ARTICLE

Richard Walch’s low-light slacklining stunts with the Canon EOS R

Capturing the work of the German slackline group One Inch Dreams required the utmost concentration from everyone involved, including photographer Richard Walch. The compact but smartly equipped Canon EOS R enabled him to operate quickly, assigning the important functions to the multi-function bar and the lens's control ring for a fast workflow. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens. © Richard Walch

Slacklining: balancing and walking along a slack, one-inch-wide rope suspended between two points. This is not a pursuit for the faint-hearted. Faced with photographing the adventurous German slacklining group One Inch Dreams on an editorial assignment, Canon Ambassador Richard Walch found himself hanging off a cliff on the north-west coast of Ireland to get his killer shots.

Balancing on a slack rope across deep canyons, glaciers and towering buildings at dizzying heights, daredevil athletes One Inch Dreams strive to create breath-taking stunts – and hold several world records for achieving them. These include the longest and highest urban highline (between two skyscrapers, 247 metres above the busy streets of Mexico City) and the highest slackline ever walked (between two hot air balloons, 1,400m above ground).

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As an extreme sports photographer and filmmaker, Richard’s work spans the genres of portraiture, action and landscape. Assessing the requirements of the shoot, he realised he would need equipment that would reliably deliver across all of these genres, work silently when it was needed, and be compact enough to allow him to access the more precarious positions dictated by the stunt. It was an opportunity to assess whether Canon’s full-frame mirrorless EOS R system deserved a place in his professional kitbag.

The EOS R body, three lenses, and EF lens adapter offered Richard the promise of some unique capabilities, and the ability to shoot more situations than otherwise possible: “Because the EOS R system is a small package, and because a lot of engineering went into its design, the system should allow for very fast and effective photography,” Richard says. “I was hoping that by the end of the shoot, EOS R would get me telling stories better because I wouldn’t miss moments.”

A slackline-walking man prepares for the stunt, stretching with his eyes closed.
The Canon EOS R’s silent mode allowed Richard to continue shooting as the team mentally prepared for their stunts. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Richard Walch

It didn’t take Richard long to discover benefits. Before a stunt, the One Inch Dreams group prepare by going into a Zen-like state and visualising the action that is about to take place, and it’s vital that they are not disturbed during their mental preparation.

“It’s a very critical moment that I wanted to photograph, but I wasn’t allowed to get them out of the zone because I’d ruin the picture. No, worse: I’d ruin the stunt and wouldn’t have any pictures,” says Richard. “What comes really nicely with EOS R is the silent mode. And by silent I don’t mean there’s a silent click, I mean there’s no click at all.”

A wide shot of the sea with jagged rockfaces and crashing waves around them – the sun is setting, and a slackliner can be seen walking the rope between two rocks over water in the distance.
With such difficult manoeuvres for the group to complete, there were no retakes – so Richard had to get every shot right first time, relying on the EOS R system’s autofocus in low light such as this. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens. © Richard Walch

The silent mode on the Canon EOS R enabled Richard to get very close to the athletes without distracting them. “It meant I was able to photograph that very special moment, whereas before I would have had to put the camera away.

“Now, what does this mean for other photographers? Think about a wedding, for example. You don’t want to disturb the important moments, so if you can operate silently, it’s a big advantage. And there are a lot of other situations where it’s a big advantage that you can operate without making any noise. At the end of the day, it enables you to get much closer to your subject and to the scene.”

A slackliner balances on his hands on a rope over the sea, shot from below.
Richard focused using the camera’s touch-and-drag autofocus capability on its touchscreen, with 5,655 AF points covering 100% of the frame vertically and 88% horizontally. “I was able to place the athlete in the far corner of the frame, use autofocus, hit it and get [the shot].” Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens. © Richard Walch
A portrait of a man, one of the daredevils from One Inch Dreams, taken on a boat – he smiles at the camera.
The EOS R body, three lenses and EF lens adapter offered Richard the promise of some unique capabilities, and the ability to capture more situations than would otherwise be possible, from portraits like this one of slackliner Alexander Schulz, to action and landscapes. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105MM F/4L IS USM lens. © Richard Walch

Precarious cliff-face positions

The setting for the slacklining shoot, on the coast of the island of Arranmore in north-west Ireland, was a giant v-shaped gully with a long slackline suspended between pinnacles over a tumultuous sea. Richard needed to find a way to separate his subject from the busy background, which drew him to a sinking conclusion: he would have position himself below the slackline, and shoot the athlete against the sky.

This wasn’t a matter of walking down some steps. To get his desired vantage point, Richard would have to abseil down a crack in the rock, upside-down, for 40 metres, before securing himself to the rock edge. “I’m not very good at climbing!” says Richard. “I was thinking, ‘is there a chance to get out of this?’ But then I wouldn’t get the image, and in the end, the image always wins… I just observed the microspace around me and that made it easier to handle.”

A close-up from above of bare feet balanced on a rope, with crashing sea out of focus below.
The slacklining group One Inch Dreams hold several world records for their daredevil stunts. Here, one of the group’s members balances on a rope above the North Atlantic Ocean. Richard photographed the group for a magazine feature. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105MM F/4L IS USM lens. © Richard Walch

The ultimate low-light challenge

Getting the shot below the slackline was the biggest challenge of the shoot, not least because Richard decided to shoot it in the evening, in low light, with the athlete carrying a flaming torch.

“The question is, do you expose for the flare or for the background? You have to find the right balance, which is really tricky, and you cannot practise that beforehand,” explains Richard. “Once Alexander [the athlete] stands up and fires up the flame, there’s only a couple of seconds to get it right. And with the EOS R I was able to get the shot, adjust it, and get the final image.”

A daredevil balances on a rope suspended over the sea at dusk, holding a red flare which bellows red smoke.
Richard knew it would be a challenge to get the right exposure during the fire stunts at night. As it got darker, he found that the EVF’s exposure simulation gave him confidence when no second chances were available. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens. © Richard Walch

“I’m usually very sceptical of EVF in general because I kind of think I will lose the connection to my subject,” says Richard, in reference to the Canon EOS R's 3.69 million dot electronic viewfinder (EVF), “but the advantages that I get are far more important. When it’s dark and your eyes can’t see any more, the EVF shows you exactly what you’ve got.

“I think I will just not look at the back screen that much any more. And when you think about it, when I started photography it was on film, so that’s kind of how I did it. It’s just working against this image in my head, looking through the viewfinder and getting the shot. Now I can do the same, but I have the control in the viewfinder. So I think it takes back some of the old qualities into my daily work, and makes it a calmer experience.”

A man stands at a windswept cliff edge by the sea preparing ropes.
Richard had to do some climbing in order to get the best vantage points. Alexander Schultz (above) and the rest of the slacklining team guided him through the descent. Having a compact professional camera system allowed him to be flexible and shoot from anywhere, including hanging off a rock. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 28-70MM F/2L USM lens. © Richard Walch
A man catches his balance on one foot, arms waving, standing on a rope suspended over the sea with the rocky shore visible below.
Richard was impressed with EOS R’s touch-and-drag autofocus, which he was able to operate easily with his thumb on the screen. Even when he placed the athletes in the corners of the frame, the autofocus was spot-on. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105MM F/4L IS USM lens. © Richard Walch

Without the luxury of retakes, the guidance of the EVF and the precision and reliability of the autofocus were tested to their limits. “There’s a great expectation from both sides towards each other to really nail it on the spot… When the stunt is done, I cannot show up and say ‘Oh, I’m sorry, can we do it again?’ For [One Inch Dreams], the consequence could be deadly. For me, well, I’m out of the game,” he says.

Richard programmed the Canon EOS R’s multi-function touch-bar for ISO adjustments, so he could quickly increase the ISO as the sunlight dropped. He focused using the camera’s touch-and-drag autofocus capability the 5,655 AF points covering 100% of the frame vertically and 88% horizontally. “It was easy to operate with my thumb on the screen,” he says, “and I was able to place the athlete in the far corner of the frame, use autofocus, hit it and get [the shot].”

The One Inch Dreams daredevil slacklining team stand by a lighthouse.
Richard and the slackline group One Inch Dreams worked until sunset on Arranmore. Being able to customise the Canon EOS R to adjust ISO as the natural light changed was of great benefit to Richard. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 28-70MM F/2L USM lens. © Richard Walch

Richard used the new Canon RF 28-70MM F/2L USM lens for most of the shoot, including the abseil. “It’s really fast, f/2, and you can go from 28mm to 70mm,” he says.

“I love the speed of the lens because you can really play with the depth of field, which is normally an advantage of a prime lens, but you have the speed and flexibility of a zoom. For this type of adventurous photography it’s a clear advantage because it’s all in one package. It’s a small camera, with a versatile lens, and I can do so much with it. It’s like putting a couple of primes in the bag.”

A key feature for Richard came in the form of the EOS R system’s compatibility with existing EF and EF-S lenses via one of the three adapters: the Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R, Canon Control Ring Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and Canon Drop-In Filter Mount Adapter EF-EOS R. Richard was able to use one of his go-to EF lenses, the Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM.

“What’s kind of unique is that the adapter is not just to get the EF lens onto the EOS R system, but it takes some of the smartness of the system and puts it into the EF lens” he says. “You can customise the control ring on the adapter, to put the f-stop on the control ring for example, and that allows you to operate your old EF lenses in a new way.”

A member of the slacklining team pulls the rope they’ll soon walk across, with the sea in the background.
Having tested the EOS R system in a professional scenario, capturing a stunt performed by the athletes of One Inch Dreams (and their preparation, as pictured here), Richard wasn’t disappointed. “It has a combination of heritage and innovation... It’s going to be the Swiss army knife of your photography,” he says. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105MM F/4L IS USM lens. © Richard Walch

Fit, form and function

Bringing a smaller camera on a shoot than normal, Richard had concerns that that he wouldn’t be comfortable while working. “You’re kind of afraid it won’t fit in your hand. But the EOS R has a full-size hand grip, so it feels really nice in your hands and is still a smaller package than a DSLR.”

Having tested the EOS R system in a professional scenario, Richard wasn’t disappointed. “It has a combination of heritage and innovation. For example, the control of the lenses, that’s heritage because that’s how I started my photography. And if you look at the multi-function bar, that’s pure innovation. So is the touch and drag autofocus, where you use your thumb to dedicate the focus point.

“I think EOS R will definitely have a secure place in my photo kit now. Sometimes it’ll be my number one body. What’s unique about this camera is that it’s so versatile. I encourage everyone to give it a try and really customise the camera for your needs, because then it’s going to be the Swiss army knife of your photography.”

The Canon EOS R system – the EOS R body, EOS R lenses and EF adapter.
The EOS R system – the EOS R body, three lenses and EF lens adapters. All Canon EF lenses are compatible with the EOS R system, so Richard had his existing lenses at his disposal. Using the Canon Control Ring Mount Adapter EF-EOS R adapter equipped with a control ring, he was able to assign functions such as aperture to his old lenses, using them in a new way. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. © Richard Walch

The EOS R technology behind Richard Walch’s shots

1. The electronic viewfinder
“For ultimate control, you want to use the playback function and observe the image without even taking the camera down. That’s a big advantage because you can work faster without losing your framing. I used it several times during the shoot.

“There is also a way to use the EVF to see the effects of different depths of field. This allows me to shoot at f/1.2, very fast, but still be in beautiful control of it.”

2. The multi-function bar
“I configured it so that I could change the ISO, so when the sun was dropping very rapidly, I could put the ISO up step by step very easily. But it can be customised in whatever way will make your workflow faster.”

3. The autofocus system
“The touch and drag autofocus function gives you over 5,000 options as to where you want to place the autofocus point, and it’s easy to do by dragging your thumb on the back of the screen.”

Test and try the full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R system at photokina in Cologne, Germany, from 26 to 29 September.

Írta: Kathrine Anker


Richard Walch’s kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Richard Walch holds the Canon EOS R system on location by the sea.

Camera

Lenses

Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM

Offering an ultra-wide-angle view with minimal distortion at all focal lengths, this zoom also features UD and Super UD lens elements and large ground aspherical elements for outstanding optical performance. Ring-type USM enables you to focus quickly and in near silence, with a manual override option too.

Adapters

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