Capturing dogs in action is an absolute thrill. One moment they’re a ball of energy, and the next, they’re soaring through the air to catch a Frisbee. Those freeze-frame shots elicit smiles from everyone who sees them.
But it’s not just about clicking the shutter. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Dialing in the right camera settings, keeping the dog focused, and maintaining their enthusiasm are all part of the equation. In this article, I’ll share some golden nuggets that have helped me capture those split-second wonders on camera.
So whether you’re photographing your own furry friend or working on a pet photography gig, you’ll find some actionable advice here. Let’s jump right in and elevate your dog action photography skills!
1. Make sure the dog is safe
First and foremost, safety should be your priority. Dogs are not just subjects to be photographed; they are living, breathing beings that deserve respect and care.
Always choose a location where dogs are allowed. You don’t want to get into trouble with authorities or risk the dog getting hurt in an unfamiliar environment.
Opt for areas that are far from any hazards. A busy road, a steep drop, or any place where a dog can get hurt should be avoided. Keep a close eye on the dog, especially if they’re off-leash.
Ensure the area is secure enough so that the dog won’t dash off to chase a squirrel or another dog. This might mean choosing a fenced-in park or similar space.
Know the dog’s limits. Some dogs might have health issues that prevent them from running or jumping. Others might be too young or too old for strenuous activity. Listen to the dog’s owner and observe the dog’s behavior. Remember, capturing their personality is more important than getting an action shot at the expense of their well-being.
If the dog seems uncomfortable, slow down. It’s perfectly fine to capture them at their own pace. No photograph is worth risking the safety or well-being of your subject.
In essence, always prioritize the dog’s safety. This will not only make for a more relaxed and enjoyable session but will also ensure that you get natural, happy shots that reflect the dog’s true spirit.
2. Get a real expression from the dog
Capturing genuine emotion in a dog’s eyes can transform a good photo into a great one. The key to this lies not just in your camera skills, but also in how you interact with the dog.
Use a positive, encouraging voice when calling the dog over. Our four-legged friends are very attuned to human emotions, so a happy tone can go a long way. Make sure you and the dog’s owner are both creating an atmosphere of positivity.
Prepare some rewards to place by your camera. Dogs love treats and toys, so having some handy can help you get those tail-wagging, tongue-out smiles. Discuss with the dog’s owner to find out what their pet finds irresistible—be it squeaky toys, tennis balls, or treats.
Avoid forcing expressions. The best emotions are the spontaneous ones. Let the dog approach the camera naturally, enticed by rewards and your encouraging voice. The owner will know what will make their pet tick, so take their advice into account.
As you interact, watch for those perfect moments. Sometimes the ideal expression will come naturally as the dog reacts to your voice or the promise of a treat. Be ready to capture it.
3. Learn about the dog in advance
Prior knowledge about your four-legged subject can make or break your photography session. You need to know the basics, such as the dog’s training level, to strategize your shots effectively.
Start with a conversation with the dog’s owner. Find out about the dog’s health, especially if they have any mobility issues or dietary restrictions. This information will help you decide how active the photography session can be and what treats you can use.
Ask about their personality traits. Is the dog energetic and outgoing, or more shy and reserved? Knowing this will allow you to set up your shots in a way that brings out their true character.
Query about their training level. Does the dog know basic commands like sit, stay, and come? This can have a huge impact on how you orchestrate the shoot. Well-trained dogs may allow for more complex setups, while a younger or less-trained dog may require a simpler approach.
Safety is another concern that goes back to knowing the dog. If you’re aware of their temperament and any potential health concerns, you’ll be better equipped to ensure a safe and enjoyable session for everyone involved.
4. For running shots, have the owner call the dog
Getting a dog to run is only half the battle. The real trick is guiding them in the direction you want. For well-trained dogs with a solid “sit and stay,” I typically position the owner about 20 meters behind me. They call the dog, who then races directly towards the camera.
For younger or less trained pups, it’s essential to pick a secure location with minimal distractions. Think a dog-friendly park or even the dog’s backyard. You can also enlist the help of an extra person to hold the dog in place if they haven’t mastered the “sit and stay” command.
Some photographers opt for the dog to be on a leash. This can work, especially if the owner jogs along with them. You can always edit the leash out later if it interferes with the shot.
Keep your position in mind. If you want the dog to run directly toward you, be sure you’re in a spot that allows for this. An alternate option is to place yourself so that the dog will cross your path, giving you ample opportunity to capture a series of action shots.
5. Let the dogs be themselves
While it’s natural to have a list of shots you want to capture, remember that dogs have personalities too. And sometimes, they just want to do their own thing.
Let them! Some of my best shots have come from moments when the dogs were simply enjoying themselves. They could be chasing after a ball, bounding through tall grass, or playing a game of tug-of-war.
When you let dogs be themselves, their personalities shine through. And that makes for truly unforgettable photographs. You’ll find that the spontaneity adds a layer of authenticity and emotion that is often missing in overly staged shots.
So if you find that the dog isn’t interested in running directly towards you, but would rather sniff around and explore, go with it. Capture those candid moments. They’ll likely end up being some of your favorites from the shoot.
6. Use the right gear for action dog photography
The importance of the right gear can’t be overstated. It can make or break your action shots. Most modern mirrorless cameras come equipped with excellent tracking capabilities, so you’re already off to a good start if you own one.
A fast burst mode can be a game-changer. A camera capable of shooting at least 8 frames per second allows you to capture every nuance of a dog’s movement, from the take-off to the joyful landing.
As for lenses, speed is of the essence. I frequently use a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens for my dog action shots. The focal length is versatile enough for close-ups and wide shots, while the large aperture allows for shooting in lower light conditions.
This lens also delivers stunning bokeh, creating soft backgrounds that make your subject stand out. The key here is to opt for lenses that focus quickly, ensuring you won’t miss that crucial moment when the dog leaps into the air to catch a Frisbee.
7. Get down low
Photographing from up high might work for humans, but dogs? Not so much. The simple act of lowering your camera can transform your dog action photos.
When you’re at the dog’s level, the images have a unique intimacy. You’re entering their world, capturing life from their viewpoint. This makes for some really compelling photos.
Another perk is the background. Being low increases the separation between the dog and the background. This helps in creating that beautiful, blurry backdrop, also known as bokeh, which makes the dog pop in the image.
So don’t hesitate to get a bit dirty. Crouch down, kneel, or even go flat on your stomach. Experimenting with these angles can add a dynamic touch to your images.
Remember, varying your height and angle can yield a variety of shots, all in one session. So pack some knee pads along with your camera gear and get down to the dog’s eye level.
8. Choose the right settings for dogs in action
Camera settings can make or break action shots. For starters, I like to use Manual mode. This gives me complete control over the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
Fast shutter speeds are essential. Dogs are quick creatures, so to freeze their motion, I generally start with a shutter speed of 1/1000s. Don’t be afraid to ramp it up even more if the dog is particularly fast.
Aperture plays a role too. A wide aperture like f/2.8 can help create a shallow depth of field, blurring the background and making the dog stand out.
Then there’s ISO. While you’ll want to keep it as low as possible to avoid grain, don’t be too concerned if you have to increase it to maintain a fast shutter speed. A slightly grainy shot is far better than a blurry one.
If Manual mode intimidates you, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority are solid alternatives. They allow you to control one aspect, while the camera adjusts the other. Just make sure you’re still keeping an eye on those crucial settings like shutter speed.
9. Nail that focus!
Ah, focus: the nemesis of many action photographers. With dogs bounding around, keeping them sharp in your frame can be challenging.
For fast-paced action, using a single focus point and continuous focusing mode (AF-C) has always worked for me. With back-button focusing, the camera continues to refocus as long as you hold down the button.
Some cameras offer tracking options. These can lock onto the subject and adjust the focus as they move. Give it a try; it may work wonders depending on your camera’s capabilities.
Animal eye autofocus is another feature to explore if your camera has it. This function focuses directly on the animal’s eyes, ensuring a sharp, expressive face.
Don’t underestimate the power of practice. Take the time to understand how your camera’s focusing system responds to fast-moving subjects. Get out there and shoot, analyze your results, adjust, and shoot some more.
Mastering focus in action photography isn’t something you’ll do overnight. But with consistent effort and the right techniques, you’ll see marked improvements in your work.
10. Practice your timing
Timing is everything in action photography, especially with subjects as quick and unpredictable as dogs. So how can you get that perfect mid-air leap or playful sprint?
Start by observing the dog’s movements. Dogs, like many animals, have a natural rhythm when they move. Take the time to notice this pattern before you start clicking away.
Adopt a technique often used by equestrians: counting strides. When a horse rider is learning to jump, they count the horse’s strides to anticipate the perfect moment for a jump. Apply this method to dog action photography.
Each time the dog’s front legs leave the ground, count it out. One, two, three, and so on. This rhythm helps you anticipate when the dog will be in the ideal position for a fantastic shot.
This counting method might be easier with larger breeds that have a longer stride, but don’t worry if you’re photographing a small dog. Practice will help you adapt this technique to any dog size or speed.
Ultimately, your timing will improve with experience. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at capturing that decisive moment. And remember, digital film is free—so don’t hesitate to take many shots and refine your timing as you go.
How to photograph dogs in action: final words
And there you have it—the nuts and bolts of capturing dogs in exhilarating action. The journey from being an admirer of those energetic dog photos to becoming the photographer behind them is fulfilling, to say the least.
The safety of your furry subject is paramount, so always choose a secure location and be aware of the dog’s comfort level. Each dog is unique, and getting to know them can inform your approach and result in more authentic photos.
Your gear and settings are crucial, but remember, they are just tools. It’s your understanding of the dog, your timing, and your technique that will set your images apart. Your role is that of both a photographer and an animal lover. Never lose sight of the latter.
Be prepared to adapt. Dogs, like any other models, have their own personalities and quirks. Sometimes the unplanned shots are the ones that capture the essence of their spirit in the most beautiful way.
As you practice and develop your skills, you’ll find that you’re not just taking photos; you’re creating memories. Whether it’s for a client or your own family album, these images will be treasured for years to come.
Thank you for joining me in this exciting realm of photography. Grab your camera, find a willing pup, and let’s create some memorable, tail-wagging art!
Now over to you:
Do you have any tips that I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Note: This article was updated in October 2023 by dPS’s Managing Editor, Jaymes Dempsey.
Table of contents
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- 6 Tips for Photographing Dogs in Action