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6 Tips for Photographing Dogs in Action

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Canine action images are my absolute favourite thing to photograph. The freedom you can see in their expressions that split second as they leap into the air in excitement, and being able to freeze that moment into a single photograph is amazing. It’s a lot of fun for the photographer, dog, owners and is a good challenge too!

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Safety first

Before you attempt any of the tips in this guide, please remember that no image is worth risking the safety of you or the animal. With dogs it is important that you only choose locations where dogs are permitted, that are secure and well away from hazards such as roads, and that you are able to keep the dog under control while they are moving. Also be aware that some dogs may not be willing or able to go at a full-out run. This is okay. When photographing pets, the goal is to capture the personality of the animal. If they aren’t comfortable running then just capture them at their own pace.

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The dogs need to have fun too!

The key to good animal photography, in my opinion, is remembering that your animal handling skills are equally important to the shot as your photography skills. Anyone can take a perfectly focused photo with a bit of practice, but the expression that you capture in your images is what will set them apart from the rest. To get expression from the dog, it is important that both you and the owner use a very positive, encouraging voice when calling the dog, and have plenty of rewards waiting for them by the camera. Some of my personal favourites include squeaky toys, tennis balls, favourite dog treats and peanut butter.

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How do you get the dog to run the right way?

It is helpful to know a bit about the dog’s training level, health and personality before you begin. This allows you to create a plan of action for the best way to capture the image you have in your mind. It also gives you the information that you need to keep you and the dog safe.

For well-trained dogs with a reliable sit and stay, I have the owners ask the dog to stay in a spot around 20 metres from where I am shooting. The owners then stands directly behind me and calls them towards the camera. For younger dogs, or ones with less training, using a secure location becomes even more important. I recommend using a quiet dog-friendly park, or even the dogs own backyard to reduce distractions. If you have another person that is able to help keep the dog in place then this can be used in place of the sit/stay. Another option is to keep the dog on a lead and have the owner run alongside them. The lead can be kept or you may choose to remove it later using Photoshop. Also consider whether you need to direct them at all. Some of my favourite action images have been captured while the dogs were simply being themselves, racing around having a blast with their favourite toys during their session!

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Choose your settings wisely

Now that you have the tools to get the dogs going in the right direction, it’s time to focus on capturing the fun! Grab your camera and your favourite telephoto lens. My current combination is the Canon 5D MkIII with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, though many images in this article were created with a Canon 60D. Choose a spot a good distance away from the dog which will give you plenty of opportunity to catch the right moment in their run. Also try and get down to their level. This will give you a fresh perspective of the dog and also make it easier to capture the expressions on their face as they run towards you.

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I photograph all my sessions in full manual mode as I enjoy having complete control over the final image. Generally I start with a shutter speed of 1/1000, an aperture of f/2.8 and adjust the ISO to suit. If you aren’t comfortable with full manual mode yet, using shutter priority mode or sports mode are both good starting points for these types of images. As you have more practice, you will find the combination of settings that works best for you and the type of photos you like to create.

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Nail that focus

One of the most difficult parts of photographing dogs in action is nailing the focus. I recommend using a single focus point with the camera in AI servo mode and back button focusing. This means that the camera will continue to refocus on that single point as long as you are holding down that back button. If you aren’t already using back button focusing, give it a try – it is a great tool to have for all types of photography.

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Timing is everything

Another challenge you face with action images is getting the timing right. I recommend trying a method that many horse riders use. When any new rider starts taking horse jumping lessons, one of the first things they learn is to count the horses strides. Counting aloud each time the horse’s leading leg leaves the ground, this helps riders to feel when a horse is going to take off and be prepared for the jump that follows.

This same technique works for photographing any type of animal photography. Focus on the dog as they run. Each time the dog’s front legs leave the ground, count aloud. This will give you a steady and reliable time to take the photo, and you can easily adjust it to capture different moments in their movement. This technique is definitely easier with larger dogs with longer strides, but with practice it will get easier to see the stride. Keep working at it!

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Do you enjoy photographing dogs in action? I would love to see some of your work! Share them in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Kelly Wolfe is a pet photographer who lives on a bull farm near Hamilton, New Zealand. With 11 working dogs and a range of other pets of her own, she has years of experience working with animals. She photographs all types of pets for clients and at events, as well as volunteering her time to photograph animals at local rescues. To see more of her work, visit her website, or follow her on Facebook or 500px.

  • Michael Owens

    Great tips and your images are wonderful. I’ll have to find a dog and owner now to try this (although not in winter lol) n

    Thanks for sharing Kelly.

  • Trevor D

    Some of the best shots can be taken in winter!

    Spring is good too though…

  • Michael Owens

    Ha! That lab one is a perfect candid shot.
    Winters in the UK btw are generally wet and windy, not snowy!

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    Wow wow. wow… every challenging angle and DOF

  • Actually wanted a website that outlined the best road flights in each condition, with simple to examine routes and tours that have been rated by those who have actually ridden them? Well, Motorcycleroads.com does just that. Triumph motorcycle dealer

  • Kim

    I love shooting my dogs, they don’t mind the hours of fun we have!

  • Betsy

    My husband trains dogs, so one day I just started taking pictures for fun and now I’m obsessed! This is a repeat customer and he is so joyful I love him!

  • Corinna Harvey Burton

    Pheasant hunting in South Dakota.

  • Corinna Harvey Burton

    Pheasant hunting in South Dakota! And, Yes, this is a red heeler but don’t tell him he isn’t a retriever!

  • J.Ob

    Action shot of our Yorkie running around in an open baseball field.

  • J.Ob

    Action shot of our Schnauzer running around outside.

  • Lam Mai

    I love dogs.

  • GM

    A friend’s dog, while I was dog sitting for them.

  • D. van Berne

    My Pharaoh Hound Ramses. I love combining my two hobbies: walking my dog and photography.

  • My cousin’s dog Cody 🙂

  • Dave Kramer

    Roxy having fun in the park on a nice summer afternoon.

  • Dave Kramer

    Ryker enjoying a day at the lake.

  • Colin

    My favourite dog shot of someone else’s dog. Just happened whilst walking on the beach. Fortunately I was in ‘sport’ mode already for shooting osprey on the wing.

  • DIGOTOS

    Taken at a dog sled race in Laconia NH 02/15/2014. These dogs really do enjoy the race – you can see it their faces – the excitement.

  • My Sadie in the snow … “Snowplow” … tweeted … and thanks!!!!

  • Kathy Hallo Mason

    I love photographing Molly in action. She will run forever playing fetch. I will have to try the idea of counting when her front paws hit the ground. I’m curious if that will make it even easier. Thanks for the tip!

  • @runningfordogs

    Some helpful tips! Love your work by the way!

  • Clara Correia

    this is Shuga, jumping over an obstacle in Dog Agility

  • kandree

    This is Susie, one of the dogs I photographed before she was adopted at out local humane society

  • LouisianaJoe

    The darker dog is in the process of jumping over a flowerbed to escape the dog that is chasing her.

  • Ayla Aktan

    Here is my dog, Katy, running towards me during the fall.
    By the way, the name in the corner is her Instagram name… not just taken off Google. 😛

  • Carolyne

    Just my two girls playing down the river … i put this one in the show and got 1st prize and it only top 2 shots to get this i love the way the girls model for me

  • gina

    A day at the dog park with a 10yr old Golden Retriever.

  • My Parson Russell Terrier Sprout – can never catch him front on he’s too fast but he loves the beach

  • Does she have to be in action? I loved how the light caught her hair in this photo.

  • Chris Lorents

    Thanks for the tips Julie. I’m going to start practicing with my longer lens, been using a 24-120mm and it’s hard to nail the focus when the dogs are so close. Can’t wait to try the counting technique as well.

  • Ajay Panigrahi

    Come to me , I want to Kiss you 🙂

  • Sarah Smallwood

    Megan on Waulkmill Beach Orkney

  • reefski

    they love the beach

  • Gina Rayment

    My lovable mutt Tom <3

  • Courtney Rice8

    A few of my dog I caught a month or so ago. I haven’t done any editing except for cropping. Shot on a Nikon D50 70-300.

  • Federico Gatti

    There you go! 🙂

  • Federico Gatti

    And 2 more… 🙂

  • Jose Valdivieso

    Muy bonitas y bien hechas las fotos

  • Tealwood Hit Me With Your Best Shot (aka, Buddy) LOVES to swim in my pool! I’ve been raising and showing Labradors for over 25 years, do tons of photos, so I enjoyed this article and tips. Thanks!

  • Terri Valkyrie

    I kind of blew the focus but I love the look on her face.

  • Susan Palmer Gutterman

    My Lab,Gabby, and her Poodle friend at the dog park

  • Chris Harrison

    Excellent tips and photos! Here is Nigel playing in the snow.

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