Are successful animal photos usually only lucky snapshots? Or does handiwork matter? And if yes, how do you get it right?
I have taken all images in this article with the SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD. A high quality objective is often more important than a very expensive camera. The fast lens Tamron 70-200mm F/2.8 is very suitable for animal photography and for dynamic shootings even with bad lighting.
First of all, the eye for the motif is the most important thing. What do I see when I look through the viewfinder? So as not to distract from the motif, the background also has to be considered when designing the image. When composing the image in the viewfinder or on the display, you should take care that no interfering objects are in the background, such as houses, fences or pylons.
If you are just starting with photography, you often concentrate so much on the main motif that you do not otice anything else in the viewfinder. This is normal. But try to deliberately notice such details right from the start – even if you take photos of dogs for the very first time.
In addition to the image design, good equipment is important, in particular for movement photography. The objective is the priority for me in any case. First-class objectives such as the Tamron 70-200mm focus quickly and precisely. Additionally, they deliver very good image results regarding the focus.
A further advantage of the 70-200mm F/2.8 is the constant high light intensity, which permits photographing with a low ISO sensitivity even with bad lighting. An ISO value as small as possible is advantageous for a high quality image result, as known, as less image noises occur. It of course depends on which camera you use. The most expensive professional cameras still deliver surprisingly good results even with high sensitivities.
Anybody who owns a camera which permits manual adjustments, has the possibility to already improve his image results by miles. Learn to control your camera yourself, as that iis the next step for better photos.
How often have you been annoyed that the camera focuses on the “wrong“ image region?
My tip: Don’t leave the focusing to the camera, but set the focus deliberately. Choose the focal point manually, work with a focus field – in this manner you determine yourself which location in the image is focused. If you leave the focusing to the camera, a displacement of the focus can result, even with non-moving motives.
The dog lies very quietly, nevertheless, the exact accurate focusing of an eye is important, as the focus otherwise lies on the nose of the dog. This appears to particularly distracting if you take photos with a wide-open aperture. In that case, the depth of focus is only very low and everything which is not in focus appears very unfocused. With a (dog) portrait, the focus should always be on the eyes.
Why do unfocused images often result despite autofocus? This can again be explained with the automatic function of the camera. The camera first focuses on the active focus field or the active focus fields with a semi-depressed release. If several focus fields are activated, the camera tries to determine by the colour and contrast distribution in the image where the main motif can be found. The autofocus often focuses on the object closest to the camera, for example the nose, or jumps to a region with a high contrast in the background.
Maybe you know the problem when working with automatic programmes: You then often see several focal points in the viewfinder, which blink simultaneously or subsequently. If you photograph with this adjustment, then you practically have no control over the actual focal point in the image. It can fit incidentally, but it often does not fit. It is better if you set the camera on a single AF point and focus the image region which shall be imaged in focus thereby in a targeted manner. If the dog sits quietly or lies down, you can also focus manually. The focussing indicator in the viewfinder (green point) supports you thereby.
Even in movement photography, I choose only one focus field. Also here, I never let the camera decide which focus fields are chosen.
If the dog is very far away from you, it is possibly very difficult to focus on an eye. Now change into the tracking autofocus (AI Servo with Canon, AF-C with Nikon) and try to hold the focal point on the head of the dog with a semi-depressed release. Now you can follow the dog with the camera, and the automatic control automatically tracks the focus. You can tilt the camera, upwards or downwards, but at the release time, you and the camera should no longer move. This is the secret for high-definition movement images!
Additionally pay attention when looking through the viewfinder that you can see the dog running towards in focus in the viewfinder at the time of release.
A dog running frontally towards the camera is always a special challenge for the autofocus. To get a focused image in this situation is one of the most difficult parts in movement photography. A telescopic zoom objective with a fast, precise autofocus such as the Tamron 70-200mm F/2.8 delivers excellent results here. You can rely on it at any time even with bad lighting.
You need a lot of practice to let the fog run frontally towards the camera and to capture him in high definition. For this, the dog should not be too far away from the camera. If he runs towards the camera from a very large distance, focus problems can result.
Tip: If you photograph very dynamic dogs, I recommend a shutter speed of at least 1/1,000 seconds, in order to avoid movement fuzziness.
With small dogs it is advisable to close the aperture further, as the focus region on the motif is otherwise very small. The depth of focus is then possibly not completely sufficient to capture the dog. This is particularly important if you photograph with a full format camera.
Important: Image stabilisers are not suitable to freeze movements in the image. I therefore suggest to switch off the image stabiliser at your objective or in your camera in this case. The image stabiliser is often recommended, but this is wrong for the type of movement images that we want to realise with dogs! Image stabilisers are also not suitable when the camera is on a tripod!
Where can the VC image stabiliser of the Tamron be used well in movement photography? For example with the go along-technique, when you follow a passing dog with the camera and thereby capture an image series. Or if you photograph static motives with a long focal length (e. g. 200mm) by hand. The image stabiliser is also very helpful when you work with little light without a tripod, in order to avoid camera shake.
Tip: If you practice movement images with dogs for the first time, let the dogs, if possible, fetch toys, balls or dummies.
The dogs then run a bit slower. If something is thrown in the direction of the camera, there is much more dynamics. Dogs with a love of water can be focused very well if they swim in the direction of the camera. This moderate movement is ideal for practicing.
It is also important to familiarise yourself with the movement pattern of an animal. Observe the dog while running before taking photos. Pay attention which moments are suitable and which ones are rather unfavourable. Also observe rather deliberately the facial expression of the dog and how it changes while running. As the dog runs in a wave movement, the moments in which he places his weight on the front feet and the rear feet are in the air, are unfavourable for photographing.
If you adjust your camera to the manual mode and look through the viewfinder, you will see a scale (with some camera models lateral or in the lower region of the viewfinder), this is the exposure scale.
– …… 0 …… +
Minus (–) are the dark regions, plus (+) the die light image regions. If you are not sure, which shutter speed is suitable for your chosen aperture, try to orient the indicator in the centre to the zero value (0).
Important: With a white or a black dog, the exposure always has to corrected slightly above or below.
Cameras base an average grey value for the exposure calculation. (about 18 % reflection). When you thus measure for a white dog, the camera would calculate this as grey, in other words, too dark. A black dog would accordingly be too light. In order to counteract this incorrect exposure, white has to be corrected to plus (+) and black to minus (–).
Sometimes, the model does not want to do what you want. If the dog looks very bored for example, or can be distracted easily, “attention” is a very good thing, in order to achieve a corresponding body tension in the dog. The head is upright then, the ears are in front, the facial expression is more lively. The dogs often open the flews slightly and the tongue appears, or hangs out slightly. This is okay, as it is not unattractive panting such as after a great exertion.
If the dog sits or lies in a relaxed manner, the ears often move independently of each other, depending on the perception of different noises. Please pay attention that both ears are moved forward.
With what can I get the attention of my dog? Does he react to treats or is he interested in toys? Sometimes, a short whistle by the photographer helps, and the dog turns towards the camera and pricks his ears. This is the moment we want to capture!
The images of the black and of the white dog took place shortly one after the other. The adjustments are similar. However, the light-coloured would have become too light with a shutter speed of 1/500, the coat would have been overexposed. I have adapted the value to 1/800 seconds here, in order to correct this overexposure. A white coat tends to be overexposed quickly, but the coat structure also has to be recognised easily on a good photo. Attention: It cannot be said generally to what extent an exposure correction is necessary. The correct value always depends on the respective light situation.
Tip: If you want to achieve a beautiful exposure of the dog, combine a large focal length of e.g. 200 mm with a wide aperture. The dog now appears focused in front of a fuzzy background. This is particularly sensible when photographing in woods, as trees or rows of trees in the background often interfere and make the background very restless.
If you are familiar with manual exposure, look for special light situations. A fast objective is important for capturing creative light moods. Very exciting lighting relationships are often found in woods. If only a little light shines through the trees, you obtain very atmospheric and partially mystical images. However, the right illumination is a challenge here, for which the automatic programmes of the camera are not adequate.
In a programme mode, the internal flash is possibly started automatically with little light, depending on the camera model, but which would destroy the lighting mood. You can only realise your desired results if you manually try to approach the correct distance.
The approach to the correct exposure is also a good exercise to manage with very little light. Light and shadow give your images a special mood. The eye can be guided with light. If you take photos in the RAW format, you can adapt the colour temperature afterwards. You probably know that images taken in the shadow appear to be rather bluish. If you do not want to carry out this adaptation later on the computer, you should adjust the white balance of your camera to “shadow”. If the results become too yellow with this adjustment, try the adjustment “cloudy”.
Available-Light-Photography translates as available or actual light. Thus, you have to manage with the light at the location, often unfavourable unnatural light situations, without using any further aids such as flashes or reflectors.
Thereby, you should note the following: The shutter speeds must not be too fast if you take photos with a free hand. The light situations in woods very often lead to high contrast differences. With little light, there is often the problem that the auto focus does no longer work properly. (I have focused manually in the next shooting.)
Not every camera is suitable for photographing with little light. The following is important for the Available-Light-Photography:
Develop a flair for the available light. Which direction does it come from? How does it fall on the motif? Is it enough to illuminate the regions important for the image?
In order to capture such great lighting moods, it is very important that the image is not exposed too much. Do not be afraid of difficult light situations! This is a very good exercise to be able to influence images creatively with regard to exposure and mood. This photo would possibly appear very dark on the camera display so that you would be tempted to expose more. But you would destroy the fine lighting mood.
Don’t force the dogs to do anything. You will only achieve beautiful photos if dogs have fun. Dogs also have, the same as us humans, very different characters. You should consider this when taking photos.
I hope you have lots of fun and always a good light!
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