Discussion: Photographing Shelter Pets

There are two main reasons for shelters to post photos of pets online:

  • So owners looking for their lost pets can find them
  • So adopters can fall in love with an animal via a picture

Now if ACOs are photographing animals in the field in order to get them immediately online in case the owner is looking for them before the pet arrives at the shelter, these photos are naturally going to be of lower quality.  The ACO will probably be working alone, the animal will likely be frightened or agitated in some way and there won’t be many options for background or setting.  But considering these are temporary photos that may aid in the return of a pet to an owner before impound, I think the benefit far outweighs the concerns over photo quality.

Once ACOs get back to the pound and the animal has had a brief period to adjust to the strange surroundings, I think it’s important to get that first marketable photograph to replace the temporary one which was being used primarily for identification purposes.  Granted, the first attempt may not be a keeper and should not be considered the final photo to be used for the pet’s entire stay at the shelter.  It may well be possible to get a better photo of the animal being more relaxed and happy after he’s got some groceries in his belly, a soft bed to sleep on and some friendly human interaction.  But that first marketable photo should represent the shelter’s best effort to capture the pet in a positive light at the time the picture was taken.

When I use the word “marketable”, I am referring to the idea of selling the pet to a potential adopter via an internet posting.  Even if an animal was picked up as a stray, there is a significant chance that he will not be claimed and will be up for adoption.  So although the animal may still be in a holding period, the marketing plan should begin to unfold.

Here is a photo that the Memphis pound posted on PetHarbor.  Had this been a temporary photo taken in the field, I would have no problem with it.  I think an owner could clearly recognize his dog from this picture.  But MAS does not take photos in the field.  The ACOs wait until they have several animals on the truck then return to the pound and photograph the animals for PetHarbor.  This is the one and only photo this dog has on PetHarbor to either be identified by his owner (if he has one) or for an adopter to fall in love with (if he goes unclaimed).

Dog #241750 at the Memphis pound, as posted on PetHarbor.com.

This is not the one and only photo I would use if it was my job to market this dog. For starters, the dog looks positively stricken. This conveys a negative feeling to adopters browsing online. He also has 2 leashes on him. This would be a concern to some adopters. A trained animal professional needs 2 leashes to control this dog? I’m just a regular person. How would I be able to control him? The setting is cinder blocks and stainless steel – obviously inside the pound. While it’s better than the typical pets-behind-bars photo, it’s clinical and negative. It reminds the adopter this dog is in a pound. While adopters obviously know this on one level, I wouldn’t like to reinforce it subconsciously when pitching the dog to them. Many people associate negative things with shelters – It’s a place where they kill animals. People take problem pets there. etc. So when I’m trying to sell them on a pet, I don’t want to use an image that screams POUND PUPPY.

Ideally, the marketable photo is going to show the pet in a way that makes the adopter say, “I can imagine him being in my home.” A soft eye, a home type setting (a comfy chair, a pet bed, outside on the grass), a friendly interaction with a human – all of these things are great to see depicted in shelter pet photos. These images put the idea in the mind of adopters that this is a regular pet who happens to need a home right now and I can envision him being part of my family. Photos like these let people fall in love.

In the case of the above dog, he obviously has great ears happening. My first thought upon seeing him was that he could be marketed as a sci-fi fan’s dream pet: one daggit ear and one Yoda ear. How about putting him on one leash, having a vol take him for a walk outside, giving him some hotdog bites and trying for a more marketable photo with the help of another vol? If that photo could accompany a clever write-up, all the better.

What other ideas can you come up with for marketing this dog – or any shelter animal?  What do you like to see in a photo as a potential adopter?

32 thoughts on “Discussion: Photographing Shelter Pets

  1. It should be posted that these animals are frightened of being in any shelter with the strange sounds and smells especially of impending death cause any animal knows and can smell death before it happens…

    So we must push on and forcefully to make everyday a NO-KILL DAY in every shelter nationwide and worldwide… And not stop until we accomplish the end of euthanasia USE TO CONTROL ANIMAL POPULATIONS, which, in reality, this is exactly what is happening all over!!!

  2. For any pet rescue group or animal shelter that is REALLY open to saving more shelter pets with great photography please try contacting HeARTs Speak.

    They have a Facebook page and a website and many of their members are professional pet photographers that give back to their community by donating their time and camera talent to photographing homeless pets. There work is amazing and helping pets posted online receive more views and raising their chance at finding homes.

    HeARTs Speak – http://heartsspeak.org/
    HeARTs Speak – http://www.facebook.com/HeARTsSpeak

  3. I’ve offered more than once to volunteer and take improved photos of the incarcerated in hopes of helping their chances…

    I’ve yet to ever hear anything back.

    They just don’t seem to really want help.

    1. Try just showing up one day with a smile on your face and a camera in your hand, telling them that you’re here to help with the photos…

  4. Agreed. An (identifying, clear, well-lit) intake photo (with notes on the animal!) is a vital part of the documentation, but it doesn’t end there. Marketable photos should be put in as soon as possible for these animals. AND the database should be kept current – I will bet you money that MAS has photos of animals now dead up on their PH site right now. That is counterproductive.

    Oh – and if your camera has a date/time on it? MAKE IT CORRECT AND KEEP IT CORRECT. That is part of the documentation process and having an incorrect date/time only confuses things later. Such a simple thing that could make a big difference for an ACO testifying in court or any other situation where establishing a timeline is vital.

  5. Mikken, I surely appreciate your idea of just showing up with a camera, but I can tell you from first-hand experience, Linda would get nothing but the evil eye and a nasty growl from the jerks, both paid and unpaid, who work there. I offered many many times while volunteering to photograph, or HELP photograph, to post, to share, but for some reason THEY DO NOT WANT IT. Pictures that I took were never loaded on the web site. They were very good about posting photos of dogs that were being fostered by volunteers who sent them in, but the poor desperate ones who were wasting away there went unmentioned, for the most part. This is why I have chosen to put my efforts elsewhere in the community with groups that want my help. It’s terribly sad. In fact, this post has given me new resolve: I am going to offer one more time. I miss the animals there every day. I’m sure I’ll be reminded that I’m black-balled, but I’ll try.

    1. Good on you. I think everyone who has offered and been turned down/ignored should keep offering. Every day. Every hour. Too bad if the powers that be find it annoying. I find it annoying that these animals could be helped FOR FREE by volunteer dog walkers and volunteer picture takers and MAS chooses to throw them in the trash instead.

      1. I don’t get it. It’s quite obvious, MAS NEEDS volunteers, photographers, walkers, whatever more than any other organization in Memphis, yet turn away free helpful folks more than anyone. Why? It doesn’t make sense!

      1. It’s your tax dollars at work. Write letters or call the Mayor, The City Council, The City Manager. Tell them there is a huge need for help at the local shelter. Educate them if you have to about how important it is to get as much exposure for these animals as possible. Get their attention. Go to the city council meetings. Sometimes they are not even aware that there is a problem because they don’t hear complaints about it.

  6. I was looking at the photos of the dogs at my county animal shelter which are posted on Petfinder. Almost all the photos were taken outside or at least inside but not in a kennel. One photo had tile in the background and some dogs were standing on a white tile floor. Most of the dogs were wearing a scarf around their neck. All the photos were bright. I am sure these are only the dogs that are up for adoption.

  7. Good photos make ALL the difference! I do professional photography, and hear over and over about how my/other professionals photos increase adoptions to astounding rates. This weekend I volunteered my time and services to the rural Glen Rose, TX shelter, and most the best at the full shelter with many more coming in this week were adopted and pulled by rescues. 3 of the pets had previously had photos sent by ACOs to a local rescue and the rescue refused to pull the dogs, but once my photos were published multiple rescues were scrambling over these once unwanted dogs.

    And it doesn’t take a professional to take adoptable photos, either! Time, patience, treats, and toys you can sanitize with squeakers, or even just get plain squeakers and toss them when you leave the shelter. I make sure and bleach/sanitize myself, my gear, and my car before coming home from a shelter, and have shelter-only treatbags and toys which are sanitized, and not used for regular clients at the risk of there being disease present at the shelter I’m shooting in. (Since Texas is dry, and most the shelters here are reeeeeally gross, disease is common, and I don’t want to bring it home, or infect client dogs!)

    I’m a new member of HeARTs Speak, and really love the work the organization is doing and can’t wait to see how it progresses. One thing I’d really love to see is help being given for transport costs/gear wear to people like me who do drive hours and donate hours of time to shelters to photograph pets. I run a small business and have a family so can only do so much even though there’s SO MANY local shelters that need help. I’ve looked into starting a 501c3 myself but it’s out of my budget, and I do not have the time to manage a charity, as well as run my business and family. I pay out of pocket for most all the work I do around rural N. Texas shelters, and for local rescues and can say on my slow business months it’s a hardship. I’d do much more if I could afford to!

    1. Thank you Emily for taking the time and spending the money to help these shelter pets! Maybe you could join one of the larger pet rescue groups in your area and ask them to help fund raise to cover the costs of visiting the shelters and taking the photos? Just them promoting a Chip-In would help I bet.

    2. Thank you, Emily. You keep doing what you do & you will be blessed. (if not already) The dogs/cats and the world needs more like you.

  8. I volunteer with a great organization that does just this! Pawsitive Shelter Photography – find and like us on FB please. :)
    I know that many lives were saved with this great marketing tool! Thanks for the article. :)

  9. It makes a difference! I’ve been photographing shelter pets for over three years and it causes adoptions to skyrocket. If you want to help, you have to be persistent, but also understanding that these folks are overworked and underpaid. They truly may not have the time or staff to arrange regular shoots, so be prepared to come with other volunteers who can help. I had a crew I called my SqueakTeam who helped every week and it saved lives.

    Sherry Stinson
    TylerDog Photography

  10. You are talking about something that is near and dear to my heart. I am an amateur photographer, with multiple awards under my belt.For 7 years, my husband and i gave the local shelter, the gift of photography and graphic art. We learned a lot about animal photography and as we progressed as photographers we tried to do better photos for them. However, I am also very mouthy and sometimes outspoken with my opinions. I volunteered/was on staff of a local shelter for 7 years, doing direct care but also giving them the GIFT of nice photograpy, plus graphic art.

    I have always felt that a nicely framed, well thought out portrait, OR action shot of animal playing is the very best way to promote shelter pets….something that shows the personality and grabs the attention of the viewer! And often takes time and patience and lots of repeated attempts at getting the photos. That is what we were doing for our local shelter over the last seven years. We had props and things that we used for the holidays, and created themed situations for those photos, trying to create a holiday and festive background. We tried so many different things to promote the pets….

    Last year, a new board of directors came on duty, who have a different philosophy from the ones who have governed the shelter before. Our personalities clashed, because I ask questions, criticised some things (long story) and more. I was accused of something that is totally repulsive to me (I was injured on the job – only missed 3 hours of work, but they accused me of trying to bilk workers comp out of money – HUH??? Why would I do that ? I have health insurance, but that is another story – just telling you why I gave my resignation for the paid part of what i was doing ) and I gave my resignation as a “paid employee” (was getting maybe 11 hours a week paid time in the end – but was volunteering probably 15-20 more hours a week) I felt uncomfortable working for an organization who would accuse me of something that to me is repulsive – bilking compensation…

    Shortly after, the manager of the shelter ask if i would like to be a volunteer with a group who wanted to promote the shelter cats – doing what I do the best – photography and graphic art. Although i was not completely comfortable with the idea, I was going to do it, to help the shelter cats. Plus we had been working on some photo ideas using hats, and such to make the pets look “cute” – the pit bull with pearls idea, and ask about doing that to help some of the long term dogs…The manager was agreeable with this but felt that due to the board of directors feeling about me, she should let them know who would be part of this cat advocate group.

    The board of directors will not allow her to have me up there! They want the ties with me cut completely. Because they do not like my personality, they are refusing to allow me to give the gift of photography to help the shelter pets…It boggles my mind. There are people on staff who do fairly nice photos, but they are so busy with direct care. My husband and I would not be under those time constraints and would be takking the time to do nice, well thought out portraits of the dogs and cats. I have to repeat it to make myself believe it – but the board of directors is refusing PORTRAITS from amateur – but award winning photographers!!!!!!

    To give you an idea of what I mean, i did create a little comparative photo album on my facebook page called “Photo Lessons” with examples. They did a slide show for a fundraiser and they did not want to use my photos of dogs, because the person who took the ones of “lesser” quality felt that hers showed the animals personality better (because she walks them) Mine are on the right as you look at them, hers on the left and I could show you an email I got regarding this too that will make you go “WTF”?


    Thank you for talking about this subject, as it is very special to me due to my current situation. I feel that I am not contributing anything to help animals at the moment and that breaks my heart. I did visit another shelter yesterday and will be sending them some photos later today, but they have great photos aleady! I would so love to give shelter pets the gift of wonderful photography again. i guess its in my blood- but also feel so frustrated by the board of directors! What does one do when they have a talent and gift to give and seemingly there is no one who wants it??

    Thansk for the photography links, I will be studying these later today,,,must take my elderly dog to the vet,,.

  11. I will add a ps here… in spite of winning multiple ribbons and yes even gettin, money for photos, what meant the most to me, was when someone said “That photo is what got me here to see this animal – i could see the personality in the picture and I knew i had to adopt this pet”

  12. Loved looking at the wonderful photos at the links provided by other readers – should i say wow??? I have a lot to learn about photography and will be studying more and more this summer – those photo links are just grand…

    Although the photos at the link below are NOT currently shelter pets, these are examples of the type of photos we were trying to give this organization – portraits showing the face and eyes, and candid shots showing off the pet in action! (These are photos we have taken of my husbands pet sitting business clients! And also some of our silly graphic work)


    It breaks my heart for the pets more than anything else, as I know the power of a great portrait! When I recently adopted a Shih Tzu, from a wonderful resuce in Alabama, Toy Breed Rescue, the picture on petfinder kept me going back to him. Yes he is “differently abled”- that is not a problem for us – but the photo of him, showing his eyes and cute face, just kept drawing me to him. His facebook portrait captured his personality to a tee – bright, alert, a little onery, spunky. somewhat serious but kind and sweet! Here is the photo – a great example of showing the pets personality in a photo – this group has very nice photos of their pets!!


    Anyone know of a shelter near Elkins WV that would welcome photographic help? I would visit on June 11 if needed. It would be best if it were within 100 miles of Elkins, due to time constraints and such…

    And Shirley, thanks for letting me vent. I am just very hurt and frustrated that people turn down help when offered,. But it seems like egos and personality problems are simply everywhere. Thank you Shirley for bringing this topic up, as it is VERY timely for me. The pets are the ones who do suffer from human ego and personality problems. That is the saddest thing of all..

    I hope someday to be able to help another shelter, meantime I will be studying and honing up my techniques to bring the best out of any animal i photograph

    Woof Woof Meow from your fan and follower in WV. It is good that someone is showing the truth about what goes on in some of our nation’s sad places called “Shelters” (our local one is a good one, with a great manager, but it is the board who I am having trouble with…and the manager’s hands have been tied in this respect)

  13. The rescue I volunteer for (www.foha.org) has recently started doing something incredibly annoying in regards to pictures on their website. They have started using the often crappy and usually very sad-looking photos of dogs taken at the shelters they were pulled from. I take pictures of the dogs and say “here, have my pics for FREE for the website!” and there are a couple of them on there, but for the most part they don’t use them, and I have no idea why. They use someone else’s pics of the dogs in their kennels all the time, but not mine of the dogs smiling with a nice tree and grass in the background. Oh well, at least since the website was updated I can post them under each dog’s little “blog” so they are there, but people have to click the dog’s main picture first.

    While I’m posting, any advice for taking pics of dogs who are terrified of cameras? There is a rotty mix there who is older and every time I try to get a decent pic of him he acts like I’m going to beat him with my camera. (Head down, tail down, head turning away all the time, lip-licking, general uncomfortable posture). He likes ME just fine and I’ve known him for a long time, but the second the camera comes out his demeanor changes. He doesn’t care about treats, toys, or cajoling and he doesn’t care if I’m at a distance, he KNOWS.

  14. Every link listed here, all have some of the best doggie photos I’ve seen. Execellent photos & great photographers, obviously.

    Vicki: That SUCKS! What a waste of talent! But the dogs/cats pay the price of jerks. You have my sympathy and I surely hope you can get back to doing what you are SO good at. Your help is needed.

  15. This is such a hot topic – I love it! For me, if I have a really, hard to place foster dog, nothing works better than taking a picture of the dog all curled up in a blanket sleeping. That’s a big hook. (Anyone every house shopped in July and see a picture of a house with snow around it? Yeah, that’s a hot ticket home. I’m from WI.)

    If board of directors or shelter directors don’t get they are running a business, they need to wake up. Marketing, public image, getting information out, selling, good customer service – it matters, a lot.

    If shelters don’t want you in there, get other photographers. If shelters are afraid that inappropriate/scary pictures will be taken, ask if shelter staff can bring animals out to the photographer. Here, a lot of shelters have volunteers take the pictures, upload them to their in house computer system, put them on Petfinder – saves staff a lot of time and helps market they animals..

    1. I have come to the conclusion that many animals shelter employees do not care and to them it is only a job. Management is the problem since one would have to get permission from them to take the photos. It seems like they are protective of the animals to not let someone take pictures. They wonder why dogs cannot get adopted. If the pictures are crappy, I assume many people would not even want to visit the shelter thinking the conditions inside are bad and they probably are.

      1. You are exactly right – the pictures of the animals are a large part of the public image the shelter has. Putting up pictures of dogs in crappy kennels, cats that are scruffed, or my favorite – animals on cats poles or in live traps – are awful. Seriously, who wants to adopt “that?”

        To most shelter employees, yes, it is a job – a job with low pay, no benefits, no support, few happy endings and a lot of sadness. Most shelters/rescues are non profits, so directors answer to a board that knows nothing about the business and again, lends no support. (Same can be said for municipally run shelters.) It’s a quandary to me why non-profits have to be governed by a “volunteer” board of directors that usually have no knowledge of what the non-profit does. Wonder what would happen if the board had a stake in the non-profit, like employees? Another topic for another day.

  16. My name is Nanette Martin and I am a professional editorial and documentary photographer who left a successful career working for magazines to follow the animal rescue effort in NOLA after Katrina hit. One thing led to another and in 2009 I co-founded Shelter-Me Photography, a nonprofit organization with a mission to change the way people see shelter animals by professionally photographing and promoting them in coordination with the animals welfare community.

    Photographing shelter animals and teaching photography workshops to shelter workers and volunteers is my full-time job. To date I have photographed order 8,500 animals in 53 shelters across 11 states. We have seen adoption rates climb to 100%, helped long-term/hard-to-place animals find homes and get dogs pulled from death row as a direct result of high quality images. There is no doubt that a great picture can (and has) made the difference between life and death for homeless animals.

    We are VERY fortunate to have Purina as a partner and sponsor for 2012. They totally get the importance of good photography and are working hard to change the way people see shelter animals in other ways too. Please check out their Bowl-by-Bowl quizzes on their PurinaOne Facebook page. Every quizz answered sends one bowl of food to a shelter.

    Also check out our website and FB sites at http://www.sheltermephotography.org and http://www.facebook.com/shelterme photo, especially if you are in need of our assistance.

    Thanks to all photographers out there who are donating their time and talent to change perceptions as well as those who work and volunteer in shelters and rescues! You have my utmost respect.

  17. Not surprisingly, the attitude with which photos of animals are taken/posted directly correlates to their treatment within the shelter and adoption rates. So again, the problem lies with the city officials who do not demand a certain standard from the shelter and with shelter administration for not having policies in place, not enforcing those policies, not providing proper supervision of employees, and not immediately and adequately correcting, disciplining, or terminating employees who don’t follow them.

  18. I also have a blog about dogs and the great stories that I think should be heard! Stop by and see what you think! :) todaysleashonlife.wordpress.com or follow me on twitter @aleashonlife

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