Drones allowed this photographer to capture synchronized swimming like never before

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

The scene is viewed from above: Eight women in white halter bathing suits and matching swim caps form geometric shapes in a pristine turquoise swimming pool. They cascade like dominoes on the diagonal, join their arms and legs in kaleidoscopic compositions, and peek out from under the white shimmery discs of open parasols.

The fluid symmetry of synchronized swimming is the latest subject brought to life by aerial photographer Brad Walls, who uses consumer drones to create vivid images of ballet dancers, divers, tennis players and swimming pools.
Brad Walls' latest body of work is called "Water Geomaids."

Brad Walls’ latest body of work is called “Water Geomaids.” Credit: Courtesy of Brad Walls

“I’m really trying to explore different perspectives that are unseen by our eye,” Walls said in a video interview from Sydney, Australia. At the same time, he wants to push “the artistic expression of drone work,” a technique he believes has been somewhat overlooked by fine-art photography.

The sport once known as synchronized swimming, and now called “artistic swimming,” has been part of the Summer Olympic Games since 1984. The coordinated routines — a mix of graceful dance and acrobatics — take strenuous effort, though the swimmers are known to put on colorful makeup and upbeat expressions as part of their presentations. Russia, the US, Canada and Japan have the most Olympic medals, with Russia dominating the sport since 2000.
Walls worked with artistic swimmer and coach Katrina Ann Hadi, along with a Sydney-based team.

Walls worked with artistic swimmer and coach Katrina Ann Hadi, along with a Sydney-based team. Credit: Courtesy of Brad Walls

When artistic swimming is televised, it is often filmed from the side, underwater, or from a high angle. But the top-down perspective used by Walls offers an unfamiliar view. “You can’t see the shapes and the geometric patterns that are being formed,” the photographer said. “So I just thought that low-altitude portraiture was a great way to expose that detail.”

Artistic swimming often recreates spiral- and tessellation-like forms, turning a sport into a visual spectacle that appeals to Walls, who said he “always had an affinity for patterns.”

With eight swimmers working together, "it gets exponentially harder" to direct and take a still image, Walls said.

With eight swimmers working together, “it gets exponentially harder” to direct and take a still image, Walls said. Credit: Courtesy of Brad Walls

Walls worked with an artistic swimming team in Sydney to shoot the series, and the routines were choreographed by Katrina Ann Hadi, a multi-gold medalist at the Southeast Asian Games and a professional artistic swimming coach. Using his phone, Walls drew out specific shapes and compositions he wanted the women to form in the pool, before flying his drone above to capture the images.

While much of the work was done in the water — with the women treading to hold their positions — Walls also created composites, using multiple images to enhance the symmetry.

With eight swimmers working together, “it gets exponentially harder” to direct and capture a still image, Walls said. The most difficult composition was the diagonal line, he added, as the motion of the water kept altering the formation. “You don’t realize how much flow is in the water naturally,” he said of the seemingly still pool. “And so (the swimmers) kept moving side to side.”

Walls' takes aerial photography of different sports including ballet and tennis. He was a finalist this year in the Sony World Photography Awards.

Walls’ takes aerial photography of different sports including ballet and tennis. He was a finalist this year in the Sony World Photography Awards. Credit: Courtesy of Brad Walls

But other photos came together serendipitously, he said — like an image of the swimmers in a tight ring, each of their heads leaning on another’s shoulder. Unplanned, they began to naturally spin in a circle the moment they lifted their feet from the bottom of the pool. “It was quite cool,” Walls said.

The swimmers’ precise but effortless movements were a good match for Walls’ predilection for meticulous imagery.

“I was told once that (my work) is obsessively minimal, in a way,” he said. “And I think that’s what I was trying to achieve.”

Brad Walls is a photographer based in Sydney, Australia. See more of his work here.

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