Behind The Lens - Sven Martin

Oct 20, 2010
by Tim Lake  
First off, what's your name, and where'd you come from?
Sven Martin, from Cape Town South Africa originally, moved to the USA, lived the first 5 years in SoCal, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach and the last five years I've been in Bend Oregon, actually the last couple years I lived on the road most of the year.

  My wife Anka Martin runs a bike touring outfit to South Africa, she also wrote a nice feature on Southern Africa for a recent Bike Mag feature, this is one of my favorite shots of 2010 - it ran as a double page spread.

How long ago did you start mountain biking?

I started in 2001, my wife Anka got me into it. Raced pro from 2003 onwards, ran a team and raced a bunch of World Cups and 3 World Championships. I seemed to always crash or flat for the most part in my race runs though. Cursed!

What made you feel that you wanted to get behind the lens?

I have always had a camera and shot photos from an early age. When I moved to the USA I was pretty heavy into skateboarding, as the level skyrocketed in the late nineties and with injuries it made more sense financially to be behind the lens than in front of it for me. It was kind of the same transition when I began shooting mountain bikes. I would always shoot and ride and race, then once I was tired of being broke at the end of each season I chose to commit to shooting full time in 2007/2008 and put racing on hold.

  Sven can definitely ride too. Here he is showing Kirt Voreis how he wanted him to air the quarter in the Deep Summer contest. Photo: Jon Parkin.

You do a lot of work for the Athertons, it must be cool being on such a professional and organized team?

I am fortunate to work with a few big teams and companies. The Athertons have raised the bar in many ways. On the hill, Team filmer, Clay Porter and I are linked to the pits and team manager with radios so we always know when they are coming which is important when so many shots need to be distributed among team sponsors, Red Bull, their website, their press releases and magazines. With bigger clients there is increased responsibilities so it's never easy. Always having good food and Red Bull in the their pits helps too.

Out of the whole Atherton crew, which one is your favourite?

They are all a great, close knit family, but each with unique personalities. Picking one over the other would be impossible, not to mention suicide, they all shine for different reasons. Long time Atherton Racing mechanic Stevie Bell can be hilarious with his dry humor, thick accent and outlook on things he makes me laugh every day.

  Gee winning Ft Bill WC round. Shot with my remote camera I had no control of the crowd spontaneously jumping up and down in my shot. This one sort of adds to the shot with the fan's beer filled fist pump. Tilt Shift for all the haters!

What's been your favourite, and least favourite World Cups to shoot at, and why?

That's a hard one. Each one has its highs and lows. Sometimes the ones with the worst weather and shooting conditions, when you are hating life, end up giving you rare epic iconic shots. I'd say La Bresse in 2009 was awesome because of the huge crowds and vibe along the edge of the track. It's infectious. On the flip side shooting 4X at this year's World Champs in Mt St Anne was terrible. Insufficient lighting for both riders and media alike. I don't mind using flash at night, but it's nice to be able to mix it up a little, at MSA you couldn't.

  Sam Hill during 2009 Ft Bill UCI World Cup. Dirt Magazine SNAP shot.

You're also pretty addicted to Twitter, how do you find the time to shoot rad photos and still tweet every half an hour?

I wouldn't say 287 tweets in 6 months is addicted. It's a good quick way to stay in touch with people with similar interests while on the road. As a race fan I've always liked some of the behind the scenes stories. Now and then I share that with a Tweet. You can follow me @svenmartinphoto.

You get to travel around the globe with some of the world's best riders, who is the funniest to be around?

They all have their moments. Wyn Masters as everyone knows is funny and sharp behind the mic, Peaty and Minnaar love to screw with me, Blenkinsop loves to goon ride for the cameras and Brendan Fairclough is entertaining every time he gets a bike of any sort. Then there is a our tight media crew, the MBPHC. We always have some inside jokes going on to help pass the tedious editing hours in the media rooms across the globe.

  Kirt Voreis. One of the best and funnest riders to work with. He is always up for anything. We buried him in a dirt jump just for a bike check piece in Dirt Magazine.

Where other photographers just press the button, you always seem to find a way to capture the emotion behind a photo. How do you do that?

Thanks. As a rider myself and a racer that's what I try portray in my photography. I want to capture the day's story or bring a viewer track side and feel like they are there. Working closely with all the riders all year long you know what makes each of them tick and you try shoot them in different ways to highlight these traits. I want to do both the locations, tracks and action justice. The haywire weather we experience all year long and the tough shooting conditions only makes the challenge that much greater and I hope to show some of that rawness and grittiness in as natural a way as possible too. While a technically, perfectly lit action photo is nice, you need some x factor to make it a memorable photo and create a bond with the viewer.

  Aaron Gwin during the Champery World Cup in 2010. This shot says it all. World Cups are tough and it takes a special breed to persevere.

There always seems to be a lot of good banter going around at the World Cups, what's the funniest thing that's been done/said this year?

While both the riders and some of the media are under incredible stress and workloads during the season at the end of the day it's just traveling the world and riding bicycles so we definitely have a few laughs. I can't pinpoint one incident, but new up and comer Scottish Photographer, Stephen Hughes keeps us entertained on the hillside with his almost indecipherable thick Glaswegian accent and lingo, not to mention his pasty white tan.

The banter that's been most in the public domain was that of yours and the Parkins epic battle in the Megavalanche. Do you get on with them pretty well then?

Ha, I wouldn't call it an epic battle. For the record, they got smoked by me in the qualifier which is on a much tougher track! In the main I started second row and chose to line up behind multiple Mega winners Remmy Absalon and Rene Wilhauber. Bad choice Remmy crashed in the first 10 seconds and I got completely tangled up with him and got passed by literally hundreds of waves of riders right at the most important part the start. Remmy and I got going and then he went down again in front of me. It was so hot that the tracked out snow on the glacier was unridable that far back. The 15 minute snow hike/jog killed me, I was in no condition for that. Rob Parkin works for Trek so maybe he is a bit of a fit XC bandit and he ran faster on the snow. It was a good week nonetheless, being able to shoot photos and still race is always a bonus. I got a top ten the following weekend at the equally tough and crazy Mt. of Hell mass start event across the valley, so I made up for my poor Mega performance. I've done lots of riding with Gary "Flipper" Perkin, Victor Lucas, Clay Porter, Parkins, Lawlor and Fraser Britton, we all love to ride and squeeze in as much as we can when on the road and it makes for good times.

  SRAM's BlackBox manager Jon Cancellier knows how to ride a bike fast. Which is good news for me. One of my favorite races in the World and one every mountain biker should do at least once. The big mountain riding in Europe is truly BIG! 2010 MegaAvalanche, Alpe De Huez.

Being a good rider must help a lot when it comes to picking angles for shots. When you go out for a ride do you see a spot and think "That would make a rad shot?"

It helps, especially when I know how hard and far certain riders can push it in different situations. I'm lucky and honored to work with the World's best riders, that helps make the shots sometimes. Then there is the other part, photography that I also love, where you don't need a pro rider at all, when it's just about the elements of mother nature coming together for something memorable. Locations and lighting combined with a trail that begs you to come ride it.

  On the job Cape Epic, South Africa 2010

One of the most popular publications from the World Cups this year has been the VitalMTB slideshows. How did the idea for those come about and do you enjoy making them?

Thanks. Shawn Spomer and myself have been spreading our mutual stoke and love for World Cup DH racing from day one on Littermag. Long before Freecaster and the daily and weekly web videos were the norm, we have been telling the little stories and bringing the race culture to people before all the big bike companies and media outlets paid much attention to DH. Now me and Gary "Flipper" Perkin continue this tradition with Vital today. Most of the main magazines can only dedicate a few pages to each World Cup, and there are so many more stories that can and need to be told. From featuring the unsung heroes like the mechanics to getting inside of the heads of the top racers, we feel that strong emotive photography and personal audio clips is a powerful medium. Today there is a lot of clutter with the internet's hunger for constant content. Some of it is good, but a lot of it is sub par. We try keep the quality consistent and editorial unique and most importantly tell the day's stories as they unfold with simple audio slideshows. A lot of thought goes into choosing the shots each day.

  Schladming World Cup Finals 2009. Used in Bike Mag BuZZ Spread. One of my favorite race shots in 2009.

Blackberry or iPhone?

iPhone, but ATT it has the worst international data plan which sucks when I'm out the country for more than half the year, so the bills are high! But the iPhone is such a good business tool, so much more than a phone, which I hardly ever use it for.

Having the World Cup in your home country of South Africa last year must have been rad, how did you feel when the hometown lad Greg Minnaar won?

Lots of pride. Strong emotion, gooseflesh, lump in the throat, the works. The best part about the whole event were the fans and the spectators and the vuvuzelas, so good to see so much appreciation in my home-country. Some fans hitchhiked over 1000km's and camped out in the woods just to be there. The World Cup needs to travel more out of Europe to make it a true World series. I am friendly with a lot of the riders, so it really is tough to stay focused on the job at hand when it comes to the finals when the hot seat is always changing. Gee winning in Ft Bill this year, Rachel at Maribor and Windham and Tracy and Sam winning Worlds are all big moments for friends of mine, but Peat's win in Canberra last year still takes the cake.


Whips, SanDiego County. California. Brendan Fairclough, pitching for a Dirt Cover that never happened.

This year 4 out of 7 of the big races have been pissing down with rain. Surely that must lower your motivation to get out there on the hill?

Was it not six out of seven that had rain at some point. Ft Bill was dry even Windham and Val Di Sole had some wet times. The rain and cloudy conditions can often help the track and the photos and drama that unfolds. You get some variety in your shots. Good rain gear and a positive outlook helps, but when it gets really bad it can be frustrating when riders are hiding out or wearing big ugly dark rain jackets. The schedule is pretty bad. Often with DH and 4X practice back to back you are on the hill from before 8:30 until 7pm or later with no break. With riders practicing in different waves you have to be out there all day if you hope to get the variety and shots you are working for. It's also a challenge when returning to the same venues. You don't want to become stagnant and repeat shots you have done years before.

I noticed that this year due to the gaps between the races and locations, you've been able to ride a lot on some epic trails. Does that make the whole job worthwhile?

Yeah, this year we got a lot of riding in. We bought a van and ghetto converted it into a camper, so instead of rentals, flights and hotels we were on the road riding some new spots and some old favorites with different groups of friends between all the races. We rode a bunch in Scotland, Belgium, the Megavalanche, Les Deux Alpes, Lake Garda and Chatel, Porte Du Soleil region. Lots of all mountain goodness. Then of course a couple of weeks in Whistler with the DH bike too.

  Me "working" in Lake Garda Italy: Photo Credit Gary Perkin.

Other than your own, what's your favourite accent?

Three way tie between Josh Bryceland, Stevie Bell and Stephen Hughes. They need translators and subtitles.

This year you shot the Saint Deep Summer Contest in Whistler. How was that?

It's a cool event and the level of work from all the photographers involved is amazing. I came off 5 months of hectic work and 5 days of constant travel just to make it to Whistler in time. In retrospect I should have planned a bit more, but I was pretty drained. Over the three shooting days I unfortunately also had previously contracted client obligations I had to deliver on regardless of me shooting Deep Summer. Because of this I worked some of the racing action into my show with Gee's part. The other riders I worked with, Rachel, Vories, Fairclough and Neethling also all had pretty full schedules, but the time we did spend shooting was both stressful and fun and rewarding at the same time and I'm pretty stoked with what we got, cutting edge action and style like no other riders can deliver. With the Parkins, we edited a fast paced multimedia show that allowed you to view different Whistler experiences through the athletes' eyes. No close ups of leaves or puddles like I do on Vital. At the end of the day judged photography is a subjective affair and no one was going to beat Manley's planned formula, his shots were pure art. Amazing stuff from everyone.

  Stund, Utah 2009. Look closely the silhouette is a shadow of the rider on the dust, not the actual rider itself.

I think I saw somewhere that you got the opportunity to own one of the first Carbon V-10's? You must be pretty stoked with that?

The guys at Santa Cruz bicycles are good friends of mine. I wish I owned that one, not yet, it belongs to engineer Joe Graney, driving from LAX to Whistler without a DH bike I made a few calls and they told me to swing by and pick up something. I was pretty stoked to be handed this 34 pound beauty. My camera pack I ride with half the time is heavier. Thanks Joe.

What's the biggest and gnarliest crash you've seen?

I've had a bunch myself and seen more than a few lately, the most recent was Mick Hannah's season ending OTB in front of me that resulted in a heavy concussion, and broken collarbone. His body contorted in a pretty horrible fashion. Earlier in the year at the Mountain of Hell race, out the corner of my eye while going about 110KM/h on the glacier I saw Jerome Clemens getting ejected after hitting an ice hole, his bike tomahawked past me. There seems to be more and more serious injuries as all these riders are pushing them selves that much faster and harder as the equipment improves and allows for greater speeds.

  This is a lady! Lorraine Blancher, Stund, Utah 2009. Epic light as always out in the desert.

What words of wisdom would you give to all the Amateur Photographers out there?

Be happy shooting and experimenting on your friends and local scene. Elevate your own craft while promoting them and your scene. Don't spray all your work over facebook, flickr and the internet. Display just your very best work if you are going to. Never give your photos away for free, photo-credit or a set of tires. Remember you have set a precedent, and if you do you have forever cheapened your worth in that company's eyes. If you are serious, learn your craft and understand light and what changing the various settings accomplishes. You should be able to shoot without looking at your screen. Don't be afraid to experiment and have your own style. You don't have to own a bunch of fancy lenses and pocket-wizards to take good photos, just a good eye and patience.

  Garett Beuhler, combines a drop and a big hip gap in Utah, Stund, October 2009.

Finally, the big one. Canon or Nikon?

If you want to be able to make all your changes to settings, speed, aperture, ISO and focal points in-between shots without moving your camera from your eye when it counts, all in less than a second or two when it counts then the answer is obvious. Canon. But honestly it doesn't matter these days they are all good. Whatever you already have invested in glass, stay with that. One thing I love about Canon they have an awesome worldwide CPS program for professionals next day turn around on service and repairs and a worldwide loaner program that has saved me on more than one occasion.

  Adiridas African Safari, Mashatu, Botswana. Andrew Taylor.

Sven and Gary Perkin's World Cup Race Photography coffee table book, Chronology you can buy it here.

Some of Sven's World Cup web work.

Anka Martin's South African Tours.

Thanks a lot Sven!
-Tim Lake

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timlake avatar

Member since Nov 23, 2007
30 articles

  • 14 1
 great article
  • 2 0
 floating head for life bru!
  • 7 0
 i see many picture that are pod worthy
  • 12 1
 Sven kill's it!
  • 5 0
 for real just think how crappy biking would be without photography like this. It would really would effect the amount of inspiration i get to go out and ride.
  • 5 0
 josh bryceland stevie bell and stephen hughes they all need translators! haha
  • 4 0
 Great Read. Well done Tim. And plenty of bangers from Sven as usual.
  • 3 0
 theres not many places where you would go riding with a rifle on your back like the first photo, ha
  • 2 0
 nice time you should have messaged me i have a nice top down view of his head - maybe save it for later.ha ha go svenny 4 flashes
  • 1 0
 yeh great article with fantastic pics a real pleasure to read !
  • 1 0
 superb article , comments that you have included now inspiring me to get out there more and shoot, hats off ! great riding shots of you aswell ..
  • 1 0
 Thanks a lot for the kind words!
  • 2 0
 Dirt mag is one of the best mags out there and I see a lot of his photos in it!
  • 1 0
 I am doing a book project and I decided to do it on Sven Martin and I was wondering when and where he was first born?
Brady Sage
  • 2 0
 Yeah Sven! Glad you didn't tell everyone I get in the way of your best Ben Reid shots! LOL
  • 2 0
 come back to SA and shoot us ! Smile
  • 2 0
 One of the big dogs on the scene, and a really cool, funny dude.
  • 2 0
 another legendary South African photographer!!!
  • 1 0
 some great shots there indeed!!! some helped along due to the super cool location of course.
  • 2 0
 "Tilt-shit for all the haters." - LOVE IT! - hahahahahaha
  • 1 0
 *shift. haha
  • 1 0
 Oops! Hahahaha!
  • 2 0
 One of the greats taking great shots of girls on bikes! Go Lorraine!
  • 1 0
 Wow i love sven's photo's. they are just amazing and so is his riding
  • 1 0
 Anyone know svens pinkbike account?? Or have a link they could give me??
  • 1 0
 Sam Hill pics are great, He rock
  • 1 0
 Sven is the man! Awesome article boys, keep the amazing pictures coming!
  • 1 0
 Where can I get these shots in desktop size?
  • 2 0
 Sven is rad
  • 1 0
 Top shelf .. all the way around.
  • 1 0
 Sven and Gary for the win!
  • 1 0
 very good read
  • 1 0
 Great interview!
  • 1 0
 great article
  • 1 0
 sick pics
  • 1 0
  • 1 0
 Sven's got Skillz
  • 1 0
 best photog out there.
  • 1 0
 I see POD'S!
  • 1 0
  • 1 2
 great interview, I love the behind the lens specials....

too bad he shoots with canon Frown
  • 1 0
  • 3 3
 canon will rape any camera in sports photography
  • 1 2
 and.... you have absolutely no idea what you're talking about Smile
  • 1 1
 hahahaha you make me laugh. anyways i use film not digital peen baby cameras Smile .
  • 1 0
 nikon all the way my friend

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