How to Take an Actually Good Race Day Photograph

Fitness

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Mia Agostinelli loves snapping pictures of her friends. And because those friends just so happen to be runners, her subjects are often on the move. “In college, I bought a Sony Alpha with the intention of taking street photos around New York,” says the 23-year-old. “When I joined a run club in the city and started getting into races I noticed that there were lots of people taking content, especially videos, but my favorite form was always the still photography.”

Now, Agostinelli brings her camera with her to every race she watches. Her goal when taking race-day photos: capture the joy on the runners’ faces — an emotion she relates to deeply, as a devoted runner herself.

That said, this joy doesn’t always show up in traditional race-day photos. While race photographers do their best to capture the hundreds or thousands of participants, the images tend to range from funny to downright embarrassing. As one Reddit commenter remarked about their race photos, “I look like a rat that’s been waterboarded.”

For many runners, including Agostinelli, there’s an answer to this conundrum: ask the people who know you and love you to play photographer. Nora and Noah* — another pair of runners who live in NYC — go as far as making a game plan before their races. Since Noah usually finishes his race first, he often circles back around to snap a few shots of Nora along the race course and at the finish line. “The conversation always goes, ‘Hey, can you please meet me at the finish line?’ I want to make sure that I have good pictures so I have something to post!” says Nora.

Something about seeing a friendly face — in this case, her boyfriend’s — allows Nora to pose and interact with the camera in a natural way. “Whenever I’m running races, I’ve tried really hard to pose for the [photographers], but the photos just never turn out the way I want them to,” she says. “It’s nice having Noah there because I can interact and he can try to take good pictures of me. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

The muse isn’t the only one who reaps the benefits of these photographs, however. Noah, who has photography experience, says that the act of capturing Nora in motion feels satisfying and serendipitous. “Pre-pandemic, I was a photographer, and I was mainly shooting live music and concerts. Once the pandemic hit, that all stopped,” says Noah.

Like many others, he took up running during the pandemic. Perhaps it was natural that his background in photography bled into his newfound passion for running. He started bringing his camera to races, and carries a film camera even on casual runs with Nora.

For Agostinelli, the fulfillment comes from offering her friends moral support as they run by. “When I’m taking photos I’m almost incessantly watching out for my friends and keeping track of where they are,” she tells PS. “When you pass people you know during a race, it’s a huge energy boost, so I just try to get them as excited and enthusiastic as I can while they’re running by.”

How to Take Great Pictures of Your Friends on Race Day

If you’ve tried to photograph your own friends during a 5K only to see a blurry image appear on screen, you’re not alone. According to photographer and videographer Rob Schanz, capturing movement can be a tall order. “For someone who’s just getting into photography it’s obviously challenging because you have a lot going on between the subject moving and trying to figure out how to work your camera properly,” he says. “However, when you capture it correctly, movement is such a beautiful thing.”

Here, his top tips for getting a race-day photo your running friend will want to frame.

Embrace Your Mistakes

Schanz advises learning from your mistakes — but also recognizing when those mistakes are actually a happy accident. “I find that a lot of these mistakes’ can be the best images,” he says. “Maybe the image is blurry, the subject is half out of the frame, or the horizon line isn’t straight because you were struggling to get into position. These are all things that might make the picture more interesting or help push the theme of ‘movement.'”

Post Up in a Smart Spot

Schanz recommends planning ahead of race day to guarantee the best photos of your friends. “You’ll need to pick some good spots along the course that you can pop in and out of easily,” he says. If you don’t have time to scout out some viewing sites before the race, on the big day look for scenic spots with thinner crowds. For example, if you’re spectating a race in a coastal town, maybe you want an ocean backdrop or spot in the middle of the race where the pack will have thinned out.

Have a Cam Plan

Even if you don’t scout out your photography spots ahead of time, Schanz strongly advises getting familiar with your camera before the big day. Facial recognition, continuous focus, and burst mode are all amazing settings for taking awesome photos of your friends. But you only have a few seconds of picture taking each time your loved one runs past, so you want to know what those settings are and how to use them before you spot them bounding toward you.

Wait For the Right Step

One smart photography hack: before you click the shutter (or that circular button on your smartphone), make sure your subject isn’t on the downstep. This angle tends to be unflattering, so wait for them to bound forward before you finally snap that pic.

Don’t Forget to Cheer

Finally, don’t forget why you showed up in the first place. “Always remember to cheer while you’re shooting,” says Schanz. “For the longest time, I would focus so much on the picture — no pun intended — and forget to cheer for my partner when she went by. Having a nice photo of your race is great but getting the motivation to achieve your goal is more important.”

*Names have been changed to protect sources’ identities.

Kells McPhillips is a health and wellness writer living in Los Angeles. In addition to PS, her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Well+Good, Fortune, Runner’s World, Outside, Yoga Journal, and others. On the brand side, she regularly works with Peloton, Calm, and Equinox.

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