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