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Isle of plenty: capturing magical Madagascar

Isle of plenty: capturing magical Madagascar

© Thorsten Milse

July 2016

Top wildlife photographer Thorsten Milse took a trip to Madagascar to capture the beauty of the island's nature and many of its endemic species with the new EOS-1D X Mark II DSLR. In an exclusive interview he spoke to CPN writer Steve Fairclough to reveal how the camera performed for him in the field...

Thorsten Milse has been shooting with the EOS-1D X Mark II since early March 2016 but recently got the opportunity to give the 20.2 Megapixel DSLR a thorough workout. "I went to Madagascar for three weeks and, for me, this was a real field test to see what happened with the camera. If you only work one or two days on a local job - shooting horses, dogs or whatever - that's not as helpful as you don't find out much about the camera."

© Thorsten Milse
© Thorsten Milse

A fossa (an endemic predator of Madagascar) pictured in the Kirindy Reserve, Madagascar. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x lens at 526mm; the exposure was 1/400sec at f/5.6, ISO 1600.

He adds: "For me it was a kind of scouting tour of how it is [to shoot] in Madagascar or what the possibilities might be for a good story about catta [ring-tailed lemurs] or chameleons. Madagascar is really strong [photographically] but the forest is only in really, really small areas. Madagascar is cutting down the forests and it's a really big problem. It's a huge island but you can drive 200 or 300 kilometres and find no trees, nothing. There are only small areas of forest."

Focusing and AF performance

Thorsten always shoots RAW to ensure the maximum possible quality in his image files, as much of his work will either appear in a magazine or a book. He adds: "For landscapes mostly I use manual focus - it is easier to find the right frame and if you're working with apertures like f/11 or f/16 you can find the right focus if you have time. Mostly I work with landscape photos on a tripod as it's more comfortable to find the right frame and easier with manual focus to see it and check how it looks."

© Thorsten Milse
© Thorsten Milse

A sifaka lemur in the spiny forest of the Berenty Reserve, Madagascar. 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 1/1250sec at f/5.6, ISO 640.

He continues: "But for shooting lemurs, fossa or chameleons I used the autofocus system because it's different work - they are moving. I put the camera in AI Servo and see what the right frame is before [shooting] and put the autofocus field mostly on the eye of the animal and follow it; it's the easiest way. If the animal is sitting and looking I will mostly work with One Shot AF."

However, Thorsten did notice a key difference between working with the original 1D X and the Mark II version of the camera. "If you work with the 200-400mm lens with a built-in 1.4x extender that is a maximum [aperture of] f/5.6 at 560mm... in Madagascar sometimes I used a 1.4x external extender between the lens and the camera and the aperture was f/8. In the previous [EOS-1D X] camera you can only use the central autofocus point but now you can use all of the other autofocus fields [points] around and the focus speed is much better - that is really helpful. It's the same using the 600mm with a 2x extender, so you have a 1200mm lens, and you have all autofocus points around - that's really helpful to have for a wide frame and it's a big plus for low light conditions as the autofocus is really fast."

ISO and dynamic range performance

As a long-term user of the original 1D X Thorsten was already able to shoot at high ISOs but the Mark II camera offered him some extra low light leeway. "With the 1D X normally around 6400 was the end [top value]. For me, with the 1D X Mark II it's one stop higher, so I can take photos at 12,800. With ISO 6400 it is a really, really clear image - really near perfect; it's great. I took a lot of photos at 6400 and I know the image quality is amazingly good for the print quality if I use it in a book or magazine. I have tried ISO 12,800 and it is also really, really good but my personal opinion is [the Mark II] works best at one stop higher than the 1D X. In the camera you can select your own [ISO] range and I set it to range from ISO 50 to 12,800, which is the idea range I use in my books."

He adds: "Noise reduction is perfect at 6400 - it is really, really clear. The next point is the dynamic range, with shadows and the bright areas; it is much better than in the 1D X. Maybe it is two stops or so better - when I see the 'Alley of the Baobabs' and you see the dark bushes or the dark wood from the baobabs you can see there is much more detail in it. Looking at the camera as a whole, the AF points [are better], the dynamic range is higher and ISO is a little bit higher."

© Thorsten Milse
© Thorsten Milse

The Alley of the Baobabs, near Morondava, Madagascar. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 70mm; the exposure was 1.6 seconds at f/32, ISO 50.

Shooting 4K movies

On many of his projects Thorsten now captures short 4K video clips and this is when he uses the EOS Movie feature. "I made 10 or 15 small movies with it [in Madagascar]. If I have some cattas [ring-tailed lemurs] sitting in a group of 10 or 15 on a rock and cleaning - if you put it in EOS Movie mode and put the autofocus field on one catta that is jumping around you can see the autofocus field is working and following the catta; it's extremely good. The autofocus is really perfect for video and that's a big, big advantage - the focusing system works really well."

He adds: "Maybe you can also use it [Live View] for stills photography but I mainly look through my viewfinder for that. I'm an old photographer (laughs), so what I see in my viewfinder is perfect for composing the right frame. But for the EOS Movie mode, with the touchscreen and the autofocus field for the video function in 4K... that's running perfectly."

"The 4K video is perfect - the image quality is great and the autofocus system [for video] is such a big advantage. This is the big difference to the 1D C, that was a 4K camera that worked perfectly for 4K but you had no autofocus; it was manual focus. Now you have a lemur moving fast [that you can film using the AF]. It was really cool to put it on a tripod in movie mode and see the autofocus following the lemurs. The next big improvement is you can work in 60fps, which is double the [30fps movie] frame rate [of the 1D C] - that's a big advantage."

Faster AF and more precise tracking

When quizzed on the AF abilities of the EOS-1D X Mark II - which include all of the camera's 61 AF points being individually selectable with 21 cross-type points at f/8 - Thorsten explains: "It's my opinion that there's more light coming to the autofocus sensor. The point is we can use the camera with an aperture of f/8 and with more [AF] fields around and the extra cross-type [AF points] are working faster. My feeling is that it works better in low light too."

He adds: "If you look at the image of the golden bamboo lemur in the bushes eating bamboo you can see a lot of unsharp points in it but for this I only had Spot AF, on a tripod with a 200-400mm lens. It's quite difficult to find the right autofocus point on the lemur in the bushes but they have a clear bit on the face that's perfect to use Spot autofocus on."

© Thorsten Milse
© Thorsten Milse

A golden bamboo lemur – an endangered species that’s endemic to South Eastern Madagascar – pictured eating bamboo in the Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x lens at 560mm; the exposure was 1/80sec at f/5.6, ISO 6400.

Thorsten also use three of the 'AF Case' settings that are available in AI Servo for tracking moving subjects. He uses Case 1 - the versatile, multi purpose setting - for about "70-80 percent of the photos" and Case 2, for tracking subjects whilst ignoring possible obstacles. He elaborates: "I use Case 4 (for subjects that accelerate or decelerate quickly) if I don't know where the animal is going, like a falcon flying for example. Normally elephants, lions or leopards will run from right to left or towards or away from you but if something runs in front of a cheetah or a falcon that is flying you don't know [the next move] and the biggest problem for the autofocus system is it doesn't know exactly which way the animal will move. Then I use Case 4 and make it work with a little bit more higher speed and shift it in the settings to +1 so the reaction is a little bit faster. But that's not often - I use it maybe in 5-10 percent of all images when I'm travelling because I don't take so many pictures of birds, [I take] more mammals and the mammals move in a more straightforward manner."

He adds: "The autofocus works in really low light (-3 EV) and I often use it with Spot autofocus, especially in low light I find that the tracking is faster than the 1D X. The new low light performance of the sensor is really helpful if you're tracking something like the golden bamboo lemur at dawn or dusk as tracking is much faster.

Speed and CFast cards

Thorsten acknowledges the 14 frames-per-second shooting speed of the 1D X Mark II but notes: "14fps is enough but it's more of a point that you can use a CFast card and you can take more than 170 RAW photos with continuous shooting. The burst mode for continuous shooting in RAW is for a longer time and that's really important if you have animals jumping, so you never lose [catching] any situations. That's more important - the burst mode with a CFast card is really helpful."

© Thorsten Milse
© Thorsten Milse

A sportive lemur pictured being active at night in the Berenty Reserve, Madagascar. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens fitted with an EF1.4x III extender for an overall focal length of 280mm; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/5.6, ISO 1600.

The EOS-1D X Mark II for wildlife

When asked if he would recommend the EOS-1D X Mark II to fellow wildlife photographers, Thorsten responds: "The CFast card and 170 frames in a burst is a big point. If you have action - such as lions fighting or a cheetah running behind an antelope - you'll never miss your photo with the buffer of RAW files running; you definitely have enough [capacity]. If you use 4K video, especially in low light, and you have a long telephoto lens you can put it in Movie mode and the autofocus field will track if you make only one point, where a lion is running in and running out, and use autofocus... it is sharp."

He adds: "You can take more photos in low light, especially if you work with predators in the early morning light or late evening and you have the dynamic range - it's much higher, especially with the higher ISO. The tracking with a long telephoto lens with a 2x converter at aperture f/8 means you can also shift around the autofocus fields - that's a big advantage for wildlife photography."

Thorsten concludes: "The camera is on a really high level - a bigger buffer, an improved autofocus system with the 4K videos, plus a high ISO and amazing dynamic range. The quality from these images has never been seen before."


  • 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 single continuous burst at up to 14fps 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 WiFi bands.
  • Durable and rugged magnesium alloy body with dust and weather resistance for demanding shooting situations.

Biographie: Thorsten Milse

Thorsten Milse

Germany-born nature photographer Thorsten Milse trained as a graphics designer but then decided to pursue a full-time photographic career. He specialises in landscape and wildlife photography with a strong focus on conservation and endangered species. Since 1990 he has worked on a variety of wildlife topics around the world in Africa, Australasia, Asia, Antarctica, the Arctic and South America. His images have been published in 25 countries in prestigious nature magazines including GEO, BBC Wildlife, Illustreret Videnskab and Nature’s Best Photography. His stunning pictures have been awarded several international prizes including BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year (animal behaviour) and the Grand Prize Winner at Nature’s Best Photo Competition. His books include the epic coffee table tome 'Polar World', the result of over six years of work in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.


A jumping ring-tailed lemur pictured in the Anji Community Reserve, near Ambalavao, Madagascar. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x lens at 461mm; the exposure was 1/2500sec at f/5.6, ISO 1250.