Tips for photographing shelter pets

Top 5 Tips for Photographing Shelter Pets



First and foremost, meet the pet. Spend some time with them to get to know them and build rapport.

Try to find a space in the shelter which is conducive to getting a good photo of the shelter pet or arrange their own space if you don’t have that option. Look around for great backdrops. There may be a coloured wall or an interesting scene where you can place the pet. Of course, the location very much depends on whether they are a dog or a cat or pocket pet. You will be guided by the shelter staff when inducted, on where you can take the animals for their photos, and whether there are other volunteers there who can help you. You also want to ensure there are minimal distractions.

When you’ve found the right space, make sure it is clean and uncluttered. You want the pet to be the star of the photos and that means not having any distractive elements in the background. This includes moving unwanted objects from the scene such as kitty litter trays, food bowls, and any other item that will detract from the subject. You want to show the world this pet at its best.

If you have the option with indoors, find an area close to a window where there is lovely filtered light streaming through… not harsh sunlight. When using a Speedlight, which I do inside the cattery, ensure you bounce it off a reflective surface and not directly at the pet. Outdoors is ideal, as long as you can find some open shade to position the pet.

When photographing the pet on a lounge or chair, check accessories such as cushions, rugs etc. are complimentary to the scene and won’t draw attention away from or clash with the pet.

Photographing shelter pet tips


Ensure your camera is ready to go. If it’s a phone camera check the battery is charged and the lens is clean. If it’s a digital camera, make sure the card has space, the batteries are charged, and your lens is clean. You don’t want to get the pet in the perfect pose only to find your equipment isn’t ready. Get your settings right for the scene and lighting conditions.

I generally use my 35mm 1.4 lens on my full frame camera at the animal shelter as I like to take environmental portraits which include some of the background and surrounding elements. Occasionally I’ll use a 50mm lens, and if outdoors and I have a volunteer to handle the dog, I’ll use my 70-200mm 2.8 lens.

When photographing shelter pets, your equipment may also include toys, noisemakers, treats and accessories. I carry a little box of tricks with me every time I go to the shelter and it contains all these goodies and more. For cats and kittens, a cat wand comes in very handy to get them excited and looking enthusiastic in their photos. Bringing out their personality is key to getting a great portrait, it makes for more interesting photos, and creates variety for a rescue profile. For dogs and puppies, I generally use a toy with a squeaker, and of course, healthy treats which are all contained in my waist pouch so they are easy to grab. Often, it’s my own voice that gets the perfect head tilt happening so work on your funny noises… yes it can be embarrassing, but you’re there to impress the pet, and not worry about the passers-by.

Photographing shelter pet tips


Now you are ready to start photographing, place the pet in the area you want to photograph them. If they aren’t too sure about what’s going on, you could try tempting them in with their favourite treats or toy. Check they are clean and that they don’t have any food on their face or sleep around their eyes, it’s much easier to clean these now rather than spend time editing them out in Photoshop. I carry wipes for this purpose.

As mentioned earlier, I like to spend time playing with the pet before I start photographing them. It builds rapport and gets them used to you and that you are no threat to them. It’s great for the photographer as they generally get lots of love back, and it is so satisfying to start with a timid animal and literally see them start to relax and build confidence just through taking the time with them. Depending on the pet, this can sometimes take much longer than expected so be prepared to be patient, but the rewards are so worth it when you see that sparkle in their eyes.

Tips for photographing shelter pets

04. PLAY!

Frame the pet, set your focal point on the eye closest to you, take a test shot and check you are happy with your settings, and if all good start shooting. I shoot with back-button focus using one set focus point in AI Servo mode on my Canon. To help my wrist I use a wrist strap and my other hand is either waving a cat wand around, holding a squeaker or a treat and waving at the same time. It’s hilarious to watch, it truly is!

You are very likely to get slobber on your lens, especially if photographing a bouncy young dog, so have a lens cloth handy. The hardest part is always leaving them behind to photograph the next pet. I like to think I’ve brought a little more joy to their day in the simple act of interacting and photographing them. They certainly always bring joy to mine.


The finishing touch to a compelling pound portrait is in the editing. Even if you are simply using your smartphone to take the photos, it makes a world of difference when you put some love into the editing.

Firstly, correct the exposure if necessary, and the white balance where required and do a basic edit on your image. Remove any spots such as stray hairs, eye-sleep or dust taking attention away from the pet. Don’t remove any marks that are attached to the pet, for example, a scar. You want the pet to look like they do in the flesh, the purpose of an adoption portrait is to bring out their best, and not to change the way they look.

Add your watermark and perhaps and overlay which may add to the charm of the pet being featured in your portrait. The overlay in the image below is included in the free resources from HeARTsSpeak.

5 tips for photographing shelter pets

I use Lightroom to edit my images and then take them into Photoshop to tidy up. If you are using a smartphone, there are a number of apps you can use to edit your images, such as Snapseed, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Afterlight, VSCO, Bonfire Photo Editor Pro, PhotoDirector.

I hope you found these tips useful. If you are keen to learn more about shelter photography I highly recommend checking out HeARTsSpeak where you’ll find some great free resources. I’ve been a proud member of HeARTsSpeak since 2012.

I’ve been helping shelter pets find their forever home since 2011, and I’m proud to be the official awards photographer for the inaugural 2018 Companion Animal Rescue Awards. I have a new website launching in mid June 2018 so make sure you join my tribe to be kept up to date.

Did you know that I can also photograph your pet? If you’d like to find out more about booking a pet shoot with me, please get in touch.

Artboard 1 copy


Leave a Comment