this more seriously.

Lugano 2003 World Champs. Slide film. Cedric Gracia “brushing” my 15mm.

When we moved to Laguna Beach things started to really take off. Good steep technical downhill on our doorstep. A rad group of riders to ride with every week (The Laguna Rads) and also Hans Rey and Brian Lopes lived in town, this lead to some of my earliest pro photo shoots outside of events, and led to work with some great companies that I still work with now (GT, Maxxis, Oakley, Bell and some others) I have to thank them (Lopes and Rey) for taking the risk and believing in me as the relatively new MTB photographer back then.

I even remember a shoot with Lopes and Peat when Peat had to literally catch me as I couldn’t slow down off a steep double rock roll with my camera bag on. He literally plucked me off my bike as I was about to crash off a cliff. He must of thought I was such a squid. This was in 2002.

I would travel to Norbas and World Cups I wouldn’t shoot anything except some stuff in the pits, I’d just ride practice and qualifying. No shooting, then do my race run, quickly run to the pits and grab my camera bag then shoot the last 20-30 guys in the finals. I would never qualify that good so it was perfect I’d go relatively early. Back then you didn’t need hundreds of shots so it was working out. I never had a ton of variety except in 4X, I could shoot all of that so in a way I was almost like a 4x specialist.

World Champs 2006, Rotorua, NZ. Sam Hill winning after I just had the worst race run possibly in my career. 2 of the three crashes made the TV news highlight reel.

Between the races a lot of international (mostly Aussie) pros would be based in California, and because we lived in Laguna Beach a lot would come and hang out and ride with us and stay over at our house. Sam Hill, Graves, Rennie, Bryn Atkinson, Sabrina Jonnier and many others. This gave me a lot of access for other kinds of shooting.

So I did a lot of non-race shooting which Dirt Magazine and Decline loved. Because I was just one of the guys and friends with them doing the same things it allowed for more personal access also working on shots together, I knew the guys so knew what we could accomplish together. We shot a lot of cool interviews and photos in those early years and my close personal relationships with those riders and the new current riders continue to this day, its pretty key for getting that little bit extra out of a photo or shoot.

I remember convincing Scott Hart, editor of Decline Magazine, that Fort William World Champs had to be shot all from the finish area. Focusing on the final action and closeup lifestyle and portraits. My only reason for conning him into this was because that was the only place I could get to after my race run but I got my 10 pages. I wrote a lot, I had to create the stories and the text for the photos so this is where my journalistic side of me developed, its all shaped what and how I do things now.

The last World Champs I both raced and shot, Ft William 2007. By looks of it Rennie and I were equally happy with our runs. We love you Rennie.

At the end of 2007 I had a long think about what I wanted to do. Be broke from racing and shooting photos around the world for six months, having to work a bike shop job the other six months to make it all possible? Or just knuckle down, commit, quit racing and shoot photos full time.

Armed with one client (GT) and some editorial outlets, 2008 was my first World Cup race season and I’ve shot every one since. Making a loss the early years but slowly developing it into something more sustainable, an actual proper career for the first time in my life.

Sam Hill smoking them in the dry in quails. Champery 2007. My first World Cup that I was at a race without my bike racing.

How hard was it as a racer to concentrate on shooting races rather than competing?

It was really tough at first. Even now there are probably some races I’d rather do than shoot. I still look at lines when I walk the tracks, partly to know where the racers are going to go when I’m shooting but also where I’d want to go if I was racing. I’m a keen race nerd and know what lines work for what riders and often riders will ask for advice on lines.

Sam Hill Champery 2007 in the wet final (almost) smoking everyone. I don’t recommend shooting flash in the rain or in finals, but those days cameras didn’t handle the dark as well.

Champery 2007 was the first race I went to shoot solely that I did not race at. I still raced World Champs and some other World Cups that year but I wanted to see if shooting only would work out better for me in terms of photography as a possible career and not just a paid hobby. An experiment of sorts you could say or perhaps me becoming a little more responsible.

I was 34 years old and didn’t really have what someone in the real world would call a proper job yet. I was hustling being a team owner, manager, photographer, journalist and bike shop salesman. But that first World Cup I didn’t race really stuck in my head as it was that legendary first ever muddy Champery that Matti won and Sam Hill got the amazing third place with a big crash in the muddiest of conditions.

I love bad weather at World Cups. My gear hates bad weather. Aaron Gwin Champery 2010. Gee Atherton won.

This was the year before they benched the off camber and built catch berms. It was also my first time shooting Nico Vouilloz in a World Cup Downhill when he made a brief comeback. I was so torn at that race. A legendary era-defining and turning point track that I would have loved to race on but also at the same time I fell in love with being able to to shoot the whole week and weekend and not just the last few guys from near the finish area, and I came back with way more shots than I normally would have and that was addicting too, kind of like racing.

But those first few years shooting (and not racing) World Cups, 2008 onwards was super tough especially when I thought I could still do well or qualify because I was still developing and learning as a bike rider and racer.

So with World Cup shooting becoming my job, enduro racing (way before EWS) satisfied my racing fix. Megavalanche, Mountain of Hell, Super Enduro, Trans Provence and some French Enduro Series events. I was still a racing and could get my fix between World Cups jobs. Unfortunately as “enduro” became more popular and relevant to the industry and EWS came about my clients also wanted me to cover the the EWS and races like the Trans Provence too, so now, sadly, I don’t get much of an opportunity to race that often.

Anka getting clocked in by Jeff, Trans Provence. 2014.

I still get to do a few races in NZ which is sweet. Shooting the EWS is almost like racing though, as sometimes we have to move around super quickly to get different shots both in training and racing, so it gives me that “race feel”. Of course a couple of us still like to “race” during our blind EWS media recce days, or we think we are racing but we are just crashing and stopping a bunch.

Where and when did you first shoot a bike race?

Probably in 2000 or maybe 1999 would have been an AM Cup or National up in Big Bear, Californina. Anka would have been racing and I would have been running around shooting her. At this point I didn’t MTB or own a bike.

When did you shoot your first World Cup DH race?

Telluride 2002. It was Anka’s First World Cup and the first one we ever attended. I shot some photos but didn’t really sell any as I wasn’t really in the scene at the time, I was just shooting skateboarding stuff at that point. But I have some of the legends, Rennie, Voreis, Peat, Barel, Hannah, Gracia, Graves, Minnaar, Hill, Kovarik, Rojo, Dan Atherton, Caluori, Anne Caroline etc.

Anka, Whistler, Garbonzo DH. She got second. 2007

What’s your favourite moment from shooting World Cups?

Every race day, especially finals runs. The tension and nerves are in the air. Even as a photographer you feel it and get caught up in it too, or at least I do. Butterflies in the stomach to not miss or mess up the shot, not knowing how the day will pan out or end up both from a results and shots perspective and then as it all kicks off and racing begins just all the decisions you make a take over the course of the finals.

Where to shoot from at what time, when to move to what spot for different riders, where to shoot juniors, womens’ and mens’ from, where to shoot the last three to five riders from, where to shoot different riders from the same client from (you try deliver different images as much as possible) who is going to win (you have to have a good winner shot and you never know who it will be), and what spot will make for the best “wining shot”.

Where do you place your remotes? Who do you pan with? Who do you shoot tight with the 300mm? Do you go for one single banger shot or one with multiple angles and potential shots? Shoot wide or tight? Shoot commercial or editorial?

Gee Atherton, Val Di Sole, 2008 World Champs that him and Rachel won. I began shooting for the Athertons the following year. Going on 11 years now. Only GT remains a longer continuous client at 12 years.

Tons of split second gut decisions need to made on the fly. Yes we have had a few days to shoot practice and qualifying but that all resets for the important race runs shots, especially for the winners and podium riders. You need to deliver for both your clients as well as editorial story telling outlets like Vital and sometimes that means different kinds of shots.

Then you are friends with or work closely with some riders all year, so you have another layer and type of race nerves to deal with. So finals is the most stressful moment but also definitely the most rewarding, you go through the same adrenal and endomorphic surges as the racers.

Stans Flow EX3Stans flow EX3

But its hard to pick a specific single favourite moment over this last ten years, there have been many, but more often than not it isn’t the action photo from the winning run, but rather a more personal intimate moment you manage to capture of the rider pre or post run. Warning up, in the start gate, celebrating or reflecting on the win. Capturing the milli-second that tells the whole story.

2009 Canberra World Champs. One of my favourite shots. The light capturing Peaty and his posture and the framing. I think I cried this day because he finally did it.

One such moment that springs to mind is after Steve Peat finally won World’s in Canberra the race was over, podium done but back stage he managed to get through to his wife Adele and young son Jake on the phone, while talking to Jake he shed some tears as it finally all sunk in. Not an amazing photograph from a technical standpoint but one I will always cherish for all the hard work it represents over so many years and what his win meant to so many people.

How hard is it to keep photos fresh when you revisit the same venues each year?

Hard. That’s why I love shooting EWS mostly new venues in beautiful locations with long tracks to get new and varied images each time. World Cups are hard, especially Ft William, Mt St Anne and Leogang.

For those races I hope and pray for unique weather events. Gnarly rain can give great mud shots but is also tough to work in and heavy on gear. Some days or races I swear to myself I’m not going to shoot at any of the old tried and tested go to spots. Then after a day I realise I don’t have many good shots.

Sam Hill 2008 Ft William.

So you do, to some extent have to go to the spots that deliver the best action, but there are always ways to shoot it differently to some degree, the light is nearly always different so that keeps it interesting and challenging. I have a lot of lenses and bodies at World Cups so I play around and experiment a lot, trying different things or slower pans, you tend to experiment and risk more with riders you don’t need as much but it is still super satisfying when you try something new or risky with a top rider or one of your important clients.

Having to shoot editorial every day keeps us a bit more flexible on what and how we shoot and leads to more creative shots for the most part vs other guys that just have to shoot commercially for clients which may be more close up and action heavy. Keeping an eye open on course, weather, light and crowd changes and shifting and moving accordingly still makes shooting old venues interesting and challenging enough to keep it exciting for me.

The hombre who coined the phase “Do you even drift bro” in MTB anyway. Iago Garay, Chile EWS 2018.

What’s your favourite venue to shoot?

In the EWS this year, South America’s contrasts of Chile’s dry, dusty, stark mountains and the wet jungles of Colombia was very cool. La Thuile, Italy is always good as it’s in high alpine mountains with stunning backdrops for the most part and we get to ride too.

In the World Cups, the crowds on a Sunday at Ft William are always cool but everything else is normally a struggle. This year Val Di Sole and Andorra didn’t have the same loam as usual I felt, they are normally pretty epic. So I guess the answer is, it varies all the time, year to year.

Leogang is always easy as it has the best hotel/restaurant/bar right in the venue with fast internet so you don’t even need the press room and the hotel and restaurant staff look after us so well while we work, that is nice for those reasons, but the track is not up to scratch especially with Schladming right around the corner.

Danny Hart Leogang 2018 Another example of getting different shots from the same track with different techniques. Danny Hart with a 1/15th sec speed blur.

Cairns and Croatia were sweet for the swims immediately after work but I guess that is not what you are asking. La Bresse was a bit short, so although new, it lacked in variety. Maybe this year Mt St Anne was the best as it had a massive crowd come race day and plenty of drama and the organisers always bend over backwards to put on a good race and do all the little (and big) things right.

Is there a rider that makes it easy to take good photos of?

Iago and Cody Kelly in enduro, they can tweak and pop off anything or nothing in practice, but nearly all the top racers look good, especially when it comes to race runs. Even more so in DH, you can see it in the shots; that little bit extra bit of commitment and focus you only find in race run shots.

Amaury has looked great all year in shots and it shows in his results this year too. But we have been shooting him and putting him and his family for a long time on Vital, not just since he got on the podium or started winning.

Loosedog Lewis: La Thuile 2016.

Some guys like Gwin and some degree Minnaar only look good in their race run shots, as if they are just cruising until then.

Kade Edwards looks good most of the time, especially when in the air, sometimes I tell him to do crazy stuff and he usually does but then I feel bad thinking he should be focusing on racing and not doing dumb shit for us, but we have found a balance and he won World Champs.

Jack Moir, Lenzerheide 2018. A similar (but completely opposite) shot style, technique to the Amaury Pierron one. This time instead picking a very dark background and a small pocket of subject light to shoot in.

Loic and Finn always look dialled on their custom bikes and kits and perfect style and body positions, Pompon’s eyes always look good in her goggles in closeups. Rachel’s strength comes though in photos and Tahnee gets both loose and stylish these days.

You definitely shoot riders differently to highlight their strengths and you will shoot different riders on different parts of the track to do this. Also you will shoot certain types of shots in practise and other kinds of shots in race only. Everyone wants a good Gwin and Hill shot but they are elusive and hard to come by which makes it that much more rewarding when you do get a good one.

Amaury Pierron, Leogang 2018. Trying to shoot (or process) an old repeat track to get different looking shots. 1/5000th sec high key processing.

Do you have a favourite photograph you’ve taken?

Not that I can think of. You are always trying to take your favourite photo every day. You are only as good as your last photograph. In the earlier days it was easier to recall and remember the favourites.

Pretty pumped to be able to pull off this race shot of winner Burry Stander (RIP) framing up chopper, sun and shadow while doing a slow speed tracking blur hanging off the back of a motorbike camera on a pole inches above the ground at 60 km/h. Lots of elements had to line up with of course a lot of luck.

They are the ones that got printed or made it to a cover or ad perhaps. Easy to recall because the numbers were so much lower. These days at events I’m shooting 3000 photos a day and processing and delivering 200-300 each and every day for various usage. Mostly Instagram and social media and those are sadly forgotten very soon after, even by myself. Now and then I will see a photo I shot a while back and be really stoked on it and recognise it for what is was worth.

The over saturation of images on social media clouds this mostly. Now and then I will get a special shot and email the Bike Magazine guys and ask them if they are keen and then keep it offline until it hits print. I’m stoked on those.

Cape Epic, 2007. South Africa. This photo won a UK photo award. The elephant had just begun charging.

Often you have a favourite because of what went into getting the shot, or the rarity of the occasion or story behind the shot, or rider in it. It might be a favourite even if it wasn’t a particular stunning or hard to accomplish shot. An image that always pops to mind was one shot at the first ever Cape Epic race I shot.

Riders passed through this wild game park, I saw some elephants in the distance, and directed my motorbike chauffeur to position us with elephants between us and the passing riders. I got a few shots with riders and elephants, nothing crazy but pretty cool shots anyway. This one elephant noticed me (I had now jumped off the motor bike to get closer and fine tune the angle some more) he started walking my way.

Normally when shooting MTB I try hide non-organic, man-made elements and clutter. At first i was cursing the other TV helicopter and the chasing quad but in the end it all came together and ended up making the shot instead of ruining it. Leaders and winners Christoph Sauser and Burry Stander at the 2010 Cape Epic where I clocked up a lot of heli time.

I saw some riders that were just seconds away from entering the background so I held me ground just waiting for another second or two for shot to line up, at this point the elephant flapped his ears and charged me. I hung about for another second while he halved the distance, fired a frame then ran as quick as I could to the motorbike and we got out of there just in the nick of time, I ended up with a hard to replicate shot so I was pretty chuffed, not a favourite shot but a memorable shot, and more of a reminder of what you sometimes have to do or sacrifice to get that shot.

Light bro Tasmania EWS 2017. Rider Matt De Lorme.

Who or what inspires you to shoot?

The unknown, the travel, new locations, new experiences each and every day, changing conditions, having to deliver good shots under terrible conditions, racing. If it was perfect light and easy shooting conditions it would have got pretty boring shooting racing for the last ten years.

The hardships and challenges is what inspires me to come back each year and each day to try and deliver good work. Don’t get me wrong, I love the off season when I can shift to more creative and fulfilling forms of photography. Shooting a single or a handful of images at the perfect time of the day or week at the prefect scouted location, in epic light, with who I want to, when I want to. Its a different kind of satisfaction.

Then the level of the work coming from new, young or relatively, inexperienced shooters is so high these days, it keeps you on your toes. There is a lot of good work out there, the barriers to entry are low and learning curves have shortened with digital photography and processing software and the use of presets. Being able to deliver consistently come rain or shine keeps me out there and telling stories not just taking photos keeps me inspired.

Norway 2014. Finals, Podium, beers, edit! The World Cup grind.

You must own a fair bit of kit. What combo gets overused, and what rarely sees the light of day?

Overused would would def be the 70-200 and 15mm fisheye. Those along with the 24-70mm account for about 85% of the shots. Then I will try mix it up with my tilt shift lens, drone, 50mm 1.2, and rarely my 16-35mm sometimes. Bringing out the studio flashes when the situation requires it. Even the odd iPhone photo makes it print now and then.

UCI and I have a little game. They don’t like me flying my drone, I like flying my drone. This time I won. The next time they won. Next year we going to try break the tie. A drone, if not overused, can offer a neat alternate angle to all the other photographers especially geometric shapes and or shadows line up.

Do you still shoot with film, and if so, what makes digital not quite good enough to kill it off? Do you think film will always have a place?

I don’t sadly. Or hardly, I should say. Its tough with my travel and work schedule to plan on anything film based since I’m not in one place long enough to get it processed. I have a Polaroid printer that syncs with my phone or camera which we use from time to time for a different sort of satisfaction and that print feel fulfilment while still catering to the immediacy.

In a related answer regarding print vs digital I do still love the print medium, their is always a place for that especially for a different kind of story telling. Mostly with adventure and travel based work but even with race imagery like we have done with our EWS and World Cup coffee table books, Hurly and EWS Yearbook. Buy them here. We are working on this years book’s right now with a new very well-known editor.

Books are cool to show more than just the regular weekends race action, different shots like this can breath too. Adam Brayton, wondering if he should have run flats at Andorra World Cup, 2018.

You must have some stories from travelling the world, can you tell us your favourite crazy story?

They all seem to blend into each other. From the early days with Honda Ironhorse driving a lap, two years in a row, around USA and Canada to take in Norbas, World Cups and Crankworx. The joys and curse of having to have the team car displayed in the pits.

Bribing luggage “handlers” to locate a week-long missing bike in Johannesburg Airport, crossing the raging Limpopo river in a wire basket to get into Botswana for a Soul Trails trip. Averting death and disaster when the shuttle driver got out of the Russian shuttle vehicle and the hand brake failed with 10 EWS photographers doomed for death.

I was in the front seat and spun the steering wheel to send us into the embankment instead of off the cliff, Lee Tumpore’s bike bearing the full brunt of the crash.

How many squids does it take to push out a 4×4. Dazed, confused and stuck in Colombia. EWS 2017.

Everyone vomiting from sea sickness on a ferry in giant oceans, on one of Fabian Barel’s Urge Races in Cabo Verde, being chased by bears in Canada, chased by Pyrenees sheep dogs in France, elephants in Botswana and sharks in Australia, being caught on the top of a mountain in France in a hail and snowstorm, during an early Trans Provence with Nico Vouilloz and Anne Caroline then having to race them down while a mudslide was happening crossing flooding rivers, the one time I can say I beat Nico and Anka beat Anne.

Sleeping under the stars with your bikes while lions and Hyenas sniffed just outside of the campfire light and a whole heard of elephants walked through the camp. Being on first name basis with doctors in the Whistler Hospital, doing a lap in a helicopter over the Monaco Grand Prix while being airlifted to a hospital in Nice from the last day of a Trans Provence race, fixing competitors broken chain stays so they could finish the Cape Epic with my tripod leg and some duct tape and zipties, getting stuck in a river during Colombia EWS media Recce.

There are lots of crazy stories but they just seem like a normal part of life and travels. If things went smoothly something would be wrong and I’d be worried.

With a week to kill and nowhere to go, Steve, Rennie and Ricky Bobby picked me up hitchhiking in Schladming and took me under their wing back to the UK.

A cool story from about ten years ago, was after Schladming one year I had a week to kill somewhere and had made no plans. After the race I was stood on the side of the road with my bags packed weighing up my options (those days you only needed to deliver photos the Tuesday after an event). Peat and Rennie pulled up and asked what I was doing I said I didn’t know, they asked if I had my passport, I did and they told me to jump in the van and come with them to Sheffield and stay at Peaty’s house until the next World Cup in two weeks.

At that stage I “knew” them but didn’t really know them. It ended up being such a crazy week, I met a pre-junior Bryceland for the first time (who we took drinking with us) hung out with two legends (who only allowed me one photo and work-related question a day) saw what a beast and genius Rennie was on a bike and after a week of hard training and equally hard drinking and screwing around I think both Rennie and Peat ended up on the podium which was sweet.

Cape Epic 2012. Proper Champagne at non-UCI races.

Any unmitigated disasters?

There is always broken or damaged cameras, lenses, bikes and bodies, complaining about that would be weird because its just part of the job and a cost of doing business. I had a bit of a bad run this year with laptops.

Rachel Atherton brought some pink champagne to our hotel where we were editing after she won in Leogang, I knocked a glass over with the tiniest amount of drink left and it fried my laptop. I still had a whole night of work to do and had to do some emergency transfers and program downloads to Anka’s computer to carry on the work, luckily I didn’t loose any data just about six hours which meant no sleep that night.

MSA 2009. Love exploring the podium aftermaths. Become a bit of a cliche shot these days but I’ve been at it since day one.

While the computer was being fixed in Innsbruck during Crankworx I had to buy another MacBook Pro to continue working that event but on the first day of Crankworx I knocked a beer onto Dan Hearn’s MacBook which then fried itself. He did break our newly minted rule though with no computers on the table while we were drinking.

Either way I was responsible and ended up having to give him my brand new MacBook (with German keyboard) to replace his and then luckily I got my fixed one back in time to continue. But setting up new machines is a chore especially with slow internet. I think within a week I broke two computers, two iPhone X’s and two fish eye lenses. When it rains it pours and I definitely made a big loss at those few events.

Favourite moment(s)?

Off season bike overnighters. Old Ghost Road, New Zealand with Anka.

Shooting the actual race runs is always the sweet part of the job. The pressure excitement and adrenaline levels are high, then we get to relax and enjoy the moment with the riders for a short 1 hour window from when the race is over through podium and just after while we hang out, chat, get interviews and shoot the the final lifestyle and portraits while having our few celebratory drinks too. That is our “party” I haven’t made it to an after party in about 10 years we are always still editing until long after those have finished.

But the real favourite moments for me as a travelling working photographer is on the longer or more adventurous trips we plan that get us further into the mountains or bush, overnighting with gear, food all self supported is a pretty sweet time, hopefully and usually with Anka and some friends or soon to be new friends, those don’t feel like jobs and often aren’t.

Where next for Sven? How do you plan to go about getting extra helpers etc. etc.?

Mont Blanc and bikes. The EWS takes you places. Photo Lee Trumpore.

For the time being I’m still happy shooting all the events flat out in a six month scheduled season. Usually shooting for about 22 out of 24 weeks flat out, then get to have a more chilled schedule the rest of the year picking and choosing what I want to do vs what I have to do. The workloads and longer days and nights do catch up with you but its become part of the job and my own fault for over delivering.

Boris, Dan Hearn and I all work closely together, independently but we also back each other up if we need to. There is only a small handful that are doing the full pull of EWS, World Cup and Crankworx events (and a few others) and its pretty brutal on the body, psyche, health and relationships, so you want to surround yourself with people you want to work and hang out with.

Summer Husband.

We end each day about 2-4am squeezed together on a little couch or bed and do the final edit and selects for the slideshow. Its tough but for now wouldn’t want to change it for the world.

Maybe if I won the lottery I’d want to run my own race team, I feel I know what it takes, that or id just buy a big Toyota Troopy and go shoot wildlife in Africa for a year or two, maybe ill do that anyway when I “retire” hahah.

Anybody to thank at this point in the journey? Long suffering spouses/parents/friends?

Obviously Anka for all everything, turning me onto bikes, and getting me into racing and mostly for being so supportive for me to follow and pursue my passion of photography when for the first few years it lost us more money than it made, luckily for the past few years we have been able to overlap our schedules a lot so I still get to see her a lot in Europe when we are both working.

Thanks to my dad for turning me on to cameras at such a young age, my mother for her creativity genes.

What do you think Sven enjoys more “working” EWS events like this one in La Thuile, Italy? Or hiking Ft Bill with Midges in the rain for the 15th year in a row? Photo: Sebastian Schieck.

Rob Brown for turning us into bike and race nerds and making me super anal about bike set up and style super early on, people like Gary Perkin who mentored me for so many years and still deals with some 3am tech support panic calls.

All the photo editors I’ve worked with over the years at various magazines and outlets that helped me develop my craft, Grant Brittain, Mike Burnett, Shawn Spomer, Mike Rose, Scott Hart, Dave Reddick, Morgan Meredith, Anthony Smith, Ian Millar, Ian Hylands, Caleb Smith, these are all people I could both argue with for hours and still share a beer with.

Sven’s heroes. (L-R Sam Needham, Gary Perkin and Duncan Philpott) Photo by Gary Perkin

Seb Schieck for being so selfless, reliable and helpful all of the time especially with camera repair duties.

Duncan Philpott for his patience with me and beautiful natural looking shots, all the clients who are more like friends and collaborators, we have all worked together for many years and its much better than having to chase after new work each year, all the riders and other photographers, filmers, mechanics and the rest of the circus from the events that we all travel to together that make it fun and bearable.

Sam Needham. A fellow squid who likes to race, push hard and crash on the job just like me…

Last but not least my Summer Husband, as Anka calls him, the only and only Boris Beyer. Dan Hearn, Seb and Boris pulled double duty at a few events this year covering for me when I decided to see if I could do a 12 foot drop to flat in Whistler and broke some ribs. Its nice to know no matter how busy everyone is they still have your back.

Thanks also to Santa Cruz and Sram that make sure I have a bike to ride each year so I manage to come back fit and healthy enough for the the next year.

Keep up to date with Sven’s adventures following the fastest mountain bikers on the planet over on his Instagram feed.


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