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Flight of fancy: Markus Varesvuo on the EOS-1D X Mark II

Flight of fancy: Markus Varesvuo on the EOS-1D X Mark II

© Markus Varesvuo

September 2016

Canon Explorer Markus Varesvuo has built up an enviable reputation in his native Finland for exceptional images of birds. To capture those extraordinary and fleeting moments he relies heavily on his equipment, and has recently added the EOS-1D X Mark II to his arsenal to help push back the boundaries of creative capture even further, as CPN Editor David Corfield discovers in this exclusive interview...

With such a vast array of wild subject matter on his doorstep, it’s hardly surprising that Markus Varesvuo decided to give up a career in business management to concentrate on capturing the beauty of birds in pictures. He first began shooting with Canon back in the days of film before moving to the first EOS-1D digital body in 2002 and cites their advances in lenses and lens technology as the reason he opted for – and remains loyal to – the brand.

© Markus Varesvuo
© Markus Varesvuo

Common gull in flight. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF600mm f/4L IS II USM lens; the exposure was 1/4000sec at f/8, ISO 1600.

“Canon was the first company to introduce image stabilisers in long lenses. This was revolutionary, and greatly improved shooting with longer focal lengths,” Markus explains. “The next step was autofocus, which totally changed action photography altogether and made my life easier for sure. And now good image quality has become possible even in very low light, thanks to being able to use high ISO values and retain image quality.”

After using the original EOS-1D X, Markus was very familiar with the legendary camera’s performance and fast focusing. But was he ready for the Mark II? He explains: “After four years with the 1D X, the new Mark II feels very familiar, with an interface that I could continue using without any major re-learning. The EOS-1D X Mark II has the same solid professional camera feel, which I found so beautiful with the 1D X. The new body is much quieter in continuous shooting mode, too, plus it’s even faster than its predecessor.”

Creative choices

So which advancement is most useful for a bird photographer: higher ISO, or faster AF? Markus considers his reply: “For me, it’s the faster AF, which is best seen when using the 61 AF points. What’s a really big improvement is getting autofocus at f/8 with a combination of, for example, the EF500mm f/4 telephoto and the 2x Extender. Now I can use any of the 61 AF points and really get good results with tracking birds as they fly. It’s getting harder and harder to blame the equipment for any bad results!” he laughs.

© Markus Varesvuo
© Markus Varesvuo

Hawk owl in the snow. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x lens at 400mm; the exposure was 1/5000sec at f/7.1, ISO 6400.

He continues: “The improved continuous shooting speed in both AI Servo and One Shot is making it easier for me to get the image that I want, for example capturing the birds wing in just the right position as it flies. Focusing at f/8 with a combination of lens and Extender was problematic in the 1D X, but not with the Mark II. To be honest, the autofocus could still be improved for tracking the likes of small fast moving birds against a busy background, but that’s the beauty of Canon: they are always listening to feedback and always improving the performance and quality.”

Markus uses the EOS-1D X Mark II’s customisable options to set it up perfectly for his field of work. “I want to control the amount of motion in the images, so I go with speed. I’ve got the safety function on all the time, set to drop the shutter speed automatically if there isn’t enough light to correctly expose at the shutter speed that I have chosen, and if I choose 1/3200sec, I sometimes use Auto ISO to raise the ISO if conditions get darker so that my desired shutter speed can be reached. If I’m shooting a flying bird against a background, then I’ll change the tracking sensitivity to fit the background; the busier and more difficult the background, the lower the AF Tracking sensitivity!”

He continues: “For me, shutter speed leads the process, meaning that I always choose the right shutter speed for the situation, selecting speed that I know will freeze the bird as I want. To fully freeze a small flying bird, the shutter speed should be at least 1/3200sec minimum and if I want to show motion in the wings, I may choose 1/125sec. If I’m shooting against the sky I often use the 61 focusing points, and also when shooting against a busier background. This, functions much better than with the original 1D X.”

Technique tips

So with the best equipment at his disposal, how does this quiet Finn put it to good use? “My method of choice is to sit and wait in a good spot for birds to fly past,” Markus explains. “However, one needs to know the best locations, not to mention the bird behaviour! If I’m shooting with 500mm or 600mm lenses, I tend to hand hold. If I’ve got an Extender – such as the 1.4x or 2x – then I’ll use a tripod with a video head. I try to wait for the moment when the camera’s AF has caught onto the object and focused before I start shooting in continuous mode. This, I’ve found, gives me the best results, with more sharp frames.”

© Markus Varesvuo
© Markus Varesvuo

Pallid harrier. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF600mm f/4L IS II USM lens with EF2x III Extender (effective focal length 1200mm); the exposure was 1/3200sec at f/13, ISO 3200.

Does the focusing at f/8 ability give him greater creative flexibility? “It makes it easier to shoot less approachable birds, for sure,” he affirms. “Some birds need to be photographed from a hide in order to not disturb them, but many species are afraid of humans due to hunting, for example, which makes it really handy to get that extra reach when necessary using an Extender. And obviously it’s good for getting those super close-ups, too. At 1200mm with autofocus it gives quite a reach and enables a much bigger playing field for close-ups and compositional choices.”

This year Markus has been spending a lot of time on a new book, which he is producing. “My last book project on northern game birds spanned several years and was completed in the end of 2015. This new one is based partly on the same picture material and partly on fresh material. It’s an international photo book project called ‘Birds In Pictures’ by New Holland Publishers and is out next spring. Also this year, I published the Chinese edition of the Handbook of Bird Photography, which has so far been published in Finnish, English, French and German. It’s been very popular!”

Advice from the top

With the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Contest looming large next month, I ask Markus what advice he would give to aspiring photographers. “It’s more important to know and understand the subject of your photography than your camera body. After this you then you need to study your camera’s functions and settings so that when you are out there shooting, you can concentrate on the subject and the action, plus the surroundings and the composition without having to figure out how to use your equipment. Learn the basics before you set out!”

He continues: “A good habit to learn is to always set your camera and lens up for action photography when you go out, because a great opportunity may come your way at any time and you won’t have time to start fiddling with your gear. Set focus to AI Servo and choose the right shutter speed to freeze even fast movement; select the right lens for your subjects and leave it to your camera, instead of keeping it in your camera bag. If you stumble upon a calm and slow situation, then you’ll have plenty of time to change your settings and optics, but should it be a fast situation – you’d better be ready!”

Markus Varesvuo’s bird photography kitbag


2x EOS-1D X Mark II


EF14mm f/2.8L II USM
EF24mm f/1.4L II USM
EF35mm f/2 IS USM
EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x
EF400mm f/2.8L IS II USM
EF500mm f/4L IS II USM
EF600mm f/4L IS II USM
EF800mm f/5.6L IS USM
EF1.4x III Extender
EF2x III Extender


  • Continuous shooting at up to 14fps for full resolution RAW or JPEGS; up to 16fps in Live View mode.
  • Burst rate of up to 170 RAWs in continuous shooting at up to 16fps and 4K movies using CFast cards in new CFast 2.0 card slot.
  • New 20.2 Megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor with ISO range of 100-51,200; expandable up to ISO 409,600.
  • 61-point High Density Reticular AF II system with 41 cross-type points; improved centre point focusing sensitivity to -3EV and compatibility down to f/8.
  • Accurate subject tracking for stills and video with new EOS Intelligent Tracking and Recognition AF with 360,000-pixel metering sensor.
  • View and control over stills and video via the 3.2-inch touch panel LCD with 1.62 million dots.
  • Increased resolution and fine detail with lens aberration correction and diffraction correction via new in-camera Digital Lens Optimizer technology.
  • Built-in GPS provides geotag information including auto time syncing with Universal Times Code (UTC) via satellites.
  • New optional Wireless File Transmitter WFT-E8A is compatible with IEEE 802.11ac/n/a/g/b; supporting both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi bands.
  • Durable and rugged magnesium alloy body with dust- and weather resistance for demanding shooting situations.

Biographie: Markus Varesvuo

Markus Varesvuo

Following a 25-year career in business in 2005 Canon Explorer Markus Varesvuo made the leap to become a professional wildlife photographer. Born in Helsinki, Finland, Markus Varesvuo has been fascinated with birds since childhood. He has won himself a deserved reputation for the high quality of his photography, often sitting in remote hides in freezing temperatures for days at a time to get the perfect image. Markus has had several books published in his native Finland, and since 2011 he’s published two more with New Holland Publishers: ‘Birds Magic Moments’ (in seven different language editions), and ‘Fascinating Birds’. In February 2014, it was announced that he had won second prize in the Nature Singles category of the 2014 World Press Photo Contest.


Wood sandpiper. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF600mm f/4L IS II USM lens; the exposure was 1/4000sec at f/8, ISO 2500.