Some lighting and environmental conditions will make it easier or harder for your camera to focus on your subject in action photos. If you have a very good sport-focused camera, these things may not be as much of an issue, but are still worth keeping in mind.
Most camera autofocus systems work based on detecting contrast (although “phase detection AF” is different and more complicated, let’s assume for the point of this lesson that without contrast, most cameras will struggle to know what to focus on, whether in action or in portraiture). This means making sure that there is plenty of contrast between your subject and the location.
Taking photos in areas with plenty of light will help your camera to find and track your subject. This does not mean that you need to be taking photos in full sun, or at least not harsh midday sun, however this is a time where you may wish to consider having your dog running towards you with the sun behind you, therefore getting the direct sun on their face and plenty of contrast.
Otherwise it is a good idea to be taking photos in areas of open sky or without very strong hazy backlight which is going to make it much more difficult for your subjects for your camera to find and track your subject (although not impossible, for some cameras!). It also means that taking photos in shady or dark areas, of darker dogs, will be difficult (low contrast), or of dark brown dogs in dark brown winter ferns (low contrast).
Does this mean you need to always be running your dogs or taking action photos on plain grassy ovals in full sun?
Of course not!
But if we take photos in quite open spaces – clearings, wide tracks, fields, open spaces and so on, we are allowing the most amount of light from the sky to illuminate the dog. This ALSO means we can have the high shutter speed we need, without having to go to a ridiculous ISO (unless, of course, you’re shooting in the woods, at the very end of the day.)
Have a look at the images below. I have captured a variety of lighting conditions (overcast with sun, twilight, late afternoon in the shade, late afternoon sun, even harsh midday sun!) – but with the exception of Journey running in the forest, they were all able to get plenty of light on them at least from the open sky overhead. What else do you notice about the location?
If we’re thinking about contrast, we want to consider how many “options” we give your camera to focus on something else, and how we want to make the contrast between your dog and the scene as clear as possible.
In this way, you will notice that most action photos (even from well-known photographers) are done in a wide, clear kind of area – whether it is jumping over a log or branch, or running toward the camera. This gives the camera very few other options as to what to focus on. The background is generally soft and blurred due to the compression of the lens, and there is (generally) not a lot of other “stuff” going on in the scene. This helps both our camera, and our audience, as they aren’t distracted by things in the scene.
In most action photos there is:
- Blurry foreground due to low angle/perspective
- The dog (maybe jumping something)
- The background far away
There MAY be a kind of “tunnel” as the dog runs along a road/wide track, and we get the tunnel effect (see the locations lessons) but in general the scene is quite “open”, so there isn’t really anything else for the camera to grab onto.
Setting Up the Shot
This really depends on the type of shot you wish to achieve, as obviously candid action shots are going to be different than “run to me” or panning shots. If you can set up the photo in some way so the movement of the dog will be more predictable, you will have a higher chance of capturing the subject. This is the same if you’re doing disc-dog photos (be prepared for the kind of jump they will do and track them upward), run toward me photos, or panning photos.
So setting up the situation where you can repeat the action multiple times will help give you plenty of opportunities to nail the shot.
Some ways you can repeat the action include:
- Sit stay to a recall– place the dog in a sit stay a distance from you. Either give your dog its release word and call it, or have the owner go behind you and call it. I cannot give you an exact distance at which to set up the dog, as it really depends on:
- your lens length
- how big you want the dog to be in the frame when you take the photo
- how fast you want them to be going
- You can also have the dog in a sit stay and the owner can come behind you.
- For panning/running lengthways across the frame, the owner can set the dog up and call it. Instead of coming toward you though, it goes across the frame.
- Sit stay to a toy on the ground
- Place the dog in a sit stay.
- Place a toy close enough to your camera that it’s out of frame.
- Give the dog its release word.
- You may need to practise this out and about first, without the camera, so the dog gets used to running toward the (dead) toy, picking it up, and then playing with you.
- It can be quite a fun effect to have the toy visible in the frame too
- You can also have the dog sitting off to one side, place or throw the toy on the other side so the dog will run ACROSS the frame. Then follow it. In this way, you can achieve some panning photos.
- Chasing a toy
- Have the owner stand with the dog in its starting position
- Instruct them to throw the toy at your head
- Have them release the dog and quickly move to the side
- You may need to Photoshop them out – you can use the same techniques as the leash removal lesson.
- You can also have the dog chase a toy on more of a diagonal angle to you, for a different perspective and angle of their body.
- Running to another owner/person
- This works when you have two owners present (or a parent and a child, and so on).
- Have the “favourite” person leave the dog with the less favourite person, and go stand behind you.
- They call the dog.
- The less favourite person hurries to the side of the frame
- If the dog doesn’t want to leave the first person, get the favourite person to make silly noises and RUN AWAY from the dog.