As the BMX rider leaps into the air, he's frozen in motion, suspended inside the giant tube like a puppet dancing with its shadow. The shot looks effortless, but setting up Jaime de Diego's action sports photographs involves time and planning, and the artistic results are testament to the skill and experience of both photographer and rider. To capture tricks in tack-sharp detail, Jaime uses up to seven flash units, which help to freeze the action and make the colours even more saturated.
"It's very important to have a deep knowledge of each sport before shooting it, and to capture the perfect moment, the perfect trick," says Spanish photographer Jaime, whose portfolio includes motorsports, mountain biking and running. Since turning pro in 2003, he has lent his distinctive high-end style to campaigns for a roster of big-name clients, from Adidas and Nike to Red Bull, BMW and Ford.
With so many variables to manage, Jaime needs kit he can rely on, and he has always chosen Canon for speed, reliability and the quality of its optics. "I need autofocus with a very fast reaction time and lenses that retain their extreme sharpness," he says. "Canon's L-series lenses are perfect for me." Jaime often uses longer telephoto lenses, such as the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.6-5.6L IS II USM lens, or the super-wide Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens for its exaggerated perspective. But the absolute workhorse he relies on, like many sports professionals, is the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens.
"I would recommend the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens for any photograph where you want a shallow depth of field or a tighter angle in composition, when you want to be far from the subjects you are going to shoot, or need fast autofocus and sharpness," he says.
"I like the effect you get when you use a telephoto lens – the shallow depth of field, knocking out the background, and the perfect perspective and lines without distortion. The bokeh is appealing and of high quality. The lens performs as you expect it to, every time."
Jaime usually relies on autofocus, customising the settings for different subjects. "The AF settings depend on the sport," he says. "When I want to shoot action sports I use the continuous AI servo AF III+ focus to lock on and follow the complete movement, but sometimes I prefer the autofocus to be more or less responsive."
Using a zoom with a wide range of 70-200mm paired with a constant fast f/2.8 maximum aperture at all focal lengths gives flexibility of composition without compromising on exposure – especially useful in demanding outdoor situations where things move quickly.
"The best aspect of a zoom is the ability to quickly change the framing without having to change your physical position," says Jaime, who says he doesn't only work at the extreme 70mm or 200mm ends of the zoom, but often uses 135mm instead, as each focal length gives a unique look.
"I also work with a Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens," he adds, "and the 70-200mm feels much lighter by comparison. For photographers who work outdoors, it's very important to have lenses that are highly resistant to impacts and weather conditions. The Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM is well built, so it is ideal. It really is a perfect lens."
Jaime's photography is as much a product of his sophisticated lighting style as his choice of lens. "My photography is very contrasty and aggressive," he says. "To highlight the action and the impact of extreme sports, I like to create strong differences between lights and shadows, aiming for a high colour saturation, as if I am shooting against the sun."
To achieve this, Jaime relies on multiple flash units used off-camera. "Flash gives me the power to express my creativity," he says. "At golden hour, I sometimes shoot with Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT [now succeeded by Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT] flashes. These work very well off-camera, and the workflow with the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT is fast and easy."
If the light is very bright, the flashes need to be further away from the athlete, and if Jaime wants to use a lighting modifier, such as a softbox, he often uses large external flash units. "If I need a lot of power I use an Elinchrom ELB 1200, as it allows me to close the aperture up to f/5.6, and I can have the flash at least four metres away from the subject for safety."
Whatever flash system Jaime is using, he works in the same way to ensure perfect exposures every time. "I need to have everything under control, so the only option for me is to control everything manually," he says. "The first step is to think about shutter speed as I need to freeze the movement. In these BMX pictures the lowest shutter speed is around 1/640 sec."
If he needs to go wider on the aperture to get the exposure right, that is his next step. But if the wide aperture – for example the f/2.8 setting of the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens – would not deliver the required depth of field, he raises the camera's ISO. In the case of the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Jaime says, noise is so well controlled that he doesn't need to fit all the other settings around an acceptable ISO value, but can adjust ISO last of all.
It’s the final piece of a puzzle that includes lighting, composition, athlete and location, all of which must work together to create a masterful action shot. Using the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, along with the fast f/2.8 maximum aperture of the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens, gives Jaime the options he needs to create dramatic, sought-after images that keep his clients coming back for more.