Shelter Dog Project
We all want to show our good side in photos. Yet, with shelters overflowing, the photographs posted online are often the last thing on staff’s minds. And even with advancements in technology, many foster homes just can’t get a good “selfie” of their adoptable pets. Through the shelter dog project, I volunteer my camera to any rescue that needs it. In most cases, even if the dog has been around for months, the new photographs garner an adoption application quickly. Every animal deserves its time in the spotlight. When an adopter says “I really saw the personality of the dog from the photo,” I know I’ve done my job.
12 Tips for better shelter dogs photos
Anyone can take great photo; the trick is knowing how to use all your assets. Here are some quick tips and suggestions for rescue and shelter workers who want to show off their adoptable animals.
You don’t have to have a fancy camera and studio setup, though a DSLR camera does help when available. With the advancements in technology, even phone cameras can get a good image if used correctly. If you have access to a better camera, I often go for a slightly longer lens. Telephoto lenses on a very short depth of field will mean less distortion and a softened background for that fairy-tale look. It will also mean you aren’t right in the scared animal’s face with a strange scary camera. Then again, a very short or prime lens can mean a fast shutter speed (for capturing squirmy puppies) and that cute big-headed, doe-eyed look… Experiment and see what works best for you.
Most shelters are dark and dirty looking, not to mention overwhelming for the animal. Going outside means better natural lighting. If it’s super sunny and bright, try to find some shade so you don’t have harsh shadows on the dog. If you have to stay inside, try to get near windows and make it as bright as possible.
No one wants to see dirty laundry or a bunch of cages in the background. They also don’t want to play Where’s Waldo with a black dog on a dark background. Pay attention to where you take your photos. Brick walls, shrubbery, a fence line, or just a large field is much better than concrete and linoleum. If you are setting up a backdrop, chose a color far from the color of the animals so they don’t blend in. A soft blue or green is always appealing. Keep everything simple so the focus is on the dog.
They will likely want to sniff around for a sec and get familiar with their surroundings. Some dogs will also be bolting all over the place, since most of their time is spent inside. Let them settle before pointing the lens at them.
Get on their level
The most flattering image is usually straight on. You will be able to show their body better, and you will have a better chance of them looking at you comfortably if you crouch, sit or lay on the ground. If it’s a tiny dog, see if there’s a table or ledge you can set them on to raise them up.
Make fun sounds
Many dogs look the best when their ears are up, and the “money shot” is usually when they tilt their head to the side. To achieve this look, first try just speaking sweetly to them. Sometimes just a kind voice telling them “good dog” is all they need. If that doesn’t work, try making bird calls, cat meows, or even fun voices. My go-to is usually imitating Scooby Doo or Daffy Duck. Whistling, raspberries, and kissy noises also help. Anything that may be new to them where they will say “whaaat?” If all else fails, I often bring with me some squeakers, empty treat bags and duck calls.
Try not to use food
While a treat will often get them to look at the camera, and can be used if all else fails, it also gives them an intense “FOOD!” look. They will soften their faces and give a sweeter expression if they aren’t enticed.
Run and play
Dog, especially those with large heads and muzzles, can look intimidating or sad in photos with their mouths closed. To get that happy “smile” expression, run them around for a few minutes. A panting dog is much friendlier to the eye.
Try not to hold the camera in front of your face if the dog is scared. Holding the camera to the side or below your chin is much less scary. You can zoom out a little if you are afraid of cropping off the dog.
Do not use a flash
It never helps, I promise. Everything will look flat. The eyes will be blue or white. You will likely scare the animal… It is still possible to get a clear photo, inside, of a squirmy puppy wthout the harsh unflattering lighting that a flash causes. The only time we might use a fill flash is when a dark animal is backlit (bright background).
Use an animal’s personality to your advantage. Many shelters often don’t get this chance, but for rescues that can take a little more time, find out what shows the dog’s spirit. If the dog is always rolling over for petting, sometimes a secondary image like that will help “sell” the dog. If the dog is always on the go, show them with a toy or even an action shot.
And take lots of photos! Don’t get discouraged if the first shots aren’t the best. That’s the great thing about digital: you can take 300 photos and find the best ones to actually display.