How to take better photos of shelter pets step-by-step

On June 15th I had the immense pleasure of joining the lovely gals on the Digital Photo volunteer team and Foster Dog teams at the Seattle Animal Shelter (hi gals!) for a little 2-hour mini-workshop on how to take better photos of the shelter animals.

I was contacted by one of the volunteer coordinators back in May, who asked if this was something I would be interested in and that they would love to have me come down and teach. I said “absolutely of course!”. I was so excited to go and teach the volunteers because I have always wanted to help the animals at the shelters; specifically have wanted to take photos of the animals that they can use on Petfinder to help them get adopted more quickly, but the issue with me has always been time. My business keeps me so busy most of the time that even finding an extra hour per week is challenging. So I thought this was a great way to be able to help, at least indirectly, you know what they say “teach a man to fish…”. AND, we will be in talks about developing a program where I CAN provide photography, on a scale that even I can manage. Stay tuned for that!

Do you, nice person reading this, photograph animals for a shelter?

Here are some tips I shared with the teams at the Seattle Animal Shelter on how to take better photos of shelter pets. They may help you too!

1. Always photograph dogs outside if at all possible. Shoot in shade if it’s bright and sunny. Allow them to explore their surroundings for several minutes before diving into your photography. Only start once they have sufficiently explored their immediate area. Keep in mind the disparity between outdoor time and kennel time for these animals. You can’t blame them for wanting to explore!

2. Talk sweetly and cheerfully to dogs while photographing them. Think over-the-top cheerful. You want to get them from “I’m in doggie jail” mindset to “I’m having fun, this person likes me” mindset. This takes some energy on your part and your voice is a very powerful tool here. For cats happy but soothing voices help here. Be careful not to be too cheerful with cats as this can (obviously) freak out a skittish shelter kitty. Keep talking to the pets the entire time. This will help them connect with you and trust you, and also help them relax, so you can get those elusive ‘ears up and forward’ looks, and *maybe* even get a smile from a dog.

3. Take your time. Spend *at least* 5 minutes, ideally 10 for each dog. As much as 15 minutes per cat. They need to acclimate to the change between ‘in kennel’ and ‘not in kennel’. They will relax once they have made this transition mentally. Also the more time you spend on the photo, the less time they will spend in the shelter, so think of how much time the shelter saves in the long run! It is worth taking the extra time on so many levels for so many reasons. 

4. Try not to hold the camera in front of your face, especially for cats. Hold it just below your face (chest area) and frame up your shots in the live preview/lcd viewfinder by looking down at it. This will help the animals see your face and trust you more easily, thus, ideally, lessening their stress and potential fear of the camera. This takes practice but if you zoom out all the way you have more room for error.

5. For both cats and dogs look for unique and unusual backdrops. Trust me when I say, as one who adopted her dog after initially seeing her on Petfinder, and has seen many, many (many) photos of pets in shelters, ANYTHING is better than a linoleum floor, white wall and flourescent lighting in the background. Or worse, a shot of the pet *in* the kennel, with the flash fired in their face.

At the Seattle Animal Shelter outside they have a red brick wall which would make a terrific backdrop for dogs. There is also a plain concrete wall that sits above a planter filled with pretty green plants, which would also work really well. Also look for as natural an environment as possible. Greenery, plants, flowers, trees all help to ‘sell’ an image because the dogs look like they are in a natural setting as opposed to pet prison. Even shots taken on plain bark backgrounds work well. Keep the background pretty simple as you want the focus to be on the pet, not the background. Try not to get any distracting elements in the shot (garbage cans, cars, fences, etc).

Also, inside at the Seattle Animal Shelter in the kitty area I spotted a stainless steel wall that comes up to about thigh-level. “Wow”, I thought, having shot cats in front of steel walls in a client’s house, “now THAT would make a terrific backdrop”. We had a black kitten just waiting for us and I was right. The metal reflected the light and looked uber cool behind the young kitty.

6. In terms of camera and flash settings, here is what I told the shelter, so as to get the best images, in the least amount of light, with the most focus on the pet, and, now here is the tricky part, *without* using the flash, even inside, even on the kitties. Using a $100 compact point and shoot camera. Yep, it is possible!

Now please keep in mind that these settings are designed to be used with the entry-level cameras. If your or your shelter happen to have a fancy $500 prosumer camera, there is a lot more that you can do beyond what I detail below. In that case it’s best to read the manual to really take full advantage of all of the settings on the camera. Also, this is a VERY basic overview of the basics of photography. Anyone interested in really understanding how a camera works would do good to check out a book on digital photography from the library. There is a lot that can be learned!

For the basic digital camera, there are two options. Both options require first turning the flash OFF. This will be the setting with the little lightning bolt. So turn the flash off. Please. I’m begging you.;-)

At the SAC we used option #2, not my favorite option, and more of a workaround really. But hey, it worked! And my philosophy with photography is: “whatever works”.

Option #1: set the camera controls on manual, as opposed to fully automatic or scene modes (scene modes are the ones with portrait and landscape and nighttime, etc). Manual will be the setting on the dial on top of the camera that has an M, or a little red camera symbol with an M next to it. Even better, if the camera has a setting that says AV, set it on that instead. AV is the best-case scenario but not all cameras have it. 

Locate the setting on the camera that controls aperture (may need to look in the manual for this). This will probably be by pushing the menu button. Aperture is something that looks like this: 2.8, 3.5, 4.0, 5.6, etc. These are settings that control how much light is being let in to hit the image sensor (the digital version of film). Set it on the lowest number available, which lets the most light in. Ideally this will be 2.8 or 3.5, but this depends on how old, and how nice the camera is. IF the lowest aperture setting available on your camera is 4.0 or 5.6, and/or you don’t have control over the aperture setting, you will need to use option #2. 

Find the settings that control white balance and set it to daylight. This will look something like little symbols that have clouds, or a bright sun, or say AWB. This will work well outdoors and also cut that blue cast indoors when shooting the kitties. You may need to experiment with the white balance to see what produces the most, and the best light. Your camera may also say something other than daylight, in which case I would use the setting with the sun. White balance will not only affect the color tone of an image but how bright or dark it is too, which is why it is important to adjust indoors.

Find the settings that control ISO, which will look like: 100, 200, 400, 800, etc. Set the ISO to 200.

So that’s option 1. This is ideal. Especially if you have AV mode on your camera. It’s a no-brainer setting and will produce much better shots than full auto. And also enable you to take pictures without the flash.

Option #2:

This is a workaround for cameras that don’t have low aperture numbers. If your camera only goes to 4/0 or 5.6, you will want to use this workaround.  

The camera at the Seattle Animal Shelter doesn’t allow for control over the aperture, so I used this workaround to get more light into the camera while (at least attempting to) reduce noise and stop movement.

Like option #1, set the camera setting to manual. 

Look for the ISO setting and set it to 800. I know my photographer friends are cringing here but remember the purpose is to get these animals adopted, not take perfect photos! An 800 ISO setting means that the light sensor (the ‘film’ in the camera) is more sensitive to light, so that you can take pictures in lower light settings. With no flash, which is the whole point. 

Now, here is the trick to doing this. You are going to change the exposure compensation. This is the setting that says EV. It will look like this:

-2…..-1……0…..1…..2.

You want to slide the dial to the left so that it highlights -1, or halfway between -1 and -2. This will help reduce some of the inevitable grain (noise) in the image that results from the higher ISO setting. Depending on your lighting situation, this may produce somewhat darker images, but that can be easily fixed once you download your image onto your computer. Brighten and reduce noise. These should be very easy steps with any image processing software, regardless of how old.

Here are a couple of shots I took with the workaround option #2. We didn’t use the flash for either of them:

BTW: this is Matahari, and she is still on petfinder, so you’ve gotta go check her out! She was darling and young and really outgoing and playful. Will make a great pet!

These shots are definitely noisy, because the aperture on the camera at the shelter only goes to I think 5.6 (?), so we had to use the ISO 800 setting, which, on an older camera like this is bound to produce quite a bit of noise. BUT, IMO it’s better to have a noisy photo than one where the fur and eyes are blown out from the flash, and the poor kitty terrified of bright white light. Flash is the worst offender when it comes to shelter photos. 

Then, outside we got these shots of sweet Ebony:

I fell completely in love with Ebony while there photographing her. She is an older pitbull, and really shy and super, super sweet. A true sensitive soul. It seemed to take so little to make her smile, and when we went into the play area and found a tennis ball she really came to life. She has an old injury- a broken front leg, which makes it harder for her to get around, but she still seems happy and full of life. As far as being a pitbull, I can picture her going down on the ground, on her back with her belly up if confronted with trouble, she is that sweet. Ebony would make the perfect lifelong companion for an individual looking for a dog. I really, really hope she gets adopted!! Check her out here

Now, I wanted to make one last note about Option #2. It would be helpful to change the ISO setting when moving from indoors shooting cats (or dogs) to outdoors shooting dogs. It may be a pain to change each time one needs to do this but it will produce better photos. In the setting for ISO (100, 200, 400, 800, etc), change it from 800 to 200 when heading outside. Then change it back to 800 when going inside. Quick and easy. 

So, to sum up this post:

1. Photograph the dogs outside. In front of nice looking backdrops that don’t have distracting elements.

2. Use your voice at all times. Talk cheerfully. Tone it down a bit for cats.

3. Hold the camera below your face, especially for cats. 

4. Turn the flash off!

5. Select either option #1 or option #2 for camera settings, depending on what kind of controls your camera has.

6. If using option #2, be sure to change the ISO to 200 when you head outside, and back to 800 when you head inside. This will be the ONLY setting you will ever need to change. Otherwise just turn on and go!

And have fun with the shooting! If you have any questions feel free to leave them here as comments and I will do my best to answer them.:-)

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  1. Wendy posted the following on July 1, 2008 at 10:01 am.

    Thanks for that! Great tips. I hate seeing the pathetic pictures of dogs through the kennel on petfinder. It makes you feel like they were too scared to be with the dog without a fence between them. The only thing I can think of is that they are going for the sympathy adoption.

    Great tip about taking 10-15 minutes for each pet. When we take pictures for the Prairie Dog Canine Rescue (http://prairiedogcaninerescue.blogspot.com) we get great photos if they hang out at the daycare for the day, and not so great ones if they just stop in to get their photos taken. We tend to be in a rush so we don’t keep their foster parents waiting and don’t give them the pups long enough to warm up. We’ll have to fix that.

  2. Grace posted the following on July 1, 2008 at 11:30 am.

    Great post Jamie! You’re awesome for providing your insight and knowledge to the animal shelter. Better photos make ALL THE DIFFERENCE with shelter pets!

  3. Frances posted the following on July 1, 2008 at 11:42 am.

    Great post Jaime! I actually volunteer at our local animal shelter, taking photos of the kitties and hoping their cute faces will get them adopted. I find that the hardest part is the frequency they rotate the cats into the room. The dim light also poses a problem. Luckily my camera can handle high ISOs, so I usally bump mine up to 1600 and use a fast and wide open lens (Nikkor 50mm 1.4 – usually at 2.8 in those dark rooms). My website has photos of some of the cute cat photos I did for the shelter. Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. Linda O'Neill posted the following on July 1, 2008 at 12:45 pm.

    Hi Jamie! I think adoptions would go up 100% if you took the pictures.

    Hey, I’ve missed you!…hope all is well with you and Fergs. xox

  5. Mark posted the following on July 1, 2008 at 2:13 pm.

    Now, what a great way to volunteer. It’s really nice when you can use your professional skills for something like this. Way to go!

  6. Chris posted the following on July 1, 2008 at 2:56 pm.

    I just read your post about the shelter animals. Way to give back! More importantly, I stopped by the SAC website, what a good feeling that must be to see your tips and techniques being executed for these animals :) Way 2 go!

  7. manon doyle posted the following on July 1, 2008 at 5:42 pm.

    So great of you to do this for the animal shelter.I agree with the others when they say that better pictures can make a huge difference. I learned a lot from your tips! Maybe I can take a better photo of Otis with the info that you shared. Thanks!!!

  8. Mia 'thousandhound' posted the following on July 1, 2008 at 9:44 pm.

    Great post Jamie. Getting great shots of shelter dogs is sooooooo important. In many cases it can mean the difference between life and death. Thanks for posting this excellent guide.

  9. Cheryl posted the following on July 1, 2008 at 11:54 pm.

    Jamie, we were so excited to meet with you! You’ve given us such great tips – our photos have improved already! Having it all here for reference is awesome. Thanks from all the dogs and cats and critters too! :-)

  10. Victoria posted the following on July 2, 2008 at 6:37 am.

    Amazing idea as always Jamie! I was talking about this the other week, I was talking with someone about the cover, and they asked who shot it, and when i said the most pug-tas-tic photographer in the world Jamie she was like, “oh, she’s coming to the animal shelter to teach people how to do photo shoots with the animals”. small world, and people are loving what you are doing! keep it up :)

  11. Jill posted the following on July 2, 2008 at 7:24 am.

    awesome tips! this will definitely benefit them!

  12. Betsey Sherman posted the following on July 2, 2008 at 9:20 am.

    Thank you so much for this, Jamie! I couldn’t come to the lesson, but I’ll be using your tips starting tomorrow when I’m at SAS for the digital team! You are so right about the fact that the more time we spend on photographing an animal, the less time they will spend at the shelter.

  13. Aimee -SAS Volunteer posted the following on July 2, 2008 at 12:30 pm.

    Jaime – Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us. I attended the training session and have applied your tips to my own camera which I use for shelter photos. I haven’t worked out the ISO option completely yet, but I have done all the rest of your tips, and I have noticed a huge improvement in my pictures! I have fewer blurry, low light pics, and many more usable ones to post onto Petfinders. Thanks again! I really learned a lot and have been taking better pictures each shift at the shelter.

  14. Jill Beninato posted the following on July 2, 2008 at 1:43 pm.

    Wonderful post Jamie….you are so right, the better the photo, the better the chance of a successful adoption.
    You also explained everything in a way that is easy to understand…kudos!

  15. Teresa posted the following on July 2, 2008 at 2:08 pm.

    jamie – fantastic post. glad to know of another photographer giving back to the community. it is certainly amazing the impact one headshot can have on a shelter dog’s life. many of the volunteers i work with have specifically told me the reason a family came to see their foster was because of their petfinder picture – that’s crazy to me. but the good kind of crazy, it just tells me that giving a few hours each week is the right thing to do!!

  16. Jamie 'Cowbelly' posted the following on July 2, 2008 at 2:22 pm.

    wow, thanks everybody! I am SO happy that this post, and our mini-workshop at SAS was helpful! I really look forward to setting up a program with the foster team so I can photograph the animals regularly. Can’t wait!

  17. Jen posted the following on January 10, 2009 at 6:03 pm.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for these fantastic tips. After my kitty passed away last winter, I began volunteering at the local kitty shelter just to be close to his cousins (one of whom came home, though walking out every week without someone is VERY DIFFICULT). Anyhow, the lighting situation is awful (privately run from a lady’s basement) but obviously, we want the best pictures possible to get these kitties into homes. Your suggestions here (I use my own DSLR) are really, really going to help not just us, but (I hope) shelters nationwide. Thanks!

  18. Megan M posted the following on March 25, 2009 at 7:53 am.

    great stuff jamie! I take photos for petfinder for my local shelter, and this has helped incredibly. i hated how the dogs eyes would look like balls of fire. this has helped incredibly… my manual for my camera wasnt very indepth of some stuff, and reading this helped me alot for choosing the right setting for my camera. i know! if you take picture of a dog inside its kennel he/she just looks flat out miserable! when u take them outside they do look, and are alot happier. i give you 2 thumbs up :D

  19. Patricia posted the following on July 19, 2010 at 7:25 pm.

    Hey Thank you so much for the tips. I love taking pictures of animals my friend and I recently decided that we need to do something good with our cameras instead of just taking pictures. So, we decided to help at the local animal shelter. I’m a bit nervous taking pictures in a shelter for the first time, but excited too.

  20. Jenny posted the following on April 6, 2011 at 7:08 am.

    Thank you Jamie. This is a great resource. I recently became involved with a shelter and will take pictures of their animals for their website. I strongly believe that shelters will get more traffic if the animals look adorable in the pictures. I want to get rid of those dark photos with the white walls or cages etc. There are beautiful animals and being able to capture them outside just like any other dog is going to help.

  21. dog breeds posted the following on October 12, 2014 at 11:44 pm.

    Wow! Superb tips of taking photos, Thank you. These are really nice one and i got impressed after reading these easy and simple tips of taking photos of shelter pets.

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