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║ Sydney rock pools photographed in glorious light (SMH)

Featured article in the Sydney Morning Herald -

Spanish photographer Ignacio Palacios did his first ocean swim in 2009. It was from Bondi to Bronte and he thought he would smash it. "I swam a lot when I was younger and I trained for a month, so I thought, this is going to be easy, I’m going to win this race," he says. After swimming hard for about 200 metres, he felt so drained he thought he was going to drown. He struggled on to the finish, where he was dumped by a wave on the way in. Exhausted, vomiting and with a searing headache, he swore to his Australian wife he would never, ever do an ocean swim again.

The following weekend, he did the Bilgola swim, then Avalon and Newport. He has done more than 30 since, and swam at the world masters championships in Italy where he broke the minute for his 100-metre freestyle. But the biggest swimming challenge he has set himself since moving to Sydney five years ago has been out of the water. It took him a year to photograph every ocean pool from Palm Beach in the north to Little Bay in the south for his book, Sydney Rock Pools.

He was determined to capture each one at sunrise and sunset, photography’s witching hours, when the light is best and there are fewer people about. He also hired a helicopter for a 90-minute trip up the Sydney coast and back, shooting each pool along the way.

For him it has been a way to give thanks to his adopted hometown, just as he prepares to leave again. He and his wife, Lucy Murray, are taking their sons Rafa, 4, and Leo, 18 months, on a world tour to Europe and the Americas.They plan to be away two years.

Palacios is the fourth generation of his family to be a professional photographer. Assisting his father, he started taking photos at weddings when he was 12. He excelled in the arts at school but a stubborn streak pushed him to study engineering.

"I took it as a challenge. People said ’You won’t be able to do this, it’s too hard’," so I said, 'OK, I’m going to do it'," he says.

He  worked as an engineer for 13 years but, after his first big overseas trip to North America in 1998, began to take photography more seriously. He was also hooked on travel and spent four months in the Middle East. It was India that inspired him to change careers and focus on his camera.

His first experience there, in 2005, was not auspicious. He was invited to the wedding of an Indian university friend in Chennai. Palacios had travelled alone for years and had read up on India but, landing in Chennai, he couldn’t cope. "I didn’t know what to do, how to get out of the hotel," he says. "It was culture shock."

It took a couple of weeks to adjust, then he fell in love with the country and has since been back four times. He met Murray on a train in Mumbai. His first trip to Australia in 2007 was to see her. Landing at 6.30am on a cool September day, he went straight to her place in Clovelly. She immediately took him for an early morning dip in the ocean pool. The water temperature was about 15C. "Bwagh! It was really cold, but I loved it," he says.

When he returned to Sydney five years ago to live, the couple settled in Dee Why and Palacios started his professional photography business. He spent a lot of time travelling and photographing Australian landscapes, and self-published his first book, of photos of Karijini National Park in West Australia.

Though Sydney’s ocean pools have been well-photographed, he couldn’t find a book about them and decided that was to be his next project. He spent a year visiting different pools almost every day, getting up at 4am in summer to be on location by sunrise, and shooting until 10pm for sunset shots. Most of the photos in the book appear not to have swimmers in them, but that is because for many shots Palacios used long exposures, which reduce moving bodies to a blur.

He also took shorter exposures, and often layered the two in post-production. "I love that second step of photography," he says. "I like to capture, then create the image."

He says he loved spending time alone with his camera, discovering each pool, and chatting to the people who used them. And he is canny enough to offer two covers to the book: one of Mona Vale pool, one of Bronte Baths, to cater for Sydney’s northern and eastern beaches tribes. "I don’t want any problems with anyone," he jokes.

His all-time favourite pool is Mona Vale, which he says is beautiful from all angles: land, sea and air. In the south, Mahon at Maroubra gets his vote.

His biggest challenge was getting access to McIver’s Baths, the women and children-only pool at Coogee. Ping-ponged between the council and the pool’s trust, he negotiated for nearly a month for permission to shoot. Finally, he was allowed to go at sunrise, when there would be few people around. "I was really happy to be able to see this pool," he says. "A lady came as I was finishing and said 'Oh, what are you doing here?’"

There is one clear omission from the book – the pools of Cronullla. Palacios intended to photograph them, but ran out of time before his overseas trip.

‘‘I am planning a second volume when I come back including Cronulla and the harbour pools,’’ he says. ‘‘Promise!’’

Sydney rock pools photographed in glorious light (SMH)

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