"Kiwis take these trails for granted" claims international photographer Sven Martin. And he should know. Among the world’s leading mountain biking photographers, nobody is more prolific than the omnipresent, effervescent, South African-flag flying Sven Martin. Such is his market share in the mountain bike photography world, that whole generations across the planet have grown up on his beautifully crafted compositions. RideNZ.co caught up with Sven during an action-packed day at Crankworx Rotorua.
Sven is 43 and grew up in the wine region just outside Cape Town in South Africa. He then lived in the States for 12 years – California and then Oregon – and that’s where he honed his skills racing mountain bikes in downhill events.
“I started following the racing circuit and racing World Cups in 2003,” he shares in his thick South African drawl. “But I started shooting on a full-time basis around 2008– that was the first year I didn’t do any World Cups – photography was my only source of income and my sole focus.”
He admitted he still got dragged out of retirement for “a few fun races”, but it had been all about photography since then.
“I’ve done every World Cup and every World Championship since then.”
Sven and his wife Anka, also a high-achieving mountain bike racer, decided to move to New Zealand a few years ago, and now lived in Nelson, “the sunniest place in New Zealand so they say”. It was during the World Mountain Biking Championships held in Rotorua in 2006 that the country cast its spell on the couple.
I think Kiwis take these trails for granted. When they see the ferns and the pungas and the korus, they don’t stop and look. But for us it is a real novelty and very pretty.Sven Martin, internationally acclaimed photographer Share
“I was racing World Champs in Rotorua then and thought this was an awesome place,” he recalls. “So, we did a quick six-week tour in a campervan in the middle of winter around New Zealand. Funnily enough in 2006 we never saw the Redwood Forest – we were racing elsewhere. While Skyline is perfect for that event and the events it hosts today, the forest is what it is all about. It’s an amazing place, like nowhere else.”
Sven said he was blown away by the number of people Rotorua serviced for mountain biking.
“The forest has massive rest rooms and showers, you have the bike wash, the food and the bike rentals. People can go for a ride, have a shower and go back to work – it’s THE mountain bike destination really.”
But he warned it wasn’t the easiest place to capture great images.
“Some people think you need good light, but in Rotorua you need bad light – you need cloudy conditions in the forest as full sunlight can be quite harsh from above,” he explains. “You have got natural textures, you are in a pine forest, but it doesn’t feel like you are in a pine forest, it’s like you are in a jungle. Usually, pine forests are just dead and acidic with needles. Here the forest is more diverse, with rich colours of the loam and the dirt and the greenery. I think Kiwis take these trails for granted. When they see the ferns and the pungas and the korus, they don’t stop and look. But for us it is a real novelty and very pretty.”
Sven said that Rotorua had the best track builders anywhere.
“They are world class,” he offers. “There are a couple of different crews and they each have their specialty. They are competing track building companies, but they work together and with the community and that’s what makes events like Crankworx work.”
And few photographers are as busy as Sven at Crankworx. He’s working for many clients, chasing their racers’ stories for their social pages and websites and delivering them swiftly.
“I prefer to keep busy,” he grins. “I like the variety and that tells the story of the day and it keeps you busy. We’re covering it from all angles and using multiple cameras and that’s just what I do.”
And he does it for almost six months of the year straight, from when he leaves Nelson, usually in May, until he returns in October.
“To continue my residency it needs to be 185 days, or more than half the year, in New Zealand,” he shares. “I would prefer it to be more, but that’s what it is now. It is handy being able to travel with my wife Anka, although our schedules don’t cross over enough. We are both so busy with our respective endeavours. And then, even though we see each other, it is not necessarily quality time – she’s focusing on racing and I’m up late doing photos. We don’t have regular office hours, so we can make time in the travels, mix work with normal life I guess. It’s tricky though.”
Sven and Anka have a van based in Europe and family in France, which is where they spend a lot of time between the different races, events or shoots. They travel to between 13 to 15 countries each year, but he claims it’s not as glamorous as it may sound.
“With a regular job when you reach the weekend it’s finished, but when you are on the road as a freelancer you never really finish. So, on a Friday or in the holidays, when you are working internationally there is always someone who is awake and needing work or something. You have to deliver at weird times. People always ask at the last possible moment when they have a deadline. It’s tough, but it’s just part of the job, you need to be able to deliver or they will go somewhere else.”
Most of Sven’s clients have been with him for six or more years and he believes his business is about fostering existing relationships, coming to terms with new ways of traversing the changing media landscape with them, and helping them develop their ideas.
“There is nothing worse than your work not being used or seen,” he adds.
When the events wind up and the images have found their homes, Sven packs his lightest camera kit, grabs a bike and a lightweight sleeping bag and goes exploring.
“I’ve done the backcountry tracks of Moerangi and Te Iringa a few times and I’ve done a few others you can’t talk about,” he laughs. “A bunch of Central North Island and two of the best beech forest tracks in the North Island.”
Sven has also made time to explore the region’s Cycle Trails, ticking the Timber Trail and Mountains to Sea off his list.
“I rode from Blue Duck Inn to Whakahoro, then on the Kaiwhakauka Track to Mangapurua, then all the way down to where you get the jet boat on the Whanganui River,” he smiles as he recalls his Mountains To Sea ride. “I really enjoyed it – a bit of hard core riding in the national park with epic daily adventure riding, a big pack on my back, sleeping bag – this sort of adventure riding is just another thing you can do around here.”
At 42, he said these types of ride were the reward for his hard work at the events.
“Sometimes photographing is a bit of a chore, day in and day out, but each day is different, the racing is different, the stories are different, the track is different, the light is different so that’s what keeps it fresh,” he admits. “You are always looking for that best photo. Your next one might be it. So, in that sense you are continuing to be creatively challenged. As long as that is happening I’ll continue.”
He said up and coming photographers had it easy with great technology, a cheap learning path and low barrier to entry.
“These days if you make shots that are not so good they can now be fixed up a bit, and run on the internet,” he adds. “The barriers to entry are low and the competition is high, but there are a bunch of up and coming photographers who are passionate about the sport and the craft.”
“One of my co-workers could be my son and we hang out like mates even though I am 20 years older than him. We have shared interests and a passion for the sport and the craft of photography – as long as you have that then you can pretty much do it forever.”
Getting “the shot” at each event was the goal, but Sven said he didn't feel he did that every time.
“You always want better than what you have done before,” he concedes. “Maybe your ratio is not as high as you want it to be, or you try something different from the year before, but the reason you shot it last year was because it was a good place to shoot from. So, you try something different and maybe it doesn’t work.”
He said he gave himself every chance by using multiple cameras, getting up early and shooting every practice session.
“You are not relying on just one day to get all your shots,” Sven reveals. “Over a couple of days’ shooting you can choose the best of the best.”
With the set times and demands of events, Sven said it felt like a regular job and helped him appreciate the times when he was shooting for himself.
“There is a big difference and as a creative person it is more enjoyable, to shoot for yourself,” he admits. “I enjoy doing stuff that doesn’t really have a place yet. I prefer going on adventure rides and just seeing what comes of it – what story unfolds. You shoot what you want – maybe two photos – in the best light and the photos are exactly what you wanted. That is more rewarding than shooting 2000 photos of something you have to shoot.”
“My ideal shoot is just to have the camera and go on a ride. The shoot just develops – you never know what is going to happen. The light and the weather changes so much and I like going to new places with a fresh eye – just seeing what’s around the next corner.”
An accomplished surfer, Sven prefers to keep his photography separate. Although he admits that he looks to the work of the top surf photographers and skateboard photographers for a source of inspiration.
He said he was constantly grabbing screen shots, “not to steal ideas, but just to remember them”.
“Sometimes these days you see something unique for a second and then it’s gone,” he offers. “I still remember a skateboard cover shot by Grant Brittain of Chris Miller doing a frontside in Upland Skate Park. He used a polecam full on, no chimping. It was such a tight shot to get it in and that individual shot … I’ll never forget that. Now you can’t remember an individual photo. It’s very hard to think what my favourite shot from last year was. That is sad because there is this quantity of consumption and the images just don’t get appreciated. You like around 50 photos and don’t remember any of them. So, that’s why I screengrab some I like … to see them a little longer.”
As the Crankworx machine begins to wind down Sven has one eye on Whakarewarewa Forest and the trails that beckon him across town.
“I like connecting a couple of the trails together and I try to follow the locals to see how to make it flow,” he laughs. “There are so many trails and if you stop and look and think, you’ll lose the flow. If I can, I hop in behind Rob Metz, or one of those guys. I just hang on to their wheel and just trust them with the decisions.”
“I also like riding the native trails … finding the routes … Kataore was my favourite trail last year. I love the native trails, all the steeper stuff, I am not fit enough to pedal through the flat stuff,” he laughs.
To keep up with Sven’s work follow him on Instagram