Brent Stirton on shooting with the
EOS 5D Mark III
© Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images
Canon Ambassador Brent Stirton (Reportage by Getty Images) got the chance to try out the new Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLR camera during a few days shooting on location in France. He shot the all-action sport of ‘Radball’ and also documented a day in the life of French oyster fishermen. CPN spoke to the award-winning photojournalist about his first impressions of working with Canon’s new 22.3 Megapixel DSLR.
CPN: When you first picked up the EOS 5D Mark III, what were your initial impressions?
Brent Stirton [BS]: “My first impression was this is a more robust camera [than the 5D Mark II]. I had been totally surprised by the 5D Mark II because, initially, I thought it wasn’t going to be tough enough for the environments where I work. Only on one occasion did a 5D Mark II fail for me – it was in the middle of a sandstorm and rainstorm in the Sahara when I got caught in the open and it died.
This new camera has a much better feeling. It feels almost like an EOS-1 V film camera used to feel – that was my first impression of the physical aspects of the camera.”
CPN: The EOS 5D Mark III is a high-resolution, 22.3 Megapixel, full-frame camera. Is this the camera you were expecting or did anything about the camera take you by surprise?
BS: “It’s a very large megapixel file coming out of the camera when I’m processing it. I’m happy to see that because it means I don’t need to access medium format digital. And, frankly, I haven’t for some time but this takes us closer [to medium format quality].
Also, I believe that the pixels on this camera, as on the EOS-1D X, are larger than the pixels on the sensors of most medium format digital cameras. So, the light gathering capabilities are that much better. Firstly, I make a lot of big prints, a lot of big posters etc, so I want a larger file. So, I’m happy with this [capability] in the EOS 5D Mark III.
Secondly, the low light capabilities are, to my mind, a whole new ball game. I do lots of investigative work, often in bad lighting conditions, and what happens is I end up at f/1.4 at 1/15 and 1/8 or 1/4sec [exposures]. What it means is that, with my depth-of-field, I can make a picture, but it’s not the picture that I want to make. The amount of detail that I need in the frame isn’t there, and that’s very frustrating. This camera, for the first time, truly solves that for me and it’s not an interpolated file, it’s a clean file.
I shot this Canon [EOS 5D Mark III] up to [ISO] 25,600 and it was, to my mind, at least as good as the file coming out of the EOS 5D Mark II at 1200 to 1600. So that’s a huge leap forward for me.”
CPN: What were the conditions like where you were shooting on location in France?
BS: “I went to Europe to photograph ‘Radball’ and a shoot at an oyster farm also came about. It was basically six hours to go and see oyster fishermen – it was very overcast and I shot a lot that day at [ISO] 1600. Inside I was shooting at 6400, but you don’t see that. On the previous [EOS] cameras, which are good, I would know that I’d shot at those [ISO] ratings. I could tell immediately from the grain structure of the picture that it was a high ISO file. Now you can’t tell that. I can shoot pictures at 6400, as I often do, and there’s no grain, it’s negligible.”
What are your overall impressions about the latest Canon DSLRs – the EOS 5D Mark III and the EOS-1D X?
BS: “This is the best file quality that Canon has yet created. There’s no question in my mind about that. To my mind the 5D Mark III and the EOS-1D X represent the pinnacle of sensor technology. I would have no issues working with this for advertising, for studio work, for portraiture, and taking it into the Sahara or way up the Amazon for photojournalism work. This, to me, is the ultimate package on a single camera.”
CPN: The new CMOS sensor technology has meant increased light gathering capability. We’ve touched on it already, but how did you find the CMOS technology helped the performance of the camera?
BS: “When I take a picture I ask ‘Is this a realistic skin tone?’ as skin tone matters a great deal to me. The skin tone quality I’m getting out of the [5D] Mark III is by far the most realistic that I’ve ever had. It produces better skin tone than any other camera I’ve ever used.
When I was photographing the Radball players I was astonished at the lack of [colour] cast across different conditions, different lighting etc. It was very consistent and very accurate colour reproduction. This is great for me because it means less work in post [production].
The other revelation about the sensor is the ability to truly work in low light. This isn’t some hype; this isn’t a case of setting up a camera and a tripod in a studio under perfect conditions and shooting an image at [ISO] 1600 and saying ‘look how good it is’. That’s just not the ‘real world’ for me. The real world is being able to go into some dark basement in some dark place, covering a difficult issue, and being able to make a picture that I previously could not have made because the sensor capabilities just didn’t make it possible. Previously, if I shot this [type of picture] it would be noisy and there would be all sorts of problems with the file.
This camera genuinely lets me go into all sorts of places where I could not have made pictures before, and I’ll make those pictures and come back with sufficient detail to be able to put them across the page. It’s real – this isn’t some technology hype. The file really does allow me to do this.”
CPN: The camera features in-camera High Dynamic Range shooting – is this feature of use to you and what did you notice about the dynamic range of the camera?
BS: “Every time a new series of cameras comes out a new sense of possibility emerges. I looked at some of the HDR stuff and, in some cases it’s certainly something I could use. As part of the Radball shoot we photographed in an old industrial estate that had asbestos lying all over the ground etc. The walls had broken down and I was seeing the daylight through this structure. What the HDR allows you to do is to make a perfect picture of the interior but also get great exposure on the outdoors. I couldn’t do that before; I’d have to have done that in post, so that’s useful for me.
I’m sure that there are landscape photographers out there that, once they tweak this HDR technology within the camera, will be able to find formulas and ways of working that will make their lives a lot easier. There’s a lot of software for HDR, but to be able to do it in-camera is just a huge time saver and it’s another ‘tool in the shed’ for photographers.”
CPN: The metering system in the EOS 5D Mark III is a 63-zone Dual Layer system, similar to that in the EOS 7D. What are your thoughts on the capabilities of the metering system in the EOS 5D Mark III?
BS: “I’m someone who comes from shooting slide film and, because of that, I’ve always used a hand meter. But what I did find with this new camera is that, consistently, the exposures that I was getting with my hand meter were the same or better with the camera. This camera pulls that back again. I think the metering is more accurate than previous EOS models. Maybe the colour metering is why I am getting better skin tones out of this camera – it’s definitely better on that level too.”
CPN: Like the EOS-1D X the EOS 5D Mark III has the 61-point AF system. Did you get the chance to try it out and do you have any thoughts on how the AF system performed?
BS: “Because of the kind of photography that I do this sort of AF system is not something that I’m going to be maxing out. I would say someone like Frits [van Eldik], or someone who is doing a lot of sports work, is going to have a lot more to say about the autofocusing. I have everything on the centre sensor – that’s how it works for me, so maybe I’m not the best person to ask about the benefits of the autofocusing.”
CPN: The camera shoots at up to 6fps top shooting speed. Again, this might be more of a feature for a photographer shooting action but did you shoot at faster speeds and what are your thoughts about this?
BS: “On the Radball images I lit some of the images of the guys playing with the ball – it was pretty fast shooting because a movie was being made at the same time. I was only able to grab these guys for maybe five minutes and then they had to go back in and make their movie. What I did find very useful was the fact that the drive is faster – it’s about six frames per second, whereas previously [on the 5D Mark II] it was around three. The fact that you can run the drive faster, and the buffer is faster, means you miss less than you would have missed before. The fact is that a lot of people shooting action stories are now going to consider using the 5D Mark III because of that drive speed.”
CPN: Do you use any Custom shooting modes, Custom Functions, or customisation and, if so, what for?
BS: “I do. The most that I do with that is I always focus on the exposure lock button. I don’t use the dedicated focus button on the back of the camera, I tend to use the exposure lock [button] as my focus [button], and I customise that. It’s just something I’ve always done, as, for some reason, this is where my thumb always ends up. That lets me really control my exposure off the shutter button.”
CPN: How did you find the handling of the camera and the button layout compared to the 5D Mark II?
BS: “I like the information aspect. The Quick button is great. I never used the [EOS] 7D before, so I didn’t even know that existed. I’m a bit of a Luddite when it comes to technology. The fact that I can use the Quick button and have access to information, to see exactly what’s going on with the camera really quickly, is wonderful. The lock button on the mode dial is great too. I must be honest I never really had a problem with the 5D Mark II, or other previous cameras, but I think it gives that much more security.”
CPN: How did you find the camera In terms of the LCD screen and viewfinder information?
BS: “It’s a huge improvement on the previous screen. There’s no question. The 5D Mark II is an extraordinary camera, but this [the 5D Mark III] is just better all round. That extends to the screen quality. If I was a studio photographer, shooting beauty or shooting portraiture, the screen is just so much better in terms of seeing exactly what you have. Consistently, what I saw in that screen was the same as what I saw on my computer screen.”
CPN: The EOS 5D Mark III has both CF and SD card slots. Is this of use to you in the way you work with memory cards?
BS: “It’s great for me to have these two card options on the camera because it allows me to back one card up onto another. I do a lot of investigative work in countries where people are not actually that friendly towards photojournalists. If I’m confronted by the authorities what I’ll do is back everything up onto both cards, and one of those cards will make its way into my underwear. The other one will be in the camera and if they ask me to give them my card they’ll get that one.
The notion of two cards is great in that you can continue to shoot without waiting to change cards and missing moments. For example, if you’re a wildlife photographer and you’re photographing a sequence where a lion is pulling down an animal, then the pride comes in, and then defends the territory against hyenas, there’s a lot of stuff happening. A lot of the time you’ll be sitting on a motordrive, because you don’t want to miss much, so you’ll fill your first card. While you’re changing cards, and formatting your new card in the camera, you may well miss something. Having two cards always gives you a greater sense of security in not missing moments.”
CPN: You mentioned earlier about the build of the camera and it has been manufactured to be more robust than the EOS 5D Mark II? Did you notice this?
BS: “It’s kind of like the ‘Streetfighter’ version of the 5D Mark II (laughs). I feel better about this camera – it feels a lot better in my hand.”
CPN: No doubt it’s the sort of camera that you will take into some fairly extreme conditions?
BS: “Like most photojournalists most of my locations present challenges so, when you’re in a place where it’s hard to get a repair or it’s hard to get a replacement or to get anything fixed, you want to know that what [equipment] you’re taking with you is going to be 100%. This [EOS 5D Mark III] build quality is definitely more reassuring for me.”
CPN: We’ve touched on it already, but what were your overall impressions of shooting at high ISO settings on the EOS 5D Mark III?
BS: “The bottom line is that the quality of the file with this camera at high ISOs is better than anything else on the market. There’s no question in my mind about it. It’s not an interpolated file; it’s a really clean file. As a result the colour stability is great. You don’t have browns in the shadows; you don’t have stuff blocking it up. For me it’s a ‘game-changer’. In areas where I couldn’t actually make a usable picture, I now can. Not only can I make a picture, but also ISO [capability] allows me enough f-stop [flexibility] to get sufficient detail for the kind of storytelling that I’m trying to do.”
CPN: We have talked about much of the specification of the EOS 5D Mark III, but do you have any other thoughts or comments to make after using the camera?
BS: “Well, the ability to control the flash from the camera is huge. The new [Speedlite 600EX-RT, wireless and radio] flash system is good enough for me not to take Profotos [lights] into the field. I can really seriously convert this Speedlite technology. This camera has something to do with that as well, not just the new flashes and the new flash controller. The ability to control wireless [flash] off the camera is a big change.”
CPN: We noticed that some of the Radball images were shot with a flash set-up. What was the flash set-up for these pictures?
BS: “I kept that really simple. Most of the time I’m only using two flashes but, in some cases, it’s one flash head and sometimes it’s three flash heads on a bracket through an Easybox or a larger brolly. The weight issue is a huge saving for me, because now I can go into the field with two Speedlites and accomplish most of what I accomplish now with much bigger units. I just feel it’s a giant leap forward for Canon flash. I’m that confident with the new flash system that I’d like to shoot a dedicated flash project with it.
You can control the flash through the camera and you can control them through the dedicated wireless unit. I have six or seven of the wireless transmitters that you used to plug into the lights and plug into the camera, but I don’t need to do that anymore. I just plug in the Canon transmitter and one or two Canon flashes on a stand, plus a single softbox or a single brolly, or maybe a key light with a single flash, and I’m good to go.
Another thing that was interesting is that I work manually 100% of the time with Profoto lights, or with Normans, with a hand meter etc. I was on the beach photographing oyster fishermen and I just tried a really simple, quick portrait. One of the guys from Canon said ‘why don’t you try this on E-TTL, on complete program?’ I got the same exposure on E-TTL that I got using it completely manually with hand metering. Again I was very surprised at that.
For me it’s always never been safe to leave it [exposures] up to the camera. I’ve never been big on leaving things up to the camera, as I get a bit nervous. But this new flash system is really consistent and really accurate.”
Biography: Brent Stirton
© Remy Cortin
South Africa-born Brent Stirton is a senior staff photographer for Reportage by Getty Images. He specialises in documentary work and travels an average of 10 months of the year on assignment. He works on a regular basis for a variety of charities and he has been published regularly in National Geographic Magazine, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, Le Express, Le Monde 2, GQ, GEO and on The Discovery Channel and CNN. His awards include seven World Press Photo awards, International Photographer of the Year 2008 (Lucie Awards) and he’s been honoured by the United Nations for his work on the environment and in the field of HIV. In February 2012 it was announced Brent Stirton had won first prizes in both the Nature Stories (for ‘Rhino Wars’) and Contemporary Issues Singles categories of the 55th World Press Photo Contest. Later that month he took first place in the Science/Natural History Picture Story category, and received an ‘Award of Excellence’ in the Feature Picture Story – Freelance/Agency category, of the Pictures of the Year International (POYI) contest. He is currently shooting a long-term project on threatened species, amongst other assignments around the world, and will be working in around 20 countries during 2012.