And a new Lightroom Preset too!
Swimming pools, particularly indoor pools, can be problematic to shoot. Indoor pools are devoid of windows wherever possible-at least the pools I frequent: namely the pools where my son’s swim team practices and competes. The lighting, while dim, is also Sodium Vapor and doesn’t yield well to color balancing. I wrote about white balancing Sodium Vapor before and I am prepared to update that message today.
I find that shooting in the pool environment means that I have to take many exposures on burst mode to capture some nice peak action. I throw away as 60% of my images from a shoot like this. You can improve your odds a little by shooting JPG. This allows you to get more frames per second and keeps you from filling the buffer too quickly. My Canon 5D is set to produce medium-sized JPGs so that I can get a fast shoot and many more shots per memory card.
Swimming pools, particularly those hosting competitive events, have no-flash policies. This means fast lens and high ISO settings are your salvation. I like to use a 50 MM 1.8 for most of my shooting and a 70-200 MM F2.8L IS for my close ups. The lenses are fast enough that I can do most of my shooting at ISO 800. Diving requires that I kick it up to 1600 to gain enough shutter speed to freeze the diver’s movements. I usually end up around 1/160th and F2.8 for most of my shooting. Diving needs to be 1/250th or faster to help freeze the action.
I find that shooting on Manual with the White Balance, Exposure, and Aperture all locked down gives me far better results than the various automatic modes. For JPG, I set the camera to force the WB to 3800° K or I sample a white object under pool lighting conditions in the White Balance Sampling function of the 5D. With a camera set to record in JPG mode it is critical that you get white balancing as close as you can. Unlike RAW, you can’t satisfactorily change it later.
I have developed a Sodium Vapor White Balance Preset for Lightroom. It works well for the lights in my pool when I am shooting RAW. It makes JPGs come out too blue so I don’t recommend it there. In the Lightroom preset, the temperature setting is 3833° K and the tint is +15 if you want to adjust it in another program. You can try it in Lightroom by downloading the preset here.
After that, it is all about framing and focusing. If you watch the pool’s ‘records placard’ on the wall, it can give you an idea of what is coming next as the races are always in order. Freestyle events look best photographed from the side while Butterfly and Breast Stroke look best from the end of the pool with the swimmers coming toward you. Backstroke looks best from the end of the pool with the swimmer moving away or from the side. Always look for tight shots showing moments of tension on the starting blocks. Another shot is the “reaction to the scoreboard” shot after the swimmer touches but before he climbs out of the pool.
Shooting from the pool deck can be fun and rewarding if you can secure permission. You can get by with less lens and you don’t have to worry about a tripod or monopod. Your view is often less obscured by intervening swimmers, coaches and referees. Watch out for race starts and turns as the splashes can travel quite far. If you are shooting from the gallery a monopod is a great accessory and a long lens is critical to getting recognizable faces in your shots.
The secret to getting good pool action photos is to get the face in frame. Watch the swimmers and notice how they breath. Learn to anticipate the number of strokes and the pattern of the side on which they choose to breath. By knowing the stroke that is currently active, the breathing pattern and timing your shot you can get great close-ups of swimmers in the heat of athletic competition. With your fastest shutter speed you can muster, you can also get some interesting patterns in the water, demonstrating the power of the athlete.
This week I experimented with long shutter-speed panning. I stopped down and ISO’d back to get my shutter speed to the 1/8th second or slower. By carefully following the action, and using your lens’ built-in image stabilization (if it is so equipped), you can get some interesting effects as swimmers flow through silky water. The top photo in this blog was my favorite of my panning attempts today. I wrote more about long-exposure panning in this article.
There’s just a few tips for getting your feet wet in the pool environment.
- Shoot JPG to improve your speed and card capacity
- Plan to throw a lot of images away
- Carefully White Balance in-camera prior to shooting
- Shoot In Manual Mode
- Learn the sequence of action so you can be in the right place pointed at the right subject at the decisive moment
- Get faces in the frame
Now, everybody: Into the pool!
Rikk Flohr © 2009