“Dogs express themselves with body language, and movement is their voice,” Dutch photographer Chris Van Riel beams about the furry four-legged friends he often photographs. Dubbed the Ninja Dog Photographer In photography circles, he takes pics of canines catching frisbees in mid-air. Chris tells us it’s not just about a fast shutter speed, and he breaks down a few of the tricks he uses to get these stunning frames.
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From a technical perspective, animal photography has been made much easier in recent years. At least, in terms of nailing focus perfectly, mirrorless cameras do a better job than DSLRs. But if good photos were only about sharpness, then some of the most outstanding photos in the world would be considered inadequate. When it comes to producing excellent photos of dogs with frisbees, Chris Van Riel considers multiple factors. While autofocus does play a significant role in this, it’s not without a lot of support.
The Essential Photo Gear Used by Chris Van Riel
Chris told us:
My current main camera is the Sony A9 with a 135mm f1.8 GM. It’s what I use for the flying dog photo’s that I spend most of my time on, but I also own a Sony A7riii, Sony 85mm f1.8, Sony 24mm f1.4 GM, and a Tamron 17-28 f2.8.
When I entered my second year of being a photographer, I experienced how hard capturing fast action with improper tools is. The a7riii struggled with dogs running towards the camera; I tried for a long time but couldn’t get it to do what I wanted. With a hit rate of less than 10%, I knew I needed to upgrade, but action-dedicated equipment tends to be top-tier expensive. Being a photographer for just over a year, at that stage, most of us aren’t ready to spend a small fortune, and I found myself staring at 5.5K Olympics-class action machines. I simply didn’t have the money, and I wasn’t willing to sell a kidney either. Instead, I went for the cheapest option for a full-frame action-dedicated camera: the Sony A9.
The A9 has proven itself to be an amazing tool. The focus speed, accuracy, reliability, and is high 20fps framerates, and it’s very easy to operate. It gave me an absolute blast since I had it, spwing out one perfectly timed image after another.
With the A9 paired to the 135mm f1.8 GM, it seems to be even better. Even at wide open, f1.8, the images are just so sharp that it cuts your eyeballs open! And somehow, with a depth of field that measures only a couple of centimeters, I still find myself hitting a fast-moving subject in the right place. This brilliant combo is probably the best decision I made in my whole photography career. It has helped me become the photographer I am today!
In the future, I hope to see myself upgrading to the A1. I could use a little more speed in terms of framerate, and a bit more megapixels would be very helpful for improving my editing process to make better masks.
The Phobographer: Hi Chris. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.
Chris Van Riel: Hi, I’m 27 yrs old, from The Netherlands. Photography started 3 and a half years ago as a side gig. Over time it grew out into my second job and put me in the double-career that I’m in right now.
Photography is not my main job. I’m a metalworker, programming and operating hydraulic pressing machines to fold steel plates into unique shapes. Products being made are heavy-duty parts for all sorts of industrial applications. I’m also a teacher of this specialism.
I’ve always had an interest in technical things. (Think of restoring old motorcycles and such things.) This interest in technical aspects is what drives me to plunge myself into the deepest depths of what has sparked my interest, to find out everything there is to know about the subject matter. Photography!
What started as a small side-gig quickly grew into my biggest passion. Nowadays, as a professional, you will find me photographing pets most of the time. Setting up workshops in frisbee photography and unusual techniques like bokeh-panoramas. My goal in photography is to educate other photographers about how to improve their action photography and show them how much fun it can be. Hoping to inspire them to create beautiful things by stopping fast motion.
The Phobographer: Ninja Dog Photographer is a pretty catchy title. Where did this come from?
Chris Van Riel: That’s a funny one. It’s a nickname that people started calling me in several posts on Facebook groups. The dogs are basically trained to ninja-levels of agility, so it felt like I earned it for photographing them. I like it. It’s catchy and humorous, so I adopted it. Now wearing the nickname of the ‘Ninja dog photographer’ with pride!
The Phobographer: Typically, how far away from you are the dogs during a shoot like this?
Chris Van Riel: It depends on the dogs’ size and focal length of your lens, of course. Smaller dogs sometimes only have half of the distance that bigger dogs need. I always try to get as close as possible to get that nice paper-thin depth of field. It’s hard to give an exact number because I’ve never measured it… but I would say 5 to 7 meters for a big dog and a 135mm lens.
The Phobographer: Burst rates do help, but what’s your keeper rate like (for sharp photos) during a jump? What settings do you recommend for others who’d like to try this?
Chris Van Riel: Good question! The a9 is very accurate. And with a fast-focusing lens attached even on abrupt movements. Usually, I get all photos from whole jumps in focus. Let’s say that’s at least 85%.
For focus settings, I set the focus to AF-C, focus responsiveness to 0 (locked on), and I mostly use the ‘Zone’ focus (the 2nd biggest area). The big zone is great because it makes it easy to keep the subject within the focus detection area. That’s helpful for sports like this because the dogs’ movements during this sport are extremely abrupt and almost impossible to follow smoothly.
Only when I find myself getting focused on the wrong part of my subject too often do I change to a smaller focus area or give lock-on a try.
The Phobographer: What are some of the more acrobatic breeds of dog that photograph better for mid-air frisbee catches?
Chris Van Riel: Most important is that the dog has to have a very strong urge to grasp the frisbee. Some dogs are just naturally more eager than others. Besides personality, the build of their body also matters; lightweight medium-sized dogs are most suited for this sport. These traits are often bred into a dog breed. Breeds that I enjoyed the most so far have been: Border collie, Australian Kelpie, English Stafford, and Chihuahua.
The Phobographer: I’m sure the dogs are more enthusiastic than you when it comes to this. How many catches do they do before they get treats?
Chris Van Riel: The dogs love it; they go crazy when the frisbees come out of the bag. Usually, they get a reward after they do a set and get to take a break. A set is usually 8-10 jumps followed by a couple of flips. A well-trained dog can do 2 sets safely on a shoot.
Important is to not over-exhaust these dogs! This sport can be dangerous if the well-being of the dog is not respected. No matter how tempting it is for us photographers to ask for ‘just a couple more,’ never force trainers to do more jumps than they feel like. Fatigue is the number 1 cause of accidents, and we don’t want our furry friends to hurt themselves.
The Phobographer: I don’t suppose you’d do this often, but have you ever thrown the frisbees yourself and then quickly grabbed your camera to take the pics?
Chris Van Riel: To make these kinds of photos, you need to be square to the direction of movement. (Photograph it from the side). If you want to photograph it after throwing the frisbee by yourself, one would need to run faster than the frisbee to get to the right position in time and then photograph it. Unless the photographer is a marathon athlete, it seems visually impossible to me.
I’m a visual thinker, and it gave me a good laugh tho… but! With a stick, it’s very possible to create beautiful images of a dog retrieving a toy.
The Phobographer: You also do animal portraiture. Does it take a long time to get them to sit still and pose the way you’d like?
Chris Van Riel: That really depends on how well a dog is trained and how energetic its personality is. A calm dog will do it very easily, looking very handsomely. The posing should be very easy on a dog that follows commands.
Although portraits are a beautiful thing to make, it doesn’t fit how I imagine a dog’s behaviour. Dogs should be running, playing, and rolling through the mud. Besides that, dogs express themselves with body language, and movement is their voice. Making them sit still silences them, and allowing them to run let’s them speak, often screaming with joy! That’s why action photography has become this important to me. It’s the expressions.
The Phobographer: What’s the response like for the workshops where you teach this? Please tell us of any amusing or memorable questions you’ve received during these.
Chris Van Riel: That’s a lovely question. I’ve been doing these workshops for just over a year now, and the response of the photographers’ community has absolutely blown my mind. There is so much enthusiasm for it, and usually the workshops are sold-out within 24 hrs. I’ve even had some students come back for a second time. That’s why I’ve also started planning organised photoshoots twice a year on cool locations that students can join after passing the Poetry in Motion frisbee workshop.
The funniest question I get often is if I’m using a flash (it’s all natural light). But other than that there haven’t been really strange comments yet; people seem to understand the fundamentals of what I’m trying to teach quite well.
The fun students are having during the workshops is such a pleasure to witness. Often you’ll hear people cheering in surprise at their own images after seeing the result. So far, all of them have gotten home with a photo that they can be truly proud of.
I see a lot of students entering competitions with a picture taken during the workshop. I find that such a cool thing because photographers only enter competitions with their most proud work, and seeing it’s a photo I helped them get just makes me so happy. I absolutely hope from the bottom of my heart that one day a student will receive an award. For me, that would be the greatest achievement I could ever achieve with these workshops.
The most memorable thing so far was one of the students got published online for ‘photo of the day’ by a big local photography magazine. It’s the first kind of reward ambitious photographers seek out, and she finally got it. So unbelievably happy and proud she was. Absolutely heartwarming!
The Phobographer: Is there a secret to getting that cinematic, poetic frame, or is it just practice and a lot of hard work?
Chris Van Riel: Yes, hard work and persistence are part of the game. Getting a perfectly timed photo that’s also sharp is one thing, but making a piece that’s a pleasure to look at is another. There are so many aspects that come together to form these images, and also that’s where my secret tricks come in. I would like to reserve those for my workshops.
All images by Chris Van Riel. Take a look at his Instagram and Facebook pages to see more of his work.