Thursday, July 23, 2015

Photographing a Swim Meet - Proper camera settings and creative ideas to help you get great photos

Both of our kids have been swimming for our local swim club since they were 4 years old. And last weekend was the last meet for my daughter. That means that, after 16 years of waking up early on Saturday mornings to watch the kids swim, we have hit the end of the road. Both kids have now aged out of the swim team.

Most people at our club know that I am an Olympic photographer, which means that people are always asking me to photograph these types of events. And for those of you who photograph sports, you know that when shooting these events, you actually miss most of the meet. I end up concentrating on the focus, composition and everything photographic, but miss the race itself. So...for many of the last meets, I chose not to bring the camera, and to just be dad.

But since this was our last swim meet, and the big final meet of the season, I decided to bring the camera and capture as much as I could.

I am going to share some of the photos with you all, and also share the camera settings and thought processes so that you too can capture nice photos of your own.

Here we go...

My daughter in action
The first stroke is butterfly, which happens to be my favorite event to photograph. Why? Because the swimmers come out of the water quite often and look straight ahead. For that reason, I usually position myself straight on to the swimmer. And most often, when I am photographing a fast moving sport like this, I will aim for a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 sec. In this case, I put the Canon 7D Mark II in aperture priority mode, set the ISO to 250 (which is still VERY clean) and set the aperture to best that the Canon 100-400 II could get (usually f/5 - f/5.6). This gave me ample shutter speed to freeze the action.

Using the fast shutter speed freezes the swimmers and the water around them. In order to keep the swimmer in focus,, I set the camera to servo focus mode and I move the focus point to the upper center. If you do not know how to use servo focus mode, read your manual and try this. It is almost always the best way to get good photos of sports action. Get that focus point right on the face of the swimmer and fire away. The nice thing about the Canon 1Dx and the Canon 7D Mark II is that they can take photos at a very fast frame rate. Something in the area of 12 photos per second. This really helps you get photos at the peak of action.

I would shoot photos at different points of the swimmer's stroke. This would give me a nice variety of photos, not always having the swimmer looking directly at me. This shot clearly shows the muscles of this young man.

When shooting a swim meet, don't only capture the action. Have some fun and look for other good shots.

I saw the reflection of the Stanford swimming pool in this man's sunglasses and zoomed into for this photo. This is way more interesting than a straight shot of the pool, don't you think?

For backstroke, I decided that the photos would look better from a high position. So I climbed to the top of the stands and shot down from this location. For this shot, I turned the camera and I adjusted the 100-400mm lens all the way back to 100mm (on this crop sensor camera) to include most of the swimmers diving into the pool. When shooting this way, I changed the aperture to f/11 so that they would all be in focus. Even at this narrower aperture, I still had a shutter speed of 1/640 sec.

I also zoomed the lens in tight to isolate some of the swimmers diving back from the edge of the ppol.

Just like in the butterfly stroke, I will often shoot photos at different times during the swimmer's race. In this case, I chose to shoot photos as the swimmer was still underwater and just about to break the surface to start her backstroke.

I also took some backstroke photos from the pool deck. As you can tell, this yields a completely different look than the shots from up above. Don't be afraid the move around and try different shooting locations. I really like the veil of water coming over Rachel's face on this shot.

With all of the distractions at this end of the pool, I did not take too many photos of the kids diving in for the start of their race. But it is a good idea to get some photos of this, since it is an important part of the meet.

The breast stroke in an interesting event to photograph, since the swimmers come out of the water quite often and get their faces low to the water line. Much like the butterfly stroke, I usually choose to shoot this from straight on.

Some shots with them high out of the water and some not...

And then there are the mishaps. I always feel bad for the swimmers who have to complete with their goggles out of place. But it does make for some interesting photos.

I have seen many kids swim with their goggles off, but never seen anyone chewing on them as they swim. :)

And...of course, you have to photograph the little ones. They are just too darned cute!

The last stroke is freestyle, which is best captured from the side of the pool. Shooting from the side of the pool means that you can see the swimmer's face. The biggest challenge with this is when some kids only breath to one side. If they breath on the side away from where you are standing, this may mean that you can never get a shot of their face.

I usually shoot when the swimmer is directly across from me, but in this photo. I waited and shot from a position behind this young man. This let me get a shot of his face through his outstretched arm.

You might be wondering how many photos I shot over the 8 hour time period of this meet. Using the high speed shooting mode of the Canon 7D Mark II, meant that I had a lot of photos to sort through that evening. Turns out that I shot 64GB of photos (3000 images in MRAW). Luckily I was using the Lexar 128GB 1066x Professional CF card so I had plenty of room to spare. I pared through the 3000 photos, using Photo Mechanic, and kept my favorite 1200. I then went through and marked the 400 photos that I would share with the club members. I did some quick retouching in Adobe Lightroom (mostly cropping and making small exposure adjustments) before uploading them to my web site for everyone to download and enjoy.

As a recap, here is what I recommend for camera settings for a swim meet:

* High speed shooting mode (this could be anywhere from 3-14 photos per second depending on the camera)
* Servo focus to help keep the swimmer in focus as they swim to and away from you
* Keep a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 sec for all fast action (adjusting ISO and aperture to get this shutter speed)
* If you know how to shoot with back button focusing, do that. I did for all these photos. If you do not know about back button focusing, check out this video.

And some other non-camera reminders:

* Move around to get different perspectives
* Be creative and look for interesting reflections and details
* Be polite to the people around you, especially when moving in front of them to get a shot.
* Have fun

I hope this helps you get some great shots of your own!


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Donald Bromberg said...

Great blog, and great shots as usual! Thanks for the great tips.

David Arthur said...

As usual great pics! Did you use a polarizer? If not, why?

David Arthur said...

Did you use a polarizer? If not, why?

Unknown said...

Dear Jeff,

I could not realize if the shoots were taken in a warm pool internal or an external pool cold one. In case out of internal warm one, how do you handle condesation on the lens?

Regards and nice shots.

Unknown said...

Hi Jeff,

I could not realize if the shots were taken in an internal warm pool or in a external cold one. In the case it were an internal warm pool, how do you handle the condensation over the lens?

Rgds and nice shots,

Jeff Wallace said...

Hey Jeff you wrote that you capture setting at MRAW, why not full raw? Don't you lose some info with this compression? Not as much as JPEG I get.


Mick Mauldon said...

Fantastic shots, some brilliant captures, some hilarious shots as well. Very enjoyable.

mdruziak said...

Jeff, great tips. I love how these photos give you the feeling that you are at the event.

One tip for those of us that have to shoot swim meets in dark, indoor pools. The lighting is usually terrible in many older indoor pools. However, if you wait until the swimmer is under an overhead light, or next to a pool light, you can get a decent shutter speed. You just need to be more selective in your shooting.

Vogue said...

Great shoots! Depth of field, separating your subject from the background, greatly affects on the frame composition. Thinking about composition, always consider the visual impact of the depth of field. Try soft for editing your pics

Yuga Bharathi said...

Wonderful article. Tips are very useful. Thanks for sharing.

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Anthony said...

This information couldn't be any more spot on! Great job!

Jess Dansereau said...

Any tips for indoor shooting - working with ISO and noise? Also, what are your Al-Servo mode settings on the 7D Mark II? My daughter is new to competition swimming, she is having a blast and I am just trying to capture some of the moments.

Asifur Rahman said...


Sowpath das said...


Gunnar said...

Hi Jeff,

Many thanks for this blog! I am a live music photographer with all it's low-light fast-moving challenges and about to shoot my first sports meet, including swimming, in a couple of weeks' time. Doing my research for it, I came across your blog and just wanted to say thanks for a very insightful article. Let's see if I get as hooked on sports photography as I am on music work.

Gunnar :)

Parker Edward said...

It is an informative post.

Unknown said...

This is very helpful. Outdoor lighting is sweet. To get indoor shots I have rented the 2.8 70-200 lens for Nikon or Cannon as most cameras cannot give you the shutter speed needed. Here are a couple of other suggestions from an amateur dad whose kids swam through college. First, the kids get faster and faster so you have less time to shoot, plan your shots and practice during warm ups. Second, if its a "taper" meet, their times will be better, so look for smiles ect at finish; if your back is to the score board they will look directly at you. Last, if you are shooting for your whole team, most event coordinators will allow you be on deck to get closer (even for college, Big10, Pack 12, ect-Just ask nicely. One more helpful hint is to consider using google photos and a shared album to distribute your pictures. I have been doing this for years and getting better all the time and still have so much to learn. Tell your folks to keep shooting and not be intimidated, as these kids work hard and photos will be cherished.

Alex said...

Swimming is a great exercise plus everything should learn swimming so that they can save themselves if they ever get in trouble in the water. Its great that your kids learned it and all the photos are amazing thanks for sharing.