I've had trouble finding information on how to best photograph action at a marathon. I don't mean tips for finding locations, ideas, etc, but rather technical tips for a beginning photographer to obtain the best pictures. For example, I have seen that it is best to use Aperture Priority and stick around f/8. Also, utilize Continuous AF (Nikon, not sure Canon term) if you are attempting to photograph a specific runner (which I will be doing a bit). Other pieces of advice are to use burst mode and utilize a long lens. What can I do to get the best pictures, and what have you done if you have photographed marathons before?

I'm trying to keep this as general as I can, but my specific equipment is a D3100 w/ 18-55 kit lens and the 55-300 as well. I'm rather new to dSLR photography, so please explain anything complicated. Thanks!


5 Answers 5


At the time I'm writing this, I have completed 40 marathons, 36 half marathons and many other races. Recently, I volunteered as a photographer at a small marathon. Based on this, I would start by asking a few questions:

  1. What is the purpose of your photos? Do you want to show the general event, photograph a few friends, or get individual pictures of nearly all runners?
  2. What kind of race is this? Road race or trails? How many runners - dozens, hundreds or thousands? Do you expect large crowds along the course? Is the course closed to traffic or do you need to plan for extraneous cars and pedestrians?

Clearly, you need different strategies for a major marathon like Boston, Chicago or New York than a small marathon with 100 runners.

Next, I looked at EXIF data from photos of me in races, and I found the following pattern:

  • 70-200mm lens on a crop-frame (APS-C) body
  • Shutter speed of 1/500 sec

Since nearly every marathon is in outdoor daylight, I didn’t need the speed of an f/2.8 lens, so I used a lighter 70-200/4 lens with the following camera settings:

  • Continuous autofocus
  • Shutter priority at 1/500 sec
  • Auto ISO
  • High-speed continuous shooting
  • JPG, to minimize storage and card writing times
  • Image stabilization enabled, to help me frame the photos
  • A 64GB memory card and spare batteries!

Next, I picked course locations that were:

  • Particularly scenic
  • Where I could see the runners without getting in their way
  • Where I could easily drive from location to location

While I waited at each location, I used a small folding chair and listened to podcasts and music - you can't read a book or a screen because you might miss the runners! As for timing, if you are just photographing your friends, ask them about their race pace. If you are photographing the larger field, ask the race director for the timing of the aid stations, which should tell you when the runners are expected along the course. Don't forget that the group of runners will spread out over the length of the course.

Afterwards, I wound up with about 5000 photos. I wanted to minimize the post-processing work and storage space on my computer. Using the thumbnails as a guide, I imported 3 of each runner and picked my favorite; if I didn’t like any of the 3, I returned to the card and imported a few more.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer. The best part are the questions you need to ask yourself :o) \$\endgroup\$
    – Rafael
    Jun 6, 2019 at 17:18

Unless you're going to be panning you want a fast shutter speed (for football and soccer I have heard around 1/2000 of a second) so that the person you're shooting is crisp (IS/VR/etc will not help this).

You also want a separation from the background so that your subject is clear to the viewer. If you're panning then the blur of the background will do that while having a slower shutter speed, but at a high shutter speed you want a wide aperture (the wider the better and I'm not sure why you would go with F/8 as you indicated).

The other evening I was shooting a soccer game using a 70-200 F/2.8 and with the aperture wide open and the shutter set to 1/2000 sec I had to set my ISO to 800 to get a properly lit shot. However, the higher the ISO the more noise. The smaller the aperture, the higher the ISO would need to be as well.

You also want to get in tight. You can crop later, but that will make your noise larger as well. So if you can get it right in camera that will help a lot.

I would shoot as tight as I can and zoom out only as much as necessary to get everything you want in the frame in the frame (not everything, you don't want everything). If you're right on the side of the path shooting nearly perpendicular to the path (such as if you were catching the feet crossing the finish line) then you may need to switch to the wider 18-55, but otherwise the longer lens will probably work better.

Finally, you want some kind of moment. The expression on someone's face as they cross the finish line first, or not quite first, are bound to be extraordinary. Finishing at all is an achievement and many people will have quite tired and/or relieved expressions (not to mention the ones that are about to mess themselves as happens quite a bit at marathons). Moments are also likely if two people are racing closely to each other so having a picture of them just before they finish the line adds drama (who's going to finish first) and the picture just as they cross could be good as well showing how one person narrowly beats out the other person.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Your comment regarding aperture got me to go back and read carefully. What I saw suggested that for shooting large groups of people (such as near the beginning of a race). Using a larger aperture is what I may want to do when I'm shooting an individual runner. Great point about separating the subject from the background too. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 19, 2013 at 0:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't agree that "at a high shutter speed you want a wide aperture". With runners in daylight, many situations exist where you might want a fast shutter speed and still a narrow aperture, especially if it is a bright day or your want many runners in focus. I also don't think pointing out a very different situation - low light night sports photography, is beneficial unless the marathon is by night, which is rare in my experience. The rest of your notes I agree with. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Apr 19, 2013 at 2:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Depending on the marathon, many of them start early in the morning when the light is still fairly dim. Even more so if the sky is heavily overcast or the start is in an "urban canyon". \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Apr 19, 2013 at 5:30

For the most part, all of the tips that you mention are good to start out with. Nothing beats practice! Get out and shoot someone running, even if it is your friend in your driveway. This question might help a bit as well: Taking sports and action shots with regular lenses

In my experience non-professional marathon photography is not that demanding on equipment. Usually lighting is fine since a standard 26.2 mile marathon typically occurs between 8am-12pm where I live, and usually during the seasons with more favorable weather. I mention this because your equipment for low light sports would be sub par, but for something like a marthon I don't think you will find it limiting at all. You may want to shoot with a shallow depth of field(small aperture, or small aperture plus a long focal length), to blur the background, but you still have some control over this and probably enough control over this with your current equipment.

Aperture priority is great if you specifically want to control the depth of field, or how much is in focus. f/8 might have been recommended to you because with that aperture, almost everything will be in focus in most situations. That doesn't mean that it is what you want to lock your camera into and leave it alone though. You might consider shutter priority mode so you can specifically control the amount of motion blur that the subject has. If you want a crisp clear runner, you will want a fast shutter speed. If you want to show motion blur of the runner moving, you will want a slow shutter speed. Using shutter priority mode will of course help you dial this in very easily to your liking.

Burst mode is typically a good idea with any sporting event, as the subject is moving and burst mode will help ensure that you do not miss the decisive or most important moment. In the case of a race, without burst mode you might get quite a few shots with other runners obstructing a view of a certain runner you would like to see in the frame. Burst mode can help with that. It also will help if you are trying to capture the moment when they cross the finish line for example.

One of the most important things to utilize when capturing moving subjects such as a runner, is to use AF-Continuous(Nikon), AI-Servo(Canon) or similar. This will constantly maintain focus on the subject(runner) as best as possible.

An important thing to remember at an event like this, is to move around and get as many perspectives as possible. No one wants to look at a shoot full of the same framing or background. Get elevated if possible, get on the course during a break in the action(a terrible idea generally speaking, but of course possible), move from the finish line to mile 15, etc.

If you are trying to shoot specific people like the elite runners, you will certainly want a long lens in the 70-200mm or longer range(as you have). Personally I shoot the runners as they are closer to me with a shorter lens, but that is just how I shoot. If I had to get coverage of an elite runner with varying backgrounds, I would want a long telephoto lens to do so.

I know you specifically are interested in settings and such, so here are a few examples from my experience:

Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS, at 17mm, f/5.6, 1/125sec, ISO 100: enter image description here

Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS, at 17mm, f/7.1, 1/640sec, ISO 400, and yes I was a runner in the marathon :) enter image description here

I tried to do a tracking shot here to show the movement, and also the emotion of the runner. Although it could have been done better by me. Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS, at 55mm, f/13, 1/50sec, ISO 400: enter image description here

Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS, at 17mm, f/8, 1/800sec, ISO 400(these were my friends so I could get away with standing in front of them): enter image description here

  • \$\begingroup\$ Great answer! I am glad that you included examples, those really help. The linked question was good too; similarly to that poster, I have not done sports before and I don't have much preparation time (this race is Saturday). \$\endgroup\$ Apr 19, 2013 at 0:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ AF-C/AI Servo is normally the way to shoot sports, but I wouldn't totally dismiss using other methods. I know some pretty good sports shooters (photogs who have multiple AP regional & nat'l awards) who take as many shots by pre-focusing on an area and waiting for the action to come to that spot as they do shooting bursts in Servo mode. With sports like running when you know which direction the action is headed this can be particularly effective. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Apr 19, 2013 at 5:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelClark yes absolutely. This is just a starting point. Not every possible setting to use :) \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Apr 19, 2013 at 12:57

In terms of the technical considerations for taking photos of participants in a marathon, there isn't any real difference from any other situation when you would be photographing athletes running at medium/long distance paces. If shooting sprinters you would have to increase your minimum shutter speed to account for their faster movements.

Rather than using Aperture Priority, I tend to shoot most sports in Manual mode unless there is a big difference in the level of light from one area of the field to the next. You really need constant aperture zoom lenses to do this, though. It also helps to have a camera with a deep buffer so that you can use RAW files without losing the ability to shoot high frame rate bursts. You can then correct the minor exposure differences in post processing. If you're shooting the marathon in a more open area, such as a large public park, there might not be a lot of variation in the light. If you're shooting parts of the marathon on narrow, downtown streets with a lot of tall buildings casting shadows the light will be much more varied. This is especially true at the beginning with an early morning start time. If the light is too uneven I switch to Shutter Priority so that I am guaranteed to get the minimum shutter speed (Tv) I need. 1/1000 sec or faster is nice but for runners at this pace 1/500 sec will do in a pinch, especially if they're running towards you rather than perpendicular to your position. Drop the Tv even lower to around 1/250 sec if you want to capture a little motion blur of their lower legs/feet and lower arms/hands. Select an ISO high enough to keep the aperture setting (Av) where it needs to be with your minimum Tv and live with the noise. This would be more of an issue early in the morning or during a dark, overcast day. In bright sunlight the challenge can be the opposite: finding an ISO low enough to allow the use of wider apertures with cameras such as your D3100 limited to a 1/4000 sec Tv.

Being familiar with your gear will go a long way in achieving a higher "keeper ratio" in terms of focus. Understanding the actual area for each focus point in the viewfinder, as opposed to the size of the square in the viewfinder, is critical because the camera will focus on the highest contrast area covered by a given focus point rather than what happens to be at the center of each focus point's coverage area. The better you understand your camera's AF system, the less you will need to shoot at narrower apertures to allow a safety margin for missed focus. A wide aperture will allow you to isolate a specific runner in a crowded pack. On the other hand, a narrower aperture will allow you to place your runner in the context of the other runners. Using Single Area AF or Dynamic Area AF will allow you more control over what the camera attempts to focus. Nikon recommends against using 3D Tracking (11 points) for moving objects. Using 3D or Auto Area AF will result in many shots with the pavement or grass in the foreground in perfect focus. Your runners, on the other hand will probably not be in focus.

With the D3100, be aware that enabling certain automatic settings, such as Active D-lighting, can reduce the maximum burst performance. One thing that separates the D3100 from most other entry level bodies is the way you can set a minimum Tv using Auto ISO, then the camera will dynamically adjust the ISO to stay above your chosen Tv. This is particularly helpful for shooting sports. Unfortunately, when ISO is set to Auto the only way to see which ISO is being used is to review the shot after it is taken. Another advantage of using Auto ISO is you won't need to worry as much about the lens' maximum Av changing as you zoom in and out with your variable aperture lens.

Your D3100 can take up to 9 RAW frames @ 2.9fps before the buffer is full, but it takes an additional 13 seconds to clear the buffer. Once the buffer is full, you can continue to take about 1 fps until you can pause enough for the buffer to clear. This limitation means you will need to decide whether the extra latitude in post processing is worth it or not. Shooting JPEG only you can shoot 24 frames @ 2.9fps (with ADL & ADC off) before the buffer fills, but it then takes 19 seconds to completely clear it. As with RAW, once the buffer is full you can continue to shoot about 1 fps until you can allow it to clear. In practice you can pause for a few seconds (say, 10) then shoot another short burst (say, about 10-12 frames) @ 2.9fps until the buffer is full again.

The runners in a marathon train many hours to prepare for the big day. You should as well. Perhaps you could even shoot some of them while they are training? Ideally, try to shoot at the same time of day in the same types of environments. Even if that is not possible, there's no substitute for getting outside and testing different settings and techniques to see how they affect the resulting images.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You can practice on any road race, a local 5K or 10K, etc. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 19, 2013 at 1:26

The main key for photographing any large event isn't anything technical at all. It's planning. Make sure to check out the course before hand. Make sure you know what will be happening when and where well before the day or you will miss things. Drive the course (in both directions if you can), look for good angles, plan out when and where you need to be at each location. Make sure that logistics will allow for you to have the equipment you need at the locations you need by the times you need.

Are there multiple start times? When are finishers expected? Are the start and end points different? What kind of traffic controls will be in place during the event. Will you need to make sure you have any special access worked out ahead of time? These are all important questions that need to be answered before the day of the event and planned for.

As far as the day of the event, stay organized and stay loose. Expect issues to come up, don't panic, resolve them to the best of your ability as quickly as you can and move on. Don't worry about missed shots, worry about not missing the next one. When you get to a planned shooting location, look for shots and take them, but keep track of when you will need to move on.

As far as actual photography goes, it's no different from shooting any other action or sports. High shutter speed is key, make judicious use of DoF preview to check the amount of background blur you want, but really, it's going to be fairly standard photography.

Shooting events is a lot of fun, but it's also tiring and a lot of work to do right. Make sure you have a good pair of shoes and proper carrying cases for your gear so that you aren't sore by the end of the day. And I mentioned it before, but I'll say it again, have fun.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The non-technical aspects are often overlooked, but can make the biggest difference in terms of results. Nothing beats being in the right place at the right time with a clear view of the action, etc., and knowing the "feel" of the event will help with that. +1. \$\endgroup\$
    – D. Lambert
    Apr 19, 2013 at 14:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @D.Lambert - it's also the easiest way to tell who the experienced and inexperienced people are. Taking photo's isn't that hard, knowing how to deal with events and logistics isn't either, but it takes practice and experience to know all the little gotchas. My first couple events, I forgot little things and had to have someone go and get things and missed opportunities, the next while, I would meticulously go over everything for hours the night before. Now I'm to the point where I just know what I need, throw it in a bag and walk out the door (assuming it's an event I've done before). \$\endgroup\$
    – AJ Henderson
    Apr 19, 2013 at 14:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ On top of "how to shoot events", there's also knowing what happens at events of type "x" -- running races, motorsports, airshows, etc. -- we see variations on this theme show up frequently here. Knowing what's going to happen where & when -- priceless. \$\endgroup\$
    – D. Lambert
    Apr 19, 2013 at 15:24

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