How To Use A Long Lens To Photograph Animal Action

Sometimes I think photography experts are writing blogs for the super stars that work for National Geographic. Other times, I know they are.

Take the recent article I ran across on shooting rodeo horses at a fair. First off, the writer says that since you can’t get close to the action, you need a long lens (300 to 400mm) and a very bright day so you can maintain the action-stopping shutter speeds needed without resorting to a high ISO speed.

Right. That means very bright sun which translates into lots of shadows on your subjects. Not ideal. Plus it is almost impossible to hand hold a 300 to 400mm lens without camera shake, which translates into action blur.

The writer’s solution is to use a tripod or monopod to steady your shots while you track the action.

What non-sense. So we are supposed to follow a moving horse (or llama or alpaca or dog—any moving animal that you are trying to photograph) around a ring struggling not only with our heavy camera equipment but also with a monopod or tri-pod.

Oh…and one last suggestion. Take along a fold-up stool so you can sit down and get shots from a low angle and rest when you need to.

More non-sense.

It’s suggestions like these from well meaning photographers who don’t shoot animals that prompted me to write my pet photography book. At first glance, an experienced photographer leafing thru the book might be tempted to reject the easy to follow suggestions. However, an astute photographer will immediately key in on the salient points for getting action.

It takes someone who has some photo experience, or someone who is willing to forgo the glamour of tons of equipment that won’t work, to understand what is needed for good action photography with animals.

First things first. Use a 200mm zoom. If that doesn’t get you close enough to the action in the ring, go find a group of kids working their horses or llamas in the practice ring where you can get closer. Sure, you can use a 300 to 400 mm lens and walk the fairgrounds feeling smug because everyone is looking at your great equipment, or you can quietly master the 200 mm lens.

With action, longer lenses are very difficult to use. You want to pick something easy and master that first so you get the sense of accomplishment necessary to keep you interested in improving. Photography is a learned skill where you fail over and over again before you succeed so work on keeping your failure rate low by mastering action skills with easy equipment.

Using your 200mm zoom (ok, you can cheat by using a 300mm and keeping it set at a focal distance of 200mm), pick out one thing to concentrate on. This is a challenge in itself, because in an arena with a lot going on, there are tons of possibilities for action. Concentrate. Keep it simple. Just pick one thing you want to try. Set your shutter speed at 1/250 of a second or higher. The “rule” is to use a shutter speed that is at least equal to the focal length  of the lens.

Actually, you can pick as many things to work on as you want, but don’t work on them all at the same time. That just leads to crazy disorganized shooting. Pick out one thing. Set your controls for the available light. Figure out your focus by pre-focusing on something stationary close to the action, and then wait for the animal to move into your zone of focus before you begin to shoot.

As always, it’s much easier to study the concept with photographs.

#1. I pushed the shutter button half way down, pre-focused on the pole and then waited for the action to come into the zone of focus before completing the exposure.

#2. Practice makes perfect. After reviewing the composition in #1, I decided to change my viewpoint so I was able to shoot the animal and rider from the front.

#3. At a dog agility course, I used the white tips of the poles holding up the tarp to pre-focus. Then I waited and made sure the dog had entered the zone of focus before shooting.

#4.  Here, my attempt to pre-focus on the barrel didn’t work. However, when I look closer, I see that nothing is in focus, indicating that I moved the camera when making the exposure.

Let’s try again….

Good! Here I was careful to pre-focus on the barrel, and I held my camera steady. Search through the blogs (or read my book!) for good hints on how to hold your camera steady with action.

Good shooting!