ARTICLE

13 years on: the EOS 5D Mark IV sheds new light on a fading Chinese tradition

Two elderly Chinese cormorant fishermen sit in their boats in near darkness. One has a cormorant sitting on his shoulder. Taken by Joel Santos on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
The Chinese tradition of fishing with cormorants dates back at least 600 years. Photographer Joel Santos, who has visited these fishermen many times since 2006, found that the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV enabled him to shoot in tougher lighting conditions on this trip. "The dynamic range and high ISO performance has improved, so this camera copes better with low light," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 24mm, 1/320 sec, f/2.8 and ISO3200. © Joel Santos

Working by the light of a gas lamp, an elderly fisherman sits atop his bamboo raft as a bird dives overhead. The unlikely pair are fishing together, man and cormorant working in harmony in an ancient Chinese practice dating back 600 years. But the country's rapid modernisation has brought unprecedented tourism to the Li River, in the Guangxi region. Together with a lack of uptake among younger generations, it makes this a fading tradition.

For Canon Ambassador Joel Santos, who has built deep connections in the community over 13 years spent documenting this way of life, his sixth trip offered one of the final chances to document the cormorant fishermen. Taking the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with him, he hoped this visit to Guangxi would produce his best work yet.

"The idea was to go somewhere I already knew well, that has been important to my work, to see what I could do with the technical advances that have been made in the cameras, sensors and lenses – to push them to the limit," Joel says. "At the same time, I was trying to reinvent something that I’ve shot many times before."

He first photographed the fishermen in 2006 and became captivated with the bridging of tradition and modernity. Two of his subjects, brothers Huang Yue Ming and Huang Yue Chang, are among the last six real fishermen in the region. They are both in their 90s now, and have been fishing since they were teenagers.

"It’s been their life story," Joel says. "But soon, one of the most beautiful stories of the past 600 years will become a memory. This was one of the last chances to photograph real fishermen who aren't the new puppets for tourism."

When Joel first photographed the fishermen, he used two early Canon digital cameras – a Canon EOS 350D and a Canon EOS 20D. "I had to be careful about ISO because those cameras were not too good with low light," Joel explains. "So I had to wait for a little bit after sunrise had begun, and a little bit before sunset time.

"On this new trip I was using an EOS 5D Mark IV and a bunch of L-series lenses, so I wanted to really test what I could see, especially in low light. And what kind of shadow recovery I would get from those files, and what kind of sharpness I would get with new, better L-series lenses."

A close-up of a cormorant, a drop of water dripping from its beak. Two fishermen in their boats are visible on the river behind, and jagged hills in the background. Taken by Joel Santos on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
There are just six real cormorant fishermen left in China's Guangxi region, says Joel. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 24mm, 1/100 sec, f/2.8 and ISO200. © Joel Santos
A shot over Joel Santos's shoulder as he photographs a fisherman on his boat with his cormorant.
Shooting at dusk and dawn tested the low light capabilities of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. © Magali Tarouca
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The story also has a personal resonance. "I have a passion for fishermen because I live in a country of fishermen," adds Joel, who comes from Portugal. "And my family has been historically connected to the ocean as well, so I have this admiration for these people and their hard lives. It's a lot of work to get a fish.

"I feel that fishermen are kind of like photographers, too. I fish for light, they fish for food. So they have to wait, they have to be patient, they have to go there every day not knowing what they're going to get as a result.

"What distinguishes them from probably every other fisherman in the world is that they use cormorants. They train the birds from an early age and put a collar around their neck, so they can eat smaller fish – because this relationship has to work both ways – but they cannot swallow large fish, so the fishermen will take those."

A fisherman sits on his boat holding a lamp. A cormorant sits behind him, its wings spread. Taken by Joel Santos on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
Joel first began taking photographs of the fishermen in 2006. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 32mm, 1/60 sec, f/3.5 and ISO800. © Joel Santos
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Capturing the low-light story

Paddling across the still water, the elderly fishermen send their birds into the water and cast hand-woven nets. Fishing at dawn and dusk, illuminated by a bright lamp on their boats, creates challenging conditions for photography.

"It put the camera to the test, as you’re shooting in low light,” says Joel. “On previous trips, I’ve also shot at sunrise and sunset, but not too much into twilight, so the sky was always a bit brighter. The dynamic range and high ISO performance has improved, so this camera copes better with low light and doesn’t blow out as hard.

"In 2006, it would have been impossible to shoot above ISO400 or 800, but most of these images were shot above 1600, some going to 6400. They are clean, the dynamic range is still good, and the lamps are also clear. Usually with such a strong light source you’ll get a huge flare on the image, a loss of contrast and a halo around some areas of image, and if you look at those photos they don’t have that."

Inside his house, one of the fishermen lights a fire. Taken by Joel Santos on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
Joel was granted access to many of the fishermen's homes. To thank his subjects, Joel says he likes to print off portraits for them using a Canon Zoemini portable printer. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 20mm, 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO2000. © Joel Santos
Two fishermen stand on their boats, each with a staff over his shoulder. A cormorant perches at the end of one staff and both ends of the other. The entire scene is reflected in the still water.
The Image Stabilization in Joel's L-series lenses even enabled him to shoot while on a moving raft on the river, without worrying about camera shake. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 22mm, 1/80 sec, f/3.5 and ISO1000. © Joel Santos

As well as photographing the fishing, Joel also shot portraits in the men’s homes. On this trip his lens kit included the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM and the new tele-zoom, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM. "I was really impressed with it," he recalls. "Optically it’s superb. The precision is amazing, as is the flare control and the stabilizer – I loved it."

Image Stabilization also proved to be a huge asset in the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM. "I took portraits with this lens, and it’s amazing, because most primes aren’t stabilised, so it’s a rare thing. The 85mm is a very bright lens, but most of the time when you're shooting low light, you still don't have enough shutter speed to cope with the focal length you are using.

"Most of the time you cannot shoot over 1/100th of a second because you don't have enough light for that, or you have to push the ISO really high, to the point that it becomes ruined. I loved having this lens stabilised and using it like I was using a 50mm, so I could use it on 1/50th of a second, and the shots would be sharp."

A fisherman in the middle of a river casts his net. Three cormorants sit on his boat. Taken by Joel Santos on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
Joel was originally inspired to visit the Li River region 23 years ago after seeing fake-looking shots of the region. He has now captured images that are both genuine and iconic. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 28mm, 1/2000 sec, f/5 and ISO100. © Joel Santos

Shooting 4K video

Joel and his wife Magali Tarouca, a fellow photographer who accompanied him on the trip to shoot the behind-the-scenes images, also tested out the EOS 5D Mark IV’s 4K video capabilities. "I’ve never shot video of the fishermen before, because the low light capabilities of the cameras were not good enough, so this was great. Most of the time you won't see video footage from these fishermen because it's hard to do. Many of our shots were done from another raft, which made it harder to stabilise."

On upskilling to shoot video as well as stills, Joel says: "I try to bring the aesthetics I already created in photography into video. But as you might know, it doesn't play by the same rules. So you have to use different shutter speeds. You need better ISO performance, because one thing is shot at 1/5th of a second, another is shot at 1/30th of a second.

"Stills photography is a completely different language from video. But video is another way to tell a story, so why prevent myself from telling a complementary story to my stills?"

At night, a man and a woman stand on a boat in the River Li. The woman's arm is raised. Taken by Joel Santos on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
As well as the fishing, Joel witnessed some beautiful light shows on the Li River. Unfortunately, since the early 2000s these shows have attracted so much tourism that the region's traditional way of life is being overwhelmed by the show. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 200mm, 1/60 sec, f/2.8 and ISO200. © Joel Santos
A light show on the River Li. People stand on boats in the river, while bright spotlights light the scene. Taken by Joel Santos on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
The incredible light show on the Li River now provides employment for 5,000 people. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 200mm, 1/125 sec, f/2.8 and ISO2000. © Joel Santos

Documenting change

Together, Joel’s extensive body of work documents the cultural changes in the region, with the fishermen’s story speaking to a broader narrative of the modernisation revolution underway within China.

“Growth has been really fast in the last decade, and people have more money today than ever before,” he says. “Tourism, and especially internal tourism, has blown off the charts. In the 13 years since I first shot these fishermen, this kind of tradition has collapsed, because tourist growth in the region has been so high.”

This is encapsulated in Joel’s stark images of a blinding light show performance which sees the River Li illuminated with coloured lights. Choreographed by famous Chinese director Zhang Yi Mou, who was responsible for the lavish opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it has made Yangshuo a tourist magnet – established in 2004, the show is now held two to three times a day, every day of the year, and employs over 5,000 people.

"It’s the biggest stage in the world,” says Joel. “It has become so famous that tourists flock to it." These tourists also take to the water at night to see cormorant fishing, but what they see is a performance, far from the real fishing experience – the excessive lights, movement and noise drive the fish away.

A fisherman and his cormorant on a boat, photographed from the water level and illuminated only by a lamp on the boat. Taken by Joel Santos on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
Joel's photographs capture a way of life that is fast vanishing. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 35mm, 1/30 sec, f/2.8, ISO8000. © Joel Santos

"Documenting these stories makes you think about how the world is changing," says Joel. "If we never changed, we’d still be living in caves, but at the same time, it’s frightening to see that something that has endured for more than 600 years can be lost in less than 10.

"I'm divided because when you lose a tradition, you lose knowledge, and that's something you'll be losing forever. But at the same time, it's kind of egoistic that you want people to stay as they are, just to keep a tradition."

As for the last of the cormorant fishermen, they too have mixed feelings. "They see the improvements tourism has brought to their lives, so in a way they accept the change in fishing traditions. They understand why the younger generations don’t care for it – they themselves have had a hard life, and the money you earn from fishing is not enough to pay for the things you need to survive nowadays. But they are really sad that the tradition might soon disappear."

Írta: Lucy Fulford


Joel Santos's kitbag

The key kit for low light travel documentary photography

Joel Santos's Canon cameras and lenses.

Camera

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast. "This camera copes beautifully with low light and high ISO," says Joel. "Even images shot above ISO1600 are clean and the dynamic range is still good."

Lenses

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM

This fast portrait lens delivers clear, sharp images full of contrast and colour with razor sharp detail, ideal for high-resolution sensors. “It’s amazing, because most primes aren’t stabilised, so it’s a rare thing," says Joel. "It's a very a bright lens, and I loved using it like I was using a 50mm."

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM

A workhorse telephoto zoom lens with a durable design, a four-stop Image Stabilizer that makes it ideal for shooting handheld in low light conditions, and ultra-low dispersion lens elements to ensure high contrast and natural colours. “Optically it’s superb," says Joel. "The precision is amazing, as is the flare control and the stabilizer – I loved it.”

Accessories

Canon Zoemini

Perfectly pocket-sized, Canon Zoemini is the ultimate accessory for your mobile device. "I try to print as much as possible and give the photos I take back to people, like the fishermen," explains Joel. "A picture is worth so much to people."

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