LAST UPDATED: 4 December 2023
Race Photography: Know Your Options
Could your race photos be worth more to you if you gave them away for free? We look at emerging models of taking and distributing race photos
Cost item or revenue stream? Merchandise or marketing tool? The way you approach race photography says a lot about your race's business model and positioning with respect to competition.
The truth is race photography is changing. As revenues from photo sales decline, and cell phone cameras and social media improve, race directors, sponsors and participants are looking at other models to keep race photography relevant and economically viable.
So what's the best way forward? And what would work best for your race and stakeholders? We look at your options.
The story so far
For years race directors have viewed race photos as a nice secondary revenue stream for their events. Much like premium merchandise, race photos were produced at little or no cost to the event and made available for sale to participants willing to pay for them.
This model, which has served the industry for decades, worked a bit like this:
- A race director would commission a photographer (usually a specialist race photographer) to take photos during the race.
- The photographer might be paid a fixed fee, nothing at all, or even pay the event for the right to take photos plus an agreed upon commission.
- In turn, the photographer would upload the photos, sort them, sell them, and return the agreed commission to the event.
Once a no-brainer, this approach to race photography is now in decline. The rise of social media and the smartphone camera have thrown open the arena of race photography to amateurs, and put additional demands on the way and speed with which participants demand to have their photos delivered. Many participants who would once pay $10-20 (£8-15) for a snap of themselves during the race are no longer doing so.
In response to this decline in demand, many photo companies have chosen to raise their prices. It is not unusual in some cases for a single image to be sold at $30, with full sets going for $100+. This has only served to increase frustration among participants who face paying close to a second registration fee for their race photos.
So if not this traditional paid model, then what?
New approaches to race photography
If you are rethinking your options around race photography or finding the traditional paid-photo model paying fewer and fewer dividends in terms of revenue and racer satisfaction, there are alternatives to consider.
The free photos model
Some race organisers have been quick to recognise that in the age of social media, letting participants enjoy free race photos they can share online can be a very powerful publicity tool. Indeed, according to Running USA’s National Runner Survey, word of mouth remains top among ways runners use to discover races, so helping participants spread the word for you makes a lot of sense.
To accommodate this new reality, services have emerged whose business model is to provide free photos to your race participants. How many photos exactly and how "free" depends on the service: some services make photos free forever, others only for a limited time or quantity.
MyBibNumber in the UK is a good example. They will shoot your race for free and make available two free race photos per participant, with additional photos offered on a paid basis (with a percentage of the revenue coming back to the race director). In the US, Capstone Photography offer something similar with the added "incentive" of price increases if participants don't purchase in time.
Now, you may wonder why you’d switch from being paid for photos to paying for them. The answer is free publicity. By making photos available freely - and fast - you encourage participants to share their photos online, increasing awareness of your race and sponsors.
Leveraging speed and the power of social media
With technology moving fast, gone are the days when a participant would have to wait 3-5 days for their race photos. These days, getting photos from camera to gallery (or a participant's social media feed) takes a matter of minutes.
Platforms like Pic2Go, Sweatworks, and RunnerTag have completely revolutionized the way photos are captured, sorted and distributed to participants. The technology is not always the same, but the objective is a common one: get photos from the race to the public as quickly and effortlessly as possible, often saving hours of tedious labor in the process.
In our Deep Dive feature on Pic2Go we estimated that the marketing benefit generated by online sharing of race photos can be more than $8 per finisher. If you consider this is about the cost of acquiring new participants, it means photos from this year's race can produce enough publicity to secure next year's crop of participants.
Given the decreasing percentage of participants willing to pay for their race photos, it may make sense to sacrifice a small cash gain today for a larger registration interest tomorrow. To top that, you’ll keep your participants happy with quality free photos and your sponsors satisfied with measurable, instant buzz making the rounds on social media.
Integrating photography with your marketing
So now that the game is to create 0’s at the end of impressions, shares, and downloads - or to create awareness of your race and sponsors - how do you change your approach?
Think about what participants want.
Everyone still wants a finish photo. And if they run with their friends, they probably want that medal picture at your finisher backdrop.
But, beyond that, ask yourself what makes your race unique. Why will someone share a photo that looks the same as the one from last week? Consider your course, landmarks, beautiful vistas etc. Perhaps even consider putting up signage and decorations at key photo points to "pretty up" the view. The more variety you have of cool, unique shots, the more people will want to view and share them.
Think about what sponsors want.
That means going beyond the traditional photo overlay...
Maximize your cheer stations, signage, and branded arches. Consider mascots giving high fives, wind flags along the course and even sponsor activations in your finish area specifically involving participant photos.
Lastly, think about what you want!
Of course you want your participants and sponsors to be happy, but you also want quality content and marketing materials.
So hire a photographer or videographer/drone team to capture amazing wow! shots of your race, with a thought of how you can use them around the year in your marketing efforts and on social media. Often, the cool shots that get runners excited to share on social media, are the same ones that will get people excited to run your race!
There are really countless ways your photography can be integrated into your marketing and sponsor activations. So get creative and start thinking clicks instead of dollars.
There is one more alternative for you to consider, and that's crowdsourcing your race photos.
The idea is simple enough. Why pay for a professional photographer when so many amateur photographers are scattered throughout the course snapping photos of everyone? Offer each spectator (or amateur photographer) a way to sell their photos to participants through an online platform and - hey presto! - you’ve got yourself a crowdsourced race photo marketplace.
At the time of the writing of this, crowdsourcing is becoming a bit of a hot topic in race photography. The concept itself is still slow to gain traction, but the potential cost-saving benefits - particularly for smaller and more remote races - are obvious.
The main obstacles people see with the crowdsourcing approach are quality control and competition between aspiring "photographers" driving event stuff a little crazy. But with professional photographer fees on the rise, demand for race photos as high as ever and smartphone cameras growing better and better, who's to say crowdsourced race photos won't be the next big thing?
If you want to take a closer look at crowdsourcing your race photos, you may want to check out FlashFrame and CrowdPic in the US, as well as GeoSnapShot operating mostly in Australia but looking to expand worldwide.
Hopefully, this article has given you some food for thought on how to make the most of photography opportunities in your race.
In future articles, we will continue to explore in more detail the various photo options mentioned above including how you might combine some of the photo platforms and photo providers in this article to maximum effect for your event type and objectives.