Trail running in the mountains is getting bigger and bigger here in North America. The sports’ increasing popularity is also creating a huge demand for photographers well versed in photographing it. I’ve been photographing trail running professionally for over three years now. This is what I’ve learned.
Story > Everything Else.
This is universally true with photography. However, I find it especially applies to trail running. Why? It’s not high action like other sports. It’s not ripping on downhill bikes. It isn’t flipping off 100″ vertical jumps into pow. It’s running. So how do you make an endurance sport as compelling as a high action sport like snowboarding or mountain biking? Easy. The story.
The photo above was taken in the middle of the African summer in the oldest desert on earth during a huge expedition called Trans Namibia. The two runners in frame were running 1850 km across the Namib Desert. The runners were raising awareness and for their not for profit organization that empowers youth to explore the world by facilitating youth expeditions. The photo becomes instantly more compelling with just a touch of context.
Flip the Script. Change the Viewers Perspective.
I was running in one of my favourite places on earth, Canmore Alberta. I was descending down the back side of a popular mountain in the area. Every few minutes I had to dump pebbles out of my shoe because their was so much loose, dry scree. I instantly recognized that so many runners could relate to this feeling. I pulled out my wide angle and snapped a photo of my pouring pebbles out of my shoe.
Photographing trail running in a way that takes the viewers on a journey and pulls them into, not just the landscape, but the actual experience of being there is the ultimate goal. Pulling them into your world for a brief moment. That’s special, that’s what outdoor photography is all about. And that’s what you should be aiming for when photographing trail running.
Photographing Trail Running and Its’ In-between Moments.
I shot this at 3 day stage race. The runner pictured here had his feet completely mangled from the 150 km he had just ran. His feet looked like ground beef. The photo manages to tell so much about his 3 day experience. Best part is, it has nothing directly to do with “running”. Images like this leave a lot to the imagination. Instantly you start to wonder how gnarly the trails were, to destroy his feet so badly he had to soak them in Ice.
Sometimes the best trail running photos are taken at camp. Maybe they’re taken pre race, post race, at a hut, the trailhead, parking lot, home. There are so many in-between moments that build a better visual story by bridging the gap with powerful suggestions rather than obviously visual descriptions.
Don’t Forget the Details.
I wouldn’t usually think to take a “detail” shot on a wide angle. It just happened that the detail of the water droplets were wide spread. The message remains true though. Whether your shooting your frame tight or wide, it’s important to incorporate little details, not just massive sweeping landscapes.
Honestly, big landscapes and little runners can sometimes be a little bit of a gimmick. Too many shots like that can dilute your ability to share the entire experience. Remember, immersing your viewer in the moment, and telling a story is the key here. Not just beauty shots and low hanging fruit. Include some details. Include a lot of details!
Put Away Your Camera on Blue Bird Days.
Stormy skies add are my secret specialty sauce when it comes to trail running. Like I said early, running isn’t high action. So you have to be creative to compel your viewers. Weather is always an interesting element to have in your photos. Landscapes are rarely photographed before or after storms. People aren’t used to seeing dramatic, sometimes melancholy photos with trail runners as the subject!
Photographing Trail Running Events are Like Commercial Shoots on Speed.
It’s going to be easier to get your feet wet photographing trail running events than picking up commercial gigs right away. Shooting races is a great way to get involved with the trail running community, meet athletes, and give you more opportunities as a result. Commercial trail running gigs are a lot easier to shoot, but harder to come by.
If you can create “commercial-like” compositions for 200 real-life race participants running their guts out, you’ll be that much better at creating stronger compositions for ad companies with a controlled environment and model when the opportunity presents itself.
…And I don’t mean in Lightroom! Plan ahead. I knew what to expect on our trail running trip to the Yukon. I chose a jacket that would stand out against the often cloudy skies, and the green environment. Had I chosen a black or green jacket, I would have been completely lost in 90% of the photos I had taken during my trip.