A big part of who I am and what I do is volunteering. For the past 9 months, I’ve spent countless hours taking photos of adoptable dogs for BARCS Animals Shelter and I thought it might be helpful to put together some tips on how to take good photos of adoptable dogs. Fortunately, BARCS is lucky enough to have another talented professional photographer, Teri Pozniak, volunteer her time to help with the dog photos and she will be holding down the fort when I leave, which I am beyond thrilled about. But I know from experience that this is not a one-person job, so hopefully these tips will help other volunteers learn how to get amazing photos too. I will greatly miss the amazingly dedicated and hard-working volunteers at BARCS when I leave, but I hope to leave them with confidence, knowing that they can pick up where I leave off. With all that in mind, I thought I would put together a blog post on how I photograph shelter dogs. Please keep in mind that this is just what I have found works best for me. It will probably differ for everyone depending on their unique situation, shooting style and shelter.
1. Most importantly, you have to have the right gear. A point and shoot camera is just not ideal for photographing animals. The shutter lag creates a huge issue, especially because shelter dogs are generally over-stimulated, constantly moving and super excited for human contact. Most of them do not sit still. For me, a DSLR is an absolute must if you want to provide the best-looking shelter photos possible. It doesn’t have to be super fancy or expensive – an entry-level Canon Rebel will do the job just fine! You just really need to have a camera that takes the photo the second you hit the shutter release. Can’t afford one? You can certainly do your best using a point and shoot camera, but sometimes that makes your job extremely hard. That being said, I have seen pretty good photos taken with a camera phone, so no worries. I think it just takes a lot more patience and luck without the right gear, but it’s definitely not impossible!
2. AVOID USING YOUR FLASH. It is no surprise that I am not a fan of “flashy” photos. It’s really just a matter of personal taste for me, but I think there are other reasons not to use a flash with shelter animals. Using a flash with an animal is generally not a good idea, especially if you don’t know what you are doing with it. It can be intimidating to the dog and on-camera flash units aimed directly at the animal can produce red devil eyes or white/green zombie eyes. Please resist the urge and keep the flash OFF. If the environment is too dark to take the photo without a flash, move to a different location or bump your ISO up to compensate. The below image was pulled off of Petfinder.com.
3. Get out of the shelter. Another really big mistake I’ve seen is taking photos inside the shelter. Generally, shelters are noisy, crowded, chaotic and dark – definitely not an ideal place to take photos. You want the dog to be as calm and at-ease as possible for their photo, so get out of there! Find a nice place outside of the shelter to take your photos. Photographing in a shady area works best, especially if you can find filtered light or some sort of greenery – place the dog in front of that. It makes for beautiful blurred backgrounds where the dog is really the focus of the image. Another idea is to find a solid colored wall or object near the shelter. I’ve seen photos from a shelter in Georgia that has an amazing red brick wall where they photograph the dogs… gorgeous! Even if your shelter only has one tiny bush on their property, use it! Anything outside is better than anything inside. Always. (Plus it makes it a lot easier to accomplish #2)
4. Put the dogs at ease before snapping away. Shelter dogs come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. Their stories are all different. With every single dog you photograph, form a bond first before you introduce the camera. Take the time to gain their trust, pet them, give them treats, talk to them… if they trust you and are at ease, the photos will be that much better.
5. Take a lot of photos. Be prepared to take several photos of each dog during your session and expect to only have 2-3 truly awesome shots. I probably take 20-40 photos of each adoptable dog – sometimes more if they are super scared and timid. After culling the images, I pick my favorite 2-3 photos to send off to the shelter. I want to be sure I have at least 2 great images to send to them, so I always take a ton of photos of each dog.
6. Get them to look at you! This can be tricky for some dogs, but this is really where you get the most compelling images. There are a lot of tricks that I use to get a dog’s attention – weird noises, whistling, squeaker toys… but one thing that generally doesn’t work is calling the dog’s name. They won’t respond to it after a while, plus shelter dogs sometimes don’t even know their own name! Noises work best, but another thing to do is position yourself between the dog you are photographing and something interesting going on behind you. The dog will be looking at the distraction behind you (for example, other volunteers walking dogs) and you can get some good shots of them looking very attentive. Poncho (below) would not look at me… but luckily he spotted another dog in the parking lot behind me and I was able to get some photos of him checking them out.
7. Get a variety of images. Although I take a lot of photos of each dog, I don’t want them all to look the same. If you have a zoom lens, use it. If you don’t have a zoom lens, use your feet. Get some close up shots of their face (focusing on their eyes), some shots of their whole body, and if you’re lucky, get them to do something cute like lay in the grass or roll over. Many dogs won’t be at ease enough to lay down or roll over, but if you can get one to do it, take photos! People love to see the playful side of the dogs. Move around during the session. Get different angles of the dog, different backgrounds. Variety is very important.
8. It’s all about the expression. When someone sees an adoptable dog online, you want the image to scream out “adopt me!” I try my best to get the dog to perk up it’s ears, tilt it’s head and open it’s mouth (aka smile)… all at the same time. This takes patience and sometimes, it just isn’t possible. However, that is the money shot and what I strive to get in my images of shelter dogs. These photos portray a friendly, happy dog and that photo will suck the potential adopter in, wanting to learn more about that particular dog.
9. Pick your images carefully. I try my best to pick images where the dog looks the most happy and friendly to send to the shelter. Sometimes, a dog looks inadvertently mean – perhaps showing his/her teeth in the photo or with their ears pinned back and tail between their legs. You know the dog was a great, calm, loving dog and not at all mean because you were there. However, the photo itself suggests otherwise. DO NOT give that photo to the shelter to post on their website because potential adopters will dismiss that dog immediately since they think he/she is aggressive when in fact, it was just the timing of the photo. It is essential that you pick the photos that showcase the dog best. They are depending on you to pick photos to represent them and get them adopted. Their lives depend on your choices. Wiggleworm (below) was SUCH a sweet dog, an absolute sweetheart. He started to bark at my squeaker and I happened to snap this photo at the wrong time. You can see how aggressive and vicious he looks, when in fact he was just barking at the noises I was making. This is a prime example of a photo I would never send to the shelter. Ever.
10. Get down to their level. Don’t just take photos from above them. Get on the ground with them and take photos at their eye level – or even lower! Be creative with your photography and figure out what works best for each dog. One of my favorite images of Rosco (below) was taken while I was lying on the ground and the dog was looking down at me.
11. Use an assistant, if possible. Most shelter dogs are strong and very excited to get outside, so photographing them while trying to hold onto them is virtually impossible. For best results, have someone else (like a volunteer dog walker or a willing friend/family member) hold the dog on a leash while you photograph the dog. Utilize that helper as much as possible to get the dog to do what you want it to do. Communicate with the helper and let them know what you need them to do – hold the leash straight up for you, hold a treat, move to the left/right, face the sun, etc. The helper shouldn’t be the focus in any of the shots – you may see them blurred in the back (below) – but they are essential to getting the perfect image! If you don’t have a helper, try tying the dog – securely – to a stationary object like a sign post or tree. Of course, this should be done with extreme care.
12. Bribe them with treats. Most dogs will respond to the noises you make, but some will not. I always keep a handful of treats on me during the session and I use them to get their attention. Use one hand to take the photos and one hand to wave the treat near the camera. It’s another excellent way to get the dogs to look at you.
13. Be sure to get catch lights! This is very important in pet photography. Catch lights are the specular highlights in the subject’s eye, created by the reflection of a light source. It’s that gorgeous ‘sparkle’ in their eye. When you are photographing the dogs, be very aware of the catch lights. If there are none, move around and try a different angle. I always try to have my back facing the sun, so the dog’s eye will catch the light. Even in shade, where I prefer to photograph, it works. Just be very aware of this because a dog photo with no catch lights in the eyes looks really ugly. It is technically called “dead eyes” and it’s something I try to avoid at all costs.
14. Be Patient. Sometimes you will get a dog who sits nicely and cocks his/her head to the side at your noises and in less than 2 minutes you’ve got multiple images that you just know will be perfect. However, most of the time, this will not happen. Be patient with your shelter subjects. They get outside once a day (if that) and are naturally going to want to poop, pee, sniff around, romp around, etc. Let them! Give them some time to work out their excitement of being outside first – then photograph them.
15. Work with what you’re given. Use your creativity and step outside your comfort zone as a photographer. Find out what works for you and do it! No two shelters are alike, so just figure out what you are able to do and make the best of it. These will be your most appreciative and important “clients” so be sure to give it your all and work in their best interests. Remember, shelter animals do not have a voice of their own, so it’s important that you advocate for them through your work with the shelter. Honor your commitment to the shelter, take it seriously, and do as much as you can do for them – they are depending on you.
16. Know your limits. Depending on where you choose to volunteer, you have to know your limits emotionally. If you choose to volunteer at a high kill shelter (which I highly recommend since these are the animals that need you the most) just know that it is okay to step away from it for a little bit, if needed. Volunteering can be very emotional, especially in a high kill/open admission environment. Do what you can, when you can and know that it is okay to ask for help. After photographing solo at BARCS for several months, I knew I was overloaded and stressed out. I knew I couldn’t keep up by myself and I knew when to ask for help. That’s when I asked Teri to start helping me. It’s virtually impossible to do it all by yourself, so do what you can and ask for help if needed. Otherwise, you might burn out.