On a freezing cold winter's day, sports photographer Samo Vidic met world champion kayaker Peter Kauzer at the Tacen Whitewater Course in Ljubljana, Slovenia, for a thrilling action shoot. Except that rather than using an action camera, the Canon Ambassador attached his Canon EOS-1D X DSLR to the kayak to capture spectacular shots. Here, he takes us behind the scenes and explains how he did it.
When envisioning the shoot, Samo was hoping for snow. "In the background everything would be white, so with the backlight it would make the picture really special," he says of his plan. But despite the chill, the weather was not playing ball. "The forecast predicted snow. During the day it was snowing but by 4pm, when we started shooting, it had stopped. When we were done and I hit the highway, it started to snow again. Not ideal."
The lack of snow wasn't the only thing that made this shoot tricky. Although Slovenian kayaker Peter was incredibly committed, even suggesting that he remove his gloves when the air temperature was 0°C because the pictures would look better without them, Samo was nervous of overworking him. "In a few days, he was due to travel to a training camp in Australia so we really didn't want him to get sick," he says. "As soon as the cold got too much, we'd stop immediately. He'd go to a little hut nearby where I had set up some heaters, [warm up] for half an hour, then come back."
It's unlikely that Peter would have gone through this discomfort – not to mention risked getting ill and messing up his training schedule – for just any photographer, but he and Samo have known and trusted each other for 10 years. "Peter trusts me when I say that it will be worth it," Samo says.
Other challenges were more technical. It would have been straightforward to stick a small action camera on the kayak, but that wouldn't have given Samo the quality he was after. "When you look at those shots on your phone, everything looks OK, but with a big print you can see a huge difference between a good and a not-so-good camera," he says. Samo's camera of choice was a Canon EOS-1D X, with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens. "I didn't go for my fixed 14mm or 50mm lenses because I knew this lens would do the job exactly as I wanted." When Samo later showed the shots to fellow photographers, they couldn't believe he'd used a zoom, because the images were so sharp.
"I preset the focus on Peter's face, then put the lens on manual and taped the focus ring so it didn't move," Samo explains. "This is standard practice when you shoot with remote cameras. The couple of times when I didn't put the tape there, the athlete accidentally knocked the camera a fraction and none of the pictures were usable."
Before fixing the Canon EOS-1D X to the kayak, Samo sealed it in a bespoke waterproof housing. However, worried about interfering with the radio signal, he kept the wireless transmitter separate, covering it with PVC material and attaching it with rope. "It didn't look very professional," Samo admits, "but that doesn't matter – the important thing is that the equipment works."
Peter was kayaking back and forth in a 10-15 metre area of whitewater along the course so Samo used a simple three-light setup consisting of a backlight, a main light on Peter, and another pointed at the water. But while the wireless transmitter triggered the camera reliably, the lights proved problematic at first.
Once we had two good pictures I relaxed and we could play around.
The high frame rate of the Canon EOS-1D X was a real help when the transmitter was struggling because it increased the odds of getting some good shots in between a few duds, says Samo. The exposure for his final shots was 1/250 sec at ISO400, f/7.1. Unlike in his previous mountain biking shoot, Samo wasn't using a digital tablet to view the images remotely, but was checking them on the camera's LCD screen instead.
"Once we had two good pictures I felt more relaxed and we could play around," he says. He kept the framing tight to focus on Peter rather than the surroundings, which weren't particularly scenic. "Every sport has specific moves and you talk to the athlete about what is a good [body] position and what is a bad one. If he's holding the paddle out of the water, it looks boring. I wanted to capture him with his arm above his head, but not covering his face."
Despite the obstacles, Samo left with 20 cracking pictures. But he still can't quite forgive the snow for failing to make an appearance. "The shots still had the water spray, which is really nice, but snow would have made me really happy," he says.
Samo's advice for shooting kayaking is to think about your end goal: "Consider what exactly you want to achieve, and probably do this during the summer when it's much easier for the photographer and, more importantly, for the athlete." he says. "Also you don't want to ruin your equipment so, when water is involved, you have to be really careful. Test the camera in water with the housing a couple of times to make sure it's nice and tight. The housing is fiddly, but when you print these images out really large they're unbelievable."