More 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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!
(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.
(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!
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.