Pet photography can be difficult enough when your subject is sitting still, but factor in the high energy levels of a rambunctious dog and the challenge grows. Yet, the challenge is entirely worth it when you can capture mid-air Frisbee catches, the hilarious face of a dog running at full speed, or the beauty of a dog trotting along a hiking trail in a forest. With a few tips and a lot of practice, you’ll be able to capture action shots of dogs (and pretty much anything else on the move) in no time.
There are a few key settings for a DSLR that you’ll want to familiarize yourself with. The first is how your camera locks in on a subject to focus.
Most cameras have at least two settings: One Shot and AI Servo. Whatever the name of them may be on your specific camera, you’ll deal with them in about the same way. With One Shot, your camera will find the subject, lock focus, and stay put. If your subject moves, your camera’s focus does not move with it. So if your subject moves, you have a blurry subject. With AI Servo (or the equivalent on your camera), the camera finds the subject, locks focus, and then follows the subject if it moves. This way, no matter where your subject goes, your camera will track it and keep a focus on it for sharp shots. So when selecting a focus tracking mode, select AI Servo.
The next thing you’ll want to look at is your autofocus point selection. Most cameras have a way for you to select a single point or a group of points. Because different camera models have different options, I won’t go into much detail. But I will say this is an extremely valuable aspect of your camera to look up in the user’s manual if you want to take great action photos.
There are pros and cons to tracking a moving subject using a single point versus a group of points. A group of points allows the camera to do some of the thinking for you, automatically selecting where to focus on a subject within the range of any of those points. However, if you use a group of points you run the risk of the camera making the wrong decision. For instance, if another dog runs into view, your camera may switch focus to that dog instead of the dog you’re wanting to photograph. Or if a single dog is taking up most of the frame and you want to focus on its face, the camera may decide that it’s going to focus on the shoulder instead. You end up with a sharp shoulder but a blurry face as the dog runs by.
Single focus points allow you the most control over exactly what you’re focusing on, but also require more practice with keeping your point on your subject as it moves. You can’t lean on the camera’s ability to switch points for you as needed and have to get really skilled at tracking a dog as it moves. Even so, this may be the preferable option more often, especially if you’re photographing a group of animals on the move, like dogs playing at a park.
Finally, you’ll want to get familiar with your camera’s aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode, and manual modes. Each of these has their own benefits in different situations. Getting really comfortable in manual mode — in which you select all the settings for the best exposure — will give you the most control over how your photos look and ensure that you have the least amount of trouble with getting shots that are too blurry, too dark, or too anything else. On the other hand, aperture priority and shutter priority have their benefits as well. Overall, shutter speed is going to play the biggest role in how your action shots turn out so you’ll want to study each of these different modes in your camera and learn when you want to use them.
Freezing action and pan blur
When we think of shutter speed, we think of wanting a speed fast enough to freeze the action. If you want to freeze action, you want a fast shutter speed. Depending on the other settings of your camera and the light within the scene, this could be anywhere from 1/250 or faster. This is important for if you want to capture a dog at the height of a jump, or mid-stride across a field, or splashing into a pool at the moment that water and dog collide.
Another way to convey movement and motion is through pan blur, which takes advantage of slower shutter speeds. Pan blur is where your subject stays in focus while they move, but the rest of your scene is blurred, giving the feeling of it whizzing by like in the photo above.
This works wonderfully when you want to have a more artistic feel or add another layer of emotion to a shot. Pan blur is a great way to get action shots when there isn’t enough light for a higher shutter speed as well. This is also a technique where you’ll need a lot of practice with tracking a subject and understanding your autofocus points.
Anticipating movement and moments
Beyond camera settings, the most important ingredient to excellent action shots is to anticipate when the moment is going to happen and click the shutter as it unfolds. The only way that you can really master this is through practice and watching your subject -- both dogs in general but also the particular dog you're photographing. This includes watching a scene and gauging when elements are going to align just right, like in the photo above, as well as taking some time to look for and find particular personality traits and little habits will guarantee you a higher success rate for great shots.
One last tip: Get low
Getting to the eye level of your subject is a key way to make the viewers feel like they are part of the action. Standing up and shooting downward rarely works for compelling photos. Increase the intimacy and the interest of the photograph by getting down to the dog's height, and show the world how they see it.
Getting low also allows you to capture expression that you couldn't get from a higher angle. Expression is what can make or break a shot, and if you have an opportunity to capture a great look, it's essential that you snag it. By being down at your dog's level, you'll be able to capture a natural expression — whether it's a happy smile or the intensity of the eyes as the dog chases a ball — and you won't miss any part of it by being too high above them.
One more important benefit of being low: you're more likely to feel like you're part in the fun yourself!
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