ARTICLE

Alessandra Meniconzi captures Mongolia's colourful pastimes and traditions with the Canon EOS R

A teenage Mongolian eagle huntress crouches on rocks holding an eagle aloft. Taken by Alessandra Meniconzi on a Canon EOS R.
A Kazakh nomad in the Altai region of Mongolia, Zamanbol is an eagle huntress who wants to keep her culture's traditions alive. "Zamanbol's brother didn't want to become an eagle hunter, so she decided to become the family's huntress," explains Swiss photographer Alessandra Meniconzi. "The tradition is now in her hands." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 15-35MM F2.8L IS USM lens at 15mm, 1/100 sec, f/8 and ISO200. © Alessandra Meniconzi

Whether it's racing horses across the steppe, archery or wrestling, Mongolia isn't short of exhilarating pursuits. The country's famous annual Nadaam Festival has brought these traditions to a global stage, but for many of its nomadic people they represent its cultural core.

It's a natural subject for Swiss photographer and National Geographic Award winner Alessandra Meniconzi to explore. Her work centres on the ancient heritage and customs of indigenous people, and she has spent much of the past four years documenting the traditions of Mongolia's nomadic people. She has forged deep connections within communities, particularly in the Altai Mountains in the far west, where Mongolia meets Kazakhstan. Across two trips last year she showcased the colourful traditions of the Mongolian people, from young contortionists in the bustling capital, Ulaanbaatar, through to the country's celebrated eagle huntresses. Here, she shares her creative processes and explains why shooting with the full frame mirrorless Canon EOS R is helping to enhance her portraiture.

A Mongolian man in traditional dress. Taken by Alessandra Meniconzi on a Canon EOS R.
"One of the most colourful and original pieces of the Mongolian national dress is the headwear," says Alessandra. "There are hundreds of different styles, and the hat signifies not only wealth and age, but also which tribe or nationality you belong to." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 70mm, 1/250 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Alessandra Meniconzi
A Mongolian man in traditional dress. Taken by Alessandra Meniconzi on a Canon EOS R.
"I'm obsessed with light," says Alessandra. "Without light there is no photo. A few years ago, I discovered the potential of the flash, which has helped me grow creatively." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 63mm, 1/250 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Alessandra Meniconzi
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One subject shot two ways

Alessandra typically takes a dual approach with portraits, photographing subjects posed against a black background in the formal style she has become known for, as well as capturing environmental portraits and reportage-style imagery reflecting the context of their daily lives. "When I want to show just the people, I use a black or grey background," she says. "If I want to tell a story or show the natural environment, I prefer to photograph outside."

When she first started taking portraits against dark backgrounds, she used darkened rooms lit naturally, or with a series of Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT flashes (now succeeded by the Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT). When it became harder to find homes with plain walls, she started carrying her own black fabric and painted backgrounds. The muted backdrops allowed Alessandra to bring out the vivid colours and patterns of traditional Mongolian dress, and to focus on the personalities of her subjects. The contrast offered by posing subjects, such as the eagle huntresses and their birds, both in her studio and amongst the jagged cliffs of Altai, made for great visual and narrative diversity.

A Mongolian child in a fur coat adjusting her hat with both hands. Taken by Alessandra Meniconzi on a Canon EOS R.
"To photograph a child, you have to become like a child yourself," explains Alessandra. "A portrait session with a child has to be fun. Children quickly get tired and bored, so I always let them do what they want, which is key to capturing a natural expression." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 56mm, 1/80 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Alessandra Meniconzi
A teenage Mongolian eagle huntress releases her bird of prey. Taken by Alessandra Meniconzi on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
Alessandra has spent many years photographing the young eagle huntresses, watching the girls grow up. "At first it was a game for Zamanbol, but she has fallen in love with the tradition," Alessandra says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm, 1/1250 sec, f/8 and ISO1600. © Alessandra Meniconzi
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Face tracking and Eye AF

Contortionism was one of the 'newer' traditions that Alessandra wanted to photograph on her most recent trip. It's a tradition with Russian influences that dates back to the time of Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Mongolian contortionists – usually young and female – are in high demand, often going on to perform internationally. At a private contortionist school, Alessandra photographed two of its best students, aged just 10 and 12. To capture her young subjects in action, Alessandra relied on her full frame mirrorless Canon EOS R and its advanced Eye AF system.

"The Canon EOS R is my preferred camera for portraits now," she says. "What I love most is the face tracking and eye detection, which helps me work faster. I select one eye and, if the child moves a little, the camera tracks the face. Contortionists move very fast, but with the eye detection turned on, I don't have to do anything – the camera does it all. I can touch the screen and move the focus onto the eyes without taking my eyes away from the viewfinder."

A young Mongolian contortionist poses with her feet over her shoulders. Taken by Alessandra Meniconzi on a Canon EOS R.
Enkhsaran, 12, trains for two hours a day and started contortionism when she was just three. "Contortion is more than a circus discipline – it is part of Mongolia's cultural heritage," explains Alessandra, who used a fill flash to bring out the detail of her flexible young subject. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 83mm, 1/40 sec, f/8 and ISO100. © Alessandra Meniconzi

Planned portraiture vs spontaneity

When it comes to composition, Alessandra's work is a mix of rigorous planning and capturing spontaneous moments. "Sometimes I try to think about the kind of pictures I want and make sketches in my notebook," she says. "I see how people work and what they do, and then try to imagine what kind of picture would be good. Contortionists can't pose for long, so first they showed me what they could do. Then I made sketches, prepared everything, showed the sketch to them and took the picture. The children were very collaborative."

At other times, it's a matter of capturing the moment. Alessandra was on the road documenting Mongolian wrestling at a rural outpost of the Nadaam Festival when she spotted a rainbow in the sky. "I was so lucky with the weather because it was raining and there it was," she recalls. "The wrestlers moved and we had the picture. In landscape photography, having the right conditions is about 60% luck – and the rest is being able to record those conditions."

Wrestlers at Mongolia's Naadam Festival grapple under a rainbow in the sky above. Taken by Alessandra Meniconzi on a Canon EOS R.
Mongolia's annual Naadam Festival celebrates the traditionally male sports of horse racing, archery and wrestling. "The rainbow appeared in front of me while I was photographing the wrestlers," says Alessandra. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 40mm, 1/500 sec, f/8 and ISO400. © Alessandra Meniconzi

Wide focal ranges with the RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens

Weight is a major consideration when Alessandra packs her kitbag for her travels. As she switches from a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV to working exclusively with a Canon EOS R, she has been investing in more RF lenses, including a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM and a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM.

On this trip, her workhorse lens was the Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM, offering her versatility across an extremely extensive focal range. "It's a very useful lens, because it can do wide-angle, telephoto and portraits," she says. "Most of my portraits were taken on it – 105mm is perfect for portraiture."

The range means she can shoot a variety of situations while on the move without needing to change lenses. "I prefer to work with apertures of f/1.4 or f/1.2, so I was a bit worried about the f/4 on this lens, but it's very good with backgrounds – you can make a nice blur. The quality and sharpness are perfect."

To capture Mongolia's dramatic landscapes, Alessandra also took her favoured tilt-shift lens, a Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II, as well as a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM zoom.

A Mongolian child in traditional dress kneels on a bare hillside. Taken by Alessandra Meniconzi on a Canon EOS R.
"What happens when you want to use the flash after sunset, but you've left your batteries in the hotel? No problem. With a high-performance camera like the Canon EOS R I can take the picture anyway," says Alessandra. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 24mm, 1/20 sec, F11 and ISO400. © Alessandra Meniconzi

Following the rhythm of the nomad

After spending years embedded in remote communities around the world, Alessandra's priority remains to work with sensitivity, fading into the background rather than disrupting the flow of day-to-day life.

"It's very important to follow the rhythm of the nomad," she says. "I never say, 'Now we do this, now we do that, I need this picture,' I just do it when they have time. Sometimes, I ask people to pause because I want to take a picture, but I never want to change the way they are living their lives."

Returning to the same families in Altai over the years has allowed Alessandra to see the girls grow up, and she stays in touch with them online. "I love that when you travel, you make these sort of friendships," she says. "Photography is important, but to be part of the family is more important. To understand the culture, to make friends, to go with your heart – it's like you have left a good footprint."

Kirjoittaja Lucy Fulford


Alessandra Meniconzi's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Alessandra Meniconzi's kitbag

Camera

Canon EOS R

Building on over three decades of continuous EOS innovation, the EOS R System is based around a pioneering lens mount which offers greater creative possibilities and even more dynamic ways of capturing every moment. "The Canon EOS R is my preferred camera for portraits now," says Alessandra. "I love the face tracking and eye detection."

Lenses

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM

A professional L-series sports and wildlife zoom with Image Stabilizer and ASC coating for superb sharpness. "I have three favourite lenses and this is one of them," says Alessandra. "I use it for people and landscapes. It's not big and it offers great quality."

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

This versatile, lightweight lens gives great results in portrait work and handheld movie-making, thanks to its ability to achieve a shallow depth of field with beautiful bokeh. "It might seem strange but I love using this lens for shooting portraits; it's a very good lens for getting great sharpness," says Alessandra.

Accessories

Make-up brush

"In sandy and dusty conditions, this is very useful for cleaning my kit," says Alessandra.

Puffer blower

"This is great for blowing away dust from my lens," says Alessandra.

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