Profile

Brent Stirton

A gorilla killed in suspicious circumstances is removed from Virunga National Park by a group of conservation rangers. Photo by Canon Ambassador Brent Stirton.
Conservation rangers from an Anti-Poaching Unit work with locals to evacuate the bodies of four mountain gorillas killed in mysterious circumstances in Virunga National Park, Eastern Congo. A silverback alpha male, the leader of the group, was shot with three females. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/4 and ISO50. © Brent Stirton

Documentary photographer 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 (pictured below), and to-date he has received nine World Press Photo of the Year awards.

Canon Ambassador Brent Stirton.


Location: California, USA
Specialist areas: Documentary
Favourite Kit:
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

His work has also helped to serve multiple charity organisations including the WWF, 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.

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. "I think it's possible to shoot most things in a way that can be justified, but I wouldn't shoot something that was deliberately exploitative," Brent explains. "There can be a fine line on occasion. 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."

A dead black rhino bull killed by poachers in South Africa for its horn. Photo by Canon Ambassador Brent Stirton.
The image that won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award 2017. A dead black rhino bull, poached for its horns less than eight hours earlier at the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, South Africa. It is suspected that the killers came from a local community approximately five kilometres away, entering the park illegally and shooting the rhino at a watering hole with a high-powered, silenced hunting rifle. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/9 and ISO200. © Brent Stirton

Originally a print journalist, Brent took his first step into the world of photography in 1994, when the newspapers he was working with asked him to team up with a photographer. He had a better idea. "I was covering the political violence on the east coast of South Africa at the time so I saved my pennies, 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 it was possible to tell a whole story in one image."

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 happy."

A member of the Ugandan Army carries two elephant tusks over his shoulders. Photo by Canon Ambassador Brent Stirton.
A former Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) fighter – now a member of the Ugandan Army (UPDF) who hunt the LRA – pictured with elephant tusks. The LRA are involved in ivory poaching in the Democratic Republic of Congo, using it to fund weapons supplies and to trade with the Sudanese Army. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/16 and ISO200. © Brent Stirton

How do you prepare for a commission?

"The A to Z of the issue needs to be researched, both online and with specialised contacts. I pack clothing that makes sense for the job, 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."

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?

"Show your work to editors but don't think you can walk into the top publications and agencies; start smaller, go to portfolio reviews and do more listening than talking."

Facebook: @brentstirtonfans
Instagram: @brentstirton
Twitter: @BrentStirton
Website: www.brentstirton.com

Children jumping from a tree into their local lake in Kubut Village, Papua New Guinea, photographed by Canon Ambassador Brent Stirton.
Scenes of kids enjoying the lake in Kubut Village, Lake Murray, Papua New Guinea. Lake Murray is a region where people have lived in harmony with nature for centuries. People make their living from hunting, farming, fishing and growing rubber trees, and now also from eco-forestry. Their lifestyles are compromised by the interventions of both international mining and flogging groups, and resistance in the local community is growing to prevent further damage to the ecosystem. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/800 sec, f/4 and ISO50. © Brent Stirton

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.'"

Brent Stirton's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Canon Ambassador Brent Stirton's kitbag.

Camera

Lenses

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

With a fast aperture and image stabilisation plus a Nano USM motor for silent focusing, this lens lets you instantly capture moments in excellent image quality. "It offers me the same quality as a prime lens, is good in low light and with the Mark IV gives the best colour fidelity to be found in a DSLR."

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

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. "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."

Light meter

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

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