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Tips for Photographing Animals for Adoption

To make a photograph you need two things: a subject and light. To make a good picture you also need patience and the desire to make it good. Many more people will see your photo of the animal than will see him in person. The image that you make may be the key to his being adopted by the right person.

The tips below often have more to do with the ideal than the reality. When photographing animals at a shelter we really have very little choice of backgrounds, light or working with the same handlers. We have to do the best we can under the circumstances. If you enjoy photographing animals practice with your own. Experiment with different light, backgrounds, poses and compositions.

Subject

When I photograph a dog I want to capture something of the individual, something that will say to someone that this is the dog for them. Here is this dog who is excited about getting out of his cage. He probably wants to jump on the handler. He is excited and wants to run around. The last thing he wants to do is sit quietly and look right into the camera lens. We need a connection with the animal, a moment, an expression. If your handlers can get him more or less into the position you want, there will be a moment when you see him. Be ready to shoot.

When I look through my pictures of each animal I choose those with the most appealing expressions. I want to see friendly #1. Anything else in the expression, like a head-tilt, that shows personality. Sometimes a very shy dog will hug the ground, too afraid to sit up, but may give you a very sad but appealing look.

If I could place a dog exactly as I choose, I would have him sit 3/4 turned toward the camera, eyes into the camera with an alert, interested and friendly expression. It doesn't always happen that way. In fact, it usually doesn't, but that's what I aim for. Certain angles naturally show animals better. Sitting is my first choice because it places the head at a good angle for eye contact. Also you have a moment longer to catch them. Second choice is standing. If standing, they should be profile to the camera, in a natural balanced position that shows all 4 legs, head turned part way to camera. Lying down is my least favorite, but ocasionally works.

Get as close as possible to eye-level with your subject. Put a cat or small dog on a table or something so that you don't have to lie on the ground. This is important. Amateurs frequently photograph everything from a standing position. Looking down on a dog or cat is not a good way to best show who he is.

I work with a squeaky in my hand. The squeaky things that my dogs removed from their toys work well. I try to make different sounds. Anything I can do to get the dog's attention. A good system is working with 2 people, each with a dog. While dog # 1 is being photographed, dog and handler # 2 are getting his attention from a point near the photographer. This is a very efficient way to work so that many animals can be photographed in a very short period of time and gives the dogs a chance to be outside a little longer.

It's important to communicate what you want to the handlers. It's nice to work with the same people because they know what you want, but often I've never before met the person who is holding the animal and so I have to try to communicate what I'm seeing and what I want to see.

A lot of people give up too easily. They don't think this leaping maniac is ever going to calm down, but they usually do, and you usually can get a good picture if you take some time. Patience. Patience. Patiene. You can't get a good picture without it.

Light

Direct light hits the subject directly. The subject is in the sunshine.

Indirect light is light that is reflected onto the subject. The subject is in the shade. A very cloudy day is like shade.

Animals may be photographed beautifully in either type of light, but there are advantages and disadvantages of both.

The advantages of direct light are that it has a brighter, cheerier, feeling, animals' coats show up better, and brighter light means a lower f-stop which will usually result in sharper pictures. The disadvantages are higher contrast and shadows, especially difficult with black dogs. Eyes do not show up as well, because of the contrast and because they may be squinting in bright light.

The advantages of indirect light are that the details show up better, especially good with black dogs, and there are no harsh shadows. However, it is not always possible to find a good shaded area.

The only time direct light can be used well is when it is at a low angle - early morning, late evening or mid-winter. This kind of direct light is beautiful, but we are rarely photographing shelter animals at dawn or dusk. Direct light from overhead is a terrible light, makes deep shadows. Really try to avoid this.

If you use direct light, consider the direction. The best basic position is having the sun behind you and coming directly over your shoulder. Watch out for shadows in the wrong places, especially your own shadow in the picture.

Backlight, the sun behind the subject, can show an animal well, as long as you expose for the shade. Otherwise you'll have a silhouette.

Background

We are discussing making good portraits of animals to help them get adopted. Animals are the subjects of our photographs. However, the dog or cat does not fill the entire frame of the picture. What happens in the rest of the picture will either help to show off the animal or will distract our eyes. The background helps make the picture a portrait instead of just a snapshot.

Look for a neutral background, usually in the mid-tones, that is more like gray than black or white. Something with texture is good, but avoid something that is too busy. I try to avoid fences and walls that have a lot of straight lines.

Some of the animals I photograph are the foster dogs who have been brought to busy shopping centers on Saturdays for adoption clinics. The problem is photographing dogs in midday sun with nothing around for backgrounds - buildings, frequently made of blocks, cars everywhere, people walking. This is the solution I found - I drive a full-size truck with a shell on the back with many windows. With pvc pipe I build a frame that would stand up in truck bed & then draped a cloth over it. I usually park the truck facing the sun so that my little studio is in indirect light and sometimes there's a nice effect when light from the overhead windows provides a halo of backlight. If it's a large dog who doesn't want to get in the truck, I drape the cloth down from the tailgate onto the ground and let him sit on it like that.

This cloth is one of my favorite backgrounds. I use one that is light brown, slighty mottled. It can be thrown over a fence, but the best way to use it is with poles, 2 from floor to ceiling and one across with the cloth attached.

The biggest problem with using a cloth is the possibility of spreading disease. For this reason I use it sparingly, carefully and wash it often.

Some people suggest having a person in the picture to show scale, but I do not agree with this. I want the photo to show as much as possible of the animal. You can put weight and height in the information text.

An alternative to a completely neutral background shows the place, for example inside a cage. Some people like to photograph animals behind bars to elicit more sympathy. There is a place for such photographs, but for this work I want to see the individual. I want someone to adopt him because they fall in love with him, not because they feel sorry for him. There are occasions, like moms and pups inside a shelter on a cold winter day, when they just can't be photographed anywhere else but in the cage.

Choose one or more spots around you where you can photograph your animals with a neutral background and acceptable light (see above). Ideally you can find a couple of places, one in sunlight and one in shade. You might choose to shoot the black dog in the shade and the shiny red dog in the sunlight.

With any luck you should be able to get something useable in 3 to 6 shots. Practice will make you faster at catching the good moments.

More

Photographing cats is very similar to shooting dogs in most respects. The lighting questions are the same. Unfortunately, in many places there is no safe way to bring a cat outside, and no good way to set up lights and backgrounds inside.

One place where I sometimes photograph has a tree with a branch at eye-level. The cat sits on the branch with handler behind him holding the leash. Unfortunately such perfect spots are rarely found.

I think cats are more afraid of cameras than dogs are. The staring eye of the lens must remind them too much of the way they might stalk their prey.

Having two assistants, the handler and the attention-getter, is equally important with dogs, cats, horses and all others.

Puppies and kittens are the least afraid of the camera and therefore the most fun to shoot. They may not do what you want them to do, but chances are they will do something adorable. I like to shoot several together, and just let them loose if possible.

Shelters and rescuers often want to focus on the harder-to-adopt animals. While this is certainly important, I like to photograph the puppies, purebreds and other easy-to-adopt ones as well, so that people will know that the shelters have some of the most desirable as well as special needs animals.

Patience is essential. It often seems that a dog will never settle down and you might as well give up, but if you just calmly wait awhile he will, and you will get a good shot. It often happens that a dog who seems totally wild will suddenly sit down and assume a great pose.

Safety is always the first consideration when working with animals. Never do anything that will endanger the animal, yourself, or anyone else for the sake of a photograph.

Equipment

I now shoot all digital and am thankful for the gift of technology. I use a Nikon with the same lenses from my film cameras. If you are using a digital camera be sure it is one that has no delay between pushing the button and making the picture.

Sometimes in Photoshop I remove something distracting from the background. I'd rather shoot it right and not have to patch it up later, but when that's not possible I do sometimes smooth out backgrounds. A word on honesty in Photoshop - I don't erase leashes because that would make a statemtent that the dog is capable of sitting without a leash, but if I can fix something that is too distracting I don't mind doing that.

What are you going to do with the pictures?

For the internet

I use Photoshop's "save for the web" feature. Arbitrarily set 330 pixels height for most of the photos I use on my website with much smaller headshots to use on some of the index pages.

If you are emailing photos pay attention to file size. If you're sending a photo just for viewing, not printing, make it very small and be sure to crop it as well.

For the newspapers, flyers

Ask the newspaper what size and resolution they want.

When shooting for the newspaper, keep in mind that in color the red dog stands out from the green grass, but in black and white it will all be gray.

If you plan to make flyers, enquire of the people who will be doing the printing what file size they need.


 

Photos illustrating some of these points are on Photo Tips page 1 and page 2 and also on gallery and gallery, page 2. Photographs of Bro and Tracy are on www.broandtracy.org/book and pages following it. Personal photos of our current dogs are on lucy_belle_photos.html. Photos and information about my work with Bro and Tracy are in an article on The Digital Journalist, an online magazine with interesting and helpful information for photographers.

Please let me know what is helpful and what your questions are. I will be revising this article and the photos frequently.

Joyce Fay

September 15, 2006