Good photos are instrumental in the animal rescue/shelter world. You only get one chance to have the animal make their first impression on a prospective adoptive pet parent. Poor photos can literally be the death of adoptable animals. In this article, I will give my top 10 tips for better animal rescue shelter photos, designed to melt the hearts of the potential adoptee.
When at all possible, I highly recommend using a DSLR camera in order to produce the best results. In reality, this is not always possible, so many of these tips can be used even if you are forced to use a cell phone or point and shoot camera.
1. Ignore the Animal
As much as you want to love them and play with them, for the purpose of getting good photos, you do not want the animal connected to you just yet. When you first meet the animal, resist the urge to pet or play with them. Especially with dogs, you want to allow them to be themselves. You do not know the history or personality of the animal. You do not want to induce unwanted behaviours (aggression, fear, excessive puppy kisses, etc). There will be time to play with them after the shoot.
2. Isolate your Subject
A rescue animal is already in the middle a very stressful and sometimes even traumatic situation. Removing distractions and noise before taking their photo will help calm the animal. Find or ask for a quiet space to shoot. Remove the animal from its crate or cage when it is possible. Be sure that it is safe to do so for yourself and the animal. I would much rather have a leash in a photo than a cage. You will find it much easier to capture the animals attention when you are its primary connection.
3. De-clutter the Image
Along with Isolating your subject environmentally, the image should be of the animal, and nothing else whenever possible. Avoid shooting with a “busy” background. Fancy equipment is not necessary, a blank wall or a patch of grass will do just fine. We want the animal to be the hero of the image. In the examples, the first image shows a typical shot we see all the time. All the household items distract the viewer. By simply moving down the stairs to be on the same level as the subject, and using the plain wall as a background, the dog becomes the hero of the image without even having to pick up after myself!
4. Be Level Headed
Angles are very important. 90% of my pet portraits are done from my knees or even laying down. Get on the same level as the animal and shoot straight whenever possible. This draws the viewer into the photo. I see many images taken from the angle in the first image below, a slight shift can result in a far better portrait.
Yes, you read that right. Animals are incredibly attuned to energy, mood, and temperament of those in their vicinity. Staying calm and projecting your positive energy will go a very long way to getting better images.
6. Windows to the Soul
The single most important part of any portrait are the eyes. Make sure you focus on the animal’s eyes. Take a quick moment to remove tear stains and eye gunk. Eye contact in the images will draw the viewer in and make them instantly fall in love! If you are using a DSLR choose a single point for your autofocus system and compose so the point is directly on an eye. By default autofocus systems choose what is closer to the lens so you must override this for tack sharp eyes!
7. Be Stupid
When I shoot, I must look like a crazed fool. I make all kinds of wacky sounds and movements to grab the attention of my subjects. Practice your growl, chirp, bark, whine, whatever you can think of to get that “look”! Just don’t forget to click that shutter at the right time too.
The last three points are more on the technical side for those who have a DSLR and want to take your images up a notch. I will not get into very technical definitions (google it, or I give private lessons for those that might want more hands-on learning).
8. Aperture and Depth of Field
One of the easiest ways to ensure the subject of the photograph is what the viewers’ eye goes to, is with proper use of depth of field. Depth of field refers to the parts of the image that are in focus. The setting on your camera that controls this is your aperture. You don’t have to be intimidated here. Your camera has a setting that allows you to tell the camera that you want a shallow depth of field, and the camera will figure out the shutter speed and ISO for you. You will want to switch your camera to Aperture Priority and then select the lowest number you can. Your lens will dictate this setting. The smaller the number the “shallower” the depth of field. See the example images below.
Take a look around your environment. Try to find a well-lit area to allow the subject to be well exposed. A window can be a great alternative to overhead fluorescents. Don’t forget about going outside! It can be much easier to get great light outside. Find a shady spot to avoid the harsh shadows direct sunlight can produce.If you cannot find shade, try to put the sun behind your subjects and then blow out the surrounding background so the animal is the hero of the shot. Choose spot meter mode and focus on the eyes.
10. Tools and Gear
There are a few standby items that I carry in my camera bag at all times:
- Great sound makers to grab attention – empty water bottle, the squeaker out of a dog toy, and a small Tupperware container of kibble to shake
- Lens cleaning cloth for when puppy gives the camera a kiss
- Paper towels and poop bags because sometimes “stuff” happens
- One or two balls to reward toy driven dogs
- Some treats to reward behaviour only given AFTER the shoot
A good portrait lens will make a huge difference in your images. A very affordable lens is a 50mm f/1.8. Nikon or Canon shooters can find this lens between $120-200 new at any camera store. The f/1.8 refers to the maximum aperture value of the lens. This will allow you to shoot in lower light conditions, and give the very shallow depth of field I mentioned earlier.
Taking these photos is so important. Adoption success can often be attributed directly to the images the adoptee saw. It is incredibly rewarding knowing that you are helping to save lives.
Above all please remember to have fun!!! Shooting animals requires patience but I have never had a shoot where I didn’t laugh.
I would love to hear your comments and see some images from you!