Maxime Aliaga: saving the orangutan through print

Find out how the wildlife photographer's spectacular printed images are helping to raise awareness of a species under threat.
Wildlife photographer Maxime Aliaga sits at his home workstation, two monitors in front of him and a Canon printer to his side. He is examining a print of one of his orangutan photographs.

French wildlife photographer and conservationist Maxime Aliaga at his home workstation. For the Canon Ambassador, seeing his images as photographic prints is his ultimate goal. "A print is a physical artwork, which creates an intimate relationship between the subject and the viewer," he explains. © Maxime Aliaga

"Sharing the beauty of nature is my true purpose – it's what drives me to be a photographer. I want to share emotion and touch the viewer," says French wildlife photographer Maxime Aliaga, Canon Ambassador and Associate Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers. For more than 10 years, Maxime has photographed a diverse range of species in countries around the world, often collaborating with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) doing important conservation work.

Communicating with his audience about conservation issues is central to Maxime's work and having photographs printed and framed as artworks is an essential part of that process.

"I am lucky to do a lot of exhibitions and share my work with the public and, for that reason, the quality of my prints is especially important," he says. "All the choices I make, including the size of the image and the paper on which it's printed, will be part of the success of the event and will help to share my work in the best way."

In this interview, Maxime talks about his orangutan project, for which he made regular visits to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, revealing how printing images helps spread his conservation message and protect vulnerable species.

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A large orangutan sits in a forest, one arm up holding onto a branch and sunlight streaming through the trees around it.

Maxime photographed this male Sumatran orangutan at close range in the Gunung Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra, as part of his work with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP). Taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 16mm, 1/50 sec, f/5 and ISO1250. © Maxime Aliaga

An orangutan lies on its back in a hospital bed. There are tubes coming out of its mouth, and three people in scrubs and masks stand around the bed.

As well as photographing the orangutans in their natural habitat, Maxime has also documented other aspects of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme's work. This image shows a young female Sumatran orangutan having a surgical operation in the Quarantine and Rehabilitation Centre. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 16mm, 1/160 sec, f/4 and ISO2500. © Maxime Aliaga

How did you begin your work photographing orangutans?

"Around five years ago, I started to follow the work of an NGO in Indonesia, the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP). As a conservation photographer, I felt I had to be involved in that cause, so I offered to document its work. After that, I went back almost every year and developed a very privileged contact with the organisation and was able to access some very remote places. Through this work, I was also able to photograph the Tapanuli orangutan when it was recognised as a separate orangutan species in 2017, and my pictures were shown around the world."

What, for you, is special about orangutans?

"They're special, first of all, because we are from the same family, and we share about 97% of our DNA with them. For me, it's quite shocking to know that one of the closest species to humans is on the brink of extinction. Spending time with orangutans in the wild, I felt a strong connection with them. Orangutan conservation is important because it is an 'umbrella' species, which means that protecting them also indirectly protects other animals in the same rainforest habitat. It also helps protect us because rainforests are very important for the Earth's climate."

A group of people in casual clothes and jackets stand with their backs to the camera, looking at a selection of Maxime Aliaga's orangutan prints hanging on a gallery wall.

Visitors at one of Maxime's exhibitions of his orangutan conservation photographs. He enjoys the opportunities to communicate directly with the people viewing his images. "When I have exhibitions, I meet people and we have an exchange about the work, the animals and the issues connected with them," he says. © Maxime Aliaga

How have your images helped orangutans?

"At first, my goal was to help the SOCP, because they need images to show their work and the species they are trying to protect. Later, I became a kind of ambassador for orangutans and began to spread the word worldwide with articles and exhibitions. The conservation message is the most important thing, so after experiencing this situation I needed to put some words to the pictures and tell the story of the NGO's work."

Why is it important for you to print your images?

"We are now in a digital world and every day we are fed thousands of images through our screens, but those images do not provide as much emotion as the experience of looking at a printed photograph. Also, the print is a way to meet the public – it's like an invitation to people to connect with the photo."

A female Sumatran orangutan sitting in a leafy tree peers upwards.

A female Sumatran orangutan keeps a careful eye on her baby in the trees above her in Gunung Leuser National Park. Finding a gap in the dense foliage through which Maxime could photograph the orangutans was often difficult. "It's always a challenge to get good images when you work with animals up in the trees," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 300mm, 1/320 sec, f/5.6 and ISO2500. © Maxime Aliaga

A portrait of a large male Sumatran orangutan staring directly at the camera.

A portrait of a Sumatran orangutan male in Sumatra's Gunung Leuser National Park. The excellent high ISO performance of Canon's 5D range allows Maxime to work in the low light of the Indonesian rainforest without using flash, for a more natural appearance. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens at 200mm, 1/320 sec, f/4 and ISO3200. © Maxime Aliaga

What led you to publish your orangutan images in a book?

"My book, Pongo, is first of all about the story. I found it was the best way to spread the message, more so than compiling all my best images – it was the way for me to build a story with structure. I have some really nice pictures that are not in the book because they were not needed to tell the story. I didn't make a book as an artwork – it was for people to learn about orangutans."

Does having the print as an end goal affect the way you photograph?

"Yes, I sometimes do very large prints and so I think about the end result when I'm photographing. With new cameras such as the Canon EOS R5, ISO performance is very good, so I don't need to think about that. I often work in low light at ISO3200, but with a bit of post-production it is not an issue. The main thing for me is the camera's resolution – I need a big file, ideally a 45 or 50MP sensor, like the one in the EOS R5, so I can crop in and still be able to print at a large size."

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A Canon PIXMA PRO-200 prints out an image of an orangutan swinging upside down from a branch.

Maxime uses the Canon PIXMA PRO-200 to print images for his portfolio and print sales. The successor to the Canon PIXMA PRO-100, it produces high-quality prints up to A3 in size. "I am not a professional printer, but with the PRO-200 I am able to easily get professional results for a very reasonable cost," he says. © Maxime Aliaga

You own a Canon PIXMA PRO-100. Why did you choose that printer?

"The most important thing for me is to get good colour accuracy and deep blacks in my prints and I've always got that from Canon printers. I bought the Canon PIXMA PRO-100 a couple of years ago and have used it a lot and been very happy with the results. It produces prints up to A3 in size and I've mainly used it to build my portfolio, although I have also sold some of these prints. When I'm showing my work, it makes much more impact with a printed portfolio, rather than showing images on a screen."

You've recently been trying out its successor, the Canon PIXMA PRO-200. How does it compare with the earlier model?

"The Canon PIXMA PRO-200 is smaller and more compact, and I think the colours are even better than the Canon PIXMA PRO-100. The new model also prints up to A3 size and has a three-inch display, which is useful. Like the PRO-100, it's very easy to use but it's even faster."

A print of an orangutan swinging from a tree branch rests on top of a Canon PIXMA PRO-200.

The Canon PIXMA PRO-200 is a compact and versatile printer with borderless, fine art and panorama options. "The results are so impressive," says Maxime. © Maxime Aliaga

What's your workflow at the post production stage?

"I like to do all my processing in Adobe® Photoshop® Lightroom®, through which I can directly open Canon's Professional Print & Layout (PPL) software – it's really useful to have it integrated into my workflow. I use PPL to do my final print settings, such as whether I want a margin or not and the size and type of paper I want to use. After making a few final adjustments to colour grading, my image is ready to be transformed into a real and beautiful print."

What papers do you use when printing at home?

"For very easy and affordable prints, I use Canon Plus Glossy II and Canon Plus Semi-Gloss, which has a satin finish. I also use other brands such as Hahnemühle – I especially like the company's Natural Line papers, which are made from sustainable materials such as hemp."

A very large Canon printer is spooling out a large print of one of Maxime Aliaga's orangutan photographs. There are rolls of paper and shelving in the background.

One of Maxime's orangutan images in the process of being printed on a Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-6000 printer at the Colorpix print workshop in Champagnole, Jura, France. Maxime has had his work printed at this lab since the beginning of his career. © Maxime Aliaga

Large prints of Maxime Aliaga's orangutan photographs are displayed on grey walls in a makeshift exhibition gallery.

Maxime will be mounting several exhibitions of his orangutan photographs in different European locations this year, as he continues to raise awareness of the species and the dangers they face. © Maxime Aliaga

How do you get your exhibition prints made?

"For my exhibitions, I work with Colorpix, a large format digital printing workshop in France, which is an official Canon France printer. I've been going there for prints since I began taking photographs. I use this laboratory for exhibitions because I need very big prints – they go up to 1.2m wide – and I can get them with a Dibond laminated finish. The owner is very passionate about printing and I know I'm going to get perfect results."

What future plans do you have?

"I have had a lot of trips cancelled since Covid-19 began, but it has given me more time to work on my photo archive, write articles and make plans for showing my work.

"Later this year I will have exhibitions of my orangutan photographs in France, Belgium and at different festivals around Europe. I have an idea for photographing another endangered species soon, but my work on orangutans is not done. Deforestation is still happening, orangutans are still at risk, and I will keep working to spread the message."

David Clark

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Maxime Aliaga's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Maxime Aliaga's kitbag containing Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.


Canon EOS R5

Whatever you shoot, however you shoot it, the EOS R5 will let you be creative in ways you simply couldn't before. "I really like this mirrorless camera because weight is important to me and this body is light. The subject tracking is just 'wow', and the low-light performance means I can take pictures now that I couldn't have taken three years ago," says Maxime.


Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM

A highly versatile 24-105mm zoom lens offering photographers and filmmakers an ideal balance between performance, portability and image quality. Maxime says: "The RF 24-105mm F4 has a very quick AF and the stabilisation of the lens in addition to the one in the EOS R5 allows you to shoot handheld in low light."

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM

A compact, high-performance 100-400mm zoom lens that's ideal for shooting sports, action and wildlife photography. "When you walk in the forest for hours, you need a lens that's very light and has a good focal length for distant subjects," says Maxime.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

The combination of the exceptional Hybrid IS, f/2.8 aperture and fast USM autofocusing system makes this a truly unique lens that performs exceptionally well, both for those who occasionally do macro and those who want to specialise in it. Maxime says: "I always have this lens in my kitbag in case I find a very beautiful butterfly, for example."

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM

The latest version of the lens Maxime favours is a high-performance L-series super-telephoto lens, with 4-stop Image Stabilizer and three modes ideal for all types of action photography. "I like this lens for the sharpness and high quality of the images, and I love the bokeh it produces," says Maxime.


Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT

The successor to the 600EX that Maxime uses is engineered for fast frame rate shooting, and performs in the most demanding situations. Maxime says: "When I'm in the rainforest, I carry the Speedlite 600EX because it can really make a difference when shooting macro subjects in low light."

Canon PIXMA PRO-200

Focused on vibrant colour photo printing, versatility and usability, the PIXMA PRO-200 is the ideal choice for photo enthusiasts and aspiring photographers. "The new model prints up to A3 size and has a three-inch display, which is useful," says Maxime. "Like the PRO-100, it's very easy to use but it's even faster."

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