The Art of Swimming

Interview: Stephen Frink – The Art of Swimming.
Photos by Stephen Frink.

Most underwater photographers will be familiar with the work of pro underwater photographer Stephen Frink. He has been creating underwater images for over 30 years, and is widely recognized as the most frequently published underwater photographer in the world. He is also the publisher of the highly respected Alert Diver Magazine for DAN.

What many people may not be aware of is that underwater photography is his second water-borne passion, having started out as a competitive swimmer. The 2012 Olympics, and previously the 2008 Games, have rekindled this passion in a different form, as Stephen documents America’s Olympic swimming athletes in training. Wetpixel tracked him down to ask a few questions about his swimming career and his latest project.

Wetpixel: I’m sure everyone will want to know, did you ever stand in the “shoes” of the 2012 Olympic hopefuls in your career?

SF – Thanks for asking, but to make it to the Olympic Trials, let alone competing in the Olympics is a rare and extraordinary accomplishment. I was a good swimmer, and went to college on a swimming scholarship, but was never at the level of an Olympic athlete. I think I worked hard enough, and definitely had the desire; but in a sport where tenths of a second differentiate the very good from the great, I was never to be one of “them.” Which, I suppose, makes me all the more respectful of their accomplishments.

Once I was booked to do a television show called “American Photo Magazine Safari” on ESPN. The hook was a professional photographer in some discipline would teach a celebrity how to shoot. My celebrity for the show was Matt Biondi. He was a three-time U.S. Olympic swimmer, competing in the 1984, 1988, and 1992 Summer Olympics, winning a total of 11 medals. That might have been the first time I really thought about what it takes to get to the top in a sport like swimming, and to stay there for 12-years to be able to compete in 3 Olympics. I wasn’t shooting competitive swimming then, but that was kind of an epiphany in terms of the physicality and discipline that defines an Olympic swimmer.

Wetpixel: How long did you swim for? In which events/disciplines?

SF – I swam competitively for 13-years, from the time I was 8 all the way through college at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Illinois. My events were sprint freestyle, the 100 and 200-yard races, as well as the 100-yard breaststroke. In high school we were All-Americans in both freestyle and medley relays, but I don’t want to overstate my successes in swimming.

It was a huge part of my life as a child, but in later years I was just into it for fitness swimming. I fell into shooting the Olympic swimmers because in advance of the 2008 Games Gary Hall Sr. (he too was a three-time Olympian, and his son Gary Hall, Jr. was one of the most successful sprint freestylers ever, winning 10-medals over the course of three Olympic Games) opened a camp for training Elite swimmers. It is called The Race Club, and that year he hired Mike Bottom, now coach for the University of Michigan, and recruited an impressive roster of Olympic hopefuls from around the world. We have two really nice outdoor aquatic centers here in the Upper Keys where I live, so the conditions were easily accessible for shooting, and the talent swimming before my cameras was impressive.

Wetpixel: Each successive Games seems to usher in new technology and techniques for capturing the participants. Do you see any specific new techniques being launched for capturing aquatic sports this year?

SF – Remote cameras are probably the most significant. After all, we can’t be in the water when races are happening, so most of my in-water work with swimmers is during training sessions.

Actually, SEACAM is very involved with creating LAN connections for their new Nikon D4 housing for use in venues like the Olympics. The LAN cable essentially enables the laptop computer to be an electronic viewfinder, and special software from Nikon allows both viewing and shooting from the computer. Triggering via the computer though long cables is too slow for action sports, so SEACAM developed a LAN/Remote splitter that makes it as fast as if you are shooting from the camera. All this is new technology, which I haven’t even seen myself yet. Harald Hordosch of SEACAM can better inform you and provide illustrations of the new LAN-to-computer device. Even the cabling is in white, so as to be less obvious when deployed on the bottom of a swimming pool. When the same technology is available for my Canon cameras (later this summer) I will then embrace it, both for competitive swimming and other remote camera tasks.

Wetpixel: Was your involvement in aquatic sport the reason you became an underwater photographer? A diver?

SF – Yes, for sure. When I was in graduate school in California I took a part time job cleaning yacht hulls. They said to get the job I had to be a certified scuba diver, and that really fit with my long-held fantasy to be a diver. As it turned out, this was about the time I was getting into photography as well, and was enrolled in a black-and-white photo class at college. So, the sequence was kind of swimming, photography, and then scuba diving; but each was complementary to the other in terms of personal passions.

Wetpixel: How do the athletes you shoot react to your presence in the pool taking pictures of them? Do you photograph them during their normal training sessions, or are they specially organized shoots?

SF – These swimmers have very good situational awareness, so even through their tiny goggles they know exactly where I am and can avoid hurting themselves crashing into my housings. But, as these are elite athletes with a very precise timetable for hitting their peak performance, I can’t be the one responsible for hurting them by a collision in the water. So, I have to anticipate their actions and avoid. The coaches and athletes have to trust me to do so, and I have to be agile and able to react quickly enough to continually stay out of their way. All shoots are specially organized, and arranged first through the coach, and then through to pool. The swimmers in every case have been quite willing.

But, having said that, I haven’t shot a Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte yet. They will have professional sports agents and more carefully control access and distribution of their images. Getting a model release for swimmers at this level is challenging. Sometimes it just can’t happen, as with a recent shoot I did with Missy Franklin, who is poised to be a breakout star in the upcoming Olympics. So, the images can be used for editorial, or a personal portfolio, but could never go into a stock photo library to be used for potential advertising clients. I understand that. It is hard to make a living as a swimmer, and if they are successful enough to be considered for endorsements they should control revenue stream with the clients that might use their image.

Wetpixel: Do you have any other photographers that shoot sports that inspire you? Any shooting aquatic sports?

SF: Actually, I don’t really follow sports photography much, other than great respect for shooters like Walter Iooss who have redefined the niche “sports photography” and taken his work with people to a whole different level with exceptional location fashion photography. We’ve never worked together, but one of my housings did go to Fiji with him last year for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition ;)

Wetpixel: The press corps will be out if full force in London later this year. Do you know of any that any planning to concentrate on aquatic events?

SF – I’d love to be there, but to get credentials I’d have to be a full-time sports shooter with a relationship with an established relationship someone like Getty or Sports Illustrated. My participation in this particular subspecies of photography is too casual to be given one of the coveted spots around the pool in London, and I really doubt they’d let me swim around with my housing, even during training sessions. I expect the coverage will be with remote cameras underwater and from overhead. Along the side of the pools topside shooters with long lenses will vie for access to the coveted positions at the starting blocks and the finishing wall.

Wetpixel: What defines a great image of a swimmer? Your images seem to have a real sense of dynamic movement, is this something you strive for? How do you capture the passion and pain involved in top-level athletics?

SF – I like to capture the peak action. There is a science to “stroke” these days, much more so than when I was swimming. The best coaches have evolved ways that maximize hydrodynamics and propel their swimmers through the water faster, and with less effort. That is kind of an intangible I try to capture. How the arm is positioned relative to the body, how the mouth is positioned to scoop air yet minimize water resistance, and the way the breastroker recovers at the surface n preparation for the next stroke cycle.

Those are all fascinating to me in terms of the science of swimming, so I try to find ways to capture the implementation by these elite swimmers.

Wetpixel: Would you describe your images as being documentary or artistic?

SF – As it is primarily a personal project, I like to think they are an artistic representation of a documentary task. Swimming, by nature, is pretty boring, especially for the one doing the swimming. It is a mindless training task, back and forth, countless meters with head down in a form of sensory deprivation. You think random thoughts, or internalize how your body is holding up to the demands of a race. But, those are not things that can translate to photography, so I try to find a different way to capture their action and portray their grace and athleticism. The tricks and tools I’ve learned in three decades in the ocean have validity in the pool, so I just need to translate them to this new medium and these unique subjects.

Wetpixel: How do you see your images being used? Do you plan to publish them? One of your images is being used in Canon’s marketing in the July issue of Popular Photo magazine, have you had interest from any other magazines or publications?

SF – The images are occasionally used for advertising, as with a recent series I shot for Swans swim goggles featuring Milorad Cavic. In the 2008 Olympics, Milorad was the butterflyer who came within 1/100th of a second of beating Michael Phelps in the 100-meter event, and Rowdy Gaines (gold medalist in the 100-meter freestyle in the 1984 Olympics and now swim commentator for NBC in the Olympic Games broadcasts) booked me to shoot him wearing the Swans products. They used the shots for packaging and ads. I get some of those kinds of product shoots now and then, and I also do a lot of work for the Orange Bowl Classic, a swim event held at my home pool in Key Largo. Some of the model-released images are with my stock agents, and I do happily note as I peruse my monthly statements that they are selling.

So, it is not necessarily the core of what I do, but I find it personally satisfying.

Wetpixel: Moving on to specific technique, how do you light the swimmers? Does this present any specific challenges?

SF - I try to take many of the techniques we use in marine photography and apply them to the pool. It could be over/unders, motion blur with rear-curtain synch, or forced perspective from a wide-angle lens. I do use the fast motordrive of my Canon 1DMKIV and the ultra quick strobe recycle from my SEACAM Seaflash 150 (usually at 12% or 24% power). The other tools that are helpful include the swivel-45 degree viewfinder, so I can drape my arms over a lane line to shoot over/unders with my head out of the water, and my remote monitor. Sometimes I’ll set my camera up on an underwater tripod, and view and fire the camera from a cable-connected SEACAM remote monitor.

In terms of lighting, it is like any other form of underwater photography, in that it is necessary to get close. That’s sometimes a hard trick in the heat of competition.

Wetpixel: Can you give some advice about lens choices? Rectilinear or fisheye?

SF – I use the 16-35II and 14mm II Canon lenses on my 1DSMKIII or 5DII, but lately my go-to system is the Canon 8-15mm zoom on my 1DMKIV with its 1.3 cropped sensor. The camera gives me the rapid motor drive and very accurate auto-focus ability, and the leans really is a beautiful optic that I am using more and more in the ocean too. Oddly, not for the circular fisheye of the full frame camera, but with a cropped sensor like the 60D or MKIV, this is an incredibly powerful and versatile wide angle. It can give me over/unders or nice perspective on the approaching swimmers.

Wetpixel: Pretty vanilla question, but how do you care and maintain your gear when it is in regular use in highly chlorinated pools?

SF – I give them a fresh water rinse when done. I’ve never found chlorine water to be a big detriment to the O-rings. I think that is more theoretical than real, at least with my SEACAM systems. Maybe with an O-ring like an old Nikonos RS it might have mattered, but I doubt a modern housing will be much bothered by working in swimming pools.

Wetpixel: Lastly, do you still swim? When you aren’t diving that is!

SF – Yes, absolutely. We have a Masters swimming group at our community pool in Key Largo. “Masters” is a euphemism for older swimmers who may wish to compete with others in their age group. I rarely compete, but do enjoy fitness swimming. I’ll do maybe 2,000 meters before starting work in the morning, when I’m in town anyway. I probably don’t work hard enough at it, and for sure have given up a lot of speed since my days of true competition, but I see so many divers so out of shape and it would worry me to be some of the places I go in the ocean and not be fit enough to get back to the boat. Mostly, I think diving is a benign and pleasurable activity, but Mother Ocean can be capricious and fierce and unforgiving. Fitness swimming is a way to better prepare me for my real job as a marine photographer, and if it improves the my quality of life and general health, that’s all the better.