An Expert’s Guide to Taking Perfect Shelter Pet Photos

Arrow, Pit Bull
Photo credit: Dan Cuadra

Whenever we ask someone how they knew their pet was “the one,” the majority of them say that it was love at first sight after they saw a photo online. It goes without saying, then, that having high-quality pictures can significantly boost an animal’s chances of finding their forever home fast!

Photographing animals can be tough, but you don’t need to be a professional just to get the perfect shot. In fact, you don’t even need a camera at all—a smartphone can do just the trick! Below is the only go-to guide you’ll need to take perfect shelter pet pictures that are equal parts cute and captivating, complete with tips from Dan Cuadra, an experienced shelter pet photographer who has taken thousands of photos of adoptable animals for LA County shelters since 2011.

1. Ease Into It

Dan Cuadra bonding with an adoptable dog
Photo credit: Helen Cuadra

It may take some time for an animal to calm down or get comfortable around new people and things, so give them a few minutes to decompress before you start snapping away. This is especially important for animals who are just coming out of their kennels and / or fearful and timid animals who need extra time to warm up in general. Lots of encouragement, treats, and patience is usually all you need to get an animal to come out of its shell!

2. Find the Right Setting

Sonny the Beagle mix
Photo credit: Dan Cuadra

A picture of an animal curled up in a cold, metal kennel will not do it justice, but luckily you have quite a few different options when it comes to settings even if you have space and budget constraints. First and foremost, you want an uncluttered background so that the viewer is immediately drawn to and focused on the animal. A plain wall is perfectly fine, but you can also incorporate a colorful backdrop (like the one pictured above) for an extra pop.

Outdoor pictures are great, but Cuadra warns against photographing animals in direct sunlight. “You may want it bright, but harsh lighting like direct sun creates intense light and shadow and you lose the finer features in the contrast.” If you want to avoid indoor lighting or your camera doesn’t work well in low light, Cuadra suggests that you shoot in a shady spot outdoors instead.

Adopters of course want to see what an animal is like in a home environment, too. If you have animals in foster care, encourage their foster parents to get as many pictures as possible of the animal sleeping, running, and playing—all the things that they’d do with their forever families!

Dan Cuadra taking photos of an adoptable dog
Photo credit: Helen Cuadra

3. Know Your Angles

Charlie the Domestic Shorthair
Photo credit: Dan Cuadra

Any top model or selfie expert will tell you that knowing your angles is of utmost importance. Cuadra says that you should get right on the animal’s level (from a comfortable distance, of course) to best capture who they truly are, whether that means getting on the floor with them or putting them up on a table to get closer to you. “Looking down from standing height may be how you see animals in everyday life, but in a photo it portrays them as an object, not as a personality.” 

4. Establish Eye Contact

Honey the Parson Russell Terrier mix
Photo credit: Dan Cuadra

It’s not an easy thing to do, but establishing direct eye contact with an animal can make for a powerful photo. “You want the animal looking straight down the barrel of your lens, not just in your general direction,” says Cuadra. If the animal can’t focus on you directly, try distracting them with something behind you. Cuadra notes that whistles, squeaky toys, and treats work well for dogs, but the best method for cats is simply a little patience!

5. Take a Ton of Photos at Once and Narrow it Down Later

Snuggles between shots are always a good idea!
Photo credit: Helen Cuadra

Getting an animal to sit still can be an impossible task. But before you get frustrated, remember that movement means you’re more likely to capture an awesome action shot. Cuadra offers a few tips on how to get the best action shot depending on the camera you have: “With a DSLR you want the fastest shutter speed you can while maintaining the exposure. A wide aperture helps, but too wide can result in the focus being too shallow to capture the whole face—for example, at aperture f/4, a dog’s nose might be in focus but the eyes out of focus. With a compact or phone camera, try to take 2-3 consecutive shots or shoot in burst mode and pick the best one.”

6. Get Creative

Want a unique way to grab a potential adopter’s attention? Have a little fun with props! We’ve seen a lot of organizations do unique themed weeks on social media—OKC Animal Welfare in Oklahoma City, OK recently did an Area 51 photo shoot with some of their adoptable animals, complete with tin foil hats and space filters!

Feature image credit: Dan Cuadra

4 thoughts on “An Expert’s Guide to Taking Perfect Shelter Pet Photos

  1. I’m in awe of this work and of the greater Shelterluv platform. Keep up the great work. Inspiring to say the least.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, Kristen! It’s people like you who are doing the truly inspiring work!

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