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Under Namibian skies: living the moment with an EOS 7D Mark II

Under Namibian skies: living the moment with an EOS 7D Mark II

© Joel Santos

March 2016

Canon Explorer and travel photographer Joel Santos makes the most of every adventure he organises. As CPN writer Mark Alexander finds out, a recent trip to Namibia with the EOS 7D Mark II and the new EF100-400mm telephoto zoom was no different...

During his trip, Joel Santos found himself frantically sprinting across a sand dune as it was being lit by the warm rays of the rising sun. Excited and absorbed at same time, his chase wasn’t to reach a definitive viewpoint, but to change his shooting angle to achieve a suitable background for his chosen subject - a lone gembok oryx. “Now I understand how you get your pictures,” commented one of his students after his intense race.

© Joel Santos
© Joel Santos

A young male springbok, backlit in the dust of passing zebras. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens with an EF1.4x III converter; the exposure was 1/1000sec at f/10, ISO 400.

The travel and landscape photographer’s mad dash took place during a 16-day expedition to one of Africa’s most photographed countries. It produced a beautifully lit image showcasing the imposing sand dunes of the Namib Desert towering over the solitary beast. “I ran like a crazy guy,” remembers Santos. “I had the oryx but I didn’t have the perfect background. So I ran for more than a kilometre and finally I got the background that fitted the oryx coming into the frame. It was the first shot of the trip when it all came together.”

It was one of those moments when the all-consuming, obsessive chase for the perfect image so often associated with early morning shoots produces simply spectacular results. “It’s one of the many reasons I get passionate about photography,” explains Santos. “In those instances, I feel my senses are fully aware. I see more – it’s like a super power. You see more than other people see because you are so focused on the detail. You’re in a magic bubble. It’s addictive.”

Incredible locations

With their red dunes, white salt pans and dark, dead camel thorn trees, the Sossus Vlei and Dead Vlei regions of Namibia are dream locations for photographers and filmmakers. Extraordinary colours and massive tonal contrasts provide tantalising backdrops that are ideal for fashion, wildlife and landscape shoots. Perfect, in fact, for a group of aspiring photographers eager to bag a beautiful image.

The trip was also the ideal opportunity to test out the pairing between the EOS 7D Mark II with dual DIGIC 6 image processors and EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM telephoto zoom. “I had the chance to use a pre-production EF100-400mm II, but this was the first time I had used the final production lens with the EOS 7D Mark II,” explains Santos. “I had already done some landscape photos with the camera but no wildlife shots or portraits, and it had already made me seriously think about changing my kitbag.”

© Joel Santos
© Joel Santos

Petrified trees at Dead Vlei (translated: ‘dead marsh’), inside the Namib-Naukluft Park, Namibia. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 170mm; the exposure was 1/320sec at f/8, ISO 400.

With a new combo to test out – along with his usual EOS 5DS R – and nothing but remarkable views in front of him, Santos set about putting the fresh pairing through their paces. The results were nothing short of breathbreaking. “This was the first time I pushed those focal lengths into my photography,” Santos reveals. “My world existed between 8mm for the fisheye and 200mm, but I found there was a new world beyond 200mm,” he says. “When you step back and zoom in you amplify the background. I could make photographs that I could never do with a 70-200mm. I got huge backgrounds and was able to convey that these dunes were the biggest in the world. The photo with the oryx would have been impossible without the EF100-400mm.”

Until this point, Santos had travelled with the compact EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM, with his decision to include the lens being based on the quality of the glass and its associated light weight. Adding 880g with a tripod mount, the EF100-400mm II is heavier but it brings with it extra reach that gave Santos a whole new perspective.

“I wouldn’t change my past because it is very positive for every photographer to train their brain and eyes using a certain focal length,” he says. “I was so familiar between 70mm and 200mm that when I picked up the 100-400mm, that knowledge still played a role. But you also get a new set of eyes. You can get shots beyond 200mm that I would have never considered before.”

Light fantastic

He then refers to a shot that was taken following the decision to call it a day at the dunes as the sun had reached such a height that all the good light was all but gone. As his party departed, Santos looked back and saw a scene that appeared desaturated due to the angle of the light and the distance they had travelled. “Because it was backlit, you couldn’t see the true colour of the dunes so it looked white or grey,” he explains. “I took it far, far away with the 100-400mm and I would have missed it if I hadn’t had that lens. It was one of those moments when you thought all of the best shots had already been taken, but the image I like the best from the dunes shoot was made in those final moments, in the worst possible light.”

© Joel Santos
© Joel Santos

A baby belonging to the semi-nomadic Himba tribe of Namibia. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 42mm; the exposure was 1/160sec at f/2.8, ISO 1600.

A streak of light that glanced upon the ridge of the dune lasted for about a minute before the sun breached the summit and its rays flooded the scene with bright engulfing light. At that moment in a location filled with iconic views, Santos was able to see something different. Something new.

He was also getting to know a new side of the EOS 7D Mark II, which boasts up to 65 cross-type focus points that can lock on to both horizontal and vertical detail. This became particularly useful when he was photographing wildlife. “When I tested the 7D Mark II more than a year ago, I mostly took landscape shots using live view and manual focus, so no moving subjects. I didn’t really get a chance to test the autofocus precision and speed. During this trip I had lots of opportunities to do that with both wildlife and people. I was amazed how quick it was.”

He continues: “I did some photos with a fisheye, and there is one shot in particular of a pelican from below with a sun star. The pelicans were flying and landing above me and I was amazed how fast the autofocus picked them up.” The shot in question was taken from what appears to be an impossible angle, but perfectly illustrates the ability of the camera to freeze the action at exactly the right moment. Shot bursts of up to 10 frames per second also helped.

But these images were taken in clear, bright sunlight - what happens when conditions aren’t ideal? Etosha National Park features a salt pan so large it can be seen from space. As well as attracting stellar interest, it also draws together an abundance of wildlife including zebras and springbok. The result is almost guaranteed game sightings and plenty of dust.

“In that kind of situation, it is really hard for the autofocus to pick up the contrast and focus on the right area,” explains Santos. “But I was amazed how easily I could grab the shot, even with the dust. The autofocus system could have easily got messed up but I got the shot.”

© Joel Santos
© Joel Santos

A cheetah feasts. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; the exposure was 1/1000sec at f/5.6, ISO 640.

During the 17-day safari, Santos took around 10,000 shots following his rule of thumb that dictates he takes three shots for every eventual keeper. His fear of losing a shot to a blinking eye or misplaced hoof ensures his memory cards are filled up by the time he boards his return flight. It also means he has plenty of shots from which to choose that special one.

An adventurous spirit

The Namibia trip was one of nine international adventures he completed over a busy 2015. It was notable for the amazing landscapes, abundance of wildlife and fantastic light. It also fundamentally shifted the Portuguese photographer’s way of looking at the world thanks to a special combination of camera and lens.

In one specific shot of a group of flamingos, all these elements came together beautifully. “The photo with the flamingos is a combination between the 7D Mark II, the EF 1.4x III extender and the 100-400mm at full extension, so you get almost 900mm in that shot,” says Santos. “The sun was setting behind them so it was a low-light situation. I couldn’t lug about a tripod so it was handheld and backlit, and you can still see water dropping from the flamingos’ beaks. It’s amazing that with the 7D, the extender and this lens wide open I could take such a sharp photograph.”

No matter how often Santos organises trips to spectacular locations like Namibia, he knows that opportunities to photograph flamingos, zebras and enormous dunescapes only present themselves momentarily. In that instant, the mania of getting the shot is heightened by the fleeting nature of the opportunity. Having the right kit in his hands helped Santos make the most of his. “A moment won’t repeat itself,” he says, “you’ll never get it back, even if you think you will. The more photography you do, the more you realise you’ve got to use it or lose it.”

Biography: Joel Santos

Joel Santos

Born in Lisbon, Portugal, Joel Santos has travelled the world perfecting his insightful style of travel and landscape photography. His work has been featured on more than 30 magazine covers and showcased in numerous exhibitions. He is the author of five books and was the editor in chief of O Mundo da Fotografia Digital, Portugal’s best-selling photo magazine. He has a string of international photographic awards to his name and fills his time leading photography trips and workshops around the world. He is a part of Canon’s Ambassador Programme and contributes as a Canon Explorer.


Petrified trees at Dead Vlei (translated: ‘dead marsh’), inside the Namib-Naukluft Park, Namibia. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/7.1, ISO 400.