Alessandra Meniconzi wins National Geographic travel photography prize

Dim light falls on the raised face of Damel, a 13-year-old Kazakh girl wrapped in a heavy fur coat and headdress, as she looks out of shot, with wisps of steam rising from the cup of tea she is holding in both hands.
Tea Culture, Alessandra Meniconzi's prize-winning portrait of a young Kazakh girl. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/8 and ISO100. © Alessandra Meniconzi

Canon Ambassador Alessandra Meniconzi's image of a young Kazakh girl has won recognition in the 2018 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year contest. Tea Culture, captured on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, was awarded first place in the People category.

The delicately-lit image catches light falling on 13-year-old Damel's face as she looks over at her parents, out of shot, while holding a steaming cup of tea. Wrapped in a heavy fur coat and warm headdress, the traditionally-dressed nomad warms her hands on her hot drink, with the light illuminating the steam rising off it.

The inventive portrait was shot as part of Alessandra's long-term project documenting the lives of the Kazakh people of western Mongolia. In March 2018, she spent five days following Damel's family across the Altai Mountains as they moved their home, their cattle and all of their possessions from their winter camp to their new location for spring.

"The idea for this journey has been developing for more than 18 years, since my first amazing trip, which introduced me to the ancient method of hunting with Golden Eagles in Kazakhstan," Alessandra says. "I've since made several trips to the Altai Mountains in Mongolia, but this year I decided to do something different and follow one Kazakh family of eagle hunters during their migration from winter to spring camp."

The 160km journey brought new challenges to the experienced Swiss photographer, who was battling the flu while working in freezing temperatures as she followed the family across snowy paths and frozen lakes in Bayan-Ölgii, the westernmost province of Mongolia. "It was not an easy journey," she remembers. "Working in these harsh conditions was not fun. I am very happy this image has won this important prize – this award recognises all the hard work!"

A landscape image shows the bottom of the Altai Mountains in Mongolia where the bottom of the snow meets grassland.
While Alessandra was travelling in Mongolia, she captured this view of the Altai Mountains in Mongolia. Taken on a Canon EOS 80D © Alessandra Meniconzi
A herd of brown cattle graze on grass in front of a few low mountains sprinkled with snow.
A herd of cattle graze at the foot of the snow-capped mountains. More of Alessandra's Mongolian portraits can be seen in our L-series lens Ambassador gallery. Taken on a Canon EOS 80D with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens.
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The 2018 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year contest recognises the finest travel imagery taken within the last two years, across three categories – Nature, People, and Cities. Alessandra beat off competition from around 13,000 other entries to win one of the three prizes.

National Geographic contributing photographer and contest judge Camille Seaman comments: "Choosing the winners was a daunting task. The images that stood out did so not solely because of their technical execution but also their originality and sensitivity for a feeling of the moment."

"For us, travel photography is about being there and experiencing these more authentic moments," adds Whitney Johnson, Vice President of Visual and Immersive Experiences at National Geographic. "The winner of the People category is evocative, and it creates a feeling, and that's what photography is about."

Reiko Takahashi's photo of a humpback whale calf's tail won the Japanese photographer the grand prize, as well as topping the Nature category, while a black-and-white image of a rainy day in Nagasaki, Kyushu, won Hiro Kurashina of Japan first place in the Cities category.

Working with the light

Alessandra's work focuses on the ancient heritage, customs and daily lives of indigenous people living remotely with a deep connection to the natural world – cultures that are often at risk of vanishing. She has photographed the lives of peoples across the globe, from the Silk Route and the Himalayas through to the Arctic – as well as taking an insider's view of traditional Swiss customs. She has spent more than a decade working in remote areas of Asia.

Her winning photo highlights a key component of the local culture. "Tea for Kazakh culture is one of the attributes of hospitality," Alessandra explains. "It accompanies every moment of the day. Tea isn't just a drink but a mix of tradition, culture, relaxation, ceremony and pleasure."

When she spotted the way that a ray of sunlight streaming through a small window was catching her young subject's face during a pause in their long journey, Alessandra reached for her Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, which was paired with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens.

I am not a fan of high ISO, but the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is a great camera and you can use high ISO without any problems.

"The light was fantastic but very weak for getting a sharp image," she says. "Quickly, before the magical atmosphere ended, I took my camera – with the flash in manual mode for controlling the light power – and took this photo.

"Taking portraits with very little light often leads to blurred images. I am not a fan of high ISO, but the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is a great camera and you can use high ISO without any problems. I used one Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT flash and a Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT to try to rebuild the same natural light but using the flash just for freezing the image.

"Beginning to use flashes has changed the way I work. Depending on the photo, I use one or more flashes. Of course, when you use several, you need more time, but essentially you should build up a strong friendship with your subject."

"Congratulations go to Alessandra Meniconzi for her win in this year's National Geographic Travel Photography competition," says Canon marketing manager Richard Shepherd. "At Canon, we are proud to support inspirational photographers working across different fields. Alessandra has a track record of winning top travel awards, which brings greater attention to her work covering important stories across the globe."

Written by Lucy Fulford

Alessandra Meniconzi's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Photographer Alessandra Meniconzi wears a falconry glove and holds an eagle, amid a mountainous landscape.


Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

With its high-sensitivity 20.2MP full-frame CMOS sensor, expanded 61-point Dual Pixel AF system and 4K video capture, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II delivers class-leading performance.


Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM

This standard zoom lens goes just that little bit further, whether you're shooting photography or video. This lens is ideal for capturing exceptional image quality across an extended zoom range, while travelling light.


Speedlite 600EX-RT

A powerful flash gun for use both on and off the camera. Built-in radio triggering offers remote lighting control over distances up to 30m.

Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT

Fire compatible Speedlite flashguns over distances of up to 30m. Radio-frequency control provides reliable operation even when direct line of sight is not possible.

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