If you’ve liked any of Eliud Kipchoge or Geoffrey Kamworor’s shots on Instagram in the past few years, there’s a chance that Dan Vernon took that photo. Dan is one of the main photographers for the NN Running Team, which is a professional team sponsored by Global Sports Communication and Nike. The group includes Kipchoge, Kamworor, Kenenisa Bekele and many more of the world’s most accomplished distance runners. We wanted to know what it was like for someone like Dan to get an inside look at the training and races of those athletes because his work tends to tell the stories.
Dan is based in Manchester, England so we exchanged a couple emails to put together this interview so that you can get to know him. You can follow him and his work on Instagram – @DanVernonPhoto. The following interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
CITIUS MAG: When did you get your start in sports photography?
DAN VERNON: I first started in sports photography with the Great Run series of races here in the United Kingdom. They have a series of fantastic events where elite athletics and mass participation mix. I absolutely love shooting a race right through. From the elites finishing in world class times to the guy dressed as a zebra finishing as the sun goes down, everybody is on the same journey but just at a slightly different pace.
CITIUS MAG: How did you land with the NN Running team?
DV: I’m not even sure to be honest. Jurrie van Der Velden, who is an athlete manager with Global Sports Communication (who represent the NN athletes), has been a friend for many years after photographing his athletes at races and I think he may have passed on my details. This is almost always the way I’ve found work since the start of my career. It is all about word of mouth, hopefully doing a good job for people and having them recommend you. It’s an extra bit of pressure when you’ve been recommended by a friend. Don’t mess up!
CM: How has sports photography changed since you started?
DV: You are making me feel old now, mate but it has certainly changed. I’ve been a freelance photographer for about 10 years now – not always sport but over the last six or seven years that has been the majority of my work. I started shooting as digital photography really took off so the advance in equipment has been rapid. It’s hard to keep up but I think if you find something that is working for you. Don’t worry too much about the next new camera or lens. There’ll be another new one soon anyway. The major difference since I started has been social media. It is impossible to overstate how much of an influence that has had on photography in a number of ways. It wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t get exposure for your work anywhere unless it was in print or on a website. Nowadays, you are your own publication and I absolutely love that. It’s great to see what other people are doing and learn, also to chat with other photographers. It used to be a pretty lonely business but now you can share it with people all over the world.
CM: How do you go about planning your day and where you’re going to be along the course during a race?
DV: This can differ depending on who I’m shooting for and what the aim is. You may be covering the event as a whole, shooting for a brand or team or going specifically for certain athletes. This will all alter your plan for the day. It is also affected by the distance. The majority of the races I have to cover now are marathons so there is usually a possibility to get to different positions and the finish too. I’ll always explore a course beforehand. The process starts with Google Maps and Street View to get an idea of what looks interesting and also what’s possible. Then I’ll usually get on a bike and go to see some sites properly, what looked good on street view doesn’t always work out. I don’t go to London very often so when I looked on Google and found an awesome spot on the marathon course with Big Ben in the background, I thought I’d nailed it. When I went to see it before the race I realized that the entire thing was covered in scaffolding so I had to find a different shot pretty quickly. I think the key is to plan ahead but don’t try to do too much. Pick a couple of spots and do them well. Also be flexible in the shot you choose because when the athletes finally appear, it happens fast. So, if a police bike or timing car is in the way, you need to be ready to get a different shot and have it in your mind ready.
CM: Being a photographer in athletics, you also seem to have great understanding of the sport that helps you. What’s your running background?
DV: Zero. Having an older brother who ran competitively and is now a coach, I gained my limited knowledge of running through him. I learn more all the time and being around athletes so much helps you really pick up on a lot. But, I have never been a runner. I run to keep fit but I don’t run competitively. I’ve always been involved in team sports so it is interesting to see the similarities and differences with athletics. For some stupid reason, my brother, Steve, decided to sign me up for my debut marathon in September. He thought it would be fun to make me do the Jungfrau Marathon in the Swiss Alps. It climbs 1,800 meters so it may be the last thing I ever do.
CM: If you were to put together a checklist of what shots you’re hoping to achieve, what are you looking for? Is it a shot of the winner crossing the finish line? A wide angle shot on the timer in case of a world record? Reaction and emotion around ?
DV: I tend to be fairly reactive on race day so I don’t have much of a plan in terms of shots. I’ll have an idea of where I want to be, but not what I’ll get. Things happen in front of you if you are in the right place, so you’ve just got to be ready to get whatever looks interesting and will tell a story. That’s what we are there to do – tell the story for people who weren’t there. So the less images you can do that in, the better. I wont always commit to a finish line shot. Sometimes I think I can show a different story by being elsewhere. My job isn’t usually as press and I’m lucky to work for people who allow me to try something a bit different sometimes. For me, the emotion of sport is everything. Running can often be slightly limiting visually as the body position is almost always the same. You can use the background and your angle to give interest, but the emotion of an athlete has the real power to engage the viewer.
CM: What equipment do you use?
DV: For photographs, I use Canon. For video, I use Sony with Canon lenses. I’m really not into tech that much. I try to buy well and then use it until it falls apart. When you treat your camera as badly as I do it helps if it’s well built.
CM: With a marathon, there’s 26.2 miles of action but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have lots of opportunities to get the key shot. How much time do you actually have to get what you want?
DV: For anyone who hasn’t seen marathon running up close, the pace is frightening. For most of us, try sprinting down your street as fast as you can for 100 meters, it’s faster than that. No matter how many times I see it, it always surprises me. Plan your shot and be ready for anything, elite level marathon runners tend to come with an entourage of cars and bikes so something will always get in the way. Unless you are on a motorbike for a race (they only usually allow one or two), it’s hard to get the luxury of a head on shot so your options are usually at an angle or side on, this gives you even less time as they fly past!
CM: Every photo position is fought for when you’re in a scrum. How would you describe the intensity between photographers or is there an established camaraderie between certain people?
DV: That very much depends who is in that scrum…I try to avoid those areas as it usually means you have the same shot as 20 other people. Sometimes you can’t avoid it though. Everybody has a job to do so it’s just a case of everyone allowing each other some space and respecting everyone. The golden rules are: Once you’ve got your position, stick to it. Moving could ruin the shot for someone behind you. If you turn up late, you’ve got to stay at the back. Running in front just before an athlete crosses the line wont get you many friends. Some people can get pretty angry in there but most will be OK afterwards. If you are polite and good to people, then they will help you out if you need it in the future. If you act like an idiot, you aren’t going to get any favors.
CM: If you were to pick one shot of Eliud from 2018 that tells the story of his entire year of training, which would it be and why?
Tough one. The guy is just incredible to photograph. I’m so fortunate to be able to document his training and races but this image from Berlin sums it all up for me. It’s not much of a photograph but for me it was the moment I knew he was going to do it. He was becoming increasingly calm in the days leading up to the race, we’d had a great experience meeting all the fans and it seemed to me that really helped him relax. The photograph here is him on the bus heading off to the race, like everybody else he has his bag for all his belongings on his lap, again the essence of elites and the masses being equal in marathon racing. He just stared out of the window the whole way, immense pressure on his shoulders but he didn’t seem to have a care in the world.
DV: What photographers do you admire?
There are so many, I like seeing what other athletics photographers are doing, people are creating amazing images and really pushing creatively. Running in general is expanding from general track and road racing to an entire subculture. It means our opportunities now range from urban environments with city running clubs to extreme racing in the deserts and snow. I enjoy taking influence from photographers who are shooting in environments not normally associated with running. I love being surprised by a sports photograph. It isn’t easy to do so when someone achieves it so they should be celebrated.