Joel Santos

A group of children from the Mundari tribe resting against the back of a seated long-horned cow and surrounded by other cattle.

Canon Ambassador Joel Santos has travelled to some of the world's most remote locations. He took this image of children resting against a long-horn cow at a Mundari cattle camp in South Sudan in February 2020. Take on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 35mm, 1/320 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Joel Santos

Portuguese travel photographer and documentary filmmaker Joel Santos has a knack for capturing compelling and unforgettable imagery, and his adventurous nature also means he eagerly embraces new technology.

Joel's images transport us to remote parts of the world, and invite us to consider the people who live there. Whether he's capturing stunning shots of active volcanos in Guatemala and Indonesia, cormorant fishermen in China, eagle hunters in Mongolia, or remote tribes in South Sudan and Ethiopia, his photographs and TV documentaries give us a fascinating glimpse into the lives of indigenous people around the globe.

Joel has an eye for the wild and the remote, and his photographs are in the tradition of great travel writers and artists – opening up new windows on the world while, simultaneously, reminding us where we have come from, and asking us where we are headed.

"In the beginning, my photography was split into two genres: landscape and portraiture," begins Joel. "They're so different in technique and approach, which is why it's rare to specialise in both. So eventually I fused them, still taking images of the landscapes but including the people who lived there.

"So when I'm sent to places such as Mongolia, Indonesia, Ghana, Niger, South Sudan and other remote locations, I'm not only looking to tell people's stories, but also to capture their location and context, which takes a lot more effort. For example, in Ghana it took me three days just to be accepted by the local sacred lake fishermen. Once they no longer saw me as a stranger, but as a friend, the results became authentic and hopefully more visually compelling."

Joel Santos, embajador de Canon.
Location: Portugal
Specialist areas: Travel, landscape, portrait, video documentary
Favourite kit:
Canon EOS R5
Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM
Elderly fishermen on rafts with lanterns and cormorants, on a lake in China. Photo by Joel Santos on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

Brothers Huang Yue Ming and Huang Yue Chang, both in their nineties, fishing with cormorants in Guangxi province, People's Republic of China. Joel visited the area several times between 2006 and 2018 to document the fading tradition. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 22mm, 1/80 sec, f/3.5 and ISO1000. © Joel Santos

Born in Lisbon, Joel was a keen academic, acquiring an honours degree in Economics and a master's degree in Economics and Management of Science and Technology, but for the past 18 years he has followed his true passion: photography. The results of his labour are in great demand – he has worked for Microsoft, IKEA, National Geographic, GEO, ABC Studios and many more. He exhibits widely, writes articles for news media, leads photography expeditions all over the world, has authored nine books and created more than 60 documentaries for TV and streaming services. He is a magnet for awards too, garnering many major national and international accolades for his work, including being voted Travel Photographer of the Year (2016).

Joel describes his photography as being "about emotion, passion and positive storytelling. But, as a former economist, I tend to use mathematics as the structure to guide my way of writing with light; I see beauty in these mathematical elements and I try to use them when creating an image. That's how I feel my photography is, which in turn is how I am."

A figure obscured by a pink umbrella standing on the Great Wall of China as snow falls.

The first snowfall of 2012 at the Great Wall of China in the People's Republic of China. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 28mm, 1/80 sec, f/11 and ISO800. © Joel Santos

Joel is at the forefront of new techniques, too, being one of the photographers who in recent years has been experimenting with drones to create incredible videos and images, and present a new perspective on short documentaries for us to enjoy. His aerial documentation of the Danakil Depression salt miners and the Erta Ale lava lake in Ethiopia, together with the sacred lake fishermen in Ghana, scooped the Travel Photographer of the Year award in 2016.

"I'm humbled to be the first photographer to win that award with an aerial portfolio," he says earnestly. "Aerial photography and filmmaking provide a fresh and complementary perspective, which enriches the visual story, and documents something with a different depth and diversity. Sometimes I feel like a juggler because I have to be a pilot and a photographer at the same time, but I love it. Not being able to use a drone professionally would be like not being able to use a camera on the ground, they're both complementary and indispensable, and it's become a key part of my career." To date, Joel's aerial images have appeared in a catalogue of global media outlets including: the Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Sun, Courrier International, Visão, Expresso, The Weather Channel, MSN, SIC (TV channel) and OPTO (streaming service).

What's the secret to photographing someone you've just met for the first time?

"Always respect the places and the people. Use photography as a universal language to get closer to people, and avoid the urge to become a hunter who sees them as prey. The more respectful you are, the richer your results, opportunities and personal growth will be."

Do you do anything different to other photographers who work in these remote locations?

"I like to print the photos and give them to the people while I'm there; it's just fair that you give something back whenever you can."

Do you have a go-to shooting setup?

"Every time I go out, I react and I learn something new, I adapt and change my ways. It's a dynamic process and every situation requires a different technique. First one must find the subject, the light and the story. Only after that comes whichever technique yields the best result."

How do you decide where to go and what or whom to photograph?

"First, I decide what I feel passionate about. Then I do my best to scout, not only in my office beforehand, but mostly while travelling, leaving my senses open to something that I see, hear or feel."

Is aerial photography difficult?

"Don't trust drone marketing statements like 'it's easy'. Flying is easier than ever, but they only work in optimal circumstances. Fly safely, practice a lot and learn everything you can about piloting a drone and its maintenance. Soon you'll know about winds, navigation, the operational limits of batteries in hot and cold climates, etc and develop quicker reactions."

One thing I know

Joel Santos

"Never lose sight of your original passion. You will always be better at something you really love to do, that you truly feel in your heart. The ambition to get paid for your work, thus becoming a professional, might mislead you and decrease the chances of being original in a world where so many people do the same thing. So perfect your skills, look to others' work, not to mimic, but to learn what has already been done. Find an original story and perspective, and then let your passion drive you, always seeking to learn more and to improve on every shot you take."

Facebook: Joel Santos - Photography
Instagram: @joelsantosphoto
Youtube: joelsantosphoto

Joel Santos' kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Joel Santos' kitbag containing Canon cameras and lenses, as well as accessories.


Canon EOS R5

A professional full-frame mirrorless flagship camera offering photographers and filmmakers high resolution stills and 8K video. Joel says: "Superb 45MP stills, 8K and 4K 100 fps video, IBIS (now my dream lens RF 28-70 f/2 becomes stabilised!), Dual Pixel AF II and the inclusion of the beloved joystick and wheel into the R system, wrapped up in a highly customisable button setup and sealed body."

Canon EOS M6 Mark II

A portable, powerful mirrorless camera with 32.5MP resolution and up to 14fps continuous shooting. "It packs 4K video, high-quality stills and an impressive AF system," says Joel. "With 30fps burst in RAW, it's impossible to miss the decisive moment – with no compromise on image quality."


Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM

Canon's speediest ultra-wide-angle zoom boasts a Nano USM motor and 5-stops of image stabilisation, along with three Aspherical and two UD elements for superior sharpness. Joel says: "This lens encompasses the greatness of the remote landscapes and, at the same time, allows me to get close and personal while shooting daily life."

Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM

An advanced L-series zoom with a super-fast f/2 aperture that delivers exceptional image quality. "My all-time favourite lens. It excels at portraits, daily life and landscapes, whatever the available light. Super-sharp at all apertures, corner to corner," says Joel.

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

Improve your full-frame mirrorless photography with this expectation-exceeding lens. Joel says: "If the EF version was an all-time favourite, now the RF version is a must. The IS works in tandem with the EOS R5's IBIS system, which can also be added by digital IS too. Endless creative possibilities, always sharp, detailed and with superior colour rendition."

Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

A model that sets new standards in photographic performance, offering unparalleled sharpness, extra creative control and remarkable low-light performance. "When any other lens might struggle, this saves the day," says Joel. "The AF works amazingly in pitch-dark situations and has the best background blur rendition I've ever seen."

Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM

A versatile option that's perfect for street, travel and close-up photography. "This lens is small, bright and stabilised. Being able to do macro shots adds an extra layer of creativity," says Joel.

Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM

A revolutionary super-telephoto lens that is compact and lightweight. "As it weighs less than 1kg, having extreme telephoto reach for wildlife and landscapes is not a burden anymore," says Joel. "Add the superb AF and IS and it becomes a no-brainer."

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

A compact zoom that's perfect for shooting sports, action and wildlife. "When I can afford the space and weight, the versatility of this lens can't be overlooked," says Joel. "Its optical and AF performance stays untouched with the RF/EF adapter and even gains new functionality thanks to the customisable ring of the former."

Canon EF-M 32mm f/1.4 STM

Perfect for portraits, candid shots and compositions with superlative detail and clarity. "This is the ideal companion to the Canon EOS M6 Mark II as it's small, light, discreet and, above all, has a fast aperture," says Joel.


Air blower

"Although the EOS R cameras have a unique way of closing the shutter curtains while changing lenses, preventing dust from accumulating on the image sensor surface, there's always one speck that gets through," says Joel. "On a photograph, it's fairly easy to post-correct this problem, but video is more unforgiving."

Microphone pack

Joel says: "I carry a plethora of microphones – shotgun, stereo, lavalier – which I can accurately set and monitor on the camera's touchscreen LCD."

SSD backup system

"The more you shoot, the more you realise that not a single moment in life repeats itself in the same way," Joel says. "That's why backing up is mandatory and I'm pretty obsessed with it."

CFexpress and SD card case

"I always travel with 10 SD UHS-II 128GB cards and two CFexpress 512GB cards, setting one card slot on the EOS R5 to record RAW stills and the other to record video footage," says Joel. "Sometimes, I even use the camera to backup files between cards, which has already been a lifesaver."

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