Photos of dogs running directly towards the camera are often hilarious and always incredibly popular, but as you may have discovered, capturing that one perfect shot is not always easy.
Choose a good location
Shooting action outdoors in open, well-lit, spacious areas usually creates the best results. The beach, natural spacious areas or even large playing fields are great places to take action photos, as they offer lots of room to run and play with plentiful light in the right weather conditions and time of day.
Canon EOS 6D mark ii, Sigma art 135mm 1.8, ISO 160, 1/1600 sec, f/1.8
From a lighting and technical point of view, I recommend to avoid shooting directly under trees or other sources of shade. It is of course possible to shoot action in the forest, but you need to try and maximise the intensity of the light to help keep your ISO at a manageable level.
Canon EOS 6D Mark II, Sigma art 135mm 1.8 @ISO 1600, 1/1250 sec, f/1.8
Open areas with clear sky overhead maximise the light and trees in the distant background are ideal for filtering the sun when shooting with backlight later in the day.
Reliable continuous autofocus tracking
The first is the camera's ability to obtain then keep focus on a moving subject, referred to as "tracking". While most cameras offer a continuous autofocus tracking mode (AI Servo on Canon and AF-C on Nikon), not all camera bodies have good autofocus tracking performance.
Newer, more professional camera bodies generally have much better continuous autofocus performance, keeping the subject in focus reliably, just as long as you also do your part and keep the focus point on your subject.
You will still be able to capture action photos with older or lower model camera bodies, but you'll need to work a bit harder to make it easier for your camera to do it’s job
The number, configuration and accuracy of the focus points available varies greatly between different camera models. As a general rule, higher-end professional camera bodies have more available focus points over a wider area of the image.
While having lots of focus points can be handy, when shooting these "run to me" style of action shot, you'll generally get the best results using just a single, central focus point.
Select the right camera settings
It's a common misconception that selecting the right settings on your camera is all you need to easily capture dogs in action.
Camera settings for action can be divided into exposure settings, exposure modes, focus modes and focus points.
One of the biggest issues people face when trying to capture action is blurry images. This happens when the shutter speed is not fast enough to “freeze” the dog in action. During the fraction of a second when the image is being recorded, the dog moves and causes subject motion blur.
To capture expressive and sharp action photos of a dog running towards you, you’ll need to use a fast shutter speed.
For a dog running towards you, shoot at an absolute minimum of 1/1000 second. Faster if possible.
The most suitable focus mode for focusing on moving subjects is continuous autofocus. This is called AI Servo on Canon and Continuous-servo or AF-C on Nikon (referred to as variants of "continuous focus" in other brands). In this mode, the camera obtains focus and keeps that object in focus as it moves, as long as you have the shutter button held halfway down (default method) or the AF-ON button pressed (when using Back button focus.)
Definitely do not use One Shot (Canon) or AF-S (Nikon) as this mode locks focus, no good for a moving subject.
In continuous autofocus mode, the camera’s autofocus system keeps focus on whatever the chosen focus point is on, continuously tracking its movement - hopefully this is your subject! Remember, "auto" focus is only automatic when the camera is aimed correctly at the subject - it's up to you to keep the focus point trained on the subject as they run towards you.
Get down low
This is probably the most important thing to remember when shooting action.
Getting down low when shooting "run to me" action photos has a number of benefits.
Shooting at dog level gives the resulting images a more accurate sense of scale and perspective, allowing you to see their expressions clearly and giving an insight into their world.
Photos of dogs running taken from a very low angle create visual space between their running legs and the ground. This low angle creates much greater visual impact, especially if they are jumping over something or bounding along with tonnes of energy.
Getting down low to the ground helps avoid casting your shadow on your subject when shooting in full sun with the sun low in the sky behind you.