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Technical

Conflict resolution: filming change with the EOS 5D Mark III

Conflict resolution: filming change with the EOS 5D Mark III

© Sean Sutton/MAG

April 2015

Sean Sutton, International Communications Manager of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has toured some of the world’s most devastated war zones. As CPN writer Mark Alexander finds out, recently he has been filming it with an EOS 5D Mark III...

Sean Sutton’s first photographic exhibition for MAG was opened in June 1997 by Princess Diana at the Royal Geographical Society in London. In the midst of all the pomp and pageantry (and not to mention the media frenzy), the show marked a turning point in Sutton’s career. “It was a long time ago,” admits the award-winning photographer.

© Sean Sutton/MAG

Please click on the window above to view Sean Sutton’s film of farmers in Cambodia living without fear of land mines, thanks to the work carried out by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG).

Sutton had just accepted a full-time role with MAG not only as the organisation’s image-maker but also as its communications manager. After years of freelancing for a mix of press and NGOs touring war-torn territories like Burma, Cambodia, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia, he was going in-house.

The security of a monthly paycheck didn’t, however, subdue his passion for telling compelling, complicated and often troubling stories. “It’s about communicating what you feel,” he explains. “Working with the press, I didn’t find it satisfying at all because I didn’t know what impact my work was actually having. With MAG, it is much more focussed and targeted, so I know for a fact that it makes a difference. I find it rewarding.”

Eighteen years later, Sutton has successfully navigated his way past another career milestone, this time related to a change in his photography equipment. “It is brilliant,” he says enthusiastically describing the latest addition to his kit; the EOS 5D Mark III. “It’s much, much lighter than my previous camera. And one of the best features is the silent adjustment you can make on the back wheel while videoing. You can silently adjust audio and exposure. That is amazing. When shooting, it makes a big difference.”

While Sutton’s work with MAG continues to take him to some of the world’s most ravaged locations, his remit has been significantly expanded and he now collates video as well as still images. But with carnage and grief a common theme, documenting conflict and its aftermath is often easier said than done. As he explains, being sensitive to the moment requires a deft touch and an ability to merge into the background: “It’s the whole thing of catching a moment that tells a story. For me, it’s about being as candid as possible so the viewer feels they are witnessing the situation first hand. That’s challenging and often means spending a lot of time with communities. For me, whether its conflict or post-conflict, it’s about people.”

© Sean Sutton/MAG

Photographer – and now filmmaker. Sean Sutton with the EOS 5D Mark III DSLR.

The EOS 5D Mark III with its Full HD capabilities certainly helps. The compact design delivers full manual video control with uncompressed HDMI output at 1080p resolution. It provides an understated method of capturing intimate footage without drawing attention to the person holding the camera.

“In many situations there is a language barrier, but being sensitive makes a huge difference,” he says. “Often nothing needs to be said and it is more about how you come across to your subjects and how you understand them. That’s a critical part of storytelling in the visual form.”

To make his life as easy as possible, Sutton plans out his shoots in advance so he gets a good idea of the content he needs, and how he’s going to get it. “There is no point shooting unless you have a plan. You need to map out what you’re going to do,” he says. “I don’t do it to the point of identifying specific shots although that’s what some people do. Nonetheless, it’s very important to know what you’re after. Experience makes a huge difference but when you’re starting out, you need more detail. It’s good to be disciplined because the more detail you have, the easier it becomes.”

As a veteran of numerous conflict situations and the creative vision behind many of MAGs most powerful films, Sutton has amassed a body of work that spans the globe conveying the shocking stories of the men, women and children affected by armed violence and conflict. By doing so, he has also accumulated the kind of knowledge and experience many photographers would find hard to gather over the span of an entire career. He continues: “I always shoot stills before video because you get the chance to build up the narrative, write it down and then think of the bits you will need to make a short film. After that you make sure you get your action/reaction shots, wide shots and cutaways. You need that discipline.”

With a career spanning 27 years, you might think Sutton has seen it all, but despite producing award-winning imagery from over 20 countries, until recently he had never used a Canon camera. It seems there is a first time for everything.

“I knew of the 5D cameras through reputation,” he says. “The 5D series generally, and especially the Mark III, are renowned as great cameras for doing stills as well as video. When the opportunity came to use this camera, of course I jumped at it and it has proved to be fantastic. When I picked it up for the first time, it was incredibly comfortable and moulded to my hand really well. And it wasn’t too heavy, which was a big concern of mine.”

© Sean Sutton/MAG

Sean Sutton’s filmmaking equipment is light enough to fit into his kitbag yet powerful enough to produce quality footage in challenging environments.

Sutton’s old camera tipped the scales at 1,350g compared to the [EOS] 5D Mark III which weighs in at just 950g. Over the course of a three-day hike through a mountainous tropical rain forest, that weight difference could be critical. As well as cutting down on his pack weight, Sutton says the new camera gave him more creative freedom.

“The fact the 5D [Mark III] was much lighter than the cameras I had used in the past, meant I did a lot more handheld stuff which worked really well because I was able to get some quite steady shots that also included movement,” he explains. “With the camera being more compact and lighter, I felt more comfortable using it handheld. I do have a shoulder brace, but for me it has to be quick. If I have to set up a load of things, then that shot realistically just isn’t going to happen.”

He continues: “With photography, it’s a matter of chance, luck and positioning. I don’t think about it terribly much – I am very reactive and instinctive. When it all comes together and you have an image that tells the story you want to tell, it’s the most satisfying thing there is. It keeps me going.”

What impressed Sutton even more than the feeling of the camera in his hand was the quality of the footage the EOS 5D Mark III produced. “It stood out,” he says. “Playing back the edit, two of my colleagues commented on how good the quality was, not knowing what camera I had used. It does stand out – it’s sharp and vibrant. The rest is really about how you’ve shot the scene.”

He was also impressed by the audio: “Sound is really important. I often carry an external sound recorder that I can then use with an XLR cable and a microphone for interviews. But since I got the 5D, I haven’t used any external audio processing at all. The sound on the 5D is really good. Everything has been run through the camera with absolutely no complaints.”

Sutton paired the 5D Mark III with the EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM – an incredibly versatile standard zoom lens that benefits from tough weather sealing and a fast, quiet autofocus. With a zoom range covering everything from wide shots to close-up portraits, this lens/body combination is ideal for travel and reportage photography. “I usually keep it quite wide at f/2.8 depending on the shot,” Sutton recalls. “I didn’t use it at the other end of the spectrum but would adapt it usually to around f/8, f/5.6 or f/2.8 depending on the scene and how much I wanted to keep in focus.”

© Sean Sutton/MAG

Explaining the risks of unexploded bombs to local farmers, Laos. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm; the exposure was 1/500sec at f/6.3, ISO 800.

The EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM uses aspherical lens elements and ultra-low dispersion (UD) and super UD glass to deliver excellent image quality and maximise sharpness. Add to that the nine-bladed circular aperture that produces ideal bokeh for portraiture work, and you can see why Sutton was so taken by the lens. “It is very sharp,” he says. “The pictures have a nice sparkle to them. It was important for me to have the f/2.8 for obvious reasons and the weight of the lens balances nicely with the camera. It’s a good lens - solid, sharp and easy to use, and when I used it with autofocus, it was blindingly fast.”

The 5D Mark III combined with the EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM has provided Sutton with expanded filming options and a set-up that is comfortable to use in testing situations. The noticeable improvement in video quality and compact design gives him the freedom to produce telling films that form the cornerstone of MAG’s efforts. “Because of the size and functionality of the 5D, it’s much better than what I had before,” he says. “It enables me to get much better quality video which is fit for purpose, and that makes a huge difference.”

As with many spheres of life, the NGO campaign trail is a cut-throat landscape teeming with gripping stories and chilling tales each vying for justifiable recognition. When it comes to canvassing support and attracting donors, these first-hand accounts must be conveyed in such a way as to resonate with the viewer and compel them to act. Sutton’s films are the front line of MAG’s push for validation and the all-important financial endorsements.

“Storytelling is a really competitive environment in terms of funding for aid and development,” he explains. “The narrative is extremely important. It has to explain some complex issues in a simple way and convey the difference the money is making on the ground. I don’t think you can exaggerate the importance and value of that.”

EOS 5D MARK III – KEY FEATURES

  • 22.3 Megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor
  • 61-point AF with up to 41 cross-type AF points
  • Zone, Spot and AF Point Expansion focusing modes
  • DIGIC 5+ processor
  • Up to 6fps shooting speed
  • ISO 100 to 25,600 as standard, ISO 50 to 102,400 with expansion
  • Full HD Movie shooting with ALL-I or IPB compression
  • Uncompressed HDMI output
  • 29mins 59sec clip length in Full HD Movie
  • Timecode setting for HD Movie shooting
  • Headphone port for audio monitoring
  • Transparent LCD viewfinder with 100% coverage
  • 8.11cm (3.2”), 1.04 million-pixel Clear View II LCD Screen
  • CF and SD card slots
  • Silent control touch-pad area
  • Dual-Axis Electronic Level

Biography: Sean Sutton

Sean Sutton

Sean Sutton is a staff photographer and communications manager with the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). Before joining MAG in 1997, he travelled regularly to the former Yugoslavia, Burma, Cambodia and Afghanistan. As well as shooting for the press, Sean also worked with NGOs covering aid and development issues, although he focussed on landmines. Working for MAG, he has travelled to places like Kosovo, Sri Lanka and Iraq documenting the impact of landmines and other deadly remnants of conflict. His images are used to produce exhibitions, films and publications and also appear in newspapers and magazines such as The Guardian, The Times, Newsweek, Time Magazine, Le Figaro and Le Monde, as well as receiving countless awards.



Showcase

Unexploded bomb in Laos. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm; the exposure was 1/8000sec at f/2.8, ISO 3200.