With Canon’s new mirrorless gear now shipping across the world, I had the chance to speak with wildlife photographer and conservationist John Marriott about his experiences with the pre-production models of the R5 and R6.
Marriott and I talked about a lot more than gear though. We also discussed in detail about photography’s place in conservation, especially in relation to Marriott’s not-for-profit Exposed Wildlife Conservancy.
Make sure to stick around for our entire conversation.
A Camera Journey
Marriott has always shot professionally with a Canon. Much to my chagrin, he even sold his VW van decades ago to upgrade his telephoto lens to Canon’s newest long prime. For him and thousands of other users, Canon’s ergonomics have become second nature.
Watching other manufacturers push out mirrorless over the last few years didn’t dull his preference for how Canon gear felt in his hands. He knew that when Canon did step into the mirrorless ring that it would be big.
Based on his kind of work, Marriott explained that the biggest challenge with DSLR systems has always been the weight. If you’re scrambling 7-10 miles a day in snowshoes, you’d be looking to shed every ounce you could as well. Likewise, if you’re looking to bring gear on a plane, watching every extra ounce and trimming every extra inch is critical to making sure your gear doesn’t end up in the hold. Trust me. Trying to "sneak" a 400mm f/2.8 onto a flight bound for Tanzania is not a challenge I’d like to repeat.
Second only to the problem of weight is noise. DSLRs can be really loud. Even on silent mode, they’re too loud to sit close by a wolf den or a grizzly family. If you’re looking for the most natural wildlife shots possible, you need to as quiet as possible.
In Steps the R5
The R5 is certainly lighter than its 1D X cousins. Add in extra bodies for backups, and you could be talking several pounds. After hours on the trail, this extra weight will crush you.
Similarly, the silent mode on the R5 is a game-changer. To be clear, it is silent, not just really quiet.
I have to monitor myself at den sites. My gear makes noise. But being completely silent, well, this is a game-changer for den sites and owl nests. Now, the only noise comes from me. This eliminates an aspect of animals being able to detect me.
Being silent means that Marriott can get closer and stay longer. Being undetected by wildlife is, of course, critical to successful wildlife photography steeped in conservation. As Marriot puts it:
They shouldn’t know you’re there. They should be doing what they were doing when you got there.
Marriott also spoke highly of the R5’s autofocus. Although it was designed to work on birds and domesticated animals, he noted that the animal autofocus worked very well with bears, big horn sheep, and elk calves.
More than that, Marriott explained that the R5 can focus close to the edge of the frame. So, when shooting animals in epic locations, this means Marriott doesn’t have to recompose to get both the wildlife and the location in frame. Marriott also noted that he can even track wildlife at the edge of his frame.
Marriott also had a chance to test out Canon’s EF adapter on the new mirrorless. He used the adapter on a variety of his long telephoto lenses. Although he noted that the adapter made the lenses slightly longer, the experience was, according to Marriott, seamless. To Marriott, there was no noticeable difference in quality or ergonomics.
Video and Stabilization
As many have noticed when picking up mirrorless, Marriott was also impressed with the ability of the camera to switch from stills to video instantaneously. Looking deeper at the ease of use, Marriott explained that compared to DSLRs, when you switch to video, you don’t have to move your face from the viewfinder. This way, you’re not going to miss anything. Likewise, the R5 saves your settings for stills and video separately, so you can shift back and forth without having to adjust shutter speed each time you switch between format.
Related, Marriott pointed out that not having to hold the camera at arm's length to use the LCD means that while the camera is up against your eye and nose, you gain a third point of contact for stability.
Speaking of stability, Marriott gushed that while tracking a bear with a long lens and a 1.4x teleconverter, the IBIS and autofocus worked together. In his words:
The IBIS isn’t as critical for stills of moving subjects, but for video, it's spectacular.
Missing from DSLR
Given his glowing experience with Canon’s pre-production mirrorless, I asked Marriott if there was anything, anything at all, that he’s missing from his DSLRs. The only issue Marriott could mention was the pinpoint autofocus for wildlife at a distance. There is a point select on the R5 and R6, but for Marriott, it isn’t as fine as the point select on his DSLRs.
Overall, as Marriott touted, he hated to send it back after testing.
Conservation and Photography as a Business Model
As interesting as gear is, Marriott had a lot more to share with me about his passion for photography and conservation.
Marriott was recently accepted into the International League of Conservation Photographers, iLCP. The iLCP focuses on high-quality photography, but more than that, on photographers that are putting just as much effort into conservation as they do into their photography.
As Marriott put it:
I got into wildlife photography because I care about the animals and I want to make a difference. I don’t know if I am the one who will make a difference, or if I’ll inspire some who will make a difference. I’m comfortable with either.
It’s the outcome, it’s the act.
Really, what else could you ask from someone but to be interested in the outcome and not the credit?
To that end, Marriott has also set up his own conservation non-profit, Exposed Wildlife Conservancy. According to Marriott and Exposed:
The Exposed Wildlife Conservancy is dedicated to raising awareness of critical wildlife and conservation issues in Canada. This includes exposing people to the beauty of our wild places and the wildlife within them to provide a better understanding of why they deserve our protection. Additionally, we are exposing current wildlife management practices lacking in scientific basis, ethics, and/or social acceptability.
Currently, Exposed is focused on making killing neck snares illegal, restricting carnivore trophy hunting, protecting our wild places, and banning wildlife killing contests.
When Canada’s national parks were first established back in 1855, they were designed to be an island of civilization amongst the wilderness, a platform to explore from. These days, however, these parks are more like islands of wilderness surrounded by the growing pressure of civilization. As Marriott points out, Canada’s more populous regions are becoming woefully short on protected areas for wildlife to thrive in. Even our first park, Banff, is not longer a safe haven for wildlife. If we don’t find a way to look at our parks differently than we do today, if we can’t see our existing parks as only the beginning of the journey towards truly protecting our wilderness, we might be seeing the end of it.
It’s heartening to see someone so committed to protecting Canada’s wilderness.
The Business of Wildlife Photography
In relation to his conservancy efforts, Marriott runs a series of workshops and photo tours into Canada’s wilderness. It’s been a bit of a tough year for anyone that works in a tourism-related industry. The pandemic has seen tours canceled across the board. Marriott is hopeful that some of his end of season tours and tours next season will run.
I asked Marriott what his favorite tour was, and he told me he loves to take groups of photographers on his Khutzeymateen tour. He’s been running this tour for nine years. Sharing his love for this area is one of the reasons Marriott got into running tours in the first place. Going back year after year means that he gets to visit with his bear friends and see the evolution in their social structure.
Marriott often works with two other photographers, Paul Zizka and Dave Brosha, at Offbeat. Recently, Marriott contributed to one of Offbeat’s online seminars, the Business of Photography. Marriott and I talked a little about the seminar — in particular, how important it is to learn from photographers working in a variety of genres. It’s easy for a photographer to get locked into the business ideas that dominate their own genre. It’s a shortcut to thinking outside the box if you take the chance to learn from and experiment with business ideas from photographers working under drastically different pressures and expectations.
To bring it all full circle, it’s important to have an open mind — an open mind when it comes to new gear, to conservation, and to your own business.
All images provided by John Marriott. Images taken with Canon's R5 and R6 come from a pre-production model.