Behind the Lens – Nathan Hughes

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When we commission photographers to produce the images to use in our magazine features we typically expect to receive anything up to 50 images from them. This large selection then gets filtered down to a final collection of maybe 12 or so to be laid out in the feature alongside the text. This is a process done in house and away from the eyes of the person behind the lens. The selection criteria is guided by the text, which may or may not be also produced by the photographer, and often the physical constraints of the design and the number of pages assigned to the feature. The end result is often a situation where the photographer will be convinced we’ve laid out the wrong images at the wrong size – it is the lot of the humble freelancer that their art is often ignored and those dreadful people driving the desks never pick the best images.

Well, we thought we’d put that injustice right by allowing the photographers themselves to pick out their top 20 images some of out published features and tell us a bit about each image to boot. Here, we asked Nathan Hughes to pick the correct 20 images from our Return of the Goat King article from Singletrack Issue 103.

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About The Photographer

Nathan Hughes

  • Age: 28
  • Hometown: Oxford, UK
  • Current home: Dresden, Germany
  • Hobbies: Skiing, biking & photos

Instagram: @nathhhughesphoto
Website: nathhhughes.tumblr

As a downhill fan since ’99 my career in mountain bike photography was late to kick in, beginning with a baptism of fire at the 2013 World Cup season. My first job was to report on the racing at Fort William for Pinkbike… I didn’t shoot raw, I couldn’t use Lightroom and I didn’t sleep for more than 2 hours over the 4 days. I think they really wanted me just as a writer; they had enough photographers, but I did my best to ignore that and keep taking pictures anyway even though I was asleep on my feet. Since then I’ve managed to get on top of things slightly, although the World Cup can still take years off a person’s life! Nowadays each season I try to organize one or two travel stories to far away places, cover all the DH racing, get to Crankworx, shoot the Rampage, visit a couple of industry HQs and make a few stories in some of Europe’s big bike resorts in between. A main resolution for me this year is to ride more; partly to enjoy being alive, partly to get deeper into the adventure and find better stories to tell! When there’s a lift or shuttle, I ride a Trek Session 8, a Slash 9.8 when it’s flat or for photo missions and since I met Timo Pritzel on the Saalbach shoot, his signature Propain hardtail for the pump track. Can’t wait to get them all very dirty again once the snow’s gone!

Singletrack Return of the Goat King Extra – By Nathan Hughes

Great Expectations

I first met old time Bavarian BMX star, turned MTB pro, Tibor Simai at his home from home of Saalbach, Austria in Autumn 2014. We made a shoot which could be described as ‘rare’… The reason being that just about everything went totally great. Unbelievably. Yes it’s pretty true that behind your average double page spread in a given bike magazine is a backstory of considerable inconvenience, inadequate solar illumination, navigation fails, sponsor incorrect ‘somethings’, palpable stress and in some extreme cases, shouting at a level well above mere compensation for the howling wind. Thankfully the camera does lie after all and we photographers get away with making everyone who wasn’t present on said trip, very inspired, green-eyed or both. Anyway, the point is the year before things had gone swimmingly in a very short window of opportunity. We made it to the perfect spot for a killer sunset, the next morning nailed an early bird with an incredible sunrise and finished that afternoon, finding some great features to shoot the remaining action… all the while getting on famously and genuinely enjoying our bike riding. Now Autumn 2015 and the shots were cropping up on all the billboards and bike shops in town along with a new problem – that of ‘great expectations’. We had to do it all again, only all ‘different’ and worse still… ‘better’. Here goes nothing…


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/2500, f/3.2, ISO640, 200mm

Tibor is a bit of legend, not just because he was top BMX racer back in the 90s, or a Redbull Rampage judge of old, or a current freerider of enviable style, but also because he’s one of those rare riders that knows what makes a good shot and in Saalbach he also knows exactly where to head to get it.


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/2500, f/7.1, ISO800, 300mm

How to make a story both different and better to the year before? Add a celebrity! We had officially managed this step – New World Disorder hero Timo Pritzel has been a friend for a Tibor for at least a couple of decades and he made the trip to join us. Not only that – he had a quest. And goats were involved… More on that soon.


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/1600, f/7.1, ISO500, 85mm

Feeling exceptionally lucky to have gotten such a tremendous legend of the sport on board it was near overload to then also have an unlikely appearance from the sun between banks of cloud at 6am. We’d taken a 1000m shuttle up the mountain in the dark and then finished with a push in the nasty cold. It always seems completely mad and terrible on an early bird until first light starts to bring the hope.


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/1600, f/5, ISO320, 125mm

With a successful ‘early bird’ – i.e. when you do get the sun, it’s always a bit of a crazy ‘throw the dynamite into the ocean every which way to kill as many fish as possible’ type of affair. There’s maybe 5 minutes where it looks golden and awesome so you’d better have picked the right spot because there’s no time to move now. The riders keep riding and you keep shooting indiscriminately and relentlessly with possibly just enough time to change lens and angles once or twice if you’re lucky. You can find out if what you did made any sense later when you have time to think again.


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/1600, f/3.5, ISO250, 116mm

After firing off more rounds than Tony Montana during a Friday night raid on his mansion, I was back to a more regular rate of picture taking in more regular light. Timo and Tibor were hiking their bikes up to the top of one of Saalbach’s signature cross-topped peaks. I was still getting used to seeing Timo with a new sponsor… Germany’s Propain being the way forward for the Berlin badass now.


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/1000, f/5, ISO250, 300mm

The highest points are marked with crosses throughout the Pinzgau valleys, and indeed a lot of Austria. Not all of them come with a menacing raven though. Hopefully it wasn’t a bad omen…


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/2000, f/9, ISO400, 16mm

It was pretty great up there, definitely worth hiking up. Twice. The picture’s gotta be right…


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/1600, f/5, ISO320, 86mm

The Saalbach landscape is ancient, wild, rugged and extra photogenic, especially with an adventure away from the beaten track like ours. Not too many ramblers to give way to with such an early start either…


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/1600, f/4, ISO320, 70mm

In this ‘full enduro’ environment the more ‘all-mountain familiar’ Tibor was outclassing Timo a little bit in both the speed and style departments, who did seem a little outside his comfort zone in the steep, unkempt, backcountry with his white high-top skate shoes!


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/3200, f/5.6, ISO320, 95mm

Now and again the sun was popping through the thick clouds, bringing out the autumn colours and making things that bit more epic.


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/6400, f/5, ISO500, 105mm

Tibor will ride something the best part of a hundred times for the perfect picture, which is pretty excellent from a photographer’s standpoint. Seems I’m yet to find his ‘refusal threshold’ on a shoot!


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/2000, f/5.6, ISO1250, 16mm

Having said Timo was looking a touch on the uncomfortable side at times, every spot we stopped at to make another shot he seemed to be getting more and more into it. There’s nothing too steep to practice on Berlin-side, but he was beginning to look at home.


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/1000, f/2.8, ISO5000, 100mm

Same stump, another lens. Always worth trying a couple of angles in a rad forest location like this half way down our big descent into the valley.


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/640, f/5.6, ISO1000, 16mm

As mentioned in passing before, part of Timo’s motivation to come to Saalbach was his long history with the resort. Some ten years before he had won a goat (the animal, you read that correctly) at a slopestyle event and been crowned the ‘Goat King’. Tibor vowed to find the beloved beast that Timo was forced to give up for adoption all those years ago, but we would have to wait until the morning to find out more…


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/5000, f/3.2, ISO160, 300mm

Of course Tibor and I were both keen to see some of Timo’s slopestyle prowess and he wasn’t going to disappoint. The beard maybe getting a little long, but you better believe he’s still got it… Timo’s signature one-foot tabletop. Yep I did carry my 300mm lens around all day mostly to not use it – happens every time.


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/4000, f/8, ISO320, 150mm

Although we were on course for a descent sunset, things were not overly pleasant up the top of Westgipfel. Timo takes the only shelter from the wind there is… on the ground, between boosting some tabletops with a brilliant snowy peak laden backdrop.


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/2500, f/3.5, ISO200, 120mm

While Timo might have been dominating the style stakes off the ground, boosting off the faintest suggestion of a lip, Tibor was still cleaning up in the turns and everywhere in between. The rich colours of the heather were starting to kick off as the sun reached the horizon on the ultra-natural Bergstadl trail, but we were yet to establish who was king of this mountain…


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/1250, f/11, ISO250, 165mm

It was a face off… friendship no more.


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/3200, f/7.1, ISO320, 122mm

Sunrise and sunset ticked off with some gold… we had matched our lucky break of the year before, just about! There was, however, one small piece of unfinished business staring us right in the beard…


Nathan Hughes Singletrack Magazine
1/1600, f/6.3, ISO1000, 16mm

The fruit of Timo’s loins… kind of. His ‘kid’, so to speak. Was this the very fellow Timo had won and lost all in a day, so many years ago? The mere fact that he was able to lasso this creature and tame it for photos makes me think, unmistakably, ‘yes’ this is the little fluff ball itself. Well it was a happy conclusion to a lot of searching – both physical and of the soul, as well as big old chunk of photoshooting. Saalbach had been good to us once again! A visit this summer comes highly recommended.

Kit List:

  • Body: Nikon D4
  • Lens: Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8
  • Lens: Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8
  • Lens: Nikkor 16mm f2.8
  • Lens: Nikkor 300mm f2.8 (Only carried part of the time)
  • Bag: Dakine Reload

On his kit choices…

With the three lenses I’m totally covered to make any angle work and get good variety in the shots, while lugging the 300mm around occasionally pays off as you can’t rival the sharpness of the tight action and the contrasting soft bokeh of the backgrounds it produces. I don’t like to use flashes for two main reasons: One is convenience or lack off – they add a lot of time and fuss to the day and the second is that I find artificially lit shots don’t blend in well with the rest of the story and can look out of place. Unless you need to show off certain products, keeping it natural is always the best way in my opinion although not always easy in the depths of the forest, Luckily there’s a lot of amazing open terrain in Saalbach so the flashes could stay at the hotel. Last season I always traveled to a shoot with my D750 as a back-up in case of problems with my D4, but I think it’s good enough to use as the main body for this kind of work in future… It’s half the size and weight after all!

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