Taking a shot
Focus on the eyes
The single most important aspect of a great animal picture is the area of focus. 95% of the time you want this focus to be on the eyes.
Only the eyes. Not the ears or the nose as often happens (This can look great but rarely does unless you have considered it and done it on purpose). But the eyes. To more reliably achieve this, set the camera to use only one focus point at a time, not groupings of focus points.
This can be tricky with moving animals but the results are generally more repeatable with practice.
It is best not to rely on the centre focus point on your camera. Focusing then re-framing can result in changes of the plane of focus very easily at shorter focal lengths and wider apertures.
Get used to changing which focus point the camera is going to use. Changing this quickly will make all the difference to accurately focusing on a dogs eyes no matter where they are in your frame.
If you are hoping to get good action shots it is worth framing your scene and taking a few nice portrait shots in this position with your pet standing or sitting in place. While doing this you can refine your settings and position to get a great setup which you can then direct the animal through for a great action shot.
Action shots where the animal is running from the left to right or vice versa are the easiest action shots to get and if everything else is well considered in your framing the shots will look great. With this kind of action shot the point of focus will not change so much giving you a much better chance of getting the correct thing in focus.
Once you have a few nice portraits, make sure your camera is set to "high speed continuous".
Remove the animal from your frame but keep the camera pointed at them with AI Servo mode selected using all 61 focus points to track the animal.
Get someone to throw a ball into the place the animal was previously sitting and get ready for the dog (or cat!) to run through your scene.
Follow them with the camera allowing the tracking to do it's job and just before they get to the point where you had previously set everything up, press the shutter release button and keep it pressed until the action is over.
You will be a able to take as many images as your camera will allow as quickly as it can. One of them just might be in focus!
Jumping in position
The next easiest shot to get is the animal jumping in position to get something above them. A stick held out just above the cameras view or a ball tossed with a high arc to land almost at their feet making them jump directly up. The focus can be set while they are standing or sitting as they should ideally not move any further or nearer to the camera during the action. This may take a bit of practice on the part of the person throwing or holding a stick in the correct position but it soon becomes obvious what the problems are and the shot should be fairly easy to get.
Running towards the camera
To get an animal running directly towards the camera is the most difficult and often the most impressive of shots to get.
A good method for this kind of shot is to throw a ball or position someone with a treat and get the dog to run from a set position to get it. Once you have seen the path the dog takes you can find a position along that track with a good framing and position of light.
Now that you have found your position, get the owner of the dog to bring them into that position and set the ISO, Aperture, shutter speed and focus. Then switch your lens to manual focus. You want to hope that the animal will run through that exact position at speed and the shutter will release at just the right time.
Have the ball thrown/treat offered and wait for them to speed through the scene. At this point it is good to keep both of your eyes open. One eye looking though the viewfinder and assessing the scene, the other eye aware of the position of the dog outside of the frame so that you can start holding the shutter down when it is just about to enter your area of focus.
Firing off a burst of high speed continuous shots will give you a good chance of getting that one perfect shot with the dog snapping at a ball or with all legs in the air flying over the ground with both eyes perfectly in focus.
You may have to do this a few times!!
Use your camera's tracking
Another method when the path of the dog's path is less reliable is to use the tracking features of your camera. The canon 5d mark iii has a good enough tracking system to allow you to get these shots.
It is often easier to get good shots of dogs with longer noses with this method as the focus can be kept (with a lot of practice!) on the end of the dogs nose while it is running directly at you. By the time the shutter button is pressed the dog will have run forward a few inches and the focus should be exactly on the dogs eyes. Just where you want it to be. Don't forget to roll out of the way before the dog hits you!
A common mistake using this method is to lose confidence in the camera's ability to track and the speed of your reactions when the dog is very close to you – taking the shot too soon losing the desirable qualities of a narrow depth of field. The more confident you are in allowing the dog to fill the frame at these high speeds the better your shots will be.
The tracking systems are better than most people realise and even though it may take your several (10 or more!) attempts to get it, the shot you capture will be a photograph be proud of and will show your dog in one of its most interesting states in detail which you cannot see any other way.
Do bear in mind that in general dogs with shorter noses are generally slower than dogs with long noses so the change in focus from nose to eyes can still work!
Don't be afraid to take many hundreds of photographs during a photoshoot. You will regret not leaning on the shutter button more heavily when you get home to realise that you missed the shot because a previously missed car, person or bird spoiled your shot and you didn't take an alternative. You must balance this out with the knowledge that a camera has a limit to the amount of actuations (movements of the shutter) before it becomes unreliable and the camera will need to be replaced or endure expensive servicing at this point. It is beyond the scope of this guide but your pricing for your services should reflect these costs.
I often take 1000 photographs during a 2 hour shoot. From this perhaps half will be of a quality I deem acceptable. Of these 500 I will select 200 to work with so that I am not showing the same shot over and over again. During your shoot, try to get to know the dog and their owner well. See what they like about each other and try to use that when selecting the best shots. From these I will narrow it down to 30-40 shots which show the absolute best moments and shots of the day. I will generally send these plus 50 more to my client to select the ones they like.
Keep an occasional eye on your cards capacity to take photographs and your battery levels. Make sure you use any available quiet times to change these if required.
You have your card full of shots now you need to process them. If you followed my earlier advice you will have Camera Raw files. These are yours and yours only. There are very few situations in which I would ever allow anyone to have the Camera Raw Files. There are some clients who may ask you for them and this must be negotiated before your job starts.
If a client wants the Camera Raw files then they have to pay significantly more money per file. It is normally prohibitively expensive to provide images this way. Never give those away! You will normally provide jpeg's to your clients. Most printing companies insist on jpeg's nowadays and they are the standard way to deliver your digital images.
If a design agency is to use your images to create advertisements they may ask you to provide Tiff's as they retain significantly more colour, luminance and detail information than jpegs but again, this is rare.
A copy of photoshop will provide you with the ability to import and convert your camera Raw files but this is very rarely a time efficient way of preparing your images.
You may use photoshop at some point in the process but this will be later if any cosmetic fixes requiring detailed masking and painting are required. Your general image processing will be done with a piece of software like Lightroom, Aperture, DxO or some other dedicated batch image processing software.
I am assuming you have a basic understanding of Lightroom and how to use it. It is the one I use the most so in the next section I will describe my workflow using Adobe Lightroom and DxO Optics pro.
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Taking a shot
How to get a variety of shots of your animals