Canon Ambassador Pascal Maitre won first prize in the 2018 London Business School (LBS) Photography Awards for shedding light on a widely unreported crisis: that 620 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live without access to electricity. It's a story that he can tell only now, with the low light capabilities of modern full-frame technology. Discover what Pascal learned from shooting in almost complete darkness.
"I've made maybe 10 or 15 trips to Africa per year, and I've done that for 30 years," the French photojournalist explains. "From the first time I went there, I heard stories about the lack of electricity, which is a deadly problem for the population. It was important for me because I felt it was a really big injustice."
More than a fifth of the world's population live in energy poverty. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 25% of the population has access to electricity – a figure that drops to just 8% in rural areas. Even urban Africans who do have electrical power are plagued by frequent outages. This has hampered the continent's economic and social development and threatens lives when power cuts halt vital medical procedures, or paraffin lamps release toxic fumes into people's homes.
"Some people have no lighting, so they cannot work after dark and children cannot study," says Pascal. "People might go to hospital and find nothing is working. There's a lack of security, and people in villages stay at home after dark because they are afraid of wild animals.
"It also causes problems with people's jobs. For example, people who work in small factories have to stop work for one or two days because there is no electricity due to power outages."
Pascal spent two years documenting the situation, bringing it to public attention as a photographic project titled Africa Without Electricity.
Pascal wanted his project to reflect the real situation for millions of people living with no access to electricity, and he chose to work at high ISOs to avoid introducing artificial lighting into the locations. "I couldn't use flash because it would have destroyed the reality of the situation and killed the atmosphere. The reality is the darkness, and my work is to pass on what I saw and what I felt," he explains.
Making use of the high dynamic range and wide ISO capability of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Pascal showed how life in many communities happens by the light of paraffin lamps.
Here are five surprising lessons Pascal learned from shooting in the dark with full-frame Canon DSLRs.
1. Use as high an ISO as you need
Pascal didn't test his camera's ability to cope in low light before going to Benin in West Africa, but he was expecting to push the technology to its limits. "My philosophy was not to worry about ISO. Once you start worrying about the technical side of things, you might start to doubt that your project will turn out well. So I just went ahead and did it, and the result was really incredible."
The full-frame Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and Canon EOS 6D Mark II have native ISO ranges of 100-32000 and 100-40000 respectively. "I've never used very high ISO before and I never expected that I would use it, or that I could do so much with it. When I shot the picture of the lady delivering a baby, there was movement, and I needed to shoot with very high ISO to freeze it. It was perfect," he says.
2. You can make incredible prints
The reason the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and the Canon EOS 6D Mark II produce high quality images even at higher ISO values is the large full-frame sensors they use. Compared with smaller sensors of the same resolution, full-frame sensors have larger individual pixels, each of which are capable of capturing more light. This results in less unwanted electronic noise.
Pascal put this to the test when he exhibited his project in Paris. He needed to create 180cm-wide prints of images that had been shot at the maximum ISO value of his Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. "The guy who did the large prints at the lab called all his colleagues to show them the print and nobody could believe it. It was the first time they had ever made such a large print from a file shot at ISO32000, and the quality was incredible."
3. Pack a torch to guide your AF
The AF system of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is from the flagship Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and contains 61 AF points, while the Canon EOS 6D Mark II has 45 AF points, all cross-type. The AF systems in both cameras are sensitive down to -3EV, which means that even in the dim light of paraffin lamps, Pascal was able to focus and capture movement. But even the most advanced cameras need a small amount of light for their AF system to work, so when it was truly pitch dark, Pascal found a simple solution to continue to get the best out of his equipment: "I always had a small torch with me and I shone it on the subject when I needed to get it in focus," he says.
Pascal also used the torch to take long exposures and paint the villages with light. "I was looking at how to show the darkness of a village where you have no light at all, and I came up with the idea of lighting the village with the torch. It was a good solution that created a very dramatic play of light and shadow. It was challenging to find solutions to illustrate what I felt. It wasn't a straightforward project. You have to find the solution with technology – I couldn't have shot this project in the analogue days," Pascal says.
4. Pair a full-frame sensor with a 'bright' lens
Although cameras with APS-C and full-frame sensors can share many of the same lenses, the visual effect you get is different due to the crop factor of the smaller sensor. The size of the sensor also has implications for low light photography. As mentioned above, a full-frame sensor offers a larger light-gathering area along with pixels that are typically bigger than those on an APS-C sensor with a similar resolution. The upshot is that a full-frame camera has the potential to make the most of situations where there’s limited ambient light, particularly when twinned with a 'bright' lens (one with a wide maximum aperture).
Pascal's lens of choice was the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens, which is known by many as the go-to zoom for professionals thanks to its sharp optics and fast f/2.8 aperture throughout its zoom range. Pascal found that the versatility of the L-series zoom lens enabled him to make the most of the low light in the villages in Benin. “The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM was perfect. I shot most of my project with it,” he says.
5. Get equipment you can trust
In the field, with just one opportunity to capture the moment, having a camera you can rely on is paramount. The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and Canon EOS 6D Mark II have been designed with professionals in mind, with years of development building upon their feedback to ensure the ease of use and reliability required in photography. Even Pascal Maitre, who misses the analogue days, admits that he can do much more with his digital full-frame cameras now than he could with his past equipment.
"The quality of digital has evolved, and dynamic range in particular has changed a lot. It's wonderful because you really get a lot more possibilities with the highlights and shadows. In the early days of digital, the grain you got when working in high ISOs looked a bit artificial, but now it's like the grain you used to have in analogue and it's really beautiful. And of course the files are bigger, and you can print them and do whatever you want with them.
"The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and Canon EOS 6D Mark II have been like an extension of my finger, or of my eyes. When I get into a difficult situation, I have no doubt about my ability to get the shot with my equipment. And it's amazing to be in that position, to have that freedom and not have to think about the gear at all... I can just follow the story."