Position Is Critical.
More Focal Length.
Freeze the Action with a Fast Shutter Speed.
Miss Less with Continuous Shooting Mode.
Set Aperture for Sharpness.
Select the Default ISO
Choose the Right Focus Mode.
A Monopod Over a Tripod.
Whether you’re photographing people, dogs, horses or cars racing, choosing the right position(s) from where you shoot will have a significant impact on the quality of the images you bring home. For a marathon, you want to study the route well in advance of the event, so you can pick a few prime locations. These could include a corner where the runners come the closest to the crowd, as they turn. Consider the top of an incline. As runners reach the top, they are apt to show more signs of extreme physical effort, even exhaustion, resulting in dramatic images.
You may find excellent positions allowing you to shoot the runners quite close, but that will be the exception. You need a telephoto, or telephoto zoom, lens in the range of 70–200mm to be able to photograph runners at a greater distance, which will be the norm. Activate your lens’ image stabilization system to help you take steady, sharp digital photos.
Marathon runners may not be sprinters, but they are running with enough speed that you must shoot with a fast shutter speed to freeze their motion. Plus, shooting outdoors on a sunny day will virtually force you to use a fast shutter speed in combination with aperture and ISO settings. It’s likely that 1/500th of a second will be a good shutter speed for most of your photos; it’s certainly a good place to start. Choose a much slower shutter speed for a panning shot: moving the camera with a runner and releasing the shutter as you pan. This freezes the motion of the runner, but blurs the background.
With the huge number of participants, a marathon is filled with so much action that shooting one frame at a time will cause you to miss much of it. Switch to continuous shooting, or burst, mode a few times to help you record a short progression of images, which is likely to give you one or two winners.
Once again, the bright, sunny day won’t allow you to use a wide aperture setting and that’s good because to achieve the sharpest images, you’ll want to shoot at f/8 to f/11. You may want to experiment with a slightly wider aperture, which will still result in a sharp subject (a runner), but cause the background (crowd) to be less in focus. This will give your photos more three-dimensionality and emphasize your subject.
Shooting a marathon under a strong sun means you can set your ISO to its default, or lowest, value and forget it for the rest of the day. Only an overcast day could require an adjustment to approximately ISO 200–400; otherwise, you might underexposure all your photos at the lowest ISO setting.
Since the marathon runners you photograph will be moving, you want to use your camera’s “AL Servo” mode, also known as continuous-servo AF or AF-C in Nikon cameras. In this mode, the camera will continue to focus on your subject, as you hold the shutter-release button halfway. This mode will then anticipate the future position of your subject, so he or she will be in focus when you release the shutter.
Framing runners from the waist to the head is better than a full-body shot. You can certainly shoot a few of these wider views, but to record dramatic facial expressions and sweating bodies, you want a tighter composition. Widen your framing slightly, when necessary, to include all of the runner’s arms. The general rule is to crop limbs between the joints and not at the joints.
Having a steady platform for which to photograph can be a tremendous aid during a marathon, but don’t expect to have room to erect a tripod. A monopod is a much better alternative, since its footprint will fit within your body’s vertical space in a crowd.
The Boy Scout motto is appropriate, from dressing comfortably (including walking/hiking shoes, a hat and sunscreen) to raingear to security preparation. Just as you don’t want to carry a tripod, you should also take as little additional equipment as possible, so you don’t need an equipment bag, or at least a very small one. You won’t be hauling all the weight along a 26-mile marathon course and it is much less likely to be the target of thieves.
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Image credit: blasbike / 123RF Stock Photo