Agility Photography Tips

agility-dobeMore often than not lately my photography focuses on dogs running agility. I still take plenty of photos of my own dog when we’re out and about, but when I’m asked to take pictures, about 99% of the time it’s for agility photos.

Disclaimer: I am not a professional photographer, just someone who loves the hobby and spends too much time thinking about it.

Disclaimer, part 2: I love taking photos of agility dogs.

Agility photography is fun, no doubt about it it. But there are plenty of challenging aspects to photographing these dogs. For one, they’re fast. Sometimes really fast. And they’re somewhat unpredictable at times. Dogs speed up. Dogs slow down. Handlers direct them to the wrong obstacle and they veer away from where you expect them to be. Unless you know the specific dog in question, you don’t know if you’re looking at a dog who is going to race through the course at Mach-10 or if the dog is going to just trot through it with a ridiculously stupid grin on her face while making everyone laugh (Dahlia, I’m looking at you). And honestly, the way they come out to the field is not always indicative of what you’re going to see. There’s a dog in our class who trots out slowly with his handler. But then when she releases him watch out! He’s one of the fast dogs I know.

So there’s a lot to think about in regards to taking photos of these crazy dogs in action. If you do it wrong, at best your photo will be a little blurry and at worst you’ll completely miss the moment. And there’s no do-overs in agility, especially in trial situations. So you have to be fast. You have to be accurate. And you have to know what you’re looking for.


Equipment
Let’s address equipment issues first. I’m going to be honest here. Agility photography without a DSLR is really really difficult. I know because I’ve been there. When I first started classes in 2010, I still had a point and shoot camera. A fancy one to be sure, but it still wasn’t a DSLR. I took a handful of pictures once and managed to get a couple that weren’t overly blurry, but still weren’t good quality. They definitely weren’t what I wanted. And they’re probably not what you want either.

So what do you want?

If you’re going to take photos outside at a fun match or a trial, any DSLR will do, really. I took my first agility photos at a trial back in 2011 using a Sony A230. It was a small, lightweight camera, and an entry-level DSLR. It’s not the best of the best, certainly, but it was more than adequate for outdoor agility photography.

SONY DSC

Not half bad for a relatively inexpensive DSLR!

However, a camera like the A230 is going to fail you if you want to take indoor agility photographs. Which is most of what I do these days.

Camera fail!

Camera fail!

A camera upgrade was definitely warranted! These days I use a Sony A580. It’s a great low-light camera and we’ll get into why that is in a little bit!

So now that you’ve got a decent camera, let’s talk lenses. Lenses can get ridiculously expensive. Anyone who is into photography learns that lesson pretty quickly. Do you need an expensive lens? Not necessarily and especially not if you’re at an outside event. The first photo I posted was taken using a Tamron 75-300mm lens, which I got for about $150 in 2011 (that lens is now discontinued, but the Tamron 70-300mm is only $165). It’s a little tougher using a cheap lens. They’re not very fast. They’re a little bit clunky. You have to get really good with timing your shots because the lens doesn’t react quickly. But it’s certainly doable. So if you have an entry-level DSLR and a cheap zoom lens, have at it!

Now, that being said, if you want to take indoor agility photos, the lenses are out there for that. In this case, you truly do want a very fast lens.

What is a fast lens? A fast lens has a large aperture (generally f/2.8 or lower), which allows a lot more light in. Why is this important? Because the more light you let into the lens, the faster your shutter speed can be. And when you’re talking dogs moving as fast as some of these agility dogs do, you need a pretty speedy shutter to freeze the moment. A “fast” lens also autofocuses fast. The problem with the Tamron lens above is that it often hunts for focus and so sometimes you just don’t catch the moment. With a faster lens, it can autofocus almost instantly, catching the moment as you see it coming.

In addition to wanting a fast lens, you’re going to want a lens with a bit of reach. There are some great fast lenses at the 28mm and 50mm range, but that’s going to generally put you far too away from the action you’ll end up seeing far more of the course and far less of the dog than you want to. Favorites of agility photographers generally are in the range of 70-200mm.

My current favorite lens for agility photography is a Minolta 135mm f/2.8. Yes, it’s a prime lens, which means any “zooming” has to be done by my feet or by cropping the photo (both of which I use quite frequently!). It’s extremely lightweight, it’s very fast, and it lets in a lot of light. And because it’s a prime, it tends to be very sharp. The other lens I use on occasion is a Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8. This lens produces some great quality pictures, but has some drawbacks. It’s extremely heavy (the lens itself weighs 2.5 pounds!) and not nearly as fast as the prime lens. It gives me a little more (and less) reach, but I find myself reaching for the Minolta far more often because the Tamron is hard to handhold for extended periods of time.

agility3

Photo taken using the Sony A580 and Minolta 135mm f/2.8 lens. One of the rare times I got to photograph my own dog doing agility!

Ultimate suggestion for agility photography: A mid-level DSLR and a lens that goes down to f/2.8 for aperture and gives you a bit of reach.


Camera settings
Now, Dom has explained an awful lot about camera settings for dog photography here. I’d definitely suggest re-reading that if you’re unfamiliar with the terminology or want a quick refresher. On the technical camera side of things, all photography can be seen as a combination of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

These can combine in many different ways, but here’s how I see it for agility:

I need a fast shutter speed. That is Priority #1. Fast-moving dogs require a fast shutter speed. I never shoot slower than 1/500 and if I can I shoot at 1/1000 or faster. In brighter light where I can make use of it, I’m often up around 1/2000 or even higher. The faster I can go for shutter speed, the faster the dog I can capture.

To get that fast shutter speed, especially in lower light conditions it means doing two things:

(1) Lowering aperture. At indoor shoots, unless there is some ambient light from outside, I tend to shoot as wide as I can (generally f/2.8, though I have had the rare opportunity to use my 50mm f/1.7 lens in class situations). The wide-open aperture often means that photos are likely to be a little soft (which means they’re not quite as sharp when viewing the full size photo), but it’s a compromise I make to get a higher shutter speed and a photo that’s in focus. Since most people these days aren’t making huge prints of their photos, this isn’t a massive deal. But it’s something to be aware of. And as Dom points out, less of the photo will be on focus.

If you look closely, you'll notice Nia's head and front is in focus, but her back end is not. Be careful with wide-open apertures that it's not the other way around!

If you look closely, you’ll notice Nia’s head and front is in focus, but her back end is not. Be careful with wide-open apertures that it’s not the other way around!

(2) Raising ISO. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the digital processor is to light. So it seems to make sense to bump this up as high as you can go. But…(you knew that was coming, right?)…there is a caveat. The higher the ISO, the more grainy (or “noise”) there is to the photo. And some cameras simply cannot handle an ISO above 800. The “camera fail” photo above was taken at 3200. The Sony A230 is really not designed to take low-light/high-ISO photos. This was my main reason for switching to the Sony A580. While there is still some noise at higher ISOs, it is much less severe. I have shot as high as 6400 at an indoor shoot at night.

This photo was taken at night in a poorly-lit agility barn. ISO is set to 6400. Note that it's still better quality than the "camera fail" photo that was set to 3200!

This photo was taken at night in a poorly lit agility barn. ISO is set to 6400. Note that it’s still better quality than the “camera fail” photo that was set to 3200!

Ultimately, what works best is completely dependent on the lighting conditions that are present. In the agility barn during the day, I like to keep to ISO 800-1600, and at least 1/640 shutter speed. Aperture is almost always at f/2.8. That combination allows me to get a fast enough shutter speed to catch photos like this one.

Photo taken on my Sony A580 with the Minolta 135mm f/2.8 lens; ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/640

This photo from an agility foundation class was taken on my Sony A580 with the Minolta 135mm f/2.8 lens; ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/640

For outdoor agility photos? This is so dependent on the lighting conditions (which can change from one moment to the next, making outdoor photography occasionally even more challenging) that it’s hard to say. In bright sunlight, I aim for 1/1000 to 1/2000 for a shutter speed, try to stick to no higher than 200 for ISO, and bump up my aperture to sharpen the images.

Still one of my favorite agility photos of Dahlia. Taken using the 135mm f/2.8 lens, set to ISO 100, f/4.0, 1/640

Still one of my favorite agility photos of Dahlia. Taken using the 135mm f/2.8 lens, set to ISO 100, f/4.0, 1/640

 


Setting up your shots
Here are a few recommendations from my experiences in shooting agility:

(1) If this is a trial situation, be very careful of where you are. Do not sit too close and make sure that you’re not interfering with the hired photographer, if there is one. You may even want to introduce yourself to the photographer during a down time and let them know you’re just there for some practice.

(2) Watch everyone walk the course or get yourself a course map. You’ll want to pick one spot to stand and be able to catch a couple obstacles. You will not be able to get everything. So situate yourself where you can catch something toward the beginning and something toward the end. Remember that these dogs move fast. Sometimes they finish an entire course in under 25 seconds! That means you don’t have much time to think. So get yourself in there, find your spot, and stick to it!

two shots

I was sitting at the end of the A-Frame in this class (being used as distraction!), but also was able to get a clear shot to the jump.

(3) Watch the sun if you’re outside. The last thing you want to do is pick a spot and find out that the jump you wanted to photograph has the sun directly behind it.

(4) Make sure you are far enough away that you don’t interfere with the dogs on the course. The first agility trial I ever went to, I found a spot toward the end of the weaves to photograph. I was about 10 feet back from the ring so not right up against it, but still, someone came over and informed that where I sat was a huge distraction and a dog was going for their MACH (Master Agility Championship title) that day. I moved. It was the polite thing to do. Now, granted, that dog should have been able to ignore anything by that point, but they wanted to give him his best shot at finishing that all important agility title (he did) and I understood entirely.

A rare chance to take close-up shots of dogs running the weave poles. I was situated directly at the end and using only a 50mm lens. This is the kind of distraction training all dogs should be subjected to!

A rare chance to take close-up shots of dogs running the weave poles. I was situated directly at the end and using only a 50mm lens. This is the kind of distraction training all dogs should be subjected to!

(5) Use “continuous” mode shooting. I make this mistake more often than I’d like to. I take some portraits and then head off for an agility shoot and it often takes me about 30-40 photos to realize that my camera is set to the wrong mode. Most cameras have three modes for shooting: Single-shot (you press the shutter down halfway, the focus locks on that particular thing and you can move the camera to recompose your shot; handy for portraits but not for agility!), Automatic (if you lock the focus on a stationary object and it starts to move, the camera will continue to focus on it; this can be handy for agility, especially if you “track” the dog as it’s heading toward a jump); and Continuous (the camera is constantly focusing without ever locking down; definitely handy for agility). I prefer the latter only because dogs are so fast that sometimes tracking them in automatic doesn’t work as well as you might think.

(6) Don’t be afraid of using the burst mode of shooting on your camera. In the burst mode, your camera will continue to take pictures while you hold the shutter down. My camera has a few different modes for this, but I generally choose the “low” option, which allows the camera to focus between shots, but still can take up to 3 photos per second. This means that sometimes I can start taking photos just before the jump and finish just after the jump. I might get 6-10 photos in that short bit of time and one of them might be at the right moment. I don’t use this nearly as much as I did in the beginning as I’ve gotten pretty good at timing the photos based on the dog’s speed. But when it comes to a particularly fast dog or a tricky spot, I still make use of it!

Using burst mode on my camera allowed me to get these 4 photos of this dog weaving.

Using burst mode on my camera allowed me to get these 4 photos of this dog weaving.

Phew! There’s a lot to agility photography as you can see. Feel free to offer more tips in the comments. And if you’re reading this and thinking “Wow I never thought about everything that goes into that awesome photo of Fluffy I bought last year,” then go thank that photographer! They’ve put a lot of work into their craft to get that photo for you.

Photographing the Black Dog

d2Whenever I post pictures of Dahlia someplace, the first thing someone says is “What a pretty dog!” (And I admit, I eat that one right up.) But often followed close on the heels of admiring my dog’s beauty, is something that goes like this: “How on earth do you get photos of a black dog to come out like that? All of my mine look like black blobs!”

There’s no doubt about it. Photographing black dogs is one of the more challenging aspects of canine photography. They tend to blend into darker backgrounds. Their eyes tend to blend in with their fur. Inside the house they appear as black blobs or alternately, if you choose to use a flash they end up looking harshly lit with strange shadows and highlights.

So exactly how are you going to take photos of that precious black puppy you just got? Allow me to offer up a few tips that have worked for myself.

Outdoor photography
When it comes to dogs, and especially black dogs, outdoor photography trumps indoor all the time. If you scroll through all of my Flickr sets of Dahlia (and there are over 350 photo sets…so far), you’ll see that the vast majority of my photos have been taken in the great outdoors. Natural light is really best for most dog photos, but it is even more important for black dog photography. So leash up your dog (or take him to a safe off leash place) and get the camera out.

Sunny vs. cloudy: Which is best? You might think that taking your black dog out on a beautiful sunny day will net you the best photos, but that’s rarely true. I’m going to say something that might surprise you: cloudy days are best. They offer a naturally filtered light that is soft and incredibly kind to black dogs. Compare the following two photos. The first one was taken during bright sunlight. The second one was taken on a cloudy day.

dahlia-sunNotice the bright highlights and deep shadows on the first photo. Compare that to the second photo, which is softly lit. Which one do you like better? Which one do you think shows the dog best? I know which one I like better!

A special note on cloudy days: You should still be aware of where the sun is even on cloudy days. If you shoot into the sun even if it’s hidden behind clouds you can still end up with a photo with blown-out highlights and deep shadows. It will not be as pronounced as on sunny days, but it’s something to still be aware of!

Time of day: It matters! If you absolutely must take your black dog out on a brightly lit day to take photos, be careful of the time of day. Many people think that photos taken during the bright light of the midday sun will come out best. But that is absolutely not true. Bright sunlight that is directly overhead creates terrible shadows and highlights that can make a black dog harder to see. This photo was taken around 3:00pm on a bright sunny day. Notice that the side of her body that is away from the sun (especially her face) is so dark you can’t really make out the details. (And if you’re wondering why it looks like she’s missing fur, it’s because she was – she had recently had surgery).

d-brightlightSo if midday is not a good time, when is the best time to take photos? Try for taking photographs earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon. The best time is when the sun is lower in the sky, which stops harsh shadows and can even have a sort of magical effect if it’s a late afternoon/early evening shot. This photo was taken just about an hour before sunset, my favorite time of day to take photos. Photographers often call this the golden hour (or the magical hour) for a reason!

golden lightBut I need to go outside and take photos in the middle of the day! It is possible to take photos during the hours of harshest light, but you have to be careful of how you go about it. Here are some tips for midday photos.

1. Look for shade! This photo was taken on a bright sunlit afternoon, but Dahlia was laying in the shade taking a nap.

shade2. Be aware of the sun. You never want to shoot directly into the sun (unless you’re looking for a silhouette effect). The best thing to do is keep the sun at your back or off to your side. I tend to prefer keeping the sun off to the side and slightly behind me, but everyone’s preferences may differ.

3. Try using a fill flash. You can dial the flash down a bit so it’s not terribly bright (check your camera manual on how to do this as it’s different on every camera) and shoot using that. It will help to bring out those shadowed parts, which stops the highlights from looking quite so harsh.

4. Be creative! Shoot into the sun to create an interesting silhouette. Shoot with bright sunlight on your dog so it highlights her hair. Shoot in such a way that one half of your dog’s face is totally dark while the other is light. You can set up all sorts of interesting shots using the sun. Here’s one I took of my dog on a bright April day. I like the way the sun lightens up the edges of her fur so she looks like she’s almost glowing.

glow

Indoor photography

I take only a handful of pictures of Dahlia inside. There are two major issues with indoor photography in relation to black dogs: (1) Having enough light for the camera to focus on the dog and (2) What to do about that nasty flash?

Here are some of my favorite tips on indoor photography of black dogs.

1. Make the best use of natural light you can. Throw open all of the curtains and position your dog somewhere near the window, so the natural light coming in falls on her. Now, our apartment has almost no natural light so this tip rarely works for us. But here’s one where it worked nicely on a trip to Vermont.

SONY DSC2. Make the best use of artificial light that you can. If you live in an apartment like mine, where natural light is rather difficult to come by, you can make use of artificial light by positioning lamps to shine on your dog. Carefully assess your arrangement of lamps to make sure you’re not producing any weird shadows! Consider getting full spectrum light bulbs or checking that your white balance works with your existing light bulbs, otherwise you may end up with a yellowish tinge to your photos. Here’s a photo I took of Dahlia on the recliner in our living room. Notice it’s black and white. I didn’t have full spectrum light bulbs and opted to get around the white balance issue by shooting some black and white portraits. bw

3. Use the widest aperture you can. This means taking the camera down to the lowest f-stop possible for the lens you wish to use. The wider the aperture, the more light that is being let in to the sensor. When you don’t have much light to start with, letting in as much as possible is very important! To that end, I’ve bought lenses that allow me to get down to f/2.8 and even f/1.7. The above two photos were both taken on my 50mm f/1.7 lens.

4. Bump up the ISO on your camera. This may only be a good idea on those cameras that allow higher ISOs with little graininess, but even on cameras that don’t, bumping it up to ISO 400 or 800 as a minimum can make the sensor much more sensitive to incoming light. This photo was taken at ISO 1600. This allowed me to make use of the indoor lighting (properly white balanced this time) and the lens I had on my camera at the time (the kit lens). I could only get down to f/3.5 on this lens and so bumping up the ISO allowed for a quick enough shutter speed to capture this photo.

headtiltNo, the lighting is not perfect here. One side of her face is dark (any guesses as to which direction all the light was coming from?). Had I taken the time to do a proper set up, the moment would have been gone. Sometimes you have to sacrifice perfect lighting for the right moment! And besides, I like the photo.

(Also, the black and white photo above? That was taken at an insanely high ISO 12,800, an experimental photo from when I first got my new camera.)

What about flash photography? I will admit that I’m not a big fan of flash photography, especially of dogs. And especially not of black dogs. It often comes out looking like this. And this photo has been edited multiple times to reduce pet eye and to try to bring down the highlights. Yikes!

flash

So how do you fix the flash photography issue? Outside of completely avoiding flash all together, here are a couple things you can do:

1. Back off! Use a bit of a zoom to get further away from the dog so that the flash that falls on them isn’t quite so strong. In the above picture I was standing right over her with the camera just a couple feet away from her face. The flash was far too strong at this close of a distance.

2. Dial down the flash. If you need to be close to your dog to take the photo, you can dial down the flash so it’s weaker. Again, check your camera’s manual to see how you might be able to do this!

3. Use a flash diffuser. You can make your own (which is especially useful if you have a point and shoot!) or you can buy one. For those using DSLR cameras, I highly recommend Gary Fong’s Puffer (be aware that if you have a Sony or Minolta camera, you will have to buy this one, which has a different mount on it).

4. Use a bounce flash. A bounce flash is an external flash that attaches to the hot shoe mount on the top of your DSLR camera. You point the flash at the ceiling and it bounces off the ceiling to create a nice light that lands on your dog from up above rather than from the camera’s built-in flash. Be aware that if your ceilings are some color other than white you’ll end up with strange colors being bounced back at your dog. You’ll need to compensate for that. Here’s a photo I took with a cheap ($40) bounce flash that I picked up. See how natural the light looks? SONY DSCSo that’s it for now folks! If you have any questions or other things that have worked with you, share them in the comment section!

 

Wordless Wednesday: TU readers Valentine’s Day edition

Featuring some of the TU dogs along with some of the beautiful dogs of our readers!

100th post!

Dogs wishing TU a happy postiversary are (l->r, top->bottom): Lucy (Kelsey), the ‘Hua (Kelsey’s grandmother), Nellie (Kelsey), Kane (Cate), Dahlia (Michelle), Cerberus (Rebecca), Bella (Liz), Molly (Danielle), Perri (Danielle), Ein (Danielle), Tayla (Ren), Jax (Lindsay), Cherry (Merissa), Annie (Merissa), Bean (Katie), Luce and Mushroom (Katie), Twinkie (Merissa), Owen (Sarah), Frankie (Sarah) and Steve (Katie)

Thanks to all of our readers, commenters, friends and Facebook peeps for making Team Unruly such a fun place to be. Here’s to much, much more!

Wordless Wednesday: Special Holiday Edition!

Featuring the dogs of many of our great readers.  Thank you everyone for your contributions!