Shelter Dog & Pet Photography | 5 Tips for Great Photos!

I’ve spent countless hours fine-tuning my approach to pet photography while photographing LOTS of super adorable dogs, cats, and small animals at the Humane Society Naples. It’s definitely not always perfect, but I have learned a few things during my tenure as the volunteer shelter dog photographer that could save you some heartache. Aside from the typical “good photo” requirements (the right gear – dslr camera & decent lens), here are my top five tips for awesome shelter pet photos:

Tip #1: If you don’t look silly, you are doing it wrong.

Leave your humility at the door and accept the fact that you will at some point make a fool of yourself. It’s okay, because that fool can and will save a life.

It’s all about perspective—literally. You have to crouch down, get on your knees, do ridiculous and surprising things, make strange sounds, whatever gets their attention. Break the pet’s routine and thoroughly confuse them by doing something new and unexpected. You’re looking for quizzical looks. Cute head tilts. Whatever focused expressions you can get from the pet.

By doing all of the above, you will find that something special in each animal.

Goofy moments are great too!  Licking, yawning, scratching an itch…not every photo needs to be Westminster Kennel Club worthy.

Tip #2: Enlist the help of others. 

I can’t thank the amazingly dedicated and hard-working volunteers of the Humane Society Naples that have helped me each week capture adorable photos of the animals at the facility.

You really do need an assistant, and oftentimes, it comes in the form of another shelter volunteer. If you can secure more than one assistant, even better! Have another volunteer with you who can handle the dog, hold them on a leash if necessary, and give basic commands.

There are some AMAZING, dedicated, & very hardworking volunteers at Humane Society Naples, who are always willing to lend a helping hand when it comes to photos. And clearly the animals love these awesome volunteers as much as I do!

Ask your volunteers to come equipped with treats, toys (squeakier the better), and a leash. It is important to communicate with your helper so they understand what you need.  Phrases like… “stand right behind me and dangle a toy over my head” OR “use a treat and ask the dog to stay/sit while I shoot from this angle.”  You get the idea. Volunteers or helpers can be your best asset while photographing shelter animals.

Tip #3: Put them at ease.

Photographing shelter pets isn’t always an easy task – many of the animals are stressed with fear and pent up energy as a result of shelter life, some have been neglected or abused, others have limited or poor social skills. Oftentimes, all these animals need is a little love and a little time – especially when it comes to warming up for a glamour shot.  They need time to release some energy, time to soak up some sun or stretch their legs, or simply time to get comfortable with the photographer.

Spend aboout 5-10 minutes, ideally longer if possible, with each animal.  They will almost always relax once they have made the transition mentally from “in kennel” to “not in kennel,” which ultimately = a better photograph.

Let the animals get to know you as well before you just start rapid firing.  Sit down with them, get on their level, talk to them. If you feel silly doing these things, then photographing pets is probably not for you. Ensuring that the animal feels comfortable with you is a critical component of great shelter pet photos!

I loved photographing Alpha (now Alfie), an adorable English shorthair kitty.

Tip #4: Go outside! 

Lighting can make or break a photo. My recommendation for great-looking photos is to use natural light, when possible (and believe me, it’s not always possible — particularly with cat photos).  I am NOT a fan of using flash. Avoid it alltogether if possible, since it casts an unnatural light on the pet and can turn their eyes zombie-like.

Typically, the best time to photograph is in the late morning or early evening when the light is filtered. Use nearby plants/trees or a colorful wall to add background texture and color. White pets are easy to over expose, so keep them away from bright or direct light. Dark pets are just the opposite. Avoid shadows when photographing a dark colored animal, and opt for a well-lit, but shaded area instead.

Tip #5: Practice patience; you are going to need lots of it.

One of the keys to the difference in quality of photos is having some time to spend with each dog and not rushing the process.

Dogs are instinctively curious about their environment, especially outside. Unfamiliar territory needs to be investigated, so allow time for a dog to acclimate. Let them go potty. Let them sniff around. They’ll be more physically relaxed after they have released some energy.

You will also want to practice getting a dog or cat’s attention. You may lose your patience quick if you can’t get the pet to even look your way. Start with your own pet if you have one, then practice on one that doesn’t know you. Make noises with your mouth, squeeze a squeaky toy, toss a ball, offer a treat, etc. Develop a system and use it.

Don’t give up. Getting “the shot” can take 10 seconds, 10 minutes, or a half hour plus depending the disposition of the animal. If you are struggling, take a break or move the pet to the end of the line. Whatever you do, don’t give up.

Kimberly Joy Photography specializes in family photography, children photography, newborn photography, & maternity photography, and serves the Naples, Florida area, including Fort Myers, Estero, Bonita Springs, Marco Island, Collier County, Lee County, & Southwest Florida.