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Photographing participants before marathons and races

marathons and races
Photo: Dylan Martinez

“Capturing the Heartbeats of Victory: Your Guide to Epic Pre-Race Photography!”

Marathons and races are more than just sporting events; they are vibrant celebrations of human determination, unity, and the pursuit of personal goals. The atmosphere surrounding these events is electric, with participants and spectators caught up in the excitement. Amidst the sea of eager faces, colorful outfits, and adrenaline-charged anticipation, art exists to capture the moment’s essence – pre-race photography.

Before the starting gun fires and the runners and participants set off on their grueling journeys, there’s a unique and captivating world to explore through a camera lens. The role of photography in these moments goes beyond mere documentation; it’s about freezing time, preserving emotions, and telling the story of each participant’s journey.

We’ll delve deep into pre-race photography, from the gear and camera settings you need to the creative techniques that will make your photos stand out. Discuss the challenges you may encounter and offer strategies for overcoming them, ensuring you capture the spirit and energy that make these events truly remarkable. 

Preparations and Gear

Choosing the Right Camera

marathons and races
Photo: Manchester Half Marathon

Selecting the right camera is paramount when embarking on a pre-race photography adventure. The ideal camera should strike a balance between portability and functionality. While DSLRs and mirrorless cameras offer superb image quality and versatility, they can be bulky. Consider opting for a lightweight, compact camera that allows you to move freely through the crowd.

Selecting the Ideal Lens

The lens you choose plays a pivotal role in capturing captivating pre-race shots. To do justice to the vibrancy and dynamics of these events, a versatile zoom lens is often your best bet. A lens with a focal length range of 24-70mm or 70-200mm is ideal. These lenses allow you to zoom in for close-up portraits or zoom out for expansive crowd shots, providing flexibility to adapt to varying situations.

Essential Accessories

In addition to your camera and lens, a few essential accessories can significantly enhance your pre-race photography experience. A sturdy tripod or monopod can help you maintain stability in crowded environments, especially when capturing long exposure shots or group photos. A well-designed camera bag is essential for carrying your gear comfortably and protecting it from the elements. Consider investing in a weatherproof bag for added protection during outdoor events.

Camera Settings for Pre-Race Shots

Shutter Speed and Motion

One of the key challenges in pre-race photography is capturing the dynamic motion of participants. To freeze the action or convey a sense of motion, your choice of shutter speed is critical. Opt for a faster shutter speed (around 1/500 to 1/1000 second) to freeze fast-moving subjects like sprinters, while a slower shutter speed (around 1/60 to 1/250 second) can create a pleasing motion blur effect in the background, highlighting the speed of the runners.

Aperture and Depth of Field

Your camera’s aperture setting controls the amount of light entering the lens and affects the depth of field in your photos. To isolate a subject from the background and create a striking portrait, use a wide aperture (small f-number like f/2.8 or f/4). Conversely, for capturing a larger group of participants and the surrounding environment, a narrower aperture (larger f-number like f/8 or f/11) is preferable to ensure everything remains in sharp focus.

ISO and Lighting Conditions

Pre-race events can occur under various lighting conditions, from bright daylight to overcast skies or artificial lighting at night races. Understanding your camera’s ISO settings is crucial for adapting to these conditions. Lower ISO values (e.g., ISO 100 or 200) work well in well-lit areas to maintain image quality. At the same time, higher ISO settings (e.g., ISO 800 or 1600) can be used in low-light situations to ensure proper exposure. Be mindful of noise when shooting at higher ISOs and use noise reduction techniques in post-processing when necessary.

Composition and Creativity

Framing and Perspective

marathons and races
Photo: Jamie Sabau

A pre-race photography masterpiece often hinges on how you frame and compose your shots. To add a touch of uniqueness to your images, experiment with different angles and perspectives. Get low to the ground to capture runners from ground level, or position yourself above the crowd to convey the vastness of the event. Don’t be afraid to break free from traditional framing – dynamic and unconventional angles can infuse your photos with excitement and energy.

Capturing Emotions and Energy

One of the primary goals of pre-race photography is to encapsulate the participants’ raw emotions and boundless energy. Candid shots, where individuals are unaware of the camera, can often capture these moments most authentically. Focus on faces contorted with determination, smiles of camaraderie, and the nervous energy that courses through the crowd. Timing is crucial here; be patient and ready to click when the moment unfolds.

Incorporating the Surroundings

While the participants are the show’s stars, the surroundings can be a powerful backdrop for your pre-race photos. Use the event to your advantage if it occurs in an iconic location, such as a historic city or a scenic park. Frame participants with recognizable landmarks or incorporate natural elements like trees or water bodies to add depth and context to your shots. This approach captures the event’s essence and provides viewers with a sense of place.

Interacting with Participants

Building Rapport

Connecting with participants is essential for capturing genuine moments. Approach your subjects with a friendly and enthusiastic demeanor. Engage in conversations, ask about their goals and emotions leading up to the race, and make them feel comfortable in front of the camera. Building rapport yields more relaxed subjects and opens doors to candid shots that showcase their true personalities.

Posing and Directing

While candid shots are valuable, there’s also room for posed and directed photography. Provide simple instructions or suggestions for poses that highlight the participants’ connection to the event. For example, ask friends to huddle in unity or a solo runner to strike a determined pose. This mix of candid and posed shots will offer a well-rounded collection that tells a complete pre-race story.

Handling Challenges

Dealing with Crowds

marathons and races
Photo: Reuters

Navigating through a bustling crowd of participants, spectators, and event staff can be a formidable challenge. To capture compelling shots without disrupting the atmosphere, consider the following strategies:

Positioning: Find vantage points that allow you to capture the crowd’s energy while keeping participants as the central focus.

Patience: Wait for moments when the crowd naturally clears to capture unobstructed shots.

Wide Angles: Use a wide-angle lens to capture expansive scenes and fit more people into the frame.

Adapting to Changing Conditions

Pre-race events can unfold in various settings and under different lighting conditions. Being adaptable is crucial for maintaining the quality of your shots:

Weather Preparedness: Carry rain covers and lens hoods to protect your gear in case of unexpected rain or adverse weather conditions.

Lighting Adjustments: Monitor the changing light conditions and adjust your camera settings accordingly. Shooting in RAW format can provide more flexibility in post-processing.

Dynamic Shooting: Be ready to switch between shooting modes quickly, from manual to semi-automatic, to ensure proper exposure in varying conditions.

Now that you’re equipped with strategies to tackle the challenges that pre-race photography can present, it’s time to get out there and start capturing the anticipation, excitement, and camaraderie that make these events special.

Remember that each event is unique, offering its opportunities for creativity and storytelling. By mastering the art of pre-race photography, you can ensure that your images document the event and evoke the emotions and energy that participants and spectators will cherish for years to come.

How do you photograph a marathon runner?

Photographing a marathon runner involves more than just pointing your camera and clicking. To capture the essence of a runner’s journey, consider these tips:

Use Burst Mode: Marathon runners are constantly in motion. Shooting in burst mode allows you to rapidly capture a series of images, increasing your chances of getting that perfect shot.

Focus on Faces: Marathon running is an emotionally charged endeavor. Zoom in on the runners’ faces to capture the determination, exhaustion, and joy etched on their expressions.

Experiment with Angles: Vary your shooting angles to add dynamism to your photos. Capture runners from low angles to emphasize their strength, or shoot from above to show the sprawling course ahead.

Show Movement: Use a slower shutter speed to convey a sense of motion. This technique can result in stunning images where the runner appears sharp while the background blurs, emphasizing their speed and determination.

Use a Telephoto Lens: A telephoto lens (e.g., 70-200mm) isolates individual runners from the pack. It lets you focus on a specific runner while creating a pleasing background blur.

How do you take pictures of runners?

Taking pictures of runners is an art that combines technical skill with creativity. Here’s how to do it effectively:

Position Yourself Strategically: To identify key vantage points, scout the race route in advance. Look for spots where runners will likely pass close to you, such as corners or straightaways.

Pre-focus Your Camera: To ensure sharp shots, pre-focus your camera on a specific spot where you anticipate the runners will be. This minimizes focus lag when you press the shutter.

Capture Group Shots: Don’t solely focus on individual runners. Capture the camaraderie of the race by photographing groups of runners running together.

Include the Environment: Incorporate the race surroundings into your shots. It adds context and helps tell the story of the event. Look for scenic backdrops or iconic landmarks.

Shoot Candidly: While posed shots are valuable, candid moments often convey more genuine emotions. Keep your camera ready to capture spontaneous interactions and expressions.

What camera settings for running people?

The right camera settings are crucial for capturing runners in motion:

Shutter Speed: Use a fast shutter speed (1/500 to 1/1000 second) to freeze the action and ensure sharp images, especially for sprinters. Experiment with slower shutter speeds (1/60 to 1/250 second) for artistic blur effects.

Aperture: Choose an appropriate aperture based on your creative goals. A wide aperture (e.g., f/2.8) creates a shallow depth of field, isolating the runner from the background. A narrower aperture (e.g., f/8) keeps more of the scene focused.

ISO: Adjust the ISO setting based on the available light. Use a low ISO (e.g., 100 or 200) to maintain image quality in bright conditions. Raise the ISO (e.g., 800 or higher) in low light to maintain proper exposure.

Autofocus Mode: Select continuous or servo autofocus mode to track moving subjects. This helps keep your subjects in focus as they run.

White Balance: Set the white balance to match the prevailing light conditions, whether it’s daylight, shade, or artificial lighting.

What lens is best for shooting runners?

The choice of lens can significantly impact your ability to capture compelling runner shots:

Telephoto Lens: A telephoto zoom lens, such as a 70-200mm, is highly versatile for shooting runners. It allows you to zoom in on individual runners or capture groups from a distance while maintaining image quality.

Prime Lens: Consider a fast prime lens with a wide aperture (e.g., 50mm f/1.8) for close-up shots with beautiful background blur. Primes are also lightweight and ideal for capturing candid moments.

Wide-Angle Lens: Use a wide-angle lens (e.g., 24mm or 35mm) to capture the entire scene, including runners and their surroundings. This can result in dramatic and dynamic compositions.


In pre-race photography, every shutter click captures a unique blend of determination, camaraderie, and human spirit. Whether you’re an experienced photographer looking to hone your skills or a novice eager to embark on this thrilling photographic journey, the keys to success lie in preparation, creativity, and adaptability.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ve explored the art of photographing participants before marathons and races, from selecting the right gear and camera settings to mastering the art of composition and connecting with your subjects. We’ve also delved into the challenges you may encounter, providing strategies to overcome them and ensuring that your photos convey the energy and excitement of these events.

The related search questions and FAQs have shed light on the specific techniques and insights you need to excel in capturing marathon runners and other race participants. Understanding how to photograph them effectively, adjust your camera settings, and choose the right lenses can make a significant difference in the quality of your images.

In pre-race photography, every shot is a testament to those participating in these remarkable events’ dedication, passion, and unity. Your role as a photographer is to freeze these moments in time, preserving the memories and emotions that define each participant’s journey. Whether it’s the joy of reaching the starting line, the anticipation of the race ahead, or the triumph of crossing the finish line, your photographs will become mementos of their unforgettable experiences.

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