I had the opportunity to photograph dog racing this weekend. I have never seen this activity before, so it was intriguing to me. The event was a gathering of several members of a dog racing group called CCASH – The Central Coast Association of Sighthounds. They get together often to run their dogs in a straight line race led by a mechanized lure that races along the ground in front of the dogs.
At the event I witnessed, the largest number of dogs competing was three. The breeds were varied, and it was common to see some combination of Whippets, Silken Windhounds, Greyhounds or Border Collies competing in the same heat.
I took the opportunity to learn how to use my Canon R5 in its high speed modes, which I have never tried before (violinists generally don’t move that fast). I had to dig through menus to find the settings, and I put the camera in its fastest mode for this event, which is 20 frames per second. I also left the camera in electronic shutter mode, making it possible for the camera to work so fast.
I taught photography at Cal Poly for many years, and I always asserted that 1/1000 of a second was adequate for high-speed shots. It’s fast enough to freeze a runner, a race car, a motorcycle, a bicycle or a bird. But, I realized in about 1/1000 of a second that it’s definitely not fast enough for speeding dogs. They move too fast!
I decided to turn this into a lesson in high-speed photography with my camera.
My first professional camera was a Nikon F, one I purchased new in 1967 (see the story here). I still have that camera. Its mechanical shutter goes from one second to 1/1000 second. That camera features a titanium foil focal-plane shutter that moves vertically in the opening to allow for such a high speed. This is similar to the focal-plane shutter on a Speed Graphic camera (I have one of those, too!), but the Speed Graphic shutter is made of cloth.
Can 1/1000 second freeze motion? It can stop a person jumping over a high hurdle, or a basketball player in flight, but when you look closely, the 1/1000 shutter falls short of really stopping motion. A bit of motion blur is present in images from that camera (or any other like it) at that speed.
How fast does the shutter need to be to stop a dog moving left-to-right directly in front of the camera? I set up my tripod about 20 feet from the string the dogs follow when running (they chase a fuzzy-tailed lure that is pulled along the ground by an electric motor). Using my 100-500 mm lens, I set the focal length at 100mm. At this length, I would capture whole dogs with a lot of room on either side. In the final images I cropped quite a bit.
Then I searched through my menus, looking for the one called DRIVE. It is there that I can set the various modes for shooting single and multiple frames. I set it to the High Speed Continuous+ setting, which is 20 frames per second. I also set the shutter to electronic shutter, meaning that the mechanical shutter is disabled. The camera makes no sound during a burst of these photos; the only indication you get is a rapidly-flashing white outline around the image in the viewfinder.
I set the camera 90 degrees to the track, then kneeled on the ground at dog’s-eye level and imagined an area to the left and right of my position. On the left, I would start pushing the shutter button when the dogs were about 50 feet away, and I continued until they had run about the same distance out of the frame on the right.
I was told that these dogs run at about 30 miles per hour, which, when moving in front of my camera, was just a second or two of presence in the scene. I managed to photograph the lure, the dogs and a lot of grass in the interstices. After each run, I deleted the empty frames, saving storage space on my memory cards. When you are shooting that many frames, filling a memory card is a real issue.
These dogs are trained from birth to go after fuzzy-tailed objects like the lure they chase when racing. Many of the dogs are muzzled to prevent them from biting the lure. It’s a prize they really want!
After each heat of the competition a person walks the lure back to the starting line – 200 yards – for the next heat.
Having never seen dog racing before, I must say that I was impressed by the speed, grace and agility of these very special animals. They love to run, and they are eager to do it several times each day. The dogs are exceptionally well treated, healthy, and obviously contented. They love their owners and handlers, and they really love that lure! I enjoyed the canine athleticism on display.
I found that shutter speeds of 1/1600 and 1/2000 second were reasonable, but faster shutter speeds produced sharper images (no surprise!). My camera can shoot up to 1/8000 second, and I ended up at that speed for my most successful images. I also set the auto-focus to seek animal subjects, and that worked reliably. Several of the resulting images are excellent.
The other setting I used is Tv, which on the Canon camera means shutter speed priority. With the camera set on Tv, and the shutter speed set to 1/8000 second, the camera responded by adjusting its aperture to compensate for the available light. I had set the ISO at 1,600 for the entire event, and this worked well. Though 1600 was a bit high for daylight, I needed the higher ISO to get reasonable apertures for some depth-of-field. As a result, my typical exposures in Tv setting were f9.0 to f10.0.
There is no appreciable noise in the photos as a result of the rather high ISO setting. This can be attributed to the camera’s sophisticated sensor, and to the Digix chip in the camera, with its ability to suppress noise at most ISO settings.
Note: When I searched Google for more information on dog racing I found many articles about Greyhound racing in Florida, and the sometimes-corrupt gambling that is associated with dog racing. I also found a number of articles highly critical of dog racing (especially racing done commercially). There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding commercial dog racing, and some animal-rights organizations have labeled racing cruel to these animals.
The people I met at this event, and the dogs I met and befriended, are – quite obviously – not engaged in dog racing for gambling. Their dogs are healthy, happy, and are treated kindly by their humans. I don’t know any more about dog racing than I have learned by photographing this event and meeting its organizers. What I learned impressed me. These are nice people having fun with dogs that seem to really enjoy what they do.