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Pascal Maitre: <br class="br_visual" />Dark and dangerous with EOS-1D&nbsp;X and <br class="br_visual" />EOS&nbsp;5D&nbsp;Mark&nbsp;III

Pascal Maitre:
Dark and dangerous with EOS-1D X and

© Pascal Maitre/Cosmos

September 2015

The cassiterite mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but as CPN writer Mark Alexander finds out, they were the ideal location for intrepid French reportage photographer and Canon Ambassador Pascal Maitre, whose Congo images are on display at this year's Visa pour l'Image international festival of photojournalism...

Cassiterite may not be the best-known mineral in the world, but it is one of the most sought after. Used in mobile phones, laptops, iPods, games consoles and digital cameras, cassiterite is processed into tin and used primarily as a solder on circuit boards. Until recently, it was also regarded as a conflict mineral due to the practices of extracting it.

© Pascal Maitre/Cosmos

A miner in the Nyabibwe mine, Democratic Republic of Congo. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 60mm; the exposure was 1/250sec at f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Earlier this year, French photographer and Canon Ambassador Pascal Maitre crawled through the dark and dank recesses of Congo’s cassiterite mines to capture the stories of the miners who delve deep beneath the earth’s surface to extract this coveted resource. “There are very few places in the world where you can find it,” he explains. “It is very rare. One of those places is the eastern part of Congo where there has been a war raging for 20 years.”

Maitre had been commissioned by the French magazine Le Figaro to shoot what would become an extensive 12-page story. “It was interesting,” says the award-winning photojournalist. “The mines were small but they went down to a depth of 140 metres. At the end, you are on your hands and knees crawling like a commando. There was very little air, not too much light and it was very hot. It was a good test for the cameras.”

Paperwork before pixels...

Armed with a pair of Canon EOS DSLRs, Maitre spent a week in this remote part of Africa where until recently warlords had controlled the mine operations. Lately, new regulations had been introduced to encourage traceability and improve working conditions with the inevitable upshot of increased bureaucracy. To gain access, Maitre would first have to jump through hoops to receive authorisation from a national ministry and the security services.

© Pascal Maitre/Cosmos

A candid portrait of one of the miners of the mines of Nyabibwe, Democratic Republic of Congo. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 120mm; the exposure was 1/160sec at f/7.1, ISO 800.

“Photography isn’t difficult, especially with the new technology. Access is,” he says. “It took me five days, but I know this place very well. It’s a lot of work, and it’s not that they will say no, but it takes time.” In fact, 70 percent of the trip was dedicated to securing access privileges, leaving the remainder for photography. “I shot inside the mines for two days,” Maitre concedes. “You can’t stay too long anyway. After that people start getting suspicious which makes it more difficult. For what I needed, it was enough.”

As well as gaining the appropriate permissions, Maitre was keen to keep things simple on the ground. That meant sourcing a good local fixer and secondly, in the damp and unforgiving conditions in and around the caves, shooting with two camera bodies – his trusty workhorses; the EOS-1D X, the low-light specialist, and the EOS 5D Mark III.

Maitre says he started using the EOS-1D X two years earlier. “It is a very quick and very strong camera. You feel like you have something in your hand,” he says. “You feel you can do anything with it; that it will never break. It feels like a tank and you can trust it absolutely 100 percent.”

With its magnesium alloy body, the EOS-1D X has a tough exterior suited to the stresses and strains of in-the-field reportage photography. But it is also a full-frame camera with an 18.1 MP CMOS sensor and a 10-stop ISO sensitivity range from ISO 100-51,200 which is expandable to ISO 204,800. So when the light gets low, the EOS-1D X can utilise its 61 focus points (of which 41 are cross-types and five dual cross-types) to pick out the subjects in the gloom.

Low light is alright

Shooting with a range of ISO settings up to 6400 and sometimes beyond, Maitre says the EOS-1D X was well suited to the testing underground conditions. “It was perfect,” he says cheerfully. “When I shot in mines before digital, it was a nightmare. I had to bring lights and strobes. Now, with digital, it is wonderful. The light from the miner’s helmet is enough.”

© Pascal Maitre/Cosmos

Miners inspect cassiterite from one of the mines of Nyabibwe, Democratic Republic of Congo. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 41mm; the exposure was 1/2000sec at f/8, ISO 800.

Without being overly clinical or sanitising the scene, Maitre’s images accurately depict the mine’s claustrophobic atmosphere while delivering the necessary clarity and colour to make the images pop. What’s more, without any additional light sources to slow him down, Maitre was able to move around the caverns taking natural images of the mud-plastered workers and their back-breaking toil. “For me, when you are in an environment like that, you need your pictures to be a little bit rough. A little grain is not a problem,” he says. “You’re not in a studio. You need a little grain to get the atmosphere of the place.”

Maitre predominantly coupled his EOS-1D X with the versatile EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, which features ultra-low dispersion and super UD elements as well as a fast f/2.8 maximum aperture. The pairing covered everything from head-and-shoulder portraits to full-body action shots, all within the confines of the darkest corners of the fissures.

“Inside the mine, I couldn’t bring too many cameras so I mainly used the EOS-1D X,” he explains. “When I eventually came out of the mine after the shoot, the [EOS] 1D X was full of mud because I had been crawling on my hands and knees. The camera took a lot of abuse, but the [EOS] 1D X is very strong. You have to have a good, strong camera.”

Away from the dark recesses of the colliery, Maitre used the EOS 5D Mark III to capture everyday scenes above ground and in the surrounding settlements. With a similar full-frame sensor and exceptional colour rendition, the subtle camera gave Maitre the opportunity to shoot daily life as it happened. Using it in conjunction with the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, he was able to isolate his subjects without getting too close for too long.

While offering different functionality, both cameras were used to great effect by the Frenchman in the challenging conditions of the Congo. Both produced compelling imagery and provided great ISO performance with almost indistinguishable results. “I really couldn’t tell the difference,” admits Maitre.

An incredible career

© Pascal Maitre/Cosmos

Wives of miners of the mines of Nyabibwe, Democratic Republic of Congo. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 100mm; the exposure was 1/80sec at f/10, ISO 800.

The Congo miners’ portfolio certainly illustrates the French photographer’s unflappable technique, which he has developed over a career spanning five decades. Not surprisingly, his back catalogue includes jaw-dropping images covering everything from politics and conflicts to the environment and the arts. Maitre has worked in 40 countries around Africa and has picked up a clutch of awards including the National Magazine Award of Photojournalism in 2010 for an in-depth essay for National Geographic about Somalia.

“I know Africa very well. I like the people, but they have a lot of difficulties. It is a place of very strong, difficult and great stories,” he says sternly. “The more you know, the more you understand and the deeper you can go. You are then able to develop real connections and real friends.”

Maitre has fostered his African network alongside his illustrious and varied career. It has been a labour of love that has resulted in a number of intimate coffee-table books and several thought-provoking exhibitions each securing commercial as well as professional success. But with all his experience and plaudits, even a photographer of Maitre’s stature can be surprised, especially by the latest kit.

New lens, new approach?

“I was shocked,” he says candidly describing his introduction to the new EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM telephoto zoom. “It is an incredible lens - you can do so many things with it.” Using it for portraits and landscapes, Maitre admits that despite not having any practical experience of the previous incarnation of the lens, the new version has changed the way he views telephoto photography. “I never used the old one and then someone at Canon Paris suggested I should try the Mark II version. I did and I was very surprised,” he says. “It was wonderful, really amazing. It means I won’t need to take my 300mm. There’s no need. Maybe in the future, I won’t use the 70-200mm. I’m not sure yet. The 70-200mm is a wonderful lens, but if you can do everything with just two lenses, then that will be even better.”

Pascal Maitre’s Congo kitbag


EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM

Canon Speedlite 430EX II flashgun

Biografie: Pascal Maitre

Pascal Maitre

Pascal Maitre was born in the French town of Buzançais in 1955. After studying psychology, he started his career as photojournalist with the Jeune Afrique press group. In 1984 he joined the staff of the Gamma photo agency and in 1989 co-founded the Odyssey Images agency. He is currently represented by Cosmos. Throughout his career he has worked with many prestigious international magazines including GEO and L'Express in France; GEO, Stern and Brigitt in Germany; and National Geographic, Life and The New York Times Magazine in the USA. In 2000, he published ‘My Africa’, a book featuring 15 years of his work on this continent, with Aperture in the USA and GEO in Germany. In 2001 the book ‘Madagascar, a unique world’, a result of his many trips to the island, was published. In 2012 he published ‘Amazing Africa’, a book that compiled of 30 years of his work on Africa. This year Pascal Maitre will have his eighth exhibition (the first was in 1991) of his work shown at the prestigious Visa pour l’Image international festival of photojournalism in Perpignan, France.


Miners stand at the entrance to one of the mines of Nyabibwe, Democratic Republic of Congo. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 50mm; the exposure was 1/5000sec at f/16, ISO 10,000.