Magazine Article


How to Shoot World-Class Swimming Events
What it takes to capture the magic

Al Bello

Al Bello

As I tread the choppy waters off the coast of Melbourne, Australia, my camera is fixed on the starting line of the 10-kilometer open swim. I hear the signal. Competitors leap over me in a breathtaking surge. I see a blur of bodies, splashing, and then sky. I get back into the boat and head to the shore, relieved to have escaped the wrath of the bluebottle jellyfish that had been heckling the athletes throughout the event.

Several days of preparation led up to this split-second shoot at the World Aquatics Championships, which I recently covered as a staff photographer for Getty Images. During this multi-week event, I had the opportunity to shoot the best swimmers in the world as they competed for gold and glory in open water and indoor swimming, synchronized swimming, diving, and water polo.

Plan to Make a Splash

Swimming has always been one of my favorite sports to photograph. I enjoy the challenge of using lighting, water, lines, and movement to create a powerful shot. This year I was lucky to have been involved in the championships, documenting the performance of United States swimming phenomenon Michael Phelps.

Swimming events offer photographers unique opportunities to capture striking images of athletes in an unusual environment. They can, however, be much more challenging to photograph than other sporting events due to the preparation required.

Planning for assignments of this scope often begins with a significant amount of cultural research, particularly if I'm traveling into uncharted territory. Australia, for example, is a great place for photographers to explore the boundaries of creativity. Local officials will go out of their way to help you capture a spectacular shot. In contrast, photographer access is strictly regulated throughout Asia and the Middle East. I've found that it's important to anticipate limitations and be prepared for every possible scenario.

For the average event, I pack three Canon EOS-1D Mark III camera bodies, two Speedlites, and lenses ranging from 14mm to 400mm in a large roller bag. Scuba gear is helpful for performing involved procedures like placing a camera in an underwater housing and setting it off via remote from outside the pool.

While humidity is usually not a problem if you're shooting outdoors, you need to expose your lenses to outdoor pool areas ahead of time so they can defog prior to the event. When I'm shooting indoors, I like to install arena strobe lighting rather than relying solely on the limited natural light available in most facilities (this produces a better-quality photo).

Since 9/11, traveling with equipment has become much more challenging due to stringent airport security regulations. To avoid complications, I double-check baggage size and weight restrictions for departure and destination airports before leaving home.

Diving Right In

I'm a big believer in arriving early to every shoot. I try to scout the area days in advance. On the day of the shoot, I tend to arrive at least five hours prior to the start time. This allows me to assess the environment underwater and around the perimeter of the pool, and also to prepare equipment and outline a shoot plan.

When covering a major multi-week event like the championships, I fly in a week before to familiarize myself with local conditions. I spend a considerable amount of time scoping out event venues and exploring every possible vantage point-from underwater to 150 feet above ground on the catwalk. Although this is a dizzying perch for some, it's one of my favorite perspectives. There are few other arena positions that offer such clean backgrounds, free of distracting sponsor signage!

The photo marshal presiding over a swim competition should be sought out by the photographer early on in the preparation stages. It's important for photographers to proactively communicate with photo marshals regarding special requests or questions related to photo assignments. Photo marshals are often hampered by heavy demands and tight timelines, so they can be difficult to reach.

At highly visible events like the championships, local organizers, officials, and television stations control access to photo positions. These areas are crowded with hundreds of shooters clamoring for a piece of the action. In this intense environment, an efficient workflow is critical to maintaining an edge over the competition. I keep my laptop nearby on the pool deck, which enables me to continuously transmit images to my editors' desktops in the stands. Once editing, captioning, and toning are completed, the final images are sent to Getty Images' picture desk, where they're prepared for global distribution. On average, I shoot 350 images at an all-day sporting event, 10 percent of which make the final cut.

During my time in Melbourne, a 16-hour workday was standard. My typical indoor routine looked like this:

  • 7:00 a.m.: Dive into the pool and check the underwater camera.
  • 9:00 a.m.: Meet with editors to review photo assignments, discuss shoot ideas with the other photographers, and set up the laptop that will spool pictures to the editors.
  • 10:00 a.m.: Shoot the swimming heats above and below the water for the next several hours.
  • 1:30 p.m.: Retrieve the disk from the underwater camera, review pictures, consider adjustments, and dive back into the pool to reset the camera.
  • 2:00 p.m.: Rinse and repeat the entire process for the afternoon and evening heats.
  • 10:30 p.m.: Set up for the following morning.

After I've taken the shots outlined on the assignment brief, I like to experiment. At the championships I opted to shoot some film with my 4x5 Speed Graphic camera.

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