Canoe Slalom from behind the lens

Canoe slalom has an incredible appeal through the lens of a camera as well as making stunning TV coverage.

Personal favourite, Olympic silver medallist Paul Ratcliffe driving hard (photo Allsport)

I admire the photographs over the years of a small group of slalom enthusiasts; Tony Tickle, Chris Worrall, Pete Astles, Robin Vowles, ICF photographer Balint Vekassy and recently Michael Barnett. I was in awe of the stunning images Tony Tickle took in the morning mist of the Savage River at the ’89 Worlds, sneaking my way into a presentation in Llangollen over the British International weekend. One of my personal favourites below we obtained permission from Allsport to use for an athlete profile of Paul Ratcliffe just after Sydney Olympic’s silver medal.

I asked Michael Barnett recently what appealed most to him about canoe slalom, his personal favourites. Here is what he said; “The water is never the same for any paddler. It is a living breathing element and is therefore exciting to photograph as it changes constantly. This makes each photo different. Yes the composition can be similar but the action is always different. Even when shooting at 10 frames per second. The changes can be astounding. There are two images of mine [Michael]which I am particularly proud of and both were taken at the Senior Selection event at Lee Valley during 2011. One is of David Bain and I think I have captured the power of the whitewateras it has thrown his boat nearly out of the water and David looks so calm and concentrated.”

David Bain on Lee Valley (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett). One of his favourite shots

“The other is of Richard Hounslow (GBR K1 and C2 paddler for the London 2012 Olympics) as this photo captures everything about Canoe Slalom – the concentration of the athlete, the ferocity of the water and the moment was perfectly frozen. I am also proud of this photo as it won Canoe England photo of the year for 2011, which isn’t bad for a completely unedited photo. My favourite class is C2. Having to get two athletes in focus when shooting at low apertures (to increase shutter speed) can be very challenging. We are also lucky in Great Britain as we have two of the best C2 crews in the World on our shores and the battles these boats undertake at selections can be very entertaining.”

Richard Hounslow on Lee Valley. (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett). Another of his favourite shots

As it happens I am not a complete novice myself behind a camera and have my own personal favourites from Nottingham, Bourg St Maurice and Bala, ironically all taken with the now old fashioned 35mm SLR camera! There is something wonderful and magical about the atmosphere of the natural river venues that is hard to recreate in photographs of artificial courses like Lee Valley. So what did I learn? If you have a good understanding of the sport then I think planning the perfect shots is key. If you sit by a breakout gate and watch the paddlers you start to understand on what their eyes are focussed, like the outside red and white upstream gate and so if you line yourself up just right you can be looking straight into the eyes as they approach.

Also as the boat comes in the eddy it is slowing making it a little easier to focus and avoid a blurred image. I think the key to good photographs is the right position, good camera and lots of patience. More than 90% of pictures taken are just not quite right.

Michael commented; “I suspect the course designers will try to make the most of the two big drops as these are two of the most exciting elements of the course. So be prepared for good photo opportunities at these points. Don’t leave your seat during the event if you can help it. The leaderboard can change during every run due to the fact the water is never the same. Some of the best athletes in the World could get caught out by the power of the water and it only takes one mistake for the leaderboard to change. It is just so unpredictable and exciting.

I understand photography at the Olympics event is more of a challenge. The IOC has rules in place to prevent photographs being used for commercial purposes. Taking pictures at the Olympics may prove difficult due to the restrictions put in place by LOCOG. The camera you take must fit into a bag which measures 30cm x 20cm x 20cm. I might be able to take my Canon 50D and my 70-200mm lens at a push. Also at the Olympics you are not allowed to sit on the bank with your legs hanging over the side. So, if you are in the UK buy a copy of the slalom yearbook or look at, pick an event and go along with a camera and a backpack of food, drink and warm waterproof clothing! Michael Barnett adds; “A camera which can capture the detail of the water and be able to capture the emotion of the athlete. I pride myself on not editing my photos and trying to get things right in camera.

The web now provides access to thousands of stunning canoe slalom images during and immediately after the event.

The iconic Tony Tickle image from the 90’s. My favourite! (courtesy Tickle Design Group)

Here are Michael’s tips regarding taking great pictures:

• Zoom in as much as you can
• Select as low an aperture as possible whilst shooting in AV mode so that you get a shutter speed quick enough to freeze the water
• Track the athlete’s head while they are canoeing down the course as this is something which is easy to follow
• Take as many pictures as possible. Due to the speed at which the paddles move, they can often restrict the views of the athletes

But most importantly enjoy yourself

Tomorrow’s post will show the Olympic events taking place in less than 2 weeks at Lee Valley.

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