Ask anyone who works in sports media in any capacity — be it broadcasting, producing, or photography — what the most thrilling aspect of the job is and most will say one thing:
Live event production.
There’s nothing like covering a game or race, knowing that you get one chance to say the right thing or capture the best image. Boulder-based sports photographer Matt Trappe recently journeyed to rainy, slippery Portland to shoot the boys’ and girls’ Nike Cross Nationals for Runner’s World. The competition brought together the best high school cross country runners in America. Having already covered a participating team local to him, Matt pitched the NXN story to RW, who was happy to have the veteran photographer working with them once again.
I have been working with RW on assignments and cover shoots for several years now. I often pitch them events and stories I’d personally like to shoot, such as this one. I had been following a local cross country team here in Colorado as a personal project and pitched the NXN shoot as a continuation of that work.
Though the magazine wanted Matt to get shots of the runners considered the favorites to win the races, much of his imagery focused on the charged emotions inherent to such a grueling event.
The shoot took place over the course of a few hours on a Saturday morning, with both races being 5Ks. The boys raced first, followed by the girls.
The goal was a gallery of “best of” images from the event. The brief from RW specified a few runners that were expected to win to provide ‘news’ coverage of the event, but the rest of the brief was open for me to capture the details, grit, and emotion that I like to focus on.
When it comes to figuring out how to shoot this race — or any live sporting event, for that matter — preparation is key. Matt got to the venue hours before the 5Ks started, which gave him a chance to do some personal location scouting as well as cull some inside information about the race. Since the event took place on a typically rainy Pacific Northwest morning, Matt also made sure to dress for the occasion.
I always arrive as early as possible, especially if I don’t know the course or event very well. Before the race, I’m scouting and gathering as much info as possible so I can anticipate everything, recognize the runners on my shot list, and move around the course efficiently. There’s a lot to learn from talking to other photographers, event organizers, and coaches.
I also wear clothes I’m okay with destroying. Shoots like this are where my old running shoes go to die. By the end of the shoot, I’m covered in mud and soaking wet.
If you’ve ever sat near the photographers at any sporting event, you might’ve noticed a good number of them have multiple cameras slung across their bodies. Matt’s setup is no different, but this being an outdoor race during inclement weather, he needed some extra protection for his gear.
I’ll have two cameras over my shoulders on a shoot like this: one with a 24-70mm lens and the other with a 70-200mm lens. Lots of photographers use a bunch of plastic to cover their cameras, but I find that way too cumbersome and distracting. I typically just throw a few hotel towels in the pockets of my rain jacket and wipe off the cameras here and there. Good cameras can take a fair bit of abuse in these conditions.
With all of the legwork taken care of, the Colorado resident could focus solely on the races, which don’t take very long at all. As he’s gained more experience in this specific genre of photography, Matt has found a sweet spot in terms of getting quality shots without taking too long to try and photograph any single part of the event.
Each race takes fewer than 20 minutes, so once the gun goes off it’s a mad rush. I’m basically shooting constantly while running all over the place.
There’s a balance between being patient for a shot I really want and not spending too much time on any one thing. Other than that, I just let everything go and am completely focused on observing, anticipating, and shooting without thinking too much.
The meat of this story comes in the form of the arrestingly emotional mid- and post-race shots. These athletes are pushing their bodies as far as they can go, so in order for Matt to do the event justice, he has to get as close to the runners as possible without getting in their way. This is where years and years of experience — along with chumming it up with the event staff — comes in handy.
It’s important not to be afraid to get right up in there. Having shot a lot of running events, I feel comfortable knowing where that line is for most runners. Proper credentials are also critical to access the best areas and angles. This is where chatting with the event organizers beforehand helps a lot. If you gain their trust, you’ll have a lot more freedom to roam.
For me, these shots above are my favorite because they best capture the exhaustion, camaraderie, and emotion of a high-stakes national championship race. The kids pour so much into this race and their intentions are so pure. It’s really refreshing and inspiring to be around.
Though primarily a sports and outdoor lifestyle photographer, Matt is no stranger to commercial shoots of all kinds. While the Coloradoan loves the organic, palpable passion that’s so intertwined with live events and less common on commercial sets, he also notes that working in the former setting helps him in the latter.
I really love shooting races like this for two reasons. One, the emotion and environment are incredibly raw and honest. You can’t replicate that on a commercial shoot. And two, a shoot like this goes a long way to make me a better and more efficient commercial photographer.
After the uncontrolled chaos of a race with hundreds of runners in pouring rain and mud, I am even more comfortable on a fast-paced commercial shoot because I can suddenly control and predict the subjects, location, and light. There’s a great balance there.
Check out more of Matt’s work at trappephoto.com.
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