I’ve been covering the Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge like clockwork for well over a decade now, and I think it’s fair to say that I’ve picked up a few useful habits along the way. For those unfamiliar with the event, imagine several hundred folks in various stages of near-nudity packed into a corner of the beach. It’s typically rather cold - though some years have been colder than others - and everyone’s working themselves up into a fevered lather. In this excitement, a drum team forms up, creating a corridor from the top of the beach to the ocean. As the sound of those instruments gets louder and faster and more aggressive, the signal is sounded and the mob stampedes towards the Atlantic.
As a photographer, you’ve got several options for covering this. You can stay on the beach, which is probably the smarter thing to do, and catch them from the side as they race into the frigid waters. I’ve shot from this angle a few times in the beginning, but it comes with a lot of downsides.
First, there are a lot of other photographers on the beach. Some are professional newshounds, some are just “guys with cameras” wandering haplessly into your frame. Either way, it’s difficult getting unique imagery when you’re surrounded by a dozen other shooters all vying for the same angle.
The other option is to be in the water waiting for everyone. This has been my go-to for most of the times I’ve been covering this event. It gives you a lot of benefits compared to the shooters on the beach, but there are also some significant downsides (and safety hazards) that should be considered.
First, you have the advantage of having the crowd rushing towards you. Sometimes, this doesn’t work out as well as you’d like. It’s a giddy, worked-up mob of revelers, so their path isn’t always a straight line. This year, they veered all over the beach before making it to the water, meaning I had to trudge through waist-deep water to anticipate their movements. Second, there are far fewer shooters in the water than on the beach, giving you a free hand for more unique images.
As mentioned, there are some downsides, though. First, in order to get in position, you typically have to get in place well beforehand. This can mean upwards of a half-hour sitting in very, very cold water. I’ve tried a variety of methods to protect myself, including a drysuit and galoshes. Sadly, my dry suit is getting on in the years and has developed some cracks, making it unsafe for use. The galoshes work well if you’re only going waist deep in the water, but any deeper (or if you get hit by waves), then they rapidly fill up and also become a safety hazard. At this point, I’ve just come to accept that I’m going to be cold and wet and wear clothes I don’t mind getting soaked in saltwater.
The biggest concern is the cold, though. Seriously, don’t dismiss it. When you’re out shooting, you develop tunnel vision . You don’t really notice the cold or how it’s affecting you. But spend too much time in there and you start to notice sluggish movements, numbness, and clouded thinking. A few years back, it was so cold that when I left the water, my boots froze to my feet and had to be cut free with a knife. Even on relatively warm days, hypothermia is still a very real concern.
In terms of gear, I’ve tried a variety of methods. For my first year, I simply wrapped my gear in plastic wrap and duct tape. This sort of works, but the moment you get splashed — and you will get splashed — water will find its way in and start wreaking havoc. I later invested in an underwater bag, but wasn’t happy with the results. Eventually, I bought an underwater housing for my D750 and a bubble port. This allows me to get frames that are half-above and half-under water. For events like this, I cannot recommend an underwater housing enough. Saltwater is the absolute devil when it comes to camera gear.
I’ve also experimented with a variety of other cameras and gear for this with mixed results. I used a Horizon 202 panoramic camera a few years back and got some great shots, but the downside was that it seized within hours of getting out of the water. As I mentioned, saltwater absolutely can and will kill your gear given half the chance. I also used a Canon AS-6 underwater point and shoot. This provided better results, but it’s a battery hog. The cold also managed to kill the batteries in short order, so it’s not as reliable as I’d hoped.
So, what are my best practices for this?
- Wear clothes that won't drag you down once they get wet and are easy to change out of.
- Be comfortable stripping down to your skivvies on a beach full of strangers while covered in ice water.
- Find good housing for your gear. Saltwater kills the camera.
- Set your camera for automatic functions before locking it in the housing, and stop down as much as possible. You won't have time to fiddle with your settings once the event kicks off, and honestly, your fingers will probably be too numb to do so anyways. Stopping down will help ensure your subject is in focus.
Events like these are a blast, but they’re also magnets for hundreds of other photographers. As with any story you’re covering, you should always be asking yourself: “how can I get the shots the rest of the crowd isn’t?” Take a look around you and see where there’s a blank spot in coverage. As one of my mentors once told me: the good stories are found at the edge of any scene.