ARTICLE

Bringing humans and nature together through print

Wildlife photographer Pie Aerts is on a mission to protect our natural world – discover how he uses print as a powerful tool for conservation.
A photographer leans out of a vehicle in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda. He is holding a Canon camera with a large telephoto lens.

Canon Ambassador and conservation photographer Pie Aerts, pictured here in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, uses physical art to reconnect mankind and nature. His recent project, Prints for Wildlife, raised close to $700,000 for African Parks, an NGO that works with local communities and governments to manage protected areas in Africa. © Pie Aerts

In 2017, Pie Aerts quit his office job to become a photographer. Although it was a huge leap of faith, Pie knew he had the inspiration and motivation to succeed. His inspiration came from a lifelong love of photography and art in a physical form: books, paintings, prints. His motivation was a desire to conserve a planet clearly suffering due to humanity's increasing detachment from nature.

Four years later, now a renowned nature photographer, conservationist and Canon Ambassador, Pie's gamble has handsomely paid off. Today, he uses his passion for photography and printed art to examine the disconnect between humans and nature – and to help repair that divide.

In 2020, Pie embarked on his biggest project yet, Prints for Wildlife, which brought together wildlife photographers from around the world. The project used printed photography to raise funds for African wildlife reserves adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here, Pie explains how printing his work has been fundamental to his photography career and his continued environmental mission to reconnect mankind with nature.
A black and white image of a herd of elephants being led by the largest.

This stunning image of a matriarch elephant leading her herd to water in Amboseli, Kenya is one of Pie's most popular prints. The Dutch photographer feels duty-bound to give back to a planet that has given him so much. Printed photography is crucial to this, acting as a physical, tangible reminder of nature's beauty and importance. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens at 200mm, 1/3200 sec, f/4 and ISO400. © Pie Aerts

What is behind your strong conservational focus and how do you see the disconnect between humans and nature?

"I believe that what we're currently losing will be gone forever. As a photographer, I am responsible for making people aware of that. If you want to save ecosystems and species you need people-driven solutions; we need to empower people so they can protect the nature on their doorsteps. Many people living close to parks in Africa or South America are understandably not concerned with conservation because they're focused on survival. Some may have no choice but to engage in ecologically damaging vocations such as poaching in order to survive. They are then unfairly viewed as the core of the problem – that's the disconnect.

"If there was a better distribution of conservation money, that would be a big step. And that's what really fuels my passion – demonstrating that saving the planet requires saving people first."

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Can you tell us about the month-long Prints for Wildlife initiative that you and your partner Marian launched during the Covid-19 pandemic?

"In March 2020, people celebrated that the natural world had space to breathe. Without things like tourism and air travel, the planet could recover. But there was little awareness of the impact diminished tourism would have on Africa. Marian and I read about it and realised the lack of funding would set conservation back decades.

"Most conservation funding comes from tourism – people paying park fees, staying in hotels – but everything stopped overnight. That meant rangers weren't being paid to protect national parks, and people in those areas would soon move back to poaching, deforestation or other illegal activities.

"So we decided to raise $100,000 for park conservation NGO African Parks, an organisation with a people-driven approach. We contacted wildlife photographers, asking them each for one image. We sold those as limited-edition prints for $100 each. The campaign went viral, and thousands of international photographers applied to join the cause. We ended up uniting 125 photographers, selling 6,600 prints and raising almost $700,000."
Two lions leaning on each other, their eyes closed.

Lion siblings during morning light in the Masai Mara in Kenya. Using the best sensors is crucial to the final result of a printed image, says Pie. He trusts in the class-leading sensor of the Canon EOS R5 to always deliver his largest prints in the highest possible definition. Taken with a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens at 315mm, 1/1600 sec, f/5.6 and ISO1000. © Pie Aerts

When and why did you first start printing your photography?

"I started selling my prints in 2017. I have a strong background in print: I collect books and appreciate a good story in newspapers and magazines. Naturally, the next step was printing my own work. I was also tired of the 'swipe and like' culture, where your work has to grab someone instantly. This was pushing me away from online."

And how do you feel that photography and printing help reconnect humans and nature?

"The first step towards protecting the planet is making everyone aware and appreciative of how beautiful nature is. Then they're more willing to fight for it or donate money.

"If you put an image on your website, it will be gone eventually. Instagram posts disappear into feeds forever. With prints, it's completely different: they're in people's homes, and there's a daily encounter with the same physical image. That's impossible to replicate digitally. If I manage to get people outside after buying a print, if it's in their home as a daily reminder that the natural world is worth fighting for – that's big."
A Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 printer in use, printing an image of a leopard in a tree.

Pie uses the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 for his at-home printing. As well as providing superb print quality, it can produce prints A3 and A2 in size, his most popular dimensions by sales volume. The Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 gives Pie the flexibility and creative control he needs to run a successful and increasingly sustainable printing business. © Pie Aerts

Has printing affected your photographic process at all? Do you choose subjects with a final print in mind?

"It's difficult to shoot with high-selling prints in mind. When heading into the field, I sketch and pre-visualise a lot. But it's tricky: if you only have those concepts in mind, you end up completely biased in what you shoot. These days, 50% of my work is based on my sketches or on other work I appreciate, the other 50% comes from complete creative freedom.

"To produce printed images, it is important to keep the final product in mind. I've learned to always consider how an image will look once edited in Adobe® Photoshop® or Adobe® Photoshop® Lightroom®. I'm always trying to replicate the experience I have in the field: it's midday; a giraffe is crossing the plains; it's hot, dusty and windy. My final images must convey that feeling."

As well as printing from a lab, you also print a lot at home. Why did you choose the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 for your home printing?

"Primarily for speed – not making people wait when the lab is busy. I also increasingly wanted to control the quality of what I was selling. Having the option to print at home in the sizes I sell most – A3 and A2 – was important, and the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 prints to A2. It gives me control of the entire process. The quality of the print is also outstanding."
Fine art photographs mounted on the walls of a gallery.

How to pick the right paper for your fine art prints

Want exhibition-level fine art prints but not sure which paper to choose? A Canon Ambassador and two experts share their advice.

Sustainability is obviously incredibly important to you. How is your choice of fine art paper influenced by your conservational goals?

I think most people, myself included until last year, just assume that paper comes from trees and that's about the extent of the impact it has on nature. But then [I found out about] the amount of chemicals and water that are used in the paper process, and the toxic waste, and it was shocking.

"So I started to completely change the narrative of my printing business into one that was as sustainable as possible, and the first step was using Hahnemühle Natural Line paper. There are zero chemicals involved and 80% less water than normal. We printed the entire Prints for Wildlife campaign on this paper, and I'm now working on sustainable shipping solutions too."
A leopard on a branch with no leaves, sunrise making the foliage in the background appear red.

A leopard, captured in the morning glow in Erindi, Namibia. "Working with Canon L-Series lenses makes a huge difference to the printed result," says Pie. "The camera sensor and ISO are crucial when it comes to definition and the way light is treated, but the overall feel of an image is very much generated by the quality of the lens." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/4 and ISO1000. © Pie Aerts

The Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 in use, printing multiple images of a leopard sitting in a tree at A2 size.

As a Hahnemühle Ambassador, the obvious choice of fine art paper for Pie is the Hahnemühle Natural Line. He chooses the hemp variant, made from 60% hemp fibre and 40% cotton. As well as satisfying Pie's incredibly high standards for the quality of his final prints, the hemp variant offers a sustainable printing solution, featuring no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides in its production and requiring significantly less water than conventional fine art paper to produce. © Pie Aerts

You're currently transitioning from the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV to the Canon EOS R5. Is your choice of equipment affected by the knowledge you will be printing the final product?

"Yes, big time. Especially because I'm selling prints in sizes upwards of 200x300cm. Working with those sizes, you need the best sensors. The bigger the sensor, the more definition in the printed image.

"Not every image must be pin-sharp. Taking a blurry image on purpose, or accepting the beauty of imperfection, is fine. But when you want sharpness, you shouldn't be limited by sensor size. The Canon EOS R5 sensor delivers the best quality outside of medium format, but you don't necessarily need the most expensive camera available. A Canon EOS 5D Mark IV or Canon EOS 6D Mark II provides plenty of definition to work with."
An elephant and a tree silhouetted against the horizon, the clouds appear deep blue.

A lone elephant wanders the Masai Mara in Kenya. Pie feels that the world's current ecological crisis is in part due to a disconnect between mankind and nature. Many people in the developing world are forced to destroy their surroundings in order to survive, and many in the developed world, even those fighting for conservation, are not sufficiently focused on people-driven solutions. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 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 110mm, 1/2500 sec, f/2.8 and ISO125. © Pie Aerts

Why, ultimately, do you feel that Prints for Wildlife was such a success? What did printing add that digital photography alone could not?

"During a pandemic, when you're not sure whether you'll lose your job, would you donate $100 towards African conservation? But what about if you got something in return – such as a print from a photographer which would usually sell for $2,500?

"The campaign was successful because of this new approach," Pie adds. "We tried to persuade people who would usually be unable or unwilling to donate to African conservation to do so because they'd receive a physical product – and it worked."

Autorius Peter Wolinski


Pie Aerts' kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Pie Aerts' kitbag containing Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.

Cameras

Canon EOS R5

The EOS R5 offers uncompromising performance that will revolutionise your photography and filmmaking. "The Canon EOS R5 sensor delivers the best quality outside of medium format," says Pie.

Canon EOS 6D Mark II

Whether you want to shoot more ambitious projects or you're turning professional with your photography, the EOS 6D Mark II gives you what you need to take those exciting next steps.

Lenses

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

One of the trinity of essential lenses, the RF 24-70mm boasts a fast aperture and image stabilisation plus a Nano USM motor for silent focusing. "It's beautiful at both f/2.8 and f/11. It's also quite light, so you get a lot of focal range for surprisingly little weight," says Pie.

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

Capture the world with outstanding flexibility and quality with a super compact f/2.8 telephoto zoom that incorporates a five-stop Image Stabilizer to ensure great handheld results, closer focusing down to 0.7m and fastest-ever AF. Pie says: "This is a killer lens for wildlife photography. It provides you with the perfect distance for capturing images of animals without disturbing their natural behaviour."

Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM

The perfect solution for wildlife, nature and sports photographers working in the field. "The Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM is game-changing for wildlife photography and printing," says Pie. "Its low weight allows you to shoot handheld, the autofocus is incredibly fast and its sharpness delivers outstanding definition when printing in large sizes."

Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM

A standard wide-angle lens beloved by reportage photographers for its natural perspective, low-light capability and extraordinary optical performance. Pie says: "It's my best friend. I know the focal dynamics so well – I could almost use it blindfolded."

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

A professional-grade 200-400mm f/4 lens with a built-in 1.4x extender that boosts focal lengths to 280-560mm. "If I could only take one lens, it would be the 200-400mm, because I know that some animals will be further away than 70-200mm allows. It would be a brave, brave call to go on a trip to Africa without it," says Pie.

Accessories

Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000

Print with confidence and in stunning detail with the imagePROGRAF PRO-1000. "It gives me control of the entire process," says Pie. "The quality of the print is also outstanding, especially when using good paper."

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