Beginner's guides to digital SLR Photography

Taking action shots of dogs

You’d think it was difficult. I mean dogs can move really quickly, right? But it’s easy if you know the right settings.

dog

A shutter speed of 800th second froze the movement of the droplets of water in this shot.

Why dogs?

Dogs are great to photograph for a whole bunch of reasons, including:

A lot of municipal councils have parks or parts of beaches set aside for dogs to run around off their leads. I recommend going to one of those because not only will it give you access to more dogs, but they’ll be better dogs for photography too. That’s because they’re likely to be running around and playing with each other.

Settings

I almost always use the same settings when photographing active dogs. From here on I’ll describe them.

Dog

Giving a dog a toy to play with (that means giving a dog a toy to rip into pieces) will give you plenty of action for photos.

Shutter speed priority mode

Dogs move quickly, which means the potential for a lot of motion blur in your shots. And the easiest way to manage or eliminate motion blur is by using shutter speed priority mode (also known as time value priority.)

I like to freeze the motion quite a lot. Now, that’s a matter of personal taste rather than any sort of rule, because the right kind of motion blur can give a wonderful feeling of movement in a shot. So just remember that the slower your shutter speed, the more motion blur you’ll get.

Dog

Running towards me at about 30 or 40 kph, this pooch was still in perfect focus thanks to modern auto-focusing. There’s just no way in a million years I’d be able to do that manually.

Having said that I usually go for the “frozen moment” type of image that you get with fast shutter speeds. So I usually set my shutter speed for 1,000th second. If the light is fairly weak then 800th of a second will be my choice.

More than one focus point

It’s insanely difficult aiming a camera at a fast-moving dog with enough accuracy to always keep the dog in the middle of the frame. Therefore I select the middle focus point as my primary focus point and use a feature which my camera calls focus point expansion. What that means is that the focus point I select (the middle one) acts as the primary one, but if the dog drifts away from it the camera will activate the adjacent points. That makes it easier for me and for the camera.

Dog

Dogs are highly expressive creatures. Expect to capture all sorts of facial contortions.

If your camera doesn’t have focus point expansion or something similar, then just select a small cluster of focus points near the middle of your frame, instead of just a single one.

And if your camera doesn’t give you the option to have a small cluster of focus points running — with some cameras it’s either one focus point or all of them — then I’d suggest having just the middle focus point activated.

Continuous focus

Because the distances to the dog are constantly changing, continuous focus (also known as servo focus) is essential.

Fast burst of shots

Dogs tend to be hesitant at first and then they explode into action. Things will suddenly be happening so quickly that you’ll never be able to judge the best timing for a single shot. In fact your eyes will barely be able to see everything. That’s why I set my camera to take continuous fast bursts of exposures instead of just a single shot.

So here’s how I work: I keep a dog in the frame and the shutter button held half way down to ensure that the moment the fun starts the dog will already be in focus. When things start happening I press the shutter button fully down to start firing and hold it down for as long as the action is happening. Don’t worry about getting too many photos. You can always delete the dud shots later. Just concentrate on keeping the best parts of the action inside the frame.

Longest possible focus length

Dog

Here’s a little bit of trickery. I took two photos of the same dog, as a puppy and then 12 months later when it was fully grown. Then I used Photoshop to merge them into the one scene. The result is two ages of the one dog running alongside herself.

When a dog starts bounding towards you it’s going to reach you in seconds, so the further away you start taking a burst of photos the better. That means a long focal length. The best images usually happen about two thirds of the dog’s distance to you as the animal begins to fill the frame but if you wait until it reaches that point before you start taking pics then you might miss some good stuff happening earlier, and your camera will probably struggle to find focus before it’s too late.

So I usually wait until the dog is a reasonable distance from me, running my way, and then I take a burst of shots until the dog has run past me.

Does this system work 100% of the time?

Nope. Expect to get some blurry shots where the wrong part of the dog was in focus. That’s to be expected because what you’re getting your camera to do is quite tricky. But persevere with it and you’re more than likely to get quite a few really nice shots. Using this system my success rate is about 8 out of 10 shots being tack sharp, and then perhaps one in 10 of those shots being ones that I really like for artistic reasons. So don’t worry about taking heaps of shots to get those half dozen or more keepers. You’re not wasting film because you’re shooting digital.

A little bit of protocol

If the dog I want to photograph isn’t my own then I usually wander up to the owner and ask if it’s okay if I take photos. I’ve actually met some great people that way, including some other photographers. If you aren’t planning on selling the photos or anything that could get the owner into some kind of trouble then most people are more than happy to let you take pictures, and will often give you a hand by calling the dog to run towards you. If you do plan on selling the photos, especially if it’s for use in advertising or the promotion of something, then you should also make sure you have permission for that from the dog’s owner.

Photography

Beginners’ guides to digital SLR photography

primer

Before you start

Basics

The essential basics

Basics

Making sense of technical stuff

Photography words

Photography words explained

frog

Sneaky stuff

Colours

Common problems and their solutions

Preying mantis

Taking things further

Moon

Photography at night

Other photography stuff

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