Light shaping with makeshift tools and creating colourful motion blur behind a crisp action portrait are the unexpected techniques behind sports photographer Samo Vidic's portraits of Elizabeth 'Libby' Clegg MBE, created in-camera using rear curtain sync.
Paralympic medal-winning, visually impaired runner Libby competes for Great Britain. At the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, she broke the world record in the 100m T11 semi-final before going on to win gold medals for the 100m T11 and 200m T11 events. She also won silver in the 100m T12 at the London 2012 and Beijing 2008 Paralympics, and has won several medals in world championships and Commonwealth Games events. For Libby's action shot, Canon Ambassador Samo wanted a dynamic image demonstrating the speed of a 100-metre sprint.
Aiming for an unusual motion blur effect, where Libby appears sharp with a colourful trail behind her, Samo used a slow shutter speed of 0.3 secs and triggered the flash at the end of the exposure – a technique known as rear curtain sync. "Without flash, you'd only see the motion blur, so at the end of the exposure you fire the flash to freeze the athlete," Samo explains.
To get the pink glow in the image, he placed an LED panel with a pink filter in a bin behind Libby – angled towards her back. "The shape of the trash can directed the light toward Libby rather than spreading it everywhere," he explains. "Then I placed two strip lights behind the starting block, one on each side, plus an octabox with a grid in front of the subject."
Samo shot the action photo with his durable workhorse, the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. "One of the things I really like about it is that you can do a whole shoot using Live View without having to change batteries," he says. As for the durability of the athlete, Libby didn't actually need to run very fast. "You can't tell in the picture whether she's going quickly or slowly, so I told her to relax, and she was happy with that."
Turning his attention to Libby's portrait, Samo wanted to tell the sprinter's story in a creative way, and came up with the idea of letting a narrow strip of light run across her eyes. But, without access to a flag (a lighting device used in motion and still photography to block light), the technique he used proved more difficult than expected.
"There are special light-shaping tools that can give you these effects, but they're quite specialist and I found it impossible to track one down in time for the shoot," says Samo. "The rental companies didn't have any available, and I even contacted my lighting manufacturer's factory – to no avail!"
But then he had an idea. "I bought some black cinefoil [a matte black aluminium material that absorbs light] and started experimenting with it on my son at home," he continues. "By cutting a narrow strip in the foil – about one centimetre wide and five centimetres long – and placing it in front of my flash, I was able to block out all the light except a narrow strip on the subject's face."
To create an environmental portrait that really told the story, Samo placed Libby on a running track, with her starting blocks and running shoes in the background. He put a spotlight on the starting blocks and shoes, while making sure that there was enough light to define Libby's face and body – he pointed one studio flash at the starting block and used a small backlight to outline Libby's shoulder, neck and hair. Meanwhile, the flash modified with cinefoil was placed in front of her to illuminate her eyes.
I was shooting tethered so I could check that the lights outlined Libby's body.
Samo shot the portrait of Libby with a Canon EOS 6D Mark II and a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens and was impressed with the quality of the files – even at ISO1600. "The ISO had been set to 1600 before I started this shoot and I didn't change it to begin with," he says. "I was shooting tethered so I could check that the lights outlined Libby's body, and on the screen the images looked really good at ISO1600."
He also valued having a vari-angle touchscreen on the camera. "The touchscreen made it so much easier to compose the photograph from up high," he says. "All I had to do was tilt the screen, and the touchscreen worked perfectly. Libby was so positive about the results – it was a great shoot!"