Using Backlight for Dramatic Swim Meet Photography

Backlit Freestyler 1, Arizona Senior State Long Course Championships, Phoenix, Arizona, July 2016. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR, 1/4000 sec, f/4.0, ISO 200. Copyright 2016 by James A. Covello.
Backlit Freestyler 1, Arizona Senior State Long Course Championships, Phoenix, Arizona, July 2016. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR, 1/4000 sec, f/4.0, ISO 200. Copyright 2016 by James A. Covello.

Swim meet photographs can get pretty predictable. The standard advice for any sport, including swimming, is to get the athlete’s face in the image. In fact, the standard advice is that if you don’t get the athlete’s face in the image, it’s not worth much. A tightly framed image with the churning water frozen around the swimmer’s face is certainly nice—and pulling this off in swimming certainly has its challenges—but if you go to enough swim meets you will eventually end up with hundreds of “nice” pictures that all look the same. So we need to generate some artistic variety.

One way to create some memorable swimming images is to exploit backlight. The above image of my daughter was taken diagonally across the pool just to the right of the late-afternoon Arizona sun. There’s a lot of things I like about this image: the desaturated colors (no post-processing…just the way the light was); the highlights along the lane line in the foreground; the way the lane line is sharp at the left edge and slowly gets increasingly more out of focus towards the right edge; and the way the arm, despite being silhouetted, is nicely contoured by the light. Also, the backlit water drops are in front of the silhouetted arm which is in front of the strong sun glints—this creates nice layering. Finally, the silhouetted arm anchors the whole image with a strong graphic element.

The following image (of another daughter) was taken a few minutes earlier, but the important difference was that she was in a closer lane, so that the camera is looking down more steeply. Obviously, her silhouetted arm fills more of the frame than the previous image, but the water droplets in front of her arm are defocused, which gives them a different look. There is also a little more color in the image. There is just a bit of lane line, but it is enough to provide some context and compositionally works well with the shape of her arm.

Backlit Freestyler 2, Arizona Senior State Long Course Championships, Phoenix, Arizona, July 2016. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR, 1/4000 sec, f/4.0, ISO 200. Copyright 2016 by James A. Covello.
Backlit Freestyler 2, Arizona Senior State Long Course Championships, Phoenix, Arizona, July 2016. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR, 1/4000 sec, f/4.0, ISO 200. Copyright 2016 by James A. Covello.

There are enough variables (timing, splashes, other swimmers, etc.) when photographing racing swimmers that it is a good plan to take a lot of exposures. I hope that this post encourages you to shoot some of them into the light. Even without faces, the resulting images are strong and dramatic.

As a final comment, I want to point out that the relatively new Nikon 300mm f/4E handles shooting into strong sunlight extremely well. I’ll have some more examples of that in future posts.

Thanks for reading!

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