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Pasadena Half Marathon (a guide to shooting moving objects)

As a professional freelance photographer, I find myself doing all types of photography. Wedding and Travel photography will always be a preference; but when business is slow, the bills have to get paid somehow. Last weekend, I applied and was then hired to work for something I’m not too polished at: Sports Photography. The Location was Pasadena Half Marathon, and the job was to capture the runners there. After remembering the football, volleyball, and basketball images I shot in High School Yearbook, I knew my skills were lackluster. I’d cringe at the very sight of my old images now. Determined to hone my skills in every type of visual storytelling, I decided to do some research and pay close attention to the other photographers that were contracted that day. This would surely help me improve as a wedding photographer as well. After this event, I learned how to better photograph sports photography and made AI Servo my new best friend.

I have found that the best way to solidify new information, is to teach what you have learned to someone else. So here I am with my thoughts, tips, and tricks for you!

Pasadena Half Marathon

Before I get started, let’s go over what I was shooting with that day:

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV Full Frame Digital SLR Camera Body

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens for Canon SLR Cameras

Yup. It was a two item shoot kinda day. Of course, if you’re truly interested in shooting marathons and running events, there are waaaay cheaper and lighter alternatives to the items I’ve listed above that would get the job done perfectly.All you need is a fast Camera with a decent auto focusing system and a long focal length.  That being said, here’s the first tip: It doesn’t matter how pricey your gear is. It’s far more important that you learn how to shoot properly and know the functions of your camera. Sports photography is quick. You really have to know what you’re doing – setting wise.

Pasadena Half Marathon AI ServoDoesn’t this guy’s hair look majestic?


I shot in Aperture Priority mode with a maximum f/stop of 4.0, making sure my shutter speed was over at least 640th of a second at all times (keeping my ISO as low as possible). Most of my images that day were at the further focal range of my lens – 200mm. Also, AI SERVO focusing mode is the way to go for this type of photography.

There’s a very big misconception that “Pro Photographers” shoot everything in Manual. There’s an even bigger problem with amateur photographers who deem their worth by only shooting in manual settings all the time. The truth is: learning manual settings when you start is fantastic. It teaches you how to use the “exposure triangle” and you start seeing the types of images you want to create before you shoot them. You definitely learn your settings faster when you’re shooting in Manual mode ; however, when you get pass the basics of photography, learning different shooting modes is definitely beneficial as well.


I shoot in Manual most of the time too; however, in this case, with the sporadic rain and clouds, I found that shooting in Aperture Priority mode gave me more time to focus on the 7,500 runners I had to shoot, instead of fidgeting with my camera settings every time the clouds moved in front of the sun. Keeping a constant aperture of 4.0 at 200mm also gave me a beautiful creamy background while keeping the subject nice and sharp.  It also gave me a consistent look to all my images. No post processing (editing) required woot woot.


Again, sports photography is quick. You’re going to need a fast shutter speed to freeze the moment. I kept my ISO as low as possible to avoid any grain and to keep my images sharp and crispy.

Pasadena Half Marathon Sports Photography


Of course, this is probably one of the most important aspect of any type of photography. Framing and composing your shot is key to developing a good image. It’s no different here. Give your subject room to breathe, but too much headroom is no bueno. If your subjects are moving, lead them towards one side of the frame to convey that movement. Also, use lines and isolation to distinguish your subjects and make them stand out.

Here’s a good tip for newer photographers: We all know that if you want a blurry background you need a big aperture, which means you have to lower your f stop. Did you know that shooting at a longer focal length also increases this effect? If you did, kudos to you! I wanted to isolate my subjects from the background and from other runners. At the focal length of 200mm, it gave me the ability to do so. It also gave me enough space to get tight shots, while not being in the way of the runners.

There’s this tip I like remembering from time to time. I’m not quite sure how it really goes or who said it, but here’s the gist of it:

“If your photographs sucks, get closer.” 

someone pointed out that this can also mean closer emotionally. Now, that’s deep.


I have been shooting for quite a while now; but only recently, have I been experimenting with different focusing modes. Coming from the Canon EOS 6D  and shooting mostly portraits and stationary objects, I would use the “Focus and Recompose method.” This meant I would focus on my subject using  a single focus point (usually the middle) on Single Shot Auto Focus mode (often the eyes of a person), and then move my camera and re frame the image. Since there is no plane shift in the frame (relative distance from me to the subject) the person would still be in focus and I could compose my picture however I liked. This was how I shot most things. It was no wonder I sucked at anything that required movement. I would have to take 10 pictures of someone moving in order to get one picture I was barely satisfied with. After I discovered how to use AI SERVO focusing mode, I no longer had the days where I would have to say:

“Can you walk towards me a little slower? Can you do that again? One more time. Maybe don’t walk this time. Just pretend like you’re walking.”


For those of you who don’t know what AI SERVO mode is, it’s a focusing mode that tracks movement. First, select an AF point; then, place your subject on that area or AF point and watch the magic work. Since my Aperture was at 4.0, It gave me enough leeway to not have to focus on the eyes and still get my subject in pin sharp focus. Instead of focusing and trying to re frame while my subject was running towards me, I picked a focus point in the viewfinder, placed my subject in it (whether it be the runner’s chest or bib), and concentrated on framing my shot correctly while the runners ran towards me. Most shots were in focus and correctly framed. Yay again for no post process cropping.

Photographing Sports Photography

So the next time you’re shooting a moving object, or more specifically a marathon, keep these tips in mind. I hope they help you out. AV mode for consistent lighting and speed, An aperture opening that will blur the background, but still keep the entire subject in focus, A long focal length to get close but not be in the way of your subjects,  A high shutter speed to freeze the action, low ISO for sharp images, keep subject isolation and framing in mind, and use AI SERVO for tracking movement. Happy shooting all!

Also kudos to the amazing runners who ran their half marathon in the freezing rain. You guys crazy.

– Christopher

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