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Taking technology to the coalface: photographing the last Romanian miners

A miner works in the Lupeni coal mine in Romania’s Jiu Valley, where photojournalist Daniel Etter tested the low-light capabilities of the full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R system to its -6EV limits. 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. © Daniel Etter

“You always want to show things that are not seen – things that are in the dark.” Far from the mechanised world expected from 21st century industry, photojournalist Daniel Etter captured the realities of life in the pits, and the human face of Romanian coal mines: the dust, the danger and the darkness.

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The Pulitzer Prize winning writer, photographer and Canon Ambassador is best known for his evocative coverage of world news, winning acclaim for his emotionally engaged depictions of the European migration crisis – emotional scenes of families emerging from dark waters, photographed in the low light that gives unity as a theme across his portfolio.

“I think all of the images that have had an impact in my career, most of the images I like or I’m attached to, have been taken in the morning hours or late at night… That’s where I like to work,” he says.

“During the day, everything stays the same – you have one source of light and it’s what you’re used to seeing and what you always see. It doesn’t change. At night, you have different sources of light – natural light moving and artificial lights you can play with.”

A portrait of a miner with only half his face illuminated
Coal miner Daniel Olaru poses for a portrait in the Lonea coal mine, Petrila, Romania. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/60sec, f/5.6 and ISO1000. © Daniel Etter
Cables and lights in the coal mine
Cables and lights seen in the Lonea coal mine in Petrila, Romania. Within the EOS R’s compact body is a full-frame 36 x 24mm 30.3MP sensor with Dual Pixel Raw. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/50 sec, f/1.8 and ISO1600. © Daniel Etter

This formed part of what drew Daniel to the Lupeni and Lonea coal mines in Romania’s Jiu Valley, with their relics of communism amid what he knew to be a beautiful landscape. The scenes he found were more dramatic than expected, littered with defunct equipment, enclosed in crumbling walls. And the resulting ambient-lit depictions of everyday Romanian miners’ lives have a dark melancholy tone familiar in his work – and, crucially for a documentary photographer, they are a closer representation of the shadowy truth.

“When you see this place, it looks like it was abandoned 20-40 years ago. It’s crumbling, and there are lorries lying around, mangled-up steel pipes and beams – and yet, there are people working there underground,” he says.

World fuel politics adds context and depth to its narrative, but Daniel honed in on documenting the daily lives of the workers, and pushed the limitations of imaging technology to show the extreme working conditions up to 350 metres below ground.

Digital possibilities

A view of the Lonea coal mine in low light
A view of the Lonea coal mine in Petrila, Romania. The Canon EOS R’s full-frame sensor with Dual Pixel Raw offered Daniel the creative freedom he needed to capture the varied scenes – landscapes to portraits – on this shoot. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/125sec, f/2.8 and ISO1600. © Daniel Etter

The Berlin-based photographer started out shooting on film cameras – a BMX rider, photographing his friends. It’s perhaps a natural step to the adrenaline-fuelled situations you can find yourself in as a photojournalist, and the free-mindedness that can be associated with subcultures speaking truth to power.

There have been changes in technology that make work possible that wasn’t before.

“The shift to full-frame digital cameras definitely changed the way I’m working,” Daniel says of the digital revolution. “I’m looking for great quality in the files – since the Canon EOS 5D Mark II came out, there have been changes in technology that make work possible that wasn’t before.

“It is definitely important to me to have a file that I can work on, with a good dynamic range to really get details in the shadows and the lights,” he continues.

A wide shot of two miners in the coal mine, centre of frame looking to their right
Miners leave the Lonea coal mine in Jiu Valley, Petrila, Romania. Daniel relied on the EVF and low-light AF capabilities of the Canon EOS R down to extremes of -6EV – a feat facilitated by a pioneering lens mount that dramatically increases communication speed between the lens and camera body. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/100sec, f/2.5 and ISO6400. © Daniel Etter

The Canon EOS R system heralds new realms of low-light capabilities – performing down to low light extremes of -6EV. “You can shoot, basically, with no light at all in the early hours of the morning or late at night. This really changed the way I’m able to work, and opened up a new world of possibilities.”

People call photography ‘painting with light’, and to take it into the depths of the Earth where headlamps offer the only light source extends the boundaries of image-making technology: the speed and accuracy of the Dual Pixel autofocus and dynamic range of the 30MP sensor were tested.

A wide shot of a miner in the centre of frame holding up a light
A miner enters the Lupeni coal mine in Lupeni, Romania. The Canon EOS R 30MP sensor with Dual Pixel CMOS AF enabled Daniel to take photos with nothing but headlamps for illumination. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/50 sec, f/1.6 and ISO1600. © Daniel Etter

“I was expecting something less archaic [from the mines],” says Daniel. “You go in there, and for an hour [you’re] in absolute darkness, with only the light from your hat lamp. The further you go in, the narrower it gets.”

Crawling on all fours at times, crossing conveyor belts transporting coal to the surface, Daniel knew he would have to work with the Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens he had on – because even with the shutter on the Canon EOS R automatically closing to protect the sensor, he couldn’t see or risk changing lenses.

Portrait of a miner
Iosif Pusok poses for a portrait in the Lonea coal mine, Petrila, Romania. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/60sec, f/5.6 and ISO1000. © Daniel Etter
Environental portrait of a miner in a decaying, dust-covered industrial setting.
Petru Todirel poses for a portrait in the Lonea Mine, Petrila, Romania. Taken on a Canon EOS R with the Mount Adapter EF-EOS R lens adapter and his existing Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/2.2 and ISO800. © Daniel Etter

“Honestly, it was the most difficult circumstances I’ve ever photographed under. Because of the gas in the mines, you can’t have electricity, so the only light was from [specially-sealed] headlamps.” Assurance had to be established that the camera did not bring risk of explosion before he could enter.

The conditions would have prevented photographers even a decade ago from photographing these little-changed scenes, restricted by the pervasive dust and water to the roll of 36 frames they entered with.

“It might sound a little amateurish but, with my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, when it’s so dark that your AF doesn’t work any more and your eyes are at their limit, I was using the back screen and zooming in quite a lot. Now [with the EOS R] I can do that in the natural position with my eyes on the EVF. I see a pretty good representation of what the images are going to look like.”

A wide shot of a train conductor in a blue train
Preferring to work in the blue hours, Daniel captured this train conductor in the early morning. Taken on a Canon EOS R with the Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/2.0 and ISO2500. © Daniel Etter

“I expected it be more mechanised and more automated but it’s really just hard labour and people working with pick-axes and jackhammers, and carrying around these big steel pillars that are filled with water and weigh more than 100 kilos. It’s really, really tough work and I was hoping to show just that.”

An hour into the depths of the mine, Daniel was presented with a space reinforced with beams manually shifted by workers to support the walls of coal. Dust and heat radiate from the images, with men stripped to the waist illuminated by shafts of shifting light as the miners graft.

It’s so dark my eyes can’t see any more… I have to rely on the autofocus.

“I really can’t find an example you can compare it with,” says Daniel. “Even if you’re shooting in really low-light conditions, there’s always some constant source of light, something you can plan with and work with.” But the solution in the mines wasn’t high ISOs.

“On one side, it’s totally black and you don’t see anything,” but on the other the bright illumination of headlamp light meant he didn’t need to push beyond ISO12800.

A group of miners in an orange, low-light setting
A group of miners starting their shift in the Lupeni coal mine. Daniel accessed the full range of focal lengths with the Mount Adapter EF-EOS R lens adapter, with no loss in image quality. Taken on a Canon EOS R with the Mount Adapter EF-EOS R lens adapter and his existing Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/1.8 and ISO1600. © Daniel Etter

But that doesn’t mean Daniel didn’t push the Canon EOS R to its limits in terms of low-light capabilities, dynamic range and focus. “It’s so dark that my eyes can’t see which part of my image is in focus,” he says, “so I have to rely on the autofocus.”

Unable to change his batteries for fear of inviting the pervasive dust into his camera, Daniel was equipped with the Battery Grip BG-E22 battery grip, which enabled him to shoot all day and all night, “and I still had half [the charge] left when I got back to my hotel.”

“I’m not working in a studio – the conditions I work under are constantly changing. Sometimes it’s in a mine, it’s underground, it’s pitch black. Sometimes it’s overground. Sometimes it’s something I have to do really quickly. Sometimes I have time for portraits.

A miner moving a pillar in a mine shaft
The compact and customisable body of the Canon EOS R enabled Daniel to take photos with ease, regardless of the difficult environment. Here, Sorim Ciobanu (front) and another miner move a pillar used as structural enforcement in a mine shaft in Lonea mine, Petrila, Romania. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/50 secs, f/1.2 and ISO6400. © Daniel Etter

“I’m shooting everything you can imagine and trying to get a cohesive story out of it in the end, so I need a camera that works in all of these circumstances and all of these environments.”

“I had black slush raining down on me,” he continues. It highlights an important consideration for photojournalists and their relationship with the tools of their trade: they capture moments that often can’t be repeated, without opportunities to return.

“I try to be there and record things while they’re happening,” says Daniel. “The most important thing for me is to have a camera that’s absolutely reliable and takes a photo when I want it to take a photo – even in adverse conditions, it keeps on working.”

A light illuminating a miner digging
Featuring 12 contacts, the Canon EOS R’s lens mount provides more power to lenses and enables the camera and lens to communicate dramatically faster than previous mounts, translating as faster AF and real-time digital lens optimisation for Daniel. Shot on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/2.0 and ISO12800. © Daniel Etter

The reality of his position, and of the conditions he was capturing, was brought into sharp focus when four hours after he left a tunnel it collapsed, killing a miner.

Daniel doesn’t have misconceptions about his week in Romania, or about the reach of the story. “In this case, I don’t think my photos will have an impact as far as this mine being closed or bettering the work conditions of these people.

“You always strive to take a photo that has an impact, that moves people, that makes people want to help and want to get engaged. But the other aspect that is really important to me, is that you become aware of the differences that there are.”

A portrait of a miner looking to his left, with a solemn look and black coal dust covering his face.
“Their jobs are in their faces. They are almost a direct representation of what they do,” says Daniel of the miners. Lazu Mariam poses for a portrait in the Lonea coal mine, Petrila, Romania. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/60 sec, f/5.6 and ISO1250. © Daniel Etter
A portrait of a miner with coal dust covering his face – you can see it in every pore.
A miner poses for a portrait after his shift in the Lonea Mine, Petrila, Romania. Combining the Canon EOS R with the optical performance of the Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens creates a level of detail in ambient lighting where even the miner’s coal-dust filled pores can be seen. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/60 sec, f/4.0 and ISO400. © Daniel Etter

Above ground, Daniel created piercing portraits of the miners so detailed that you can see the coal dust ingrained in their skin and accumulated in the corners of their eyes.

“When miners get out after a shift of work their faces are black, they have coal under their eyes and in their pores. In most jobs, you don’t see how people work. In this case, it’s very clear in the way they look – their jobs are in their faces. They are almost a direct representation of what they do.”

Technology has advanced so much... in most cases, there’s no technological limitations any more.

Daniel feels he is no longer held back by technology: “People always say, ‘Oh, it’s not about the camera, it’s about the photographer,’ but both elements have to come together to form the image. Of course I still think the photographer is more important in the end, but you have to have a camera that delivers what you’re trying to photograph and trying to show.

“Now the technology has advanced so much that in most cases, there’s no technological limitations any more.”

The story was a test of Daniel and the Canon EOS R’s capabilities, but it also represents something more important to him. “In all the work I do, you suddenly get a perspective of the privileges you have – the privileges I have in my own life.

“I go there for a few hours. You get sweaty, you get dirty, but in the end I’m just photographing there. My life is quite easy. If I’d been born in that area of Romania 30 or 40 years ago, there was basically no other option. It’s generations of people who work there. That would have been your destiny.”

Inside the Canon EOS R’s low-light capabilities


1. Full frame 30MP sensor
The Canon EOS R has a full-frame 36 x 24mm 30.3MP sensor with Dual Pixel Raw. It also features Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF – technology that provides high-performance fast and accurate autofocus, even in previously prohibitive low light.

2. Pioneering lens mount
The EOS R lens mount is at the heart of the EOS R system. Three decades of EOS innovation has evolved into the creation of this 12 contact mount, providing more power to lenses and enabling the camera and lens to communicate dramatically faster.

3. Brighter lenses
With a breakthrough design, the mount features a short back focus and the widest lens throat of any 35mm system, enabling advances in lens design and performance. The Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM, Canon RF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM and Canon RF 28-70mm f/2L USM lenses offer photographers and filmmakers smoother, faster, silent focusing, customisation with on-lens control rings and in the case of the Canon RF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, new levels of image stabilisation compared to previous lenses.

4. World’s fastest autofocus
With its pioneering lens mount increasing responsiveness dramatically, the EOS R offers the world’s fastest AF for a full-frame mirrorless camera.

5. Illuminating EVF
The Canon EOS R’s 3.69 million dot Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) enables you to see in near darkness, with the Touch and Drag AF across 5,655 AF points (covering 88% of the frame vertically and 100% horizontally) enabling you to see and focus on what you want.

6. EF lens adapters
The Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R adapter enables you to use all of your existing EF and EF-S lenses with the EOS R seamlessly, with no loss of quality – producing the same focusing performance, responsiveness and functionality.

Test and try the full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R system at photokina in Cologne, Germany, from 26 to 29 September.

Written by Emma-Lily Pendleton


Daniel Etter’s kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

The Canon EOS R sits on a pile of black stones, some dirty paper underneath it

Cameras

Lenses

Adapter and Accessory

Battery Grip BG-E22

A dedicated battery grip for the EOS R to extend shooting duration and enhance vertical operation.

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