When you’re photographing a soccer or baseball game, you don’t have to worry about which autofocus mode works best for capturing athletes crawling face down in the mud under a crisscross of sharp barbed wire. When shooting a Spartan Race, however, that’s exactly the kind of sports photography challenge you can expect.
Held all over the world, Spartan Races range from 3-mile Sprints to 12-mile Beasts and beyond. Each course is riddled with challenging obstacles, like leaping over a roaring bonfire or throwing an honest-to-goodness spear at a target. Chances are, you’ll come home from shooting a Spartan Race with muddy sneakers, sore muscles, and memory cards full of unique action shots.
Unlike many other big sports organizations, Spartan Race actually embraces enthusiast photographers. You can apply for a photo pass by emailing media@SpartanRace.com. “The pass offers access to pretty much everything except the climbing obstacles,” says veteran Spartan Race photographer Katlyn Evans.
Perhaps the best way to prepare to shoot a Spartan Race is to actually run one so you know what each obstacle feels like. “You want to be able to capture the obstacles from a participant’s point of view,” says Evans. “When you walk up to one of the wall obstacles, for instance, they tower over you, but it can feel small with the wrong crop or angle. Cropping out the top of the wall can make it feel like it goes up forever. Shooting from an upward angle with a wide lens can make the wall appear in the picture the way it feels in person.”
If you can’t make it to the course in advance, Spartan Race also puts full course maps and videos of the individual obstacles on its website so you can plan your strategy from the comfort of your laptop.
Obstacle races like these are sometimes colloquially referred to as “mud runs” for good reason, so it’s important to realize that any gear you bring has the potential to get seriously dirty. Go in with some plastic bags to protect your equipment and the knowledge that a full-on gear catastrophe is possible.
Kirk Speer, who has been photographing Spartan Races for five years, brings Nikon D3 camera bodies and a 200–500mm f/5.6E AF-S Nikon ED VR lens for its relatively compact size and range, but says the 70–200mm is a very popular option for its reach and versatility. “You can really get up close and get the flying mud and the water droplets with a telephoto lens,” he says. It can help you zoom in tight on athletes’ facial expressions, which will often show lots of emotion and sometimes, in these races, pain.
A wide-angle lens also comes in handy on the course, but you need to be willing to get dirty in order to get close enough to make the most of it. Speer shoots with a 14mm DX-mount lens that isn’t quite a fisheye but introduces some expected distortion at the edges to add drama. “You have to get close to use it, but that’s how I have always shot. It comes from my newspaper photography days,” Speer says. “You have to think like a photojournalist and get close enough to the action to fill the frame.”
Spartan course photographer Nate Price likes to bring a large kit, including several prime and zoom lenses, and even a few flash options such as a Canon Speedlite 580EX II flash. Remember that you may be lugging all that gear up and down a mountain, sometimes on treacherous terrain, so decide what type of shots you want before heading out to limit the amount of extra weight you’ll carry.
Looking for clean backgrounds that aren’t cluttered and won’t detract from the main action is a critical skill in any type of sports photography, but it’s particularly challenging during a Spartan Race with thousands of participants. Speer suggests using a long lens and a wide aperture to blur unwanted elements in the frame: “You want to be at f/4 or wider if your lens can handle it,” he advises.
Photobombers will be plentiful on the course, so Evans suggests using a telephoto lens to avoid getting them in your shots. “If someone sees you shooting, there’s a good chance they’ll throw up a peace sign in the background of your photo.” You just have to smile and shoot around them.
Evans also suggests using the unique elements of the course as a backdrop to help contextualize the images. “Make sure you include at least one obstacle that represents the signature scenery of the event,” she recommends. “If they’re racing in Montana, you’re going to want to see some pictures that include a beautiful lake or the mountains in the distance.”
Setting the Camera
As with any event that involves fast-moving subjects, focusing can be a particularly tricky piece of the puzzle. Many modern DSLRs and interchangeable-lens compact cameras are fairly adept at tracking moving objects as long as focus tracking is enabled on your camera (check the manual for specific instructions).
If you find that your camera’s autofocus is having a hard time keeping up, pre-focus on a single spot and wait for a racer to enter your plane of focus. This will help eliminate the possibility that autofocus will grab onto the wrong object and miss the moment. Face detection is also useful. Speer focuses on the eyes of his subjects to keep them sharp.
“How you shoot on the course really depends on your style,” says Speer. His preferred method is to shoot in manual exposure mode using automatic ISO. “That way I use aperture and shutter speed to control my depth of field or motion blur without having to worry about ISO.”
If your goal is to freeze action, shutter-priority mode can come in handy for keeping shutter speeds above 1/400 sec, which will mostly freeze a running competitor. Going up to 1/1000 sec and beyond will be even more effective.
Since the courses are so spread out, each obstacle will be affected differently by the changes in daylight. “Some obstacles are best to shoot in the morning, while others are best in the afternoon,” says Evans. “If you figure out where the sun will be early in the day, you will end up with better pictures.”
Obstacles that are tucked into the woods give you more flexibility, while others that are in wide-open terrain require more careful planning to get good light.
“Unlike other sports,” says Speer, “you can camp out at a specific obstacle and practice until you get the timing right and get the exact shot you want.” He recommends trying this method at an obstacle such as the Dunk Wall, where racers have to be fully submerged in water to go under a barrier. When they re-emerge, there’s an opportunity for a dramatic shot with lots of splashing and water flying everywhere.
Evans suggests finding the bottleneck spots on the course to get group-style action shots that show the camaraderie among the racers. “The teamwork is really impressive. I like to capture shots where people help each other through tough obstacles. It tells a really cool story.” An obstacle such as the Wall Jump encourages runners to work together, which creates great interaction between subjects.
The finish line is also a great place to capture emotional scenes. People are celebrating and hugging their loved ones,” says Speer. “It’s a great place to get dramatic photo-journalistic images. You want to capture more than the action. You want to capture the emotion.”