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How To Photograph Dog Agility Competitions

I first became involved in the dog agility community around five years ago when I started taking some of my dogs to agility classes at the Cambridge Dog Obedience Club. Agility is a great sport to do with your dog to build your relationship with your dog, get fit and get the whole family involved. Most of my working dogs know at least some of the agility obstacles and I find agility training to be a huge help in keeping the dogs thinking and listening when they’re out on the farm.

When I started getting serious about photography I started attending a few agility shows as a photographer and have really found a passion for it! I love the huge variety of dogs and people who compete, and the absolute love for dogs that everyone in the community has. It is a challenging sport to master, and can be challenging to photograph too! With the dogs moving at high speed around a course of obstacles, often on difficult angles and challenging lighting conditions it is a great way to quickly improve your skills as a photographer.

All of the photos below were taken at shows at the Cambridge club.

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For agility shows I generally use a 5D MkIII camera with the Canon 70-200 2.8 lens. A DSLR with a good telephoto lens (ideally 100mm or longer) is ideal for photographing agility shows, but almost any camera is capable of taking nice shots with the right angles and practice.

When I’m choosing a spot to shoot from, I look at both the layout of the course and where the light is coming from. The best spot is where the light is behind you to bring out the shine in the dogs coats, while giving the best access to one or more jumps. When I’m choosing a spot, I try and choose a somewhere where the jumps will be straight on or on a 45 degree angle to my camera as this allows me to capture the dogs personality as well as their form over the obstacle. While not always possible, I try to avoid areas with busy backgrounds such as car parking areas, buildings etc.

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Another thing to take into consideration is the possibility of distracting dogs from their course. While most will be focused on the task at hand, some dogs may find a photographer to be distracting and this may interfere with their ability to complete the round as well as they could have otherwise. By avoiding spots where dogs may be especially distracted (such as difficult turns at the edge of the ring) and staying still and quiet while the dogs are nearby will be a huge help to prevent the dogs being distracted by you – the competitors will thank you for it!

I prefer to lie on the ground when photographing agility shows as this allows me to get a good angle to show the height of a dog over a jump, as well as reducing the amount of distracting items in the background. By shooting at this angle I also help increase the shallow depth of field which keeps the dog in focus and blurs out the background. Shows are usually on grass, so taking a waterproof mat (I use my yoga mat) can be a life saver.

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Another thing that keeps the shallow depth of field in my images is the choice of settings. By choosing a shallow aperture (I usually work between f/2.8 and f/5) and a fast shutter speed (1/1000 sec or faster) I am able to freeze the action of the dog while blurring out the background. From there I adjust the ISO to keep the correct exposure, using the light meter in my camera to let me know when I’ve got it right. For point and shoot cameras without manual modes (M, AV or TV), I recommend using the “Sports” or “Action” setting on your camera.

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Catching the dogs in sharp focus at the right time in their jump is the most difficult part of photographing agility.

I like to use a single focus point (usually the center point on the head of the dog) on AI Servo focus mode, and lock the focus using back button focusing (read more about this here). This gives me the ability to know exactly what part of my photo will be in focus and guarantees me the shot almost every time!

To get the moment of the jump, I follow the dog around my selected section of the course (usually four or five obstacles) and before each obstacle I start counting the dogs strides to predict when the dog will take off. This takes a lot of practice so don’t be worried if you don’t get it right away – keep working at it!

On a point and shoot, point the camera at the dog and press the shutter button down half way before the dog reaches the jump, then track the dog until it is at the right moment when you can compress the shutter fully.

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Anyone is allowed to photograph shows that are open to the public, however if you intend to sell the photos it is considered best practice to ask the permission of the organising committee ahead of time. As long as you don’t interfere with the competitions and check with the committee first, then most committees will be more than happy to have you at the show.

After a show I run all of my images through Adobe Lightroom for a quick edit to sharpen, lighten shadows, add contrast and reduce highlights. During this stage I am quite selective about what I will post online. My general rule of thumb is “if it may embarass someone, don’t post it”. The main reasons an image might be rejected is due to awkward faces on the handler while running (if this is the issue, cropping to their shoulders can solve the problem), a dog knocking down rails or jumping awkwardly, or falls. What may be a technically good shot, isn’t worth posting at the expense of the subjects.

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And one final tip – if you find yourself caught at a show in the rain with no rain cover for your camera, a plastic bag with a hole in the end makes a raincoat for your camera! I just put my lens through the bag and secure it with the lens hood and a bit of tape. Cheap, easy and portable!

Hopefully this information has been helpful to you! If you have any questions that I have not answered yet, feel free to ask in the comments below.

Kirsten Young - Thank you so much for these tips. I guess I better start saving for a BIG lens.

Julie Woollett - Awesome tips :)

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