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An Insight into Professional Dog Agility Photography

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Some tips for improving your own images...

Photography has been Chris Tarling's full-time day job for a number of years now. Over that time, he calculates that he must have captured well in excess of half a million images of dogs running an agility course and worn out several cameras with that level of shooting. He's agreed to share some of his professional tips for taking action shots of your dog in the ring. It's more challenging than you think...

Photography is my livelihood so first and foremost I want to maximise my sales. I've found that by far the most image sales are to the Beginners level, maybe as much as 80% of my revenue. When I first started out at shows I followed the Beginners' classes around the show from ring to ring, but discovered that this was, in fact, counter-productive as it was generally the same group of competitors.

I then switched to choosing a ring and staying on that ring throughout the day, which I've found to be a more balanced strategy. If it's a two day show, I'll choose an Agility ring one day and then a Steeplechase or Jumping ring the next as some Beginners, just starting out, would prefer images avoid the agility contact equipment.

Firstly, where to position yourself
If there's a choice of rings that I feel have a good mix of classes, I need to decide which one to pick. Life is always a compromise and so, with agility photography, there are quite a number of things to consider before settling down to shoot actual images.

My aim is to produce images that show the dogs at their best like the canine athletes they are - so I try to position myself where I can get not only a 'key' image but also shots from several other places around the course.

First off, I always make sure that I watch the competitor course walk as this reveals so much about which shots are possible. Sometimes I'll walk it, too. I'm looking for that 'key' obstacle and the other possible lines of sight. But it is also important to know where the handler is likely to be in relation to the dog? This is why paying particular attention to the course walk is so important. Is my chosen location likely to present me with lots of blocked shots i.e. handler between my position and the dog? This is especially important for Beginners classes as beginners tend to be right alongside their dog especially so for the Toy and Midi height dogs.

You might be surprised at just how much there is to consider in getting the best images.

For instance, is the sun shining?

Yes? Boo!

It's a common misconception that a bright sunny day with little cloud is a 'great day for agility photography!'

Early morning sun can especially be a real problem as it gives very harsh shadows and will cause exposure problems with bright dogs unless compensated for. Yes, dramatic shots are possible but it's not good for general shooting. In general, I don't want to be shooting into the sun so full sun may eliminate one, possibly two, sides of the ring as possible shooting locations. There's another consideration too images shot in full sun will generally need more in the way of post-processing. I may need to underexpose to preserve the highlights and then work some magic in post-processing.

If the sun isn't shining - huzzah! Then I can ignore it as a restriction and look forward to a day shooting images with nice even lighting and no deep featureless shadows - and less time post processing! Ideal conditions would be a bright dry day with a layer of thin high cloud to give very diffuse lighting lovely!

Photographing an Agility class is really about the contact equipment so I'll make my decision on my location accordingly. Often a fast approach to the see saw will lead to some spectacular images though not what the handler intended!

Where is the judge likely to stand? This is another potential cause of blocked shots and one that you may only know for sure when the class starts. Incidentally, I don't like to interfere with the running of a ring. It's my job to get the best images I can within the constraints presented to me. The best compliment a judge can pay me is 'I didn't know you were there.'

Is my chosen position right in the dog's likely sight line, or too close to the dog's likely path? It might be okay if you are sufficiently far away or are shooting senior or masters dogs, but it would be inadvisable to sit right at the ring side with dogs very close and / or coming straight at you. Whilst it may be a great position to give fabulous images, you must consider your impact on the dog's run. Beginner and novice dogs are very likely to be distracted! I am always mortified when a dog heads straight for me to say hello!

Okay, so now I'm homing in on my position. But what about the background? Ideally I want a clean background so that I can isolate the dog, but very often the background is a case of Hobson's choice. Generally, the area around an agility ring is incredibly busy with trade stands, people, cars and caravans, etc. I try to position myself to minimise backgrounds as far as I can, but it's not always possible and I have to work with what is there and get creative with my shooting angles - perhaps getting down low and looking down to simplify the background.

My chosen position may give image options that will vary with dog height. Once the jumps go up for the larger dogs, some photo sight lines will disappear what was 'over' the jump with the Small dogs will now be below the jump for the larger heights. For example, a tunnel exit behind a jump may be a good image for the Small and Medium dogs but won't be for Intermediate or Large ones.

Once I have decided which ring and my exact location I will approach the ring judge. I always ask for permission to photograph their ring, and never assume that it will be given. This to me is common courtesy but it's also an opportunity to discuss my location (does the judge have any concerns?) and more basically to make them aware of what I am intending to do. Ideally I like to avoid complicating the judge's day!

Down to business - time to take photographs
Ideally I'd like to get down to the dog's level and engage with my subject. Generally I'll sit on the ground, maybe even lie down or use a very low 'beach' type chair. Some rings may have a perimeter fence so that I will have no option but to shoot over it. Standing- or at least sitting on a normal size chair - can sometimes be the best option, especially for the largest dogs or for images of dogs going over the highest obstacles, such as the dogwalk or the A-frame.

I will track the dog through the camera viewfinder as it makes its run and be ready to press the shutter at my pre-chosen jumps. As I am continuously watching the dog, I am also ready for the unexpected perhaps a moment of dog comedy or a touching moment between dog and handler. Doing this, I may also see additional image opportunities around the course, or conversely that I need to move slightly. Shooting in this way requires excellent panning skills. Over time, however, panning and maintaining focus become second nature, almost a muscle reflex.

I try to include the handler in at least some images. Most handlers ask for their presence to be edited out, but there will be precious moments of interaction maybe it will occur when they are setting up for their run or perhaps it will be a show of joy at the finish line. Beginners generally just want images of their dog more experienced handlers like a good 'team' image!

Typically I'll shoot only three images of a dog over an obstacle, maybe more for a piece of agility equipment but this is plenty for a jump.

In terms of composition, I'm aiming for the dog to be positioned in the frame such that it is always moving into space. An arresting frame-filling happy dog is definitely a plus!

Equipment and settings - some thoughts
I would guess that each 'pro' has their own way of doing things, but this is what works for me.

My most versatile go-to camera and lens combination for an agility event is my Nikon D500 DSLR and Nikon 70-200 f2.8 lens. In my humble opinion, they are hands-down the best compromise for event images.

Why? Well, it's a reasonably light weight package, has fast and accurate focusing, a versatile effective focal length range from 105 to 300mm - enabling me to get saleable images from right across the ring - and a decently high frame rate of 10fps. But... and it's a sizeable but - this combination costs roughly 3400 and that's before you add in a large memory card. To me it's a tool but something not everyone can afford.

My advice to you is just make the most of whatever camera you have. The great thing about digital is that pressing the shutter does not come with much of an associated cost. I still occasionally shoot with film and am always very aware of how much each press of the shutter on a 36 exposure roll costs. Fire away and learn from your experience.

Generally, I don't change my camera settings too much during an event. I aim for a shutter speed of 1/1600 to 1/2000th of a second with a lens aperture of f4 or f2,8. Within reason, I'm not bothered what the ISO setting is so I shoot on Auto ISO and let the camera worry about that. It's more important that I keep the shutter speed where I want it. I'll have the focusing set to continuous autofocus and at its highest frame rate. I will use single point focusing which allows me to choose where I want the focus point, and I will aim to keep this over the dog's eye as I track it around the course.

There is skill involved in capturing sharp well-exposed shots. It's a combination of knowing what you need to do with your camera and physical practice. Some dogs are a real challenge to track I'm thinking spaniels, in particular, who seem to rarely take the obvious or shortest path but the more you shoot the more your photos will improve.

One last, but very important point
If you do attend a show with an intention to take photographs, please do be mindful of the professional photographer there who is trying to earn a living.

When I photograph a show, it generally doesn't concern me that there may be other photographers as long as they keep their images to themselves. This means no giving away free images on Facebook.

Remember that the professional will have paid to cover the show, has business insurance and trade stand costs to cover, and will also be spending time post-processing and uploading images to a website. Put another way if someone came to your place of work and started providing what you do for free, how would that make you feel?

Happy shooting!

About the author...
Chris Tarling
is a full-time professional photographer based in the Cotswolds. As the founder and owner of Yellow Hound Photography, he has been a regular on the Agility show circuit. A dog lover first and a photographer second, he captures a wide range of photographic subjects from dogs and horses to commercial commissions, weddings, portraits and classic cars.

Officially he stopped doing agility shows to focus on building a profitable photography business at the end of 2018 but recognised that they were not something he would leave behind completely. He is open to any organisers who are interested in getting in touch.

Chris can often be seen being taken for a walk by his two Labradors Coco and Marley.

He can be contacted by email or via the Yellow Hound website.

First published 14th May 2020


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