How to Take Effective Shelter Dog Photos

Photography tips that may lead to adoptions
By Zoe Conrad, March 2016, Updated November 2017

One of the most important factors in successful animal adoptions is the first impression. In today’s world, people are often introduced to adoptable animals through photographs—online, on flyers, in newspaper ads. An eye-catching portrait and compelling bio can make a world of difference and be the first step in finding a forever home. Taking good photographs of shelter animals is an important way to volunteer your time and talents. Amateur or professional, the tenets of a good portrait remain basically the same—capture the subject’s personality in the most positive light. Here are some tips:

1. Be prepared. In every sense—do your homework on the task specifics, the facility, the staff who you’ll be interfacing with, and the animals you’ll be photographing. Allow at least 5–10 minutes with each dog, maybe more for cats. Be mindful of each subject, and their unique characteristics, some will be shy or fearful, others will be exuberant and want to explore. Be prepared for the commitment, short term and long term—it’s invaluable work.

2. Try to photograph dogs outside if possible. There are exceptions, if you are experienced shooting indoors and have the space and equipment to set up a studio and backdrop … then a controlled environment indoors can work well. But in most cases, moving outdoors in natural light, and away from the hubbub of the shelter offers many rewards—the more natural setting calms the animals, makes for a more picturesque setting, and natural light captures the warmest, best likeness. If it’s sunny and bright, shoot in the shade.

3. Connect with your subject. Talk sweetly and cheerfully with your subject while photographing. Exaggerate your high “happy” voice, make animal sounds, use squeaky toys and balls to focus their attention on you and the camera. Employ high value treats to get dogs to hold still and direct their gaze. Try to capture them looking into the lens, it’s perhaps the best way for the subject to connect with the viewer.

4. Compose the photograph. Look for an interesting visual background—a brick or wooden wall, plants or foliage, a corner structure. Simple, uncluttered backdrops work best. Avoid cages, fences or offices that reinforce the institutional setting. Do your best to fill the frame with your subject, make them the star.

5. Shoot at your subject’s level. Get down low so you are not shooting down at the dog. The results are more personal and intimate. This perspective also allows a more accurate documentation of the dog’s body type and size.

6. Do not use a flash. More often then not, a flash creates a harsh, unnatural light that is uncomplimentary. It can also frighten your subjects.

7. Edit your photos. Photo editing tools are invaluable. Simple tweaks in popular software or apps can make a mediocre photo good, and a good photo great. Adjust the exposure, lighten the darks, bring out the color and detail plus crop out unnecessary background elements. You don’t need to spend hours retouching photos, just a few simple moves and a couple of minutes will greatly improve your results.

Zoe Conrad is a Bark contributing editor.