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To the end of the earth: Richard Walch on special assignment

To the end of the earth: Richard Walch on special assignment

© Richard Walch

February 2016

Canon Ambassador Richard Walch is no stranger to extremes. But an assignment from Canon’s appointed advertising agency J. Walter Thompson to shoot the sport of skijoring deep in Patagonia for a winter campaign put his skills to the test, as he reveals to CPN Editor David Corfield...

Richard Walch is used to working against the odds, but working with a 30-person film crew with three shooting days to realise the creative ambitions of one of the world’s best advertising agencies? Now, that’s a tall order.

This year’s Canon winter campaign aimed to inspire photographers to get out with their cameras, whatever the weather. Thanks to sub-zero temperatures, strong winds, driving snow – oh, and a horse – Richard’s remit for stills meant he could lead by example. Working closely with Swedish film director Marcus Söderlund – in charge of the campaign’s promotional video – opened the door to new creative opportunities, as he explains:

© Canon Europe

Please click on the image above to view the Canon winter campaign, filmed by Marcus Söderlund with stills by Richard Walch.

“Working with such a big agency and becoming part of that big team was a learning curve. It’s very structured – and when we first met they asked me to describe in words what I was going to shoot. So the first skill you have to have is not as a photographer but as an author!” he jokes. “I had to describe the feelings of the images I was going to take which was a challenge for me at the beginning. But after it was done it was great as everyone had a common ground with their thinking.”

The plan was to travel to Patagonia – one of the most remote and beautiful parts of Argentina – to shoot 55-year old Swiss skijoring world champion Franco Moro as he trained. Initially a demonstration sport for the 1928 Winter Olympics, skijoring is now a popular – and very exciting – winter sport and races are held in many countries including the USA, Canada, France and many parts of Scandinavia. To compete, a person on skis holds onto reins pulled along behind specially trained, riderless racehorses – usually former polo horses as they are accustomed to close contact and cope well with the unexpected.

“We all sat together, the agency, client and myself, and we all found we were on the same page in terms of thoughts and what we hoped we could achieve. So for my role we locked it down to twelve images that they needed me to go out and capture. We had a very strict plan,” Richard reveals.

© Richard Walch
© Richard Walch

Portrait of skijoring legend Franco Moro at speed. Shot from a following snowmobile at 45kph! Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 100mm; the exposure was 1/1600sec at f/5.6, ISO 800.

“We were there for just a week, and production time on the ground was three days,” he recalls. “For me personally, that was my biggest worry. Because at that time of the year, the area isn’t known for its nicest weather. I’ve been shut down so many times in the past when the weather isn’t great and when I arrived I realised that it wasn’t just myself who was worried, but a crew of 30 other people had the same concerns. But we were super lucky. We hit the jackpot. The preparation day was calm, with sunny, beautiful backgrounds such as trees and the mountains to give us the perfect outdoor studio for the product images. Just perfect.”

“And then on day two the winter came back strong!” he laughs. “It started to snow sideways and if you were a normal photographer you’d be like ‘that’s it, I’m going home’ but not me. I was ready to roll! I know how to deal with the cold and the snow and I could concentrate on what’s going on, and what was going on was so real. The shots you see with the horse covered in snow was just the kind of feeling we wanted. We wanted to show the harsher side of winter. And boom, there it was!”

The director’s view

Marcus Söderlund wanted to show a different side to skijoring. And with a close interest in the sport thanks to his mother – herself a skijoring sportswoman – he knew what he needed to do.

“I pushed the creative brief to the max and I tried to give as much production value as possible and tried to capture the feeling of being in the location, being there with Franco, being close to the horse. All of those were challenges for me.”

© Canon Europe

Please click on the image above to go behind the scenes with director Marcus Söderlund filming the latest Canon ad campaign.

“From the start I had an idea to use sound very dynamically,” he recalls. “And we wanted to use all the sounds on the shoot to help bring the viewer closer to the experience.”

Achieving that required a high degree of organisation, as Marcus explains: “I got really prepared with getting the best gear I could get, and we picked the C300 Mark II as it is the perfect combination of size and 4K quality. So we had the best of equipment and when we arrived we had the worst of weather!”

“On the day of the shoot the snowstorm was one of the most epic blizzards I have ever experienced. We had no idea if it was going to stop. There is only so much preparation you can do, though. The best thing in that situation is to get as much sleep as you can and be in as good as a condition as you can be when it’s time to go.”

“I kept my mind clean and tried to stay focused. When you are shooting it is so energetic and the shoot can steal so much from you, so you have to be in the zone. Especially if equipment breaks down, which it did...”

Marcus continues: “Our gimbal broke, our monitor stopped working but the Canon equipment just kept on going. We hooked it up to a drone and it worked perfectly. The drone – actually a remote helicopter – was an extra tool that gave us a real nice angle. We used the C300 Mark II as the drone was powerful enough to lift it. I always like to experiment with new angles...”

© Richard Walch
© Richard Walch

Skijoring athlete Franco Moro and his horse Paulito filmed in Patagonia. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 53mm; the exposure was 1/1000sec at f/5, ISO 500.

Richard reflects: “Normally when you see the sport it’s always photographed with a long lens with the horses coming right towards you. That’s all very dramatic, but for this shoot we wanted to get closer to the experience. So we shot at 45 degrees in front of the horse. It’s an angle that is not usually seen because normally it would get in the way of the TV cameras.”

The EOS advantage

Richard took along his assistant Matthias Fendt to the shoot, and was glad that he did. “Matthias was also my second cameraman. So between us we brought three backpacks full of gear and the lenses we used the most were the 200-400mm, 300mm f/2.8, 105mm Macro, 70-200mm f/2.8, 11-24mm f/4, 16-35mm and 24-70mm f/2.8.”

“I worked with the EOS 5DS R to shoot details of the horse, focusing on its hair and its eyes and the details of the snow on its body and really used that 50.6 Megapixel sensor to the max. And when I needed a fast drive and fast autofocus there was only one camera for me: the 1D X.”

“The EOS-1D X is like a Ferrari,” Richard smiles. “If you tune it to how you want it to be you can be as fast as you like.” And tune it he did. Using the camera’s powerful custom options, which allow precise customisation to set it up just the way Richard wanted it, he was able to overcome the challenges of getting pin-sharp focus of the horse in the snow.

He explains: “The horse was an Argentinian ex-polo horse and boy it could gallop fast! I jumped onto the snowmobile and we followed it as close as we dared, at speeds of up to 45kph. These horses have played hard all their lives and nothing scares them, but I was very nervous! I shot low to the ground with a 16-35mm lens, and captured the hooves without looking through the camera. It’s kind of my signature move now, that low angle,” he laughs. “So I’m checking the camera and the images weren’t sharp. The reason being was that hooves didn’t have that much contrast in the picture and it was hard for the autofocus to lock on and capture them. So I customised the AF points in the viewfinder, selecting just three of them in the top right of the frame where I knew the horse’s hooves would be. From then, it was no problem. That’s the EOS advantage.”

© Richard Walch
© Richard Walch

Canon Ambassador Richard Walch goes for a low angle with an EOS-1D X, his EOS 5DS R in the foreground. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 30mm; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/4, ISO 400.

“When I got the shot I just knew it would work really well. For me that was the highlight. It was the most difficult picture to accomplish and it was really intense. But the energy I felt in that moment, to be so close when the horse was going so fast and the snow was flying everywhere, was incredible.”

He continues: “My assistant Matthias and myself are such a well-trained team – we operate silently and quickly so that is why it worked well. I didn’t drop anything and even though I got completely covered in snow on the back of snowmobiles and a Land Rover, the gear performed perfectly.”

“When it’s that cold, you remember a few golden rules,” Richard advises. “Number one is don’t bring your camera indoors where it is warmer, as it will fog up and take forever to clear. And for batteries, always keep a spare set in your jacket pocket so you have instant replacement as cold can really kill them. But I have to say since the last three generations of cameras, battery power has not been a problem at all.”

Creative power and doing the dance...

Looking back on the shoot, Richard admits that he learned a lot working with a big crew. “When you are on set with an agency, there is a chain of people doing very specific jobs. Among which are the creatives. These people are great to have around because as a photographer you can often get locked into a very specific shot and don’t always see other opportunities. They can see things and can help to bring a new dimension to a shoot.”

“It’s such a big operation and you have such a short time to accomplish what you’ve signed up for and you only really have two chances to get it. And that was the challenge.”

© Richard Walch
© Richard Walch

A drone was used for higher angles, adding an extra dimension to the shoot. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF11-24mm f/4L USM lens at 13mm; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/4.5, ISO 1000.

Richard recalls the special skills involved in being a behind-the-scenes photographer: “Shooting behind-the-scenes is a bit like doing a dance; you sneak in and then step back all the time so as to not get in the way or distract the camera crew. I managed to build a good relationship with Marcus and Franco. Marcus is a creative and gave me a little more freedom to come closer and that was great.”

“Throughout my career it has always been this dance,” he smiles. “You step in, get called back, and then step in again. That’s how it rolls. When you work with a film crew, you have to become invisible but equally you must never miss a moment.”

“While I took care of the photography, my assistant Matthias was already on set editing the shots and giving them a look. So whenever we shared an image with Canon it was already polished and that helped so much. It just made the presentation so much more professional.”

“My work with Canon has always been full of challenges and I learned a lot and I’m really stoked from the experience. We got something that was authentic and new and the images had something special about them. And at the end of the day that’s what counts. You always strive for something unique and this was certainly that. I’m really glad I was there.”

“Richard was a really great photographer to work with,” Marcus shares. “His enthusiasm was great and I think we both came away from that shoot with the same feeling. It was one of those experiences that you would tell your grandchildren about in later years. For me, Patagonia is a magical place where magic happens. And for us, on this shoot, it did.”

Biographie: Richard Walch

Richard Walch

German photographer Richard Walch started out over 25 years ago shooting snowboarding and skiing, and now specialises in dramatic action shots of snow and water sports. He was 16 when photography became a passion and at the age of 18 he started shooting for magazines professionally. Since 2008 Walch has diversified from stills into shooting HD movie projects with Canon EOS DSLRs, including TV adverts and commercial projects. He is always on the move to find out what technology has to offer and how this can influence his photography and filming in a positive way.


Meet Paulito, the four-legged skijoring star of the latest Canon ad campaign filmed in Patagonia. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF85mm f/1.2L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/400sec at f/4, ISO 4000.