Sometimes people ask me what it takes to photograph the dogs and cats at the shelters, so I decided to come up with a list of helpful tips and suggestions. These are tips that anyone can use, whether you only own a camera phone or you are a serious photographer with a digital camera.
- Natural lighting is your best friend.
Most likely you don’t have $1500 in studio lighting gear lying around, so the best way to get nice shots is to take advantage of natural light. Either go outside or try to photograph by windows.
- But, avoid direct sunlight.
Direct sunlight can cause harsh shadows, making one side of the dogs face very bright while the other side is too dark. Either photograph the dog during the golden hours (1 hour after sunrise and 1 hour before sunset) or try to find even shade (sun-dappled shade can make the dog look like he has spots). Overcast, cloudy days are easy times to photograph and achieve nice, even lighting.
- Get rid of background distractions.
Pay attention to what’s in the background of your photos. The less distractions the more the dog will pop.
I used Adobe Lightroom to clone out the background distractions as an example, but the best way is to avoid them altogether in the first place.
- Bribe them with treats, toys and squeakers
So many times people ask me, ‘How do you get the dogs to sit?’ I bribe them! It’s best to have a variety of tricks up your sleeve, as different bribes work best on different dogs. Some dogs are highly treat motivated, others are more into toys or squeakers.
Bonus tip: The first squeak is the most important so use it carefully! Once the dog gets used to a particular noise, they’ll ignore it and stop perking the ears up. Make sure to let your volunteers know that you should be the only person using the squeakers, otherwise you might miss the best tilted head and perky ears of the day, if they squeak and you aren’t ready.
- Limit distractions – eyes on YOU
This is especially important in a studio setting with flashing lights. The dog may be out of his comfort zone and will sense that all the attention is on him. This may cause him to pant, ignore bribes and avoid eye contact. Having a lot of people giving commands, making noises, all trying to grab the dog’s attention only makes the situation worse. Make sure you let all your volunteers know that the best way they can help is by ignoring the dog unless you specifically ask for help. Sometimes you will need it, but if you start quietly, you’ll have a better chance of grabbing the shot right away.
- Patience is a virtue
Sometimes you will have difficult dogs that don’t care a whit for treats or toys and avoid eye contact like you are Sodom and looking back would turn them into a pillar of salt. Try not to get frustrated and just wait it out!
Okay, that isn’t a tip, but cats are quite a bit different to photograph than dogs. They aren’t as interested in treats or noises and are much more fickle about being on stage and the center of attention. So I figured I’d throw in a few additional tips specifically for photographing cats:
- Try cat nip. Works on some cats.
- Try a leash. Sometimes I will use thin show dog leashes on cats, but they don’t always work. Some cats will be more irritated by the leash on than with it off. I usually try no leash at first, and if the cat tries to bound away the instant the volunteer takes her hand off the cat, I may give the leash a try.
- Pet them! I think this is a tip that works best on shelter cats because they are so starved for affection. Sometimes a little pet is all they need to relax.
- If you are using flash, try to get the shot on the first go. Sometimes that is all you will have.
- Use an elevated platform. It won’t stop the cat from jumping down but it may delay the cat for a second or two, giving you just enough time to snap a shot with no hands holding the cat in place.
If you photograph for a shelter, what are the tips and tricks you have learned? What are your pain points?