Man of Steele for Santa Barbara Triathlon

November 11, 2010

By Barbara Goldman

© Kevin Steele

This past summer action photographer Kevin Steele was in the water at 7 a.m. for the Santa Barbara Triathlon with the Nikon D3 in a housing to get some close shots of the 2,000+ athletes (always aware to stay out of the way!) at the start of the one-mile swim, then the transition to the 34-mile bike and finally the 10-mile run  He was shooting for practice and portfolio. Steele is known for shooing people in motion.  He creates action images, lifestyle scenes and dynamic portraiture for commercial, corporate and editorial clients.

Unexpected settings are part of his visual story: he is as equally comfortable with a bank of strobes and studio seamless as he is on location hanging from ropes. “I love shooting people with a zest for life, “says Steele.  His advertising and editorial clients range from Patagonia to Parade Magazine to Mens’ Journal.

Steele worked with the Santa Barbara Triathlon organization and with Race Director and Organizer Joe Coito.  He had been shooting triathlete-action portraits with models for his portfolio and felt comfortable with his techniques: lighting in the ocean, capturing fleeting action, and nailing the timing. Swimmers’ arms are very dynamic and timing has to be perfect. Equipped with these water skills and having met Coito several years earlier, Steele contacted the organization to shoot the event’s athletes.  

Steele wanted to shoot the dynamic action images from a different point of view with focus on close in-water shots showing the emotion during the race. Typically, he was chest deep in the waves but would occasionally be swimming. As difficult as the project was there was an upside. Unlike many races, triathlons start in waves of competitors, so there were half a dozen opportunities to capture the explosion of athletes churning through the water at the start.


Access for shooting athletic events such as this always need to be sorted out in advance, with communication as a key component.  Steele checked in with the organizers ahead of time to obtain credentials and talked with them to let them know where, how and what he wanted to shoot.  Listening to the organizers was very crucial, as he had to understand their concerns and the importance of staying clear of the athletes.


Shooting test shots with athletes warming up in the fog yielded exposures of  f/4-5.6 at 1000th at ISO 1000, which Steele locked in manually since he would not be able to adjust exposure easily once in the water.  Shooting raw files also allowed some exposure latitude. The strobe was able to handle the high-speed sync perfectly but from past experience he had to be mindful of overheating the SB900 strobe. Keeping the lens port clear in the spray was also an issue and best handled by dunking the camera to get a clear film of water on the port rather than droplets. 


“Event photographers that were shooting automated robo-images kept asking what the hell I was doing,” says Steele.  He used a Ewa Marine “bag” to hold the Nikon D3, SB900 strobe and Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 lens. The tension of the bag kept the zoom in the 43mm position. In past shoots he had gone wider with that lens, using gaffer tape to lock the barrel down, but the downside to this was that he had to spend time cleaning out the residue to get smooth zooming again.  


 “This was a challenging shoot, I have had a lot of comments from people saying they had never seen someone shoot a triathlon like that,” adds Steele.   His shooting style allowed him to anticipate all the action and stay clear at the same time.  Other event photographers may have questioned the way he shot, but Steele got everything he needed and his client and the organizers loved the work.  “Kevin was great to work with.  It was as if he wasn’t even there – which is what you want if you’re in the thick of producing an athletic event and don’t have time to give instructions to photographers trying to get the perfect shot only to get in your way.  It meant a lot to us that he was professional and very considerate of the athletes,” says Coito.


Although shot for his portfolio and for practice, the dynamic images were used for local editorial by the race organization, as well as licensed for their future ads and Web site. They had exposure in national magazines. Many of the images were used exclusively for the race’s online slideshow and sent to sponsors in their post-event report and will be used for next year’s promotional pieces. 


Recently, Steele was  the 2010 1st place APA Award winner for the action category. The winning image captured a surfer on the waves with an oncoming storm. The  winning image was published in the October issue of Men’s Journal.


For more on this event and other Kevin Steele motion projects, see his blog at:


In the water Steele has the grace of an athlete with his camera and shooting technique for capturing action, adventure and motion. On land, he lives happily in Santa Barbara, CA, with his wife Linda and with his cats, fish and growing boys.