Building the shot with Jean-baptiste Liautard

The extreme sports photographer takes us behind the scenes on a shoot with the Canon EOS R5 to explain how he creates his dramatic imagery.
A mirror image of a rider making a daring leap with his arms held aloft. The forest background is bathed in blue light.

In his first-ever shoot with the Canon EOS R5, extreme sports photographer and Canon Ambassador Jean-baptiste Liautard applied a three-step process to create this mirror image of a rider performing a breathtaking night-time jump. Taken with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 16mm, 1/200 sec, f/4 and ISO1250. © Jean-baptiste Liautard

It's been just seven years since Jean-baptiste Liautard (Jb) started taking his photography seriously and while others might still be finding their feet, he's quickly established himself as a pioneering extreme sports photographer, able to create compelling imagery on the grandest scale. At the tender age of 25, he is already a Canon Ambassador, has picked up a string of awards, including Pinkbike's Photo of the Year 2019, and names Red Bull among his ever-growing list of clients.

His remarkable work results from a refined photographic process. With a final vision in mind, Jb shoots over several stages, each resulting in a single image. At each stage, he adds layers of complexity until his vision is realised. "When you start shooting, every photographer wants to take a lot of pictures because you don't want to miss anything," he explains. "I want to make the right moment happen at the right time. I work in a way that allows me to take a couple of frames that are really what I want in terms of lighting and composition. It's an approach I developed quite early because I was bored of editing pictures I didn't like."

Jb applied this process during his first-ever shoot with the Canon EOS R5 and Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens, resulting in a truly incredible final image (above). Here he talks us through his approach and the techniques behind it.

Two men discuss an image taken on a Canon EOS R5 camera while standing in a forest.

Jb discussing his vision with the rider ahead of the shoot – extreme sports photography is always a team effort, with communication between photographer and subject vital to achieving the final result. © Jean-baptiste Liautard

Two men standing at the bottom of a bike ramp at night. One of the men is pointing upwards, while the other has a Canon EOS R5 camera around his neck.

Understanding the technical capabilities of a rider and the dangers of making jumps in the dark are key components of Jb's preparations ahead of a shoot. © Jean-baptiste Liautard

Stage 1: Preparation and knowing your subject

Jb often arrives hours in advance of the shoot to ensure everything is in place. "For this shot, we had to rebuild the lip of the jump and the landing area," he explains. "We had to make everything perfect so it would be safe for the rider."

This time also gives Jb space to work with his subject. "Knowing the rider well is important because you only ask him to do something he can already do," he says. "It's like ordering food at a restaurant. You know the rider can do 20 tricks and you order the one you think would work on this job. Then we try it to see if it looks good, which is what the first test shows. It shows what a normal or average picture would look like."

Do you own Canon kit?

Do you own Canon kit?

Register your kit to access free expert advice, equipment servicing, inspirational events and exclusive special offers with Canon Professional Services.
A bike rider performs a daring jump in a forest. His arms are aloft and he is at least several metres off the ground.

Jb begins his process by working with his rider to frame the jump and refine the associated trick. In this image, he isolates the subject by using the longer end of the zoom and selecting the widest possible aperture. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 27mm, 1/1600 sec, f/2.8 and ISO2500. © Jean-baptiste Liautard

Although Jb often attaches his camera to a tripod, on this occasion he shot handheld. "I wish I had two tripods," he explains. "But the fact is I only have one, and that was helping set up a mirror for the second stage."

"The internal stabilisation on the Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens helped as the live image on the screen was really stable, meaning it was easy to have precise framing. I enable IS on every handheld shot as it helps to correct my movements if I need to run to get into position, for example.

"The surroundings weren't that pretty," he continues, "so I tried to isolate the subject by using a longer focal length, 27mm, which helped me get closer to the subject and remove objects in the background. This was also shot at f/2.8 to introduce a bit of background blur."

A black and white mirror image of a rider making a daring leap with his arms held aloft in a forest.

"I thought the black and white would accentuate the contrast," says Jb of this image taken during the second stage of his process. "Normally you don't want a really bright sky in the background, but here the rider was wearing dark clothes so it helped to have this contrast between the action and the background." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 15mm, 1/1250 sec, f/4 and ISO2000. © Jean-baptiste Liautard

Stage 2: Geometry and experimentation

In the second stage of the process, Jb began building complexity into the composition with the addition of a large mirror. "The objective was to have a more geometrical image," he explains. "I guess it's in our brain that when we see something that is geometric or on a symmetrical axis, it looks good. Some people do it in Adobe® Photoshop®*, but I like to do things in real life. So, after playing with a lot of puddles and complaining about not having a lake handy, I wanted a way of taking my own reflection with me."

Jb then altered his focal length to 15mm. "Having the mirror means you have double the image, so you need to shoot wider because you've got double the space," he explains. "I moved my position a bit as well – on the previous shot, I wanted to have the rider in front of the sky so you could see him better. But here, I really wanted to be on the edge of the jump to create this symmetry."

When action sports meets architecture photography

Canon Ambassador Lorenz Holder shares how he used a fast-aperture telephoto zoom lens to capture a skateboarder in action under a viaduct.
A photographer crouches in a forest taking a picture with a Canon EOS R5 camera. Next to him is a large mirror.

Jb used a large vertical mirror to create the shot. The idea of taking photographs this way comes from his fascination with geometric order, and mirrors are now a regular element in his work. © Jean-baptiste Liautard

A mirror image of a man holding a Canon EOS R5 camera with the touchscreen in focus showing another mirror image.

Even though this was Jb's first outing with the Canon EOS R5, he adapted easily to the mirrorless technology. "I really felt at home with the R5, even though I had never used a non-DSLR camera before," he says. "I like it when I don't have any problems, because when you're working in the dark with things that move really fast, you don't want to have issues with your gear." © Jean-baptiste Liautard

While Jb often uses mirrors horizontally to look like lakes or puddles, this shoot required some experimentation. "It's the first time I've used the mirror's reflection vertically," he continues. "This time I thought the jump could look like a volcano in the middle with the rider spreading his arms on both sides.

"The mirror was standing on my tripod leaning against a tree. My assistant helped me hold it at the perfect angle. I would adjust it myself and when I found the perfect position, my assistant held it during the shot. Of course, it's easier when you're shooting with a horizontal mirror. Next time I'll try to work out a proper way to set it up.

"Shooting with a mirror may sound pretty easy," Jb continues, "but you have to consider that a mirror is made of different layers of glass and the longer the lens, the more distortion and ghost effects you'll have. So I would suggest staying between 15mm and 35mm to keep a good image quality and sharpness in the reflection."

A hand holds a Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT. The dark background is bathed in blue light.

Jb used four Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RTs to light the final image. "It's good to have reliable flashes that always fire, that have quick recycling times, and are powerful enough, because I'm always lighting up big spaces," he explains. "I already need assistance to carry my bags, so if I had to carry huge studio lights, it wouldn't be manageable. These small Canon flashes are perfect." © Jean-baptiste Liautard

A photographer takes a night-time shot of a stunt rider launching off a ramp with his arms outstretched.

A pair of Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RTs pointing skywards was enough to illuminate the trees behind the rider. Jb applied a blue gel to create the desired background hue. © Jean-baptiste Liautard

Stage 3: Lights, camera, action!

The final image introduced four Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RTs, triggered using radio transmitters and using a shutter speed of 1/200 sec. "The flashes froze the action, not the shutter speeds," Jb reveals. "Although sometimes I like to include some ambient light by lowering the shutter speed, here I used the aperture at f/4 because I wanted to gain a bit of sharpness and a greater depth of field. The ISO was 1250.

"It's a bit of a complicated setup," he admits of the lighting arrangement. "We were supposed to have smoke, but there were too many trees and it didn't look good. Using smoke with a wide-angle lens is tricky, especially when a large area has to be covered. Also, the jump was surrounded by a lot of obstacles which made it hard to set up my flashes and the fires needed to create the smoke.

"In the end, I created a vibe using Speedlites and gels," Jb continues. "I had two in the background placed on the ground facing up with blue gels. They were about five metres behind the rider but hidden by the jump, which ensured the light didn't leak into the foreground. The flash zooms were set to 24mm so they would light up all the trees even though they were pretty close to them. I used two so I had even more power."

A mirror image of a rider making a daring leap with his arms held aloft displayed in the vari-angle touchscreen of a Canon EOS R5.

With the mirror set up and the lighting in place, Jb succeeded in capturing his creative vision. © Jean-baptiste Liautard

The foreground lighting was added for safety reasons. "Because we were shooting at night, I used two sets of continuous lights at the front so the rider could see where to land. It looked cool to have some lights on the jump, especially as I didn't have smoke in the background, so we kept them in."

Finally, the rider himself had to be lit. "I set up a flash on the left going from the bottom of the landing directly to the rider. And I had another one on the other side hidden by the mirror – you can just see the contrast on the right-hand side of the tree. So, on both sides of the jump there was a Speedlite without a gel."

With the final image complete, Jb's creative vision was realised. Perhaps surprisingly, it's a vision that accepts a certain level of imperfection. "When you're shooting with a mirror, it doesn't go all the way to the tree, for example," he says. "So, when you look at the tree you can see there's a bit that's not perfectly symmetrical. That's just the game we play."

Mark Alexander

*Adobe and Photoshop are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

Related articles

Get the newsletter

Click here to get inspiring stories and exciting news from Canon Europe Pro