Dog Marketing 101: Taking Photos of Shelter Dogs

I used to think that I was an incredible pet photographer. But it turns out it’s not hard to get some great shots when you are with your pets nonstop and always have your phone on you. The pressure’s certainly on when you are photographing a shelter dog. Not only do you have limited time with the dog, you’re trying to get it adopted! We all know that the pup’s profile picture is a deciding factor in whether or not someone will come in to visit.

Seth Casteel knew that, too. Seth is an actual pet photographer; you may have seen some images from his book “Underwater Dogs.” He realized that many shelters need better pictures of their animals and so he began One Picture Saves a Life. He posts instructional videos on how to best capture shelter animals. The site also has a great before and after gallery of pictures he took while visiting shelters across the country. After watching his videos I talked to the Humane Society I volunteer for and offered to take pictures. It has become one of my favorite jobs to do there.  While photographing, I have learned a few things.

Some dogs are ridiculously photogenic and a breeze to photograph. For example, here’s Gus.

A black and brown dog, Gus, on the ground, tongue hanging out. Photo by Ariel Rojo
Photo by Ariel Rojo

Gus is a one year old Australian Shepherd. The only real difficulty I came across while photographing him is that he likes to put his ears back. So thanks to tips from Seth Casteel, I made silly noises and used a squeaker toy to get his ears to perk up and then I snapped his photo.

In almost all the pictures I take, I try and make sure the dog is smiling. I live in Michigan and the weather right now makes it easy to get a dog panting pretty quickly. Most dogs just look happier while panting, but for some dogs, it’s really important because it makes them look less scary. Piper is one of those dogs. Piper is a gorgeous mastiff mix, it should be noted that I had to get a helper to take pictures of Piper because she insisted on cuddling with me rather than allowing me to take her picture. Anyway, here she is without smiling.

Piper, a brown and white mastiff, looks at the camera. Photo by Ariel Rojo
Photo by Ariel Rojo

And here’s Piper with a giant smile on her face.

Piper, a brown and white mastiff, smiling. Photo by Ariel Rojo
Photo by Ariel Rojo

Pretty different, right?

For various dogs, I really try to get action shots so that you can see a sneak preview of their personalities. Jack came in with his sister Jill as strays. They quickly became favorites and Jill was adopted a few weeks ago. Jack was just adopted this week! His main picture for a while was this:

A close-up picture of Jack, a dark brown dog. Photo Courtesy of the Humane Society of Huron Valley.
Photo Courtesy of the Humane Society of Huron Valley

There are some really great things about this picture. First off, it’s at eye level. It’s really important to get pictures of dogs where they’re looking at you and not up at you. Second, the camera is clearly a nice camera (I use my iPhone) and it creates a very nice focus of his face with a blurry background, creating the “fairytale” effect that Casteel talks about. But this picture shows a scared dog. Which, Jack probably was when he first came in. He had surgery and so he wasn’t allowed off leash in the play yards until he had healed completely. By the time I was able to photograph him, he knew me, was familiar with the agility course and very comfortable. Here’s his new profile picture:

Jack, a dark brown dog, plays in an outdoor toy. Photo by Ariel Rojo
Photo by Ariel Rojo

And obviously Jack is a black dog. I love the bright colors of this tunnel because it allows Jack to really “POP” out of the picture.

Now, you may think that we only have big dogs at our shelter given the examples I’ve shared. Not so! To get the best shots of small dogs, put them on a bench or table so that you can photograph them at eye level. Here’s Dottie.

Dottie, a black, white, and brown dog. Photo by Ariel Rojo
Photo by Ariel Rojo

And here’s Hattie.

Hattie, a small black dog, with her head tilted. Photo by Ariel Rojo
Photo by Ariel Rojo

Did I mention that while making the strange noises you may get rewarded with a head tilt? With that head tilt, adorable under bite and wagging tail, who could possibly say no?

If you are interested in taking pictures at your local shelter, remember safety first. I’m very lucky in that I work at a shelter with strict guidelines about which dogs I can handle. I highly recommend working with someone. One day, I was lucky enough to snag another dog walker and she spent the morning with me helping me with the dogs. There were some dogs like Hans (pictured below) who I wouldn’t have been able to capture because he really liked to be stuck to your side. Working with someone also allowed me to get better pictures because I could focus more on the shot than on the dog. I could lie on the ground, get ready for an action shot and then she would throw the ball my way. And as an added bonus, I got to hang out with someone fun.

Hans, a German Shephard. Photo by Ariel Rojo
Photo by Ariel Rojo

Ideally I’d like to get a nicer camera to take pictures of the dogs, or work with a family who has the nice camera! And just yesterday I went through cat handling training and will soon be taking pictures of them as well!

UPDATE: Gus was adopted the day after he was made available, as was Hans. Dottie and Hattie were also snapped up quickly. Jack was finally adopted after waiting about a month! Piper is still looking for her furever home! Check out HSHV for more info on her and the other animals they have available for adoption. And please leave any comments with any additional tips you may have for capturing the personality of shelter dogs.


15 replies on “Dog Marketing 101: Taking Photos of Shelter Dogs”

The behind bars ones are so sad. When we got Girl Dog, the shelter’s picture for her was behind bars (I didn’t actually see the picture before I met her). She was huddled in the back of her kennel, obviously terrified. This is her 20 minutes after I brought her home:

Awwww! What a cutie! Thanks for adopting! Something I love about HSHV is we have enough room to keep them in a separate area where we work with their behaviors before they go up for adoption. Especially the scared dogs, some may be shy but if they’d huddling in a corner we try and socialize them more before adopting them out.

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