Coney Island Polar Bear New Years Day Swim 2014 : A Guide To Photographing This Tradition
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The first day of the New Year is celebrated by New Yorkers at Coney Island in the form of a brisk dip in the Atlantic Ocean. This has turned into an event which is organized by the Polar Bear club of Coney Island, an organization founded in 1903. This year the event drew close to 4000 viewers and 2500 swimmers in an extremely festive environment filled with characters, personalities and lots of photographers. I was actually quite surprised at how many shooters turned out, the day was a who’s who of NY photographers that showed up; from the venerable Harvey Stein, the Daily News veteran Todd Maisel, iPhone extraordinaire Ben Lowy, man about town Louis Mendez, Brooklyn’s Kevin Downs and a motley assortment of many local photographers. I got the idea to shoot the Polar Bears a few days prior (looking for something cool to do New Year’s Day) and I texted my friend and fellow photographer Brandon Remler to see if he was game for it, and found out he had already plans to go, so I hitched a ride with him (creative minds think alike aye?). The board walk was crawling with photographers when we arrived at 11:30 am.
Covering this event to make photographs is exciting, fun and actually fairly difficult. Here is my take: first off, set a parameter. I wanted to capture portraits that resonate with the oddity of the moment, the anticipation of the action, and the shivering resulting from it. Coney Island is an old place (my Grand Mother and Grand Father met there in the late 1920’s) and has distinctive landmarks that beg to be integrated into the final image.
The first part of the day is the action on the Coney Island Boardwalk. The music was provided by a DJ and the result was a party filled with electric energy of the new year. I slapped on the 35 mm f1.4 for this and opened up between f 4.0 and f1.4 depending on the “width” of the photo. The shot below needed a little more depth of field because I wanted to catch the stuffed polar bear and the lady, and shooting at 1.4 would have given me focus on just one of those elements. I stopped down to f4.0 to capture both.
I love to shoot wide open and blur the background, but essential to this shoot was Coney Islands uniqueness so I was trying to get the parachute jump or the roller coasters in the background. The 35 mm f1.4 destroys backgrounds into a soft bokeh-ness so if I wanted that background to be demonstrative, I would have to really think about how far I was from the subject and carefully position myself to include those elements in the frame.
The action is carnival like, and people dressed up and cavorted for the many cameras. It was easy to make a portrait, all you had to do was get their attention and ask for the photo. I found you could also direct them a fair bit and roll out with some nice work. I would wait till the subjects were not being harrangqued by any other photographers so I could get their attention. You can see in their eyes if they are working with you, or the photographer next to them. The lesson here is wait your turn and make the photo yours.
The dip in the ocean occurs at 1 pm, so around 12:30 we made our way down to the beach and joined a crush of photographers. The Polar Bear Club makes a channel about 75 feet wide for the swimmers to run down the beach and hit the water. It gets filled up fast, so stake out your spot early. My plan was to shoot wide (Zeiss 12mm), and get in as close to the swimmers as possible. I set the camera for manual focus at f22 and just used zone focus to capture the run. I also put the camera into hi-speed drive mode and shot at 6 frames per second. Editing later on you can find just the right shot and a lot of ones that clutter up your hard drive.
After the swimmers took their dip they returned to the shore and an army of photographers converged on them. They showed great attitude and fortitude and posed for us. But again, you have to be proactive, smile at them and ask for the shot. Subjects looking into your lens will connect far better than subjects looking over you shoulder.
This couple had just gotten engaged and were celebrating by taking the dip. I think everyone had a story, but with LBGT rights being the #1 story of 2013 I had a special warm place in my heart for these lovers. The woman on the right is proudly displaying her engagement ring. Let love rule!
So what does a Coney Island Polar Bear get aside from a jolt of excitement? They get an official certificate stating, “I Did It”! Aside from crazy NY locals, this event also attracts thrill seekers from across the country.
This work was all shot with the Fujifilm Xpro1 and my trio of favorite lenses, the Zeiss 12mm f2.8, 18mm f2.0 and 35mm f1.4. I was aperture priority and on the beach was always at +1 1/3 exposure compensation. I shot with B&W Yellow filter to bring out a little more contrast in the sky. The entire shoot was processed on my iPad using Snapseed. For those of you who find the FujiFilm Xpro exciting, please visit this blog that collects all artistic articles about the camera. I also brought along my Fujifilm Instax Neo-Classic Instax camera. I gave away about 15 pictures throughout the day. Like I have written before, this camera just emanates good photo karma and it makes subjects happy when you hand them an instant photo as a take-away.
I am definitely going again next year, and to make better images I want to try mounting the camera on a pole and shooting remote to get a higher angle. I’ve noticed the press guys had fishing waders on and were in the shallow water making shots. I think this is needed, as I found it very hard to make images without lenses and other non “polar bears” in the image.
Regards to the brave Polar Bears of Coney Island and see you next year.
Thank you David for this wonderful blog. It was almost like being there, minus the actual frost bite. I do love your black and white images. I missed your last workshop on it, but am looking forward to your next one. Happy New Year.
Thanks Melody, I always repeat them.
Sir, you should do a seminar on this topic for next year’s Polar Bear dip. 🙂 It has become quite a yearly event I hear 🙂
I’d love to, but it’s not Kosher.. Bathing suits seldom are.
By they way, love the use of B&W! It makes perfect sense.
In my exploration of style, I’m pretty much only B&W nowadays. I think Coney Island is better in B&W.
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Love this post!! Thanks for sharing. 🙂