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Creating a Meaningful Photo Essay of a Marathon

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This post is part of a series called Documentary Photography .
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When you work for a daily newspaper or shoot for an organization that covers a lot of the same types of events, your images can begin to look the same and you can start losing your experimental drive to create unique frames. This tutorial takes a look at documenting a common event while using techniques to get you out of a rut and back to making intimate, personal imagery.

The focus of my essay is on a small marathon in the Sandhills of north central Nebraska and an individual participant throughout her experience with the race. Although this information gives examples from this event, the same principles can be applied to a variety of situations you may be hired or assigned to cover.

The Miles family ranch sits near Brownlee Road and Charity Miles has used the road as a running course for more than just the Sandhills marathon. The marathon, which is in its seventh year, began as a route for close friends and evolved into a race that people from all over the country attend.
The Miles family ranch sits near Brownlee Road and Charity Miles has used the road as a running course for more than just the Sandhills marathon. The marathon, which is in its seventh year, began as a route for close friends and evolved into a race that people from all over the country attend.

Scout the Location Before the Day of the Event

Knowing where you will be shooting is incredibly important. This can save you from getting lost on the day of the event, can help you know where to park and get situated quickly. All this will make you more comfortable throughout the race, allow you to get key shots that will enhance the story.

Take pictures of the route and if you’re in an area with buildings around then do some research and see if you can shoot from a high angle over the crowd of runners. For the event I was covering, I was photographing a marathon in a ranching community, which meant that the runners were traveling down one road with rolling hills as scenery and cows as spectators. Without the option of varied backgrounds and heights to photograph from, I needed to find another way to make this special.

Runners line up in preparation for the half-marathon Saturday morning.
Runners line up in preparation for the half-marathon Saturday morning.

Talk to the Organizer Before the Day of the Race

Talking with the person who is running the event is a great way to find out important details that you can use to your advantage while documenting. Find out why this event is important to the community. Is there a cause that they’re raising money for? Is it in honor of someone in particular?

Get the scoop on why this particular marathon is different and take pictures that show how. In my case, the road connects many ranching families together and had become a meeting place for the organizer and a few of his friends, so a lot of memories were made there.

He limits the number of runners in order to keep an intimate feeling and make it more about getting to know those running beside you rather than competing in a negative fashion.

Charity Miles stretches by her car Saturday morning before everyone loads onto the bus that will take them to the half marathon's starting line. This is her second year running the race and usually runs on the road as a normal route, but says it's hard for people not from Valentine to realize how close it is to people's homes. "You can always tell the people that are not from the area and are going up to Merritt Dam because they drive very, very fast and they look at you like you’re crazy for running out in the middle of nowhere and you can tell that they’re wondering how far you’ve been running because they thought the last town was 45 minutes away."
Charity Miles stretches by her car Saturday morning before everyone loads onto the bus that will take them to the half marathon's starting line. This is her second year running the race and usually runs on the road as a normal route, but says it's hard for people not from Valentine to realize how close it is to people's homes. "You can always tell the people that are not from the area and are going up to Merritt Dam because they drive very, very fast and they look at you like you’re crazy for running out in the middle of nowhere and you can tell that they’re wondering how far you’ve been running because they thought the last town was 45 minutes away."

Ask About the People Who Will be Participating

You should ask around to see if there are any interesting participants in your event. Is there anyone who has participated every year? Does anyone have a unique story about his or her involvement? In some cases the organizer will be able to guide you in the right direction to talk to the right people.

In my case, two individuals stood out. One was a girl in her early twenties who grew up running the road and who, the first year the marathon took place, rode her horse alongside runners because she was injured and unable to compete.

The second was a runner who had completed a marathon in all 50 states four different times. Simply looking at a list of participants on my own never would have given me this great information and talking to the organizer really helped me focus in on who and what to cover so that the marathon was more than standard photos of runners.


Ask About Where You Can Photograph

Charity Miles laughs as her dad drives past her during the Sandhills marathon on Brownlee Road Saturday. "When I was in high school my family was still pretty new to the whole running thing and they were very afraid that I would get hurt or someone would kidnap me if I went out running by myself even way out here in the Sandhills so they would drive along the highway at like 4mph for umpteen miles at a time. As embarrassing as that is to admit, but that’s kind of how I started running on the Brownlee Road," she says.
Charity Miles laughs as her dad drives past her during the Sandhills marathon on Brownlee Road Saturday. "When I was in high school my family was still pretty new to the whole running thing and they were very afraid that I would get hurt or someone would kidnap me if I went out running by myself even way out here in the Sandhills so they would drive along the highway at like 4mph for umpteen miles at a time. As embarrassing as that is to admit, but that’s kind of how I started running on the Brownlee Road," she says.

A rule of this marathon was that no one was allowed to drive alongside runners, but since the organizer knew about it being documented, he made a special case and allowed a car for the photographers so that we could easily get from one place to another to capture the whole event. Having those details sorted out before the hectic morning of an event can save you from being stuck in one location or from having to explain yourself out of a misunderstanding.


Use the Information You Gathered to Choose a Focus

I opted to follow the local runner who grew up running the road for a couple of reasons. First, the race is an important one for the community and is a source of pride for those who are involved. I wanted my subject to be someone within that tight knit town to represent the hometown feel.

Second, she lived close by which provided an opportunity to see her in her natural surroundings before and after the race.

Scott Haug holds a rifle before the start of the race on Brownlee Road in Valentine. Haug's first time shooting a gun will be triggering the start of the Sandhills half-marathon Saturday morning. Runners of the full marathon pass by as he smiles in anticipation of the start.
Scott Haug holds a rifle before the start of the race on Brownlee Road in Valentine. Haug's first time shooting a gun will be triggering the start of the Sandhills half-marathon Saturday morning. Runners of the full marathon pass by as he smiles in anticipation of the start.

Look for stories that can take you deeper and that can provide more opportunity to document outside of the actual event. Knowing that I would focus mainly on this one person didn’t mean that I would neglect the other great stories out there. It meant that it gave an intimate look at one part of the race, but still held opportunity to follow the other fascinating people running and organizing.

Twenty six miles is a long way for someone to run and gives you ample time to photograph other runners. Getting more involved with one person just adds more depth to it all.


Learn More About Your Subject

Charity Miles and her father Craig Miles pray before breakfast the morning of the Sandhills marathon. French toast for breakfast is a tradition that has been carried in their family before sporting events since Charity was in high school.
Charity Miles and her father Craig Miles pray before breakfast the morning of the Sandhills marathon. French toast for breakfast is a tradition that has been carried in their family before sporting events since Charity was in high school.

What does the person do to prepare? What time does do they wake up? How can you make this truly special? In this case, I simply asked if I could be at the runner’s home in the morning before she left for the race. With the race starting at 7:30 a.m., this meant waking up a lot earlier, but it also meant having the chance at really great light, meeting her family, and photographing in the home she grew up in which only tells you more about the individual.


Travel With the Participants to the Event

Be there when they’re stretching or when they’re driving because being amidst the participants the whole time will give you opportunity to show the process of the event and the little unexpected details that come with that.

Charity Miles reads scripture from her bible on the bus ride to the starting line of the Sandhills half-marathon Saturday morning.
Charity Miles reads scripture from her bible on the bus ride to the starting line of the Sandhills half-marathon Saturday morning.

For example, this race had a shuttle that took runners from the parking lot to the starting line and on that ride the runner I was following started reading scripture. Reading her bible on the way and photographing that gives you a more intimate view of the individual and the lifestyle and also tells you a little bit more about the community.


Don’t Forget About Variety!

Don’t forget to step back and shoot a variety of wide and tight angled shots to see the whole race. As important as it is to get personal, don’t forget to show the broader perspective and give a glimpse of how many runners participated. Mix in some shots of the scenery as well. What are the runners looking at for 26 miles? Give the viewer a glimpse of the race from the runner’s perspective.

Participants of the marathon walk towards shuttle buses that will take them to the starting line.
Participants of the marathon walk towards shuttle buses that will take them to the starting line.

Be Prepared for a Long Day

Make sure you have extra batteries and memory cards. On a long day like this with a lot of people to photograph, the last thing you want is a full memory card with no way to get more images.

Craig Miles watches as his daughter passes by during the half-marathon.
Craig Miles watches as his daughter passes by during the half-marathon.

Pack some snacks and a bottle of water into your camera bag. Don’t let your hunger be a reason to stop shooting early or distract you from potential moments. Is it going to rain? Pack a plastic bag for your camera and a waterproof jacket for yourself, if you have one. If you’re able to park close by then consider storing some of these items in your car so that you can move about freely and easily.


Share Your Hard Work!

Edit your photos down to around ten of your best shots for an online gallery to showcase the marathon and the individuals who allowed you into their lives for the day. Share the link with the organizers, participants and friends. If the organization that hosted the event has a Facebook page, post the link there as a way for more participants to see and share the photos. If you captured video or audio as well, consider putting together a short video mixing your photos with the other media formats.

Charity Miles gives a thumbs-up as she passes her dad on Brownlee road during the Sandhills half-marathon. "When I was in high school my family was still pretty new to the whole running thing and they were very afraid that I would get hurt or someone would kidnap me if I went out running by myself even way out here in the Sandhills so they would drive along the highway at like 4mph for umpteen miles at a time. As embarrassing as that is to admit, but that’s kind of how I started running on Brownlee Road."
Charity Miles gives a thumbs-up as she passes her dad on Brownlee road during the Sandhills half-marathon. "When I was in high school my family was still pretty new to the whole running thing and they were very afraid that I would get hurt or someone would kidnap me if I went out running by myself even way out here in the Sandhills so they would drive along the highway at like 4mph for umpteen miles at a time. As embarrassing as that is to admit, but that’s kind of how I started running on Brownlee Road."

Hopefully this provides you with a few good ideas to dive deeper into a typical event and bring home images that are more interesting and unexpected. Don’t be afraid of taking a risk and stepping out of your comfort zone! Enjoy your time shooting and if you have any experiences you’d like to share feel free to leave them in the comment section. I’d love to hear about what has worked for you or what you wish you had known sooner.

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