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How to Get Great Shelter Pet Photos

This post was originally published on the blog

By Emily Fromm, executive producer

One of the most important things a volunteer can do at a shelter is to photograph the pets and write their bios for Petfinder.

How to Get Great Shelter Pet Photos


At high-intake shelters, a compelling bio and eye-catching photo can literally mean the difference between life and death for a homeless pet.

To that end, photographer Jamie Pflughoeft at Cowbelly Pet Photography in Seattle has posted some excellent tips on her blog. I’m including a sampling but you can read the entire post here.

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. Don’t use flash. 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!

Read the rest of Jamie’s pet-photography tips.

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