Picturing freedom: conservation photography with the Canon EOS 5D series and Speedlites

Neil Aldridge’s Conservation Photography Techniques: A blindfolded young rhino lies on the dirt floor of a metal-walled enclosure.
"It was a very, very bright day, so there were dark shadows. I'd been exposing all day for shooting in the bright sun, so I had to stop and change up the fill lighting to fill some of those shadows," says photographer Neil Aldridge, who won first prize in the Environment Singles category of the 2018 World Press Photo Contest for this photo, called Waiting For Freedom. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/8 and ISO500. © Neil Aldridge

Rhinos Without Borders recently saved a young rhino and its mother from a poaching hotspot in South Africa. The project aims to move at least 100 rhinos out of such areas and release them into the wild in Botswana, where poaching is virtually non-existent and rigorous policies are in place to keep it that way. The organisation drove the animals by truck through the Kalahari Desert and delivered them to the Okavango Delta – the Botswana grasslands home to hippos, elephants, lions, and leopards. There, photographer Neil Aldridge was waiting.

The British photojournalist was with a team from Rhino Conservation Botswana. The young rhino lay sedated and blindfolded in a large metal-walled enclosure called a boma. It had to be separated from its mother. There was lots of activity around the animal – trucks to move it, vets to monitor its health, helicopters to keep it safe from poachers – but Neil eventually found himself alone with the young rhino. The picture he took summed up the whole operation. He called it Waiting for Freedom.

"I stopped and turned around, knowing it was going to be a rare moment of calm in what was an incredibly fast-paced operation," Neil says. "This picture for me was one of those moments I just had to capture. I had to put everything down and stop what I was doing while everybody else had left the boma. I took three frames that just summed up the situation perfectly.

"It's that moment where the rhino's at peace, just at that moment when it's transferring from being a rhino in crisis to a rhino about to be released and given a second chance at life. I was capturing that rhino and that moment. That's why it's the standout image from that whole operation."

Storyboarding shots

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Narrative is at the heart of Neil's work. He says many people turn off at the sight of the "blood and gore" that often comes with conservation photography. Even if viewers can stomach these images, they don't necessarily engage with them. For example, Neil explains, rhinos are being poached at a rate of three per day in South Africa alone – mainly for their horns, which are falsely believed to have medicinal properties. Rather than taking pictures that show this explicitly, he focused on the work of the people trying to put this right – telling positive stories about a negative issue.

Neil's approach is to think about the kind of images he wants to capture long before he arrives at the shoot. Many of his most successful pictures of rhinos were planned out. "I find myself storyboarding these projects more and more before I go to shoot, rather just turning up and hoping something's going to fall into my lap and it'll all work out. I go out with a shot in mind," he explains.

"Most of the time it works out because I'm well prepared for it. Hopefully someone will want to look at those pictures and will engage with the cause and the issues behind those pictures.

"Most photographers are looking for wildlife pictures and experiences in nature or travel photography. It's not that easy to sit down and storyboard a project on something like badgers, and to get the access for those shots you've identified and to make it happen. It can take a long time and a lot of dedication."

An African elephant with prominent tusks, photographed in black-and-white.
In a photograph titled Survivor, an African elephant wanders across the open plains of the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Although elephant poaching continues to fall in Kenya, adults with tusks like this one are very rare. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM super-telephoto lens at 1/4 sec, f/14 and ISO100. © Neil Aldridge

Cameras that cope in all environments

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Having a plan is one thing, but Neil also needs photography tools he can rely on to get the shot. He normally carries a couple of Canon EOS 5D Mark II bodies – one with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens, the other with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens. High ISO capability has become important to him because he often shoots in the low light of early morning or the evening and into the night, or photographs nocturnal creatures or animals that would be frightened by flash. He finds the EOS 5D Mark II (the precursor to the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) handles these situations particularly well.

The other crucial thing is the camera's weather resistance. The rhino project in Botswana saw Neil hiking eight hours a day and camping rough. It was dusty and hot. He limited his gear to what he could carry on his back and took a solar panel with him to charge his batteries. Pretty soon, though, the solar panel got too hot and stopped working. "It had one job to do," Neil says. "That was to look at the sun and give me power. It looked at the sun and said: 'This is too much for me!' That gives you an idea of how demanding the conditions were." But his EOS 5D Mark II held up in the tough conditions.

Neil also uses the camera for remote photography and for camera trapping – connecting the camera to a sensor that can detect the movement of warm objects such as animals – so he needs to know that the camera will be safe when it's left out in the elements. "Dust and rain are two big issues when shooting in Africa and in the UK. I need to know that those cameras are going to carry on working and be reliable and get me the shot that I need them to get."

A further benefit of the EOS 5D range of professional DSLRs, in Neil's eyes, is the autofocus. When he has to move quickly – say, when photographing a rhino released from a cage – he needs to be sure he can "rely on a fast, crisp focus."

A young woman squats next to a placid young rhino, one hand on its cheek and one on its leg.
Neil captures the work of dedicated people in the field in this photograph of an orphaned white rhino being comforted by its foster mother, a British vet, at a rhino orphanage in South Africa. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM super-telephoto lens at 1/200 sec, f/4.0 and ISO1000. © Neil Aldridge

The Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens is the first piece of kit he puts into his bag. He shoots at f/16 to f/22 with a little fill flash. "More and more over the last few years, that 16-35mm has been my go-to lens. It allows me to get close, to freeze the action. Sometimes there might a static subject such as the rhino in the boma; other times it might be a rhino being released from a crate and there's lots of movement. This lens allows me to get up close and capture the moment, capture that feeling.

"I'm not too fussed about frame rate. That's not a main driver for me. I think it probably was earlier on in my career, photographing a lot of birds in flight and typical wildlife action. For me now, though, it's come down to image quality."

Light and motion

Neil also finds that the commissions he receives are increasingly demanding video as well as stills. "There are things we are seeing, such incredible wildlife behaviour or interactions, that sometimes are not done justice in a still frame," he says. So it's essential he can switch between high-quality stills and 4K video without having to lug around additional heavy equipment or even change lenses in the field, which adds to the risks of getting dust on the sensor or just missing the moment.

To ensure his photos are well lit, Neil always carries a couple of Speedlites. He likes to be in control of how he's exposing a picture and make sure key points are well-lit – usually the face of an animal or person. "Sometimes you can set one up to the side maybe on a tripod, or mount it somewhere, or use one handheld while then photographing with the other hand," he explains.

Two antelope-like blesbok blurred by motion to resemble an abstract cave painting.
In fading light, a pair of blesbok gallop across the open plains on South Africa's Kariega Game Reserve. Thanks to the slow shutter speed, the photograph resembles the Bushman rock art that adorns the walls of caves in the surrounding hills. The photo won Neil the title of GDT European Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2014. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark III with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM lens and 1.4x Extender at 1/13 sec, f/4.0 and ISO400. © Neil Aldridge

Surprisingly, he says: "Botswana is an extremely difficult place to shoot. It's got incredible light, with a gorgeous golden sun at the beginning and end of every day, but I find it's a very flat light to work in – very harsh and white. My theory is that this white light comes from the dust from the Makgadikgadi Pans, the salt flats in the middle of the Kalahari, and it takes the edge off all of those rich colours you normally think of when you imagine Africa. So it's a very harsh light to work in." That's another reason he always tries to shoot with a flashgun, "just to try to balance and control some of the light."

Starting out

Wildlife has long been a big part of Neil's life. He was born in the UK but moved to South Africa when he was a boy. Suddenly he was surrounded by "incredible, iconic wildlife," so photographing these animals felt like a natural progression. Neil started working with long lenses at first, capturing "beautiful portraits, shots with nice lighting, and birds in flight." His work slowly evolved into the journalistic and documentary style he's known for today – a change that came from thinking more and more about conservation issues.

His first big project focused on African wild dogs (also known as painted wolves). He became aware of this endangered species while training to become a wildlife guide in South Africa. "I just thought: 'this is a story that I absolutely have to tell,'" Neil says. "It's such an under-appreciated species.

"African wild dogs weren't being featured at all in the big documentaries, and photographers were largely overlooking them. A lot of the private game reserves and people who were making decisions around wildlife and conversation were overlooking them. Many still saw them as a sort of pest. For me, that had to change."

An African wild dog lies on its side on the tailgate of a pickup truck as a vet examines it.
In this photograph from Neil's breakthrough project, an immobilised African wild dog is checked by vets before being moved to a new location. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark III at 1/100 sec, f/6.3 and ISO200. © Neil Aldridge

It wasn't the obvious choice for a first project. Neil had already been in South Africa for 15 years before he saw his first wild dog. Additionally, by the time he started the project, he was living back in the UK – 6,000 miles away. Nevertheless, Neil completed the project, and once it was finished he showed the series to BBC Wildlife magazine. The magazine didn't print it, but commissioned him shortly after on the strength of it.

He published the work as a book, Underdogs, to raise funds and awareness of the African wild dog, and he estimates that photographs from the project were seen by more than three million people worldwide as part of the 2010 Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition and book.

"I thought, what better way to launch myself into this career than to set a mark early on, to say this is the kind of work I want to be known and recognised for," Neil says. He also realised that it could open doors to "the right editors and magazines. And then people could look at my work and say: 'That guy, clearly he's a photojournalist. He's also a conservationist, and he's thinking about narrative'."

A badger bolts from a cage at night while a person in gloves and overalls looks on.
A European badger is released from a cage trap after being vaccinated by British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs field workers during bovine tuberculosis vaccination trials in Gloucestershire, UK. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark III at 1/250 sec, f/5.0 and ISO400. © Neil Aldridge

Neil – who holds a master's degree in photojournalism from University of the Arts London – now lectures in Marine and Natural History Photography at Falmouth University. Between the African wild dogs and the rhinos in Botswana, he's worked on conservation projects about the Okavango Delta, the importance of the captivity breeding of birds, and Britain's uneasy relationship with the fox. For his next project he's tackling the issue of badger culling in the UK.

"It's not easy telling positive stories about negative issues," he says. "It takes time. It takes dedication. I've done this for 10 years and what drives me on is to see that people are taking notice of my work, switching on to these causes, and supporting the wonderful, inspiring people who are doing incredible work in the field. That's how I measure success in my work. Rather than Facebook likes or Instagram followers, it's about reaching people."

What happened to Neil's young rhino? When he first started visiting Botswana, he says, there were no rhinos. Now if you fly over the Okavango Delta and look down, you see scores of wild rhinos living free in the wilderness. "It's the fruits of the labour of everyone involved in that process," he says.

Rhino monitors recently spotted Neil's young rhino in the Delta. It was fat, healthy, and with its mother. "Apparently he takes exception to the presence of people," Neil says. "Good news!"

Autor článku Gary Evans

Neil Aldridge's kitbag

The key wildlife documentary kit

Neil Aldridge in a light aircraft looking out over the African grasslands below, holding a Canon EOS 5D camera.


Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast. Continuous 7fps shooting helps when chasing the perfect moment, while 4K video delivers ultra-high-definition footage to the DCI standard.


Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM

Featuring superb image quality edge to edge, a robust build and impeccable weather sealing, this L-series ultra-wide-angle zoom lens has a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture for crisp results whatever the lighting conditions. "More and more, my 16-35mm has been my go-to lens: it allows me to get close and freeze the action."

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

A workhorse telephoto zoom lens with a durable design, a four-stop Image Stabilizer that makes it ideal for shooting handheld in low-light conditions, and ultra-low-dispersion lens elements to ensure high contrast and natural colours.


Canon Speedlite flashguns

Speedlite camera flashes help you add and take control of light. "I keep at least two on me while I'm out in the field working," says Neil. "I try to balance the lighting, take control of how I'm exposing a picture, and make sure the key points in the frame are well lit."

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