10 tips to create better animal photos for rescue shelters

Jan 28, 2018

Darcy Evans

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10 tips to create better animal photos for rescue shelters

Jan 28, 2018

Darcy Evans

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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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.

5. Breathe

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.

9. Light!

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!

About the Author

Darcy Evans is a pet photographer based in Edmonton, Canada. you can see more of his work on his Facebook, Instagram, and website. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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9 responses to “10 tips to create better animal photos for rescue shelters”

  1. Stereo Reverb Avatar
    Stereo Reverb

    Great photos! There are some of the more technical things i’d like to add for a successful animal shoot:

    1. Though not all of us have it, but a mirrorless works the best, as there is no shutter sound- it’s completely quiet. Some animals will be afraid at the sound of a DSLR’s loud shutter, or start to look around trying to figure out where it’s coming from, ruining your shot. If you have a non-mirrorless, shooting further away will help. Which leads to #2:

    2. Use a telephoto lens whenever possible. That takes you further away from the animal and makes them more comfortable, while still being able to get all the details and shots you want. I’m of the camp that would NOT recommend a 50mm, as it brings you closer to the animal. Many wont like someone they don’t know being that close to them. The ones that don’t mind, will want to sniff around and see what you’re doing, all throwing off your shot and the chance of them being still. And with a zoom, you can quickly take full body, half body, and head shots, all in the time it takes to take 3 shots. You can’t do that with a fixed lens.

    3. Use a staff assistant. Unless your animal is trained to sit and stay still on command, they aren’t going to do it, period. You need someone to sooth them and pet them and keep them still until you lock focus and tell the assistant to quickly step away out of camera frame, allowing you to get your shots until the animal starts moving again, which you then repeat with the assistant. The animal is also always more comfortable with the shelter handler, as they know them. They aren’t going to know the photographer, especially someone that’s suddenly been put in the room with them.

    4. Shoot in an environment they’re already comfortable in, or place them in a location where they’ll have time to explore and eventually relax. If you move an animal to another location, they’ll immediately get very excited and/or go exploring- the last thing they’re going to do is sit still and let a photog take their picture with a noisy object. Letting them calm down or be in a place they’re comfortable with helps that.

    5. Bounce light. Overhead lighting won’t get you great photos- flash and strobes will. Aiming it in their face isn’t going to work well as animals don’t particularly like getting hit in the eyes with lots of bright flashes. Bouncing a flash off a wall, ceiling, or posterboard/reflector, is much easier on them. Or even better, using a softbox or two (one for a key and the second to handle ambient light) set at a low setting, you can aim it at them off axis, like a 45 deg angle, so it doesn’t hit them in the eye, but if it does, the light is very soft and low powered, and won’t affect them as much, if at all.

    6. Use a tripod! That allows the camera to be completely stable and maintains maximum sharpness and no camera shake. You generally only have a few seconds per set of shots before the animal moves again, so you don’t want to add your natural shake with theirs. Most of the shake is going to come from the photog hand holding the camera. If you shoot at 1/500, no problem, but if you shoot at a low speed in order to get as much ambient light, or allow for a less powerful flash pop, or to match the limit of your strobe, you’re going to shoot at 1/200, which is not the best speed to combat operator shake. A tripod also allows you to perfectly frame the animal in portrait or landscape mode and reduce any ’tilted’ shots you’d get by hand holding the camera.

    7. If possible, have another assistant directly behind you. They’re the ones who can hold a toy or grab the animal’s attention directly to you. Have them do something that’s either directly above your head or closest to your camera, which ensures the animal is looking towards you. Alternately, you can have assistant #1 hold the animal, but lean away from them while you zoom in closer to the animal so that the assistant and their arms/hands are now out of the shot.

    8. Grey card each animal. This allows you to color correct the animal/ambient light in post (Shooting in RAW is a given here). This is especially important if you choose to shoot using the shelter’s overhead lighting. Even natural light can get contaminated with whatever color their walls are.

    9. I personally choose NOT to shoot at a higher f stop like 2.8 (shallower DOF), because you’re running the risk of getting a blurry photo, especially in their eyes. You’re not shooting a human who understands what ‘stay still while i take this photo’ means, you’re dealing with an animal that has no idea what you want. If you want tack sharp eyes, i shoot at 5.6 or higher, but boost up my iso so that i don’t have to power my strobes to a brighter amount and blast the animal with light. You’re not shooting a portrait session for a client, you’re shooting photos for a shelter that’s going to be featured on their website to get the animal adopted, so noise is perfectly ok to have and wont be noticed. Even if it is, animal lovers are not photographers, so they aren’t going to be critical, nor care of noise, and more wowed by how well the animal was photographed. Even at f5.6, when i have the telephoto racked at 130mm or 200mm and move a little closer to the animal, i get beautiful dof and fall off.

    10. If you do editing in post to give to the shelter later, take one photo of the animal’s name and ID number next to them, which will help the shelter figure out the right animal to feature on their site when you return the photos (since many animals can look alike). I use an iPhone app called Notepass, which lets you type text in really large font sizes, to make it easy to read in camera.

    11. If you choose to shoot outside, again, 2 assistants is preferred, one to soothe and calm the animal and one to hold a large shoot through reflector to diffuse hard light on them. Or just place the animal in a shaded area. Be mindful to notice what the lighting is like in the background, because if it’s brighter than your foreground, you’ll blow it out, which is fine really, but if it’s the same as your foreground, you’ll get a nicer more consistent look to your photos.

    12. Be mindful to shoot fast, and to make every shot count. While you can shoot one animal all day long to get the perfect shot, the animal will generally be the exact opposite. Try to get the best shots first, then when you have them, take extra ones from different angles, or fun ones. For cats, i generally allow 12 seconds using a flash, and generally longer, like 30 seconds with natural daylight. With treats, dogs will pretty much do whatever you want with them. Cats are not like dogs. ;)

    13. If you don’t plan to tether your camera to a laptop to check sharpness (99.99% of us aren’t going to do that, myself included), use a magnifying loupe, i.e. the kind you place over your camera’s lcd screen. This will let you check absolute sharpness, especially if you zoom the lcd with it on. It’s way more difficult to tell just by zooming the lcd alone and looking at that small screen. Hoodman is the well known name for lcd loupes, but they’re very expensive at around $90+ dollars. Neewer makes a great knockoff which is even better, as it’s 3x magnification. It’s plastic, but i’ve had mine for over 3 years and it’s solid. Amazon carries it for $27 bucks. This is the most valuable piece of equipment next to my camera that i use on any on location or outdoor shoot, and it’ll improve your shots by leaps and bounds. Search Amazon for: “Neewer Foldable 3-Inch LCD Viewfinder 3X Magnification”.

    14. Keep in mind of what you can do to get a a cute or great look out of the animal. I’ve found at least on some dogs that their ears will prick up if they see a snack in someone’s hand. That kind of thing makes for a great photo that can really sell them.

    15. If you don’d mind bringing a backdrop, do it. For me, it’s added gear and time (i don’t do it), but with a nice gray, black, or white backdrop (a steamed king size bedsheet at walmart works just fine), will really make your photos pop and look more professional, especially if the shelter has an cluttered wall or a pain scheme that doesn’t look that great.

    1. Evert Veldhuis Avatar
      Evert Veldhuis

      Thanks for taking the time to write this, really helpful. Much appreciated.

      1. Stereo Reverb Avatar
        Stereo Reverb

        Hope it helps! :)

  2. Justin Prim Avatar
    Justin Prim

    yea dont say…

  3. Jay Sullivan Avatar
    Jay Sullivan

    I’ve been shooting shelter dogs for nearly five years. I usually have access to a room about 8×10’ but sometimes I have to work in the dog runs which are 3×6’. Using studio lights is not practical if not impossible. There isn’t enough natural light to shoot without flash. Working outside is not practical for a variety of reasons. Shelter dogs tend not to stay still for long and don’t always stay where I want them so off-camera speedlights is very hit or miss. I don’t have an assistant and it usually takes as long to train a staff member as it does a dog. I’ve been using on-camera flash with a single reflector. I know it’s not a bad look but I’ve been trying to come up with ways to have more interesting lighting setups. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8da7926f57da558f0a4838e7a37e5444fabd64bc73c56f65c4bc99dabf645f10.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/50610663b77bd1577af80e2ef3e724241e5d3243df0a91b893cf1f300d2ee51a.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/aad0d57f1d0b5a94c1f201c48b7e432886eb9ff31e1dbb02266cbc1f5960863a.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/78398cfc2070f47a816bff56ac3f4723c5229acd4e3d2508bdfb9bfe39124ebb.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/be8609a1741b0ab5f65b9f6b0e22105488d052306c75cbbcabb5cbdcdf9e729a.jpg

    1. Stereo Reverb Avatar
      Stereo Reverb

      Those look really good!

      1. Jay Sullivan Avatar
        Jay Sullivan


    2. Jenn Asbury Avatar
      Jenn Asbury

      amazing! what camera and lens if you don’t mind me asking

  4. Silverwing Lopez Avatar
    Silverwing Lopez

    All of these tips will work for people to.

    Except for people who are being animals, of course.

    A long lens (150mm+) is very useful with these subjects. Along with an angle viewer. I have noticed dogs react differently when my face is turned towards them vs. looking down.