A one-day shoot with an action sports pro

Budding photographer Deborah spends an action-packed day with Canon Ambassador Jean-baptiste Liautard, capturing every moment of a thrilling mountain biking session.
Canon Camera

Freezing fast-moving action can be a daunting challenge when you're starting out in photography. Which camera settings should you use? How should you focus the lens? What techniques will deliver razor-sharp results?

Deborah, a young photographer and action sports enthusiast from Lyon, France was keen to get some answers.

"I've been really struggling with focusing and framing," she explains. "I want to learn the right techniques to get my subject sharp, and how to choose the perfect angle when it comes to shooting action."

To help Deborah fast-track her action photography skills, we teamed her up with Canon Ambassador and mountain biking photographer Jean-baptiste Liautard (Jb), on a stunt-filled shoot with French slopestyle mountain bike athlete Jéremy Berthier.

Jb normally shoots with a Canon EOS R5, but to prove that you don't need pro kit to take professional-looking pictures, the pair were given a Canon EOS RP and a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM lens to work with.

Discover how Deborah handled the challenges and read Jb's top tips for shooting action.

1. Communicate with your subject

Three people on a wooden platform, looking at photos on a Canon EOS RP camera, two of them sitting, one of them in a helmet standing holding a mountain bike.

Talking everything through with your subject is key to getting the best results. "The goal of this kind of picture is to show the action the best," says Jb. "So if the athlete goes four metres high but in your picture it looks like one metre, then it's not a good action shot. It might be a good photo, but the rider will never be happy with that, and everybody has to be happy at the end of the day."

An image of a figure in dark shadow on the vari-angle screen of a Canon EOS RP camera.

Jb advised Deborah to guide the subject, like telling them where to look and what to do. "This way you control everything, even when the action is naturally unfolding – it's all about managing those little details to get your shot," he says.

"If your camera doesn't have a very fast continuous shooting speed, then you'll have to press the shutter button at precisely the right moment," says Jb. "Knowing a bit about the sport is going to be really helpful in this regard. Talk things through with the rider and discuss which trick they're doing, how high they'll be going, and what angle they think the action will look good from."

Deborah agrees: "Jb explained how important it is to communicate with people we work with so that we can tell each other our expectations. The biggest challenge I had on the shoot was dealing with the speed of my subject. I overcame it by analysing Jeremy's practice runs so that I could anticipate the right moment to press the shutter release on the next attempt."

Don't forget to use your camera's technology to your advantage too. Pairing great communication with your subject with your camera's fastest drive setting will give you a better chance of capturing the moment when all the elements come together in a superb action shot. "Having the flexibility to record a sequence of shots that you can share with the athlete in order to choose the best frame is really important, because the position and action has to be considered perfect from both sides of the camera," Jb explains.

2. Control as many elements as possible

Canon Ambassador Jean-baptiste Liautard takes a picture of a man performing tricks on a mountain bike in a country lane with a Canon EOS RP camera.

Jb says that he likes to 'over crank' the white balance to accentuate the warm colours during the evening, and he showed Deborah how to do this by manually setting a higher colour temperature with the K (Kelvin) option in the Canon EOS RP's white balance menu.

A mountain biker jumping while travelling downhill along a road.

"For this shoot I asked Jeremy to wear yellow and brown clothing because I felt that it complemented the background well," says Jb. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM lens at 1/2500 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 200. © Jean-baptiste Liautard

While you can't control the weather, you should do your best not to leave any other aspect of your shoot to chance, says Jb. "Try to anticipate problems and control as many things as possible. For example, it had been raining heavily in the days leading up to this shoot, so the take-off on one of the jumps was way too soft. To get around this, we dug into the lip of the jump and lit a fire inside so that the dirt would dry out over the course of a few hours."

One aspect of an action sports shoot that is relatively controllable is the rider's choice of clothes. "Try to get colours that work in harmony or add contrast. If you have a green background, for example, you could go for red or white clothes to really make the rider pop."

3. Set a fast shutter speed

An image of the top of a Canon EOS RP camera with focus on the camera mode dial.

Jb advises switching to Manual exposure mode for full control over the camera settings. If you're starting out in action photography, then it's best to shoot when it's relatively bright, as you'll have more freedom to experiment.

A mountain biker performing a high jump, the apex of which is level with the nearby treeline.

A fast shutter speed is essential for keeping details crisp while photographing an athlete in motion. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 52mm, 1/1000 sec, f/7.1 and ISO 1250. © Jean-baptiste Liautard

Selecting an appropriate shutter speed was vital in this shoot. "Mountain biking is probably one of the fastest sports you can shoot," Jb says. "The wheels are turning so fast that it's hard to get the spokes sharp at shutter speeds slower than 1/800 sec. If you have enough light, I would recommend 1/1000 sec as a minimum."

Setting a shutter speed this fast may be a problem when light levels get lower, but using a 'fast' lens with a large maximum aperture, such as the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM, can give you more options. "You may need to get flexible with the aperture and the ISO to get a good exposure at a fast shutter speed," explains Jb. "Sometimes you may not want to shoot at the maximum aperture in a low-light situation, because you want the foreground a bit less blurry. In this case, pushing the ISO higher will still allow you to freeze the action."

Despite this, Jb recommends keeping the ISO as low as possible in order to achieve the best image quality, so Deborah started at ISO 100. "Then I chose a fast shutter speed," she says. "And I adjusted the aperture and ISO in order to get the exposure that I wanted."

4. Choose the right focus mode

Canon Ambassador Jean-baptiste Liautard crouched in the grass alongside Deborah, showing her the vari-angle screen on a Canon EOS RP camera.

Autofocus combined with the Canon EOS RP's vari-angle screen can be really helpful, as it makes it easier to get sharp shots when holding the camera at awkward angles, as Jb explained to Deborah.

Getting a fast-moving athlete in focus is one of the main challenges in sports photography. Jb advises that, although a camera with fast autofocus is often invaluable for capturing action, switching to manual focus can give you consistent results when faced with a predictable and repeatable sports trick.

"When you know the sport and you know exactly where the rider's going to be at the highest point of the trick, then you can manually pre-focus the lens at that point," he says. "To make things easier, ask them to stand in position, below where the trick would be, then magnify the Live View image by 10x so you can focus accurately on them." The focal distance of the action from the lens should not change if the camera stay at the same angle, and therefore not affect the focus. However if the camera is tilted upward the focusing distance will change and it will throw focus out if the depth of field is shallow enough.

"If the action is unpredictable, such as it is with downhill mountain biking, then I would definitely take advantage of servo autofocus instead."

Deborah says that it took several attempts to ensure her photos were sharply focused because she was not used to this technique. "Before the action, I set the autofocus on an object that was at the same distance that I expected Jéremy would be at the height of a trick, then I switched the lens to manual focus so that it would not change position," she explains.

5. Make your own luck

A young woman in a field of long grass, holding a handful of grass in front of her camera, with two figures on bikes at the top of a ramp in the distance.

Carrying your own foreground with you gives you the freedom to shoot the action from the best angle.

A mountain biker performing a jump on a sunny day, with grass in the foreground of the image.

By using the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM lens at its maximum aperture of f/1.8, the grass provides a soft frame for Jeremy's jump. Taken on a Canon EOS RP at 1/4000 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 100. © Jean-baptiste Liautard

Jb taught Deborah the importance of thinking on your feet when things aren't working out as planned. "I explained that I like to have foreground details such as branches and leaves in my pictures because they add depth and a three-dimensional quality," he says. "There was some grass that I wanted to shoot through, but it was quite low and a fence in front of the jumps would have blocked the shot from the low angle. To get around this, we just pulled some grass up and held it in front of the lens."

For Deborah, this was a new technique. "Using grass or trees to hide details that I did not want in my photo or to create a better composition was such an obvious thing to do, but not something I'd tried until this shoot," she explains. "Jb told me to not hesitate to explore all the spots to find the perfect angle – and to not plan to cheat with editing later, but to use and modify the environment as much as you need before taking the picture."

Happily, Deborah came away from the shoot with some amazing action sports images – and hopefully Jb's advice will help you with your own trick shots too.

Take your action photography to the next level with these more advanced techniques from Jb*.

*Available in selected languages only.

Written by Marcus Hawkins

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