How to take incredible high-speed pet photos

First published:
July 27, 2022
July 28, 2023

How to take incredible high-speed pet photos

First published:
July 27, 2022
July 28, 2023

Image by James Paterson

Capture your cavorting pets in action with these top ten tips and learn essential camera skills

Despite making up roughly 99% of all internet traffic, pictures of cats and dogs are hard to perfect, especially if the animals are moving fast. Many an action photo has been ruined by motion blur or dodgy focusing.

However, with a few simple camera skills and lighting tricks you can create stunning high-speed photos of your pets. Here are a few pointers…

1 Increase your shutter speed

If you want to freeze the action then you need to set up your exposure properly. The key is to use a very fast shutter speed. You might think 1/200 sec sounds fast, but it’s probably not quick enough to capture pets that are running, jumping or flying. For this you’ll usually need to increase the shutter speed to 1/1000 sec or more. This in turn might mean increasing your ISO or opening up your aperture to compensate for the fast shutter. For a good stock exposure setting, try using your camera in manual exposure mode with aperture f/4 (or wider if your lens allows it), shutter speed 1/1000 sec and ISO Auto. This way the ISO will adapt to the conditions, while the shutter speed will stay quick enough to freeze the action.

A fast shutter speed is essential for freezing fast-moving action without motion blur. Photo by Chris Froome - f/5 | 1/2000s | ISO 200

2 Capture jumps

“Down! Down!” is the constant cry of the frustrated dog owner as their friendly pooch once again jumps up at another person. But while such eager behaviour is perhaps not ideal for your unwitting neighbour’s once-clean t-shirt, jumps and leaps can be fantastic fodder for action photographs. A fast shutter speed and low camera angle will help you to capture dynamic leaps. You might also want to pre-focus on the spot where you expect the dog to jump, as it can be tricky to lock focus when they’re in mid-air. If the animal isn’t playing ball, ask a helper to stand to one side and hold food above them to encourage them to get airborne. 

Vaulting dogs can make for fantastic action photos. The combination of a low camera angle and blurred backdrop help to show off the shape of the animal here. Photo by Tamás Szarka - f/2.5 | 1/800s | ISO 180

3 Blur the motion 

Motion blur can be wonderful for conveying a sense of speed. It might come at the expense of sharpness, but the blur can lend images more of an arty, abstract quality. To achieve this, we simply lower the shutter speed and capture fast-moving subjects. The right shutter speed depends on how fast the subject is moving. For very fast moving animals try using 1/100 sec. For slower creatures go down as low as ½ sec. Experiment by moving the camera as you shoot to create streaks of motion blur in the background.

Try a slow shutter speed to intentionally blur motion for abstract action shots. Photo by Tyler Olson - f/32 | 1/13s | ISO 100

4 Spray with water

Nothing creates a sense of high speed action quite like an explosive splash of water. So if your pets don’t mind getting wet, why not give them a spray with the hosepipe? Then grab your camera and wait for them to shake off the drops (from a position far enough away to avoid getting wet!).

Flying droplets of water can enhance the sense of speed in your action photos. Photo by James Paterson - f/4 | 1/2000s | ISO 800

5 Lock on to moving animals

Some pets love to run towards their owners at top speed, and this can be a great time to capture a front-on action shot that’s full of character. However, fast-moving subjects that are moving towards the camera are notoriously tricky to lock focus on. You need to switch your camera to continuous autofocus. This will mean that the autofocus will continue to track the subject for as long as it’s engaged (rather than single AF, in which the autofocus will lock on once, then stop). Even better, if your camera has animal eye detection then enable this handy focusing mode for all your pet photos.

Set your camera’s autofocus to continuous (sometimes called AI Servo) so that it tracks with the movement of animals as they bound towards the camera. Photo by Giorgio

6 Capture action with a flash

A burst of flash at the right moment can lead to stunning action photos. The flash gives a clarity to photos that can be hard to achieve with natural light alone. When using flash, it’s better to shoot with an off-camera light than the camera’s pop-up flash, as directional light creates more depth. A dark environment is ideal, as when there’s very little ambient light the flash duration effectively becomes your shutter speed, and flash durations - particularly with speedlights - are incredibly fast. This allows you to freeze even incredibly fast motion with crystal clear clarity. 

A burst of flash can be used to freeze motion and pick out details, colours and textures in the subject. Photo by Valentin Valkov - f/8 | 1/160s | ISO 100

7 Set up a home studio

A home studio photo shoot can be a great way to spend an afternoon with your pet. All you need is a plain white or black background, a couple of flashes (cheap speedlights will do the job), light stands, white umbrellas and a flash trigger. For a good stock exposure setting for home studio photos, set your camera to manual exposure mode with shutter speed 1/200 sec, aperture f/8 and ISO 100. Set both speedlights to manual power, starting at ¼ power, then take a few test shots and adjust the power (or alter the positions of the lights) until you get the look you’re after.

Set up a small home studio for polished pet portraits and capture the action as they explore the space. Photo by Alexandra Draghici - f/10 | 1/125s | ISO 100

8 Exaggerate the perspective

One thing that makes pet photography such fun is that - unlike timid wildlife subjects - our pets like to show off. As such, we can get in close and capture the action from an intimate viewpoint. A wide angle lens exaggerates the perspective of the parts of the animal closest to the camera, especially if you bring it in very close.

The larger-than-life perspective you get with wide angles can be perfect for revealing the playful characters of your furry subjects. Photo from Stockimo

9 Go underwater

If your pets like to swim, an underwater viewpoint can make for stunning action photos. There are lots of underwater cameras that are up to the job, and you can also buy underwater housings for larger cameras. If you’re on a budget, don’t bother with hard shell cases as these can can cost thousands. Instead, look for soft, bag-like cases as these are much cheaper.

An underwater photo shoot is worth the effort for submerged moments of action like no other. Photo by Jess - f/2.2 | 1/5000s | ISO 100

10 Add motion blur in Photoshop

If you’re looking to enhance the feeling of action in Photoshop then a touch of motion blur can work wonders. Open the image into Photoshop then duplicate the background layer (Cmd/Ctrl+J). Go to Select > Subject then click the layer mask icon to hide everything else on the layer. Next highlight the bottom layer and go to Filter > Blur > Motion Blur (Path Blur within the Blur Gallery works well too). Set an angle for the motion blur and use the radius to control the strength of the blur effect. This will add streaks of blur to the background, resulting in a fun panning blur effect.

The Motion Blur filter in Photoshop lets you create realistic-looking blur for a feeling of speed. Photo by Nelson Art - f/7.1 | 1/100s | ISO 800
More pet photography:

If you're new to pet photography and want to get started with some of the basics see beginner's guide on how to photograph your pets
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