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Capture the Action

There are three main ways we can capture action in our photos. You will want to experiment with these to find which suits you and your equipment best. Which method you use may vary depending on what TYPE of action you’re photographing, whether sideways, agility, running toward you, or candid! 

Tracking & Burst

Best for sideways action & leaping shots, and photos where there aren’t too many “things” in between you and the dog (like agility jumps), and where the plane of focus doesn’t move too much. 

OR… you have a sport-specific camera like a Sony a9 with full electronic shutter and it can handle this kind of tracking. Most cameras can’t! With most cameras, when the shutter curtain drops, the camera is “blind”, and in that split second, the dog moves forward a whole body length. When the camera can see again, it struggles to refocus. Therefore, this method doesn’t work well on most portrait cameras when the plane of focus is moving rapidly.

Have your focus area on wider than normal. Something like “Zone” could work, assuming you’re in a nice, open area with not much else for the camera to pick up on.

Start the dog somewhere that you can already focus on it. Eg., don’t hide it behind a bush or log. 

Start the dog running. Trigger your back button focus. Tracking should continue to lock focus on the dog, but obviously make sure you also move your camera to keep good composition and so it’s inside your focus area.

As the gets where you want it to be, fire off a series of photos. Precision isn’t so important here because the plane of focus isn’t changing much (eg., the dog isn’t running toward you). 

Most important here are:

  • high shutter speed
  • wide-ish focus area (maybe not the widest, but 2nd widest)
  • focus area “locked on” the dog before it takes off
  • open location without things for the camera to grab onto
  • good amount of light and contrast
I used this method for all my frisbee photos and it worked really well, even with my Sony a7iii which is not a sport-specific camera.

Manual Timing

Manual Timing is a technique for when your camera struggles with tracking or keeping focus on moving subjects, for example when a dog is running toward you.

It relies on us tracking the dog, then waiting for the optimal moment to trigger the shutter, rather than “spraying and praying” or taking a whole series of photos where only the first is likely to be in focus.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Keep your camera in AF-C and choose a suitable focus area. This may be wider (eg., Zone) if you’re in a nice open area with nothing else for the camera to grab onto, or you might want to use a smaller area. Experiment to see what works best for you.
  • Trigger the focus, so your camera starts focusing on whatever is inside the focus area (hopefully the dog). I use Back button focus for this. Make sure you can SEE the dog, eg., it’s not hidden behind a lot.
  • Get the dog to do the action you want. Track the dog and don’t fire off the shutter until the PERFECT moment! Assume your first photo will be the ONLY one in focus, so it needs to be at the ideal time.
    • This is why photos of dogs jumping over logs are so popular: it allows you to use this technique. Have the dog sitting behind the log, trigger your focus. Have the dog run toward you, and WAIT until it is in the air over the log to take that single shot! This will likely be more accurate than taking 5 photos before the dog has taken off, and the camera is not able to refocus quickly enough.

You may wish you keep one eye on the dog, rather than the viewfinder – especially with mirrorless cameras as there is a split second delay!

I found this especially when I was doing frisbee shots lately: I’m so used to doing manual timing that I tended to wait until the perfect moment…. but while this works for a leapy boingy Journey, it meant I was often missing the split second BEFORE the dog bit down on the frisbee… because what I was seeing on the viewfinder of my Sony was a miniscule amount of time BEHIND what was actually happening! I had to force myself to trigger the shutter EARLIER than I thought I needed to.

This was the first or second photo I took using Chris' camera. I'm so used to manual timing that I tend to wait until the perfect moment quite subconsciously now.

Pre-Focus

Pre-focus is a technique which can be useful in certain situations where you can predict exactly where the dog will be going, and you have something to focus on before it gets there – for example, agility competitions, and even a dog jumping a log.

This will break some of our rules, but it can be especially useful for cameras which just aren’t fast enough to track or refocus on fast-moving subjects.

What we’re going to do, is tell the camera to focus on the obstacle, then wait for the dog to get there, and fire off a few shots as it goes over the obstacle, aiming for perfect timing as it’s in the air, its eyes about where out focus has been set.

  • For this, put your camera on Single-shot AF. We don’t want it tracking.
  • Get the camera to focus on the bar of the jump or the log. 
  • You can now recompose the shot, as long as you don’t ask it to focus again, and you don’t have focus triggered by the shutter half-press.
  • As the dog jumps, be ready. When it’s in the optimal position, take 3-4 photos – depending on how many FPS your camera does. You may only need to/be able to take one photo. 
  • You may wish to use a slightly narrower aperture here so if it’s slightly forward or backward of your pre-focused area, the depth of field will be wide enough that the eyes are still in focus. 
  • As with all action photos, this takes practise too, as you need to time the moment in the air so the dog’s eyes are in your focus zone. 
  • You can pre-focus slightly in front of the obstacle, maybe with a piece of grass or the number or foot of a jump. That way the dog will be further over the jump and at a more dramatic part of the jumping motion, when in focus. 
  • You can use this technique for a lot of agility obstacles. Just be thinking about where you want the focus in terms of where the dogs eyes will be and how to achieve that optimal moment – for example, coming out of tunnels look best when the dog is a step or two out of the tunnel, rather than when their eyes are at the very edge of the tunnel mouth. 

Conditions

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.

Lighting

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?

 

Scene/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. 

Settings

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?

Shutter Speed

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.

Aperture

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. 

ISO

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)?
Yes.

Is there anything you can do about that?
Not really.

Lens Choice

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.

Your Camera

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.

Focus Settings

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.