Itinerary builder

New Zealand through the lens of Sven

"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. caught up with Sven during an action-packed day at Crankworx Rotorua.


Sven Martin, in his element at Crankworx Rotorua. Photo: Derek Morrison

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.


All in a day's work: capturing the action at Crankworx Rotorua. Photo: Sven Martin

“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.”


It's fair to say Sven has fallen in love with Whakarewarewa Forest ... on a cloudy day. Photo: Sven Martin

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.”


World-class trails set beneath stunning flora. Photo: Sven Martin

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.”


Backcountry trails and jet boats right on the doorstep. Photo: Sven Martin

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.”


Adventure is never too far away. Photo: Sven Martin

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”.


Sven's well-travelled pack. Photo: Derek Morrison

“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

Gallery: Sven Martin's NZ

Ride some of Sven's favourites

  • Carl Patton stops for a rest and to take in the view from Fishers Track, Ruapehu. Photo: Nick Lambert
    Starting at the National Park Railway Station, Fishers Track is a mostly downhill trail with spectacular scenery. This Grade 2 track is an excellent backcountry ride for those mountain bike riders with only a little experience. The 17km track begins with a short climb to a summit with breathtaking views of Mount Ruapehu, Mt Ngauruhoe, Mount Tongariro and the Retaruke Valley. The downhill section of trail is 6km long and is a beautiful ride through farmland. Allow 2-3 hours to ride from end-to-end. 
  • Riders meet their transport – the Chris Jolly Outdoors water shuttle on the Waihora section of the Great Lake Trail, Taupo. Photo: DGLT
    The Great Lake Trail is a scenic 71km Grade 3 trail that follows the northeastern shoreline of Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake. The all-weather, all-season trail traverses through native forest providing stunning views across Lake Taupo to the majestic volcanoes of Tongariro National Park. With three distinct sections, the trail has something to suit all fitness levels. 
  • A group of riders pause to soak in the ancient bush of the Moerangi Trail near Whirinaki, New Zealand. Photo: Derek Morrison
    The Moerangi Track is a 35km adventure ride through pristine native forest with historic huts and sections of trail that will bring about an immense sense of accomplishment. The Grade 3 trail will take riders approximately 5-10 hours to ride, and while not technically difficult, the track does traverse some steep bluffs with a few long, grunty climbs. The excellent condition trail leads riders up to 1000m above sea level, before the well-deserved descent of 15km through epic native bush completes the journey. 
  • Gabby Molloy (left) and Justin Leov chase each other down the Grade 2 Simple Jack trail at the Skyline Rotorua MTB Gravity Park. Photo: Nick Lambert
    Skyline Rotorua is home to the world's first year-round Gondola-assisted bike park, Skyline Rotorua MTB Gravity Park. The gravity park accesses the world-class downhill mountain biking trails on the flanks of Mt Ngongotaha. The 8.5km trail network has a variety of trails with something to suit most skill levels. There are six mostly downhill trails emerging from the top of the gondola, ranging from Grade 2 to Grade 5. Home to Crankworx and UCI World MTB events, Skyline Rotorua MTB Gravity Park, has become a must-do highlight on any traveller's itinerary. 
  • AC65-MoutainsToSea-Camilla-Stoddart.jpg
    The Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail involves four to six days of riding through remote areas of native bush. The Grade 2-3 trails use a combination of local mountain biking trails, public roads and a jet-boat to take riders from the mountains of the Central Volcanic Plateau to the sea in Whanganui. Riders will traverse two national parks that are rich in natural and cultural heritage, enjoying stunning scenery along the way. 
  • Riders walk across a log during an adventure exploring the remote Te Iringa trail near Taupo. Photo: Camilla Rutherford
    Want to get away from it all and experience some of New Zealand's true backcountry? Then the Te Iringa Track awaits you. Carved deep into the remote Kaimanawa Forest Park, the 38km Te Iringa Track is a Grade 5 out-and-back adventure ride. This trail provides a challenge for even the most avid mountain bikers, with steep forested hills, stream crossings, wetlands and fallen trees. This special, challenging and technical trail should be ridden as an overnight excursion with a stay at Oamaru Hut. You'll be grinning from ear-to-ear by the time you emerge from this epic. 
  • Timber_Trail_Mountain_Bike_Trail_Image_1U0A9304.jpg
    Rejuvenate yourself with a ride through the ancient forests of the Timber Trail. This ride is a must do for any rider. The scenery is spectacular, the history unique and the track is a complete adventure experience. Expect to be surprised by the views offered by the eight large suspension bridges along the trail, the splendor of the forest, and the sounds of bird calls as you meander across the middle of the North Island. 
  • 20120925_CorridorW_GM_0002.jpg
    Whakarewarewa Forest is one of the most established mountain bike networks in New Zealand and has earned a worldwide reputation as one of the best. Also known as the Redwoods, there are more than 180km of trails in the forest that cater for all levels of rider, from beginners, through to family groups and expert riders looking for an extra challenge. From buff flowing trails to fun jump lines and rooty technical singletrack, there is something here for everyone to enjoy. This is the forest that put Rotorua on the world mountain biking map ... come and explore it for yourself. 

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    The defining celebration of world-class mountain biking has signed its longest contract to date, committing to Crankworx Rotorua for the next 10 years. 
  • Justin Leov rides Kataore – one of his favourite trails in Whakarewarewa Forest, Rotorua, New Zealand. Photo: Derek Morrison
    When Justin Leov touches down in Rotorua he has one forest on his mind. talks to the 32-year-old professional downhill and enduro mountain biker about why he loves the trails of Whakarewarewa Forest and why Rotorua has become the heart of mountain biking in New Zealand. 
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    If a picture is worth 1000 words then Graeme Murray’s body of work is worth millions. If you’re a fan of mountain biking there is a very good chance you’ve seen one of his photographs. He’s been documenting the sport and some very important events in Rotorua and New Zealand for 20 years. Mountain bike writer Graeme Simpson grabs a coffee with the talented lensman. 
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    Plan your cycling holiday to intercept one of these events and you’ll have a far deeper, richer experience … and we’re not just talking about the lactic acid in your muscles or that post-event party fog. Here are the best events to explore each year …