Photographing one athlete amongst thousands

Sometimes I get sent to photograph an event or race, and all I’m asked to do is just capture some of the flavour and I’m allowed a lot of freedom with how I shoot it.  These shoots are great – I can spend as long as I like in the best bits, focus on things that interest me, and I don’t feel too much pressure to race round the place.  At other times I’m tasked with recording the experience of one particular athlete, or worse, a group of athletes all competing at different times.

Ben Ince - London Triathlon
Ben Ince of Men’s Fitness, competing in the London triathlon a couple of years ago. Thanks for swimming breaststroke Ben!

At a small event this isn’t too tricky. There won’t be many crowds for my athlete(s) to hide in, and the course may be short enough, or in a nice loop, such that I can get several chances to snap them without having to travel too far. However, add in more crowds, a much wider ranging course, as well as different “legs” in the form of swimming, running, and cycling, and suddenly tracking one person, and catching as many shots as possible of them as they travel round becomes quite challenging.  Imagine if I now have to catch several people, as I’ve had to on a number of occasions, and it becomes even more complex.  I’ve had to work like this at dozens of events – some smaller ones, and some massive ones like the London triathlon, or the London or Paris marathon.

Here are a few tips I’d pass on to anyone who’s trying to get shots of a specific person at an event, either a loved one, or in my case, someone I’ve been assigned to snap:

  • First thing first, get to know the rough timings. With experienced athletes this can be pretty accurate, as they’ll know their “splits” very well, and you can arrange to be at a certain point at a certain time, and stand a good chance of catching them. Even with less-experienced athletes, it will still help to have a rough idea. For example, the average time for a marathon first timer is somewhere between 4 and 5 hours. Working back from this, and there’s no point waiting for them at mile 18, only an hour in to the race! You should also use these rough times as a guide, and be prepared to move to your next spot if you think they’ve passed you by. At big events like London or Paris it’s extremely easy to miss someone in the crowd, and rather than stay put for hours on end, there’s a point when it makes much more sense to shift to further down the route, or even head to the finish to try to catch them.
  • Nowadays some really big events provide GPS tracking, but I’ve not found it to be very accurate, plus you usually have to download a specific app, and hope that works too!
  • If you’ve got someone with you, use them as a spotter. Position them a bit ahead of you on the course – I’d say no more than 100 yards, as you want to be able to see them clearly, and possibly even hear them when they shout. 2 pairs of eyes doubles your chances of spotting the athlete you’re after. Have a clear set of signals arranged, and I’d suggest not using your phones, as whilst you’re picking up yours to answer it, the athlete has probably just gone past you!
Horseplay 2010
A much smaller event than one of the big marathons, but I’ve still got to follow one person, and it’s only a 10K course. Oh, and it’s dark.
  • Have a very clear idea in your mind of what your athlete is wearing, or if you’re able to, ask them to wear something eye-catching – you know, like a deep sea diving costume. When I’ve covered the Paris Marathon for Runner’s World and ASICS, all our runners are wearing special vests which helps a bit. Sometimes you’re also given a helping hand by another distinguishing feature – in a triathlon I shot in 2014, the athlete swam breaststroke, whilst everyone else was freestyle. Very easy to spot.
  • If the event consists of laps of a course, get accustomed to whereabouts your athlete is positioned in relation to others. This isn’t a cast-iron guarantee, as of course, people can change places, but it can definitely give you a heads up to their imminent appearance.
Athlete in the GE triathlon
A very short triathlon course, makes for a lot of laps, and lots of bites at the cherry.
  • If the event is made up of people setting off in waves, obviously make sure you know which wave your athlete is in, but also make note of what waves are either side of them. If you’ve been waiting one spot for an hour, they’ve not shown up, and all you see passing you are people from 4 waves after they set off, then I’m afraid you’ve probably missed them!
  • There’s no harm in asking your athlete to look out for you at a certain point, or try to run on a certain side of the road at a certain marker, but don’t place too much faith in this. Not only will crowds probably work against you, but there’s every chance that by, say, mile 20 of a marathon, you may not be high on someone’s priority list! Trying not to be sick, staying upright, and getting through the wall, will all be occupying most of their time and effort.
Athlete in the Paris Marathon
A special team vest, a well chosen spot with a view of the Eiffel tower, and a runner towards the front of the 30 000 pack. If only it was always this easy to spot them!
  • If you’re being asked to photograph someone for a client, such as a magazine or sponsor, then you may well be required to obtain a media pass. Providing you start the process early, this should be no problem, and your client should be able to help you out as well, as they’ll legitimise the application somewhat. Having a pass can be a great help, as it will allow you access to more areas than the general public. Don’t be surprised however, if it doesn’t grant you “Access All Areas” – bigger events tend to be very strictly segregated. At the London Marathon for example, access to the finish gantry is by special vest only, and these are valid only for specific time windows. The policy is usually enforced by the armed forces in my experience, so I tend not to argue with them.
Media passes
Media pass anyone?
  • If you have them, shooting with 2 bodies is a godsend. Equip one with a long zoom, such as a 70-200mm, and the other with a standard zoom like a 24-70mm, and have them both set to high-speed/continuous. You are likely to only get a few seconds when your athlete is in view, and so the ability to start shooting when they’re 50 metres away, and carry on until they’re right on top of you is very handy.
  • A general point this one, but as with any event, it will help to know the course, work out where the best views will be, where likely bottlenecks are – both for athletes and the crowd. The start and finish areas of major events can be absolutely rammed with people, and just because you’ve got a media pass doesn’t mean the crowd will part before you like the Red Sea! Bear this in mind throughout the day, and leave enough time to get through these areas if you need to. What might be a 2 minute stroll under normal circumstances, can take 10 times that when the area is bursting at the seams with spectators. Events like the London and Paris marathons attract over 30 000 runners, so factor in how many spectators there are likely to be based on that. It’s quite a lot, I can tell you.
London marathon finish
The finish area of a large marathon can take an age to cross, but it can make for some very emotional shots.
  • A familiar refrain from me, but get some practice in if you’re not used to shooting an event of this nature. You don’t want the added stress of not knowing what on earth is going on during a race, on top of the challenge of trying to pick your athlete out amongst a crowd of thousands! Try and shoot a smaller event first, where access is easier, to get your eye in.

Having shot lots of big events like this, I can tell you there’s nothing that quite beats the vibe and energy on the day, and it’s particularly enjoyable if you’re able to wave a magic pass, and clamber onto a particular vantage point. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit they’ve also been some of the more stressful shoots I’ve ever done. This is caused by the added pressure of having to spot one person amongst thousands, and make sure I get decent images of them. Follow the advice above, and hopefully you’ll lower your stress levels if you’re ever asked to shoot something like this.


Mystified by any of the technical stuff I mentioned in this post?  My course on technical fundamentals can help.

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