Marathon Photography Tutorial
Photographing a marathon is an art unto itself. These guides were recently tested in the Thunder Road 2014 Charlotte Marathon in North Carolina. The runners can vary from serious & intense to goofy & comedians. The dynamic personalities can give a photographer plenty of chances to produce a work of art that is emotionally motivating. What's more, the photographer can serve as a diversion to give the runners a chance to break up the hum drum routine of pounding the pavement. Anyone who has run a marathon usually gets a picture and puts it on their refrigerator until the next race. Each time they see the picture, they think, “Next time I'm going to pose, or wave or make a funny moment...” And so, usually, you are there when the runner is getting bored of running past families and spectators that sometimes are just waiting for someone else. So, be prepared for antics and comedy as the runners engage your lens.
So, what do you need for this big moment?
Equipment makes a difference. This is not a time to be discreet and go with the smallest, understated ensemble. Instead, you want to be noticed as much as the runners. Ever notice how the crowds are full of bright pink or fluorescent yellow and green? If you're dressed in a subdued outfit suited for a savannah safari, it won't help you as much an outfit that stands out from the crowd. Lastly, what about gloves? For some reason, marathons are in the cooler months. And at the crack o' dawn, it can be the coldest part of the day. If there is the slightest breeze, body heat is lost while standing still with the camera. Hopefully your camera can be set up for thought-free shooting that will allow you to wear gloves. Aquatech Sensory Gloves for photographers were designed for exactly this purpose.
A zoom lens can help a lot. Cropping in post-production is excruciatingly time consuming when dealing with thousands of pictures. Zoom in and crop the picture right the first time. This usually requires a long lens. I favor the Canon 100-400mm. One hand must be available to work the zoom. Equipment has to be set up to minimize distraction for your non-shooting hand. You will wave and give thumbs up to the runners as much as possible. In between waving, work the zoom tirelessly.
A Santa Claus outfit might be the most important thing you bring to get happy, smiling pictures. If you can go with a cheer-leading spectator it will help lighten the mood of runners looking your way. Some marathons adopt a costume theme, so be sure to know what you are getting into and consider what you can do to dress up. Lovable pictures seem to be the ones with a driven runner intently focused on the camera with a great wave. Anything you can do to add some excitement will help get better photos.
Position is key. Attempts to click runners as they cross your point will be a challenge. You want the option of the long shot and the passing photo. Get a photo when you can still see the bib numbers, then more photos as the runner passes your point. You won't always be able to see the bib numbers, so for reference be sure to get a photo with the runner's number when you can. With a long lens and the runner twenty meters away, the background will be nicely blurred and separate the runner from the rest of the image without post-production. It might be necessary to sit or stand in order to maximize the background of your photos.
The use of a light meter can help you move through your manual settings as the lighting changes. A marathon often involves shorter races run over a course that overlaps with the full length race. In a four hour period of time, the light will change extensively. Light changes as sun moves. Although the light changes slowly, 15 minutes can change an exposure if the manual settings aren't updated to the evolving daylight. I use a watch with a timer that reminds me to check the light meter at intervals.
If you plan to move around and shoot the race from numerous vantage points, crossing the street, sitting and standing, then it will be too time consuming to change manual settings. Instead, shutter speed will prove key. Although some people like the blur of movement, sometimes movement blur can show up at the most inopportune moments. A shutter speed of between 1/500 and 1/1000 seems to give the best results. Some cameras allow programming a back (thumb) button to revert to program or shutter mode while the button is depressed. This can make it easy to use the stored manual settings when the button is released. The other back-button that is indispensable is the back-button programmed to focus. Keep the camera on servo focus and hold down the back-button while tracking runners.
One of the easiest cheats to use is to find even shade under a bridge to even out lighting. It is more difficult to deal with harsh shadows cast by the rising sun. If the runner is shaded, it will be easier to have an evenly lit picture. If you can choose a good location with even lighting, then consider the background. You are preparing to take thousands of pictures, so why not use whatever is available to position yourself for not only a great picture of a racer, but also include lush foliage, a garden or a skyline. If you drive the course the day before, be sure to drive during the same hours as the race. If a beautiful home has flowers in bloom, that can go a long way to helping you make a gorgeous keep-sake photo when the runners come past.
A polarized filter can help maximize colors in harsh morning light. Bouncing specular light can create glare and highlights that can't be fixed without excessive time in post-production. The early morning light might be too dark for a polarized filter, but don't wait too long before putting it on.
Many runner's outfits and complexions would normally require minute adjustments between photos. If you sweep your lens to follow the runner, the directional morning light will require more changes of exposure. For the crucial time when lighting is difficult, it might not be a bad idea to use the Exposure Bracketing option. Not for HDR, but rather to gain other exposures without any extra work. If your camera has a fast frames per second rate, then this can be a great idea.
A tripod can be your best friend. Let's face it: a real working camera is heavy, especially after the first hour of shooting. A tripod helps relieve the weight. Also, hand holding a 400mm lens diminishes your chance of a crisp picture without shaking. The tripod head must allow a reasonably free swing once tightened to a small bit of tightness pressure. The tripod actually helps the runners see that you are “the” photographer to smile for and wave to. Remember, a runner looking straight into the lens makes an added value of emotional impact. If possible, dress up your tripod with a bright yellow or green fluorescent covering, blinking lights, or whatever it takes to attract attention.
In difficult lighting conditions, Canon offers “Auto Lighting Optimizer” in camera. Consider using this setting on high. If shooting JPEG, it might not be possible to completely undo this, but at least it can help. If shooting to provide pictures for the event, it should be fine to shoot JPG. 10,000 pictures might be normal. However, if shooting for your own portfolio, or if you are cherry picking the best shots, then RAW will be the default way to go.
Tagging will be the indispensable way to make sure all your hard work and great shots are eventually seen. Tag after deciding which photos to keep. Selecting photos to transfer can be done working from the camera card still in the camera. Next, transfer the selected images. A quick crop or light adjustment in Canon Digital Pro 4 can be done at this stage. Tag the full size image in Photo Mechanic or Photoshop Bridge. If you are going to upload the pictures, downsize them after tagging. In Photoshop Bridge, use Tools>Photoshop>image processor to resize them to another folder and keep the tags. Be sure to test your process first to be sure the tags are preserved.
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