Riding High for John Rathwell

Canadian photographer John Rathwell is best known for his sports shooting. He’s the kind of artist who prefers capturing a kayak being piloted through rapids over a pitcher waiting for a signal, a surfer in frigid waters over a soccer match, or a closeup of a skateboard humming on blacktop over a golfer walking to the next tee. He recently was kind enough to explain how he got the below photo of mountain biker Felix Wilberg. Here’s Rathwell’s own account of how the shoot came together.

©John Rathwell

Felix Wilberg as photographed by John Rathwell. ©John Rathwell

Here is a shot of downhill mountain bike sensation Felix Wilberg at Camp Fortune in Chelsea, Quebec. The goal going into this shoot was to come out with something really showing the speed and intensity these guys come into banked turns with. I find the sense of motion is left out in action sports photos way too often, and, with flash, it’s so easy to have motion and still keep your subject sharp. The flash duration will freeze your subject, but the ambient light will still continue to absorb into the sensor.

My first few attempts at the shot where at 1/50th of a second and the background was put into an abstract blur. I didn’t realize how fast these guys actually come into the corners. I ended up moving up to 1/100th of a second for the shot to get just the right amount of motion blur in the background.

My main light (visible in picture) was front camera left. I know this isn’t the conventional position for a main light, but to me the fun part of photography is trying new things. I was hoping the position of the main light would draw the viewers’ eyes to the front of the bike, then use the riders arms as leading lines to move your eye to his face.

You will also notice I have three separate LumoPro LP160 and LP180 flashes on my main light. I do this for several reasons. The first is to increase my recycle time, giving me a few more shots in the burst every time the rider comes through. It also gives me a little bit larger light source to help soften the light up a bit. Many of you are likely just thinking now, why not just use a soft box? Well, the soft box does suck up a bit of power out of these small flashes, but also I had to hike to the top of a ski hill for this shoot. The less I had to haul up to the top, the easier it would be.

©John Rathwell

©John Rathwell

The biggest reason I use three flashes, though, is it allows me to use each flash at lower power. Why would I want lower power that’s not for faster recycle time? Shorter flash duration. This increases the odds of freezing a fast-moving subject when you don’t have access to high speed sync. The three flashes are attached to a branch using a Joby GorillaPod Focus and Lastolite tri flash bracket. One Flash is being triggered by a PocketWizard Plus® III, while the other two on the units are being fired by optical slaves.

The sun was behind camera-right, but due to the low camera perspective I needed to have my kicker light low to fill in the shadows underneath the rider and also to help get some light into the helmet. I used another LumoPro LP160 attached to a Joby GorillaPod Zoom just on the ground also fired by a PocketWizard Plus III.

©John Rathwell

©John Rathwell


  • 1 Canon 6D
  • 1 Canon 8-15L f/4.0
  • 3 PocketWizard Plus III Transceivers
  • 3 LumoPro LP160’s
  • 1 LumoPro LP180
  • 1 Joby GorillaPod Focus
  • 1 Joby GorillaPod Zoom with hot shoe adapter
  • 1 Lastolite Flash Tri Bracket (with brass widget to attached to tripod plate)

Metadata: ISO 800, 14mm, f/8.0, 1/100th of a second with four flashes fired.


Learn more about John Rathwell by visiting his site and blog.


All images, video, and quotes in this post are used with permission and ©John Rathwell, all rights reserved; story is ©PocketWizard. Please respect and support photographers’ rights. Feel free to link to this blog post, but please do not replicate or repost elsewhere without written permission.

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2 Responses to “Riding High for John Rathwell”

  1. Vinicius says:

    Dear John, fantastic use of pocketwizard! I´d like ask you: how far the tri Bracket was from your subject? Why? just to know how control the intensity of flash and, if is necessary, use high speed sync…but, what I saw was amazing and really simple to set up! Great job man!!!

    • Vinicius,

      The flash was pretty close to the subject. Likely about 8 feet or so away. I did not use high speed sync or hyper sync because it is not available on the PW Plus III or LumoPro LP180’s. I simply just stack the 3 flashes together at lower power to have a faster flash time.

      Hope that makes sense!