Personal work by healthcare photographer Robert Houser based in San Francisco
OPEN WATER SWIMMING OBSESSION
It’s cold – not always, but yes, swimming in the San Francisco Bay in January can be below 50 degrees. But, unlike the summer when the water can get close to 70, swimming in the winter is usually so calm, like a giant pool. For the past six months on my bi-weekly swims, I have become obsessed with a scene I see over and over in the water – the arc of water spray falling from my outstretched arm as I take a breath. I have wanted to capture it, but how?
Right off, I wanted to use a full size camera, so my first thought was to photograph someone else – putting my underwater housing up against someone’s chin as they swim forward, putting me basically underneath them, upside down, perhaps with fins. If I try to shoot myself swimming, it would mean using only one arm. I should note another part of my visual obsession – I like the water droplets that come off my right arm better than my left. However, to trigger a camera with my left hand means either holding it upside down, or balancing it on my thumb, and getting my middle finger to rest on the trigger. Did I mention the camera is in an underwater housing, and I'm swimming?
Effort # 1: tried shooting myself alone – not horrible but I couldn’t keep the camera flat, and my watch looked out of place.
Effort # 2: with a former nationally ranked swimmer – the fog rolled in right before shooting and I couldn’t keep up underneath her. Plus I was basically punching her in the chin with the camera from the roll of the waves.
Effort # 3: alone this time, but again the fog.
Effort # 4: reasonable light, but still with too much angle, and (oops) forgot to put my contacts in, not that I can look in the camera while I’m doing this, but it does help to be able to see the camera settings.
Effort # 5: a beautiful morning last week, but the water has been getting cold and I didn’t want to do this with a sleeved wetsuit; however, I was determined to get something. I stayed in the water and shot 2750 images in 40 minutes. Contacts were in, sun was shining, blue sky, tried both arms – still prefer the right, but man it’s a lot easier to hold and trigger a camera with your right hand.
I’ll keep making more attempts at this, though I feel like I’m close. Things I’ve learned:
1. Pre-focus – after the first attempt, I switched to setting the focus point ahead of time.
2. Settings check – in a silicone underwater housing, it’s easy for the lens to spin to a different lens length or a dial to change when leaning onto the dock with shivering fingers.
3. The arm – in my visual obsession the image is more about the water, but that’s me swimming alone for a mile, breathing over and over - seeing that sweep each time – well each time I don’t get a mouthful from a swell. In a singular image, though, I think it needs the hand, and part of the arm, to tell the story.
4. Wide angle – most of the images were done at 16mm, but having something even wider might be helpful – it’s such a close up shot.
5. Shutter speed – I’ve been shooting between 1/2500th and 1/5000th of a second, but I think I should go even higher.
6. Sunlight – I’d love to hear thoughts here, but I like the backlit water droplets the best; however, I’m torn because I also prefer the sun on the arm – can’t have both.
7. Post production – the water in the bay renders green, it’s better than when it was red tide this summer, but I still need to move it to blue.
All of these attempts were done in Berkeley, with San Francisco and sometimes Emeryville in the distance.
Award-winning healthcare photographer Robert Houser based in the San Francisco Bay Area photographs people for portrait clients for fitness advertising, for pharmaceutical and corporate clients worldwide, corporate and editorial projects, healthcare and annual report photography.