Stephen Frink: Master Of The Over/Under

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’s underwater photography skills and experience as a competitive swimmer allowed him to shoot these athletes in action. “They know when a person swims or has swum,” he says. “It only takes 30 seconds in the water and they know.”

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

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