Canon Explorer

Canon Explorer - Markus Varesvuo

Multi award-winning wildlife photographer and Canon Explorer Markus Varesvuo has been fascinated by birds since growing up in Helsinki in the 1960s. Around the age of 45, he gave up his job in business to concentrate on his passion and is now one of the world's most recognised bird photographers. He recently won a 2014 World Press Photo award (2nd in the Nature category) and was the overall winner in the Italian nature photo competition, Oasis. We asked him how he got started and what drives his passion.

Finding inspiration

"While I'm best known for photographing European birds, I don't chase rarities, nor am I especially focused on only iconic or enigmatic species. I am fascinated by the birds around us and have been since I was child. All birds are a source of wonder and inspiration - be they the common crow or a near extinct Black Vulture."

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© 'Surfacing from the depths, Gannet (Sula bassana)' taken in Unst, Shetland, Scotland, UK on a Canon EOS-1D X using 24-70 mm f2.8: 1/2500 sec, f5.6, ISO 2000.

"Birds are also subjects of a lot of scientific research; their migration routes, their ability to fly, their population ranges and fluctuations, their diversity in just about any aspect, survival and conservation. These interest many people all around the world. After all, birds descend directly from the dinosaurs - what more is needed to get excited about?"

Pursuing a passion

"I've followed birds since I was 11, but chose to study economics and go into the business world, thinking that it'd be good to keep one's professional life separate from this great personal passion, birds. But somewhere around turning 30, I started to think I'd want to make a living with what I did with almost every free hour I had, which was photographing birds. By the time I reached 45, I was a full-time professional bird photographer."

Pushing the limits

"In addition to producing commercially viable images, I strive to push my limits and those of the camera, not to mention my audience's ability to embrace what they see, by taking images that bring out something new in a bird or its relation to its surroundings. There are no fancy gimmicks though. It's just me, my camera gear, the birds and the outdoors."

Working life

"As a one-time athlete I'm quite competitive and enjoy participating in photo contests; my latest, and so far the most fulfilling competition highlight is success in the World Press Photo 2014. I also make books, organise exhibitions and give the occasional talk. But mostly I am either out there photographing or in my digital darkroom working on the material."

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© Markus Varesvuo

The raven image was taken in the heart of winter deep in the woods in Central Finland at the edge of a bog, when the day was short, the wind howling; the temperature was punishing everything, the snow swirling and driving and fleeing and pelting. The ravens were patiently waiting. Riding the storm. Not their first, nor the last, just part and parcel of life in the North.

I have adjusted the contrast, exposure and brightness to bring out the fierceness of the moment, the stoic acceptance of the bird. I sat there too, in the storm, on the forest floor, but in the relative comfort of a plywood hide, with warmth provided by good winter clothes and a heater. Out there, the raven perched in just its feathers.

I had a vision in my mind of what I wanted to achieve based on previous trips to one of my absolute favourite locations: Varanger Peninsula, North Norway and more specifically Hornøya, the lighthouse island just outside Vardø, where a seabird colony breeds in spring. The first birds arrive in the first days of March so I set out to spend 10 days on the island starting from the 5th. I arrived more or less at the same time with the big flocks of Guillemots, which had spent the winter months out in the wide open Atlantic.

For the first couple of days the huge flock circled the small island en masse, as if checking the steep cliffs, still snow-covered, and wondering if they could summon the courage to set webbed feet on land.

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© Markus Varesvuo

They flew over me, time and time again, in their hundreds and thousands, almost close enough to touch, not bothered by the human in the least. It is not often that a bird photographer can use short lenses, so when the opportunity is there, it's party time!

I was high enough on the slope to get the sea in the background, and waited for the optimal weather - snowfall that would be visible between the birds and the sea. The overcast day offered not much light, yet light was ubiquitous; it bounced off every snow-covered white surface creating a very even and harmonious feel to the image.

Normally quite keen to get birds sharp in focus, here I wasn't interested in getting any single bird super sharp; with the out-of-focus birds in the front I wanted to communicate the depth of the flock and the sense of the northern seabirds arriving in spring.

It may seem and sound effortless, just a stream of birds flowing past, just press the shutter and reap the results… But it's at the end of the world, on a slope of a snow-covered little hill of an island in the Arctic Ocean; to get there you need to carry your 10-day food and water and gear and stuff up a slanted hill in deep snow, and then you need to be out every day in all kinds of interesting weather, hoping something turns out right.

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© 'The Master of White'. Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus) in the Arctic hills in Utsjoki, Finland. Taken with a Canon EOS-1D X using 600 mm f4 + 1.4X extender: 1/500 sec, f8, ISO 800.