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The love affair I’ve had with photography has been total commitment and I’ve not taken any short cuts to do it.

Sir Don McCullin

Sir Don McCullin - Seeking the Light


About the Film


Sir Don McCullin is one of the world’s greatest living photographers, so the demands on his time are, understandably, at a premium. CPN has recently been highly privileged to become involved in a major film project with this giant of photography, but how did the film of Sir Don McCullin’s ‘journey into digital’ come about? CPN’s Editor-in-Chief, Steve Fairclough, explains...

It was a great honour when CPN got the opportunity to meet with Sir Don McCullin, in mid-2011, during the judging of the Ian Parry Scholarship. Since its inception, in 1990, Sir Don McCullin has been patron of the scholarship that’s named in the memory of photojournalist Ian Parry, who was killed whilst on assignment for The Sunday Times in December 1989 whilst covering the downfall of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Ian Parry was only 24-years-old.

The scholarship is designed to help to progress the careers of young photographers and Sir Don McCullin was originally invited to become patron by Aidan Sullivan (currently Vice President of Photo Assignments for Getty Images), who worked with Ian Parry at The Sunday Times and founded the scholarship in Parry’s memory. As Canon is one of the key sponsors of the Ian Parry Scholarship CPN got an invite to witness the 2011 judging.

Over lunch on that day the table talk turned to what projects Sir Don McCullin was currently working on and how he had begun to experiment with using digital cameras, including the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. It was then that an idea took shape – what if CPN could document Sir Don McCullin’s journey into shooting with digital cameras?

Sir Don McCullin is essentially what the British refer to as ‘old school’ – both in manners (impeccable), demeanour, charm and career outlook. He eschews the notion of e-mails and corresponds by hand-written letters, although he has succumbed to owning a mobile phone. With that in mind several exchanges of letters took place to establish if he still held an interest in pursuing the ‘digital road’ and, if so, what would he like to photograph?

Sir McCullin has long since had a love affair with both all things Roman – a fact most recently demonstrated in his 2010 book ‘Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across the Roman Empire’ – and shooting British landscapes (usually in black and white). Thus the initial idea was to film Sir Don photographing Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England, preferably with snow on the ground, as he expressed a long-held affinity with the landmark that the Roman Emperor Hadrian built.

As with many good suggestions the idea to film at Hadrian’s Wall didn’t come to fruition, partly because the weather wasn’t right and partly because of Sir Don McCullin’s busy diary, which also included two major exhibitions of his work in London; one at the Tate Gallery and ‘Shaped By War’ at the Imperial War Museum. A second location, the Isle of Skye off the coast of Scotland, was discussed but, again, the 'gods of organisation and opportunity' plotted against the project progressing in this direction.

Finally, a ‘window of opportunity’ presented itself in mid-2012 with Sir Don’s diary clear for a week that he could make to come to the Languedoc-Roussillon region, in the South of France, to shoot landscapes and discover more about shooting with Canon digital cameras. The region is mountainous; is full of rolling hillside vineyards; and, at the drop of a hat, the skies can become thunderous and wonderfully dark and dramatic – a perfect place for landscape photography.

Prior to the shoot CPN suggested that a suitable partner to shoot alongside Sir Don, and guide him through the digital process, would be Canon Ambassador Jeff Ascough, who has been acknowledged as one of the world’s leading wedding photographers; being voted one of the top 10 in the world by American Photo magazine and one of the top five in the world in a BBC poll.

At first glance the idea to pair a well known wedding photographer with a legendary photojournalist might seem somewhat odd, but both Sir Don McCullin and Jeff Ascough possess a deep love of shooting landscapes. In addition, as a young photography student over 20 years ago, Jeff studied Sir Don McCullin’s work so he has a deep affinity with, and understanding of, Sir Don’s career, photographs and his style of shooting. After Sir Don had viewed a portfolio of some of Jeff’s photographic work he agreed to the partnership and both men travelled to the South of France for the film shoot.

The film was shot in France over the period of eight days in mid-June 2012...
and it took some interesting twists and turns along the way. What was initially intended to be a landscape shoot quickly became an altogether more intriguing and expansive mixture of portraits, still life, reportage and landscapes, with an underlying hint of competitiveness between Sir Don and Jeff.

The shoot also highlighted other facets of Sir Don McCullin’s character and way of working. He has an unquenchable thirst for ‘getting the picture’, an energy that belies his 77 years, and a passion for photography that still shines brightly. Many previously published interviews with Sir Don McCullin have painted a picture of a tortured soul and, whilst he openly admits: “I'm dark, war made me dark”, he is a fascinating and complex mixture of superb raconteur, English gent and ruthless professional. He also detests being labelled a ‘war photographer’, stating instead: “I’m very happy just to be known as a photographer.”

Sir Don McCullin is still shooting with his Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLR and a variety of Canon EF lenses. He has already been revealed by Jean-François Leroy (Director of the Visa pour l’Image international festival of photojournalism) as the special guest for the 25th edition of the festival, to be held in Perpignan, France, in 2013. So, it seems the story of the world’s greatest living photojournalist still has a few chapters that are yet to be told…

Sir Don McCullin - A Digital Showcase



Jeff Ascough - The ‘digital guru’


With over 50 years of experience shooting with film cameras Sir Don McCullin’s journey into shooting with digital technology required a little bit of expert digital knowledge and support. That support came from Canon Ambassador Jeff Ascough, widely known as one of the world’s leading wedding photographers, who, like Sir Don McCullin, possesses a burning passion for shooting landscapes.

Jeff began his career in the late 1980s, shooting with film cameras, and has since made his own journey into shooting all of his images digitally, as well as mastering the art of digital editing of images for both his wedding clients and his personal landscape work. Being technically adroit, and having studied Sir Don’s work as a student in the late 1980s, meant that Jeff was the ideal choice to team up with Sir Don to ease him into the world of shooting digitally.

Jeff Ascough has deservedly won many plaudits around the world for his stunning style of documentary wedding photography, including being named as one of the 10 best wedding photographers in the world by American Photo magazine, but in mid-2012 he was set a fresh challenge - that of 'digital tutor' to Sir Don McCullin.

Jeff explained: “Don was one of my photographic heroes when I was studying photography – there was Don, Cartier-Bresson, Gary Winogrand and an English photographer called Raymond Moore. I studied Don’s work; not so much his war material but what he shot in Bradford and the dark social stories that he covered in the 1970s. I’ve been to exhibitions and looked at Don’s work over the years, so he’s been quite a big influence.”

This influence and intimate knowledge of Sir Don McCullin’s work was a distinct advantage for Jeff Ascough when it came to preparing for the eight-day digital shoot in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of the South of France. Jeff revealed: “When we met I explained to Don that I’d been through the same process six years earlier. I’d come from a 'heavy' black and white film background and knew inside-out what I was doing with film, exposure, development and printing. So I kind of knew what Don was going to be experiencing.”

Jeff added: “I knew his work; I knew the lenses that he liked; I knew the format he liked to shoot in and the kind of things he would be looking for. So, knowing what I know about Don’s background, I wanted to make it relevant to what he shoots to make it easy for him to go into taking [digital] pictures.”

Both Sir Don and Jeff were working with Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLR cameras, and Jeff’s knowledge of Sir Don’s lens preferences meant that he had specifically requested for Canon 24mm, 28mm, 50mm and 135mm prime EF mount lenses to be amongst the equipment supplied for the shoot.

Unsurprisingly for a photographer of his standing and experience it took very little time for Sir Don to get to grips with the digital equipment. Jeff noted: “By about day two he was off and running. I set the cameras up for him and kept it simple. Focus with the back button and two ISO settings – 800 and 3200. Obviously Don’s a great photographer, so it doesn’t matter what camera he’s going to use – he’s going to pick it up very quickly.”

Once the shoot got up and running Sir Don and Jeff tackled a variety of subjects including a market day in the French town of Bessan, landscapes close to the towns of Laurens, Roquebrun and Tarassac, and the hugely impressive Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard, near Remoulins. But did anything about working closely alongside Sir Don McCullin surprise Jeff Ascough?

Jeff laughed: “He’s very competitive! When we got our pictures back at the end
of the day you could almost feel a bit of competitiveness there – it was an interesting, but very good-humoured, vibe. The passion that Don still has for photography is just incredible; it's quite addictive. His desire to go out and take photographs, when most people would be retired, really surprised me. He’s a ‘real’ photographer – he doesn’t just stay in one genre of photography. It doesn’t matter if it’s still life, portraits, street photography or landscapes – his passion for going out and getting a picture was really incredible. It was a breath of fresh air.”

At the end of each day’s shoot Jeff and Sir Don worked side-by-side on producing prints, via a Canon PIXMA PRO-1 printer, from their digital images. Jeff explained: “The one thing that I felt has always been sacrosanct to Don has been his printing, and how he produces prints, so the weirdest thing for me was actually sitting there and printing his pictures after working on them on a computer. That was surreal for me – never in a million years did I think I’d be printing Don McCullin’s photographs for him. Being able to work on them [the pictures] was an incredible experience for me.”

Jeff revealed: “Don is completely different to me – when I go out on a [wedding] job I’ve got to find 200 pictures in eight hours, so I tend to look for a very consistent level of picture; they need to be of a very good standard. I don’t tend to work towards a peak and get one picture, but that’s how Don works – he wants that one image. When we were editing, as soon as he found the one that he wanted all the others were discarded. He knew immediately what he liked.”

He added: “Don's printing style has influenced my printing style, particularly my landscape work. His whole ethos of making landscapes dark and bringing the skies in resonates with me, so I was familiar with his approach,” Jeff explained.
“It was quite easy to get close to what I thought he would like; then Don would get me to tweak parts of the pictures by dodging and burning on the computer. The most interesting thing was a lot of the images that I’d assumed he’d want to make black and white, he kept in colour.”

So, how does Jeff feel about the shoot now? “For me it was a completely life-changing experience. I learned so much in terms of how Don approaches his subjects and how he likes to photograph them – that has made a huge impact on my style. Don has an incredible amount of appreciation and understanding of what he is photographing – it is almost compassionate. He doesn’t try to humiliate people with his pictures; he has a lot of humility towards his subjects. My fondest memories of the experience away from the photography will be his infectious humour, his stories, and his lust for life.”


Technical film - Canon Europe's Mike Owen explains the equipment


The Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLR used on the shoot has a number of key attributes, including an ISO range of 100 to 25,600 as standard, a 61-point AF system, an intelligent 63-zone iFCL metering system, and a 100% viewfinder for easy picture framing. It also incorporates a powerful combination of a full-frame 22.3 Megapixel CMOS sensor and a DIGIC 5+ processor that delivers superb image quality with a super fast workflow.

Canon Europe’s Professional Imaging Communications Manager, Mike Owen, explained: “Primarily Don and Jeff have used ISOs 800 and 3200 for everything they’ve shot. The reason they’re able to use these higher ISO settings is because Canon has redesigned the sensor that goes into the 5D Mark III by making sure that the design of the pixel is as optimised as possible. We’ve made the photodiode area as large as possible and the gap-less microlenses make sure we focus the light onto the sensor for every single shot.”

To ensure Sir Don had a smooth workflow his EOS 5D Mark III cameras were set up by Jeff Ascough, who acted as a ‘digital guru’ on the shoot. Jeff explained: “I tried to keep the set up of the cameras as simple as possible, not insultingly so, but knowing what I know about Don’s background and the way he likes to shoot. But obviously he’s a great photographer so he’s going to pick it up very quickly.” Jeff set up the 5D Mark III DSLRs with ISO 800 for shooting outdoors and ISO 3200 for shooting indoors, with focusing set up via the AF-ON button on the back of the cameras (which took Sir Don a little while to adjust to as he is steeped in the world of manual focusing), with everything else left down to Sir Don McCullin’s eyes and instincts. Speaking of shooting with the EOS 5D Mark III, Sir Don McCullin commented: “I’m one of those ‘old dinosaurs’ that’s been using film all his life and suddenly I’ve got all this technology at my hands – it’s phenomenal.”

Sir Don revealed: “To walk into a room used to be a big fear to me in the old days with film. You were worried about the light, is there enough light to be able to handhold and shoot a picture? More often than not there wasn’t.” He added: “Now I can walk into almost pitch darkness with these new Canon cameras and shoot by candlelight if I have to. It’s extraordinary to think I’ve been liberated from that fear of ‘is there enough light?’”

Sir Don explained: “You can take whatever recorded image you’ve got and pull it up to enormous sizes and the thing [picture] is still needle sharp. So that gives me so many possibilities in so many categories – an interior, a portrait, a landscape. I could use the longer lenses and do conflict if I had to. There’s no limit now to stop me doing anything… once I master these cameras.”

Canon Ambassador Jeff Ascough, who helped Sir Don McCullin to get to grips with all of the challenges of using digital camera technology on the shoot, made the conscious decision to take certain lenses for the project. Jeff explained: “I knew that Don was a 28mm and a 135mm guy, so that’s why I requested to at least get the new [Canon] EF28mm [lens] with IS [Image Stabilizer] – he had to have a 28mm lens because that was what he was used to.”

At the end of every day of the eight-day shoot the images were downloaded onto an Apple Mac computer and edited using Lightroom 4 software by Jeff Ascough, in response to Sir Don McCullin’s directions, to produce prints via Canon’s PIXMA PRO-1 printer. Jeff explained: “In anticipation of what I was going to do I took my [Lightroom] presets out with me so, with one click, I could turn an image to black and white, and with another click I could darken the edges and add a bit of grain to it. Then we could just adjust the shading and everything else as we wanted to. The whole idea was to get the RAW image to a finished print very quickly.”

  • EOS 5D Mark III

    A superb full-frame DSLR with a 22.3 Megapixel CMOS sensor. Find out more...

  • EF24mm f/2.8 IS USM

    A fast, wide-angle lens with a built-in Canon Image Stabilizer. Find out more...

  • EF28mm f/2.8 IS USM

    An excellent wide-angle optic with a 4-stop IS mechanism. Find out more...

  • EF50mm f/1.2L USM

    A top class prime lens with a super fast f/1.2 aperture. Find out more...

  • EF135mm f/2L USM

    A lens that excels at portraits and indoor low light shooting. Find out more...

Since its introduction, back in 2005, Canon’s EOS 5D-series of digital SLR cameras has become the ‘go-to’ choice of main camera for many photojournalists around the world. Thus, it was the obvious choice to put the latest EOS 5-series camera – the 22.3 Megapixel full-frame EOS 5D Mark III DSLR – in the hands of the legendary photojournalist Sir Don McCullin for this major digital location shoot.

Throughout the shoot both Sir Don McCullin and Jeff Ascough used Canon full-frame EOS 5D Mark III digital SLRs in combination with Canon EF lenses. A range of fast aperture Canon prime lenses – most notably the EF24mm f/2.8 IS USM, EF28mm f/2.8 IS USM, EF50mm f/1.2L USM and the EF135mm f/2L USM – were used to deliver the maximum sharpness and the best quality optical performance. Sir Don also used the EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM (chiefly for portraiture), whilst Jeff favoured the EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM zoom and the EF85mm f/1.8 USM for many shots.

Behind the Scenes - Shooting 'Seeking the Light'


In this section we have included a showcase of some of the snapshots the crew took on the shoot. We have also listed out all the different locations we visited.


Country: France
Region: Languedoc-Roussillon – Hérault Region
Base Camp: Laurens

Shooting locations

Laurens | Narbonne | Bessan | Bouzigues | Tarassac | Roquebrun |
Pont du Gard | Nîmes