If you enjoy photographing your pets, and dogs, in particular, this article will help you take better action photos of dogs. Learn what camera equipment to use, the best settings, and general tips for success.
The Camera Body
If you want to take better action photos of dogs, I recommend a camera body with a fast burst rate. From my experience, five frames per second is the minimum. If your camera has a faster frame rate than that, you are going to increase your keeper rate as long as your approach and technique are on point, which we will get to shortly. I personally use Nikon’s D610 and D7000 and have great success with photographing dogs in action.
The Camera Lens
I recommend long and fast lenses. I’ve tried to photograph action shots with the 50mm f/1.8, and the Tokina 100mm f/2.8, with very little success. While both of these lenses are incredibly sharp, they are soft wide open and do not focus well on moving subjects.
Longer lenses with fixed apertures generally focus on moving subjects much faster than shorter lenses. They also keep you and your camera gear safer. Think about it. If you have a 45 point Border Collie running full speed right at you, you need to get the photograph and get out of the way quickly.
A longer lens will give you the time you need to move once the dog starts to fill the frame. I personally use the Nikon 300mm f/4 and sometimes I’ll even throw a teleconverter on it for extended reach and cleaner bokeh.
Setting Your Autofocus
I recommend locking your autofocus directly in the center of the frame. When photographing action shots of animals you don’t have time to be moving the focus point around. I also suggest using AF-C (Continuous focus mode, called Servo on Canon), which may also be called autofocus continuous, AF-Continuous. This is the setting I always use when trying to get action shots of dogs.
Set your Camera to Burst Mode
Make sure you check your camera drive setting. I know it’s common sense, but make some kind of reminder, though, a checklist you look at before capturing action shots. I’ve been photographing animals for over a decade, and still screw this up sometimes. It wastes time if you don’t have your camera set to burst mode and also wastes the dog’s energy. Dogs can only run for so long and you need every opportunity you can get within that time frame.
Photographing Running Dogs
When I photograph dogs running, I aim to get them looking straight into my camera lens. I want the dog running directly toward me, and I focus on as much eye contact as possible. So to consistently get great photographs of dogs running in this manner, you’re going to need some help.
What I do to accomplish this is have the dog owner or an assistant stand fairly far away from me. I will then position myself on my belly, using my camera bag to stabilize the lens. I try and keep my back to the sun when outdoors. This will help me get the shutter speed that I want to photograph the dog running. I shoot for 1/1250th of a second to 1/2000th.
I’ll first take a test shot to make sure my exposure is right. Then I have the assistant throw a tennis ball right at me. I usually tell them to try and hit me with the tennis ball. This sends the dog running full speed, right at me. I will also instruct the assistant to quickly move to the left or right as soon as the ball is thrown. This saves me tons of time later in post-processing by not having to remove them from the background with Photoshop.
Photographing Dogs Catching Frisbees
This is a little trickier and complicated to pull off compared to photographing running dogs. The goal is to get the dog in mid-air right before he is about to bite down on the Frisbee. I use pretty much the exact same camera settings and approach that I do for photographing dogs running.
I do change one thing, though, and that’s the camera shooting angle. I like to shoot from the hip. Meaning the camera is around my hip level. I’m not actually shooting from the hip, but kneeling down on one knee. Following the dog chasing the Frisbee, I bump the focus until the dog is close to the target. Then holding down the shutter button, I burst out some shots until the buffer gets filled.
Photographing Dogs Jumping
This is simpler than capturing the two types of dog action shots mentioned previously. It definitely requires an assistant to pull off consistently, though. You also don’t need a lens as fast or long to photograph docs jumping compared to the other types of action shots. Although, I prefer using long lens simply because it makes a smoother, more out of focus background.
Here’s how to do it. Position yourself so the dog is in only one-third of the camera frame or less. Check your exposure. Have an assistant hold up a toy, a tree branch, or whatever the dog is interested in enough to jump up and grab. Have the assistant hold it up high, with their arm extended as long as they can. This is incredibly helpful when it comes to post-processing.
Look out for the Safety of the Dog
You can photograph a dog all day just lying around and looking cute. When dogs are running and chasing Frisbees, they get tired. If you are doing a pet photography session and want action shots, this is going to happen incredibly fast.
The dog owners don’t always prepare for it, but I’ve done this many times, and I always prepare. I keep several bottles of water on me, along with a collapsible drinking bowl. If the dog is panting heavily, give them a rest. If they drink a 16-ounce bottle of water in less than a minute, you may want to wait a while before attempting more action shots.
Some factors that you need to consider when shooting action shots are how hot it is, the dog’s age, and the breed. Certain dog breeds handle heat better than others. This is also true for exercise needs. If you are a professional pet photographer, you should be well aware of what the dog’s exercise needs are as well as how well they handle the heat.
So I hope that you find these tips helpful for taking better action photos of your dogs, or those of your clients. Any action photography takes some practice so keep at it and you’ll start to have more keepers over time. Please share your dog action photos in the comments below, we’d love to see them.