Runners make great subjects for photos and with so many races taking place or weekly parkruns to be a volunteer photographer at, there are lots of opportunities to get your camera out and this guide will help you get the best photos you can.
Why take photos of runners?
Us runners love a great race photo, and after the race has finished, and we’re back home showered and changed, we’re online checking on results and hoping that there are some nice race photos of us.
There are plenty of running photos of me gurning, grimacing, and looking like I’m being tortured, but that’s not the photographers fault. However there are a couple of really nice race photos where I’m smiling and looking like I’m enjoying the run, and those have pride of place as my social profile photos and I can look and feel good.
If you want to get exposure for your running photography or just to give something back to those runners then make sure you’re taking photos that both you and they will be proud of.
Here are some tips to help you take some awesome running photos.
1. The Camera
A lot will depend on your camera and having a decent DSLR camera with the ability to use a variety of lenses along the lines of a Canon or a Nikon. I personally have a Canon EOS 60D which is quite a few years old now, but with good a good lens you can really extend the life of your camera.
You will want a camera that has the following:
- At least 10 megapixels capture.
- Burst mode of over 6 frames per second.
- Ability to change lenses
With all lenses, you generally get what you pay for. The lens that usually comes with the camera is pretty basic and when you upgrade you will really notice the difference.
You will want a long lens to allow you to take photos from a distance, and I personally have the Canon 75-300 mm – f/4.0-5.6 IS USM which is around 14 years old but still takes good photos. I would prefer the f/number to be a bit lower (explained in the bullet point below) but that would’ve added a lot more onto the price.
You’ll want a lens that has the following specs:
- A focal length of at least 200mm which will give you a good zoom. If you can get a 300mm then even better.
- The lowest aperture you can afford. This f/stop or f-number is listed as f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6 etc. These are fractions of ‘1’ so f/8 is 1/8 (on eighth) and f/4 is 1/4 (one quarter) so look for the lowest f-number as these indicate a larger aperture or opening in the lens which lets light through.
A lower aperture will allow you to shoot in lower light (as it lets more in) and also give you a nice blur on the background out of focus elements. The best part of letting in more light is that you can take bursts of photos without them appearing too dark and cloudy days can still look bright.
Before you head out make sure your equipment all works, your lenses are clean, you have lots of space on your memory card (a spare is always good practice), and finally ensure your batteries are fully charged.
It’s also worth having an idea of the course route so that you can plan your location and work out the best shots. You may want to move between several spots to catch the start and the finish with somewhere in between. That’s the ideal scenario but knowing the course will identify what’s actually possible.
An idea of what the weather is going to be like too is helpful and as you may want to find somewhere with some shelter or bring an umbrella!
4. Fast shutter speed
In running your subjects will always be moving so to avoid a blurry shot you’ll want a fast shutter speed of at least 1/400 or faster.
5. Burst Mode / Continuous Shooting
Taking a burst of photos of each runner (enable this setting on your camera) means you don’t need perfect timing and can get as many opportunities for a good photo as possible.
You will want to capture runners showing good form and looking athletic and a high burst of 7 photos of a runner should enable you to capture a shot like this.
When you’re editing/selecting photos you can pick the best action photo and discard the rest.
6. Use a low ISO
Increasing the ISO will brighten the photo but will also add ‘noise’ and destroy some of the detail so instead keep it low and bring in light by adjusting the aperture and slowing the shutter speed. This is where having a good lens comes into it’s own.
- ISO 100 (low ISO)
- ISO 200
- ISO 400
- ISO 800
- ISO 1600
- ISO 3200
- ISO 6400 (high ISO)
You may need to do some test shots to get it perfect but a low ISO will ensure you have the best quality images. Only raise the ISO when you’re unable to brighten the photo by varying the shutter speed andd aperture.
7. Shoot in Raw
Shooting in RAW rather than JPEG is basically a cheatcode. These are maximum quality images which capture ALL the data so in post-production you can generally get a good image even from one that is underexposed or has the incorrect white balance.
They do take more space on your memory card though (so have spares) but you will also need a program such as Adobe Lightroom to edit them.
A JPEG is low-quality and simply records the data for the exact camera settings you chose (ISO, Exposure, etc) so any tweaks can look bad and add noise the the image.
You can shoot in both RAW and JPEG if you want a very quick turnaround on photos and don’t need to edit them all, but having the RAW files there will mean you still have the option to do more with the images.
You will want to have the runner in sharp focus but have the background softly out of focus, ensuring the eye is drawn to the runner, and this is done by using your aperture to set the depth of field (lower number f-stop means blurrier background). Using a telephoto long lens will also help achieve this feature.
Think about the background too, as these will be a big part of your photo even if they are out of focus.
9. Take group shots early
For a group shot you will want to use a wider angle lens and have a higher f/stop so that that you get a sharper image and more people are in focus.
These are good for the start of the race, then you can pack that away and simply uses your longer lens with a wider aperture.
I took the photo below at a Colour Run event and you can see everyone is in focus (f/2.8) and I actually had a selection of photos to choose from due to the burst mode (1/1600) I used.
10. Let people know when to smile
Whilst it’s nice to get photos of runners totally immersed in their running, it’s also nice to get photos of runners smiling, giving the thumbs-up, and this photos can often be the best for event photos and will get the most likes.
The case is that most runners will be concentrating on their run and won’t notice you, whilst others will spot you too late, so it can be helpful to wear high-viz so they can spot you and you can also have a sign saying something like ‘Photographer Ahead’ or ‘Smile for the Camera’.
Place these signs ahead of where you’ll be capturing them and you can get some great shots.
11. Selecting photos
Not every photo will be great, especially when taking a burst of photos, so avoid simply posting all the photos and instead look for the following.
- Runners in their stride with at least one foot off the floor.
- Close-ups of runners, not just full-body shots. Focus on the eyes as they can really add drama to a photo and give a sense of how the runner is feeling. Avoid those grimaces though as none of us like them!
- Photos of the crowd cheering them on.
- Different perspectives. Don’t just go for the obvious, so for example you could crouch down and incorporate the ground more to add extra perspective.
Having these shots in mind ahead of the race will be helpful so you already know what you want to capture.
You may only get one opportunity to take photos of runners depending on the route, so be prepared, have your gear set-up correctly, ensure you’ve taken some test-shots, and get those burst photos as it doesn’t cost anything to fill a memory card.
Runners want photos of themselves looking good, athletic, in stride, and hopefully looking happy. Yes, running hurts sometimes, but we don’t want everyone else to know that!
Hopefully this guide will set you on your way but it’s worth noting that you’ll only get better with practice so get out there and get snapping.