Thorsten Milse: capturing white
lions with the
EOS 7D Mark II
© Thorsten Milse
Canon Ambassador Thorsten Milse may be renowned for his bold expeditions to photograph endangered animals in the wild, but a recent trip to his local zoo in Germany tested him to his limits. Fortunately he had the new EOS 7D Mark II APS-C DSLR around his neck, as CPN writer Mark Alexander finds out...
Thorsten Milse has just returned from a 19-day trip photographing wild dogs, leopards and lions on a game reserve in Botswana, Africa. The expedition was thwarted by soaring heat as temperatures reached a blistering 43°C. The prerequisite dawn starts and cross-country drives to remote watering holes didn’t help either but despite all this, he says the experience was a walk in the park compared to shooting a pack of lion cubs in a zoo near his home town of Schloss Holte-Stukenbrock in Germany.
“It was difficult,” says the award-winning wildlife photographer. “In the wild, you’re not sitting in the middle of the lion pack! You’re in a game reserve jeep with a bean bag and a long telephoto lens. You have more space and that makes it a lot easier.”
Thorsten was given two days in July to photograph the five-week old white lion cubs for Canon ahead of the photokina show (where the EOS 7D Mark II DSLR was officially launched) in September. His 30-minute late-evening sessions would have been sufficient for a portrait shoot or perhaps ample for a product shot, but when your subjects are supercharged bundles of fangs and claws, there is never enough time.
“When you have a week to complete a shoot from early in the morning to late at night everyday, then you will get perfect shots. We only had two days and only 30 or 40 minutes with the lion clubs each day. It was a really short time to get good shots for photokina. Normally when I photograph lions, I go to their habitat for four weeks and then go back again a few months later.”
Luckily, Thorsten was armed with the new EOS 7D Mark II which shoots continuous bursts of up to 10 frames-per-second which are sent through Dual DIGIC 6 image processors. This Canon speedster enabled the wildlife photographer to capture intimate moments with the cubs that would have otherwise been impossible. “The time between seeing something and getting the camera focussed on the action is minuscule. At one point the cubs were six metres away, the next they were on my back.”
Shooting at speed was the order of the day. “The camera was really fast, which was a great help,” says Thorsten. “You get 10fps, so you can take 40 frames in a flash. There was one white lion cub that jumped on another one. It took just a few seconds, but I got 40 images of it.”
But shooting fast isn’t just about frame rates. As Thorsten explains... what happens next is equally important. “If the camera’s processor is slow, you will miss the next shot. You only have a couple of seconds to capture a moment, and then the next situation comes along almost instantaneously. On the EOS 7D Mark II, the combination between the frames per second, the fast processor and the burst rate on my memory card is totally perfect.”
The Dual DIGIC 6 image processors are designed for speed which helped Thorsten get the shot, and the next one. Another feature of the new EOS 7D Mark II are the 65 focus points that can track fast-moving subjects across the frame to deliver pin-sharp results even in low light. Each cross-type focus point on the EOS 7D Mark II can lock on to both horizontal and vertical detail, which proved vital in pinpointing Thorsten1’s mischievous models in the fading evening light.
“Because the lions were white, there wasn’t a lot of contrast to lock on to. In addition, I was also shooting in low light rather than the hard light you find during the day, so it really helped to have so many cross points with a fast lens,” he explains. “There were enough focus points to find the subject really quickly. If I had only 30 focus points, then it would be difficult.”
Thorsten used a number of lenses on the shoot including the ultra wide-angle EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, the standard EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and his go-to telephoto lens; the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM. But it wasn’t simply the number of the focus points on the EOS 7D Mark II working in tandem with his fast lenses that caught the wildlife supremo’s eye. The sensitivity of the centre focus point and the camera’s ability to focus in conditions where light levels drop to as low as -3EV were equally as welcome. “Photographing the cubs under these conditions was a really good test of the camera,” he says playfully.
And then there is the camera’s ISO performance which reaches ISO 16,000 and is expandable to the equivalent of ISO 51,200. “I took some photos inside the cub’s cage at ISO 25,600 and I was really impressed with the quality, especially the bokeh,” he explains. “The background wasn’t full of pixels. It didn’t look ugly. It had a fine grain like really good old film, and that really impressed me.”
With conditions far from ideal, Thorsten continued the indoor shoot opting for the upper echelons of the EOS 7D Mark II’s ISO range. “I took a lot of photos at ISO 16,000,” he says. “I could print these out up to a metre in width, but I also presented five or six of them at photokina. They were amazing.”
The new Game-changer
The EOS 7D Mark II is a camera that follows the lead set by its predecessor. The first incarnation of the 7D was a game changer and one of the first DSLRs to offer 1080p video recording, a feature now regarded as standard. This latest model incorporates full HD slow-motion video at 60fps, audio control with microphone and headphone sockets and dual pixel AF which assesses a subject’s position and distance on every frame allowing the camera to autofocus even during video.
For videographers, this changes everything. “I created a couple of short, 20-second films of the white lions playing which I showed at photokina,” says Thorsten. “Because the cubs were moving closer and then running away, it was really difficult to find the right focus point - I couldn’t use a tripod or pull focus, but with the autofocus, I got really sharp footage. It was hand-held but really sharp.”
The pressures of delivering a shoot in such a short timescale with limited access to models that were big on fun but short on contrast proved to be a proper test for the new 7D Mark II. The combination of high frame rates, processing speed, multiple focus points, ISO performance and advanced video functionality ensured Thorsten could confidentially deliver a compelling presentation to a discerning and knowledgeable audience.
“The camera looks very professional,” he says. “It’s not difficult to work with a 1D X or a 5D Mark III and then swap to a 7D Mark II because a lot of the buttons and build quality is similar. The quality of Canon’s cameras is excellent – you can print large-format prints and it doesn’t matter if you’ve used a 1D X, 6D or the new 7D Mark II. When you get to that 20 Megapixel range, it is definitely adequate, especially for large-format books. For the DSLR market, it’s enough.”
EOS 7D Mark II – key features
- 10fps full resolution continuous shooting with selectable burst speeds and silent shutter mode.
- 65-point all cross-type AF system1 with iTR, AI Servo AF III, AF Configuration tool and AF area selection lever.1
- 20.2 Megapixel CMOS sensor with ISO 100-16,000 sensitivity, expandable to ISO 25,600 (H1) and 51,200 (H2).
- 150k pixel RGB+IR metering sensor with flicker detection.
- 100% magnification Intelligent Viewfinder II with electronic overlay, customisable information display and electronic level.
- Full HD 50p (PAL) 60p (NTSC) fps with Dual Pixel CMOS AF (at 30p) with manual adjustment of AF speed and tracking sensitivity.
- MP4 encoding for quick and easy sharing and file transfer.
- Uncompressed (4:2:2) HDMI output with sound.
- Improved weather resistance.
- CF and SD dual memory card slots.
- GPS with in-built digital compass.2
- Peripheral illumination, chromatic aberration, real-time distortion correction during live view shooting.
- Multiple exposure mode.
- ‘SuperSpeed’ USB 3.0 for high-speed tethering and image/movie transfer.
- 200,000 shutter cycle life.
- Interchangeable focusing screens.
- Exposure compensation +/- 5 stops.
- Integrated Speedlite Transmitter.
1 Number of available AF points and cross-type points and dual cross-type points vary depending on the lens.
2 GPS use may be restricted in certain countries or regions. Use of GPS should comply with the laws and regulations of the country and area in which it is being operated including any restriction on the use of electronics.
Biography: Thorsten Milse
© Ralf Bauer
Born in Germany, nature photographer Thorsten Milse trained as a graphics designer, but then decided to pursue a photographic career. Thorsten specialises in landscape and wildlife photography with a strong focus on conservation and endangered species. His images have been published in 25 countries in prestigious nature magazines including GEO, BBC Wildlife, Illustreret Videnskab and Nature’s Best Photography. His pictures have won several international prizes, including BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year (animal behaviour) and the Grand Prize Winner at Nature’s Best Photo Competition. In late 2011 his coffee table book 'Polar World', the result of over six years of work in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, was published.