Massimo Sestini

An aerial image of more than 500 refugees crowded together on a moving boat off the coast of Libya.

Canon Ambassador Massimo Sestini won second prize in the World Press Photo – General News, Singles category in 2015 for this image of refugees crowded together on a boat off the coast of Libya. They were eventually rescued by an Italian naval frigate working as part of Operation Mare Nostrum. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 100mm, 1/1000 sec, f/4.5 and ISO400. © Massimo Sestini

At the peak of the European migrant crisis in 2015, newspapers were filled with shocking images of men, women and children crowded into boats, making dangerous sea crossings in search of a better life. But one picture stood out. Shot by Canon Ambassador Massimo Sestini, it shows 500 refugees immediately prior to being rescued by the Italian Navy, seen from high above.

"I've become convinced that distance offers an invaluable advantage," Massimo says of the overhead perspective he used for this image, which took second prize in the World Press Photo – General News, Singles category in 2015. "Shooting a picture from as great a height as 2,500ft, I can capture the intimacy and power of a scene in a way that I wouldn't if I was shooting from the ground, in close contact with my subjects."

Born in Prato, Tuscany in 1963, Massimo was 11 when he got his first camera and just 16 when he started working professionally. "My father brought me a compact 110 film camera from the United States and I started to develop my own prints in a darkroom I'd set up in our bathroom at home," he recalls. He has shot with Canon since his teens, starting with the Canon A-1 as soon as it came out in 1978.

He got a backstage pass to photograph rock concerts through a local radio station in Florence and he would then sell prints to fans at subsequent gigs to cover his expenses. An exhibition of this work, A Seventeen Year Old and His Lens, marked the first step in his professional career in 1980.

Canon Ambassador and aerial photographer Massimo Sestini.

Location: Florence, Italy
Specialist areas: Photojournalism, aerial photography
Favourite kit:
Canon EOS R5
Canon EOS-1D X Mark III
Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM
Photographed from above, rows of sunbathers enjoy a day at the beach in Ostia, Italy. A single red umbrella is the only form of shade.

A big proponent of aerial photography, Massimo took this image of rows of people soaking up the sun on a beach in Ostia, Italy in 2005. "Canon equipment is extraordinary because it's extremely versatile with an immense optical range," says Massimo. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM lens at 115mm, 1/500 sec, f/8 and ISO100. © Massimo Sestini

After high school, Massimo dived straight into photojournalism, working first for a photo agency, before setting up his own agency, Massimo Sestini News Pictures, in 1984. He soon built up a client list that included major news publications such as Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica. He travelled the world, telephoto lenses in tow, hunting for scoops. The biggest of them came in the 1990s – he was the only photographer to cover the funeral of speedboat racer Stefano Casiraghi in 1990 and he took the first shot of Princess Diana in a bikini in 1991.

Alongside news, he's undertaken many public commissions, documenting the work of state institutions such as the police, the military and the fire service. In 2020, he exhibited Dante 700, a series commemorating the 700th anniversary of the famous Italian poet's death, at the Quirinal Palace in Rome. He also exhibited Indispensabili infermieri [Indispensable Nurses], a reportage about the role of nurses during the Covid-19 pandemic at Santa Maria Nuova Hospital and Palazzo Vecchio in his home town of Florence.

An aerial image of a flock of birds in a v-shaped formation flying across large wetlands in Tuscany, Italy.

An aerial view of La Riserva Naturale della Diaccia Botrona (The Natural Reserve of Diaccia Botrona) in Tuscany, among the largest wetlands in Italy. "The common thread that I've followed throughout my work has always been to make photography that is different to what's out there already," explains Massimo. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm, 1/2000 sec, f/5.6 and ISO500. © Massimo Sestini

Massimo's image of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea was made while on assignment with the Italian Navy and shot from the door of a helicopter. This has become his signature technique, showcased in his 2018 book, L'aria del tempo (The Air of Time). "Through an aerial perspective, you discover a completely different vision of the world," he says. "Everything takes shape in the instant that you hit the shutter, you discover something that you've never seen before … the beauty of the invisible."

In your 40-year career in photojournalism, you've covered so many different kinds of news stories. Is there a common method to how you approach a situation?
"As soon as I arrive at an event – whether it's a natural disaster or a crime story for example – I ask myself: from where is it possible to take a shot that will look different to what I can see in front of me? I'll always take a chance, try to shoot from another perspective, maybe from the roof of a building or underground, even if that means I risk going home with nothing."

How did you have the idea for your 2015 World Press Photo-winning shot?
"I wanted to take a photograph that was different to the images that we're used to seeing about the dramatic phenomenon of immigration. I had in mind an image that would give a sense of hope. In 2014, I tried for the first time to shoot some photographs of the boat but I wasn't satisfied with the results. I didn't manage to capture that moment where everyone was looking up at the helicopter, afraid, but happy at the same time because they were saved. In 2015, I tried a second time and my World Press Photo-winning image was born, just as I'd dreamed it."

What are the elements that go into making a strong aerial image?
"Being perfectly vertical above the subject that I want to photograph is essential. Also, the position I choose and therefore my framing; Canon's telephoto lenses, which let me shoot at speed using different focal lengths; and a skilful pilot with whom I can communicate well is fundamental."

Do you have some advice for photojournalists starting out today?
"Don't limit yourself, follow your instincts and act without over-thinking things. Have the conviction to seize the moment with the utmost determination. Even now, when I'm on a job, I get the same adrenaline rush as I did at the beginning. Photojournalism is the best profession in the world."

One thing I know

Massimo Sestini

"I've learned over the years that everything can change at the last minute so when I'm on the ground, I begin by calculating probabilities. I know that even if everything takes a turn for the worse and seems impossible, I can't ever let myself become pessimistic – otherwise I'd end up staying at home. You must never think about the ifs and buts before doing something, you've just got to go there. Unlike other kinds of journalism, you have to physically be in a place to take photographs so you need to get up, run, arrive, look – and finally shoot."

Instagram: @massimo_sestini

Twitter: @massimosestini1


Massimo Sestini's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Massimo Sestini's kitbag containing Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.


Canon EOS R5

Capture sensational 45MP photos at up to 20fps or cinematic 12-bit 8K RAW video using the entire width of the camera's sensor. "The R5 is my favourite camera, for portraits and in general," says Massimo.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

The ultimate creative toolkit, with superb low-light performance, deep learning AF and 5.5K RAW video. Massimo says: "The EOS-1D X Mark III is unbeatable in low light. I often use it for underwater photography, aerial photography and sport."

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

At the heart of the EOS-1D X Mark II is a Canon-developed CMOS sensor that marks the next generation of professional image quality in the EOS line-up. "I use the EOS-1D X Mark III in tandem with the EOS-1D X Mark II when I need to switch frequently between different lenses," says Massimo.


Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM

Canon's fastest ultra-wide-angle zoom and part of a trinity of essential pro lenses, boasting a Nano USM motor, 5-stops of image stabilisation plus 3 Aspherical and 2 UD elements for stunning sharpness.

Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM

Part of the trinity of essential lenses alongside the RF 15-35mm and RF 70-200mm, the RF 24-70mm boasts a fast aperture and image stabilisation plus a Nano USM motor for silent focusing.

Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM

Capture the world with outstanding flexibility and quality with a super compact F2.8 telephoto zoom that incorporates a five-stop Image Stabilizer to ensure great handheld results, closer focusing down to 0.7m and fastest-ever AF.

Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

The RF lens that sets new standards in photographic performance, delivering supreme sharpness, extra creative control and a low-light performance that's simply remarkable.

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