Dog Sport Photography in Low Light

Photography of dogs, dogs, and more dogs is what I do and I have to admit, I love it,

even when light and speeding dogs make good photos impossible.

Cameras these days can work well in low light for most circumstances. Mostly architecture and poorly lit parties! Agility dogs run a course in just over a minute and they cover a lot of distance in that time. Along the way there are jumps, A frames, tunnels, and tires in your line of sight. Add to that, the handler’s running along side the dog which often occludes the view of the dog. So… in reality there may be a clean line of sight in less than half the run. Something like 30 seconds of good target shooting!  Getting a great image in focus in less than a minute, without obstacles, – well, it is like rolling the dice.


This past weekend was an exercise in both joy and frustration. Wonderful people, but a dark arena, fast dogs, and winter temperatures made getting a good shot very difficult. I needed the fastest shutter speed possible to freeze the action of the dog in mid air.

The joy

What a fabulous day with agility people and dogs. I met people who taught me things that will help me when I travel with my dog. One person was using reflective blankets under the crate to keep the dogs warm on cold ground. How fabulous is that idea!  Now to find some for my insoles!!

My client was a super nice young lady with two gorgeous Cavaliers. The two dogs were such good friends who I had the pleasure of watching as they raced around hills and trails together. Meeting gracious people who welcome me at these events is a real treat!  Being welcomed, not only as a photographer but as a dog owner and performance dog enthusiast, is something that most sports photographers rarely have the opportunity to enjoy. I met a bunch of people who know exactly what makes their dogs tick, described how their dogs make them laugh, and learned first hand, from a woman I respect immensely, that life is precious and that we should treasure every moment.  Watching and capturing the joy of both the owner and dog after an amazing run is worth the frozen feet and fingers. Thanks to everyone who made me feel so welcome at Morningstar Dog Academy trials and Seahawks Farms.

The Frustration:

Getting a faster shutter speed can be done by the following:

  • Add light – as in use a flash
  • Open the aperture of the lens to the maximum  (F2.8 on this lens)
  • Increase the film sensitivity  (ISO)
Adding Light:  –  Not an option
Open the aperture – F2.8 is the maximum aperture of the lens
Increasing the ISO Value  – Here’s the conundrum

While I have a professional grade camera, I am hesitant to push the limits on the ISO, (film sensitivity) because of the amount of grain that results. It means that the subject in the photo is “soft”, and not super defined, nor is it exceptionally clear. The image below is an example of a cropped in image that was shot in low light. When looking at it on my computer at 300% zoom, the fur is not defined and it looks a little fuzzy. However, I am known to be a bit of a perfectionist……… When looking at the image in a 5×7 or an 8×10, it looks great. This size image is actually great!

This means that I need to improve my skills and push my camera to the limits to get the low light images sharper. One methodology that I will try is pushing the film sensitivity to the maximum acceptable level. In the days of non-digital, film speed that I used was anywhere from 100 to 400. The image above was over 800. As the day grew darker, I had the film speed (iso) over 2000 and at one point, over 2500. According to Nikon, the camera that I used states that the  normal ISO ranges from 200 to 12,800 and can be extended down to ISO 100 (Lo 1), and up to ISO 102,400 (Hi 3). Increasing the sensitivity up to 2500 still did not generate enough speed to wind up with a shot that was not blurred. There was a significant amount of grain, (Noise) in the images. In further research, many photographers use different computer programs to get rid of the grain. (Just one more piece of software to learn and I just started to learn how to do common things in Photoshop) No time for that right now!  I will also be trying the Active D Lighting that Nikon recommends. I just hope it doesn’t slow down the speed.

A faster lens, something with an F-stop of 1.4 may help with the lighting issues but since the photographer can not stand in the ring with the dog, there isn’t enough reach for a full frame camera and lens. Buying a Nikon 400mm F2.8 lens for about $13,000.00 would be great!!  Great light and zoom at the same time!

Of course, there are a few last resorts – studio lighting for the whole arena – ha ha!  Flashes are not great for the dogs and their handlers. In  professional sports photography flashes are used in controlled situations for fill light. Humans can handle the flashes. I am not sure that dogs would be indifferent to these flares.  Anther option is a better camera with newer and more sophisticated ISO capabilities like the Nikon D5.  A little bit out of my price range at the moment!  One other suggestion that I am now trying, is learning new software to remove the grain, and also getting my feet wet with beginner’s Photoshop.

The trick is to be realistic in your expectations in different lighting conditions. Get out there to photograph what you love and keep learning how to do it better. Every photo shoot I do teaches me something and gets me more excited to do it better the next time!!  Go have some fun!


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