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.

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.


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.


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.


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!


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!


Pet Photography Tip #5: Camera Settings

Now that we’ve talked about a few of the elements that make a good photo, let’s talk about how we get that photo. It’s time to get a little less artsy and a little more technical. Today we’ll delve into the different settings on your camera and what they do for your photos.

I’m going to preface this by saying that I do shoot with a dSLR, but these are important things to know, even when you’re shooting with a point and shoot or mid-range camera. Even your simple point and shoots frequently have modes other than automatic than can help a novice photographer shoot better under certain conditions.

It is very important to understand what all that fancy ‘photog terminology’ means and how you can use it to your advantage. I’m going to keep this discussion to things that are available to your average user. We’re not trying to make a professional photographer here; we’re just trying to get better photos of our pets, and I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but I’m on a budget! A $14k lens is just not going to happen!

Shutter Speed
The first and simplest technical aspect of photography is shutter speed. The shutter is the part of the camera that opens, allowing light to travel through the camera to record the image. The shutter speed, as you may have guessed, refers to how fast the shutter opens and closes.

Obviously, the longer the shutter is open, the more light it lets in. It makes sense, then, that if you leave your camera in auto mode while shooting in low light, the shutter speed will be slower (the shutter will be open longer). The problem is that a slower shutter speed means more potential for blur.

In pet photography, shutter speed is often key to getting a good, clear image. Dogs move, run, spring, and generally don’t hold still. It is important to have a fast shutter speed to keep up with their movements. You want a dog’s face to be in focus, even if he’s sprinting at the camera at Mach 10! If you’re shooting in broad daylight, this is pretty simple, and even in auto mode, the camera should pick a fast shutter speed.

In the shady woods, a fast shutter is key to preventing blur like this.

However, dogs aren’t always outside running in the sunshine. Sometimes we’re hiking in the woods, or playing in our living room, or it’s just not a sunny day. In those moments, our cameras sacrifice shutter speed to let in more light while maintaining depth of field and image quality. When we shoot a moving subject, however, we need to over ride our cameras and bump the shutter speed to keep our pictures in focus. This article will cover more about modes below.

Obviously, there’s more to photography than shutter speed. The shutter can only go so fast in poor light before the photo gets dark. Thankfully, there is another way to let in more light without sacrificing speed.

The aperture refers to how wide the camera shutter opens. Obviously, the wider the aperture, the more light it lets in. The aperture setting, or f-stop, can be a bit tricky to grasp at first. Basically, the lower the f-stop number, the bigger the opening, and the more light the camera lets in. For example, an f-stop of f/1.8 lets in a lot more light than an f-stop of f/5.6.

The problem is that it’s much more complicated than that. The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field, meaning that the lower the f-stop, the less of the photo is in focus. That’s how people get those neat photos where the background is blurry and the dog is in focus (this concept is called bokeh). If you’re shooting from any kind of a distance, as we so often do with dogs, it becomes very tough to keep the whole dog in focus at a low f-stop.

So let’s recap:
Low f-stop= big opening= more light= small depth of field
High f-stop= small opening= less light= big depth of field

If you want to blur your background or focus on just part of your dog (as with a macro photo), use a low f-stop. If you want to shoot a fast moving subject with your background in focus, use a high f-stop.

This photo was taken at f/9 to keep the whole background in focus.

So what do you do if you’re shooting a moving dog in low light and you want your background in focus? The next setting you can control is your ISO, or the sensitivity of the camera sensor.

In film photography, ISO was determined by the film. Film was comprised of ‘grains’ of light sensitive material. The higher the ISO, the more ‘sensitive’ the sensor/film. Basically, the camera picks up more light with a higher ISO.

However, ISO should be the last setting to bump because the higher the ISO, the higher the ‘noise’ or ‘grain’ in the image.

A high ISO leads to a lot of noise, as seen in Mike’s jacket, skin, and jeans here.

Personally, I tend to shoot at 400 ISO as a default. It allows for a fast shutter speed in most light, without adding grain to the image. When dealing with still subjects in good light, I will drop the ISO further. When indoors, I bump it to 800. In truly atrocious lighting conditions, I will go all the way up to ISO 1600.

A common solution to low light situations is to use flash. This is something that I strongly advise against Most cameras have an in camera flash. Unless you’re using a dSLR with a diffuser attachment, don’t bother! In camera flashes create harsh, flat lighting, dramatic, distracting shadows, and, worst of all, red eye!

Nasty red-eye effect from in-camera flash.

If you are interested in shooting your pets indoors, your best bet is to invest in an external flash. As far as photography equipment goes, they are pretty affordable, and the difference is incredible. External flashes allow the photographer to control the angle of the flash (allowing the photographer to bounce light off the ceiling and walls instead of blinding the subject). They also make it possible to use more or less flash. Sometimes you only need a little extra light, and too much flash can ruin the photo.

For comparison, a photo taken with external flash. The lighting looks much more natural. (I know, I know, not a dog…)

With point and shoots, you’re better off just setting up ‘studio lighting’ by bringing more light sources into the room.

White Balance
The white balance of a camera is what gives photos their ‘tint’ or ‘hue’. The white balance can give a photo a ‘warm’ or ‘cool’ feeling. An improper white balance can shift an entire photo so that it looks slightly green or slightly pink or just… off.

The good news is that most modern cameras have a pretty good ‘auto white balance’, but it’s still a good idea to play with your individual camera and see what feel you like the best.

White balance varies from camera to camera. Canon cameras tend to have a ‘warm’ feel, while Nikons tend to lean toward the cool end of the spectrum. I tend to shoot with the ‘outdoor’ white balance on my Canon. I like the warm glow it gives my photos.

A cool photo, where the ‘whites’ look ‘blue’.

A warm photo, where the ‘whites’ look ‘golden’.

You can also set your white balance manually, but that’s a complex process that needs to be done continuously for good results. If you’re up to the challenge, the best advice I can give is to look it up in your owner’s manual.

Enough technical mumbo jumbo! Let’s talk about what all of this means for you. Now that you know about how all the different aspects work, let’s talk about what modes give you control over what settings. Most people shoot in automatic, which is the one mode I avoid no matter what.

Many cameras give you certain pre-programmed modes that you can play with. For example ‘portrait mode’ and ‘landscape mode’. These are all created using certain algorithms that prioritize what the camera makers think will be most important in those scenarios. In landscape mode, for example, the aperture needs to allow for a large depth of field. Portrait mode is designed with white balance in mind, so that skin tones look natural and flattering.

But the most important modes on your camera are the ‘priority’ modes. Let’s discuss them one by one.

My favorite mode, and the one I use most frequently when taking day to day photos of my dog, is P or ‘Program Mode’. P allows you to select certain settings without overwhelming you with the other options. The flash is off by default and you can select your ISO and white balance, rather than taking the pre-programmed options. The camera does the rest to create the best exposure in your given circumstances. You have the added option of choosing to over or under expose your image (if you’re going for a darker feel or you’re shooting a black subject, for example) and the camera adjusts accordingly. If you have no interest in worrying about all the settings, but want to step up from auto mode, this is your best bet.

Another option is ‘Shutter Priority’, frequently labeled ‘Tv’. This mode allows you to select your shutter speed (for example, fast for a running dog, or slow for an intentional blurred effect). The camera adjusts everything else to compensate and create the proper exposure.

Aperture Priority’ is the counter part, and is frequently labeled ‘Av’. As you can probably guess, Av allows you to select your f-stop and compensates with everything else. If you are looking to blur your background, or, alternately, want to ensure multiple dogs stay in focus, this is a good mode to try.

Once you get comfortable playing with all that, you can dive in and try to go full ‘Manual‘. As the name implies ‘M’ lets you pick all of your settings, completely from scratch. This mode produces the best results, but takes some multi-tasking and a lot of practice. It’s great for controlling all the tricky aspects of your photography, but is not good if you’re shooting in rapidly changing conditions or need to work fast to capture essential moments.

Your best bet is to really read your manual and experiment. My personal recommendations for dog photography, however, are ‘P’ or ‘Tv’.

(Quick Tip:
There are lots of other settings that  you can customize. One of the most important for shooting animals, especially in motion, is continuous shoot, which allows you to take multiple photos in a row by holding down the shutter button. This way you get a burst of photos and can pick the best pose when you’re done.)

There’s more to photography than just the camera, however, and there are a multitude of lenses to choose from. They range from affordable to insane and there are a lot of factors to keep in mind.

Lens length is measured in mm. The way I remember it is that 35mm is your standard lens, or what we see with our eyes. That means if you take a photo at 35mm it should match what you see with your eyes. Anything higher than that is a zoom lens. Anything lower than that is a wide angle. The down side to wide angles is that you have to get close to your subject and they have a bit of a ‘fish eye effect’. The down side to zoom lenses is that you have to back away from your subject and you get some distortion from the zoom, called pin cushion distortion. In both cases, the outside edges of the photo suffer from a little bit of distortion, as explained in this article.

As usual, these are just my personal preferences.

I think a zoom lens is a great idea. Getting some distance from your dogs is a great way to ensure that you don’t end up with nose prints and blurry close ups. It’s often easier to zoom in than compose a shot up close.

The other essential lens, especially if you’re competing in dog sports, is a lens with a low f-stop option. For example, I have a 50mm f1.8 lens that I use for shooting horse shows in indoor arenas. The problem of this lens is that it’s fixed zoom and I have to ‘zoom with my feet’ or crop photos afterwards (more on post processing in a later article!)

Regardless of what lens you get, it’s a good idea to be familiar with your strengths and weaknesses and plan around them.

Educating Yourself
And now for your homework! The best way to learn about settings is to browse photos you like and check out the EXIF info, aka the camera settings for the shot. Digital cameras ‘burn’ that information right onto the photos and there are many websites (deviantArt and Flickr for example) that make it easily accessible. Scrolling through this information can answer questions about how to get the look you’re seeking. The more photos you see and take, the better feel you’ll get for what tricks work!

An example of EXIF data (and now you know what it means!)

Pet Photography Tip #4- The Subject

Composition, lighting, background. All things that are important in a photo and all things that we’ve delved into a bit here on the Team Unruly blog, but it’s time to stop tip toeing around it and get to the subject of the photos, literally. It’s time to talk about the thing you’re all actually photographing, the dogs themselves.

The tricky thing about dogs is that they are alive. They move, they breathe, they don’t always listen, and they don’t understand what the heck we’re doing with that clicking thing in our hands. Landscapes and still photos are easy. You see what you like, you take as long as you need to set up, and you take the photo. People are a little less cooperative, but they most likely know what a photo is and you can explain to them exactly what you’re looking to accomplish. Animals, on the other hand… forget it!!!

The good thing about [most] dogs is that they are trained to some degree. They can be pretty tricky to photograph,  but they’re easier than, let’s say, cats. You can tell Fido to sit and stay, but Whiskers is probably going to walk away and flick you off with her tail as she goes.

So here are some tips on working with the dog part of dog photography.

Posed Photos
Let’s talk about the simplest type of dog photo, the portrait shot. These are the photos you get framed to hang over your fireplace. The ones that show off your dog as a beautiful and well-mannered member of society, the truth of the matter aside. We see them all the time, the dog sits poised against a lovely background, looking regally into the distance.

This is where the power of the sit-stay or the down-stay comes into play. The best way to get these photos is to place the dog exactly where you want it, tell it to stay, and back up to get just the right shot. But what if your dog doesn’t stay? This is where a second person really comes in handy. You may not be able to explain to your dog where you want him to sit and why, but a friend or family member can certainly get the point across. While you back away from the camera, have your assistant position the dog, then step briefly out of the photo. It may take a few tries, but it’ll save you having to walk back and forth and tearing your hair out.

Perhaps the most important part of these portrait type shots is getting the dog to look alert and interested. There’s nothing that ruins this type of photo than a dog who isn’t paying attention or is about to leave the scene. Crinkling treat wrappers, trilling with your tongue, or having your handy dandy assistant wave a toy just out of sight of the camera will accomplish that look.

For an extra twist, try positioning the dog away from the camera, then getting his attention so that he gives you that sexy over-the-shoulder gaze.

Head Shots
To get a more personalized feel for a dog portrait, try cutting out the dog’s body all together and just shooting the dog’s face and head. Dogs have expressive faces, soulful eyes, and active ears for a reason! This type of shot is also a great way to avoid the issue of posing your dog if he doesn’t always listen and you don’t have access to a second person.

Here, for example, Herbie was tied in a barn full of clutter and people. There was a lot going on and getting her to sit still against a nice background simply wasn’t going to happen.

A head shot gives you the opportunity to explore the individual nature of the particular dog you’re shooting. The wrinkles in his face, the color of his eyes, the whiskers on his chin. These are all things that a head shot can reveal to a person who doesn’t know your dog.

Action Shots
The great thing about shooting a living, breathing subject is the potential for action shots. Dogs do a lot of fun things like running, jumping, and tumbling that are a lot of fun to photograph. Much like portrait shots, action shots can be arranged to a large degree for best results.

Once again, having a second person can be very helpful. Someone who can, for example, throw a ball or lure a dog to jump with a tug toy. I suggest someone with a high play drive and lots of energy. My favorite second person is Mike. He loves to get Herbie all amped up:

So I can get shots like this:

When shooting action shots, there are a few things you want to keep in mind.

1. When shooting action shots, with the rare exception, the photo is going to be more effective if you can see the dog’s face. Try shooting with the dog coming toward the camera or with his side turned to the viewer. Butt shots are rarely attractive or interesting.

2. Try to keep the dog’s pose in mind. This takes some timing and some practice, but if you can get a dog with all four feet off the ground or his lips flapping wildly in his face, the photo will be enhanced that much more.

3. Keep in mind how a dog’s action affects his background. Sand, snow, water, and even fallen leaves frequently create a fun photo effect if you can get a dog sprinting through them.

4. Action shots don’t necessarily mean that you have to have the whole dog in the frame. Close ups can be just as effective here as they are for still photos.

Candid Photos:
Of course, the best part about shooting tricky subjects like dogs is that all the things that make them hard to photograph are also the things that make photographing them so rewarding. Dogs have personality, expression, and unpredictable behaviors that make them so much fun to shoot! Sometimes, the best way to get a photo of a dog is just to follow him around and wait til he does something fun.

Like grabbing a piece of a shovel out of the back yard:

Or jumping through a pile of sand:

Or simply curling up in bed at the end of the night:

The best piece of advice I can give you as a pet photographer is to always have your battery charged, your memory card loaded, and your camera nearby because dogs are liable to provide us with photo ops at the drop of a hat (or you know, tennis ball).

…And not to give away the section about must have photo equipment, but I would definitely suggest having a zoom lens, so you can capture all these actions without gaining so much of the dog’s attention that he stops what he’s doing to come see if you’ve got something for him.

Pet Photography Tip #3: Background

We’ve talked about lighting. We’ve talked about composition. You KNOW we’re going to talk about the dogs themselves, but let’s talk about the third thing that makes a photo a good photo, and that is… background. There’s nothing that makes or breaks a photo like what is in the backdrop. We’ve all seen those funny Facebook memes where people are posing for a photo and someone has their pants down in the background. It just totally detracts from the point of the photo. That example is obvious, but there are many more subtle things that make a good (or bad) background for a dog photo.

Continue reading

Pet Photography Tip #2: Lighting

Now that we’ve talked about the ‘book smarts’ behind taking good pictures of your dog, let’s start getting into some of the technical stuff that goes into taking pictures of your pet. We’ll start by discussing something that every aspiring photographer has to deal with… lighting. In most circumstances, there is not a lot you can do to control the light in a given situation. Unless you have a fancy studio set up (and let’s face it, most of us don’t) you kind of have to work with what you’re given. When we get to talking about your camera settings, I’ll cover more about shooting in low light and tricky situations. Today let’s just talk about the basics of lighting. In the mean time, here are some tips on working with what you’ve got! Continue reading

Dog Photography Tip #1: Composition

People frequently ask me for photography tips and I have to be perfectly honest: I don’t really think about it! Photography is something I do so that I can share my world with others. It’s not about art for me. It’s about showing how I see things, what I experience on a day to day basis.I actually had a photography teacher in high school tell me that I had no talent and should quit while I was ahead. Obviously, I didn’t take his advice. Instead, I started to experiment with things that worked and things that didn’t. Over time, I have discovered that certain things really do help make a better photo.

It’s time to share those things! Let’s see if I can make a series of 10 Dog Photography Tips in the upcoming weeks..

Composition - This is the one thing that I learned from taking the one photography class I enrolled in. It’s also something you’ll learn in most basic art classes, starting in middle school. There are a few basic concepts that will help make your photo more appealing to the eye.

The first thing to keep in mind is your focal point. This is the focus of your photo and the thing you want your viewer’s eye to be drawn to. When it comes to pet photography, this is most commonly the pet. However, it’s often fun to switch this up. For example, in this photo, which I still feel is about Herbie, the focal point is actually the kitten in the foreground.

Keeping the dog blurred emphasizes the kitten as the focal point of this photo.

Remember, it’s always fun to switch it up! We all love to see cute and charming pictures of dogs and especially puppies, but it may be more interesting to focus on a specific aspect of your dog. Dogs have great textures  on their paws and their noses. They have soulful eyes and favorite toys. They leave footprints and wear dog tags. All of these things make for alternative to your standard dog posing or face-focused photo.

In this portrait of a ferocious looking happy greeting, the dog’s teeth are very obviously the focal point.

There are several things you can do to draw attention to your focal point. The first is to use the rule of thirds. This rule dictates that, rather than placing the focal point in the middle of your shot, you divide the photo into thirds and place the focus where those lines intersect.
Here we see the dog placed on the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds creates visual interest and lets you do things like play with negative space (the empty area in a photo). It’s important to pay attention to this negative space because the way you balance it can really change the feel of a photo. A photo that is well balanced in its use of visual space can give a calm, relaxed, or still feeling, while a photo with dramatic negative space can come off as dynamic or full of motion.

Here, for example, the dog is laying still and the photo is cropped close. The dog takes up about half the space in the image and the photo feels peaceful and balanced. You feel as though the dog is going to stay put for at least a little while.

This photo on the other hand features a lot of negative space and background. The pose alone would make for an exciting shot, but leaving a lot of the background allows the viewer to imagine just how much open space there is and just how far the dog could run. There is a sense of motion and speed about the shot.

Another compositional tool is the leading line, a literal line in a photo that leads the eye to the focal point. Trails, long dog legs, or dogs arranged in size order are just a few examples of leading lines that can really make a focal point the center of attention.

In this photo, for example, the line of reeds in the background draws the eye horizontally across the photo and to the dog.

A final compositional concept that I frequently use in my photography is that of natural framing. We’ve all seen photos framed and hanging on the wall, but natural framing refers to objects in the photo that seem to surround the focal point, really making it pop. My friend’s boxer, Kole, has a fun habit of naturally framing himself!

Kole demonstrates natural framing.
So there you have it, the basics of composition broken down a la textbook… only featuring dogs as the subject! Check back soon for more dog photography tips… including how to get the best light, capturing poses and expressions, and selecting good angles and backgrounds for your photos.