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Sports Photography FuelTip for Experienced Photographers: Shooting Different Swimming Strokes

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Shooting the freestyle can be challenging, because you will only see the swimmer’s face when he or she turns his or her head to breathe. Your best angle for this stroke is from the side of the pool. Try to get a sense of the rhythm of the swimmer’s breathing and the stroke. In the 50M freestyle, swimmers never take a breath and the field is so close and the water so churned up that you would not see it if they did. So forget about stroke shots in the 50M freestyle—just shoot swimmers on the starting blocks and get the winner’s reaction.

Freestylers turn their heads back toward their shoulders to breathe, so your best shot comes after the swimmer has passed you. Unlike for the breaststroke and the butterfly, being a little elevated can help because you will be able to see more of a swimmer’s face over the wake caused by his head pushing through the water. You will also want to get a full arm as it comes out of the water for a stroke. And even when you get the best angle, good focus, and good arm position on a swimmer, a freestyle photo is usually crazy eyes (often behind goggles), an open mouth, and a soggy armpit. With luck, you will get a wild expression, some cool light, or at least a colorful reflection off the goggles.

The breaststroke is the least exciting stroke visually because almost all the physical action takes place underwater, but you can still make dynamic images. Shooting this stroke calls for a long lens because all you are shooting are the swimmer’s head, shoulders, and possibly hands. I think the breaststroke looks best from straight ahead. Try to get as low to the pool deck as possible. Watch your focus because breaststrokers make a big splash as their heads come out of the water to breathe. A high shutter speed (1/3200 or above) can help you get some cool “frozen” water splashes.

The backstroke shot from a slight elevation.
Canon EOS-1D Mk IV, Canon EF 600mm f4L lens, f4 @ 1/4000, ISO 2500.

The toughest stroke to make a good picture of is the backstroke. Except for the start, which in a 50-meter pool is at least a 600mm or 800mm shot, the swimmers face straight up with their arms swinging by their faces, creating constant walls of water. You can make a photo of a swimmer’s face and hopefully an arm, but it won’t convey much of the feeling of the stroke. A slightly high angle down the lane as the swimmer goes away from you is your best bet on this stroke.

The breaststroke in the 2010 Santa Clara Invitational. This ¾-angle on the stroke shows the swimmer’s head and hands as he surges out of the water on a breath. The high shutter speed (1/6400) freezes the splash.
Canon EOS-1D Mk IV, Canon EF 400mm f2.8L lens, f4.5 @ 1/6400, ISO 400.

The backstroke bubble photo as the swimmer completes a turn and coasts underwater.
Canon EOS-1D Mk III, Canon EF 400mm f2.8L lens, f4.5 @ 1/5000, ISO 400.

Michael Phelps in the 200M fly in the Pan American Championships in 2010.
Canon EOS-1D Mk IV, Canon EF 400mm f2.8L lens, f2.8 @ 1/5000, ISO 1600.

Dutch swimmer Inge de Bruijn on the starting blocks before winning the Women’s 100M Butterfly in Sydney.
Analog SLR, 400mm lens.

A straight-on, low-angle butterfly shot is one of the iconic images of swimming and Olympic competition in general. When shooting this stroke, it is again important to have a feeling for the swimmer’s breathing rhythm. Some butterfly swimmers breathe every stroke and some every other, and some breathe to the side. The key is to get as close to water level as possible and watch out for the splash when focusing.

A shot common to all the strokes and races is the reaction shot. In a tight race swimmers often have no idea where they are finishing, so at the end of a race swimmers will turn toward the scoreboard to see how they’ve done. Your best bet for a good reaction shot is to find a position on the line between the end of the pool (where the swimmers finish) and the scoreboard. The reaction shot serves as a good counterpoint to the action shots that, no matter how dynamic they are, don’t show much of the athlete’s personality. Speaking of personalities—most swimmers are teenagers or in their early 20s, and when they win a race, they tend to go a little crazy. Thank God.

Michael Phelps loosens up in the warm-up pool at the Santa Clara Swim Club. This shot was taken from the 10-meter diving platform.
Canon EOS-1D Mk IV, Canon EF 70–200mm f2.8L Series II lens at 155mm, f4 @ 1/6400, ISO 400.

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