We recently photographed three potential Olympic swimming athletes from McMaster University following the 2012 Olympic Swim Team trials.
All three swimmers recently competed in the 2012 Canadian Olympic Swim Team Trials and are busy training for the upcoming varsity season, so we were very lucky to work with such amazing athletes / models. They posed, helped position light stands and even retrieved my eighteen-pound dive weight belt from the bottom of the sixteen-foot-deep pool after every shot in the deep end (’cause I could barely pull it up on a rope…).
My photographic collaborator / wife Dawn and our intern Isaac assisted with the shoot. Isaac captured the behind the scenes video – and Dawn did a great job sitting pretty on an inner-tube holding a boomed softbox for several hours.
This was a very exciting shoot for Dawn and me. In this case, Dawn and I were both active swimmers at one time – so we have always had an interest in being in the water – and creating underwater photographs of swimmers is a natural fusion of our talents.
Our overall goal for this assignment was to produce a series of images for McMaster University to showcase some of its top athletes in a very dynamic and exciting way.
There was no question for us that we had to shoot potential Olympic swimming athletes doing what they do best – swimming in the pool.
We chose to approach the shoot from (mostly) underwater – athletes, camera, lighting, everything. We essentially took what would be a fairly typical studio lighting setup and submerged the whole thing underwater. That of course let to some pretty significant technical challenges…(to say the least)…
Lighting and Shooting
Prior to the assignment, we carefully planned three image concepts along with the associated lighting details. We chose a dramatic, but fairly simple three or four light setup – at least two underwater rim lights and a key light in a small softbox at the surface. Occasionally, we added an additional rim light for definition.
Some of the time I was shooting from the bottom of the pool with a really heavy dive weight belt to keep me there. The rest of the time I was a few feet under.
The biggest technical challenge to overcome for this assignment was to find a reliable way to trigger our strobes positioned above and below the water’s surface from an underwater camera position (radio triggers do not work underwater, optical slave triggers would be too unreliable and create too much backscatter as the on camera flash would light the particles and bubbles in the water column in front of the lens).
Because of the number of variables already present when shooting in water – we wanted a trigger system that was bombproof. There is nothing worse than having the perfect shot composed and one of your strobes misfires…unless you’re at the bottom of a pool holding your breath at the time – that’s worse.
To trigger our strobes, we built a custom fiber optic optical trigger system.
(The system we built is similar to the approach used by underwater strobe manufactures such as Ikelite, Sea & Sea and Fantasea – but instead of working at arms length, our strobes are firing 20 to 40 feet away from the camera).
For the strobes, we built custom housings using Pelican boxes (which are apparently only water resistant…) and added 5/8″ studs so that the underwater strobe housings could be mounted onto lightstands. The lightstands were set up on the bottom of the pool and weighted down with dive weight belts.
Overall, I really enjoyed the challenge of pulling this photography assignment together – it took a lot of detailed planning and problem solving before we even got to the pool. The McMaster University swimmers were fantastic to work with – its truly amazing to see how they move through the water. Dawn and I have made a commitment to get back in the pool – and after spending time with guys like Cameron and Konrad (ie. Greek statues of physical perfection), Dawn has been making noise about sending me in for some laser back hair removal. I wouldn’t object if she works on getting her legs to look like Natasha’s.
Any questions about the setup, lighting or post-production editing – hit me in the comments. Cheers!
Underwater Portrait Photographer
905 818 5711