This is the second in a series of posts about things I've learned over the past five years of photographing high school sports.
You can download a shareable album of my favorite cross country photos here.
1. Get there early
Every cross country course has its unique and challenging sections. It can be a difficult hill late in the course, a muddy stretch, or a creek to cross. And some of them can be a bit of a hike to get to. Get there early, see if you can get a map, and then take a walk in the park.
2. Know the course
I try to get two or three different angles to shoot in a single race. That's not always possible, but there are often places on the course where the runners either loop back on the same stretch or come close enough that you can get to another spot easily. Know this stuff ahead of time, and plan your approach.
3. Understand where the sun is and where it will be
I love to photograph the XC course at Woodgrove High School in Purcellville, VA. In the past, I've shot that course after 4:30 on a fall afternoon. The color of light is perfect, but the angle of light is severe, and you have to understand when the runners are coming in to the sun or out of it. A few weeks ago, I shot the same course at 8:00 in the morning, and everything was completely turned around because the sun was coming from the other side of the course. Sometimes, such as at an invitational meet, there can be multiple races over several hours. In that case, a shot that was perfect in the first race may not be available in the next.
4. Sit on the curve
One of the fundamentals of running is to take the turn on the inside. If runners are moving with any pace, they will lean into a curve creating a dynamic flow to your image. On a cross country course, the curves often come with a change in elevation, too, so you get even more lean and more motion in your shot.
5. Take a chair
Whoever invented those collapsible sideline chairs was an absolute genius. Especially for big meets with multiple races, finding a good spot for the shot and planting your chair on just the right angle couldn't be more enjoyable. It's a whole lot better than standing for hours waiting for a few fleeting seconds of shooting time. And then, when you have to move to a new spot it's easy to pick up and relocate.
6. Skip the finish
There are times where I HAVE to get the finish line shot, but most of the time I skip it. That's where everyone waits to get the shot of their favorite runner, and I don't blame them. But if you do a little homework, and head out on the course you can get unique perspectives that no one else sees. I love to sit in the woods or on the most remote part of the course to create an image that is one of a kind.
7. Mud is your friend
Recently I covered an invitational meet that included nine races over a period of six hours. It rained the whole time. The whole time. And, boy, was that muddy section great! Going in or coming out, the runners were splashing, slipping, sloshing and competing as hard as they possible could. They were soaked and caked in mud, and their expressions ran the gamut from having fun to hating life. And, guess what? They had to do it three times in each race. Guess what else? No one else got in the brush to capture those photographs. Yes, sure, I got muddy, too, but it was worth every second.
8. Be prepared to move
Occasionally, I will take my 300mm f2.8 lens with me, but most of the time my 70-200mm f2.8 does just fine. The longer lens is great, but if I have to move quickly to get to another spot, I'd rather only be worrying about the shorter, lighter one. It still has plenty of range to cover the course and get the angles I want. Everything I have with me from gear to water to food has to fit into my backpack so I can relocate fast. And I always put everything in exactly the same place so there's no searching for the extra batteries, memory cards, keys or whatever.
9. Experimenting is a good idea
I need to do more of this, but because shooting a big meet usually involves a lot of waiting, there is plenty of time for creativity. Try out different lenses and angles. If you can get low, shooting up at runners crossing a creek, for example, can provide awesome results. If you can get high, meaning on an overlook, try that, too. I've also employed a GoPro camera on burst mode. I'll stick it on a ground level tripod and put it near a turn and then time the runners coming by for the burst period. Not always good results, but sometimes some pretty cool stuff.
10. Have fun
As I say at the end of every list, if you don't enjoy what you're doing, your shots will say so. Let yourself be absorbed by the course, the runners, the weather, the scenery. Love the sweat, the mud, the stress, the tears, the determination, and try to find them with your camera. Be a storyteller by living the story of the race and then capturing it in frame.