Water Sports in a Frozen City

For a state that’s frozen a third of the year, Wisconsin kicks ass at rowing. The University of Wisconsin beats on against the current and has been historically dominant. Milwaukee’s three universities – MSOE, UW-Milwaukee and Marquette University – tend to float toward the top. But at the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a coxswain on Lake Michigan reenact the titanic.

But the way rowers keep shape through the part of the year when most people lose theirs is on a rowing machine – you know, those cardio machines at the gym that are always last to fill up. And to my surprise, they hold meets and competitions using just that.
The Marquette Crew was kind enough to invite me to capture them in action. And honestly, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.
The competition was held in the basement of a former brewery. The building has long since been renovated for new tenants. But the basement was as unfinished as the one in your parent’s house – the do-it-yourselfer kind who has never had the time to get around to it.
It was dimly lit with rows of fluorescent whites. The dark, cream-colored brick absorbed more light than it reflected. And the large crowd surrounding the rowers ensured that the only light shining on my subjects were the ones directly above them. The competition was called the Fight Club Frenzy. But if you didn’t know this was a rowing meet, you would’ve just assumed it was a fight club.
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So how do you take an east-coast prep sport, put it in a grunge basement with a difficult photo set-up and still make it presentable? You embrace the grunge.
For this, I didn’t even care to acknowledge any relationship to any rowing photography I’ve seen before. I didn’t have a beautiful landscape, no gorgeous skies, nothing that you’d image when the word regatta comes to mind. So I went with what I had and tried to make it look as intense and as physically exhausting as I could.
When it comes to sports photography, there are three things that really show intensity. Close-ups, grit and isolation. Whether you’re stepping onto the tennis court to face your singles opponent or you’re trusted with the ball as the shot clock winds down, an athlete is going to feel the most amount of pressure when it’s down to them. To emulate that feeling of isolation, I used a few techniques to visually isolate them in the photos.
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I turned down the shutter speed and traced one athlete to emphasize motion. But because the subject is moving at a different rate from everyone else, only one person is going to appear sharp and in focus.
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I composed the shot so that only one athlete was in frame. But I tried to time the action so that everyone else was looking directly at the subject. The direction of the eyes create lines so anyone seeing this photo knows immediately what the most important part of the photo is.
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Even in this tight space, I used a 70-200mm f2.8 lens on an APS-C sensor to take advantage of the shallow depth of field and the forced perspective. With this length, even objects farther away seem closer. This creates the illusion that everyone appears to be grouped closer together than they really are. But the shallow depth ensures that only the subject is in focus.
This indoor rowing meet was a unique challenge. But with some experimenting as the day went on, I think I was able to handle it without feeling like a fish out of water.
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See all the photos from this shoot on my Flickr gallery.

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