Some events are just plain fun to shoot from beginning to end. One of my favorite types of sporting events to cover is the Spartan Race. Basically a combination of long-distance running with a supersized obstacle course, a Spartan Race is an extreme athletic event that attracts thousands of athletes from elite to weekend warrior. I enjoy shooting these races because they offer so many exciting elements: color, drama, showmanship, grit, stamina, and humor. Adding to the photographic fun quotient are the glorious natural surroundings, the photogenic and extraordinarily fit athletes, and the wide range of athletic rigors required of them.
In this post I’ll present some of my images from this past weekend’s Super Spartan Race held near Sacramento, California. I will also share some tips on how to capture the best of a big and sprawling event like this one.
The Spartan Race organization recognizes and welcomes professional and enthusiast photographers more readily than do many US sporting authorities. For any large sporting event, I apply several weeks in advance for a media (or press) pass so that I can bring in all my gear, shoot in all areas including those off-limits to spectators, gain free or reduced-price entrance and parking, and access VIP areas. I’ve found the Spartan Race organizers to be quite helpful and understanding of what working photographers do.
Yours truly with media badge. This pass is important for the professional, as it allows access to otherwise off-limits areas and lets athletes and officials know you’re a working photographer.
One point to keep in mind when covering an endurance event spread out over long distances is that as a photographer, you will experience some portion of the rigors the athletes face. The Super Spartan Race traverses a course about 8 miles long over steep and often muddy hills, interspersed with a couple of dozen obstacles of different types. While I don’t typically try to cover all of the obstacles, it’s important to get a reasonable sample of the different challenges, so I do usually hike quite a few miles during the course of the day. Photographers with a media pass have access to the whole course, but there are no special roads or ramps to get us there. We have to trek up and down the same hills, through the same mud, and over the same terrain as the athletes do. So come prepared for a bit of a workout!
The starting line is a good place to set the stage for your photo essay. There is usually a DJ and music to get the athletes pumped up for the race. Everyone is fresh, clean, and excited at this early stage. Buy this photo
In addition to portraits and close-ups of individual athletes, it’s important to capture some establishing shots to set the context of the race. I like to get some images of large contingents of athletes running over the hills. I shoot from a distance, but often use a telephoto lens to compress the perspective and emphasize the massive scale of these races. Buy this photo
When shooting individual athletes on the obstacles, use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action and a relatively small aperture to blur the background. Buy this photo
Portraits of athletes don’t have to be in the cliche pose of standing, legs apart, on the ground flexing their biceps. Athletes are happy to pose in the midst of whatever they’re doing when they see a photographer nearby. Buy this photo
After finishing the course, athletes gather in the festival area. This is a great place to make portraits. The athletes are exhausted and muddy but in a celebratory mood. Buy this photo
Spartan athletes in the festival area display strength as well as excitement for having completed the race. Buy this photo
The finish line itself is a dramatic vantage point. In this particular race, athletes must jump over a line of fire to finish the course. I shot from a low perspective to emphasize the height of the jump, and used a fast shutter speed and small aperture to freeze the moment and isolate the athlete from the background. Buy this photo
This image works so well because the shooting angle looking upward from below emphasizes the athlete’s power, and because the timing captured her expression at just the perfect moment. I shot many frames to increase the likelihood of capturing the right moment, and, once again, I chose a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion along with a small aperture to blur the background. Buy this photo
The shower area at the end of the race was taken over by hordes of kids who used the hoses for water play. Humorous moments like this one lend a playful element to the day’s portfolio of images. Buy this photo
An iconic Spartan Race image. I captured the strenuous activity of carrying buckets filled with sand by shooting from a distance with a telephoto lens. This technique compresses the perspective to include more athletes in the frame while still showing the strain on their faces. Buy this photo
I like to seek out the athletes who have something special to say. This racer stopped for a moment so I could make a portrait. His flag makes a nice counterpoint to the rolling hills and featureless sky in the background. Buy this photo
Although Spartan Race athletes are fierce competitors, they also make an effort to support one another and cheer their fellow racers on. I enjoy capturing these interactions because these moments often tell a strong story visually. Buy this photo
What are your favorite sporting events to shoot? Do you have tips you can share for making great images of athletes?