Three tribes, 700km, dust, desert and the Canon EOS R: Brent Stirton's vanishing Namibian world

Three Herero women stand in a symmetrical triangular pose, wearing red, khaki and black colonial-style dresses and jackets. They also wear red wide-brimmed hats that lift up at each end like cows’ horns.
The women of the Herero tribe wear dresses in the same style as the Christian missionaries who came to them in the 1890s, with the addition of headwear that reminds them of cows' horns. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105MM F/4L IS USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/16 and ISO200. © Brent Stirton

Brent Stirton is a man on a mission. "Half of my year is spent on normal photojournalism issues, the usual gamut of the human condition," says the award-winning South African Canon Ambassador, known for his work for magazines including National Geographic, Newsweek and Time.

"The other six months I'll spend on the intersection of man and the environment: the illegal wildlife trade, species in the sixth stage of extinction, that sort of thing." Brent elevates topics with his trademark detail and depth – studio lighting, small apertures and low ISOs bring a seemingly three-dimensional quality to his images, with colour saturation giving impact to his subjects and their stories.

Over the last two decades, Brent has travelled the world over on assignments relating to issues such as wildlife and conservation, global health, diminishing cultures, sustainability and the environment. But he admits he always feels the draw back to Africa, most recently for his ongoing work documenting Namibian tribal culture: the San (or Bushmen), Himba and Herero tribes.

"They’re minority groups in this country, but all of them have something unique to offer," he explains. "The Bushmen are the ultimate smart survivors, a group that's authentic but has also learned to use its own culture as a money-making device. They keep an original lifestyle for six months of the year, and the next six months they work with lodges and tourism to showcase their culture.

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"With the Himba, it's a similar thing. They've recognised that they can work alongside tourism, so that people from other countries, who have never seen how they live, can come here. Everyone wins.

"The Herero are a more moneyed group – some would call them the most successful in terms of economics at least," he continues. "But they have their own unique history, which relates to the German oppression of 1904-05. Right now, they’re fighting a court case to win reparations, and they have a military uniform that dates back to the turn of the century. So they offer me aesthetics and they also offer me something to talk about."

Brent is keen to capture these cultures in their current form. "These things are diminishing, they're vanishing, as more and more of the world is [becoming] a homogenous place," he stresses. "So if I have the opportunity to see some of what makes these people unique, you get to keep that alive in some form."

An elderly Namibian woman wearing a colourful patterned dress, dark blue beaded necklace, light blue headscarf, and earrings with large, triangle-shaped red stones.
"These cultures are vanishing, as more and more of the world is [becoming] a homogenous place," Brent notes. "So if I have the opportunity to see some of what makes these people unique, you get to keep that alive in some form." Photographed on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/5.6, ISO500. © Brent Stirton
Four Himba boys drape themselves in predominantly ochre and dun coloured wraps with bold patterns.
Brent's work encompasses the genres of portrait, landscape and reportage. Photographed on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105MM F/4L IS USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/11, ISO400. © Brent Stirton

Brent studied journalism, and began his career in photography with a chance venture – he couldn't find a photographer to work with, so bought a second-hand Canon A1 with a squeaky shutter and started taking pictures himself.

After decades of Canon innovation, nine World Press Photo awards and recognition from the United Nations, Brent has arrived at a camera and portfolio that's far removed from his Canon A1's squeaky shutter and the work he produced with it. "For a long time I've been looking for a smaller, more innocuous camera for some of the more investigative stories that I do," Brent says of his camera choice for the Namibian shoot, the 30MP full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R.

"A lot of the time when people talk to you about 'silent shutter' it's actually a whisper shutter, but the Canon EOS R is completely silent," Brent says, explaining more of what attracted him to the system. "When you're in places where you'd rather be drawing as little attention to yourself as possible, it's really nice to have that. You're not threatening or intimidating in any way."

A thoughtful young Himba woman wearing four or five differently-patterned scarves, all knotted at the front, with a companion out-of-focus in the background.
The exceptional low-light performance of the Canon EOS R system enabled Brent to capture the daily lives of his subjects without the disruption of elaborate artificial lighting rigs. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/2.5, ISO800. © Brent Stirton
The dunes of the Namibian desert rise to undulating ridges in the distance, with a distinctive dune shaped like a barbed arrowhead in the middle distance.
Brent's photos proclaim his affection for Namibia: "You've got beautiful landscapes, incredible desert scenes, [and] a range of unique indigenous groups, who live very close to nature," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105MM F/4L IS USM lens at 1/20 sec, f/4.0, ISO640. © Brent Stirton

But it's more than a smaller size and a silent shutter that Brent wanted for his work. "There are advantages to mirrorless cameras that I want to incorporate into my photography, but I also wanted to have the same colour fidelity and manual selection, as well as a battery that lasts me a long time. Plus I need something that will perform in low light – this camera really does that for me."

The reason this is important, Brent says, is that it "makes it easier for me to focus on being creative. The great thing with photography is that you see something, and it's like jumping out of a plane or climbing a mountain – it's our version of those feelings, like surfing a huge wave. Every now and again, all the elements come together in the picture and you know you have something timeless."

A low-angle shot puts us eye-to-eye with two San hunters as they crouch in the grass, bows and arrows in their hands, looking at something out of the shot.
Photographing San (also known as Bushman) people hunting was another scenario where the Canon EOS R's silent shooting and lightweight yet robust and weather-proofed build proved invaluable. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105MM F/4L IS USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/18 and ISO200. © Brent Stirton

Dust, desert and the Canon EOS R system

The dramatic ochre scenes, vibrant tribal dress, and expanses of desert landscape didn't disappoint Brent on this shoot. But the open plains in Africa's winter brought wind and subsequent swathes of airborne dust that made it challenging to shoot in the multitude of desert locations.

"I had guys battling to hold on to my lighting," Brent says of a particularly windy occasion. "In front of me I had three uniquely beautiful local women, and they were struggling because of the wind blowing dust in their eyes. But what I noticed was that when they closed their eyes, they became more serene."

A Himba tribeswoman stands among bleached tree branches with dust being blown by the wind in the background. She has one hand on a bleached tree trunk that rises to shoulder height.
Brent worked in hot, dusty conditions, capturing portraits and scenes that documented the peoples' way of life. The dust wasn't a problem, because the Canon EOS R's sensor is protected when the lens is removed, helping prevent dust spots. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/8000 sec, f/2 and ISO100. © Brent Stirton

As Brent raised his camera, everything fell into place. "Suddenly, this woman existed in her own universe. I was able to take away all the lighting and just observe this woman standing there in this windstorm, with these dust clouds going by, with her own dignity. It's that kind of serendipity that I'm hoping for. That's the best kind of photographic opportunity for me."

Brent shoots with a Profoto setup to achieve his studio-lit aesthetic. This was accompanied by the Canon EOS R with its full-frame 30MP sensor and innovative lens mount that allows for faster communication between camera and lenses. Brent used the Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM, Canon RF 24-105MM F/4L IS USM and Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM lenses – as well as his existing EF lenses, using the Mount Adapter EF-EOS R adapter.

This setup yielded what Brent describes as "impressive" resolution. "The images seem sharper somehow, a little more three-dimensional."

A Herero woman wearing a blue floral-patterned dress and the characteristic flat wide headgear stands in front of a large striped tent reminiscent of a circus bigtop. In addition to her shadow on the canvas, there is the shadow of someone who is not in shot walking past with a stick in hand.
The Herero people have their own unique history and have retained a distinctive identity. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM lens at 1/500 sec, f/4.0, ISO250. © Brent Stirton

Canon EOS R's low-light performance

Chasing the story rather than the light, Brent lists low light as one of the consistent challenges in photojournalism. "I photographed a beautiful Himba girl in the place where she lives and sleeps," he says. "It's pretty dim in there: their doorways are small and there was no indoor lighting. But despite that, I was shooting at ISO3200 and ISO6400 with complete confidence."

Time after time, Brent found the EOS R system rose to the challenge, with its capability to focus in low-light conditions down to -6EV – conditions that would have been prohibitively dark in the past, such as shooting at night with only a flickering campfire for light.

"Throughout the trip, this new system was offering me some of the best low-light performance I've ever seen from a Canon camera. Every time I focused on something, it hit it immediately."

A San woman holds her swaddled baby close to her at night as they sit on the ground by a campfire. Other tribespeople in the background are blurred.
Brent used EOS R's silent shooting functionality in the EOS R body and silent AF in the lenses to produce intimate portraits such as this scene of a mother and her swaddled baby sitting by the fireside with other San tribespeople. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/1.2 and ISO3200. © Brent Stirton

Travelling more than 2,000 kilometres over five days, and working to deadlines, means that Brent demands a lot from his cameras, including the battery life. Pairing the Canon EOS R with the Battery Grip BG-E22 battery grip doubled its battery capacity. "Yesterday I filled a 64GB card, shooting RAWs and large JPEGs – over 1,500 shots and I still had two bars left on the battery,” he says. “To my mind, that's impressive."

With technological limitations overcome, Brent found the biggest challenge came from nature: the pervasive dust. "On this particular shoot, we were in the desert a lot. There were very fine particles of dust blowing all of the time, but I didn't get a single piece of dust on the sensor. My lenses were working perfectly, and I didn't hear any sound from dust inside the lenses, either."

A smiling woman wearing modern fabrics stands inside a building looking off to one side.
Life is changing for many of the peoples of Namibia. Some are abandoning traditional lifestyles, some hold on to them and some recognise that tourism can actually help sustain them. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM lens at 1/250 sec, f/4.0, ISO3200. © Brent Stirton

The Canon EOS R's sensor is protected when the lens is removed: "This gate comes down when you take the lens off the camera, which is there protecting your sensor. That's a huge deal for me, because one of the things that photographers hate most about digital is dirt on your sensor."

Brent needn't have feared. The resulting portraits, landscapes, and reportage images combine in celebration of a diminishing world. "I am trying to dignify the people that I photograph," he says. "There's often a low angle in my shots, where there's a sort of heroic nature to these people, because that's how I see them."

Autor Tom May

Brent Stirton's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Photographer Brent Stirton stands in a structure made of timber and tarpaulin, pointing his Canon EOS R camera at something out of shot.




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