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June 2007

Going to the ends of the earth is what wildlife photographers do, but working in extreme climates presents unique challenges. CPN talks to award-winning shooter Martin Eisenhawer about how patience and careful planning can make all the difference.

Wildlife commissions are not easy to come by and not everyone can work for National Geographic. But for Swiss-based German Photographer Martin Eisenhawer the lack of commercial support was never going to stop him following his passion.

Now 38 years old, Martin was inspired by his biology teacher father to take pictures of animals from the age of 14 when he was given his first camera.

An early prize awarded by his local zoo inspired him even further, as did a trip to Kenya. But it wasn’t until 2000 that he started working as a freelance photographer.

“I do all the funding myself for trips and sell to journals, and book and calendar publishers. I like to support conservation; next year, I’ll have several images in the Barnes & Noble World Wildlife Fund calendar.”

Two years ago, Martin received news of his first major breakthrough, and one that gave him an international reputation. He won not just one, but two category prizes in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition for 2005 organised by London’s Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine. ‘Crane snow flight’ was the winner of the Gerald Durrell Award for Endangered Wildlife and ‘Whooper swans at dawn’ won the Animals in their Environment category. He followed it up last year with two more awards in the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition for 2006.

“Winning awards is great publicity, but it’s not enough for me to be able to live off photography,” he says. “Very few wildlife photographers can do this, and the ones who do, have been in business for a long time and do a lot of images for stock agencies. Contract work, like that for National Geographic, is rare.”

Shooting cold

Much of Martin’s award-winning photography has been shot in cold climates. The 2005 prizes were taken in Hokkaido in Japan, and CPN caught up with Martin soon after returning from a recent 10-week trip to Antarctica, Patagonia and the Falkland Islands.

“Going to Antarctica was always on my wish list,” says Martin. “On that leg of the trip I travelled on an ice-breaker with about 100 people, but went to the Falklands and Patagonia with just my girlfriend, doing about four weeks’ trekking in each place. It was quite tough at times. I had to carry about 17kg of photography equipment, not including the tripod, and even more for camping. At one point the tent blew down in the middle of the night and we had to sleep under some rocks.”

“It was an amazing trip though. I sweated with emperor penguins, saw the most amazing mountains - and that is saying something coming from someone living in Switzerland - got close with fighting elephant seals, had dirt picked of my shoes by king penguins, took a shower with the rockhoppers and was able to enjoy the grace of the black-browed albatrosses very close.”

Martin’s selection

© Martin Eisenhawer

“I was running around in a snow storm for about three hours trying to get this shot of a penguin in the Falkland Islands.

Most of the ground was light-coloured and sandy. But there was this area of peat and I thought it would be great to get a gentoo penguin against a dark background. The sand was blowing over the peat giving the scene a mysterious quality.
I was completely black afterwards and the equipment suffered a bit.

With the EOS-1Ds Mark II, the autofocus points are quite central so I had to manually pre-focus on some bits of peat that were sticking up and hope that a penguin would reach that plane of focus. It did.“

© Martin Eisenhawer

“This one was taken on the Hokkaido in Japan in February 2005. Many people think this was taken from about. But it was taken from the ground and in the background is a blurred tree. The snowfall helps to create this image. I like the red-crowned cranes. I understand why they are sacred to the Japanese.”

© Martin Eisenhawer

“This was also taken on Hokkaido. It was -20°C when I took this and very uncomfortable to take because I was lying on the ground and had to bend over the water and then wait for a long time for the best situation.”

© Martin Eisenhawer

“I like the monochromatic scene in this one, which recently won the second prize in the bird category in the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. I like black and white images that are actually colour and contain something to show that they are colour, like the spot of red in this one. It’s an image where you don’t really know where you are.”

© Martin Eisenhawer

“This one was good luck because of the great cloud formation. The black-browed albatrosses were very peaceful and if you were moving slowly you could get very close to them. They would fly in and even touch me with their wings. With long-line fishing these birds are becoming increasingly rare and so these images will be useful for conservation purposes. I used a polariser for this photo. With all these images I do very little post processing - just remove the odd dust spot and some minor contrast and sharpening work.”

© Martin Eisenhawer

“The weather can play a big part in taking images in remote areas. Taking pictures in Patagonia is quite difficult because of the cloud cover and the strong wind. These two images are of Mt Fitzroy in Glacier National Park in Patagonia. It was the only clear morning during our time in that area, so it was important to capture it then. The first one is immediately before sunrise and the second just after when the sun rays hit the mountain.”

Martin says:
“I switched to digital in April 2004 when I bought an EOS-1D Mark II, just prior to a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Before that I’d mainly shot colour slides for my animal photography with a bit of black and white, but having got the EOS-1D Mark II I was hooked and never looked back. Differences? Well, for projection, when I do lecturing, slides are still better, but this is more a function of the quality of digital projectors. Most of the audience seem very happy with the quality of digital projection but to my eyes I still prefer the image quality of a good slide projector in terms of resolution and depth of colour. But for prints and web work I’m more than confident that digital gives me at least as good quality as film if not better. I don’t really like the grain I get when scanning slides (even Velvia 50) and I seem to have problems keeping the slide flat when scanning - maybe with a better drum scanner this would be improved though. Many editors have come to appreciate the quality of files derived from cameras such as the EOS-1D Mark II.”

“Although I do have some dust problems with digital, especially when I am working in dusty environments like Africa and have to change lenses frequently, for me dust is not that big an issue because you can deal with it in post processing.”

“What I am really missing in the lens line up is a high quality zoom 200 or 300 - 600mm f/4L IS USM, perhaps DO technology, which would make life so much easier for all wildlife photographers. I have constantly been confronted with situations where it was impossible to quickly change lenses and I was left very frustrated not having been able to capture the beautiful picture I just had seen.”

“For focusing I use the Servo Mode and I’ve set the Custom Functions to give me focus lock by pressing the * button which I operate with my thumb.

This means I don’t have to switch between Servo and One Shot but effectively I’ve got the same functionality to lock focus whenever I want to in the Servo Mode. This works very well when I follow some action and suddenly a static situation develops. I then can simply lock focus and recompose the image.”

“Exposure with digital is quite different compared to shooting slides. I now expose for the highlights and don’t worry too much about the shadows. I usually use the evaluative metering system (except situations with quickly changing backgrounds for which I use manual exposure) and manually correct exposure to push the histogram to the right, being careful not to clip the highlights. This is the best way to have as much detail as possible throughout the whole dynamic range that the sensor is able to capture. For static scenes with a big dynamic range, I sometimes use multiple exposure techniques.”

“I shoot exclusively in RAW and I’m pretty happy with that although I wish processing was faster. The previews take a long time no matter what software you use. I use Raw Shooter Professional and it’s not bad but it would be an improvement if the time it takes to pop from low resolution to high resolution could be shortened.”


Martin Eisenhawer’s equipment:

EOS-1Ds Mark II
EOS-1D Mark II

EF500mm f/4.0L IS USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM
EF17-40mm f/4.0L USM
Sigma 15mm f/2.8 fisheye

Canon EF1.4x Mark II
Canon EF2x Mark II

Canon Speedlite 580 EX
Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2

Other accessories:
B&W circular polariser
Cokin Graduated Neutral Density filters
Heiler (Panther) Video tripod with Heiler (Panther) Video 1 fluid head
Various CF and SD memory cards - Sandisk Extreme III and IV, 1GB to 4GB
1 Sony Vaio Labtop 14” VGN-BX394VP, 80 GB HD
1 Gigavue Pro 80 GB
2 external 2.5” drives 120 GB each

Hilleberg tunnel tent Nammatj 2 GT
Primus Multifuel stove
Exped Downmat 7
Mountain Equipment down sleeping bag

Biography: Martin Eisenhawer

Martin Eisenhawer

This German photographer, 38, now living in Switzerland, trained as a biochemist and became a freelance wildlife photographer in 2000. He was been awarded four major prizes in the past 18 months.