February 14

6 comments

3 Tips for Shooting Sled Dog Racing… or Any Action Photos

By Dan

February 14, 2011


Now that the rest of the country is in post Super Bowl letdown, up here in Alaska we’re well into our own national sport, Sled Dog Racing. (I say this like I grew up with it, but actually, I used to love watching the Super Bowl as a kid in the lower 48.)

Anyway, with regular weekend races and Fur Rondy and The Iditarod just around the corner, there are lots of great opportunities for photographing the unique and exciting sport of sled dog racing.

I like shooting it because it’s, well, exciting and different. And because it’s an interesting mix of outdoor, adventure and action photography all rolled into one.

During my shoot last Saturday, I thought about some of the challenges that I was dealing with, besides the usual cold weather concerns of how to stay warm and dry. It occurred to me that despite the fact that sled dog racing is completely unlike any other sport, in order to successfully capture compelling images of this subject, I was calling on the regular, tried and true methods that any action and sports photographer needs to use in order to create compelling imagery. Here are 3 tips that came to mind.

1. Get a Good Tripod.

We know that a sturdy tripod allows you to shoot sharper, more well composed photos, especially at slower shutter speeds. However, with sports photography and fast breaking subjects, using a tripod gives you one huge advantage: It allows you to shoot more easily with two camera bodies.

You can leave one camera fixed to the tripod and trained on a point where you know your subjects will appear. The other camera goes around your neck. Then, when the subject comes into the frame, you fire away, for example, with the telephoto while they’re still far away.

As they get closer, you can switch to the wide angle camera and fire off even more shots as they go by. Or vice versa. That way, straps, bodes and lenses don’t get tangled or weigh down on your neck. A couple of good sturdy tripod choices include the Manfrotto 055XPROB, (formerly the Bogen 3001) and the Manfrotto 190CXPRO3. For even more rock solid support if you’re using big glass, you might want to check out the Gitzo GT2530 Mountaineer. In these situations, you’re generally more concerned with sturdiness than lightweight, but these options offer a good blend of both.

2. It’s All About Vantage Point.

The nice thing with shooting outdoor sports is that you often have much more flexibility with your locations.

You can pretty much roam wherever you want to with your camera in search of the right spot to capture the action as you see it.

For this shot, I knew that I wanted to capture the dynamic excitement of a sled racing around a curve, so I scoped out a few possible locations that would give the right combination of sunlight angle and a relatively clean background.

After tromping through the snow for awhile, I settled on this particular vantage point, which allowed me to get the focused and highly trained chaos of the sled team racing around the curve.

3. Create the Shot in Your Mind Before You Start Shooting.

This is an image that I had in my mind before I even raised my camera. In fact, I prepared and set up just to get this particular shot.

I’d come up with the idea while watching the path that the dog teams took as they raced through the open terrain.

Fortunately, the sun was just right for a backlit photo telephoto shot, and so while I waited for the next team to arrive, I set up my composition, my exposure and the point at which I’d start my focus tracking, thus saving the camera the time and work of finding the subject as it entered the frame.

This is actually the same team as the one in the first shot above. By thinking ahead and planning both the wide angle approach shot and this telephoto departing shot, I was able to take advantage of a great subject in great light and produce two completely different series of images as they went by.

Sometimes photography is all about reacting to the unfolding situation, but there are times when a little planning can make a huge difference. Try it.

About the author

Hi, I'm Dan Bailey, a 20+ year pro outdoor and adventure photographer, and official FUJIFILM X-Photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska.


As a top rated blogger and author my goal is to help you become a better, more confident and competent photographer, so that you can have as much fun and creative enjoyment as I do.

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  • Oh, now that’s a cool tip about two bodies and a tripod. Never heard that one before!
    I’ve seen some sled-dog racing out here in Quebec, they really get moving once they are up to speed!
    The low-angled winter light is always nice too.

  • Great article. I am heading up to Bethel in a few weeks during the K300 dogsled race and want to give shooting a dogsled race a try. I have a Rebel T3i and want to get a sigma 2.8 or lower small zoom, I think that’s what I want, but really don’t know. What lens would you suggest ?? I don’t have a ton of money for a big zoom but I want to be successful. I know there will be low light and fast actions of the dogs hence the 2.8 Also how do you keep the lens from freezing or doesn’t that come into play? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  • Kristi- Lenses work fine in the cold, the biggest issues are with camera batteries and condensation. Make sure you don’t bring a cold camera inside a warm area, keep it inside your bag so it can warm up gradually. For that kind of sport, a 70-200 f/2.8 would be ideal, but they can be expensive. Definitely look at a Sigma or Tokina, you’ll save a lot of money. Also, you might consider getting a 70-200 f/4. Make sure it has VR, or IS. The latest series of lenses with image stabilization do an amazing job and they’re much less expensive than their f/2.8 counterparts. If that’s still out of the budget, you might consider renting a fast zoom lens from a place like Borrowlenses.com or Lensrentals.com. That’s a great way to try out different gear, especially for an event like that.

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    Terry Bourk

    I have read you new book “Behind the Landscape.” I could not “put it down” meaning that I kept at it because each photo you presented/analyzed was interesting and informative. I am trying to develop an eye for composition (both the scene and the light).

    Thank you! The examples you present and the suggestions are very helpful. Purple Mountains, McKinley River and Wonder Lake are fascinating.


    Roger Sinclair

    You have done it again! Another triumph.

    Your generosity to share, the clarity of thought and concise explanation thereof is brilliant. Perhaps I should also mention the beautiful photos and the talent necessary to produce them.

    Thank you, Dan.