For a dog lover like me, there’s nothing more beautiful than a gun dog in action. I am especially enthralled by the fierceness in the dogs’ faces when they are on retrieve. I regularly shoot field trails and hunt tests, to the point that some dogs on the hunt test circuit have learned to play to the camera when they see me standing near the judges. Photographing these exquisite canines may soon become your favorite as well. There are just a few basic items to keep in mind when photographing hunting and gun dogs at work or at a hunt test.
Prep before the shoot – appropriate clothing is a must. You may be required to wear full camouflage, or camouflage and blaze orange clothing. Sturdy water proof boots – preferably knee rubbers; waders if you have them, are an asset. Dress for the weather – you will be in shooting outdoors in variety of weather. Hunters often hunt in inclement weather so a good rain suit for both the photographer and the camera is must. If shooting at a sanctioned field trial or competition hunt, review the regulations regarding dress. For instance many will not allow you near the shooting line/brace/take off point if not in full cammo or wearing blaze orange.
Prep your equipment – you may be required to have your lenses and bodies camouflaged as well. An inexpensive way to do this is to take the sleeve off of an old cammo long sleeved t shirt and slide it over with the cuff on the end of the lens. Utilize two camera bodies if possible. These are not conditions that you want to be changing lenses in, nor will you have the time in many cases.
Multiple cards and batteries. Because so many hunting dog opportunities take place in cold weather, and because you shoot in rapid fire sequences, your batteries will likely drain quickly. A battery grip can be a lifesaver. Multiple cards will be needed due to the large number of multiple sequence shots. It is not unusual for me to fill 20GB of cards at an all day hunt. (Somewhat due to the large RAW file sizes)
Your camera bag should be waterproof and sturdy, and it’s helpful if it is in camouflage as well. I use an Avery Pro Grade Blind Bag that is specifically designed for outdoor photographers.
You want to use the longest focal length lens that you have. Truthfully – anything less than 300mm just isn’t going to cut it in most situations. The key to the hunting dogs is to fill the frame. I usually have an 80-400 mounted and a 70-200 2.8, along with a wide angle on third body.
I can’t say this enough – do not, do not, do not – interfere with the hunters/handlers/owners. They will tell you where you can be. Do not distract a dog, do not get in front of the hunter or within gun range. Stay beside or behind the hunter/handler. It’s also a good practice to introduce yourself to the hunt marshals and line judges at competitions and inquire about any restrictions or preferences they may have.
Normally I use f/8 and a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 when they are on retrieve to stop the action and the water flying and to have enough DOF to ensure both the dog and the game it retrieves are all in focus, yet leaving the background pleasantly blurred. Can you capture a running dog at a slower shutter speed – yes it’s possible, but I’ve found my best results with 1/1000 and higher. You may find that you need to utilize a high ISO, as often you will be shooting in low light conditions either due to the time of day the hunt occurs, or because you are in deep shade/woodland areas. Expose/meter for the dog. My most common starting point is 1/1000, ISO 400, f/8. From the initial test shots taken there I’ll make the necessary adjustments for the situation at hand. The key is to keep your shutter speed up. If you aren’t comfortable shooting manual settings and switching them often, you can utilize the shutter priority setting on your camera and start with a shutter speed of 1/1000. Position yourself to shoot the dog running at you vs. at 90 degree angle. When shooting from the side it makes for a nice view if you are comfortable panning, but a straight on approach gives the view of the image a more participatory feeling. A roughly 45 degree angle works well also for capturing the water dogs as they leap out on retrieve.
Get on the dogs level, crouch, sit, lay – but you will have an image with more impact if you are at the dogs eye level than if the view is from your height and looking downwards. Use a blind if need be, or if requested by the hunter/handler.
Prefocus on a spot that you anticipate a dog’s path will be. Use continuous shooting mode and bang off as many shots as the dog runs towards you as you possibly can or you camera and card buffers will allow. AiServo focus mode allows your focus point to stay locked on the dog. Most importantly, as in all animal photography, FOCUS ON THE EYES.
If you feel you must have tripod under a long focal length lens – a monopod might be a better choice. Not often is there room for a tripod during a hunt, nor is there ever room in a duck blind, goose pit, deer hide etc for tripod. I don’t even use a monopod – if I’m in really low light, I switch on the IS on the lenses and use a BushHawk, which is an apparatus that mounts the camera to a gun stock like support. I can shoulder it when the shooters shoulder the guns and obtain the same angles they are seeing of flying birds and dogs on retrieve.
I always suggest that photographers who want to explore this contact one of their local retriever groups and ask to attend a training day. The pressure is not the same as at a competition hunt or in the field, and photographers can get a feel for positioning, lighting, etc. at one of these events. A training day allows you to talk with the owners and handlers in low pressure situation and get a good feel for what they like to see in the images of their gun dogs in action. ~Gretchen Steele
Gretchen Steele of Coulterville, Ill., owns and operates Steele Photo Services. Gretchen is a Southern Illinois native and has been traversing the wild spaces of Illinois since her childhood. She retired as Public
Health Nurse in 2003 to pursue her passion of outdoor and wildlife photography full time. Her award
winning work has been featured in many outdoor media outlets, and has been exhibited in various
venues across the nation. A lifetime of wild crafting and wild foraging has made Gretchen a well
respected authority on Illinois edible and medicinal wild plants and fungi.
Gretchen is a Pro Staff Member and Photographer for Southern Illinois Outdoors, Down River Outdoors,
Silver Creek Hunt Club, and Muddy River Shooting Preserve. She is a Featured Photographer with several
other outdoor media groups including Illinois Hunter, Prairie State Outdoors, and Illinois Outdoor News.
Gretchen also serves as a guide and speaker for various photography clubs and organizations wishing to
explore the world of outdoor and nature photography. She host several outdoor photography tours
each year and biannual outdoor photography workshops. Additionally Gretchen serves as a speaker
throughout Southern Illinois as an advocate for women in the outdoors, the benefits of outdoor time,
and various hunting, fishing, and outdoor sports.
In addition to serving as contributing writer and photographer in the print market Gretchen authors two
outdoor related blogs : http://siloforests.blogspot.com/ ‐ In the Forests and The Fields and
http://www.prairiestateoutdoors.com/index.php?/gretchens/ ‐ Through the Lens