I have a confession to make…Mondays are a highlight of my week. It is almost always a good day because it is when I pack up my camera gear and head to my local shelter to photograph the animals that are available for adoption. So many furry faces with wagging tails!
It can also be one of the most challenging days of the week. Like most portrait photographers who specialize in pets, I mostly photograph private clients who have well-loved, trusting and loyal dogs and cats. Then there are my commercial clients, who will often use models that can have any number of well-developed tricks up their sleeve. An animal currently living in a shelter? Not quite the same.
It is not that adoptable animals don’t have those qualities; it is just that the shelter environment is an assault on the senses. For animals brought here are often dealing with the fresh sting of abandonment by the only family they have ever known. If they were found on the streets, the inability to come and go as they would like can be difficult adjustment. Add to that the new routine, the new people, the new food, the noise…oh, the noise… visit a shelter and you will know what I am talking about. Remember too, that these animals have most likely been through the process of a vet appointment and potentially undergone surgical procedures. Most are simply trying to get accustomed to the chaos that is around them, and, in the midst this, you arrive because you want to take their picture.
In spite of it all, these furry faces do remarkably well and I am often greeted with a kiss and a friendly wag of the tail. The biggest ‘danger’ I experience is getting huge muddy paw prints on my jacket from someone who just had to look into my eyes (or figure out what a camera was). Alright, I’ll be honest. Sometimes those paws have stepped in something other than mud before they end up on me, but that is why I wear my grubby clothes!
So, the challenge for anyone who provides photography is to create beautiful images with animals that are out of the element of a comfortable home. Can it be done? Most certainly! Today, I thought I would share the 5 things that have made a difference for me…
1. Make friends with the staff/volunteers of the shelter/rescue:
This might have come as a surprise as I am sure that many were expecting my first tip would have to do with the mechanics of photography. But this first step is vitally important. Professional photographers know that great images come about when you build trust. In truth, it is all about relationship building and any other tips I might offer will hang on this first one.
Do you want to know why your client sessions work? Because there is trust. Between the client and their pet. Between the client and you, which the dog reads as trust in you. In the shelter environment, who do these adoptables trust? Sadly, not you. Afterall, you met them only 2 minutes ago. Rather, it is the staff and/or volunteers who feed them, walk them, play with them, show them affection…these are their links to the human race and their whole world at the moment. Build trust with these people and the animals will often follow.
So, how exactly do you make friends with staff and volunteers?
Respect their expertise. Show that you do by asking for their input. The staff and volunteers have worked with these animals. They know the temperament of the animal in front of your lens. They often know if they like treats or balls or certain words. They know how to get their attention. Sometimes, they have taught them a few commands or hand signals. Remember that the creating of images is a partnership with them, so treat them properly. And the information they have can only help you – why wouldn’t you ask?
Respect their time. Yes, you have a schedule to keep and you are there at your appointed time to get images. But the staff also has a TON of other work to do in the day and sometimes, things go awry. They get behind. Be flexible and see how you can help as opposed to standing around giving the impression that you are irritated.
Show them the images. Let them see the back of the camera so that they can see for themselves that the images that they have had a part in creating are beautiful. The shelter where I volunteer, like many others, would prefer images of the animals without a staff member in them. When I first started, I would often hear, “I won’t be in this, will I?” I don’t blame them – it is not like they have gotten all dressed up for a photo session. But every so often, I would get an image of their arm, their hand, their feet, even them holding an animal and I would send it to them. Them alone. And no one else. They would often love it and share it with others. But, it was their choice to do so and I have never shared it without their consent.
Direct them. Often, the person assisting you will be eager to know what you want them to do. Take two minutes and show them. It will make all the difference! And if you have opportunity to work with the same person time after time, the comfort level they gain will show in the resulting images.
2. Find the Light:
If you can, get outside. Now, look around to see who will go outside with you on a minus 20 degree Celsius day with blowing snow? You will find that it is only the staff members and volunteers who actually feel a part of the process and trust you (see above). Of course, a flash can be used inside, but it can be a little frightening for animals that are not used to it.
If you need to be inside (which is often the case with cats), see if you can find a large window to provide the natural light. Place your subject beside the window, add a reflector or a little fill flash and voila…beautiful light!
Always choose your location based on the light first. Truthfully, you can work around a dog that has a few imperfections, a cat that doesn’t like the treats you brought and an ugly, cluttered background…if you have nice light. Look for it. Hunt for it. And when you find it, use it!
This boy as well as his friends were photographed outside when it was minus 29 degrees celsius. We had them out for literally 2 minutes each (including a bathroom break). The staff member that went out with me to help me handle the dogs was a trooper! And Nero gave us his smile!
3. Open Up Wide:
Set your aperture for as wide as you reasonably can, while still getting your subject’s eyes in focus. Their eyes looking straight into the lens will communicate with the viewer, which is often the ‘hook’ for someone to consider them as a potential pet. An added bonus is that a wide aperture will blur out all of the unsightly things that come with shelter life as well as give you some faster shutter speeds to ensure your images are sharp.
For those who like specifics, I am almost always shooting at f 2.8. I will close it down a little if I am trying to capture an action shot of a dog running towards me, but I love the look of a wide aperture!
Even kitties can be coaxed into looking into your lens! Gloria’s eyes draw you in because they are tack sharp, while her body and even her little nose are softly out of focus.
4. High Speed Drive:
For shelters, I truly do take more images than I need. The environment is a little fast paced and you may only get to spend 5 minutes with any one animal, so set yourself up for success and get as many quality images as you can.
I don’t think Junior stopped for one second during our “photo session”. In fact, here he is jumping towards the camera. I have a few out of focus images of this boy, but thanks to high-speed drive, I got a keeper!
5. Be Ready to Play the Fool:
Remember this should be fun for all involved. I roll around on the ground, laugh, bark, howl and create all sorts of silliness just to get a great photo. I consider it a great day if I have managed to get the people around me to laugh too. And the animals? They do not really care if you are a fool. Given the chance, they will be happy to join you in the frivolity.
In conclusion, I have to tell you that there are, of course, many other tricks and tips for getting great images of cat and dogs (and other creatures too). I have simply shared the top 5 that have helped me. A huge thanks and a hug to all of you who already volunteer your time with shelters and rescues. For those of you starting to think about it, I hope this has given you the little “push” you need. Happiness to you and all of the furry faces you help!
A note from Nicole: If you are interested in volunteering your time with local shelters or rescues, please check out HeARTs Speak. This is a fantastic non-profit organization focused on ways that artists can help animals.