For the past eight years of my life I’ve been obsessively chasing remote snow-covered mountain ranges, preferably far up north of the equator. I’m talking places like Northern Norway, Iceland, Yukon and Alaska, places where you wear jackets even in the height of summer. The truth is, to the great dismay of my wife, I’m not drawn towards hot places, I prefer the cold embrace of a narrow glacially carved valley, dotted with turquoise lakes and waterfalls. The draw comes from having to face ungodly weather conditions that make life and my job a bit more complicated. Just like you, I love a good challenge. So when Canon USA told me I was to review their new Canon EOS 6D Mark II in the far away United Arab Emirates, I was slightly frightened. Then that fear turned into excitement: game on.
Soon, I was comfortably sitting on a 777 pointed south-east. From the window, I could see the sharp ranges of Eastern Turkey sprinkled with snow. I wanted to get dropped off right there on the shores of Lake Van. But instead, we eventually landed in Abu Dhabi, soon sitting in the back on a Mercedes E-Class pinned straight towards the biggest sand desert in the world: ine Rub’ al Khali aka Empty Quarter. My first contact with the Middle East was good, they know comfort. Something that is not typically included on my trips up North.
After a short sleep, I fiddled through my camera bag at 5:16 am, making sure the gear was ready for the shoot — EOS 6D Mark II: check; EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens: check; SD cards: check; 2 batteries: check; fresh dates: check. My head felt foggy and I reluctantly left the lux hotel room and headed towards the meeting point. That’s the thing with hotels, I don’t ever want to wake up for sunrise when I’m floating in high thread count sheets. The devil on my shoulder whispers: “Stay. Live a little”. When I’m in a tent I’m looking forward to leaving it because it’s not comfortable in any way, it keeps me sharp and restless — and that makes for great photographs.
Flash forward to 6:20 am, Azmat, our Pakistani guide, led our small fat tire bike convoy through the rolling dunes. The sun would rise in 30 minutes and I needed to find a spot to capture it. Usually, in mountain environments, thanks to satellite imagery I would have a very decent idea of where I want to shoot. But here, looking at those images would be of no use. With each breath of the wind, the dunes move, their shape and size can be completely different from one week to the other so satellite stills dating from 2015 would be a bit irrelevant here. Azmat pointed at a 150ft tall sand dune to our right, the sun would rise right above it. He’d been guiding in this desert for 21 years so I’m inclined to trust him. When you’re out on a time-limited mission, having a guide who knows what they’re doing is a blessing from the skies. We pushed our bikes up the dune. I snapped a couple of test shots of the lower neighboring dunes. This pile of sand was slowly growing on me. We sent Joel my assistant and last minute model on a made-up route through the hills so I could photograph him riding as the sun rises. Snap snap. It was looking really good. I’ve usually worked with the bigger and more expensive Canon EOS 5D Mark IV but this little 6D Mark II is killing it. All the controls fell exactly where I wanted them to be and the viewfinder feels the same. The sun was already high up in the sky and the light became harsh. We took a (too short) moment to appreciate how lucky we were to be there and rush back to the rooms to review pictures.
If shooting in the endless dunes of Empty Quarter wasn’t enough to challenge me, I thought why not push it even more and head in the city of Abu Dhabi itself. If there’s one environment where I don’t usually take pictures, it’s within the walls of any city. I find them too overwhelming to capture. Everything is square and I have trouble finding compositions in man-made shapes. A raindrop hit my left eye as I looked up at the magnificent Sheik Al Khalid Mosque. It was raining in the UAE and we were told by our Pakistani driver Rajat Salim that he didn’t even remember the last day it rained. I felt lucky. The clouds were menacing and the wind picked up. We made our way into the walls of the mosque as the sun was setting. I wanted to get there for blue hour so I could test the high ISOs on this puppy. Joel offered me a tripod but I politely declined. I find them too static — tripods and I are polar opposites. This place is swarming and we arrived just in time for the prayer call. To our great joy, the rain made the marble floors of the mosque shiny, the glow of the evening light reflecting on them. Snap snap. Among the hordes of foreigners, I was able to find a few scenes of local women going about their business. We had to be patient, finding nooks to shoot only one subject were hard to find. By now, I was shooting at 2200 ISO (no sweat for the 6D Mark II).
Sir Bani Yas
What I came to admire most from the people of the UAE is their determination: they don’t let any roadblock turn them around. They built bays, marinas and even islands out of the sea. If they don’t have it, they will build it and I developed a respect for their drive for progress. They certainly have big resources thanks to the liquid gold they pump out of the bottom of their land but they are reinvesting that wisely. Thirty years ago, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan was watching how the oil fields of Northern Iraq where becoming polluted barren lands and didn’t want the same to happen to his emirate. As part of the ‘Greening The Desert’ movement, he decided to create the Arabian Wildlife Park to house all the native endangered species of the area including the Arabian oryx and the cheetah.
There was a faint layer of clouds on the horizon as we sat in the back of a safari-modified 70 Series Land Cruiser. Mark, our Welsh guide for the day, scanned his budget and the gates of the reserve let us in. We are looking for oryx, cheetah and giraffes. I had an EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens on the EOS 6D Mark II and I scanned the horizon for wildlife. Bingo, we found an oryx on a ridge with the sun rising dead on behind him. Snap snap. I’m loving these warm colors. Half an hour down the road Mark found two giraffes munching on leaves. This was my first encounter with this magical animal and I didn’t know what to say or think — I was blown away. I screwed the wide angle on so I could get the long neck in and shoot away. The viewfinder puts distance between the viewer and the photographer so I could take a moment to reflect on what was happening: it felt like being the witness to the scene rather than being a part of it.
Soon enough I found myself in row 22 of the A380, high above Greenland. I sipped on mint tea while writing notes for this story. The wifi was slow and my seatmate decided to complain to the flight attendant. He had a point but when I thought of what a bird would go through to travel the same distance I was happy to be snug in my blanket with my headphones on as we traveled the 6000 miles across the world in one go.
The past five days had opened my eyes to a whole new environment, one without the need for jackets or skis. One where it’s not the size of the mountains that make the beauty but the delicate shapes of the sand. My preconceived version of the Middle East was wrong, once again. Deep inside, I loved being proved wrong because it may open new doors. The same applies to the EOS 6D Mark II — I wasn’t expecting that I could live with it but as it turns out, I could trade in my EOS 5D Mark IV for it any day. I found the dynamic range to be almost identical, color rendition to be accurate in the true Canon way and the flip screen is something I wish we’d have in the bigger cameras. I could go on but there’s no point. I love the 6D Mark II because it does everything I need it to do at almost half the price of its older brother.
EOS 6D Mark II by Canon $1,699
EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM by Canon $1,299