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Thorsten Milse and Canon join WWF to document climate change in the Arctic

Thorsten Milse and Canon join WWF to document climate change in the Arctic

© Thorsten Milse/Canon-WWF

October 2012

Wildlife photographer and Canon Ambassador Thorsten Milse is a hard man to get hold of. CPN writer Ian Farrell caught up with him to talk about his recent voyage to the Arctic Circle for the World Wildlife Fund, supported by Canon – just as he was about to set off on another adventure.

Since 1990 Thorsten Milse's images have graced the pages of some of the world's most prestigious natural history magazines, and have won accolades at competitions including the Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Nature’s Best Photo. He has photographed wildlife in locations from Africa to Asia and Australia and beyond, although it is the Arctic and Antarctic circles where Milse feels most at home.

© Thorsten Milse/Canon-WWF

Like ships moored in a dock, icebergs adorn the harbour around the village of Kullorsuaq, Greenland. Taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with EF70-200mm f/2.8L II IS USM lens set to 105mm, exposure was 1/1000 at f/11, ISO 200.

Describing himself as a “polar specialist”, Milse has visited Antarctica and the Arctic many times, photographing the indigenous wildlife and the landscape in which it lives. His book Polar World is the result of six years of photography from the regions. Milse sees his photography as an important part of the conservation effort and crucial to preventing the environmental catastrophe that threatens these delicately balanced parts of the planet.

When the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was looking to hire a photographer, to document a major expedition Sailing to Siku - Voyage to the Last Ice Area, Milse’s experience in colder climes made him the ideal choice. The expedition, which took place between July and September 2012, was designed to assess the future management options for an area of ice that is expected to last the longest in the midst of a rapidly changing Arctic landscape.

“Sailing from Upernavik in Greenland our boat, the Arctic Tern I, took WWF experts and scientists to the Pond Inlet in Canada over a period of about six weeks, stopping at the Greenland port of Qaanaaq and Grise Fiord in Canada.” he explains. “The idea was to research this little-known area and the people that live there, and my job was to document the trip on a day-by-day basis."

© Thorsten Milse/Canon-WWF

A nice juxtaposition of iceberg and mountain, observed from the boat. Taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with EF70-200mm f/2.8L II IS USM lens set to 70mm, exposure was 1/400 at f/11, ISO 320.

“For me the assignment was different to previous trips to the Arctic region; the emphasis was on the colours and textures of the landscape, rather than the animals living within it. This required a different approach: when I am after pictures of polar-bear cubs or seal pups, I will usually stick to a single location for a considerable time, watching and learning how the animals behave. With the Last Ice Area project I was constantly moving around the coastline by boat, and so my way of working was very different."

“It’s actually very rare to see animals on the west coast of Greenland nowadays. Hunting and colonisation has put some considerable pressure on the local wildlife. You may see whales, but polar bears are very rare in this region.”

Deciding what equipment to take on a trip like this is no easy task: a collection of cameras and lenses must be flexible enough to tackle a wide variety of photographic situations, but not be so heavy that they are impractical to carry.

Milse’s photographic arsenal is based around EOS-1D X and EOS 5D Mark III camera bodies, with lens options ranging from fisheye to super telephoto. Included among the optics in his Peli case - “It can be kept in the cold to prevent condensation problems, but is completely watertight to protect against the elements” - are the unique EF8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM zoom, an EF50mm f/1.2L USM, an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM wide-angle zoom and EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM telezoom.

“I also packed my EF300mm f/2.8L IS II and EF 600mm f/4 IS II USM telephoto lenses in case the opportunity for animal photography came about, plus an extender for some extra range."

“The Image Stabilizer is really important for me on trips like this,” Milse reveals. “It’s almost impossible to use a tripod on a small boat, but rough seas can lead to camera shake. You definitely get sharper photography with the Image Stabilizer switched on, especially when there are waves washing over the deck of the boat.”

Freezing-cold conditions, a constantly pitching boat and near-continuous daylight are challenging conditions for any photographer, though Milse’s considerable experience in such environments has taught him to cope. “I tend to use two EOS camera bodies, rather than change lenses all the time, which is difficult when wearing gloves. Gloves are a necessity in such cold conditions, but they can make it difficult to work. I opt for EOS-1D X camera bodies in such situations as the controls, particularly the Quick Control Dial, are easier to use."

“I’ve also found the grid pattern in the viewfinders of the EOS-1D X and EOS 5D Mark III to be really helpful when shooting from the boat. It’s not always easy to get a straight horizon when the ground beneath you is moving!”

© Thorsten Milse/Canon-WWF

The Arctic Tern I, a 50 ft. ice-capable, steel-hulled expedition sailboat will be used as a platform for science and education in the Arctic for the next decade. Taken with a Canon EOS-1D X and EF8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens set to 16mm, exposure was 1/640sec at f/11, ISO 200.

As well as looking after his equipment on the trip, Milse points that it was also important to look after himself: “It is light for virtually 24 hours of the day and I had to be ready to shoot at any time in order to capture the amazing lighting conditions. This can mean you don’t always get much sleep, especially when everyone on board has other responsibilities, like anchor watch and ice watch. I’d advise anyone undertaking a trip like this to get sleep whenever you can, so you’re alert when it matters.”

As a Canon Ambassador, Thorsten Milse is able to test new cameras and lenses and provide feedback for the development of new additions to the EOS range, but Canon’s involvement with the expedition goes further. Canon is the WWF’s Conservation Imaging Partner and has been working with the organisation since 1998, using its expertise to help record and document the extent of global climate change.

© Thorsten Milse/Canon-WWF

Melting ice floe. A very good reminder of the warming water temperatures in the Arctic. Taken with a Canon EOS-1D X and EF300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, exposure was 1/1000sec at f/16, ISO 200.

“Pictures often speak more loudly than words,” he says of the relationship between his photography and conservation. “If I can show what we must protect then the viewer gets a glimpse of a word that he never gets to see or visit. We can only protect what we love.”

Biografie: Thorsten Milse

Thorsten Milse

Born in 1965 in Bielefeld, Germany, nature photographer and Canon Ambassador Thorsten Milse trained as a graphics designer, but then decided to pursue a full-time photographic career. Thorsten specialises in landscape and wildlife photography with a strong focus on conservation and endangered species.


Ice floes off the coast of Greenland.  The floes are frozen masses of seawater (saltwater) that float on the surface of the sea. The tracking of ice floes is important to both understanding critical environmental issues such as global warming, and to aid in Arctic navigation. Taken with a Canon EOS-1D X and EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens set to 16mm, exposure was 1/160sec at f/16, ISO400.