Thorsten Milse is now established as one of the world’s top wildlife photographers due to his innate ability to document wildlife, nature and landscapes together in his photographs. This has enabled him to reveal animal behaviours in vastly differing environments all around the world. Doug Harman spoke to Thorsten Milse about his latest book project that documents the unique and harsh environment of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.
Thorsten Milse’s passion for wildlife photography has a firm emphasis on conservation, and his new book ‘Afrikas letzte Wildnis: Namibias Skelettküste’ (‘Africa’s Last Wilderness: Namibia’s Skeleton Coast’) highlights just such a relationship. It’s the relationship between the environment that is Namibia’s notorious Skeleton Coast, one of Africa’s toughest regions for any animal to survive in, and the wildlife that ekes out a living there.
The Skeleton Coast National Park forms roughly one third of Namibia’s south-west coastline. It’s a coastline that achieved its epithet from the large number of famous ship wrecks on its drifting sands, the remains of many whale skeletons left over from the whaling trade of old, and more than a few human remains, which hint at the low probability of the survival for those unfortunate enough to end up shipwrecked there.
Thorsten’s images unveil how the animals survive in a vast lonely landscape that includes sand dunes, canyons and mountain ranges. But the unusual climatic conditions are not necessarily what you would expect in desert country. Thorsten reveals: “There are only two areas like this coast anywhere on earth - the Skeleton Coast and the Atacama Desert, both of which have similar climatic and geographic features.”
The Skeleton Coast is characterised by dense fog and cold sea breezes, caused by the chilly Benguela Current flowing close off-shore and meeting with the extreme heat of the Namib Desert. So it’s a wild and eerie place. For Thorsten documenting how the animals cling to life here was just one of several challenges.
He explains: “Getting there is a challenge as it’s strictly a ‘permit only’ entry area; it's very protected. It’s also very foggy and cold at night. The animals that are able to live there are a surprising range - from small beetles and spiders, to larger animals such as giraffes, which survive by eating the leaves of the plants that are covered in the water droplets left by the fog.”
“Almost nothing could survive here without the fog and it is this that’s also the secret of the other remarkable animals that are the last thing you’d expect to see - the amazing desert-adapted elephants. These elephants know the area and can continuously drink a little bit of water each day, say, over four days,” reveals Thorsten. “That’s totally different to every other type of elephant all over the world, who each must drink a minimum of 200 litres of water every day! This is remarkable, but one of the inspirations for my work here came from watching the work of the Australian filmmakers Des and Jen Bartlett.”
Des and Jen Bartlett lived on the Skeleton Coast for almost 10 years and filmed for National Geographic. Thorsten explains: “I saw their films of the Skeleton Coast and wanted to get there. I knew it was a vast area, that you can usually only visit for three or four days at a time, and the permits cost €3,000 or €4,000 (you cannot visit as a tourist).”
“Luckily, I have a good friend in Namibia who was able to sort out the filming - she arranged with the Namibian government each of my special permits. I told the government I wanted to make a special photography book of the area and luckily they said ‘Okay’,” explains Thorsten.
But this was surely not something Thorsten could shoot on just one visit, given the size of the wilderness at hand and the range of animals to photograph?
He admits: “It makes me laugh. When you are at the Skeleton Coast you are totally alone - it’s a huge area with only sand dunes, fog, the elephants or seals. It’s not the Serengeti, where you find a lion pack and surrounding the lions are queues of 30 tourist-filled jeeps, BBC film crews and the like. Not here. I am alone in the middle of nowhere; at night it’s foggy, it’s cold; yet during the day it’s really hot and there is nothing for 400km but sand dunes and desert between you and the next place (with any people).”
However, Thorsten discovered the major benefit of this isolation - the ability to capture more natural behaviour from the animals. “Here’s an example” he says, “in Namibia there is another National Park, Etosha National Park. It’s very popular and there are a lot of animals there - large herds, packs of animals and so on. It’s a really healthy population but it is also very different because these animals know there are tourists coming in their cars during the day. After sunset the animals have learned that they can go to the people’s compounds and the people, their cars and even the car’s hooters simply don’t affect them. This is very different from the behaviour of animals at the Skeleton Coast.”
He continues: “These animals have almost never seen a person, or perhaps as few as four or five people in their lives - a Park Ranger perhaps. For instance, there is a colony of seals I visited for a shot and they were curious about me… ‘What is this animal on only two legs walking around?’ They weren't afraid! They simply looked at me, being really curious, not attempting to escape into the water. Not all animals will hang around for something so different (as a person) of course, but the behaviour is certainly more natural than that of animals in other, more popular parks.”
To get his remarkable shots, Thorsten’s last stay was five weeks, but it was a bigger project than that, as he reveals: “I have been to Namibia more than 20 times, but for this book, the maximum stay in the Skeleton Coast National Park was five weeks. I went three times a year for three years - in 2006, 2007 and 2008.”
Thorsten explains: “I need three or four years as a minimum to produce the images for a book. Even this book, which was originally to be published in autumn 2009, is only just published. It will not be published in English though, mainly because 2009 was a very bad year for most publishers (even mine, Frederking & Thaler) all over the world, but we shall see what happens as it may be published in English if things improve.”
The huge investment in time to get the shots was for a very good reason: “It was so I could properly cover the dry and the rainy seasons. My shots of the desert area look totally different during the rainy season, for example, with expanses of green grass and large herds such as Oryx - they come into the region following the rain and the fresh grass. I also have three or four photos in the book from my earlier visits to the Park in 1999 and 2000, with some shots of the elephants in the fog which were taken on film!”
So, what does Thorsten’s Canon kit bring to the task? He admits: “For Namibia, my equipment selection changed a little bit; for example I had three important lenses for aerial shots, though not a wideangle lens (from the plane), because I had a few problems with the curvature of the earth becoming too exaggerated.”
Thorsten reveals: “The minimum (focal length) I used was the EF50mm f/1.2L USM - that was important because the large aperture meant I could use very fast shutter speeds to freeze the motion from the plane, which was travelling around 150kmph. This became vital in the foggy weather when I really needed that fast aperture. I used the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens with the Image Stabilizer, but had to be very careful as the plane’s door was often thrown wide open and I had to put my head and arms out, just a little bit. If I leant too far... Whoosh! The wind was very strong, so I had to talk to the pilot constantly, ‘a little more left, a little more right’ and so on to get the photograph.”
He adds: “For shots from further away, or where I could simply not get any closer, I used the EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM and I had the EF600mm f/4L IS USM lens for even longer shots – for the shy gazelles for example – and elephants, where I had (or wanted) greater distance between the animals and myself. It’s easier for the animals if I’m further away. I love long telephoto lenses - they help to keep backgrounds clean and uncluttered.”
Thorsten continues: “For close-ups of the smaller animals I used the EF180mm f/3.5L Macro USM lens, for spiders, beetles and snakes to name but a few. This lens gave me a little bit of distance from my subject. I had to be careful with the snakes and scorpions, where I wanted to get close-up shots, but not be too close myself. They are really really fast and I had to shoot lying down in the sand with them sometimes only a little distance from me. Having a scorpion run at your face is a little bit scary and using, say, the 50mm would just have meant being too close for comfort!”
“I had the EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM wide zoom for most of my wideangle shots and the EF85mm f/1.2L II USM lens as well, but it is the lenses above these (focal lengths) that were the most important to me there,” admits Thorsten.
Around 50% of the images in the book were shot on the EOS-1Ds Mark II and Thorsten explains: “I shot around 30% of the images on a new EOS-1Ds Mark III and the rest on the EOS 5D and the EOS-1D Mark III. In my next book I hope to use the EOS 5D Mark II, but I didn’t have one for this book. The margin for error is very small indeed in such hostile places and there is the need for huge investment in equipment and patience.”
With the superb quality of the images taken for the Skeleton Coast book shining through Thorsten Milse is refusing to rest on his laurels. He admits he has quite a few other plans for the future but for now, somewhat mysteriously, he says they must remain “under wraps." No doubt when they emerge we will once again be treated to a visual feast as seen through the lenses of Thorsten Milse.
Thorsten Milse’s equipment:
EOS-1Ds Mark III
EOS-1Ds Mark II
EOS-1D Mark III
EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM
EF50mm f/1.2L USM
EF85mm f/1.2L II USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM
EF180mm f/3.5L Macro USM
EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM
EF400mm f/4 DO IS USM
EF500mm f/4L IS USM
S Weber beanbag
Collapsible lens hoods from Rainer Burzynski
Monostat monopod XL version with Manfrotto head
ThinkTank camera backpacks
SanDisk memory cards
Apple Powerbook laptop
Mobile LaCie Rugged hard drives
Biography: Thorsten Milse
© Ralf Bauer
German-born Thorsten Milse got interested in photography at the age of 15 and specialised in nature, landscape and wildlife photography with an emphasis on conservation. The main topics of his work are endangered species and some of Earth’s larger “more charismatic” species. Thorsten has been a Canon Ambassador since 2008 and regularly publishes wildlife books, calendars, and postcards. His pictures have won international prizes including BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year in the ‘Animal Behaviour’ category and he was the Grand Prize Winner in Nature’s Best Photo Competition.