Challenging convention: new perspectives in wildlife and nature photography

Three Canon Ambassadors from three different worlds discuss their different approaches to capturing nature – and the stunning results these unorthodox techniques can bring.
The magnificent horns of a stag can just be seen through shrouded white mist.

"I think my approach is one of feeling. Often I move a few centimetres, which changes the whole picture," says wildlife photographer Michel d'Oultremont. "These animals are wild, so it's a matter of patience and luck – but I love to play with the natural elements." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM) at 1/2000 sec, f/4 and ISO1600. © Michel d'Oultremont

It can often be difficult to find a style that stands out from the crowd, that views the same subject from a new perspective – but it isn't impossible. With time and experimentation, there is always room for professional photographers to take a novel approach to their craft.

Michel d'Oultremont began his photography journey in the Belgian countryside when he was just 13 years old, before embarking on a globetrotting career. Over the years, he has won a flurry of awards including the coveted Wildlife Photographer of the Year – Rising Star Award in 2018.

Dafna Tal is a multi-disciplinary artist with a theatre, sculpture and painting background who found a calling in underwater photography. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in Sydney, Australia.

Clement Kiragu is a Kenyan conservationist who has produced work for publications including the Financial Times and National Geographic. He won Africa's Photographer of the Year in 2017.

Here, all three Canon Ambassadors discuss some of the mindsets, techniques and kit that have enabled them to forge a distinguished photographic identity and examine their genres from a new perspective.

A devil firefish, also known as the common lionfish, taken from the side and illuminated against a black background.

"Wildlife photography provides me with adventures and new discoveries, constant learning about the world," says Israeli artist Dafna Tal. "Dealing with photographic challenges is very satisfying – especially in underwater photography." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 46mm, 1/125 sec, f/4.5 and ISO320. © Dafna Tal

A common reef squid shot from above and to the side and illuminated against a black  background.

"There is something fantastic about being in the depths of the sea during the hours of darkness," says Dafna. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 70mm, 1/250 sec, f/3.2 and ISO500. © Dafna Tal

Dafna Tal – creating an underwater night studio

"Working in portrait photography, commercially and in landscapes, I gained the experience to know what light will look like on an object from almost every possible angle," explains Dafna.

Having built these photographic foundations, Dafna realised that she had the ability and the knowledge to replicate a studio-like environment to shoot wildlife in the darkness of the sea. For her, finding a style and perspective that resonates is about being really honest with yourself as a creative. "It is important to find what attracts you personally and let it lead you, because the most important thing in artistic expression is the authenticity and sincerity of the artist," she says.

For Dafna, this meant using her technical understanding of light and her skills as a trained diver to capture unusual sea life in the black of night. "It is somewhat reminiscent of outer space, with all the particles in the water and the special creatures that may not be revealed during the day," she says. "It is also a time that allows a lot of light control, with the dark background highlighting the glowing animal."

Not only does this style of shoot demand a specific skillset, it also requires different considerations – Dafna has to deal with her own continual movement along with that of her subjects. "The Canon EOS R5 allows me to capture almost any situation. The face and animal tracking technology is very sophisticated and can handle much more complex situations than before," she says. "It is critical when both the photographer and the animal are in constant motion."

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A black and white photograph of a lion taken from below. The animal is almost completely hidden by windblown foliage in the foreground.

"Once you have come to their home in a car, you're already an intruder, so getting closer and closer to the wildlife will not actually give you natural images," says photographer and conservationist Clement Kiragu. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 40mm, 1/400 sec, f/7.1 and ISO200. © Clement Kiragu

Clement Kiragu – getting down to the ground

"People are always shooting from the roof of safari vehicles, but if you're photographing a lion, you want to feel that mightiness. So get lower for a more realistic perspective," says Clement, who uses his vast experience in Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve to find honest, provocative ways to capture wildlife while causing minimal disturbance. "If you are photographing big cats, you must back off, use a long lens and be a patient observer," he explains. "They might even start playing, engaging with their cubs, hunting… Then you get natural behaviour."

A long-time user of the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, Clement is on a new creative journey that has only been made possible with the capabilities of the Canon EOS R5. Using the EOS iTR AFX system's eye tracking, Clement has begun to capture images from extremely low angles, often obscured by foreground action, making the viewer feel like smaller prey observing from afar.

"I have an image (pictured above) of grass blowing all over and yet the Canon EOS R5 still picked up the eye of the lion – yeah, that blew my mind! With previous models that would have been next to impossible" says Clement. "I think that's something I want to keep pushing further."

The success of Clement's carefully crafted candid photos are a combination of patience and kit choices. "That's why I love the Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM with the Canon Extender RF 1.4x," he says. "It gives me space to capture shots without disturbing the wildlife.

"Mine is a fine art style – not so much documentary. With this approach the images are more artistic and clever. My objective is to make people care about the animals and maybe contribute to the fight."

A stag, in profile, barely visible in the dark, blurry night-time scene.

"Getting the animal to blend in with its surroundings and show a beautiful aspect of nature is very appealing to me. It is essential for me to pay homage to the moment," says Michel. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 1/8000 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1000. © Michel d'Oultremont

Michel d'Oultremont – seeing the bigger picture

"For me, showing the environment is important – I don't really like pictures where you can see the animal clearly," says Michel. "I prefer a touch of life in the middle of a beautiful environment. I always try to place myself in an aesthetic location."

Michel has found a striking way of shifting the dominance of a setting. In some shots he shows the animal as a small but distinguishable element of the environment and in others he overexposes to isolate the animal – enabling them to be appreciated as one small piece of a larger puzzle. "The animal wanders into this drawing in front of me and it is him who finally chooses where he will be framed," says Michel.

To capture such images, Michel pairs a Canon EOS R5 with the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM and the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lenses via an EOS R mount adapter (having in the past used a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and Canon EOS 5DS R).

"The EOS R5 helps me a lot. Its silent mode is extraordinary for this kind of photography," Michel says. "I always work at a low aperture which allows me to isolate my subject. I work with evaluative light metering and manage my exposure with EVs. In fact I am not a great technician, I put the camera on a lot of automatic settings which allows me to concentrate only on the wild encounter."

Two male black grouses with blue, red and white markings fighting in the snow, one descending on the other from above.

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A black and white photograph of three zebras galloping across a wide-open plain, leaving a trail of dust in their wake.

"For you to be ready, you have to be in sync," says Clement of capturing wildlife in flight. "For example, you need to know what kind of light you like, what positioning you want – because these are split-second decisions and there are very few seconds to get it right. You have to be ready for the moment, because nature's moments don't repeat themselves!" Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 170mm, 1/30 sec, f/14 and ISO100. © Clement Kiragu

Clement Kiragu – mastering movement

Clement's fine art approach has also led him to step away from the traditional quest for sharpness and clarity – exploring motion blur to capture movement. But for Clement this is not simply an artistic approach. "I use motion blur for animals that people are less interested in. Animals like zebras and wildebeests – I use this technique to draw attention to them," he says.

Shots like this are not easy to achieve, but Clement says it is worth it when you get it right. In terms of actually making the magic happen, Clement has now firmly established his approach. "I'll shoot the Canon EOS R5 mostly with the Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM," he explains. "I'll have my ISO always at 100, I'll lower the shutter speed to 1/25 and then I will compensate with the aperture. So it's trial and error until you get it right – but do they work? They work beautifully."

Hear more about the science behind wildlife photography in this episode of Canon's Shutter Stories podcast:

A close-up image of water bubbles, in various shades of blue, underneath the surface of the Red Sea.

"There is no doubt that every natural environment deserves a series of close-up photos, focusing on the amazing details that make it up," says Dafna. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 70mm, 1/800 sec, f/5 and ISO125. © Dafna Tal

Myriads of small water bubbles captured beneath the surface of the Red Sea.

"If it's a pro photographer seeking to go into underwater photography – they must understand this requires a brand new skill: scuba or free diving. I would suggest first of all to learn diving, to see if that speaks to the photographer, and to continue from there." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 35mm, 1/250 sec, f/3.5 and ISO100. © Dafna Tal

Dafna Tal – finding beauty in our natural world

Although Dafna is committed to photographing unusual deep-water sea life, she also believes environments can be just as beautiful as the wildlife within them, making the sea itself a worthy subject. "To me, every natural detail – from the smallest to the largest – is fascinating and full of charm," she says.

A diver as well as a nature and photography enthusiast, it is not surprising that Dafna feels that recording the beauty of the ocean is her calling. In a series of smaller detailed shots (like the ones above), she manages to capture this vast world in a characterful way.

"I think water, and the underwater world generally, is an environment that allows for a lot of play with light, colour and textures: the transparency of water, wind, waves and changing light create countless beautiful shapes," says Dafna. "A shallower depth of field adds depth to the image and creates an interesting effect. In addition, the quality of the lens affects the bokeh and here I can only praise Canon RF lenses for the beautiful texture they create."

Dafna found that due to the more creative nature of these shoots, getting the images right was less of an exact science and more about experimentation. "It is important to note there are no 'correct' camera settings here. I suggest doing as many experiments as possible, trying different exposures including underexposure and overexposure, different speeds and so on – to see what works best and catches your eye," she concludes.

Jack Fittes

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