Photographing a swim meet is very much different from photographing action sports. Here are some tips to help you on your first shoot.
Shooting a swim meet is completely different than shooting action sports. If you are shooting a baseball or softball game, you can generally see most of the players from every position you are in. The action is chaotic and unpredictable, that is the challenge of action sports.
Swimming is much more predictable. The swimmers will start at point A and swim in a predetermined manner until they get to point B. The problem with this simple scenario is that they are largely distorted by water and only photogenic from certain angles, which varies by stroke. You will have some trial and error ahead of you, but this post may save you some time on the learning curve.
Shutter speeds need to be high
Shutter speeds are going to have to stay high to property freeze the swimmer and the water. Too slow of shutter speed and you will get too much motion blur, which will be compounded by the water splashing everywhere.
I generally start around 1/1000th of a second to get a good freeze-frame. In some sports I like a little motion blur but in swimming, there is just too much that can blur and become distracting.
Try to completely freeze the action.
You are going to have to move around and shoot from different positions
You will notice one thing about photos most people take from the stands, they all look like they were taken from the stands. The same angle from what appears to be fifty feet away alongside the pool. We can do better than that.
Photographers don’t get to sit in one spot and shoot, well they don’t unless they are being paid to shoot pro sports from a pit. For the rest of us shooting amateur sports, we get to bounce all over the field, court, arena, and natatorium.
Some strokes will look good from head-on, like breaststroke and butterfly. Others look better from the side, like backstroke and freestyle. Shoot some from deck level and some elevated at the top of the stands. If you have free reign of the pool you can have a good time experimenting with what angles and elevations you like. If you have more restrictions on your movement, like most of us do during the COVID-19 pandemic, you will have to get more creative.
Keep in mind that some of these swimmers are really fast. If you plan on shooting a nice 45-degree angle shot of a butterfly swimmer, you might only have two or three strokes before you lose that sweet angle and you are 90 degrees from them. Plan accordingly and shoot fast.
You also have to plan ahead for what lane your swimmer is in. Another variable (or great opportunity) is the swimmers in the lanes next to your swimmer. You could either set up a great competitive shot of your swimmer neck and neck with the opponent, or the opponent will pop into frame and ruin your shot.
Constant focus is a must
Constant focus or servo focus will be a must for you to keep your photos sharp. These athletes will be moving fast enough that they will move out of focus quickly. If you are using a single focus mode, the swimmer may move out of focus between the time you get a focus lock and finish the shutter press and expose the image. Nothing is worse than having an epic image ruined from a soft focus. You can’t fix that in post work.
Consult the manual for your camera to be sure you have the correct focus mode selected. You want the lens to constantly focus when you half-press the shutter button. This way as you are framing your shot in-camera, the lens will stay focused on your subject.
High-speed shutter drive to capture all parts of the stroke
If there is one thing I will mention over and over in these articles it is using the camera’s high-speed drive to expose multiple frames at a time for action sports. Even then I’ll miss some epic moments because I ended up with the instant just before and just after the epic moment.
As mentioned earlier, at the speeds some of these athletes swim at, you only have a couple of strokes from a good angle to get that shot. Photograph through a couple of strokes to try to get the best, highest quality image.
Starts are a good opportunity
Starts are a great opportunity for photos. The action of the start as the swimmers launch into the water can make for fantastic photos. Mid-air dives from the blocks are a classic opportunity as well as the mid-air arches from a backstroke start.
Also, don’t neglect photographs while the athletes are on the blocks ready for the start. You can capture some tense moments just before the start, along with some looks of determination on the faces of these youngsters.
Light may be a problem indoors
Outdoors swim meets in the daytime sun provide for some great contrast and colors in the water. The sun reflecting off of the water helps to create depth as well as shadows on the bottom of the pool from swimmers and waves of water. Light for the camera won’t be an issue and you can keep shutter speeds high easily. This is probably the best situation to photograph a swim meet in. If you find yourself in this situation, carry on. You’ve got this made.
If you find yourself indoors, the situation is going to be different. Lighting will be the biggest problem indoors, there just won’t be enough of it! You will find that to keep those shutter speeds high you will have to bump the ISO up to compensate. Aside from lighting, not much else will change from indoors to outdoors. You still have the same angles to work with as outdoors
Using a fast shutter speed and servo focus along with high-speed drive will help you nail shots like a pro. Whatever positions you shoot from, whatever lenses you shoot with, these three things are a must. These are the items that affect whether your images are blurry and if you get the epic moment or miss it.
A lot of the shooting you will be doing is venue specific. Some venues will let you go almost anywhere you want as long as you stay out of the judge’s way. Some venues will have nowhere to get an elevated shot. Still, others will restrict you to one side of the pool. Break out the big glass if you are stuck by lane 1 and your champion is swimming in 8.
Also, remember to be considerate of others when taking photos. Try not to block the view of spectators who are there to see their swimmers as well. Other parents might be taking photos of their athletes and might not have big gear, so be mindful of those parents with their cell phones out. They might be trying to get their shots too.
Be sure to leave a comment below or suggestions for more topics up top. Until next time, go take some pictures.