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10 Ways to Improve Your Marathon Photography

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If you’re lacking inspiration and don’t know what to take photos of, marathons are great example of an opportunity to broaden your photographic horizons.
There is such a mixed range of emotions to capture in quite a challenging setting: it’ll test your skills but by following these 10 simple steps, you’ll produce excellent results.
Best of all, you don’t have to pay to get in and you don’t need a pass to bring in your camera – so get out there and start shooting!

1. Consider Location

Location, location, location.
This is by the far the most important step towards producing the best photos possible. I recommend finding somewhere you can shoot with the sun behind the runner; this gives nice warm results (see photo below) and the runner won’t be squinting.
To capture the most emotion, go for key points on the route – consider the top of a hill where the runners will be worn out yet feeling triumphant. Corners are also good because, if you’re on the right side of the road, the runners will be much closer to you.
portrait of a man in a hat and coat in the sunset

2. Use A Long Lens

The marathon runners are likely to be a reasonable distance from you so make sure you have a long lens; somewhere in the 70-200mm range should do.
If your lens has image stabilization, turn it on; even the slightest movement at the 200mm end of the lens will result in motion blur if your shutter speed isn’t high enough.

3. Fast Shutter Speed

As a rule of thumb, you can take a sharp, blur-free image by setting the shutter speed to a fraction of a focal length. For example, to take a photo at 100mm, you would set the shutter speed to 1/100 of a second; any slower and motion blur is likely to occur.
It’s worth noting however, that this rule is only relevant to full frame cameras. For a crop sensor, due its magnifying effect, you would be better off choosing a speed of 1/160 of a second, however, for moving subjects in broad daylight, I find 1/500 is a good speed to use.
You may also want to consider a panning effect as shown in the photo below. This is achieved by taking a photo of a moving subject, moving the camera at the same speed as the subject so it remains in focus with a blurred background.
This can be done with relatively fast shutter speeds.
train in front of a villa and bushes

4. Use Burst Fire Mode

When shooting fast moving subjects, there’s rarely time to stop and review the photos between shots. Shooting in burst mode can be considered a bit of a ‘spray and pray’ technique but it allows you to get as many potentially good shots as possible.
You’ve only got one chance to get a photo of someone running past you, so make it count.

5. Use The Sharpest Apertures

Marathons offer a great opportunity for a detailed, crisp photo of someone with sweat dripping off them so, to do this, you want to have your aperture at around f/8 – f/11 where the lens will be at it’s sharpest.
Consider the crowd at a marathon (of which there’s plenty), do you want them in focus? If not, you may want to widen your aperture.
Personally I would recommend a slightly wider aperture; the whole of the torso is in focus, the crowd is out of focus, and the whole image is still relatively sharp.

6. Use A Low ISO

Using a lower ISO results in more detailed images and, in broad daylight, there’s no need to have it any higher than the minimum your camera will go.
On overcast days with a fast shutter and a relatively narrow aperture, it can be a struggle not to underexpose a photo with a low ISO. On days like these, I recommend upping the aperture to between 200-400.

7. Change Your Focus Mode

If your camera has an ‘AL Servo’ mode (AF-C for Nikon users), switch to it. This will allow you to continually take photos of a moving subject with it remaining in focus. In AL Servo mode, the camera tries to measure the motion of the subject and correctly set the focus to where it thinks it will be when the shutter opens.
It’s not always perfect but much better then other modes such as ‘one shot’ for shooting runners.

8. Careful Composition

With the exception of the finish line and people running in fancy dress, try to stay away from shooting the whole of the body. Shots from the mid torso up capture the movement and struggle, while still capturing emotion in the face.
Be careful about chopping off the ends of limbs: if you’re going to get most of the arm in the shot, get it all in. Consider the crowd as interesting subjects as well – try to include them in the photos of runners.
Finally, it helps to know who to shoot as those shots can be worth money.
woman smiling while running with earphones

9. Monopod

It can get pretty crowded at a marathon – there’s no way there’s room for you, your camera bag and a tripod! Monopods help with vertical stabilization as well as doubling up as a walking stick between positions on the 26 mile race.
They take up much less room then a tripod, are much easier to maneuver and add that little extra stabilization required when shooting at a long focal length.

10. Be Careful Of Your Surroundings

You’ll be surrounded by people; take care to keep your equipment safe. Try to travel light if possible.

You’ll be outside so prepare for rain – the weather can turn at any time, at the very least carry a bag so that the camera can go away if necessary.

Be respectful of the runners; try not to lean over the barrier too far and be aware that they could trip and fall at any time and you and your equipment may well be in the way.

crowd watching runners on the street at the marathon

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4 comments
  1. Josh – Thank you for writing this. I’ve volunteered to help shoot a local marathon and was looking for some confirmation about settings/strategies and your article hit the spot. Is there any value in a second body and wide-angle for capturing a “pack” of runners or runners as they pass? I hope to be in a good position, and will have the 70-200 running as my “go to”.

    1. I can help ,I am nikon user .for night marathon I use 85mm 1.8g . If I have 50mm 1.4d or g also will good .too . I use d610 body + 300mm f4d .+ just for marathon photgeaphy I got Nikon V1 (2.7 corp , 10 to 60 frame a sec + high speed electronic shutter ) .V1 good for middle of the race after light is good. Shutter never die. No need to worry about 150 000 shutter life etc. For night shot Fx body and f1.4 or max 1.8 is good. Shutter speed if possible 1/500 if not even 1/200 s ucan use carefully fallow the runner .if any blur you can catch as panning . Also has another way . IF your lens f4 or slower. Just wait in start line. Marathon start line always has extra lights . So even you have f4 or f5.6 lenses you can shot 1/500s easy . On the way if you like to shot. Check before where is bright area and white light source. ttl hss flash also works if your camera can focus at low light well. hhs flash works goo in start line snapshots . Another way . if race start 4.30 am . or half marathon 5.30 am etc . and your lens not fast enough as f1.4 or 1.8 just wait finish line . they will come to finish line like 6.30 so you can catch good photos after 6.30 with any lenses . Keep in mind . Every time start and finish line has best light. Also not easy to move one shooting point to other shooting point . best shooting area is do not go far more than 1km finish line . if you don’t have bike or car. You can alwasy see best photographers in start and finish line. What camera not a big deal .What lens do you have most important. 35mm 1.8 50mm 1.4 -1.8 85mm 1.4.-1.8 those lenses sport lenses for marathon actually no need more. but if you have 70-200 or 300 f4 you can take background blur photos . I have 300 f4d actually good for football but not really need for marathon .my 85mm easy to catch photos and faster. if you ask me keys are : Nikon d7000-d7100 body + 50mm 1.4d you can shot as pro wait in start and finsh line. or Nikon V1 + ft1 converter + 50mm 1.4g cheaper. if you need long lens V1 + ft1 + 85mm 1.8g makes on v1 (2.7 corop ) 230mm 1.8g i have this perfect result for start or finishline.
      any question or see my photos just ask friend request on fb I can help more. https://www.facebook.com/cesur.ozkurt.7 or my page
      https://www.facebook.com/CesurOzkurt.Photography/
      u can also check my photos : https://www.eyeem.com/u/cesurozkurt

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