PHOTOGRAPHY SAVES LIVES!
PHOTO TIPS FOR ANIMAL RESCUERS, SHELTERS AND THEIR (AWESOME) VOLUNTEERS/FOSTERS
The following basic tips are aimed at animal rescuers and volunteers who are not necessarily photographers themselves. Although they were written with dogs in mind, most of them can easily be adapted to other pets.
GOOD PHOTOGRAPHY IS ESSENTIAL FOR SHELTERS! Too often, shelters underestimate the importance of good photos. I have been photographing street dogs, rescues and dogs in shelters since 2010 and can assure that great photos make a big difference. First of all, good photos get more attention to the animals in need. Some dogs I photographed were adopted (sometimes after over 2 years waiting at the shelter) because someone fell in love with the dog in the photograph. Secondly, I always tell the shelters: think of it as marketing! You are there to "sell a product" (i.e. adopt a dog out) and you need to make sure your images stand out, especially in big cities like New York where there are over 100,000 dogs available for adoption... In the long run, good photography gives a better image of the shelter itself, which will lead to more adopters coming in, and they are more "shareable" on social media, which will lead to more followers for the groups/shelters. If you think about it, the photographs of their adoptable pets are their window for the world!
PHOTOGRAPHING IN SHELTERS IS A GREAT EXPERIENCE! From the photographer's perspective, photographing shelter pets is one of the most rewarding experience you can have. It keeps you on your toes creatively, it tests your skills and adaptability. I highly recommend volunteering to any photographer out there who wants to specialize in animals.
A: Assertive: Whenever working with a dog, remember to be gentle but assertive. The dogs usually spend most of their time in a cage, then they get pulled out for a photo-shoot! Obviously they are going to be a little tense or very excited. The best way to help them relax, trust you and pose for you, is if you are assertive yourself. You need to be gentle too, of course! And use positive reinforcement tools. Know your job, know their limits. Be clear in your directions (sit, stay/wait, ha ha, no, stay!). A happy dog is a dog that feels like he/she does not have to be in control. If you are unsure yourself, you might make them uncomfortable. I always treat my little shelter models like professional models. In my mind they are here to perform a job. I do my best to make the rules of the game very clear. Sit, stay, look at me, and get yummy treats and attention in return. The more photoshoots you will do, the easier these things will come.
B: Background: people often underestimate the importance of the background. But remember that a dog in a sad/filthy environment will look sad and filthy. A positive image sells a positive dog. Make sure there are no trash bins, tires, etc, behind your dog. Place him/her in front of a nice colored wall, a bush of flowers, etc… Take the dog outside for the photos. If you can’t, make sure the background is pleasant. If you shoot indoors with light and studio equipment, consider getting either a vinyl backdrop (those can be washed and sanitized), or seamless paper backdrops (available at photo stores), or any kind of backdrop (even fabric). Sometimes a solid color wall works great! Before you start photographing, make sure the background is spotless and clear, and does not have wrinkles and folds. If you know how to use Photoshop, clean up the background before sending the pics to the shelter, remove little stains and dirt the dog might have brought onto the set. It can take a lot of time but it is worth it. A dirty photo will not appeal adopters as much as a super clean image!
C: Calm: If the dog is very excited, take a moment to let the him/her calm down, sniff around and work out his/her excitement. It will make your work so much easier. Then, be ready to shoot! Many rescues don’t get to come out of their cage often, so they will most likely be overwhelmed by the smells and stimulation around them. Not all dogs will need to sniff around, but when they do, let them! (in all moderation). I try not to pet the dogs too much when they arrive on set, because I want them to be sitting and looking at me, not rolling around the ground enjoying a massage session! The petting is for after the shoot :) If you are fostering a dog for a rescue, snap photos of the dog during nap time, or after a walk, etc. Show the range of his/her personalities, not just the moment of excitement.
D: Drop: Drop down and photograph from the dog’s eye level. That means you will be on your knees a lot, but, hey, it’s for the love of the doggies! If the dog is tiny, put him/her on a table or staircase, or drop even lower. If you place the dog higher, have a handler to make sure the dog is safe.
E: Embrace: Embrace your materials and make the best of what you have available. You may not have the best photo gear or the ideal environment, but that shouldn’t stop you from making your dog shine. It's much easier to work with a DSLR, a reflex camera. With phone camera or small "point-and-shoot" cameras, there is a lag between the moment you press the trigger and the moment the photo is actually snapped. By then, the dog will have moved. It's much harder to get good results with those. If you can have access to a reflex camera, it will help tremendously (they take the photo as soon as you press the trigger). Be creative and remember: The power is in you! I have worked in very difficult situations, emotionally and logistically, but always manage to get a good shot. The limits are in your head!
F: Flash: unless you know how to use professional lighting (off-camera light), avoid using flash indoor, "on-camera" flash, especially when there is very little light available, because that will create the scary zombie-like shiny eyes. If you do not have access or the knowledge to use artificial light, and the place where you photograph does not offer good natural light, try and shoot outdoors whenever possible, and in a shaded area. If there is enough light (big windows, or if you are outside), the flash can sometimes be useful as an additional light source, for example with black dogs. In bright sunshine, use your flash as a “fill light”, that will get rid of strong shadows and make your dog’s fur shine.
G: Go for it: try many different angles and don’t hesitate to over-shoot. It’s better to have too many photos than too few. A photographer’s most important task is to select the right image to use. When you are choosing from your photos, select carefully. The way your dog looks on the photo will be how potential adopters will perceive him/her. Some dogs require more time than others. But it’s always worth it. Some shelters insist on getting head-shots and body-shots. I personally only do head-shots unless the dog has an unusual body (the post-processing is quicker with not so much clean-up to do). When shooting, know what you are looking for. A head-shot will require you to turn your camera. If it’s a body shot, get all limbs in the photo. Head-shots usually work better to catch an adopter’s attention. If you are only able to post/publish one photo of the rescue, select the one that speaks to you the most. It might be one where the dog is looking away, or with the eyes closed. If it speaks to you, it will most likely speak to someone else. I always tell the shelters: it is all about getting the adopters through the door! VIDEO: many rescues will love having videos of their dogs. So if you have a phone camera or a camera with a video option, especially if you are fostering, remember to take some short (10/30 sec) videos. Hold the phone horizontally (so that the video is horizontal, fitting a TV/computer screen).
H: Help: Get someone to help you during the photo shoot. That person can manage and hold the dog for you. You should only have to focus on the taking the photos (remember to always be ready to click! You might miss the money shot if you are not). If your helper is holding the dog, that person should not become the focus of the dog’s attention: you should be the one making noises or waving a treat for the dog. Not the helper. If the dog is on a leash, the helper should make sure to remove tension from the leash, as much as possible, as it will not look good on the photos and the dog might look like he/she is out of control or strangled. If you have more than one person helping, have someone stand behind you, at your level (on their knees if you are on your knees), so they can attract the dog's attention from behind the camera. I do not recommend to have more than one or two people with you in the room, as it makes for too much stimulation and distraction. Be nice to the people wanting to help, but be in control of your own set. You are in charge. Again, once you've performed a few shoots, you will find your comfort zone.
I: Interest: Once everyone is ready and your dog is sitting or standing in one place, it's time to get the dog’s interest. Choose your tool according to the dog. Shelters usually know if a dog gets too stimulated by food, or squeaky toys, for example, so ask them for each dog. I have lost shoots because the dog was way too stimulated by the toy and would not sit still after he saw the toy in my hand! Tools can be: high value treats (something they don't usually get at the shelter, or something that is usually used for training), a squeaky toy or making noises with your mouth to keep your dog alert and attentive. Start with one small sound like a whisper, and if it does not work, go to the next tool. Find the noise or pitch that makes the dog react and be ready to shoot. Dogs get bored quickly so don't over-stimulate them. Shelter dogs are usually nervous or over-stimulated already so be mindful, especially with noises. If a noise does not work or if the dog does not want the treat, stop the noise and remove the treat. I see a lot of people insist too much and it gets very uncomfortable for the dog. If something does not work right away, move on to another trick, talk to the dog. Don't push it. I usually wait till the dog is sitting and attentive before I make a tiny sound. I insist that no one else on set makes any sound. This allows me to grab a photo in less than 30 seconds. Eye contact with the camera is very important. Most adopters will look at the dog’s eyes first, and they will read stories in them, connecting instantly. Make sure the eyes are the focal point of the photo. Find your “money shot” (for example, smiling dog with ears up and tilt of the head).