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October 2015

Magical Mongolia: Joel Santos on the EOS 5DS R

When top travel photographer and Canon Explorer Joel Santos planned a trip to cover two stories in Mongolia – documenting the lives of Eagle Hunters and the Summer migration of a Kazakh nomad family – he was keen to ensure he had the high-resolution EOS 5DS R DSLR in his kitbag. In an exclusive interview he spoke to CPN writer Steve Fairclough to explain the story behind the projects and how the 50.6 Megapixel camera fared in capturing every detail.

Joel had already had the chance to work with the EOS 5DS, shooting landscapes in his native Portugual and he was keen to try its sister camera, which features a low-pass cancellation filter to help to deliver maximum sensor resolution. “Taking the [EOS] 5DS R prototype was my request and, fortunately, the schedules met and I was able to document everything with a 50.6 Megapixel camera; proving that you can take medium format levels of resolution to one of the harshest and most inhospitable settings in the world and take the camera to the limits.”

The Mongolian projects

He reveals: “This year I decided I wanted to take on some personal projects. I was already in love with Mongolia… travelling back in time, when I was teaching in East Timor, I remember going on an aeroplane and looking out the window and I saw these amazing landscapes when we flew over Mongolia, China and Russia. I saw Ulan Bator on the map and even the name sounded kind of exotic – I looked down at the landscapes and I was completely amazed by what I was seeing.”

© Joel Santos

The weather in Western Mongolia is merciless, going from extremely hot to extremely cold, which is why it’s not unusual to find children with sun/cold burnt cheeks. It’s surprising how they cope with the low temperatures with not many layers of clothes, revealing how well their bodies are adapted to their natural environment. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm; the exposure was 1/250sec at f/3.2, ISO 1600.

“It [Mongolia] has been on my mind since 1998 and finally I decided to go there. I also had in mind a documentary about the Eagle Hunters that I saw on the BBC, so I wanted to go there and document that [story] in a different way. One of the things I realised that hadn’t been done before was following a regular family on their migration. In the past the Kazakhs were forced to move out of Kazakhstan to China, Russia and Mongolia. In Mongolia they found peace, a place [to live] and people who allowed them to live the way they always lived before – they still keep their nomadic traditions and follow all their values.”

In total Joel spent nearly 16 days on the ground in Mongolia – first of all documenting the five-day Summer migration of the nomadic Kudha family and then spending over 10 days with three different Eagle Hunter families in the Altai Mountains in the Ölgii region of Western Mongolia. As well as the EOS 5DS R camera he brought three zoom lenses – an EF11-24mm f/4L USM, an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM – plus an EF50mm f/1.8 STM prime lens in his kitbag.

Of the nomads Joel recalls: “Just being with them is just like travelling in time; understanding your own roots and understanding why we were nomads. We were nomads because of climate changes and your most valuable asset is not money; it is cattle and the goods you can produce from them – cheese, milk, meat and so on. So you have to follow the rhythms of nature and to be able to do that you have to have a very strong, core family – you’re dependent on everybody and everybody becomes important.”

He adds: “They start migrating when winter-time has finished – when the snow melts the grass starts to appear and suddenly the temperature rises, the cattle eat everything and stocks of hay are depleted… they don’t have anything else to eat so they really must move. Then an epic journey begins – this has two separate routes. I went to a family that has never seen tourists before. The family is ruled by a man called Muhammed Kudha. He and one of his three sons were waiting to go through the mountains – 150 kilometres from ‘hell’ in search of ‘paradise’. The second group – his wife, his grandsons and his other sons – would take a Russian truck with the Ger – that kind of nomadic house that they assemble – and the family was split for five days.”

Joel travelled through the mountains on foot with the two men on horseback. “It was an incredible journey – the first day we walked 35 kilometres from 2,000 metres to 2,800 metres on a very rough terrain; going through dried up rivers. They were on horses but had to take care of the goats, the sheep, the horses and the Yaks, which all together were 500 heads of cattle; avoiding other migrating families because it’s a huge problem if the cattle get mixed up. Steadily we got to paradise – suddenly you start seeing the Altai mountain range just emerging from the landscape, the snow-capped mountains, the green lands, the snow melting and the rivers flowing. It gives you goosebumps because you have the time to follow them and understand why they do this and why it’s so important.”

© Joel Santos
© Joel Santos

Eagle Hunter Shohan riding his horse in the Altai Mountain range, Western Mongolia. Eagles fly using gravity to hunt their prey so the Eagle Hunters must take them to a vantage point, usually higher grounds on the nearby mountain tops. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 24mm; the exposure was 1/100sec at f/7.1, ISO 400.

Documenting the Eagle Hunters

The Eagle Hunters found in this region of Western Mongolia are also nomads and hail from the same ethnic group. Joel explains: “The only difference is that some traditions can only be passed on from father to son – in Mongolia you can only be an Eagle Hunter if your father was one. There are only 400 Eagle Hunters in the whole world who still do it in the traditional way and are blood-related – most of them live in Mongolia.”

His EOS 5DS R images document the lives of three different Eagle Hunter families – who were headed up by Shohan, Agalai and Sailau – with whom Joel lived for several days to get close to them. Perhaps the strongest aspect of the story is the tale of Ashol Pan, who is Agalai’s young daughter.

Joel explains: “This is quite a rare story because eagle hunting is primarily done by men and then along came a girl who, at the age of 12, started to show interest in becoming an Eagle Hunter. You would expect people would want to become Eagle Hunters because their fathers are, but most of them don't because it’s a really hard life; it’s not easy at all.”

He reveals: “Agalai started preparing an eagle and at the age of 13 that girl [Ashol Pan] started to train her eagle with the help of her father. Then something incredible happened – every year there’s a festival, where Eagle Hunters come from all over Mongolia, Pakistan and Kazakhstan and compete to see who is the best. This young girl, at the age of 13 – the first year you can actually become an Eagle Hunter – won the festival. The eagle came to her in just seven seconds, which is beyond amazing.”

© Joel Santos

A Kazakh nomad pictured in the Altai Mountain range, Western Mongolia. Kazakhs living in Mongolia are, arguably, the very last nomads. They still follow the cattle and nature rhythms, migrating during Summer and Winter times to search for better grasslands and shelter from prevailing weather conditions. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/11, ISO 400.

Joel explains: “This story is about an activity that is known to exist but I wanted to improve on that; be closer to them and really understand them. Sometimes you just see the photos or the video documentaries but you don't realise how they do it. How is it possible that you can make a wild animal trust you and hunt for you?”

He reveals: “It’s always a female eagle, never a male. Female eagles are bigger, stronger, more agile and more focused while hunting. They always take them from the nest or from nature. If they take them from the nest then the Eagle Hunter must teach them how to hunt but mostly they will try to take eagles from the wild whilst they're still young – the eagle mother will already have taught the chick how to hunt.”

The eagles are then trained by voice with each Eagle Hunter using a unique set of vocalisations to communicate with their eagle. Joel adds: “They don't want to lose the eagle so they cut some guide feathers – that’s why you always see Eagle Hunters on top of a mountain. It looks like something that’s done on purpose [for photographs] but it’s actually how they do it – they need to go to a high point so they can see the prey and because the eagle will not fly up; only down. She will use gravity and only has one chance to catch the prey. That’s why you see Eagle Hunters holding the eagles up, so they can see better.”

When the eagles catch the prey the Eagle Hunters quickly ride down the mountain by horse and give the lungs or the liver to the eagle as a reward, whilst collecting the prey. Joel reveals: “This is not a year-long activity – they only do it for two or three months per year. I was expecting them to enjoy the hunting and do it for the pleasure of killing, but actually they do it because it’s a way of getting food. All three families were not excited about the eagle hunting season starting because they respect the rhythm of nature and have no pleasure in hunting prey that is still young. When the time comes they hunt and they finish when the season finishes. As soon as the eagle reaches 10-years-old, half of their life expectancy, they are returned to nature to breed again and have a normal life with another eagle.”


Joel took a prototype of the EOS 5DS R on this trip and shot RAW files. “It wasn’t just landscapes [this time] because when I was just travelling through Portugal [with the EOS 5DS] I didn't have to push the camera to its limits. I knew I was shooting JPEGs so my strategy was to play safe and not to do so many ‘against the light’ photos. I didn't take the full risks with the camera because I knew I was limited in a way.”

© Joel Santos

Ashol Pan, a 14-year-old Eagle Huntress, pictured in the Altai Mountain range, Western Mongolia. She’s the younger of the only two female Eagle Hunters in the world and, at the age of 13, on her first possible chance to embrace this tradition, she won the Eagle Hunting Festival in Mongolia. Shy and feminine, she rivals boys in strength and sheer connection with her eagle. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 142mm; the exposure was 1/320sec at f/5, ISO 800.

He adds: “Now [with the 5DS R] I felt free because I knew I could shoot RAW files and I was sure I would be able to process them in RAW when I got home. Finally I understood what this camera is really about. I can use the [5fps] high-speed drive mode to take a series of shots – that was one of my main concerns because I was going to shoot people who were holding eagles and were galloping on horses; using the camera in far from ideal situations. I was happy to realise that the camera can cope with high-speed shooting. Of course, it’s not for sports but you can make 20 RAW files and the buffer will ‘flush away’ quite easily on a good CF card. The SD slot on the new camera seems much faster than that of the 5D Mark III. Of course, the performance is not the same as the CF but it’s good enough for me to trust shooting to a good SD card – I was happy with that.”

In contrast to his ‘safe’ landscape shoot with the EOS 5DS Joel also began shooting contre-jour in Mongolia and found out more about the dynamic range capabilities of the EOS 5DS R. “From my own testing I think that it’s one stop better than the 5D Mark III – it’s much better. You still have to take into account that we’re talking about a 50.6 Megapixel sensor, so technology-wise I think it’s amazing to make such a high megapixel count sensor and still improve the dynamic range.”

He adds: “Another thing is that because of the kind of light I want to keep in my photos in most of them I was using a polarizer [filter]. So, now I have two challenges – I have a polarizer so I have to use at least one or two stops of light gathering through my lens and use high ISO [values] in order to take the same photographs. Also, the subjects are moving, and I want to freeze action, so I have to use a shutter speed of at least 1/250sec or 1/320sec, sometimes more, in order to avoid camera shake and freeze motion.”

© Joel Santos
© Joel Santos

Shohan and his female golden eagle pictured in the Altai Mountain range, Western Mongolia – there is a profound and mutual bond between the two hunters. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 57mm; the exposure was 1/400sec at f/3.5, ISO 1000.

Joel admits: “I found myself using this camera not in the way I was using the 5DS, which was [not against the] light, low ISO etc. I was using this camera with high ISO and moving without a tripod – most of the photos use high ISO so my concern was… what kind of noise will I get from my photos? Actually the noise performance is very good; in the 5DS R native ISO is capped [at 6400] but the performance is really good.”

“It was incredible to see the photo that I’m holding printed in A3 and you look at it and think it’s amazing – then you see the same photo printed in A1 and there was so much more detail that I was not seeing on the face and on the fur. It’s quite an addiction when you start seeing that kind of detail – it’s very good.”

Workflow and handling benefits

The benefit of spending over two weeks working solidly with the EOS 5DS R brought new insights for Joel, including into the camera’s crop ratio modes and operation. “That ‘weird’ M-Fn (Multi-function) button, which I normally never use… on this camera you can assign that button to change the crop mode. It’s quite amazing because you can go from full-frame to APS-C size and when you shoot – for example, when I was taking portraits – I could go from 50 to 20 megapixels, which is more than enough, and have that [cropped] frame and I can think better and just take the photo. When I import the photo into Lightroom I already have the photo frame exactly as I did while using the camera.”

He continues: “So, as a workflow, it’s very good and [thanks to crop ratios] you have more than one focal distance, either using a fixed focal length or a zoom lens. You can keep your mind process going without having to worry about changing the lens because you can just change your lens electronically [by crop mode], just keep shooting and still have a 20 megapixel file.”

© Fernando Guerra

Canon Explorer Joel Santos pictured holding an A1 (594x841mm) print of Shohan’s father during a recent Canon EOS 5DS/5DS R presentation at the Colorfoto Megastore in Lisbon, Portugal. The high-resolution in a SLR body allowed Joel Santos to document two personal projects in Mongolia with unprecedented detail, without compromising the weight restrictions that such an epic and physical journey imposed.

Joel reveals: “It’s just the same camera [as the 5D Mark III] – the same handling, the same ergonomics but with the resolution of a medium format camera. During a recent presentation with (fellow Canon Explorer) Fernando Guerra we were able to share our different experiences with the camera because we have very different styles of photography. We had a mixed audience, some who were professionals using medium format cameras, who wanted to understand why they might need a 50 Megapixel camera and to see the results…”

“When they saw the photo of the old man, which is not one of the best photos from my trip, but is one of the best to showcase the camera’s performance because it’s an on-location shot without any specific lighting; it was overcast – they were amazed to see the fine detail, the colour rendition, the colour transition. When I said to them that I did this using a high ISO they said it would be impossible with their medium format cameras as they couldn't go up with the ISO as the image quality would go down instantly.”

Joel adds: “One big question, which many people ask, that I am still not able to answer is – because I used the 5DS in JPEG and the 5DS R in RAW – should I spend the extra and buy the 5DS R? Is the amount of detail really noticeable? I’m only able to answer that it’s pretty amazing what the 5DS R does. I don't know if the 5DS is on a par [with that] or not but the 5DS R is really amazing if you use the right lens. If you use the 24-70mm, the 100-400mm – and I also took the 11-24mm, which was a huge surprise to me – you have to force yourself to see the world differently again.”

The lens element

Talking of lenses, Joel admits that it was a tricky decision about whether to take the 100-400mm zoom on the Mongolian trip. “Usually I favour my 70-200mm f/4L lens because it’s half the weight, half the volume and bulk. It was a hard decision to take but I knew from Canon’s [most compatible] lens list options that I didn't want to take the 5DS R and take the chance of not having the best possible [image] quality. I also knew that probably when shooting the Eagle Hunters and the migration I might need to go to a high point and just take photos from above.”

He reveals: “Actually I just love the [100-400mm] lens! I was so used to using the range from 16mm to 200mm and now that I’ve had the chance to use the lens for a long time there’s a new world between 200mm to 400mm. It’s not just a lens for birds and wildlife – it’s a lens that allows you to make incredible landscape shots and amazing daily life shots if you are in the right location. I was in the right kind of location for this kind of lens and the performance is very good. The focusing precision is very good and I would say that, wide open, the contrast and the sharpness is better than the 70-200mm f/4L.”

“It’s very good on extremes, so at 100mm and 400mm it’s still good. If you use it at 150mm and 350mm it’s a little bit better but it’s very good throughout the [focal length] range. The image stabilisation was very useful because I was walking with the lens, also with a polarizer fitted, and I knew that with a zoom you need even higher shutter speeds but I was able to use medium shutter speeds and just get sharp images.”

Publishing the images

The Mongolian Summer migration story has already been published in the top Portuguese news magazine ‘Visao’ and Joel explains: “I did a 10-page spread with the migration story, mainly from the personal side of things. It’s had an incredible reception because it’s a unique story. I was very happy with it. I wanted to have a good story but keep my style of photography – when you’re walking through harsh [natural] light it’s very hard to document things and keep your style. It was one of my most demanding projects, not only physically but trying to find what was important to tell the story and also trying to keep the way I like to photograph and get that special light.”

He adds: “This trip was quite enlightening because I bought the EOS 5DS R and I have just bought the EF100-400mm lens. It’s extra weight but what you can do with the lens is amazing. I think it’s really a tool that can improve your photography – whenever I feel that way, instead of ‘it’s a new lens I must get that’ [that’s when I buy a piece of equipment]. It’s really an excellent lens.”

Of his whole experience in Mongolia, Joel recalls: “This was really an epic journey – a time travel journey – and at the same time I got an understanding of how the balance [of nature] is still possible. Behind the photos are really beautiful stories, which I think help support the images I had the privilege of taking.”

Joel Santos’ Mongolian kitbag




  • Polarizing filters


  • 50.6 Megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor with ISO 100-6400 (Lo: 50 and H1: 12,800) sensitivity range.
  • Low-pass cancellation filter for maximum sensor resolution.
  • Dual DIGIC 6 Processors for outstanding image processing speed and camera responsiveness.
  • 5 frames per second (fps) with selectable burst speeds and silent shutter mode.
  • 61-point wide area AF with 41 cross-type sensors with iTR, AI Servo AF III and AF Configuration tool.
  • 150k pixel RGB+IR metering sensor.
  • 100% magnification Intelligent Viewfinder II with electronic overlay.
  • 1.3x, 1.6x and 1:1 ratio crop modes with masked viewfinder display.
  • Mirror Vibration Control System to reduce mirror vibration blur.
  • Fine Detail Picture Style.
  • CF + SD (UHS-I) dual memory card slots.
  • Peripheral Illumination and Chromatic Aberration Lens Correction in camera.
  • Multiple Exposure and HDR mode.
  • Customisable Quick Control screen.
  • Built-in timer functionality – bulb timer and interval shooting timer.
  • Time-lapse Movie function.
  • SuperSpeed USB 3.0 for high-speed tethering and image/movie transfer.
  • 150,000 shutter cycle life.
  • Compatible with most EOS 5D Mark III accessories (note: for the WFT-E7 new USB cables required and firmware updated).

Biographie: Joel Santos

Joel Santos

Joel Santos was born in Lisbon, Portugal and although he holds a Master’s degree in Economics and Management of Science and Technology he has now dedicated his career to his greatest passion: photography. He is the author of seven books, including the best seller ‘Photography: Light, Exposure, Composition, Equipment.’ His photographs are frequently published by photography, travel and corporate magazines all over the world and have featured on more than 30 covers and in hundreds of articles. He was the editor-in-chief of the Portuguese bestselling photo magazine ‘The World of Digital Photography’ for three years and he still is a monthly columnist for the top Portuguese news magazine ‘Visão’. Winner of several national and international photography awards, Joel’s work is frequently featured on Portuguese TV and he regularly leads photography workshops all over the world.


Eagle Hunter Berik pictured in the Altai Mountain range, Western Mongolia. Eagle hunting requires days of riding on horseback through the mountains, usually working in teams, like Berik does with his father, Sailau, one of the most experienced nomad Kazakh Eagle Hunters. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 47mm; the exposure was 1/320sec at f/9, ISO 800.