Better Photos – More Adoptions! A guide to shelter dog photography

Best Friends Animal Society recently asked on their facebook page: “If you found your pet on Petfinder [an online database for adoptable pets], what was it about the posting that made you know you had to have him/her?”
By far the most common answer was that the person fell in love with the picture, inquired about the dog, and ended up adopting him/her.

A good picture can make a tremendous difference and is an important asset.

Pleading Eyes
This picture is likely to grab someone's attention. Also notice how the eye lights up when the sun shines on it.

The main thing to keep in mind about shelter dog photography is that you (the person with the camera) are being incredibly rude toward a dog that doesn’t know you, and probably doesn’t trust you either. There’s not much you can do out that—but to a dog, that staring unblinking eye of the camera lens is extremely confrontational. So they typically respond like any polite dog would: they Blink, and they Look Away[1], which is the appropriate response in dog language.

Sadly, this tragic miscommunication tends to make it very difficult to get a compelling picture of an insecure or stressed shelter dog—and sometimes the quality of a picture can determine the dog’s future. Badly lit, blurry, or carelessly composed snapshots rarely grab a potential adopter’s undivided attention. The goal is to capture an expression that speaks to the casual visitor of your website, dog listing, or adoption plea.

The following tips are in no way a definite manual to shelter dog photography, but there’s some easy steps that every volunteer or shelter worker can do in order to improve the pictures of their available dogs. As more and more people share your heartwarming photos of the dogs online, this will eventually increase your adoption rates, and save more lives.

Brrr - it's cold!
Brrr! It's cold and cloudy. Doesn't matter - you have to go outside for better pictures.

1) Go Outside!
I know it’s cold/hot/windy out there, but you will have to take the dog outside (unless your shelter has a perfectly lit indoor studio, in which case, kudos, and how can I work for your organization!). Low light will decrease your shutter speed, which will inescapably lead to blurry pictures. We need natural light, even if the weather isn’t great. Do NOT use flash! Ever.

2) Restrict Movement
Let’s face it, a dog that just spent the last 23 hours in a cage is not going to hold still for you. Of course it helps to spend 10 minutes or so with the dog, and a quick walk can really improve the situation, but in the end you’ll still have a hyper fluffball on your hands most of the time. The dog has to sit or hold still, or you will not get a good picture. Period.

What’s worked for me is a long tie out or even a long leash. Tie it to a tree, or a large and heavy brick on the ground, then attach the dog. Use a regular leash and also attach it to the dog’s collar. Then walk away from the tree or brick, so the long leash or cable is taut. Hold on to the short leash (or step on it), also keeping tension. This means that the dog is temporarily trapped between two leashes – like a horse in a  cross-tie. They can’t jump on you anymore, and you can keep them from running away from you, too. They are stuck.

Restrict movement
Restrict the dog's movements - the dog in this image is attached to a blue leash that's tied to a large brick. The yellow/black leash is used to keep the dog close to the camera.

The vast majority of the dogs figure out the situation right away, and they will sit down and wait to see what’s going on. Some are a little more anxious, and only very few make attempts to struggle. Always make sure the dog is comfortable. We don’t want to take pictures of stressed dogs. It helps to immediately distract the dog with treats or a toy, to focus their attention on an object and away from this really weird situation you put them in. Use one hand to crinkle a treat bag or wiggle a toy slightly off to the side, and use the other hand to hold the camera. Hopefully you have chosen the appropriate camera settings beforehand (more on that later).

3) Get Closer
In general, you really just want a picture of the dog’s head. The expression on their face is what draws people in. Since most petlisting services (like Petfinder.com or Rescuegroups.org) allow for more than one picture, you can still show off that crazy pattern on their back in a second image. However, for your main picture, the face of the dog should take up most of the frame.

4) If You Don’t Look Silly, You Are Doing It Wrong
It’s all about perspective—literally. For the love of dog, crouch down, get on your knees, do ridiculous and surprising things, make strange sounds, whatever gets the dog’s attention. Be on their eye level, don’t shoot down. Break the dog’s routine and thoroughly confuse them by doing something new and unexpected. This will get you the best pictures. Hold a treat bag next to your camera and crinkle it. I noticed that a portrait where the head is slightly sideways, but you still see both eyes, works really well. I also often wait for that moment when the head is still and the ears are up. If it’s sunny out, position yourself so that the light shines in their eyes. That little detail alone will give you a spectacular effect.

Think about your background. Even if you don't have many options, at least make sure that no trash or poop is visible.

5) Background Matters

It really matters what else is going on in the picture. Even though you typically don’t have that much control over the background, make sure there aren’t any trash bags, litter, or poop visible. Outside, the background is mostly determined by the position of the sun (you shift around to keep the sun in your back and shining onto the dog), so try to time your photo shoot to end up with the most favorable background. The warm light of summer evenings can make about any background look magical!

6) More is More
This doesn’t sound like very professional advice, but keep that finger on the shutter. I typically take around 50 pictures per dog. By the time I have deleted the ones where the eyes are closed, or where the dog looks or moves away, I am typically left with 5 decent ones of which I choose three to post online.

7) Post Processing
Don’t worry, we’re not going to airbrush the dogs or alter the image beyond recognition. However, for a colorful, appealing look, consider some basic post processing. My personal favorite is Google’s Picasa program. It’s free and available for both Mac and PC. Their “I’m feeling lucky” button makes up for about 70% of my post-processing for shelter pictures. Fiddle with the contrast, add some saturation if appropriate, and brighten the image by dragging a slider. If you’re feeling brave, use the Retouch tool to remove some gunk that’s stuck in the corner of an eye. It doesn’t get easier than that, and the overall difference will be spectacular.

Confuse your dog! Make funny sounds, get on your knees! This will get you interesting results.

Bonus: But what about Equipment?
Short answer: It doesn’t matter. Don’t have a fancy DSLR? All of the above still applies. Even with the cheapest point-and-shoot camera, you can vastly improve your pictures—and the dog’s chances of getting adopted—simply by paying attention to your composition, lighting, and angle. No control over the aperture? Choose “portrait” mode for that nice blurry background look. If you can set your aperture, choose a low, if not the lowest number you see. But at the end of the day, it’s not the camera that takes those pictures —it’s you!

[1] cf. Brenda Aloff. Canine Body Language – A Photographic Guide.

Shelters and Rescues: Display your adoptable pets on facebook!

Or – How I accidentally became a facebook developer, and so can you.

This blog post will teach you how to display your Petfinder.com adoptable pet list (or pet scroller) on your organization’s facebook page with a custom application. No coding skills required.

// UPDATE December 2011: In the meantime, petfinder has released their own tutorial for quickly adding a petfinder scroller to facebook pages. Before following the instructions below, check out their blog post – this will save you quite some time, especially since facebook will be changing the way that custom apps work.

Dogs & Cats Application
Additional Tabs are added to the navigation on the left.

I recently saw a facebook-related announcement which stated that the social network now allows a technology called iframes to be used in applications. I’d been searching for a way to display adoptable pets directly on the Liberty Humane Society‘s facebook page (which I co-administrate) for months, and I knew that the petfinder widget uses iframes, so I hoped that this would bring me closer to my goal.

Within just a few hours, I managed to successfully develop facebook applications for both LHS’ adoptable cats and dogs, with practically no prior knowledge about facebook apps. The good news is that so can you, and if you follow the tutorial, you can probably go from zero to integrated app in less than half an hour.

It does appear that petfinder offers an app called dogpile, but the most recent reviews all indicate that users weren’t able to get the application to work for many months. Hopefully, what I am suggesting here will.

Ready?  This example will create an application that displays all your adoptable dogs under a tab on your facebook page. On the right is an example of this in action.

Step 1: Allow Access, Set up Developer App

Go to www.facebook.com/developer – and “Allow” the Developer App to access your information. This may or may not return an error. Ignore it and try again.

Request for Permission
Allow access. This may return an error. Ignore and go back to http://www.facebook.com/developer

Facebook may require you to verify your developer accounts, which means you may have to request a text message with a confirmation code. You can tell this step was successful if you go back to http://www.facebook.com/developer and you see an option to create a new application.

Set up new App
If you see "+ Set Up New App" in the top right corner, this step was successful.

Step 2: Edit Settings and Basic Information

Go ahead, edit your new application! Under Basic Information, enter a name, description, contact and support email address, and Privacy Policy URL. Facebook insists on that (but not on the Terms of Service), so just upload an HTML text file to some server you have access to, in which you explain that you will respect your users’ privacy and never share any information with third parties, etc. Also don’t forget to upload an image, and especially the icon, which will later display on your facebook page next to the tab name! The icon will be tiny, so keep that in mind.

Edit Settings
Enter as much information as you can, because this will help potential users find your application!

Don’t forget to save your changes!

Step 3: Facebook integration (this is where the Magic happens)

After you have set up your basic application information, you need to actually combine the petfinder animal scroller and the facebook application. This is achieved by adding a canvas URL.

Choose a title for Canvas Page and a Tab name. Leave the default settings for everything else. The only tricky part in this entire operation is the Canvas URL.

Use the following example URL and adapt it to your needs. This sample will generate a list of all adoptable dogs for Liberty Humane Society in Jersey City.

http://fpm.petfinder.com/petlist/petlist.cgi?shelter=NJ261&title=Adopt+from+Liberty+Humane+Society&style=1&status=A&animal=Dog&breed&age&size&x=9&y=9

Copy and paste the entire URL into a new text editor, making sure that all line breaks are removed. Then edit the string to apply to your shelter or rescue.

Shelter ID: Replace NJ261 with your petfinder.com shelter ID.

Title: Edit to reflect your organization’s name. Use the plus (+) symbol instead of spaces. The shorter the better!

Species: Use Dog, Cat, Rabbit or SmallFurry, etc

Once you have customized this, copy and paste the full URL you created into your browser, to make sure it’s loading correctly and looks acceptable. Whatever you see there will end up within the application.

Add your personalized URL into Canvas URL field. It should look like this:

Facebook Integration - Canvas

As of 4/7/11, Petfinder has enabled secure connections, so now everyone (including users who use “safe browsing”) can see these tabs. In the Secure Canvas URL field, paste the exact same URL, then add an “s” to the http, like so:

https://fpm.petfinder.com/petlist/petlist.cgi?shelter=NJ261&title=Adopt+from+Liberty+Humane+Society&style=1&status=A&animal=Dog&breed&age&size&x=9&y=9

For Tab URL and Secure Tab URL, paste the same links as above for Canvas URLs, and ignore the note about the 100 character limit (but keep your title as short as possible for better results!).

Save your changes… congratulations, you have now joined the ranks of facebook app developers. Neat! At this point, you may wish to repeat this for a different species, or alternatively, sit back and pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

Step 4: Add the application to your facebook page (the fun part!)

Go back to your application overview at www.facebook.com/developer

Add Application
Choose "Add to My Page"!

Click on your application, then go to “Application profile page” (while you’re there, you might want to make that page look pretty too, because this is the public face of you app!). At the bottom left of your application page, you’ll find a link that says “Add to my Page’s Favorites” — well, let’s do just that! Choose your organization’s page from the options.

That’s it! Your application is installed and will show up in your navigation sidebar on the left of your organization’s page. You may wish to move it up in the list for better visibility. Click to it to test it (this may take several seconds to load). If everything works out your visitors can now see your adoptable animals without ever leaving your facebook page. Hopefully eventually this will make them leave their chair and come to your shelter to adopt! Yay!

Examples of successful implementations (comment to add yours!):

Oklahoma Orphaned Poodle ServicesHelping All Little ThingsLiberty Humane SocietyThe Humane Society of West TexasCity of Tallahassee – Animal Service Center

***

Update: On September 1st, PetfinderAdmin released the following video tutorial, outlining a similar process for adding your adoptable animals to facebook. The tutorial features the Liberty Humane Facebook page, and makes use of the static FBML app: