Guest Post: Photographing Shelter Pets

Note: Many readers will recognize Casey Post’s photos from previous blog posts. She captures such wonderful expressions on shelter pets and I love using her pictures. I asked her to write about how she photographs and markets each animal as an individual.


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I take pictures of animals for the Medina County SPCA in Seville, OH and
Shirley asked me to offer a few pointers to folks who may want to help
market their shelter’s animals, too.

So, I can tell you that I have almost no camera skills. Like…
I know which button to push and I know how to change the batteries
and where my red focus dot goes, but that’s about it. I do
have a good camera – Canon Rebel T4i and some day I’ll
learn how to use it properly, but for now, I’m mostly a point
and shoot kind of gal. My saving grace is that I can edit the photos
in a program called Lightroom, but again, I’m still learning
that one. So if you’re looking for technical stuff, move
along, nothing to see here… This is more of a “what
kind of photos people like to see when they look at shelter pets and
how to get them”-type discussion.

Let’s start with dogs. What you’re looking for in a
dog photo is the sense that this is a nice, friendly dog that people
want to take home. Most humans are not great at reading dog
expressions, so it’s important to get an expression that is as
“human” as possible.

You want a dog to look directly at the camera and you want to
focus on his eyes. Humans see eye contact as “connecting”.
If you’ve ever met a person who won’t look you in the
face at all, it’s disconcerting. Which is why it’s
ideal if you can get a dog to look directly at the camera. That way,
you are establishing a subconscious sense of connection.

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You want the dog to appear alert and friendly, so ears forward and
a mouth partially open (if you can get it – not all dogs will
relax that much with a camera in their face) gives that to you. How
to get a dog to do that? Some dogs love squeaky toys, so I carry a
squeaker in my pocket. I also carry an electronic “chirper”
from a destroyed cat toy in case the squeaky doesn’t do it for
the dog. And, of course, treats!

This dog was not into toys AT ALL. Didn’t play with them,
didn’t care about them. But he’d sit for a treat, so
that’s what we did. I couldn’t get him absolutely front
on because he’d just met me and was focusing on the dog walker
who was familiar to him, but it was close enough

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I find that dogs are more relaxed and happier after a little walk
or playtime, so I go to the shelter when the dog walkers are there to
try to grab shots of dogs after they’ve been out for a little
bit. And, of course, grass is a great background for dogs! Just
make sure there’s nothing “icky” nearby (mud or
poop or a ripped up toy). Sure, those things come with owning a dog,
but there’s no need to remind people of that during your photo

Can’t get outside? I hear ya. The weather isn’t
always cooperative. But you don’t want to shoot in a kennel if
you can avoid it, so see if you can get someone to leash the dog and
take him into a hallway or lobby for you. It’s not as
eye-catching as a grassy background, but it’s better than chain
link or cinderblock in the background.

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Some dogs, however, absolutely will NOT look at a camera. Whether
they just don’t trust the camera or don’t like the act of
you raising a camera up to your face, they get very uncomfortable and
it shows. This girl HATED the camera, so I had her look at a
volunteer with a treat. Not as good for “connecting”
with a viewer, but at least you can get an idea of what her face
looks like –

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To help market her, I got a few “action” shots of her
being silly in the grass. It helped show off her personality and
made her look like a fun dog (which she was!) –

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Just be careful with teeth – lower teeth with tongue are
endearing. But upper teeth showing can trigger a visceral “threat”
response in some people. The fact that this dog is on the ground
rolling around helps make the visible upper teeth less scary. If she
were standing and you could see her upper canines, it would look more
threatening (even if she was only playing).

Can you get a head tilt? People love head tilts! Some dogs will
do it for a squeaky toy, some will do it for a high pitched, “Who’s
a good girl? You are! Yes, you are!” Some will do it if you
make a sound like a cornered chipmunk (it’s kind of a low
trill. Really. Trust me on this one.). Every dog is different, so
don’t be afraid to try new sounds to see what you can get!

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Expression is everything with dogs. Make it fun for the dog and
it’ll show in the picture. Move them around and take a lot of
pictures to catch different looks and expressions. I find that most
dogs can give me a good photo in just a few minutes, but some take a
little longer. The payoff is worth it, though. Look at these two
photos of the same dog – The first one was before I figured out
that he was light-sensitive in his right eye and would squint if that
eye was in the sun. We turned him around to get the sun behind him
and got a much better look in the second shot –

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Practice on your own dogs at home! Don’t get frustrated if
you can’t get a decent shot – I’ve had to walk away
from a session more than once if things just weren’t working.
Remember, you want it to be fun for the dog! If it’s fun for
the dog, that will show in the photos, but you need to take a LOT of
pictures to be able to pick out the best shots. Thank heavens for
digital photography! I take about three to five hundred photos a

Now, let’s talk about cats.

Cats can be more difficult to photograph than dogs. They just
don’t tend to have the goofy, happy expressions that you can
get from most dogs. So you have to work a bit to help them be
“cute”. Now, humans tend to see “baby-like”
qualities as endearing in animals. Large, open eyes, rounded heads,
short faces are all playing on our instinct to care for a creature.
That is why brachycephalic animals (Pugs, Persians, etc.) are so
popular – people like the way they look and what they look like
is babies. Or at least, baby creatures.

Enter, the regular, old domestic short hair cat. He doesn’t
look like a baby. He looks like a predator.

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There’s a very simple trick you can use to make this cat
more “baby-like”.

Turn off the lights.

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Both of these photos are untouched. No editing, no lighting
adjustment. The first photo was taken with the lights on. The
second with the lights off. I use a small flashlight to give me just
enough light to see what I’m shooting at in a dark room, but I
can’t see anything well until the flash goes off.

Larger, rounded pupils like this are much more likely to trigger
“cute” in a person’s mind than narrow, slitted
ones. Remember, most people don’t want to adopt snakes, they
want kitties. And “cute” kitties generally get more
interest than not cute ones.

Can’t turn off the lights? That’s okay, you can get
larger pupils just by engaging the cat’s prey drive – I
carry wand toys (Go Cat makes some nice 18 inch ones – great
for photographing in cages) to wave around to get cats looking at me
and get those pupils a little bigger. And sometimes, a cat will do
something cute, just because they’re focused on the toy. This
cat had very small pupils no matter what I did, but I could get them
rounder by playing with him and he had a ridiculous “play face”

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And even blind cats will react to a wand toy if it makes a sound –
choose the mylar ones rather than the feathers for blind or
vision-impaired cats! This cat has no eyes (was found as a stray),
but we used this photo to have him “waving goodbye” to
shelter life when he was adopted. It’s tough photographing a
cat with no eyes because people have trouble connecting to them, so
getting them to do something cute is essential, even if it’s
just a raised paw!

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Now, some cats are going to be “blinkers” – they
blink with the camera flash so you end up with almost-closed eyes in
every shot. Turning off the lights for bigger pupils can make the
blinking even worse. What I’ve found works best for blinkers
is either shooting in natural light with no flash (which can be tough
because you’re more likely to end up with a blurry shot because
of the longer exposure time) or shooting in natural light with a
diffuser over your flash. I actually keep a diffuser on my flash all
the time (helps reduce the reflection you get in cat pupils at some
angles) and have found that some cats will still blink with that, so
I folded a thick piece of paper to fit and I strap it over the
diffuser with a rubber band to block that flash even more. The
result is a darker photo, but usually sharper than no flash because
as far as the camera knows, the flash is putting out more light than
it actually is and that exposure time is still short.

This cat is a terrible blinker (even with the flash pointing up at
the ceiling, instead of at the cat) but I used my high tech paper
diffuser and was able to get a decent shot of her –

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Of course, you can’t get the rounder pupils with this
method, but hey, sometimes you have to be happy getting any shot at
all on some cats.

If you take a LOT of photos, you’ll find that cats can be
surprisingly expressive!

This cat has slitted pupils, but the smile distracts from that
fact (and remember that seeing lower teeth in cats is generally okay,
but if you show the upper canine teeth, many people get a visceral
“danger” reaction even if the cat is only yawning) –

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This cat had fairly wide pupils even in normal room light, so we
just kept clicking away with toys in my hand, making little sounds,
etc. Then I tried the “photo booth” display to show him
off –

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Let’s talk a minute about “making sounds” to get
a cat to look at you. I have had cats solidly ignore me and my toys
or refuse to even look up at me. I used to try to resolve this by
recruiting a staffer or volunteer to help me get the cat’s
attention. I no longer do that.

It has been my experience that when you instruct a person to stand
behind you and just “try to get the cat to look up at me”,
that person will do something that is either off-putting to the cat
(so you get an fearful or concerned expression) or annoying to the
cat, which will make them withdraw. One well-meaning person who was
“helping” me became frustrated by the lack of response in
a cat and actually BANGED on the table where the cat was standing.
That cat was DONE at that point and I didn’t blame him one bit.

But sounds can be useful when a cat is frightened or threatened by
a wand toy (which happens rather often) and you want to get the cat
to look at you.

Sounds NOT to make at a cat –

Anything loud. Shelters are generally too loud for sensitive
cats, anyway. And a loud sound like clapping, yelling, “Hey,
over here!”, etc. is not going to give you the facial
expression you want. Even finger-snapping and tongue-clicking can be
problematic in a shelter environment where a cat’s senses are
already overloaded. I will also note that large movements often
accompany this (arm waving and such) and those are NOT helpful,
either. Yes, the cat will look at you, but no, it’s not a look
you want.

Calling their name. I only had this work ONCE and it was an older
owner surrender who clearly knew his name, but the shelter staff had
renamed him to something similar because his given name sounded
strange and unmarketable to them. So he hadn’t heard his own
name in a couple of weeks. Quietly saying his real name was enough
to make this cat turn around and look at me. (I made sure staff made
a note in this cat’s file to the effect that his name was such
and such and yes, he responds to it for the new owner.) If you’re
going to try a cat’s name, PLEASE say it quietly and in the
form of a question, not a command. My experience has been that
people are used to calling dogs and will use the same approach for a
cat to try to get their attention, which goes like, “BENNIE!
Ben! Over here! BENNNNNIIIIIEEEEE! Look over here!!!” More
appropriate is a quiet and inquiring, “Bennie? “ in the
same tone as, “Hello?” and wait to see the reaction. If
the cat doesn’t respond in the first or second quiet call, he’s
not likely to do it on the third, either, so move on to other sounds.

Sounds to try –

Anything quiet. Less is more! Psss, psss, pss. An almost
whispered, “Here kitty, kitty.” (Because some cats are
used to being called like this.) Kissing sounds. Scritching noises (I
run a finger nail on the edge of the camera to get this.) Mousie
sounds (try sucking air in through your two front teeth while
pressing your tongue up against the teeth and the roof of your mouth
at the same time – with a little practice, you can come up with
a decent mousie sound – also useful for some dogs if they’re
not too distracted).

Meowing. Not “MEOW!”, but more the, “Mm-mrrrr?”
sound that cats make when calling to or greeting each other. You can
also do a high pitched (but QUIET), “Mew?” in your best
inquiring kitten imitation. I had one cat who would NOT react to a
damn thing I did until I started mewing to him.

“Booping”. This is a sound you make with your mouth,
not your voice at all. Sort of like… making fish bubbles. It’s
like making a kissing sound, but with a much looser mouth. Pretend
you’re a goldfish underwater and open and close your jaw with
your lips loosely puckered. You’ll get a “boop” or
“bubble” –type sound that is non-threatening, but
that cats are very unused to hearing come from a human. They will
often look at you with curiosity. I had one cat come running over to
look into my mouth to see where the sound was coming from!

Work on your repertoire of sounds because any cat-attracting sound
you can make with your mouth means that you have two hands free to
work the camera AND a cat will look in your direction. The key is to
keep it quiet! You can certainly get a cat to look your way with a
loud noise, but you’re going to end up with an alarmed-looking
cat in your photo (ears angled away, head tucked and pulled back into
the shoulders, face tense) and you do NOT want that. You want
“cute”. You want “interested”. You want
“happy”. The human brain processes both consciously and
unconsciously. If your cat has a pleasant expression (or is at least
relaxed), it makes people FEEL something nice about that cat –

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What does this photo say to you about this cat? Does she seem
nice? Even sweet? She probably wants to sit on your lap and purr,
doesn’t she?

And never be afraid to take that unconventional shot. A sense of
“relaxed and happy” can come out of it without even
seeing the cat’s face. Add in a funny story or caption, and
folks might just want that cat! This super friendly cat was not an
attractive fellow in the face, so this photo truly showed off both
his personality and his “best side” for adoption-

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You’re marketing a personality first, looks second (unless
you have a very attractive cat with a less than wonderful
personality, which happens), so spend a few minutes with a cat to
find out who they are. Touch them and talk to them. Brush them if
they enjoy it (I carry multiple slicker brushes just for that
reason). If you can capture some of that personality in a photo, so
much the better!

Whether photographing dogs or cats or
ferrets or guinea pigs (and yes, guinea pigs react to you making
guinea pig calls, so listen to them when treats come out and then go
ahead and make that sound yourself), try to stay relaxed. If you’re
tense, the animals tend to be tense, too and that can show in a
photo. Take a little time with each animal to find out a bit of who
they are. YOU make the first connection with them so you can take
photos that will help others connect.

Again, practice on your own animals! It’s always nice to
have some cute pictures of your pets and you can learn a lot just by
trying out different lighting and movement situations at home. If
you can’t (or don’t want to) volunteer at your local
shelter, see if there’s a rescue group around that wants some
nice photos of their available pets. You never know who will be
grateful for the help and you might just get some pets into homes in
the deal!


Thank you Casey for this terrific post. Readers can see more of Casey’s shelter pet photos here. If anyone tries out any of these tips and would like to share their experiences/photos, please post them in the comments. I would love to see.

8 thoughts on “Guest Post: Photographing Shelter Pets

  1. Very interesting information and wonderful pictures, Casey. More time consuming but I bet this makes the animals much more attractive to adopters. UPAWS does a nice job with photos, too. Great idea, Shirley!

  2. Thank you, Susan and db!

    UPAWS does fantastic work and I refer to their photos regularly to help me with mine. I’m always trying new things and learning what works for me and what doesn’t.

    I have several shelters in my Facebook timeline and I have seen over the last couple of years more and more people making an effort to get nice photos and write ups of their shelter animals – it’s a wonderful trend! In a couple of places, even professional photographers have lent their skills to helping shelter pets get homes!

    And even if you can’t photograph shelter pets, please take pictures of your own pets! It’s always nice to have photos of our family members, after all!

  3. Beautiful work Casey. You may not have covered all the “technical” stuff but you sure covered the important practical stuff.

    Until earlier this year I was volunteering at our local shelter along with some local professional photographers (I’m an amateur). I worked mostly in the cat area with a couple of opportunities in the dog area. Very different approaches for each for sure. When I first started I didn’t really know enough about my camera or the best techniques to use; over time I was able to improve and I found I was constantly learning new tricks all the time. Tips like yours here were very helpful to me.

    I found I preferred to work with natural light as much as I possibly could (flash often scared some of the cats and the rooms had windows for some natural light); it was certainly challenging in some areas though. I eventually purchased a nice 50mm lens (moderate speed one to be faster than my zoom but not too pricey) and really loved the results I could get with it. It became my go-to lens for most of my shelter photos, but the extra hardware isn’t a necessity. For the cats in particular, as you mentioned, taking a little time with them to learn their moods and adapt to their needs was very important. I usually liked to work alone too as sometimes the presence of other people just added too much stress for certain cats; kittens were the exception as often they were simply too fast for me to get a decent image! Even then it wasn’t always successful. Being a cat person, I’ll admit I’ve never given much thought to trying to get the larger pupil in my images; I just accepted that cats have slitted pupils. It does make a certain amount of sense though; the baby-like look is always the most appealing to the nurturing side of people.

    Doing this type of volunteering can really be beneficial to the animals. On initial intake, they are often so afraid that the staff just can’t get an appealing photograph no matter how hard they try. After the animal has had a bit of time to settle down, they can often really shine in their new photos, particularly the really outgoing characters. The shy ones can take a little longer and need a bit more patience but it’s worth it in the end.

    If you are interested, some of my previous shelter photos are viewable on my Facebook page

    1. Wow, Donna-Marie! You’re clearly more technically skilled than I am! And it’s always helpful to me to see a completely different style, too! Thanks so much for sharing!

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