No Helper? No Problem! Solo Tips for Great Shelter Pet Photos

Camera: check! Extra battery: check! Cloth to wipe dog drool off lens: check! Treats, squeaky toys, catnip: check!

Helper: umm…nope.

Welcome to the day-to-day reality for many of us: we want the best photo possible for our animals but we may only have ourselves to 1) movethe animals to and from their kennels, 2) potty the dogs before the photo session, 3) bribe and beg them during the session, and 4) actually get a few good shots. In the meantime, you know there’s a bunch of work at your desk. Just a bit of pressure, huh?

As the Public Relations Coordinator at Anchorage Animal Care and Control I take many of the photos of our animals. I’m an amateur photographer and learning a lot as I go! It’s one thing to understand how to work your camera (still perfecting that!) and another to learn how to get a dog or cat to work with you for a photo. Every photo session I learn something, not the least of which is: every animal, therefore every session is different.

Some tips work most of the time but no tip works all of the time. So, here are a few that have worked most of the time for me:

  • I often take photos of dogs inside because there are fewer distractions which means it’s easier to get their attention. A treat is much more interesting when offered inside an empty classroom than outside in the play yard!
  • I position the dog in the center of the room to get a photo with fewer background distractions. The other area I use is outside in our play yard. I’ll only take a dog here before we open to the public because the play yard is close enough to the main entrance that I lose their attention. I’ve learned that I can’t usually beat the distractions of cars and other people.
  • Leroy and Tiger are two dogs photographed in the classroom. Both were sweet dogs but not “smiley”, and since both were blocky-headed, dark colored dogs, I wanted as soft of a look on their faces as possible. I found that treats made them look a little intense, as did some squeaky toys. I tried different squeaky sounds and found one that made both dogs look curious rather than overly focused. So, in this session, I learned that not all squeaks are created equal!
  • In our play yard I’ve learned that a large tire can provide a focus point for untrained dogs as well as shy dogs. I discovered this first with Tony, a 52-lb. pup who knew literally nothing. I spent the first part of the session trying to protect my camera whenever he playfully leapt at me. Then I started tossing treats inside the tire and, thankfully, he started jumping into the tire for the treats. Now the tire was more interesting than me! So we played this game for a while until I caught him coming out and actually sitting still for a moment. I used this same trick again with Summer, another rambunctious youngster.
  • In Kyrie’s case, he was very shy and didn’t react to toys or cajoling. So, I started tossing treats. Honestly, I didn’t think he’d go into the tire but in he went — and he loved it! And I started shooting every time he popped out to see if more treats were coming his way.
  • I’ll admit that with cats I cheat almost every time and use catnip. I’ve tried treats, toys, and warmers underneath the fleece backdrop, but catnip seems to be the most consistently successful option. I wait for the frenzy to subside and when they are taking a few moments to compose themselves I can usually get a good shot. Lark and Butternut both gave me great “after” photos. Not all cats respond the same to catnip, however, so it’s best to use it in moderation and only if other options aren’t getting you the results you need.
  • Willy Wonka taught me that moments are precious with cats. The best photo I got was the first shot — before he had time to get nervous in a new environment — which was fortunate because he was uninterested in catnip, treats, and toys! Some cats, on the other hand, appreciate a little time to explore their new surroundings first before settling down, so feel out their personality as you’re getting ready to shoot. Just be ready from the get-go!
  • I truly believe we owe our animals the best representation possible when we promote them to the public. I’m striving for that, and hopefully getting better, every time I take a photo…by myself.

Looking for more tips and tricks for getting great shelter pet photos in any shelter environment? Grab our free guide in the downloads library


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Laura Atwood

Laura Atwood

Laura is the Public Relations Coordinator at Anchorage Animal Care and Control in Anchorage, AK. The best parts of her job are taking photos of adoptable animals, the monthly Free Pet Food and Supplies Give-Away to help keep animals in their homes, and helping reunite animals with their people via Facebook. She lives with Blue, a 17-year old Border Collie mix, Whisper, a 3-year old Alaskan Husky, Piper, a 2-year old Rottweiler, Elsie the Cat, and her husband, Todd.