In the Blink of an Eye

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Summer is here and it’s a perfect time to capture the fun and energy of pets in motion.  This month we’ll talk about how to create sharp photos that freeze a moment of action.  Then next month we’ll look at the creative use of blur to convey motion and energy.

Summer is a great time to capture action because sunlight is your friend.  The brighter it is when you make a photograph the less time your camera needs to expose your sensor or film.  That short exposure duration is key to freezing action.

Motion blur happens in photographs when something moves while the camera is exposing the sensor or film.  Sometimes that motion is you moving the camera, even subtly, during a long exposure.  And sometimes it’s your subject moving fast enough that there is a blur of the motion that happened between when your camera started its exposure and when it finished.  A very short exposure — let’s say 1/2000th of a second — leaves little time for even the fastest of dogs to have moved very far.

Using your camera’s “Tv” or shutter priority mode can help you obtain these fast shutter speeds.  Shutter priority mode allows you to select a shutter speed from the options available given current lighting conditions.  Your camera manual will give you details on how to use this mode. 

While you’re reading your manual also look up “AI Servo” (for Canon) or “Focus Tracking” (for Nikon).  Selecting this mode tells your camera to maintain focus on a moving subject.  If you don’t use this mode you may find your subject is often out of focus but the grass where they were just a moment before is tack sharp.   

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For your first experiment with action photography I recommend choosing a time when the sun is relatively low in the sky.  Position yourself so the sun is almost behind you.  You want the sun to stream into your subject’s face.  Then, using Tv mode, find a fast shutter speed — ideally between 1/1000th and 1/2000th of a second — although slower can sometimes work. 

If you’re photographing a dog who likes to fetch, now is a good time to throw a ball away from the sun.  With luck your dog, after catching the ball, will come running back to you.  Now is the moment to get your photo — capturing your dog running toward you, with ball in mouth, brilliantly lit by the sun.  If your camera has a burst mode, then use that now to capture as many photos as you can.

I recommend trying many rounds of throwing the ball and making photographs.  Maintaining focus on a running dog is challenging even for the best cameras, so you may find the focus was off in some of your photos.  In fact, lower-cost cameras may miss focus most of the time.  But by brightly lighting your subject you’ve made it as easy as you can on your camera. 

If after many attempts you discover your camera can’t keep up with action, or if it doesn’t have an AI Servo or Focus Tracking mode, don’t despair.  Next month we’ll talk about using blur to convey motion and energy.  You may discover your camera is great at artistic blur.  If you’d like to learn more I am offering a class on action photography this August through the Oregon Humane Society.  Contact me for more information.

This month’s assignment

Create a photo that takes advantage of the summer sunshine.  If you’re interested in action, I’d love to see an action photo lit by the sun.  But any photo that uses the sun as your primary light source will be great.  Imagine creating a photo that this winter will remind you of summer.  I look forward to seeing your photos and, as always, I’d love to hear about your experience as well as what speaks to you in your photo.

Class Recap

  • Try the exercise
  • Send your photos from the assignment to: Please put “Spot Photo Class” in the subject line
  • Go to Photography 101 on Spot's website to see your photos and those of your fellow students
  • Share your great work with your friends!
  • Check out David’s tips and comments
  • Meet David here in August for your next session!
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David Childs is a professional photographer, photo journalist, instructor, and animal advocate. You can see his work or contact him at

Study with David live! His pet photography classes are offered at Oregon Humane Society. See his website for details.

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