Lights, Camera, Action… Pet Photography! Action photos of pets are my absolute favourite images to capture. There’s nothing like being able to see the wild freedom in your dog’s eyes, or your cat’s sleek body stretching during a nimble leap. Capturing that split second of vibrant excitement is a magical experience, makes for a great creative challenge and it’s so much fun to shoot. To get started with some impressive action shots of your pet, all you need is patience, enthusiasm and a little know-how. So here are my top pet action photography tips for dogs, cats and more.
1. Keep It Simple
While you might be tempted to go all out and get every action shot you’ve ever dreamt of in one, from experience I’d recommend you keep it simple. An uncomplicated and uncluttered scene makes for the BEST final image, not only because it will be easier for your camera to focus on the dog, but action photography sings when it’s about that – the action!
2. Repetition = Success
Getting great action shots takes lots of practice. You’ll probably need at least a few goes at any one idea before you hit the jackpot. For this reason, I always find it’s best to set up predictable, repeatable actions for your dog (or other subject) to perform. Whether it’s a trick, running to you across a field or jumping into some water. This way, you can predict where your furry friend will be at a certain moment, track them and get that perfect photo.
(This is where your ‘sit, stay’ training gets tested…am I right?)
3. Think About Lighting
Natural lighting doesn’t get much better than a glorious sunny day – but only if you know how to use it! If you are lucky enough to have the light on your side, a top tip I’ve learnt over the years is to work out where those rays are hitting. Try to position your shots so that the light is shining directly onto your subject, rather than from the side. If it’s from the side, you’re likely to have some contrast issues like crazy shadows or blown out highlights. Whereas if it’s more direct, it will be much more even across the dog’s face, and give the camera plenty of opportunities to find and focus on your subject.
4. Think About Contrast
Another lighting tip – the easier we can make it for our camera to see the subject, the more likely we are to get in-focus photos. Which is especially important for action pet photography! If you’re trying to capture an excited furball running towards you, a jumping frisbee catch or your pup bolting along your favourite hiking route – you’re going to need to help your camera focus as much as you can. So while big romantic sunsets or a deep dark wood might seem like a really cool place to shoot, it’s probably not going to get you great results until you’ve mastered the basics. Open spaces with plenty of light, whether from the sun (see point 3!) or the open sky, are your friend for action photos!
5. Amp Up Your Shutter Speed
If you want to get those speedy shots nailed, your shutter has got to keep up.
Shutter speed basically means the amount of time that your camera’s shutter is open. To be able to capture action, a fast shutter speed is needed to avoid your dog’s super speedy paws becoming one big blur!
Some camera’s offer a ‘shutter priority’ or ‘sports mode’, which are both good starting points. I personally recommend working at around 1/1000s or faster.
6. Amp Up Your Autofocus
Back to that all-important focus!
One thing that we don’t have much control over, is how fast our cameras can focus. For action photos, we need cameras which can find and set focus extremely quickly. There’s not really away around this. So if you’re struggling to get your action photos in focus and you’re following all the tips in this post, it may be that your camera just isn’t quite fast enough.
Photos of dogs running toward you are especially difficult, but capturing dogs running around or running past you tends to be easier, so try this as well! Doing tricks, splashing in water, or just moving at a more casual pace can all convey a sense of movement and motion.
After all, although everyone loves the “run to me” shot, there’s other ways to capture action!
7. Keep It Continuous
If your camera has it, definitely turn your autofocus onto ‘continuous’ mode. This tells your camera to continue to adjust the focus, as long as you keep the focus area over your chosen subject – like your cat in the process of a jump. This means you are much more likely to have a clear final image, capturing those incredible springy legs perfectly!
8. Be Spot On
Limiting your focus area is good, as it means you are in control of where your camera is, indeed, focusing. But with action shots, sometimes you need a little extra help.
An ‘expanded spot focus area’ gives your camera a small-ish area to choose where to focus, rather than the whole scene, but it isn’t such a tiny area that you can’t move your camera to follow the subject’s movements. I use this when Loki and Journey are zigzagging or when taking snaps of unpredictable puppies! Some cameras also have a ‘lock-on tracking’ focus mode, which locks onto the subject and tracks them. Check your camera’s manual to see what focus areas are available. Just remember: the more control you give the camera, the more chances it has to focus on the wrong thing!
9. Get LOW!
One of my top suggestions, that I say time and time again (because it works) is to get down nice and low. Lie down, sit cross-legged and crouch over, lie on your back even! Being at your dog or cat’s level will give you a really amazing perspective, and also makes it way easier to capture that wonderful expression!
10. Stay Positive (You Got This!)
Action photography is hard! Trust me! All of us have lots of out of focus shots, frustrating moments and days where the light just isn’t going our way. That’s ok. Remember the best photos come from lots of practice and patience. So stay positive with yourself, and your pets. There’s nothing a bit of pet-friendly peanut butter can’t fix to make you both feel better if it’s been a rough day’s shoot…
Bonus Tip – Safety First
Action shots are super cool, but it’s definitely worth noting that they involve lots more planning, preparation and careful consideration. No shot is worth risking your or your pet’s safety. I tend to avoid shooting on super hot days, because nobody wants to run and jump about in the boiling sun. Always be conscious of short-nosed breeds too, who might need to slow things down and take more breaks. Oh, and a reminder that young puppies are still developing, which means making them jump over logs or high obstacles isn’t good for their development – so bear that in mind!
I hope you enjoyed this special, action-focused pet photography ‘how-to’. I love sharing these tips and seeing your results, so don’t forget to share your amazing action shots and let me know how you get on!
And if you are really looking to take your pet photography skills to the next level, you can join my super-special Improve Your Photography Course. I designed this course to help take your photography from ‘kinda good’ to ‘absolutely-hecking-great!’ It’s perfect if you’re looking to master the fundamentals, learn how to use different types of natural lighting (this is a biggie), nail the essentials of attractive composition, deep dive into the nitty gritty of camera settings, plus much more!
I’d love to see you there, and if you have any questions – just shout!