Capturing Middle School Cross Country

For those of you who are thinking about photographing middle school and high school cross country, here are some tips to get you started.

Topics:

  • The right gear
  • The right settings
  • The right spot / perspective

First of all, this is a tricky situation — no matter how hard you position yourself, this is a chaotic scene that you do not control, so you will get shots with unwanted objects, extra limbs, weird expressions, etc in the photo.

Don’t beat yourself up. Try your best and shoot a lot.


Get the right gear

1) Get something that shoots at a high frame rate

Sorry. If you have an old camera that shoots only 3 fps (probably only in single focus mode), then it isn’t going to be easy to capture good shots. Even at 5+ fps in continuous mode, most of the shots won’t be flattering or even look like they are in motion.

You need lots of frames in order to capture that exact frame that is both (looks like the runner is in motion and looks flattering).

  • 5 fps continuous is doable (that’s what my Fuji X-T1 can do)
  • 8-12+ fps continuous is better (that’s what the Fuji X-T2 can do)
  • But you probably don’t need 16 fps (plus that’s a lot of frames to sort through )

2) Get something that has a lot of central focus points

An old camera with only 9 focus points isn’t going to cut it easily. You might get the runner or you might get the grass in the background in focus.

What you need are big clusters of central focus points that are cross type (as in they find contrast difference in both the horizontal and vertical direction thus making them faster and more accurate).

3) Lenses

I like shooting with my 50-140mm, but I’ve also shot 50-230mm, 70-200mm and occasionally with 18-55mm.

My personal preference is NOT to use the 18-55mm. By the time the runners are close enough to shoot at 55mm, they are moving too quickly toward me to get many good shots, plus shots made this close aren’t the shots that most people want. Most want those majestic shots of them running at the camera and not those side shots with only half of their face visible.


Use the right settings

1) Shoot in continuous mode

Unlike some sports that can be shot in a burst of single focus (and therefore faster drive speed) because the athletes aren’t moving closer or farther away too fast, cross country runners are always running away or towards you so continuous focus is the only option.

2) Shoot fast (shutter speed) with stabilizer off

I like to eek out every little bit of sharpness, so I leave the stabilizer off when I’m shooting sports.

My preference is for 1/2000. That might seem like overkill, but runners are moving very fast, and I’ve seen more motion blur in faces at slower speeds. At 1/2000, it seems to catch faces well.

But on cloudy days, 1/2000 might not be possible even at high ISOs. Plus, all of our meets were just after school and very close to sunset. Just do the best that you can.

And that doesn’t mean don’t be creative. If you are good at shooting slow and panning to get that creative motion blur, go for it!

3) Shoot now then crop later

Don’t try to keep the perfect composition at every moment. Things are moving fast and getting the right people in focus and getting the shots while they are in frame are your first priorities.

Keep who you want in the frame in the center and allow padding around them to compensate for sudden moves or tracking problems.

Turn prefocus off

Some cameras have the ability to prefocus to help in most situations. This isn’t useful in cross country since it wanders away from where you need it when there are no runners or when you point away, then when you need it, it has to spend precious time getting back into focus.

For more Fuji tips, go to my Supercharge Your Fuji X post.


Find the right spot/perspective to shoot

At the starting line

Don’t get too close. All you will see is the side and back of their heads as they pass, and being further away will give you more time to shoot.

I prefer tight lenses over wide ones since wide will only emphasize the runners closest to you (which won’t look that great) and not give you the compressed look you see here (140-200mm):

A lot of the meets that I shoot are small so takeoff pictures aren’t anything to rave about (but I shoot a few for the parents anyway), but for big meets, I like to get a shot above the crowd so the stampede looks like it goes on-and-on.

Middle of the race

If some of your meets double back like some of our meets, you might be able to catch the runners 1 or 2 times before they head to the finish line. But don’t get tied down to having to catch them in the middle if it makes it hard for you to get to the finish line (if you want finish line shots).

Perspective

If you shoot standing up, your runners may have competing heads in the background like this:

But if get low (crouch down or get on your knees), you get less conflict and better separation. If you are like me (no spring chicken), then this can be painful, but worth the effort.

If you can’t get low to the ground, you can try to find a spot where they are just coming over a hill so the background runners are lower to them.

At the finish line

This is when the competitive runners are really digging in. You can get some nice expressions here along with more dynamic movement. (see below)

Hero shot

That’s the isolated shot of just one runner looking awesome. It’s tough to get especially if the runner you want is running near other runners.

Shoot low. It helps make the runners pop out of the background.

Keep in mind that not all runners have a heroic running expression. Many are just trying to complete the race.

Taking pictures of multiple runners

For those of you new to shooting multiple runners (or multiple award recipients, etc), find a sweet spot where your subjects will look best, shoot your subjects in that sweet spot (don’t follow too long) and quickly get back for the next subject.

I hope this helps some of you out there. Good luck!

 

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