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Ambassador: Thorsten Milse

Ambassador: Thorsten Milse

© Thorsten Milse

Biografía

Thorsten Milse

Born in 1965 in Bielefeld, Germany, nature photographer Thorsten Milse trained as a graphics designer, but then decided to pursue a full-time photographic career. Thorsten specialises in landscape and wildlife photography with a strong focus on conservation and endangered species.

Since 1990 he has worked on a variety of wildlife topics – from Cheetahs, Lions and Leopards in Africa; to Kangaroos and Koalas in Australia; from Tigers in India and Emperor Penguins in Antarctica to Walrus and Polar Bears in the Arctic. His images have been published in 25 countries in prestigious nature magazines including GEO, BBC Wildlife, Illustreret Videnskab and Nature’s Best Photography. His stunning pictures have been awarded several international prizes including BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year (animal behaviour) and the Grand Prize Winner at Nature’s Best Photo Competition.

From 2004 to 2008 he visited the world’s polar regions, often spending weeks in the field to capture some of the truly impressive feats of survival. In early 2010 Thorsten spent time photographing long-tailed macaques in Bali and his book ‘Africa's Last Wilderness: Namibia's Skeleton Coast’ (‘Afrikas letzte Wildnis: Namibias Skelettküste’) was published.

In late 2011 his epic coffee table book 'Polar World', the result of over six years of work in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, was published and in 2012 he has been shooting wildlife in South America and Europe using the latest Canon EOS DSLRs and EF lenses.



Interview

Although he originally trained as a graphics designer Thorsten Milse's interest in photography dates back to his early teenage years. As a 13-year-old he invested in his first SLR camera and began to develop his interest in shooting the natural world. Three decades later he is widely acknowledged as one of the great wildlife photographers who is currently documenting the natural world.

Hailing from the north-west German town of Bielefeld what was it that sparked a young Thorsten's interest in photography? "My father was working for a big printing company and he showed me some photographs and some technical things so from about the age of 10 onwards I had an interest," explains Thorsten. He adds: "I remember from the age of 10 or so I saw some photographs that my father had taken and made slides of a holiday in Scandinavia."

It was following his confirmation at the age of 13 that friends and family gave presents (mainly money), as is the tradition in Germany to celebrate this religious rite of passage, and the young Thorsten decided to use that money to invest in photographic equipment. He recalls: "I probably got the equivalent of around €1,000 and I bought my first camera. I'm sure it was a Yashica FR1 with two Zeiss lenses - the same system as Contax."

During his formative photographic years Thorsten worked mainly in black and white as he explains: "I worked in black and white for the first few years as I had my own developing equipment in the house - it was cheaper to do it that way and I taught myself." As part of his student curriculum Thorsten had a four-week placement at Siemens and began taking technical photographs and learning more about creative cropping.

It was at this time that he also began working with slide films whilst on holiday: "When I was about 15 or 16 I was on holidays to Mexico, Switzerland and Austria and I made some slides." Thorsten was shooting landscapes and wildlife as a hobby whilst on holiday and also whilst at home. He recalls: "In places like Scandinavia there are always birds by the lakes, ducks and the like, but also in my garden I was able to shoot birds and squirrels as they came really close to our house."

Whilst photography was an ever-present part of his life from an early age it wasn't until much later that Thorsten took it up full-time. He explains: "My original occupation was as an electronic technician. I repaired and showed customers some of the first Mac computers and some of the early versions of Photoshop - I also worked with big scanners. After that I worked for a big printing company as the company wanted somebody who was a technician but who also knew a little bit about printing."

As well as building up experience in the workplace Thorsten was also changing his camera equipment requirements. He reveals: "After the first Yashica I bought a Nikon FA camera, then a Nikon F4 and the F5." But the switch to Canon was on the cards thanks to a piece of lens technology. Thorsten recalls: "I had had the Nikon F5 for a while and then Canon came out with the first Image Stabilizer (IS) capability on a big telephoto lens. It was lent to me and I tested it out in Canada. I found I could produce more sharp photographs with the IS technology so I decided to switch to Canon. For a wildlife photographer with the IS on a telephoto you only need a bean bag to steady things, not a tripod."

Whilst still keeping his image making as a key part of his life Thorsten's career path took him into advertising working as a graphic designer for about five or six years. He remembers: "I worked for an advertising company and it was about the time large digital print formats were coming in - about three metres by two metres and on different materials and computer to plate. I worked for this company for six or seven years and more and more time was spent working on computers."

By 1999 the work-life balance had become uneven for Thorsten. He recalls: "In 1999 I was working for more than 15 or 16 hours a day and I had no free time and no time for my photographs." It was at this point in time that he went on a Canon workshop to Heligoland and had left work saying that he wanted to discuss his job position on his return. Thorsten laughs: "When I came back they told me I could go from the job!"

This surprise redundancy proved to be the spur that Thorsten needed to finally branch out as a freelance photographer. He says: "At that moment I already had enough photographs. I knew I could produce photographs so I started as a freelance photographer. I sold some articles to smaller magazines - nothing like GEO yet - but I photographed models, houses and buildings for advertising agencies and I worked for two or three years to advertise health spa companies in magazines and newspapers. I had enough money to survive."

As well as undertaking advertising commissions Thorsten began to look for contracts from agencies that traditionally dealt with wildlife material. One of these was the Okapia agency that was founded back in 1954 by the famous German wildlife photographers and film-makers Michael Grzimek and Dr. Bernhard Grzimek whose 1959 film ‘The Serengeti Must Not Die' is the only German language documentary to win an Oscar. Thorsten explains: "In 1999 I got my first contract from the Okapia agency - a really old, established agency for wildlife - and then my second agency was Mauritius."

"I had built up a really big stock of work and just contacted the agencies. I was producing more and more slides of wildlife and had been seven or eight times to the Caribbean Sea photographing monkeys and turtles and the like. I sat in the tress waiting for monkeys, I wasn't sitting there with a pina colada," laughs Thorsten.

Thorsten began to travel the world more and turned his lens on endangered species. He explains: "My focus is more on endangered species. I love wild animals and I'm really sad if I see there are only 600 mountain gorillas in the Congo."

Two key factors would soon play a massive part in Thorsten's career - polar bears and his switch to shooting with digital cameras. He reveals: "In about 2003 I started to travel more around the world to photograph little polar bears. The following year I talked with GEO magazine about my polar bear photographs and they said they wanted the story and sent me the next year." Thorsten was also talking to book publishers and planning a book project about little polar bears.

He recalls: "I also talked to BBC Wildlife magazine and they agreed to print the story about the little polar bears. The story was picked up by GEO in Spain, Russia, and Italy and by Nature's Best Photography in the US - this was the ‘big start' for me.

I won the Nature's Best competition and was runner-up in the BBC Wildlife awards (animal behaviour) for my picture of three polar bears climbing up a hill. The story was popular in Japan and the Washington Post also used my photographs."

As his work with polar bears was gaining international recognition Thorsten was coming to the conclusion that digital was the way forward for him. He clearly remembers: "In January or February 2004 I switched to digital. I was in the US and was taking some photographs in New Mexico of snow geese and cranes as, due to the climate, there are a lot of birds around. I had the EOS 10D and the EOS-1V and was switching between film and digital."

He adds: "I was shooting in places like Antelope Canyon and Bruce Canyon and I had more time to shoot landscapes so I took some pictures with digital and then film. At home I checked and saw that the digital was not too bad and that I could change the exposure by -0.3. When I got the film developed it wasn't what I was seeing in the viewfinder - for example the really red stones in Bryce Canyon - so I decided to switch completely and I bought an 11 million pixel EOS-1 model."

The following month - March 2004 - Thorsten began shooting polar bears on digital. He reveals: "With digital in the cold you must change the batteries every half hour but I had no problems with the camera, lens or shutter and I had my own development at the computer. It is more work but I can get exactly the situation I saw on a computer. In any case I kept having problems at airports trying to get security to check 100 films - they wouldn't do it."

Thorsten adds: "For me with digital the pictures are exactly the light situations I saw so it's not people in labs in Hamburg, Cologne or wherever deciding the exposure. You can't do anything with slide film but with digital you can alter the fur on polar bears to make sure it's correct. It's the same process shooting the photos but they are ‘developed' at the computer."

The combination of his superb eye for a photograph and the sheer patience required to wait for the shot have established Thorsten Milse as one of the world's great wildlife photographers and secured him several major international prizes. He is willing to push himself and travel to the far-flung corners of the earth to document endangered species.

He explains: "The polar bears are a big adventure nearby the Hudson bay in North Canada but the normal temperature is minus 25-30 with no wind. When the north wind comes it is like minus 60 so without a strong mask you'll have problems with your face. You have to wait by your tripod at minus 40 degrees - it's a different kind of work. It's hard work with big mitts and your camera as it's no easy to control AF on the camera but without mitts it's almost impossible."

Thorsten's new book - out in October 2008 - documents the Indian Tiger. "The population of that country is really big and the animals are moving away from the people. It's not a good idea to relocate as we must protect the animals in their original landscape. In India the tiger is a holy animal but the big problem is the pressure on the land," explains Thorsten. He adds: "For me it doesn't help to send €1,000 to the WWF - it helps more to go to the park and spend money directly to help to protect the animals with small organisations near the park. Maybe what we can do is with direct activity."

He suggests: "The polar bears are losing ground in the Arctic as the ice melts. We can help by travelling on a bike and not a car. People should think about it - It's easy to say these things but not so easy to do."

Out of all the stunning wildlife images he has shot over the years what is Thorsten's favourite? "My feeling is the polar bear ‘kissing' the cub. It was around minus 35 degrees and I had a 10D with a 500mm lens and a 1.4x converter. We waited the whole day in front of a small hole. I took three shots - the mother, the cub and the third shot with the mother's head. I was with two other photographers but only I took this picture, they kissed it. It's a good family picture - a great moment in the life of a polar bear."

We asked Thorsten Milse if he could have a dream piece of kit what would it be. Without hesitation he shot back: "I would love a lens that's not too heavy with an aperture of f/4 or f/2.8 with a zoom of 200-400mm or 300-600mm. If you sit on an elephant and a tiger is coming towards you, you work with a 600mm lens, but if it comes closer you need a 300mm or a 70-200mm. It's a big risk to juggle three lenses on the back of an elephant so you could get more good shots with a zoom."

And what's the next major project for Thorsten Milse? He laughs: "I'm working mainly in the Arctic and Antarctic but I'm not sure what my next book will be. At the end of October I have a short trip to Canada and then in December I go to Antarctica. I will also be working in Africa." He may not be prepared to reveal exactly what he is up to next but one thing is for sure - the amazing photography of Thorsten Milse will continue to gain admirers all over the world whilst highlighting the plight of some of the most precious creatures on the earth.

Thorsten Milse - shooting from the lip

What do you think about the Ambassadors Programme?

"For some years I have worked in a really good relationship with Canon Germany. Why shouldn't one also co-operate with the general public? It's a great community between all participants."

Why do you think the Ambassadors Programme is important?

"It's a really good idea if the photographers have an impact on the next camera models. The photographers decide, in the end, if the product is well and good. I'm looking forward to an interesting exchange of experiences with other photographers and technicians."

What got you started in photography?

"My interest in photography started at 13 years old. I bought my first SLR camera and two lenses, and I decided primarily to take photos of nature."

What does photography mean to you?

"I try to point out the details of nature - the moments and unique situations to fix in one frame. I hope my photographs have had an influence to help us to understand our nature a little bit better."

What kind of photographer do you consider yourself to be?

"I do what I mean is the right one. The work should be great fun!"

What would you advise someone who is just coming into the business?

"It's not easy to work as a freelance photographer, but always believe in your aims and never lose the joy of taking photos."


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Kitbag

Cameras:
  • EOS-1D X
  • EOS 5D Mark III
Lenses:
  • EF8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM
  • EF14mm f/2.8L II USM
  • EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
  • EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
  • TS-E24mm f/3.5L II
  • EF40mm f/2.8 STM
  • EF50mm f/1.2L USM
  • EF50mm f/2.5 Macro
  • EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
  • EF85mm f/1.2L II USM
  • EF180mm f/3.5L Macro USM
  • EF600mm f/4L IS II USM
  • Extender EF1.4 III
  • Extender EF2x III
Accessories:
  • Speedlite 580EX flashgun
  • Speedlite 580EX II flashgun
  • Speedlite 600EX-RT flashgun
  • WFT-E6 Wireless File Transmitter
  • GP-E1 GPS unit
  • Peli Hardcase 1085
  • Peli Hardcase 1600
  • Peli Hardcase 1650
  • Evoc Photo Backpacker
  • Königs Waterproof Backpacker
  • Sachtler/Heiler tripod
  • Manfrotto MA 560B monopod
  • Apple MacBook Pro 13in Retina Display
  • SanDisk/Lexar Pro memory cards

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