Table of Contents
What camera settings do we need to have the best chance at taking great action photos?
What shutter speed, what focus mode and focus area, and what other things do you need to consider?
The shutter speed should be at least 1/1250 of a second. Faster, if you have enough light!
Don’t go faster though just because you think it will help guarantee you’ll get the perfect shot – all it does is determine how much the action is frozen, not how fast the autofocus is. Don’t just increase the shutter speed at the detriment of something else (like then needing a high ISO!).
Depending on the type of action, you could try 1/800 or 1/1000 of a second. The problem won’t be so much that the subjects are out of focus, more that they may be slightly “soft” due to motion blur.
One interesting exception here might be a panning-style sport photo which you usually see in motorbike races or car races.
This is where you actually have a slower shutter speed and you pan the camera to follow the dog moving across from you rather than towards you.
The trick here is that you need to find the perfect shutter speed to freeze the motion of the dog itself but that will blur the background with the movement of the camera as you follow the dog across the space.
I actually haven’t seen many (any!?) people do these kinds of photos with dogs and I find that really interesting because they can have quite an interesting effect with the background blurred this sense of speed and motion, while the dog should be perfectly frozen. If people can do it with motorbikes and cars travelling at hundreds of kilometres an hour I’m sure that they can do it with a dog, and it could be a completely new and unique kind of perspective.
So if you’re really into action photography or capturing movement don’t feel like the only way that you can do this is with a dog running toward the camera. Try something new! Show the speed, movement, agility and athleticism of the dog other ways.
Look at these cool effects!
I will try my hand at this in the future and let you know how it goes.
Action shots are one time where you may wish to think about making your depth of field slightly wider, at least to begin with.
If you normally shoot “wide open” on a lens with f/1.2, f/1.4, f/1.8 and so on, you may wish to use f/2.8 to give yourself a little more “wiggle room.” Eventually, we would like a wider aperture (narrower depth of field) not only because it will allow more light into the camera, but also because we will then get lovely, soft, non-distracting backgrounds too.
Otherwise, you can also begin with an aperture of f/3.2 up to f/5.6 to give yourself more of the photo in focus. In this case, you’ll need to make sure you have PLENTY of light, as you’ll be letting in less light with a fast shutter speed AND with a narrower aperture (smaller hole = less light).
That way, if the focus is slightly off, it should still result in the eyes being sharp! At f/2.8, you should also still get a blurry background (depending on your lens!).
Have a try with some different apertures, depending on your lens, but remember: the wider your focus/depth of field, the more distractions you’re inviting in to your image. It’s all well and good to capture an action shot at f/7.1 because you have 20 meters of the scene in focus, but it isn’t so useful when the dog blends into all the surrounding bushes and trees in the background.
Should be set according to the other settings. Does this mean you may need a very high ISO if you’re shooting in low light conditions but need a fast shutter speed (and/or narrower aperture)?
Is there anything you can do about that?
The lens you choose can also affect how successful your action photos are. Some lenses are faster than others, so you might want to do some research to see how yours stacks up.
Similarly, the lens length you choose changes how you’ll be doing the action photos. Personally, I prefer a longer lens length (135mm, 70-200mm etc) as it gives the dog plenty of space to extend his stride on the way to me, or means I can be nice and far from the action and still have the dog taking up a good amount of the frame. Depending what you’re shooting, this may be even MORE important. Some agility or dog sport events require you to be quite far from the action, so you may need a longer lens length.
The problem with using a shorter lens length is that the dog will need to be much closer to you in order for it to fill a good portion of the frame, therefore it’s better to use a longer lens length so that the dog doesn’t need to adjust its stride before it crashes into you while you’re trying to take its photo
28mm, 44mm, 70mm (with 70-200), 85mm, 135mm, 189mm.
Zoom lenses are usually favoured for pet photographers because of their versatility. In the case of action photos they can be really useful as you can zoom out as the dog comes towards you or you have more flexibility to change the focal length depending on where you want the dog in the frame and whether you’re taking more controlled action photos or more candid photos.
Let’s talk about your camera. Unfortunately one thing that can’t really be changed too much with settings or lighting conditions and so on is the ability of your camera to focus quickly and to take multiple photos in a row.
Your camera needs a fairly high frames rate per second (FPS). This is the number of photos you can take in a single second, anything above six is probably going to be good for action photos. My Sony a7iii does about 10 per second.
You need your camera to be set to continuous auto focus or AI-SERVO on Canon cameras, as we need it to be able to track our moving subject unless we’re doing single shot pre-focus which will be able to see in the pre-focus lesson.
It’s very important that our camera is able to make adjustments to the focus area and to continue to track our moving subject and this is really where a lot of cameras will struggle. Unless your camera has quite a good and fast auto focus system this is where it will begin to focus on other areas of the dog, for example the back, the neck ,or the nose.
Of course it doesn’t mean that action photos are impossible, it just means you’re going to have to make sure that the lighting conditions are good and that there is enough contrast on the dog, that you are able to repeat the action multiple times, and that you are above all patient and just practice.
You’re probably going to get a lot of misses if your camera is older or the other auto focus system is slower.
We’ve already talked about having your camera in continuous auto focus mode but what other auto focus settings do we need to consider?
First I really recommend using back button focus. You can find more about that button focus in the focus lesson.
The next thing I recommend is using a single point or expanded single point focus area again you can check out more information about these in the focus lesson as well.
I recommend you use these settings because it gives you greater control over what the camera is going to be focusing on. Particularly when it comes to moving subjects our camera can sometimes get a bit confused and lock onto things in the foreground or the background, or the dog’s tail or wherever it finds contrast. This is obviously not ideal.
So while it can be very difficult to keep a small single point of focus over the dogs eye, this is our ultimate goal and the reason why we just need to get out there and practice as much as possible. By keeping the single point over the dogs eye and using back button focus we are continually tracking the dogs eye, no matter where it’s moving, rather than letting the camera make its own decisions about what to focus on.
It should go without saying as well that you want your camera to be on “burst” mode. This doesn’t however, mean you should “spray and pray”. Instead, set your dog up, activate focus over the eye with BBF, have the dog run, wait until it’s filling the amount of the frame that you want, then take 3-5 photos (one stride?).
If you’re using a 70-200mm lens, you could do this at the beginning of the run, when zoomed all the way in, and then again when the dog is much closer, if you zoom all the way out and manage to find the focus on the eye again.
Cases & Tracking Sensitivity
Some cameras will have something called “cases” or sport-specific sensitivity (I don’t mean an automatic “Sport Mode” which sets the shutter speed, aperture etc for you. It’s more about how responsive the AF is to choosing new things to focus on).
You really want to have a look at your camera model’s specific manual, or have a look on YouTube for your particular sports settings that your camera may have, as there may be certain hidden features in the menus that will help you to take even better action shots.
Just keep in mind that some sports settings aren’t really necessarily helpful for the kind of action that we do ,for example, soccer has players running all about the field and the photographer may wish to keep track of only one soccer player. So these settings may be particularly useful for somebody taking photos of one dog in a dog park, or even a dog herding sheep, however this is going to be quite different to taking photos of a dog running towards us.
In fact having done some research on YouTube I have not seen a lot of crossover really between a dog running toward us and many other wildlife or sport type photographers.