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Glow riders: a low-light surf shoot with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

Wakesurfer Andy Schmahl rides a wave, illuminated by the the glow of an orange flare he is holding.
Surfer Andy Schmahl riding a wave illuminated by the glow of a lit flare. Extreme sports photographer Richard Walch used the flares to showcase the surfer's speed. "It's a way to display the sport in a new way," he explains. "You want to show the speed of the water, but you also want an image that is really sharp." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 61mm, 1/40 sec, f/8 and ISO250. © Richard Walch

Speeding along the crest of a wave, bathed in an otherworldly red glow, a surfer is caught frozen in motion. But he's not on the ocean – he's behind a boat on a lake. Capturing the moment was extreme sports photographer and Canon Ambassador Richard Walch, crouched in the boat in front of the surfer, almost touching the water himself.

"Wakesurfers need a rope to start with but after a couple of seconds they can let it go," he says, comparing the niche sport to wakeboarding, which requires a rope throughout. "Surfers love it because they can ride a constant rolling wave."

Sidewake Wakeboard & Wakesurf Academy in Ferreira do Zêzere, Portugal.
Richard wanted to test the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III's ability to capture high-detail images even in low light, so he took Canon's flagship action camera to shoot wakesurfers at dawn and dusk in Ferreira do Zêzere, Portugal. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 20mm, 1/125 sec, f/3.2 and ISO10000. © Richard Walch
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Richard has spent his career documenting sports around the world, from snowboarding to sailing, working for brands including Apple and BMW. He's no stranger to shoots in challenging conditions, and when given the chance to test Canon's flagship action camera the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, he decided to push it to its limits.

"I wanted to test the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III's benchmark features," he says. "For me, that's incredible image quality and AF performance in low light. I put those elements in a bag, shook hard, and out came this project."

Richard took the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III to Sidewake Wakeboard & Wakesurf Academy in Ferreira do Zêzere, Portugal, where networks of rivers have been turned into a lake to provide an "endless playground" for surfing enthusiasts seeking sporting adventures.

Wakesurfer Andy Schmahl rides the crest of a wave, his arms outstretched.
Frame-rates on the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III hit an impressive 16fps when shooting with the optical viewfinder and 20fps in Live View mode, giving Richard a better chance of capturing the perfect shot when every second counts. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 16mm, 1/85 sec, f/6.3 and ISO500. © Richard Walch
Wakesurfer Andy Schmahl rides a wave holding a red flare in his hand.
The Canon EOS-1D X Mark III delivers superb image quality thanks to a DIGIC X processor and bespoke 20-megapixel sensor. This shot is still crisp and clear despite the high ISO. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 16mm, 1/1600 sec, f/3.2 and ISO12800. © Richard Walch

Playing with fire

Richard wanted to demonstrate the speeds at which the surfers travel, so he asked them to light rescue flares while riding the waves. "The concept was to bring fire into the game," he says. "I like playing with fire."

A number of elements needed to come together for the perfect shot – wave, action and light – complicated further by Richard travelling in a fast-moving boat close to the water. "The rider had to surf and light the flare, leaving about 45 seconds for the trick," says Richard. What's more, with a limited supply of flares, each with up to a minute's burn time, he had just five minutes to capture his vision. "That puts a bit of pressure on," he laughs. "Luckily the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III shoots at 20fps."

At 16fps with the optical viewfinder and 20fps in Live View mode, the frame-rates on the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III are faster than its predecessor's. "The moment when the board, surfer and flare are in the perfect position is very short – a split second," says Richard. "But if you can shoot at 20fps, boom – you have the shot. When the light of the flare was behind the surfer's body and he was silhouetted against the background glow, it was magical."

A Canon EOS-1D X Mark III rigged for filming.

Filming a surf shoot with the EOS-1D X Mark III

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Double the ISO

To add to his creative options on the water, Richard also used a powerful battery-powered flash paired with a tele-zoom reflector to throw light up to 10 metres. "The light freezes the water and gives it that nice pop," he explains. "What's really cool about the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III is that you can shoot flash sequences at up to 20fps, which is unique."

Shooting in low light at dawn and dusk meant that at times the waterways were illuminated by the flares alone, forcing Richard to increase the ISO. "If you go too high with your ISO on some cameras, colours can appear dull and the image can become noisy," he explains. But that was not a problem here. "I was using between ISO12000 and ISO24000 with the flares, and the images are still crisp and the colours pop.

"I can now use double the ISO that I could have previously – if I was happy to use ISO6400, I can now use ISO12800 – and that expands your possibilities."

Wakesurfer Andy Schmahl uses the wave as a ramp to jump into the air.
The Canon EOS-1D X Mark III features deep learning AF technology, which means it evaluates the subject in the same way a photographer would, and makes it easier to capture shots in fast-moving situations, such as this photo of surfer Noemi Kriz. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 16mm, 1/320 sec, f/5.6 and ISO320. © Richard Walch

The toughest body around

As well as shooting in burst mode from the boat – about three metres in front of his subject – Richard also took single shots from a second boat, about 10-15 metres from the action. To shoot from a range of distances, he relied on the "classic trio" of zoom lenses: a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM, a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM.

At times, Richard was incredibly close to the water. "I was very low in the boat so I could get a really low angle and make the waves look even bigger," he says. "The camera was around 20cm away from the water, and once in a while you get a splash.

"The camera doesn't like it, but because of the way the body is made and sealed, it can handle it. It's the toughest body there is. It's reassuring to know I can just focus on pushing the envelope with my photography."

Extreme sports photographer Richard Walch stands chest deep in a lake photographing a wakesurfer carrying a flare.
The Canon EOS-1D X Mark III's brighter optical viewfinder is ideal for sports photographers working in extreme environments. © Elias Maria/Richard Walch
Extreme sports photographer Richard Walch leans off the back of a boat holding the camera low to capture the wakesurfer following behind.
"If the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III gets a splash and you remove the water right away, it can handle it," says Richard. "It's the toughest camera body there is." © Elias Maria/Richard Walch

Enhanced AF tracking

With only seconds to get each action shot pin-sharp, Richard found the camera's new high-resolution AF sensor – with about 28x the resolution of its predecessor – to be a significant boost. With enhanced focus tracking and the new AF point smart controller built into the AF-ON buttons, he was able to change the focus point while tracking at speeds faster than he'd ever experienced, he says.

"Previously, setting the AF point would lock the framing, so I couldn't change the AF point during the action – I'd catch the athlete and follow him. Now, I can change the AF point so rapidly that framing and adjusting the AF points are two separate things. I'm confident you can change the AF point while the action is taking place, because it's so quick."

Richard also noticed a marked improvement in processing speeds when writing data to the camera's two CFexpress cards, compared with its predecessor. "I could fire constantly for as long as the flare was burning and pick out the best shot. The advances in this camera mean you can capture images you could not have taken before."

Σύνταξη: Lucy Fulford


Richard Walch's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their action photographs

Richard Walch shooting with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III.

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Lenses

Accessory

Canon Extender 1.4x III

Ideal for press, sports and nature photography, this compact extender increases the focal length of Canon L-series telephoto or telephoto zoom lenses by a factor of 1.4x, with higher AF accuracy and improved communication between camera and lens.

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