A Life Aquatic: Brad Ipock Explores Underwater Photography

Photographer Brad Ipock jumps into pools to showcase the dedication of high school swimmers. 
by Finn Cohen | photography by Brad Ipock

All through high school, Shaw Satterfield rose at 4:40 a.m. for a 90-minute swim practice, then went straight to Green Hope High School in Cary. After classes, it was back into the pool for another two to three hours before returning home to dinner and then homework. Rise, stroke, read, stroke, repeat.

This fall, Satterfield is heading to Ohio State University, where he’ll join the school’s elite program after winning 1st place this year in North Carolina’s 4A 100-meter freestyle and 2nd in the 50-meter. For his senior pictures, his mother, Beth, made what she felt like was the most appropriate choice: underwater shots of Shaw in action.

“It’s a huge commitment to be an elite swimmer,” says Beth Satterfield. “But you don’t truly appreciate what an art it is until you see the pictures.”

The Satterfields turned to Brad Ipock, a Zebulon-based photographer. Ipock’s been a professional photographer for more than 20 years, but he found his true calling—underwater portraiture—a few years ago, when his children joined a summer swim league.

“I’d take them to practice and just kind of sit there, so I decided to see if I could make it a little more fun for me,” he says. He’d already been shooting swim meets from outside the water, but what if he could shoot from under the surface? Getting into the pool offered a new set of challenges—and opportunity. “It became, how do I get the right light on the water to be able to freeze these motions and get the swimmers still, so to speak, underwater?”

Ipock’s images capture the unseen aspects of the sport. From the deck, most of the action in swimming is obscured by splashing and the visual refractions of the water. But by shooting from below or to the side of the athletes, Ipock cutsout the distractions—and illuminates the grace and power that goes into the craft.

“It’s not just a stroke; there’s a kick and there’s breathing, and it’s that whole experience,” says Lisa Honaker, whose daughter Olivia used Ipock for her senior pictures last fall at Panther Creek High School in Cary. “It’s still photography, but there is so much movement in the photograph itself.”

Ipock uses a camera with waterproof housings and various lenses, plus studio strobes on the decks outside the pool to light up the water. For a guy who is 6’2″, staying underwater long enough to get the shot is a challenge in itself. No scuba gear or weights, he just positions himself holding on to a lane line, then releases enough air to sink to the bottom and get his shots in. It takes under 15 seconds. Ipock generally has to repeat this process multiple times—beyond capturing different strokes the swimmer is skilled at, say, butterfly and backstroke, he’ll need to get different angles on each one.

“Standing on the bottom of a 12-foot pool? That’ll get your heart rate up a little bit,” Ipock says, laughing. “I’m really specific with my swimmers to let me get under, count to three. Swim at a moderate pace, and once you get past me you can quit swimming, because you’ve moved out of my lens.”

photograph by Amy Beasley

In mid-June, Ipock had his first underwater shoot in about two months; the COVID-19 shutdown took a large bit out of his business. It was also his first attempt at recording video of swimmers, which he thinks will be even more popular than the still photography. Even if it isn’t, he’s already found a niche that keeps him and his clients happy.

“It’s so unique and such a different view of the swimmer,” he says. “I enjoy allowing these kids and their parents to see what they’ve done for ten years from a completely different perspective.”