When you photograph a new sport for the first time it is always advisable to start at junior events so you get to understand the nature of it, the way they do things and the type of shots that may be possible. However, there was no time to plan ahead for my visit to Glasgow for the European swimming championships in August 2018 and thus it was very much a 'deep end' learning experience at a major international event with global interest. But, it's good to challenge yourself and stretch your capability once in a while.
Although it is a marvellous opportunity to see and photograph some of the worlds top swimmers in action it was undoubtedly my most difficult assignment to date. A number of things contributed to that. For starters, I wasn't prepared for the fact that the action is 'full-on' with no gaps between races. As soon as one race is finished the swimmers for the next race are being introduced to the crowd. It is particularly frenetic during the heats where the swimmers for the next race are virtually standing on their starting blocks whilst the previous race is still finishing. This means you have no time to download, edit, caption and send out images to an agency in-between races - unless you decide to miss a couple of races whilst you get your head in the laptop.
The second issue is that you can finish a 90 minute event with hundreds of images and if it's an unfamiliar sport then keeping track of which swimmer is in your photos and which race they were in can be a nightmare. You have to think about how you are going to keep good order and organisation within your shoot. Swimmers are not like footballers, they don't have easily identifiable numbers on their shirt and shorts and with all the splashing going on over eight lanes of a race it can be a nightmare to accurately identify the correct swimmer just from a partial bit of face showing. It helps that most have country flags on their swim caps (although two swimmers from the same country can be in the same race) and the really helpful swimmers also have their surname on their caps which is fantastic. I made sure I took a photo of the 'scoreboard' at the start and end of each race which ensured that I knew that the batch of images in-between were from that particular race. You can also use the colours of the lane 'ropes' to aid your identification as only lanes 4 and 5 have yellow colours with the others being blue.
On the first day I tried to do too much, getting pictures of many of the swimmers meant identification was a tougher task. On the following two days I concentrated mostly on lanes 4 and 5 as they tend to win most races and having only two swimmers to identify in each race enhanced the simplicity of my shoot.
In terms of equipment and camera settings I used different lenses for the three days as I couldn't be sure which would work best. Day 1 was with the 300m f2.8 which proved excellent for the nearer lanes but didn't quite have the reach that I wanted for the middle and far lanes nor for the end of pool and end of race celebrations. Day 2 was with the 600m f4 which was great for the middle and far lanes and the end of pool but not for the nearest lanes. Day 3, I used the 200-400m f4 which was best of all as it is such a versatile performer. As the light was fairly constant I left my camera settings on 1/1600th sec, f4 with ISO on auto and this ranged from ISO1000 to ISO3200. For the medal ceremonies they brought the swimmers down to our photographers pen and we could use flash which enabled greater depth of field into the image.
After the first day I concluded that Freestyle swimming is a 'splash fest' and useless for photography, with backstroke not being much better. The best images would come from breaststroke and butterfly particularly where I could get an end of lane head-on position with the swimmers moving into undisturbed water. These positions were limited and not always available but they produced some of my best shots.
Luckily the lighting at the Tollcross arena in Glasgow was good bright and white for the TV broadcast so I had none of the white balance issues that can cause problems in lesser swimming venues. I chose to shoot in RAW rather than JPEG as I was unsure of the nature of the event and wanted as much flexibility as possible. A big thank you to the media organisers at Glasgow - the media suite and facilities were superb, we had ethernet and power at poolside at the photographers station with wifi that also worked very well for all my three days.
A great event, a new sport and much was learned about photographing swimming.