Tips on photographing shelter pets

black cat

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

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

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

(PS-This post includes Jamie’s photos of Matahari, shown here, and Ebony (who is no longer listed on Petfinder), after the jump, photographed at the Seattle Animal Shelter.

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!

black dog

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!

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