Every four years competitive swimming has a very big moment. For two weeks there’s global interest in the mechanics of the breast, back and butterfly strokes, the art of the dolphin kick and converting meters into lengths of a swimming pool. Rewind through the years, months and days of training leading up to that point, and it isn’t difficult to grasp the high stakes, huge pressure and life-changing rewards that come with Olympic territory or why many gifted swimmers never reach that level.
Back in the day, Stephen Frink could hold his own in the pool, enough so that swimming landed him a college scholarship, but not so much that he was dueling with Olympic contenders.
While he did leave the competitive swimming pool, he never left the water and picked up a camera shortly after school. Frink has a way with whale sharks, grouper, coral reefs and other marine life that has landed his photographs of such subjects in the pages of Newsweek, Time and Scuba Diving magazines and for clients such as American Express, Rolex and Victoria’s Secret. A prolific marine photographer, Frink has traveled the globe capturing life in the water. He spent 17 years with Skin Diver magazine, nine years with Scuba Diving magazine as director of photography and is now the publisher of Alert Diver magazine. He’s also a Canon Explorer of Light and is the only marine specialist within this elite group of photographers.
Still very connected to his former sport, Frink also shoots America’s top-ranked swimmers as they train for the Olympics. Before the 2008 Games, Gary Hall Sr., who’s a three-time Olympic medalist in swimming and whose son, Gary Hall Jr., won 10 medals over three Games, opened a training camp for elite swimmers in the Florida Keys, where Frink lives. There, he was able to get up close with the swimmers in practice, shooting them from angles and at distances that aren’t possible during a race.
"With most of the other sports photographers, this all has to be done with remote cameras because they’re shooting these athletes in competition," says Frink. "For me, it’s not so much about execution; it’s more about training, and that allows me to be in the water with them."
To get those below-the-swimmer shots that become crucial when a race is tight, cameras are set up at the bottom of the pool and controlled using a handheld trigger to operate the shutter. Without the pressure of a race, Frink is able to swim along with his subjects as they prepare for competition. In this setting, his access is more intimate, plus he gets to shoot outside under more favorable lighting conditions. What’s more, he understands the athleticism, talent and discipline needed to reach the upper echelons of this sport and that, in turn, helps him see and capture those moments that reveal the essence of competitive swimming today.
When Frink was racing, preparation was about accumulating yards and powering one’s way to the end of the pool, he explains. Now, coaches focus on how hydrodynamics affect performance because the forces produced in and by water can raise or lower a swimmer’s velocity. Training is about maximizing speed while minimizing effort. So Frink is looking at arm positioning relative to the body, how the mouth is used to scoop air while minimizing water resistance and the way a swimmer recovers at the surface in preparation for the next stroke.
With decades of experience working in the water, Frink’s approach allows viewers to see these athletes in a way that’s sometimes more compelling than during a race because his interaction with them is more personal. The joy, anxiety, stress and other emotions that go along with competition are revealed. One of Frink’s memorable shots is of George Bovell, who represented Trinidad and Tobago in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics. While Frink was shooting, Bovell delivered a more playful moment when he peeled off to the bottom of the pool to blow bubble rings. Whether the athletes he’s shooting ever make it to the Olympics isn’t the point of his work, although he did photograph Missy Franklin, one of the breakout swimming stars of the 2012 Games in London. He says that getting model releases for swimmers at that level is challenging.
"I don’t know how big any of them are going to be at the time," says Frink. "I guess it makes for a better caption if they turn out to be big. For me, it’s still all about the aesthetic. I shoot a college competition called the Orange Bowl Classic, and these swimmers aren’t going to the Olympics, but it doesn’t matter. If I’m photographing a breaststroker and I can get a great over/under, it doesn’t matter if they make it to the Olympics. It’s more about showing the discipline that all swimmers have to bring to their life. I’m trying to honor that discipline."
Frink tries to apply many of the techniques he uses in marine photography to the pool, whether it’s shooting over/unders, motion blur with rear-curtain synch or forced perspective from a wide-angle lens. Sometimes, he sets up his camera on an underwater tripod and uses his Seacam remote monitor to view and fire the camera. He uses a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV for the high frame rate and a Seacam housing for the variety of viewfinders. Particularly helpful to him is the Swivel-45 degree viewfinder that allows him to drape his arms over a lane line to shoot over/unders with his head out of the water. This way, he can watch the swimmers as they’re coming off the starting block above water and shoot them right as they hit the water.
Perhaps the most valuable tool that Frink uses are his instincts. Anticipating what’s going to happen such as where the swimmer is going to break the water, where a reflection might be or a good angle to shoot from as he or she enters the frame can determine the success of a shoot. A number of things can go wrong in the water, with camera housings leaking, cables getting wet or shorting out, or batteries dying. Any kind of problem can cost an entire day’s session. So with all the factors that figure into a successful shoot, it’s surprising that Frink’s greatest challenge is sunscreen.
"It’s my greatest environmental challenge," he says. "These kids are coming from places like the Midwest so they’re really pale and just slather it on. Get a suntan before you come to me because sunscreen really degrades the quality."
To view more of Stephen Frink’s photography, go to www.stephenfrink.com.