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Action Photography Series: PART 1 — Basics of Bird Dog and Upland Hunting Photography

If you’re reading this, perhaps your love for photography and dog have crossed paths. And now you’re really looking at getting sharp pictures, figuring out how to actually get a shot in focus, or elevating your photography. First, if you’ve attempted to shoot an upland or bird dog, I feel your pain. They are fast and unpredictable. The task of getting a sharp photo is not for the faint at heart.

I am going to take liberties with my writing to assume that you know the key basics to photography and your camera. If you don’t reach out to me and I would be happy to answer how I think about the settings. Or you can use the Googles to search for answers. There are hundreds of thousands of videos and articles on the topic.

For this blog, we’re also going to be academic in stating that we are targeting the most accurate and focused picture. We are not trying to use Shutter Speed, ISO, or Aperture to do anything except a focused picture.

Camera Basics for Dog Photography

We could spend an entire year going over the basics of photography. In fact, we could spend a lifetime learning it. And if you have a love for photography, you actually will probably spend a lifetime learning about it.

  • DSLR vs. Mirrorless: I shoot Nikon and have shot both. The D7500, D500, Z7ii, and now the Z9. All of these cameras are amazing in their own right. They each have their benefits and drawbacks. Don’t worry too much about which is best for you.

    • DSLR: If you’re new to shooting action, I will tell you that the Nikon D500 has the same processor as the D5 at a fraction of the price. It’s the most cost-effective DSLR for the hobbyist.

    • Mirrorless: The Z7ii struggles with capturing action, but I feel like I cracked the code on shooting with that camera and you can see some of my photos on the Z7ii from August to December on the Pixels and Pointers Instagram page. The Z9 is in a whole other league, and we’ll leave it out of this discussion — it rarely misses a shot, if configured correctly.

  • Lens: Your glass matters. If I had to choose only one lens for the rest of my life, I would pick the 70-200 F2.8 in both F and Z mount lenses. For the F mount lens, that’s the ED FL VR2 version. For the Z mount, the VR S. With an emphasis on F2.8. For 2 reasons — (1) F2.8 allows you to shoot low light better and (2) when you shoot with a Teleconverter … you’ll lose a F-stop’s, so the F2.8 will immediately become F4.

Everything Adds Up to Making the Shot

When we think about Focus Accuracy and shooting clear and focused photos of your dog, I want you to think about it as a cash register.

  • You have funds in the cash register and every time you miss a component of the below, pull a dollar out of your cash register.

  • No single one of these will impact focus accuracy, but each one that you miss will cause you to get one more step away from a focused photograph.

  • Below I will list out these components with a label as FOCUS COMPONENT # __.

Shooting Basics for Dog Photography

Shooting Mode

This going to be a controversial statement, but ditch the Program, Automatic, Aperture, and Shutter Priority modes. There I said it, shoot in Manual Mode (M). Gasp. Set up Auto-ISO and let the camera decide the ISO (with a ceiling in ISO sensitivity) and manually set your F-stop and Shutter Speed.

  • Manual Mode: You don’t need the camera changing a lot of settings while you’re shooting. I understand in Aperture or Shutter Priority mode is locked in the F-stop or the Shutter but that means that one of the other settings is getting toggled. And you want to control your shutter speed when shooting action and dogs.

  • Auto-ISO: Setup your camera in Auto-ISO mode and set up the ISO Sensitivity settings to the values that you believe are the limits. Steve Perry has great YouTube videos on the setup of Nikon Cameras and outlines the limits that he sets for his cameras. For example, within the ISO sensitivity for the Nikon D500, I would not go above 5000. However, for the Z9, it’s set to 12,800. But those are my tolerance levels.

  • Shutter Speed: Don’t shoot below 1/2500 on DX/Crop and 1/5000 on Full Frame. I get it, not all lighting levels will allow for this. So, you’ll have to balance this. When you have high shutter speeds, there are two ways to combat it …. lower the shutter speed till it’s right or lower the shutter speed a little and try to compensate with exposure compensation.

  • F-stop: You may not have a lens that goes to F2.8, but perhaps F4. The lower you go the smaller the depth of field which means Shutter Speed is even more important. If you are shooting at F2.8 at 30ft, your depth of field might be 2-6 inches. When you have a bullet running towards you, a couple of inches is not a lot of wiggle room. However, the lower the F-stop, the lighter that the camera gets and the lower the ISO can be, and the higher the shutter speed can go.

It’s probably easier said as managing the triangle is essentially what you are doing - if:

  • F-stop increases then Shutter Speed has to decrease, or ISO has to increase

  • Shutter Speed increases then F-stop has to decrease, or ISO has to increase

  • ISO decreases then F-Stop has to decrease, or Shutter Speed must decrease

But here’s the thing, all of these factors change the look of the photo. So sometimes you want to let the action be seen and you don’t want the sharp photo all around which will dictate shutter speed. For academic purposes, let’s assume that we want the absolute most accurate photo and we’re going to dial it exactly to shoot sharp and focused.

FOCUS COMPONENT#1: Put your camera in Manual Mode (M) and configure.
FOCUS COMPONENT#2: Turn on Auto-ISO (on Nikon it’s hitting the ISO button and rolling the front dial one time to move between setting ISO and Auto)
FOCUS COMPONENT#3: Set the F-stop to F4 or F2.8 depending on the lighting
FOCUS COMPONENT#4: Set the shutter speed above 1/2500 on DX cameras and 1/5000 on Full Frames.

Remove the variables of the camera changing settings. When you have the camera doing ‘things’ it takes up processing power. For this specific exercise, targeting focused and accurate photos … the only thing the camera should be doing is setting the ISO.

Lighting and Consideration

For many photographers, the lighting is priority-one. Unfortunately for the hobbyist, the luxury of chasing golden hours and blue hours is not always an option. So, I’ll say it — all lighting is good lighting. Yes, in the middle of the day you’re going to want clouds to create a lightbox type effect when shooting or you’ll want to hit the sunrise for the perfect light, but there are workarounds.

  • Golden Hour / Blue Hour: The golden hour is the hour that hugs sunrise and sunset each day. The blue hour is the hour that immediately follows the golden hour when the lighting is blue. Use apps like Photo Pills to track these hours. There is little dispute that the golden hour is the best time to shoot your dog — IF AND ONLY IF the sky is relatively clear and not cloudy and dark.

  • Poor Lighting: No problem. Use Lightroom to correct your pictures, heck turns them into black and white photos. Yes, they are not going to be award-winning, but you’re outside and shooting pictures — it’s a win all around. I had this exact issue at the NAVHDA practice day and turned the photos black and white. These are not my best photos, but I had fun and I like them. Frankly that’s all that matters in this case, because they weren’t for a client.

  • Exposure Compensation: Most digital cameras have an option for exposure compensation. You can +0.3, +0.7, +1.0, etc etc etc… to change the exposure brighter in darker situations and vice versa when it’s too bright.

FOCUS COMPONENT#5: Exposure compensation impacts your focus accuracy. If your exposure compensation is not set properly, this can impact your focus accuracy. Mainly this has implications if you are too dark. Especially with the Nikon mirrorless cameras.

  • Metering Mode: The default metering mode with most cameras is Matrix. Photography Life has a great article on Understanding Metering and Metering Modes. Matrix metering in some cameras uses processing power to look at the entire lighting in the picture to choose the ISO. When Center-Weighted is selected it still looks at the entire frame but bases the ISO on the center section (about the size of a dime on the screen) and Spot Metering look at just the center.

FOCUS COMPONENT#6: Set Metering Mode to Center-Weighted and tinker with spot metering for your dog. If your dog has a dark head, stick with Center-Weighted. By changing the metering mode, you are zeroing in on the processing power used to take the photograph.

Focus Area Mode

For Nikon shooters, the following are the modes that have the best hit rate for me when the Shorthaired (the dog) is a bullet blazing across the field. Not all of these are right for everyone and it’s trial and error for everyone.

  • For the D7500/D500: 25-Point Dynamic Area AF or Single Point

  • For the Z7ii: Wide-Area-S (small) Mode

  • For the Z9: Wide-Area-S (small) Mode with Auto

FOCUS COMPONENT#7: The proper focus mode matters. This will definitely torpedo all of the above if this one is not nailed.

Adding Up All the Components for Focusing on Your Dog

By adding up each component, you are getting closer to an accurate photo of your dog when it’s blazing through the field. You can tinker with all the settings by swapping in and out components, but each one that you veer away from will lower your chances of getting focused photographs.

  1. Manual Mode … simplify what the camera is doing

  2. Auto-ISO … let the camera decide the ISO with a ceiling in ISO sensitivity

  3. Set the F-stop to 2.8 or 4 … lower f-stops are difficult to shoot but have the least impact on light

  4. Shutter Speed up, up, up … drive that shutter speed as high as you can get it, heck, if there is enough light, shoot at 1/8000 to see what happens and tinker with that speed with your dog

  5. Exposure Compensation … watch the ISO increase due to shutter speed/f-stop and manage the exposure compensation to help the camera focus

  6. Metering Mode to Center … let the camera only focus on what’s in the middle

This is going to be trial and error for you. Your camera can only do so much. Don’t wake up at 6:00 am to low light, expect to shoot at 1/5000, and then question why the photo is black. Remember, the triangle.

  • If you want to increase the Shutter Speed either the ISO has to increase or the F-stop has to decrease

  • If you want to decrease the ISO, the f-stop has to decrease and the shutter speed needs to decrease

  • If the f-stop is higher than F4 because you don’t have a lens with that level of capability, you need more light or slower shutter speeds or higher ISOs

You are negotiating with these 3 variables.

If one moves, the other 2 have to move too. Up and down. You are mixing a cocktail, except it’s in your camera and it’s the settings. If there is not enough light, to begin with, this whole equation starts to erode quickly. Light is king. The rest you have to tinker with.

Get out there, try it out, and happy shooting and hiking!


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