PROFILE

Brent Stirton

Armed conservation rangers emerge from the bush wearing uniforms camouflaged with grass and foliage.

In this image by Canon Ambassador and documentary photographer Brent Stirton, an elite unit of conservation rangers trained to combat militia groups emerges from the bush in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo, after waiting for hours in an ambush position. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 28mm, 1/500 sec, f/7.1 and ISO200. © Brent Stirton

Documentary photographer and Canon Ambassador Brent Stirton's images are not for the faint-hearted – they're powerful, emotion-packed, and often uncomfortable viewing…

Brent's award-winning images have seen him become one of the world's most celebrated documentary photographers. In 2017 he won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for his harrowing image of a black rhino slaughtered for its horn, and to-date he has received 13 World Press Photo of the Year awards.
His work has also helped to serve multiple charity organisations including the Clinton and Gates Foundations and the World Economic Forum, which have seen him earn a variety of philanthropic accolades, including a Peabody Award. Brent spends most of his time on long-term investigative projects for National Geographic Magazine and Getty Images but his work also appears in publications including Time, GEO, Le Figaro, Stern and The New York Times Magazine. He also shoots for Human Rights Watch, and is a fellow of the National Geographic Society and a European Commission ambassador for the environment.

Brent has a reputation for compelling imagery and his photographs depict a cross-section of the human condition through global sustainability, environmental conflict and conservation issues. "Our job is to document what is happening out there but, at the same time, it's also our job to do it in such a way that it can reach the biggest possible audience. Framing, technique and experience all come into how you do that. Your intent and why remains the most important reason for doing this job."
Canon Ambassador Brent Stirton.

Location: California, USA
Specialist area: Documentary
Favourite kit:
Canon EOS R5
Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM
A silhouetted man stands on top of a new lava field that glows bright yellow. Smoke billows from a volcano in the background.

A conservation ranger guides his team through a new lava field that decimated a large section of a chimpanzee habitat near the Mount Nyiragongo volcano, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM) at 17mm, 0.6 sec, f/8 and ISO100. © Brent Stirton

Originally a print journalist, Brent took his first step into the world of photography in 1994. "I was covering the political violence on the east coast of South Africa at the time and I couldn't find a photographer to work with, so I used my savings, bought a Canon A1 and read the manual. When the international media came to South Africa that year for the democratic elections, I was able to work with them and learnt a great deal in a short space of time." By 1995 Brent was a full-time photographer. "It became an obsession from the moment I realised that photography could be powerful, and it was possible to illuminate an issue by creating a meaningful photographic essay."
A group of men in green uniforms and holding guns sit in the prow of a boat.

Rangers patrol on and around Lake Edward, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Regular patrols and ongoing intelligence gathering are necessary to combat incursions by illegal fisherman as well as Mai Mai militia groups on the lake, which was once home to the world's largest hippo population. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 24mm, 1/250 sec, f/5 and ISO200. © Brent Stirton

More than 20 years later, Brent's compelling imagery still teems with an ingrained journalistic narrative. "I try not to come at something with a preconceived agenda; I am always looking for a scenario where all the elements come together to make a scene that will resonate emotionally with people. Ideally you are fortunate enough to make images that will be good enough to transcend literary and cultural boundaries. I think if you get that right, then you're doing your job," he says. "I'm very lucky to have this career and I'm always trying to be mindful of that. I'm just trying to make meaningful images and if I can make an image that moves you, I'm very satisfied."
How do you prepare for a commission?

"The A to Z of the issue needs to be researched, both online and with specialised contacts. That usually results in a mini thesis that is the skeleton that I use for the job. I pack suitable clothing, as well as cameras, lighting and sometimes recording gear, and a minimum of two hard drives and backup lenses. Visas are important, as is a support person. Vehicle hire and some form of accommodation should also be pre-booked."

How do you decide who to photograph?

"Ideally you should have already set this up before you leave – this is why research is key. Your fixer/translator should be a big help with this. Approaching people should be based on honesty and openness as much as possible. You should have a basic coverage plan in mind before you get on the plane but be wary of preconceived ideas because you are likely to meet people along the way who change your perspective and who you photograph."

How do you know what not to shoot?

"If all of the photographers are clustered around a scene, you probably don't want to be there."

How do you work with light?

"If I cannot wait for good light I may add my own, which means working quickly to maintain the spontaneity. I use a light meter; if you learn how to use it, you'll know how to use hard light to make interesting images."

What advice would you give someone keen to go pro in this genre?

"Be prepared to work harder than the next person and be obsessive about the subject matter. When you've built a body of work, show your work to editors but don't think you can walk into the top publications and agencies. Start smaller. It's important to go to portfolio reviews and do more listening than talking. Portfolio reviews often aren't free but they are the most direct route to people who can make a difference in your career."

One thing I know

Brent Stirton

"Research is key, for any kind of photography. If you know your subject, location, issue etc. then you will make more informed, relevant images. You owe it to your subjects to understand them as well as possible. That's respectful, and they will respond to you better if they think you have made the effort to understand them. Be humble. Make sure your gear is reliable and that you have some kind of backup – it's not acceptable to travel to a remote location and have your gear fail on you. National Geographic has a quote I always remember: 'We publish pictures, not excuses.'"

Instagram: @brentstirton

Website: www.brentstirton.com

Brent Stirton's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Brent Stirton's kitbag containing Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.

Cameras

Canon EOS R5

A professional full-frame mirrorless camera offering photographers and filmmakers high resolution stills and 8K video. "This is my everyday workhorse," says Brent. "The files are amazingly flexible and big enough to handle advertising shoots as well as photojournalism. The best thing I can say about the experience of looking through the viewfinder is that I forget that I'm looking through an EVF."

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

Durable, fast and ultra sharp, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III is ideal for fast-moving action and tough climates. "This camera is for when I need an absolute tank in my hands; it's for the worst weather in the worst places," says Brent. "No matter what, this is the most reliable camera I have ever shot with and the long, long battery life is very useful when you're in the middle of nowhere."

Lenses

Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM

A super-fast and bright 28-70mm f/2 L-series lens, which gives stunning results even in low light. Brent says: "I don't really need anything else. This covers 90% of what I shoot and it's the sharpest zoom I've ever used."

Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM

Ultra-wide and super sharp thanks to L-series optical quality and 5-stop image stabilisation for dynamic angles even in tight spaces. "For when I've just got to go a little wider," says Brent. "I'm always wary of distortion and this lens handles that very well."

Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM

An essential lens in the professional trio of zooms, this is the perfect companion for news, sport and travel. "When I can't stand next to what I'm shooting, this is the lens I turn to most often," says Brent. "It's superbly sharp and smaller than the previous version, with good weather-proofing."

Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM

This standard wide-angle lens is beloved by reportage photographers for its natural perspective, low-light capability and extraordinary optical performance. "The 35mm is just such an amazing lens. It has superb three dimensional quality," says Brent.

Accessories

Light meter

"I came up using slide film," explains Brent. "It was so critical in terms of exposure that I learnt to always use a light meter."

Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT

Engineered for fast frame-rate shooting, this flash can be used off-camera or in the hotshoe, giving you the versatility you need to take complete control over lighting. Brent says: "These flashes and the radio controller have been invaluable for lighting in the field and they are small enough not to give me a problem with weight."

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