Waiting for the Right Moment

I wanted to break down how I look for the right "pose" with scared or timid dogs. My model for this example is Peter. He's available for adoption at the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia, and he was one scared little guy. Scared dogs are very hard to get portraits of, but it's definitely possible. Here's how I went about it.

For these photos, I had the dogs on a bench with a quilt thrown over it. This was just in a grassy spot beside the shelter. 

This is the first photo I snapped of him (unedited). He looks terrified and sad. Peter was so scared, he was shaking. So step 1 was to back off for a minute or two and let him relax. A Humane Society staff member sat on the bench with him and helped him calm down. Then I started talking to him in soft tones just to get him to look at me. We never use squeakers with dogs like this. 

This is the first photo I snapped of him (unedited). He looks terrified and sad. Peter was so scared, he was shaking. So step 1 was to back off for a minute or two and let him relax. A Humane Society staff member sat on the bench with him and helped him calm down. Then I started talking to him in soft tones just to get him to look at me. We never use squeakers with dogs like this. 

This doesn't look much different, but you can see he's turned his head to look straight at me now. I always try to get dogs looking straight ahead in photos so you can see their whole face. I just talked softly to him and we kept everyone quiet and calm. No squeakers and no pestering him. So I snapped a pic to show him that it was no big deal, and this is all that was expected of him. 

This doesn't look much different, but you can see he's turned his head to look straight at me now. I always try to get dogs looking straight ahead in photos so you can see their whole face. I just talked softly to him and we kept everyone quiet and calm. No squeakers and no pestering him. So I snapped a pic to show him that it was no big deal, and this is all that was expected of him. 

Often, with scared dogs like this, the click of the shutter is enough to get the ears to pop up. But it's not so loud that it scares them. We don't want a scared expression. So, this is a fine picture, but I think I can do better. If this is all we got, it would be perfectly fine. But I didn't like that he was still squinting his eyes. He was relaxing a bit more, and I thought a couple more clicks might get a slightly more alert expression. So I clicked the shutter a couple more times to keep his attention and hopefully get him to open his eyes a bit more. 

Often, with scared dogs like this, the click of the shutter is enough to get the ears to pop up. But it's not so loud that it scares them. We don't want a scared expression. So, this is a fine picture, but I think I can do better. If this is all we got, it would be perfectly fine. But I didn't like that he was still squinting his eyes. He was relaxing a bit more, and I thought a couple more clicks might get a slightly more alert expression. So I clicked the shutter a couple more times to keep his attention and hopefully get him to open his eyes a bit more. 

And this is the final body shot for Peter, so this is the one I edited. His eyes are nice and open and his ears are up. He's a timid dog, so I'm fine with him looking like a timid dog. We just don't want him to look terrified. This is a good representation of his personality. So, now I want to get a close-up face shot. A volunteer was standing behind me and started crinkling a toy (again, no squeakers). Crinkling a plastic bag would also work or shaking a treat bag.

And this is the final body shot for Peter, so this is the one I edited. His eyes are nice and open and his ears are up. He's a timid dog, so I'm fine with him looking like a timid dog. We just don't want him to look terrified. This is a good representation of his personality. So, now I want to get a close-up face shot. A volunteer was standing behind me and started crinkling a toy (again, no squeakers). Crinkling a plastic bag would also work or shaking a treat bag.

As soon as he looked up at the volunteer, I snapped the pic. So this is his edited headshot. He still looks true to his personality without looking terrified and unapproachable. I usually want the dog looking at the camera for the headshot, but getting that close with the camera scared him, so he needed the distraction of looking up at something. For the next picture, I want to show that he's a very sweet dog who wants to feel secure with a person to comfort him.

As soon as he looked up at the volunteer, I snapped the pic. So this is his edited headshot. He still looks true to his personality without looking terrified and unapproachable. I usually want the dog looking at the camera for the headshot, but getting that close with the camera scared him, so he needed the distraction of looking up at something. For the next picture, I want to show that he's a very sweet dog who wants to feel secure with a person to comfort him.

So we asked the volunteer, Susan, to hold him for a photo. This is a good way to show that, while he's scared, he's still loving. He's not a dog who will bite when he's picked up. He just needs a patient person to help him get settled. He's scared, but willing to relax, and that's what I want to show in his photos. Since he was a tougher one, I spent maybe 5 minutes on his pictures. Still not a long time at all. I had one person sitting with him on the bench and one standing behind me to help get his attention. 

So we asked the volunteer, Susan, to hold him for a photo. This is a good way to show that, while he's scared, he's still loving. He's not a dog who will bite when he's picked up. He just needs a patient person to help him get settled. He's scared, but willing to relax, and that's what I want to show in his photos. Since he was a tougher one, I spent maybe 5 minutes on his pictures. Still not a long time at all. I had one person sitting with him on the bench and one standing behind me to help get his attention. 

Tips for Cat Photos

Getting a nice-looking cat portrait is tough.  Most shelters don't have an outdoor cat area, so a lot of shelter cat photos tend to be taken in cages.  Below are my tips for getting a nice, well-lit cat photo with limited resources, even if you have to take them in a cage.  These photos can be taken in pretty much any shelter.  I never use a flash or artificial lighting.  All you need is one window to light your portrait. 

The Basics:

  1. Try to use a quiet, empty room for photos, preferably with at least one window.  It's always better than a cage. 
  2. Always make sure the cat is facing the window.  Depending on how the room is set up, the window can even be to the side of the cat. This lights up their face and eyes. If you have to work in a cage, try to get the cat to look towards the closest window.
  3. Use a large aperture (like f/1.8), especially if the cat is in a cage.  This will put a sharp focus on the cat's face, and blur the cage so it doesn't stand out much. 
  4. Have someone dangle a cat toy just above your camera to get the cat to look up and alert. If they don't respond to toys have a helper pet/scratch the cat and take their hand away right when you're ready to snap the photo.  I'll usually count to three so they know when to move their hand, and they should always move their hand above the camera.  This usually gets a nice alert expression with the cat looking up towards the hand (and your camera). You can also use a crinkly bag or the sound of a can of food opening to get their attention.  The important thing is to coordinate this action with the camera snap so you're ready to get the  picture.
  5. If the cat is nervous about being out of their cage, try a heating pad.  Put it under a nice-looking blanket for pictures.  If you don't have a heating pad handy, throw your blanket/backdrop in a dryer to warm it up and make it inviting for the cat to lay on. I rarely have a cat that doesn't respond to a nice warm spot to snuggle in. 
The way this room is set up, it's hard to have the cats face the window.  But it has these little ledges right by the window.  So having the window beside them works okay.  You can see some catchlights in his eyes, making them stand out. It's always preferable to have them facing the light, when possible.  I had to lighten his face a bit in Photoshop. His buddy was sitting in the shot, but it makes for a nice composition.

The way this room is set up, it's hard to have the cats face the window.  But it has these little ledges right by the window.  So having the window beside them works okay.  You can see some catchlights in his eyes, making them stand out. It's always preferable to have them facing the light, when possible.  I had to lighten his face a bit in Photoshop. His buddy was sitting in the shot, but it makes for a nice composition.

This kitten was following me around and begging for attention.  He was sitting at my feet, so I just pointed the camera down and snapped when he meowed. The angle also shows how tiny he is. Since he was already focused on watching me, I just moved so that he turned his head towards the window (see the light in his eyes?) and then took the picture. 

This kitten was following me around and begging for attention.  He was sitting at my feet, so I just pointed the camera down and snapped when he meowed. The angle also shows how tiny he is. Since he was already focused on watching me, I just moved so that he turned his head towards the window (see the light in his eyes?) and then took the picture. 

With a room like this, all the cats are loose and just lounging on various pieces of furniture.  This kitty stood up as I walked over, and since he was already facing the window, I just snapped a quick picture.  Less than 10 seconds and we're done.  Always be ready to snap the picture.  I adjusted my camera settings before walking over, since I figured he'd probably stand up as I got closer. 

With a room like this, all the cats are loose and just lounging on various pieces of furniture.  This kitty stood up as I walked over, and since he was already facing the window, I just snapped a quick picture.  Less than 10 seconds and we're done.  Always be ready to snap the picture.  I adjusted my camera settings before walking over, since I figured he'd probably stand up as I got closer. 

This is an example of a cage picture. Unfortunately, the window in this room is behind the cages, so it's really not set up for good photos.  But I used a very high ISO setting on my camera to allow more light onto the camera sensor so the photo isn't dark.  It does make the picture a bit grainy, but it's still a good shot for an adoption photo.  The one good thing about taking photos in the cage is that the cat will usually stand up and look alert just because you opened the door.

This is an example of a cage picture. Unfortunately, the window in this room is behind the cages, so it's really not set up for good photos.  But I used a very high ISO setting on my camera to allow more light onto the camera sensor so the photo isn't dark.  It does make the picture a bit grainy, but it's still a good shot for an adoption photo.  The one good thing about taking photos in the cage is that the cat will usually stand up and look alert just because you opened the door.

Another cat room shot.  These ledges were beside the window, and you can see that the cat looking outside.  He was already sitting here.  No need to move him or bother him.  I might've had someone get his attention towards the window, but that's it. 

Another cat room shot.  These ledges were beside the window, and you can see that the cat looking outside.  He was already sitting here.  No need to move him or bother him.  I might've had someone get his attention towards the window, but that's it. 

This kitty was not happy about pictures.  I put a heating pad under the blanket to help her relax, and my helper kept hands on her to help her feel secure.  You can see her hands in the photo, but they're blurred into the background because this was shot at f/1.8.  I don't blur anything in photoshop.  This is all done in-camera  I recommend using the lowest number your lens will allow. This is something you can easily learn in a day and it makes a huge difference when photographing animals. 

This kitty was not happy about pictures.  I put a heating pad under the blanket to help her relax, and my helper kept hands on her to help her feel secure.  You can see her hands in the photo, but they're blurred into the background because this was shot at f/1.8.  I don't blur anything in photoshop.  This is all done in-camera  I recommend using the lowest number your lens will allow. This is something you can easily learn in a day and it makes a huge difference when photographing animals. 

Learning to shoot in Manual mode is so important, especially when taking pictures of cats and dogs.  In shelters, you don't always have the option of choosing a great location for photo sessions. You have to work with what they have, and the ability to quickly change your camera settings to fit the situation is essential. If you can spend a day to learn f-stop, ISO, shutter speed, and how to use them together, you'll see a huge difference in the quality of your photos. I'll try to cover these in a future post!

Taking a Dog Portrait in Under 5 Minutes

This post is a quick guide to taking shelter dog portraits. In future posts, I'll go into more detail with some of these tips and troubleshoot common problems. If you have a specific question you'd like me to cover, just email me!

I usually take photos of around 20 dogs in a photo session at the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia.  I try to keep the whole session to under 2 hours, so I only have a few minutes per dog to get a couple of good photos.  I always shoot in natural light, preferably outside.  If I take photos indoors, I position the dog facing a window for lighting. 

Basic steps are as follows.  Below this, I'll go into greater detail:

  1. Give the dog a few seconds to settle. Let your helper(s) pet and reassure the dog so they can relax a bit. You can let them sniff your camera.
  2. Position the dog with their back to the trees, wall, bushes, etc. and face towards the open sky. If it's sunny, work in a solid shady area to avoid spotty shade spots on the dog. 
  3. Have a helper get the dog in a sitting position and hold the leash taut (but not pulling on the neck).
  4. Have a second helper stand behind you and squeak a toy once when everyone is ready. Or you can do this yourself with your free hand.  If the dog is scared of squeaks, you can shake a treat box or crinkle a bag.
  5. When the dog perks up in response to the squeak, snap the picture. 

Here are some tips for getting the most out of your portraits:

Use a large aperture. I use a cheap "nifty fifty" prime lens.  I shoot at f/1.8 to get a sharp focus on the dog's face and a nice, pretty, blurred background.  This is also great for bully breeds to really focus on their eyes and make them look soft and approachable.  This picture was taken on a cold rainy day in a breezeway at a shelter. The large aperture makes low light photography a breeze.  This requires shooting in manual mode, but it's very easy to learn.

Use a large aperture. I use a cheap "nifty fifty" prime lens.  I shoot at f/1.8 to get a sharp focus on the dog's face and a nice, pretty, blurred background.  This is also great for bully breeds to really focus on their eyes and make them look soft and approachable.  This picture was taken on a cold rainy day in a breezeway at a shelter. The large aperture makes low light photography a breeze.  This requires shooting in manual mode, but it's very easy to learn.

Set your camera to burst mode.  Taking a bunch of shots in one click is essential since dogs move fast and change expressions even faster.  I took 5 quick photos of this dog and managed to get this great "smile" in there.  I don't believe in "spray and pray" shooting where you just take a bunch at once and hope for the best.  Always set up your shot and then take a burst of several photos in case the dog blinks or makes a weird face.  You should get at least one "good" face in the mix that way. 

Set your camera to burst mode.  Taking a bunch of shots in one click is essential since dogs move fast and change expressions even faster.  I took 5 quick photos of this dog and managed to get this great "smile" in there.  I don't believe in "spray and pray" shooting where you just take a bunch at once and hope for the best.  Always set up your shot and then take a burst of several photos in case the dog blinks or makes a weird face.  You should get at least one "good" face in the mix that way. 

Fast shutter speed. This is necessary to avoid blur with wiggly dogs. I try to use a shutter speed of 400 or faster. 

Fast shutter speed. This is necessary to avoid blur with wiggly dogs. I try to use a shutter speed of 400 or faster. 

Pretty backdrop. Colorful, vibrant backdrops are eye-catching when scrolling through social media. A nice backdrop will help get a dog noticed. I like to use thrift store quilts

Pretty backdrop. Colorful, vibrant backdrops are eye-catching when scrolling through social media. A nice backdrop will help get a dog noticed. I like to use thrift store quilts

Ask for help. Sure, you can take pictures by yourself, but it's very difficult.  I like to have two helpers, usually volunteers or staff at the shelter.  One person holds the dog and the other stands behind me to get the dog's attention.  Also, if your dog doesn't want to cooperate for a "standard" portrait, your helpers can be included in the photo for a unique shot like this.  What dog doesn't cooperate for a  good belly scratch?  For a standard photo, one person will hold the dog, and another will stand behind me to use treats or toys to get the dog's attention.  Don't oversqueak toys.  Wait until everyone is ready and have your helper squeak a toy one good time to get an alert expression from the dog.  I try to bring things that make different noises.  If the dog doesn't respond to squeaks, they might perk up for a crinkly plastic, shaking a treat box, or having your helper make crazy noises with their own voice.

Ask for help. Sure, you can take pictures by yourself, but it's very difficult.  I like to have two helpers, usually volunteers or staff at the shelter.  One person holds the dog and the other stands behind me to get the dog's attention.  Also, if your dog doesn't want to cooperate for a "standard" portrait, your helpers can be included in the photo for a unique shot like this.  What dog doesn't cooperate for a  good belly scratch?  For a standard photo, one person will hold the dog, and another will stand behind me to use treats or toys to get the dog's attention.  Don't oversqueak toys.  Wait until everyone is ready and have your helper squeak a toy one good time to get an alert expression from the dog.  I try to bring things that make different noises.  If the dog doesn't respond to squeaks, they might perk up for a crinkly plastic, shaking a treat box, or having your helper make crazy noises with their own voice.

Wait for happy faces!  Especially with bully breeds, you ideally want an open mouth, ears up, and relaxed posture. Most dogs are tense right at the beginning of picture time.  Give them a few seconds to relax, have your helpers scratch them, play, or give them treats (this just depends on the dog.) It usually only takes a couple of minutes for them to have an open, panting ("smiling") mouth.  Sometimes that just isn't possible.  The dog might be afraid of the camera, or it may be too cold for the dog to pant. In that case, I try to take the picture from above so the dog is looking up at the camera and the focus is on their eyes.  This angle makes them look more approachable and friendly.  Or I just try to wait for a soft, calm expression (see next pic.) Always position their face towards the light to get catchlights in their eyes.

Wait for happy faces!  Especially with bully breeds, you ideally want an open mouth, ears up, and relaxed posture. Most dogs are tense right at the beginning of picture time.  Give them a few seconds to relax, have your helpers scratch them, play, or give them treats (this just depends on the dog.) It usually only takes a couple of minutes for them to have an open, panting ("smiling") mouth.  Sometimes that just isn't possible.  The dog might be afraid of the camera, or it may be too cold for the dog to pant. In that case, I try to take the picture from above so the dog is looking up at the camera and the focus is on their eyes.  This angle makes them look more approachable and friendly.  Or I just try to wait for a soft, calm expression (see next pic.) Always position their face towards the light to get catchlights in their eyes.

Remove leashes and other distracting objects in Photoshop.  I always try to have dogs leashed for photos.  It helps keep them in place and focused. And if we're in an open area, it's absolutely necessary for safety.  I have someone hold the leash up and tight, but not so tight that it pulls on the neck.  It's easy to edit out in Photoshop.  The same applies for hands, and any other distractions in the photo. Of course we want the focus on the dog's face and not on leashes or anything else.  Also, notice the positioning of this dog.  I have his back towards the trees and his head facing the open sky. This allows for catchlights in his eyes so they stand out in the photo. 

Remove leashes and other distracting objects in Photoshop.  I always try to have dogs leashed for photos.  It helps keep them in place and focused. And if we're in an open area, it's absolutely necessary for safety.  I have someone hold the leash up and tight, but not so tight that it pulls on the neck.  It's easy to edit out in Photoshop.  The same applies for hands, and any other distractions in the photo. Of course we want the focus on the dog's face and not on leashes or anything else.  Also, notice the positioning of this dog.  I have his back towards the trees and his head facing the open sky. This allows for catchlights in his eyes so they stand out in the photo.