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Sports Photography as a Spectator – Canoe slalom

Canoe Slalom at Grandtully, Scotland

By Jeff Carter

In a series of articles, X-Photographer Jeff Carter will be shooting at sports events in the UK and showing how to capture great images with the Fujifilm X Series without the need for a media pass.


Sports Photography as a Spectator – Canoe Slalom

Canoe Slalom is an Olympic sport that over the years Britain has excelled at with competitors bringing home medals and world championships. Joe Clarke brought home gold at the Rio Olympics last summer in the K1 class and Tim Bailie and Etienne Stott struck gold in London 2012 in the C2 Slalom event.

Canoe Slalom is where competitors navigate a course of numbered hanging gates on river rapids in the fastest time possible. Gates are split between downstream (green) and upstream (red). On each course there must be between 18 and 25 gates, of which 6-7 must be upstream gates.

If a competitor’s body, boat or paddle touches a gate 2 seconds is added to their final time. If they miss a gate, go through in the wrong order or go through upside down, then 50 seconds is added to the final time at the end of the run.

Competitors take part in canoe (C1 or C2) or kayak (K1), with canoe using a single bladed paddle and kayak using a double bladed paddle.

Events take place all over the UK on either natural river courses or artificial courses like the ones at Holme Pierrepont near Nottingham or Teeside in the North East of England. Personally I prefer to shoot at natural courses as the rivers are usually set in beautiful countryside and granite rocks look much better than angular concrete in the final images.

I decided to attend the DIV1 and Pan Celtic Event held by Scottish Canoe Slalom at Grandtully on the River Tay in the Highlands of Scotland. The course at Grandtully is considered to be one of the most challenging natural river courses in the UK, with plenty of white water, waves and eddies. Access for spectators is excellent with viewing all along the river and access right up to the bank. For photography Grandtully is a great place to capture some extreme sports action shots.


BE PREPARED

A canoe slalom course is quite compact, so you will have plenty of time to choose your shooting positions carefully. However when choosing your shooting position you need to be mindful of the officials and make sure you are not blocking their view of the gates. The best thing to do is ask the official if the position you have chosen is OK and where they would like you to avoid. Canoe Slalom is a friendly sport so talk to the officials, you might be able to get an even better position if you talk to the people in charge.


SHOOTING THE ACTION

With fast moving competitors, hanging gates, rocks and lots of water being thrown up by the rapids and the paddles, canoe slalom can easily fool a camera’s auto focus system.

The FUJIFILM X-T2’s AF system is superb but it isn’t infallible. I set the X-T2 to ‘boost’ to improve the reaction time and also set the AF-C custom setting to ignore obstacles (set 2), which improved my hit rate throughout the day. I also selected the smallest AF single point and kept this on the competitor’s upper body to help reduce the risk of the auto focus system picking up the water splashes or slalom poles.

Automatic metering can be fooled by the white water, especially on a bright, sunny day like we were lucky enough to experience during the event. I use centre weighted metering but only shoot in manual exposure mode, with the shutter speed dial set to T and the rear command dial used to adjust the shutter speed. With overhanging trees casting long shadows early morning or late afternoon you need to be able to adjust the shutter speed quickly if the competitor moves from light into shadow.

With regards to exposure you can choose to either freeze the action with a fast shutter speed or slow things down to get a sense of movement in the water.

To freeze the action you will need a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 second. This will capture water as it is being thrown up by the rapids or the canoe and also capture the intense expression of the competitor as they battle their way down the course. Don’t be afraid to increase the ISO to ensure the shutter speed stays high enough to freeze the action, the Fujifilm X Series cameras handle high ISO very well.

A slower shutter speed of 1/125 or 1/60 will allow movement in the water and in certain parts of the competitor’s body. Using a slower shutter speed is a bit more hit and miss but if you nail the shot the effects can be very dramatic.


FLASH GUNS

One thing that photographers need to be aware of and that is canoe slalom officials have banned the use of fill in flash. Because you can get very close to the competitors, it can be tempting to use flash to reduce any shadows or get some highlights in the water. However a few years ago at the World Championship competitors complained that photographers using flash were distracting them and the authorities have banned the use of flash during competitions.


GET IN POSITION

If you stand on the edge of the course you will be slightly above the competitors and while you will get some great images, they are not usually the best. I get down low so I am level or even below the competitors as they come down the course. My ideal shot is to get the competitor coming straight at me through a spray of white water.

If you are lucky enough to shoot on a sunny day check out where the light is falling on the water and where the shadows are. The final image will look even better if you can catch the competitor in the sunlight with dark areas behind. Another advantage is the white water acts like a reflector and so the competitors face is lit up by the sunlight being reflected off the water.

Upstream gates (red gates) are also good places to capture images. Because the competitors have to paddle back up stream they have to slow down but if you wait until they have negotiated the gate and the turn back into the water flow to head to the next gate you can capture the classic ‘turning’ shot.


CHOOSING AN EVENT

The UK Slalom website has a full listing of all events around the UK and can be found at www.canoeslalom.co.uk. Most venues are excellent for photography but some have restrictions. I suggest contacting the event organisers before you travel to make sure spectator access is allowed.


CAMERA AND LENSES

Fujifilm X-T2 with battery grip
• Telephoto Zoom – 100-400mm f4.5/5.6 or 50-140mm f2.8 with a 1.4x converter for frame filling images. A good alternative lens is the 55-200mm f3.5/4.8.
• Use a 50-140mm f2.8 (55-200mm f3.5/4.8) for close action when working right on the edge of the course.
• Standard zoom (16-55mm f2.8 or 18-55mm / 18-135mm) for wide action shots.
10-24mm f4 wide angle zoom lens can also be useful.


CAMERA SETTINGS

• Shutter dial set to ’T’ (and locked). Shutter speed selected on rear command dial
• Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) on.
• Metering set to Centre Weighted.
• Autofocus – AF-C with camera set to ‘boost’ to improve reaction time.
• AF custom setting on Set 2 (Ignore Obstacles)
• AF Mode to Single Point – I prefer Single Point for more accuracy because of the water being thrown up or rocks.
• Drive set to CH (8 or 11 fps)
• Action freezing images – minimum 1/1000s with aperture wide open. Adjust ISO accordingly.
• Panning images – 1/125s or 1/60s choose a suitable aperture and drop the ISO down to 200/400.
• People shots – Autofocus to AF-S and use wide aperture to isolate the subject from the background when using telephoto lenses.


PREPARING FOR A CANOE SLALOM EVENT

• Check the weather forecast and dress accordingly.
• Take covers for your cameras. The X-T2 / X-Pro2 / X-T1 and the majority of Fujinon lenses might be weather resistant but I always cover the equipment when not in use.
• Food and drink. There are usually facilities at canoe slalom event but it is probably wise to take some food and at least a bottle of water.


SAFETY FIRST

There are few rules with regards to shooting at a canoe slalom event but you must stay on the bank of the river / course. Do not wade out into the river during a competition, the current is obviously strong and you could be swept away. Always obey the event officials and do not stand in front of any of the course officials as they need to be able to see the gates.


MORE INFORMATION

UK Slalom

JEFF CARTER

X-Photographer: fujifilm-x.com/photographers/jeff-carter/
Website: www.macleanphotographic.co.uk
Blog: www.capturenewhorizons.com
Instagram: www.instagram.com/maclean_photo/
Facebook: www.facebook.com/macleanphotographic
Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/macleancomms/

NEXT MONTH: Water Skiing

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