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.

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