Photographing animals in action can result in the creation of extremely memorable and fun images. Running, playing, or having a case of the zoomies are all part of pet life but they can be a challenge to capture.
With action shots, your shutter speed, ISO, aperture, lens choice, and focus points matter more than ever. Fear not, though, I’m here to walk you through it!
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To stop action, you’re going to want a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second but faster is always better. You can go slower if you absolutely have to but it can be risky.
You may have to use a higher ISO to achieve a fast shutter speed depending on the lighting conditions but, in my opinion, a grainy photo can be saved; a blurry one cannot.
Experiment with different f-stops but I typically shoot action between f/2.8 and f/4. Capturing crisp action photos at f/2.8 takes some practice so don’t worry if you don’t get the perfect shot right off the bat. Start with a smaller f-stop (bigger number) until you get the hang of things and then work on shooting with a wider one (smaller number).
The lens you choose can make all the difference. Some lenses have the ability to focus faster than others. My favorite lens for action shots is my 70-200 f/2.8 because it’s lightning fast and the compression allows for beautiful background bokeh. I will use other lenses like the 24-70 f/2.8 and 50 f/1.8 but the vast majority of outdoor action shots are with the 70-200.
I shoot Nikon and I’ve experimented with all the different focus settings — full auto, 3-D tracking, 9-point, you name it — and I have come to the conclusion that single-point continuous focus is the only way to go. You need to set your focus point before you start shooting and keep that right over the most important part of the image (typically the pet’s eyes).
I find that using back-button focus yields a higher “keeper” rate but, by all means, if you prefer the shutter button half-press focus, go for it.
Lastly, set your camera on high continuous shooting so you can hold your shutter button down and shoot as many frames per second as possible when the pet is in action.
As a little inspiration for you, here are my five favorite types of action shots to capture:
f/4 | 1/1000 | ISO 3200
For tack-sharp focus, I kept the focus point right over the dog’s eye as she ran toward me. I placed her with the sun filtered behind her for a soft, beautiful rim light to separate her from the background. The key here is the wide-open sky above her so I still captured bright, sparkly catch-lights in her eyes.
f/4.5 | 1/2000 | ISO 1000
With my camera in one hand, I played with this pup and her favorite tug toy with the other. Unless the dog is your own, I try to keep my hand out of shots like this. Sometimes I will have the owner tug and shoot over their shoulder but it can get a little tricky since you’re not “attached” to the dog so you’re not able to feel and anticipate what’s coming next.
f/2.8 | 1/4000 | ISO 2500
If you have a dog in the water, you know they’re going to come out and shake; be ready! Make sure your shutter speed is as fast as it can be for your lighting situation, get back, zoom in, and wait. The long zoom and wide aperture I used here helped compress the background and blur it so you can better see the water droplets. Bonus: ridiculously goofy faces.
f/1.8 | 1/1250 | ISO 3200
Animals on their backs are just about the cutest thing around. They usually don’t stay that way for long, so you really need to be on your game. Some dogs roll over on command, others are just so happy to have a special toy or treat that they will roll with joy, and some cats will roll over to play with catnip toys. This isn’t a shot you can easily get with every animal, but when you can, I think it’s just irresistible!
f/2.8 | 1/800 | ISO 1000
Want to get some really goofy faces? Photograph an animal eating a treat. Try peanut butter (just be careful and make sure it is safe for animals and does not contain xylitol), doggie ice cream, or catnip for kitties.
For this photo, we visited a very popular ice cream shop in the middle of a busy little town. I opted to shoot with a wide aperture to keep the background blurred. I focused on the nose and tongue as I held the ice cream cone with my left hand and shot with my right. I didn’t have a lot of space to work in and was literally an arm’s length away from the pup, so the wide-angle was my lens of choice.
Now go out and have some fun creating animal action shots! I said it before but I’m going to say it again: it’s going to take some practice but don’t give up!
Keep trying, experiment with different camera settings to find what works best for your shooting style, and above all, stay relaxed and have a good time!