The ripple effect: Backstroke from below

France's Laure Manaudou during the 200 metres backstroke at the London Olympics, August 2, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Francois-Xavier Marit

By Francois-Xavier Marit

With the help of remote-controlled cameras, I’ve been taking photos from the bottom of swimming pools for AFP for the past eight years, during some of the world’s top contests.

AFP has been a pioneer in the field and the technology is constantly shifting. At the start, we’d shoot blind, hitting the shutter whenever the swimmers would pass over where we’d installed our cameras. But since the Montreal World Championships in 2006, we’ve had screens that let us monitor the camera’s view, and since 2009, we’ve been using robot cameras, which we can control with joysticks to track swimmers.

At the London Olympics, we had a robo-camera in the main swimming pool and another in the diving pool. One of the trickiest things to shoot is the backstroke because, from a view beneath the athletes, it’s obviously only possible to see their backs.

The challenge is to capture their faces in various reflections -- something that’s only possible when the swimmer kicks off at the start of a race and his or her image is mirrored by the water surface above.

The photo at the top of the page shows France’s Laure Manaudou during a heat for the 200 metres backstroke. It’s pretty unusual to get such a clean reflection.

Michael Phelps of the US (centre) at the London Olympics, August 1, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Francois-Xavier Marit

The person who cut the most striking figure underwater was 18-time Olympic medallist Michael Phelps. Normally, when people swim, a wave travels around them and the water surface ripples. Not Phelps.

You can clearly see this in the above picture: Phelps is in the middle and, in front of him, the water is totally flat. But around him, his competitors are totally surrounded by swirling water. It’s as though Phelps is swimming faster than his wave. I’ve never seen anything like it with any other swimmer. His body’s streamlining body is unbelievable.

Start of the final 4x100 metres, August 4, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Francois-Xavier Marit

We install the cameras ourselves, wearing scuba gear. In London, a local dive club helped us, with members sorting through the tangle of cables and assisting with daily maintenance. Aside from AFP, six other media outlets had put cameras in the pool. It was tricky trying to keep all the cables orderly so the pool bottom didn’t become a mass of wires, ruining the view for television cameras filming above the surface.

The equipment allowed us to schedule multiple shots from different angles and capture a range of images from the same event. That would have been impossible to do manually, given the extreme speed of the swim races.

Japan's Irie Ryosuke during the final of the 200 metres backstroke. August 2, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Francois-Xavier Marit