In our Couldn't Work Without series, we ask leading photographers and filmmakers to reveal their essential kit. Although many of wildlife photographer Christian Ziegler's most celebrated images have been taken using wide-angle lenses and remote flash set-ups, he says the piece of equipment he couldn't live without is the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens.
Since his first visit to a tropical rainforest on a trip to Thailand when he was 19, Canon Ambassador Christian has become internationally known for his coverage of tropical rainforest nature. He has a Masters degree in tropical biology, lives and works in Panama as Associate for Communication at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and is a frequent contributor to National Geographic and international science and photography journals.While Christian also always packs four Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT flash heads on assignment, here he explains why the large-aperture super-telephoto lens has become an indispensable part of his kitbag.
"I have worked with the [previous generation] Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L for several years, but then recently I was working on location in Bhutan and I took the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM – and I love it!" says Christian. "It's sharper and much lighter. For me, these two points are enough to sell this lens."
"Weight is a big issue for me because when I'm on assignment we hike a lot and cover long distances – and in Bhutan this is always on very steep terrain."
Christian has been visiting the Himalayan mountain kingdom for the past two years to photograph its heavily forested terrain, wildlife and culture. "Bhutan is an unusual place," he says. "It is unique in having undisturbed habitat from 100 metres to 7,000 metres elevation – this is not seen anywhere else in the Himalayas because the forests have been cleared for roads, agriculture and timber. Nature is so well conserved here. It's a real joy to experience such wild and remote places."
On this assignment, Christian continues, "I wanted to capture shy primates and birds, especially hornbills." This meant shooting from a distance, often handheld. But he knew he could rely on the high performance and optical quality of the L-series Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM, with its 4-stop optical Image Stabilizer and automatic panning detection. He was able, for example, to capture portraits of the highly endangered Gee's golden langur – an elusive monkey living in the treetops.
"I was usually following the monkeys through the forest, with them moving fast through the canopy and me on the forest floor. I needed to be fast, and this lens really let me do that. Often, I look through the camera for a long time, waiting for a certain expression. With this lens, I was much more confident because it weighs so little and responds so well."
For more flexibility in reach on the move, Christian paired the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM with the Canon Extender EF 1.4x III and Canon Extender EF 2x III. He found both were a perfect complement, enabling him to increase the lens's focal length without compromising image quality. "Both work very well with the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM," he says. "It's so sharp, I can't tell the difference in the final picture, with or without the converter."
So far, Christian has made four trips to Bhutan, spending a total of six months in the country over the past two years. Extended stays are typical of his assignments, which often involve complete immersion in the rainforests, working alongside other scientists and researchers to document the behaviour of rarely seen species. "I love my photography to show something new, reveal new behaviour or a different perspective on something that we thought we knew," he says.
Even in these tough conditions and with these ambitious requirements, the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM proved to be a lens he could rely on, thanks to its build quality, durability and high level of dust and moisture resistance.
However, the desire to capture an image of scientific value doesn't always override his creative photographic instincts, and Christian isn't afraid to experiment. "I liked to play around with the lens a little," he explains, "to make an image that is a little more interesting, maybe including some out-of-focus areas to create a 'frame' for the focal species."
With its rapid, near-silent autofocus and full-time electronic manual focus override available without having to switch out of AF mode, the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM enabled Christian to realise his creative vision, whatever the demands of the moment.
For the Bhutan assignment, Christian also packed the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens, plus the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM and a pair of zooms, the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM and Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM. He used all of these lenses with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II body.
"The EOS R has been a great camera to experiment with and it does really well in low light. In Bhutan, I was staying in a remote village when they had an annual festival, where they carry burning branches to each house to cleanse the village of bad spirits. The ritual happens at night and so the lighting was tricky, but the results with the EOS R were impressive."
Over his career, Christian's work has won numerous accolades including multiple awards in the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year and World Press Photo competitions. So what advice does he have for those inspired to follow in his footsteps?
"It's tough. More than anything you have to love the job and be persistent, really stick at it and learn as much as you can as you go along," he replies. "But we still need more people to communicate stories about tropical ecosystems to a broad audience. I think we also need different perspectives to tell these nature stories, certainly more women and people from diverse backgrounds."