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How to Shoot Amazing Action Dog Photography

Last updated: March 13, 2024 - 11 min read
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If you want to learn how to master action dog photography, you’ve come to the right place. Dogs are amazing creatures and make for some of the best photography subjects. They’re always happy and energetic, and they love to play. This makes them perfect for action shots.

Cool pet photography action shot of a collie dog jumping for a frisbee being thrown by its owner


Camera Settings for Action Dog Photography

Your camera settings for dog photography make a noticeable difference in your ease of shooting. First, you must shoot with a very fast shutter speed to freeze the action. I recommend a minimum of 1/1000 s (seconds), but I like to shoot at 1/3000 s and faster.

You can do a few other things to get sharp dog images. Many new cameras have improved autofocus mechanisms that make action shooting easier. Focus and burst modes (continuous shooting mode) are common to most cameras, new and old.

First, change your focus mode to continuous focus mode (AI Servo for Canon users, AF-C for Nikon users, and Continuous AF for Sony users). This lets your camera lock onto your subject and follow the dog as it moves- you don’t have to constantly refocus!

Where new technology comes into play are the additional customizations for this mode. Some new cameras let you use the Continuous Focus Mode presets or make your own for your shooting.

On my Canon 5D Mark IV, I can tell the camera how my subject moves and what obstacles may be present. You can adjust the various levels of sporadic movement, obstacle interference, and more to do this.

There are even presets for erratically moving subjects and following the subject despite obstacles. Check your camera manual for specialty settings like this.

Adorable pet photo of two collie dogs running through nature - dog photography tips

When photographing canine sports, I usually tell my camera that my subjects move erratically in multiple directions and that many obstacles are in the way.

When capturing a dog running in a field, I ease up on the obstacle interference and focus on speed. In cameras that do not have this feature, your continuous focusing mode is still a good choice.

Next, use burst mode (high-speed drive mode) to take advantage of your camera’s frame rate and ensure you get the right shot.

This is where you take multiple photographs in a row while pressing down on the shutter. Shoot with a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. Competitors love sequence shots, and the only way to get these cool sequences is by shooting in burst mode!

Cool pet photography action shot of a black and white dog jumping in an agility course


Pre-Focussing and Not Letting Go

The best method of capturing action is to pre-focus on the dog even when it’s not yet moving. This way, you tell the camera what to hold its focus on. Then, when the dog begins to move, follow the pup while keeping the focus locked.

On most cameras, locking focus is as simple as holding the shutter button down halfway. That being said, cameras are not sentient beings. They are not very intelligent.

Digital and mirrorless cameras are just machines with a program telling them what to do. So, don’t rely entirely on your autofocus for perfectly sharp shots. Watch when the camera loses focus on your subject, and quickly reset the focus!

Cool pet photography action shot of a collie dog jumping for a frisbee


Techniques for Taking Action Shots With Dogs

Use Panning to Capture More Interesting Shots

Your shooting technique, gear, and camera settings will make or break your results. Be prepared to practice the art of panning.

Panning is moving your camera horizontally with the subject’s movement. You synchronize your camera movement with the subject moving parallel to you.

I find it easiest to focus on the dog when it’s waiting to be released by the owner and then follow the dog. Use your best judgment on where you think the dog will go. This takes practice, but nothing comes without practice!

If the dog is running towards you, most modern continuous focus modes can refocus on them. Don’t rely on this exclusively, though. Check focus and refocus on your subject throughout their movement!

Alongside panning, photographing from the subject’s eye level is another tip for getting the most dynamic action shots.

Be prepared to spend a lot of time on your knees. This position allows viewers to relate to the subject and gives them an idea of the height at which the dog is moving, which aids in the dramatic appearance of the photograph.

Adorable pet photography action shot of a black and white puppy jumping on grass


Using Negative Space to Show Movement

Composition is the driving force in great action photography. Composition is the arrangement of subjects and elements in a frame.

The best photographers have a natural sensitivity to proper placement in images. But there are really important compositional elements that you should always keep in mind when photographing.

For action, in particular, leave more negative (empty) space in the direction of the implied movement. Although a photograph is a frozen moment, the viewer can still imagine the next step in the series.

Leave enough negative space in the direction in which you expect the subject to continue moving so that the audience can feel the subject bouncing off the photograph.

If the subject is too closed off compositionally (by being cropped so that there is little negative space), the image will feel claustrophobic and caged.

Cool pet photography action shot of a brown and white dog running on the beach


Direct the Dog or Owner to Encourage Action

Many client sessions happen on a schedule. So, you’re likely in a time crunch unless you photograph a canine sporting event. It’s okay to not wait for a pup to want to run and jump and instead direct the owner to encourage the dog to do so!

Usually, the best way is to get the dog going with a toy and play fetch. If you rile up the dog enough, they might get the zoomies and run around like crazy!

Cool pet photography action shot of a cute brown and white dog running through grass

Keep an Eye on the Pet’s Well-Being

Photography should be a pleasant experience for everyone involved—including the four-legged subject! But not all animals are okay with cameras and can’t run and play indefinitely.

If you see the animal showing distress or anxiety signals, give it a break. Much like children and adult humans, pets get tired and agitated.

Instead of letting the animal get to that point, the moment you see a dog get very tired or frustrated, instruct the owner to remove the furry one from the situation and let it take a break. A half-hour break is usually an excellent amount of time.

Sometimes, the problems stem from the pet owner. Animals are very sensitive to others’ emotions, and if the owner is acting anxious or frustrated, the pet will respond to that.

If your client is irritated with their pet, try to calm the owner down. If you don’t, the animal you’re photographing will be affected.

You can tell when a pet isn’t having a great time in a photograph, and the whole point of action photography is to capture some playful fun. Now, go out there and capture some incredible action shots, highlighting pups at their best!

Cool pet photography action shot of two puppies running on grass


What Camera Should I Use for Action Dog Photography?

A camera body is crucial in action photography. The speed of your camera determines what moments you can capture.

You want to ensure your camera shutter closes when you want it to, and you want it to capture an entire movement sequence. Many dog owners ask pet action photographers for this.

Your camera’s frame rate is measured in frames per second (fps). This is how many frames can be shot per second. The more photographs the camera can take, the more steps in an action series you can achieve!

The camera is also a significant part of the autofocus system. Each camera has a different autofocus mechanism and number of autofocus points.

Autofocus works through a series of selection points. When the subject passes in front of them, they outline what you’re trying to capture. The more autofocus points, the more accurate the camera’s selection.

Cool dog action photo of a black and white dog running during an agility eventMost action photography happens outdoors, with pups romping in the field. And nature sometimes has surprises when you’re carrying or using something fragile and sensitive. So, it can be good to have a weather-sealed camera.

Weather sealing also helps your equipment last longer. It means your camera can withstand moisture, sand, dirt, debris, snow, hot weather, cold weather, and other natural troubles.

It is key to note that weather sealing does not mean weatherproof. Your camera may not survive a rainstorm without a waterproof case!

I always recommend purchasing a mirrorless camera to anyone wanting to get very serious about this type of photography. Look for a camera with a strong inclination towards action photography. These cameras have high frame rates, measured in frames per second (fps).

Here are the cameras for pet photography we recommend that have weather sealing and good frame rates:

The Best Cameras for Action Dog Photography
Fujifilm X-T5
Fujifilm X-T5
Fujifilm X-T5
Olympus OM System OM-5
Olympus OM System OM-5
Olympus OM System OM-5
Canon EOS R7
Canon EOS R7
Canon EOS R7

What Lens Should I Use for Action Shots With Dogs?

The key to dog action photography is interfering as little as possible with the excitement. That means shooting from a distance so your activity doesn’t distract the dogs from romping and jumping.

Many action dog photographers work with a telephoto or zoom lens. These lenses allow you to be far enough away from the subject to not affect their performance. But you can also zoom in tightly and capture some beautiful compositions.

Finding a lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8, or around that range, is a great idea. It will help you isolate the dog from whatever location they are at.

Many common outdoor spaces can make a photograph look chaotic due to obstacles close to your subject. A lens that can shoot at f/2.8 can help you blur or soften distracting elements in the background.

Cool pet photography action shot of a brown dog running during an agility game

Something that you should also consider with your lens is that photographing animals in action can be a tumultuous and unexpected endeavor. It’s not uncommon for a lens to get bumped.

Some lenses are very sturdy and durable in their build. This makes them relatively shock-resistant. What I mean by shock resistance is that they won’t necessarily crumble and break from an accidental bump.

My favorite lens for dog action photography is the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM III. Many other photographers lean toward 300mm or 400mm lenses. These lenses allow photographers to get closer to the dogs without getting in the way physically.

Some fixed lenses, like the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4 or the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 for Canon EF, are great choices if you’re closer to your subject.

Best Telephoto Prime Lenses for Pet Photography
Nikon NIKKOR Z MC 105mm F/2.8 VR S
Nikon NIKKOR Z MC 105mm F/2.8 VR S
Nikon NIKKOR Z MC 105mm F/2.8 VR S
Canon RF 85mm F/2 Macro IS STM
Canon RF 85mm F/2 Macro IS STM
Canon RF 85mm F/2 Macro IS STM
Fujifilm FUJINON XF 80mm F/2.8 R LM OIS WR Macro
Fujifilm FUJINON XF 80mm F/2.8 R LM OIS WR Macro
Fujifilm FUJINON XF 80mm F/2.8 R LM OIS WR Macro
Sony FE 135mm F/1.8 GM SEL135F18GM
Sony FE 135mm F/1.8 GM SEL135F18GM
Sony FE 135mm F/1.8 GM SEL135F18GM

Use a Telephoto or Zoom Lens for Dog Action Photography

Many dogs are very easily distracted by camera equipment. They will stop whatever they are doing to check out whatever you are doing. This doesn’t bode well when you want to capture an awesome shot of a puppy jumping.

The solution is quite simple: use a telephoto or zoom lens instead! Hiding is the key to catching those exciting and speedy moments. With pet photography, sometimes the best shots are those in which you play no role.

With the length of the telephoto lens, you can sit very far back. The animal doesn’t even need to know you’re there. You can pick out your subjects at their finest, whether you have a fixed millimeter or a variable focal length.

Also, one of the key highlights of telephoto and significantly zooming lenses is that they produce a natural perspective (minus the incredible zoom).

Lenses that have no distortion are some of the easiest lenses to use. You do not have to factor in any form of misrepresentation due to curved glass. When you can take a picture of something exactly as your eye sees it, the composition becomes easier.

Best Standard Zoom Lenses for Dog Action Photography
Nikon NIKKOR Z 24-70mm F/2.8 S
Nikon NIKKOR Z 24-70mm F/2.8 S
Nikon NIKKOR Z 24-70mm F/2.8 S
Canon RF 24-70mm f/2.8L IS USM
Canon RF 24-70mm f/2.8L IS USM
Canon RF 24-70mm f/2.8L IS USM
Sony FE 24-70mm F/2.8 GM II SEL2470GM2
Sony FE 24-70mm F/2.8 GM II SEL2470GM2
Sony FE 24-70mm F/2.8 GM II SEL2470GM2
Fujifilm FUJINON XF 16-80mm F/4 R OIS WR
Fujifilm FUJINON XF 16-80mm F/4 R OIS WR
Fujifilm FUJINON XF 16-80mm F/4 R OIS WR

Conclusion: How to Shoot Action Dog Photography

Mastering the art of action dog photography requires patience, practice, and a keen eye for detail. You can capture dynamic and unforgettable moments with your dog using the techniques discussed. Celebrate the spirit and energy of your furry best friend with your photography!

For more great photography tips, check out our posts on capturing the decisive moment in photos or using the freelensing technique.