Garth Milan is one of the top action sports photographers in the world, traveling the world to photograph some of the world’s most talented and most extreme athletes. Recently we featured Milan’s photos of athlete Robbie Maddison surfing giant waves on a dirt bike. We had the privilege of chatting with Milan to talk about his life, career, and the future of the action sports industry.
PetaPixel: Could you tell us about yourself and your background?
Garth Milan: I am a 39 year old action sports photographer from Laguna Beach, California. My career began at Cal State Long Beach, where I received a Photojournalism degree back in the good ol’ film days. While in school, I also worked for a magazine called Dirt Rider, and right about the time I graduated, I co-founded another mag called TransWorld Motocross. I stayed there for nearly a decade before going freelance. About seven years ago, me and two of my co-workers at the magazine decided to leave and start a small, boutique-style agency called The Medium Creative Group. We do all sorts of creative projects, from commercial photography and videography to websites, catalogs, advertising campaigns, etc.
How did you first get into photography?
I first got into photography by doing most of the sports I now shoot. I was never good enough to become a professional at things like skateboarding, wakeboarding, and motorcycle racing, but fortunately I grew up in Southern California and knew lots of people that were. I began shooting these sports seriously in my mid-late teens, and by the time I had completed a year or two of general college education, I knew it was time to switch majors and dedicate my life to making images. I still do lots of those sports for fun, but I’m happier behind the lens, and am glad things worked out the way they did. Nearly 20 years into my career, I’m still involved in the things I love at a top level, but without all of the dangers and stress that come along with being a top professional action sports athlete.
How do you make a living these days?
I am fortunate enough to make a great living with my camera. As I mentioned above, I’ve been shooting full-time now for nearly two decades, and hopefully there is no end in sight; I’d be happy making images for the rest of my life, I think! I definitely won’t make Annie Leibowitz kind of money shooting action sports, but with the right work ethic and connections, I’m able to keep the wolves from the door with my photography, and I am very grateful and appreciative of that.
Could you give us a ballpark idea of how much a photographer in your field can expect to make?
Like any freelancer, every year varies a little bit, but I am fortunate enough to make a great living with my camera. I own a home, and my wife actually quit her job a few years ago in order to help out with my insanely busy schedule and demands from shooting so much. I’m definitely not a millionaire and I work ridiculously long hours, but I’m doing what I love and I barely call it work. If you really hustle, a six-figure “salary” is definitely not unreasonable to expect as a top action-sports shooter.
How much work is it? How often are you on the road and away from home, and what kind of long hours do you do?
Photography rules my life. I have spotty times where I am slow with shooting, but even these times are filled with business development, camera cleaning and repairs, photo retouching, and stressing to find more work. I am on the road at least a couple of times per month, mixed in with local shooting in California. I also work off of day-rates with no union, so clients always want to maximize their day. That said, typical days on set or out shooting (and waiting for good light) are 12-14 plus hours, with the craziest being X Games week. At both Summer and Winter X, I typically do 5-6 days in a row of 18-20 hour days. Mix in the extreme heat and cold, all the gear I carry around, the fact that each event is fairly far from the other, and you can start to see that it is a lot of work and definitely not for everyone. I have never kept track, but I’m sure I average at least 60 hours per week. And at most of the Motorsports events I cover, it’s not uncommon to cover ten or more miles of ground in a day, according to a pedometer.
How does a photographer get their foot in the door in the action sports photography industry?
There are a million different ways, but the age-old advice of simply pounding the pavement and working hard is probably the most important. After graduating from college with a degree in Photojournalism, I got my start by working as a magazine photographer. I developed a ton of relationships there, and after nearly a decade, I left to start a freelance career of my own. Besides the contacts, the best things you can have are a strong work ethic, great follow-through, and just being easy to get along with on-set. Once you do all of these things, people will start noticing you and wanting to work with you.
What kind of camera equipment do you use on a day-to-day basis?
I am a Canon shooter, and use the EOS-1Dx as my primary shooting body. I also use a Mark IV for my second body, and have all Canon lenses, ranging from their 15mm fisheye to the 300mm telephoto. I enjoy shooting with strobes, as well, and have a mix of Elinchrom and Einstein flashes that I use for action, thanks to their ability to hypersync with PocketWizard remotes.
Have you had any close calls, safety-wise?
Oh yeah! Too many to count. In the last six weeks alone, I have been landed on by a flying motorcycle, hung out of a helicopter flying backwards over the ocean, and ran from the police, just to name a few. It’s definitely not a job for the timid!
Where do you draw inspiration from? How much of your work is thoughtful planning and composition, and how much is being lucky enough to catch the right moment at the right time?
So many things inspire me, from other people’s creative work to locations and athletes; they all come together to motivate me. I am a huge fan of design and art in general, and I try to use this understanding and appreciation of composition in all of my images. Like anything, there is a bit of luck to it, but probably way more planning goes into my images than most people think, or at least this is true for the shots I am most proud of. I try to make every single pixel of my frame “mean something,” and pay lots of attention to backgrounds, lighting and the rest of the essentials that make for great images.
Do you post-process your photographs yourself? After the shoots, what’s the process of getting the photos from your camera to the client?
I post-process all of my pictures, with a couple of rare exceptions. Some of my clients just want RAW images, so then I just do selects and edit them down to the “keepable” files. Most clients want color-correction already done, though. If it’s a commercial job, I typically wait until I get to my nice office monitor, but at events like X Games and Motorsports racing, and for almost all of my Red Bull work, I typically do post on-site for immediate delivery. More and more, clients are even wanting images while the actual event is happening for social media use.
We recently shared a story about the insane workouts done by adventure photographer Jimmy Chin to stay in shape. How much does physical fitness play a role in your photography?
That’s funny you say that; it’s so true! Fitness plays a huge role in my day-to-day work. I’m not quite the badass that Jimmy is, but I am a huge Bikram Yoga fan, and I feel the practice makes a HUGE difference in my day-to-day shooting. I am also a vegan, which I feel helps because it is such a great diet and keeps my immune system strong. The flip side is that finding food on the road is often a struggle, but in my opinion it’s worth the trouble.
Can you see yourself doing action sports photography for the rest of your career, or do you think you might branch out or switch into something else? Are most photographers in your field younger in age?
I would say that the demographic is definitely a young one, and thus the shooters are typically pretty young, as well. That said, though, a few of my most admired colleagues are significantly older than me. As for doing it the rest of my life, I think I will keep at it for as long as my body can take the abuse! Eventually, I would like to expand to do a bit more higher-end commercial work that is still related to action. For instance, I shot an ad campaign for the National Guard last year that captured soldiers training, but with similar lighting and angles that I use with action sports like skateboarding or BMX. Many of the ways I shoot action sports can be applied to other things like vehicles, boats, etc.
In what ways has action sports photography evolved over the past decade? Where do you see it headed in the future?
Action sports photography has evolved in a major way with new technology. Everything from auto-focus and more frames per second help out, as has new lighting technology like HyperSync. Prior to the last decade, stopping fast action like motocross was always really tough due to technical limitations, but that is going away now. And by the same token, the light sensitivity from the cameras is so much better now that many times you don’t NEED flashes at all anymore, another game-changer. I also feel that as companies like Red Bull grow and continue to push photographers, offer new opportunities for them, etc., the bar will just keep getting set higher and higher. It keeps getting more and more competitive, but again, this helps to continue raising the bar on quality and pushes us all past our boundaries.
Image credits: All photographs by Garth Milan and used with permission