Dog Park Photography

Here are some things I've learned about photography while taking dog photos at our local dog park.



Background

We go to the dog park frequently and I've been using running dogs as practice subjects for action and wildlife photography.  Besides reading and learning the technical side of photography, a person needs to take a lot of photos to learn and improve their technique.  i.e.  If you are planing a trip to Everglades National Park to photograph Great Blue Herons, and I recommend practicing before you go.  There may not be any Herons near your house, so find a subject that is similar.  Practice on Geese or Ducks, which may be much more common in your area.  Personally I like wildlife and sports/action photography, and this is why I take so many pictures of running dogs at the local dog park.  Besides it has been a lot of fun!

Since I started taking dog park photos in the spring of 2010, I've learned a lot.  I would like to share what I've learned and offer some tips to anyone else who has a desire to photograph similar subjects.

Equipment

Cameras come in all sizes and price ranges.  Where do you start?  What do you buy?  As in most purchases, probably the largest factor is your budget.

Cameras can generally be broken down into two groups.  Compact Point and Shoot models, and SLR or DSLR models.  You can take good pictures with a cheaper compact camera, but you will probably get more good pictures with a DSLR, as they can have advantages for action and low light conditions.  Prices and equipment vary greatly.  If you're interested in getting a new camera, talk to me; there are too many options to list here.


Camera Settings

I've learned a lot about the camera settings that work best for me to get good dog action pictures.  You can use these options on most DSLR cameras, and a lot of compact cameras too.

When I first started, I tried my camera on "Program" Mode (automatic mode).  The problem I had with Program Mode is most of the running dog pictures (action shots) came out blurry.  This is caused to by too slow of a shutter speed, allowing the running dogs to blur.

So, no problem, I switched to "Shutter Speed Priority" Mode.  This allows me to select any shutter speed and the camera will automatically select the correct aperture to get the correct exposure.  After some experimenting, I learned that 1/250 sec still blurs running dogs a little, but is okay for dogs walking slowly.  Where
1/500 sec is what I needed to stop motion of running dogs.  This solved the problem of blurry running dogs, but created another problem.  In a pack of running dogs, the dog I was focusing on looked perfect, but dogs slightly behind or in front of that dog were out of focus.  Setting a fast shutter speed caused the camera to select a large aperture to let in more light, which shortens "depth of field" (the area of the photo that is in focus).  Not good for multiple dog photos.

Briefly I tried "Manual" mode.  This allowed me to select 1/500 sec shutter speed, and a slightly smaller aperture.  I had to select a higher ISO setting (light sensor is more sensitive) to get the exposure correct, which is okay if you're camera is capable of higher ISO settings.  The problem with manual mode, is it takes some time to setup, and often there isn't much time when a pack of dogs decides to take off running.

On my camera, here is what I ended up with, which seems to work the best of anything I've tried.  I have my camera set to "Aperture Priority" mode so I can select the size of aperture I want.  Then I have the ISO setting set to automatic (with certain limitations).  In the ISO menu, I can also select a minimum shutter speed of 1/500 sec.  As long as I don't select too small of a aperture, I the ISO will automatically increase when the camera needs more exposure.  If the ISO cannot increase enough, the camera will decrease the shutter speed to something slower than my minimum of 1/500 sec as a last resort, still allowing the picture to be taken.  In the evenings, I start out with smaller aperture, and I slowly increase the aperture as the light decreases toward closing time.  Or I will sometimes allow the camera to go down to 1/250 if a dog isn't running, or the light is really poor.

Higher end DSLR cameras also come with different focusing options.  This is a great place to experiment with them and learn what your camera can do.  I may write more about these settings later.
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