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Fire in the Water

Capturing great swimming images

Peter H. Bick | December 2, 2012

Capturing the beauty of the sport of swimming is a challenge for all photographers. Seasoned professionals who are used to shooting other sports are often as challenged as novices by the complexities of shooting swimmers and water in motion.

When I’m working at events I’m often approached by swimmers and spectators with questions about swimming photography: How do I capture a certain stroke, start, or relay exchange? How do I shoot in pools that are lit like medieval castles? What camera and lens should I use? I hope to provide some guidance to help you through the maze of challenges and improve your chances of getting a great shot.

For the purposes of this article, I’m assuming that you’re using a digital-SLR camera and not a “point and shoot,” and that you have a grasp on both the basic functions of your camera and the fundamentals of photography.

The two critical factors for any image are great composition and excellent exposure. Master these elements and you’ll have a collection of compelling shots.

Composition

As a Masters swimmer, you already know the strokes and great technique. Now think about how they look great in a photograph. Think about the swimming images that have had a lasting impact on you. Where were they captured in the pool? Was the photographer high in the stands (great for backstroke and freestyle)? Or were they at water level, kneeling on the deck, behind the blocks (great for fly, breaststroke, starts, turns and breakouts)? How about from a balcony or catwalk (access can be difficult)? I tend to be quite low or high. Standing up on the poolside rarely gives me the look I want because that’s what you see all the time. One key to great images is finding new positions and angles. That’s why you’ll always see me in kneepads and, usually, wet clothing.

Composition is also determined by your lens choice. Do you intend to show a swimmer in the context of the event or place? Or are you looking to capture a tight shot? Cropping your images after they are shot is critical to good composition as well. With today’s high megapixel cameras it is possible to dramatically crop an image and yet retain high quality.

Another important aspect of composition is angle of view. I try to vary the angle I use to capture a swimmer. A few head-on shots are fine but that look can get old quickly. Try shooting at a 45-degree angle across several lanes to pull in the lane lines and the swimmer. This can give a more interesting image, but it does require some planning to ensure that the swimmer you want to shoot is visible and not blocked by another swimmer.

Exposure

Exposure is determined by the amount of available light, your lens choice, the ISO you want use, and the shutter speed. I always shoot in full manual exposure mode and RAW image format so I have full control over all aspects of exposure. The RAW format conserves all the data for the image so I can determine the post-processing later. If you decide to use an automated mode, I would suggest you use shutter priority mode so you can decide the shutter speed to stop action or add a little blur. The camera will then choose an appropriate aperture for a good exposure. You may have to change the ISO to accommodate your choice of shutter speed.

If you’re fortunate enough to shoot at an outside pool, you have a lot of flexibility in exposure and lens choice. Your challenge will be to avoid the harsh shadows of midday light. Most lenses will give an adequate choice of shutter speeds and aperture to get great shots outdoors. Indoor pools are another matter. Most are quite dark from a photography viewpoint. In these venues, the faster lenses (maximum aperture of 2.8) are needed. These lenses are a lot more expensive than the standard 70-300 lens or kit lenses. However, the optical design and quality are much better. The typical entry-level lens of this type is the 70-200/f2.8. It’s possible to use the slower 70-300 lenses in dark venues by increasing your ISO, but this is accompanied by loss of image quality.

In determining optimal exposure, D-SLRs are great because you can view a histogram to see what your exposure captured in the highlights and shadows. You can always delete shots as you test your exposure. Pixels are free, so fire away and delete the junk. Learn to read your histogram and compare the camera display to your downloaded images in your computer. You’ll quickly see what exposures give you sharp images with good contrast from the venues you’re shooting.

On Deck

As a photographer, you’re not a participant in the event but ancillary to it. It’s critical to capture your images in a way that does not interfere with the officials, swimmers, and coaches. Check with officials before approaching critical areas on deck, such as near the “hot box” where the starter and referee stand, behind the blocks, or at the pool’s edge. Most officials and event directors are receptive to inquiries and want you to photograph if you do it properly. If you’re new to a venue or event, find a photographer or official and inquire about the shooting rules.

Happy shooting!

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Peter H. Bick

Peter Bick has been photographing swimming professionally for more than 20 years. He began in Indianapolis in the late 1980s while working as a scientist at Eli Lilly. The IU Natatorium has hosted numerous NCAA championships, USA Swimming events, and Olympic trials. Bick has captured the drama of those events and his work has been published in many national and international publications.
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