Few wildlife photographers have made a bigger splash than Andy Rouse. CPN writer Mark Alexander finds out how this Canon Explorer is using the new EOS-1D X Mark II to reach even greater heights...
In the realm of image-making, Andy Rouse is one of those rare individuals to achieve almost celebrity status. His name has become inextricably linked with the world of wildlife photography with demand for his unique views never seeming to wane. The 50-year-old photographer’s images have graced the covers of magazines across the world and he has picked up a clutch of prestigious awards for his efforts. As professional photography goes, Rouse is a success story. And yet, despite his prominence in the wildlife arena, you get a sense that the Englishman has come to a crossroads in his career. As he packs for his next expedition to India to photograph tigers, he reveals his latest venture into aviation photography is as much to do with changes at home as it is about trying something new.
“I am enjoying the aviation photography because it’s good not to be good at something, start at the bottom and find out you are quite good at it because your skills as a wildlife photographer have transferred completely,” he explains. “More importantly, the aviation photography helps me find a balance between being a dad and being a photographer. I can get my fix of photography and come home.”
As well striking a balance between home life and actively plying his trade, his new sortie into photographing aircraft satisfies a fascination with flight that was hatched during his childhood. “I was always into aviation as a kid,” he says. “Last year, one of my mates took me to an airshow and got me in as press. He knew I loved aircraft and thought I should try something else. I went along, and I just loved it.”
The genre clicked. “Things snowballed from there. I took a picture of a Eurofighter Typhoon that the RAF loved. I took a picture of some MiG 29s that the Polish Air Force loved and subsequently invited me onto their airbase in Poland to shoot for them. And I got invited to do an air-to-air on the last flight of the Vulcan bomber over Beachy Head [in the UK] which was phenomenal.”
He continues: “I was quite natural at it and had a different style. I am showing people that you can do what you like. You don’t have to be pigeon-holed. If you fancy doing something different; get on and do it.”
A new arrival
The new arrival in the Rouse household has prompted changes not only domestically but also in how Rouse approaches his photography. “You get to 50-years-old and you realise you have to follow what you love and indulge in something that will give you a fresh impetus,” he reveals. It’s not the first time Rouse has overseen radical changes in his photography. “When the EOS-1D X came out, I changed brands,” he explains. “I had issues with the camera I was using, and when the 1D X came out, it was everything I wanted. It came out at the same time as the EF200-400mm and that was everything I wanted as well, so two things came at once.”
The EOS-1D X’s ability to produce high-quality files in low-light conditions made its mark, and more importantly it extended Rouse’s shooting time into the charmed magic hours. “I was able to shoot when the animals were at their most active, which is at the start and the end of the day; when the light is at its most atmospheric. I was able to keep the shutter speeds up by raising the ISO and keep sharp pictures coming in that were good enough to sell.”
The impact of the EOS-1D X on Rouse was huge, but it was just part of an evolution in his set-up. The launch of EOS-1D X was quickly followed by the unveiling of the EF200-400mm f/4L IS lens with a built-in 1.4x extender. With a range covering 200 to 560mm and a four-stop image stabiliser to boot, the new lens and body combination proved irresistible.
“Both of them came together at the right time,” says Rouse. “The EF200-400mm provided an amazing amount of flexibility. If you’re using a fixed lens, you are limited to the composition the lens gives you, which of course I don’t like - I like being a photographer. The EF200-400mm allowed me to have the composition of a zoom with the quality of a prime.”
Weather-sealed with a magnesium-alloy construction, the lens was built for professional use. Add to that the built-in extender and you have a serious piece of glass. He continues: “I have never had any issues with it being heavy – I hand-hold it in the most ridiculously low light conditions because you can boost the ISO on the EOS-1D X. The compromises are so minor that the benefits outweigh them.”
It was a pairing that Rouse had been waiting for and used it to great effect to create intimate wildlife images that do that magical thing of connecting the viewer to the feral wilderness of the great outdoors. It was a staging post in Rouse’s career, not only in the kit he was using but also in the quality of the images he produced.
That was then, and today Rouse has reached another telling milestone with the introduction of the EOS-1D X Mark II. The new camera picks up on the standards laid down by its predecessor and sets some new standards of its own, particularly in limiting noise in both high and low ISO speeds and in its ability to reproduce detail in dark areas. The autofocus system had also been updated, too.
“How do you replace something that is so good?” queries Rouse. “At the start, when I heard they had improved the AF system, I questioned why they had touched it when it already worked. As a result, it was one of the first things I tested when I got the pre-production model. And they had improved it – they had kept it the same but they had also improved it, which is exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want a new AF system – I knew how the system worked, I was familiar with it. I just wanted to tweak it so I could select all 61 points and be a bit lazy.”
As well as featuring 61 focus points, the EOS-1D X Mark II’s new, expanded focus area also includes 41 cross-type and five dual cross-type AF points, which for wildlife photographers opens up a world of possibilities and options. But as impressive as they were, Rouse’s revelations didn’t stop at the increased number of focussing choices. More important was the quality of the image the camera produced.
New standards in image quality
“The RAW file is so different,” he says. “The lack of shadow noise and general lack of noise at higher ISOs as well as the sharpness - the noise control and detail is extraordinary. And the colour of the file is better for me as a wildlife photographer. I want it more punchy.”
The changes came to a head during an expedition to Rwanda during which Rouse put the new camera through its paces. “I had one EOS-1D X and one EOS-1D X Mark II and wore them on a double harness, but instead of shooting with the EOS-1D X, I would actively change the lenses over to shoot with the EOS-1D X Mark II. My friends said it was ridiculous; I had been using this camera for five years and it was amazing and now I wouldn’t use it. But I knew how good the files were from the EOS-1D X Mark II.”
The impact of the new camera has been profound. Rouse had seen his focusing parameters widen and the quality of his images improve. Even the camera’s video functions, which provide AF tracking throughout Canon’s EF lens range, had been something of an eye-opener. “I have hated shooting video because you have to be a videographer to do it properly; you have to manually focus,” admits Rouse. “With the EOS-1D X Mark II, it’s the first time on a DSLR that the autofocus on video has worked really well.”
When Rouse opted to change his kit for the original EOS-1D X, he did so because Canon’s then flagship camera offered the kind of performance that simply hadn’t been possible before. Now with the EOS-1D X Mark II, he has found a camera body that carries on where the original EOS-1D X left off, whatever style of photography he is shooting.
“It looks like the same camera and there are things that are the same but have been tweaked, but there are also new things that have been slotted into the existing framework,” he says. “When you look at what this camera does, it has been designed to appeal to multiple genres no matter what you do. It is a go-to camera. The days of me having lots of different cameras to do different jobs are gone. I can shoot portrait, HDR, low ISO landscapes and then shoot high-action sport, wildlife and aviation. And then I can switch the bloody video on and it focuses on something!”
His expansion into aviation photography may have been planned to coincide with a fundamental change in Rouse’s family life, but his embracing of the EOS-1D X Mark II seems just as well timed. “It’s so comfortable in my hand; I trust it,” he says. “The EOS-1D X Mark II has actually given me confidence in myself that I can really deliver. I know that camera will never, ever let me down. I can push it to do things that are ridiculously difficult and it will deliver. For me, that’s given me a bit of a buzz for my photography that has been missing.”
• Andy will share more in-depth technical thoughts on the EOS-1D X Mark II when he returns from photographing tigers in India.
Biography: Andy Rouse
© Andy Rouse
Andy Rouse is a wildlife photographer, filmmaker and conservationist who has won many awards in competitions such as the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards, the British Wildlife Photography Awards, Nature’s Best and the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year. His work sells worldwide; from traditional publishing, such as calendars and cards, to haute couture fashion and even the tailplanes of aircraft! He is the author of 18 books to date, including the critically acclaimed 'Concepts of Nature' and 'Gorillas' and has appeared on numerous UK TV programmes as well as on the Discovery and National Geographic channels. He is a passionate and down-to-earth television and radio presenter who appears at numerous shows and conferences, as well as presenting his inspiring theatre show to other photographers.