Photographer, Duncan Elliott, On Telling Athletes' Stories Through Photography

Written by

Dawn Broadbent


Duncan Elliott is a documentary portrait photographer. His work tends to look into niche groups and subcultures that he believes are often overlooked, or people whose stories he simply finds inspiring. As such, athletes play a significant part in his diverse portfolio. As Duncan says, their ‘single-minded goals and ruthless commitment to it’ make athletes an interesting case for exploration within photography. Now, the photographer boasts an impressive client list which includes a number of high-profile sports brands such as Strava, Men’s Running, Reebok, British Cycling, and Red Bull. We had the pleasure of speaking with Duncan to find out a little more about his journey to where he is today, how he writes a brief for himself, and what he’s striving for next. 

So Duncan, tell us a bit about yourself and how photography slots into your life?

I'm a documentary portrait photographer. I tend to work out on locations, dodging the weather and occasionally I have the luxury of being warm and dry in a studio. If I'm working on a shoot I can quite often be away from home for a few days so when I'm not shooting I try to enjoy the flexibility of being freelance. That being said, I've recently moved into a new studio and I'm enjoying having a bit of routine to my non-photoshoot time.

What prompted the move to your new studio, and how do you think this will affect your work?

The move to a studio came about as I felt I needed to separate between the spaces I was living and working. Creativity wise, I don't think you stop being a photographer during any time of the day but I try now to only do the 'business' side of things at the studio, which helps the work-life balance. I also share the space with a design studio so it's been great to be surrounded by creative individuals, to be able to chat through both my projects and theirs, and collaborate on work together.

How do you usually go about finding work / how does work find you? Has this changed in any way over the years?

It seems to be a constantly evolving process. I produce mailers from the personal work I do and send it out to creatives who I think will find it relative. But a lot of work comes from word of mouth. I certainly thought the work would just come to me when I first started out. Marketing yourself well is definitely very important to your business so I think it's something any creative should just try to enjoy. The marketing tends to push me to shoot more personal work, which in turn leads to more interesting marketing material. Hopefully, that then leads to more responses after a sending out mailers. 

"There's quite probably a client out there who's looking for exactly what you do. It's a shame there isn't a Tindr for photographers and designers."

A lot of your work focuses on telling people’s stories, especially within sports. What is it about athlete’s stories that you find particularly inspiring?

Be it in sport or general life, I find anyone who's committed themselves to a single goal inspiring. So I like trying to capture the dedication these people have through photography. Athletes' stories are so much more stripped back than other careers. Don't get me wrong, athletes still have to balance a "normal" life, but a lot of the time all their efforts and training are for one thing; from a personal best to something like the Yellow Jersey. Sport is very results focused. In some ways that makes their story easier to portray.

From Geraint Thomas to Kevin de Bruyne to John Foster, you’ve photographed a number of incredible professional athletes. Tell us a bit about how you usually conduct a shoot, and what it’s like to photograph these sports stars?

I tend to research whoever I'm photographing before I meet them on shoot. It's great to learn about the subject so you have a greater of understanding before the shoot – even if it's just to find out what music they like to make a Spotify playlist. Getting the vibe right before we start shooting really helps the atmosphere of the shoot. You don't often get very long to get the shots you need - sometimes just a couple of minutes - so if you get the athlete on your side they're more likely to give you a bit more time or be more relaxed with your requests. 

What’s the toughest part of your job?

The easiest answer to that would be getting paid on time but I think that's the bane of every freelancer's existence. Knowing who to present your work to can often be a struggle. There's quite probably a client out there who's looking for exactly what you do. It's a shame there isn't a Tindr for photographers and designers. I don't think Instagram quite works well enough for that. 

"I'm inspired by anything that's new to me that sounds different. A lot of the time that will be sub-cultures or ways of life that aren't known to a wide audience."

In general, when it comes to personal projects, how do you usually write a brief for yourself? What tends to inspire your personal projects and how much time do you allow for these vs client work?

I've only just started writing myself proper briefs for the personal work. I'm now trying to think of the images to create during the project like slides in a storyboard. Before, the projects were a bit one dimensional so having a clearer brief is allowing me to develop more interesting and in-depth projects. 


With regards to finding inspiration, I'm inspired by anything that's new to me that sounds different. A lot of the time that will be sub-cultures or ways of life that aren't known to a wide audience. Most of the time I'll shoot project work at the weekends so it doesn't often clash with client work.

What clients / projects / goals are you striving to work with/on in the future? Whose story do you wish to tell?

I'm currently working on a project that focuses on septuagenarians (and beyond!) who are still competing in sports. Hopefully this project will open some eyes to what can be achieved in later life. I don't have a "dream client" list as such but hopefully, the commissions to shoot the kind of work I shoot as personal projects will continue to grow. 

Finally, as our name suggests, here at Mantra we’re curious about what keeps our favourite creatives driven and pushing forward. What’s your personal mantra, Duncan?

Keep shooting - it's what you do. 

Check out Duncan's work here.

Written by

Dawn Broadbent