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All Photos Courtesy of Westway Studio

If you love animals as much as I do, you want to see every single one of them find a loving forever home. Sometimes an animal will come into a rescue or shelter and find a home immediately but sometimes they’re not so lucky. A great way to help homeless pets is to donate your time and talent to an animal rescue or shelter to photograph their adoptable animals.

A beautiful photograph can make a huge difference in an animal’s life. One dog I photographed had been in the shelter for over a year. He had black fur and was an intimidating breed. Within two weeks of his adorable photos being posted to the shelter’s website, he found a home!

It’s pretty amazing the power we, as photographers, have. Let’s use it to put some good back out into the world! If you are ready to get involved with rescue animal photography but aren’t quite sure how to make it all work, you’re in luck!

Here are some helpful tips and tricks that I’ve learned over the years:

1. Patience

If nothing else, you must have patience. These animals have been taken from everything and everyone they’ve ever known and are now in a place with lots of other animals, none of their familiar smells, and all new people. That’s scary! And now you’re about to hold a big black box in front of your face, point a big, unblinking eye at them, and expect them to give you a great big smile. Have a little patience with them. Let them sniff you and check out your gear. Reward them with gentle words, a kind touch, and time to get used to the idea of having their photo taken. I like to plan for 15-20 minutes per animal. I know sometimes that’s not always feasible if you have 20 animals to photograph in two hours, but if you can give more time, it’s a good thing.

shelter animal portrait on savage seamless paper by terran bayer photographyPhotographed for Helen Woodward Animal Center

2. Hilariously Weird Noises

These work better for dogs than cats. As an added humor bonus, I surprise people all the time when I photograph animals because I forget to warn them that I’m about to make some crazy sounds. High-pitched noises tend to work best in getting perked ears and head tilts. Squeaker toys, panting, and whining like a dog will often get their attention, too. And, if all else fails, try a predator hunting call. Ears that are “at attention” are extremely important for a great portrait. Head tilts are just game-over material; no one can resist!

shelter animal portrait by terran bayer photographyPhotographed for Lionel’s Legacy Senior Dog Rescue

3. Seriously Stinky Treats

Wanna know the best way to a dog’s heart? It’s through their nose and taste buds. Enter: the stinky treat. Again, this tip is better for dogs than cats (don’t worry, kitty photographers, the next tip is for you!). I always have a hefty supply of Natural Balance L.I.T. Limited Ingredient Treats Hip & Joint Formula Jerky in duck and salmon flavors. They are easy to tear into bite-sized bits depending on the size dog you’re working with and are grain-free. I stay away from the chicken because a lot of dogs are allergic to that protein. That brings me to another point: ALWAYS ask the shelter or rescue if it’s okay to give an animal treats, just in case they have any allergies!

How do you use these stinky treats, you ask? I always like to give a little bite so they know what I have, and then I hold another treat above my lens or crinkle the treat bag to get them to look. Some dogs are going to be a little too treat motivated, though, and you’ll need to put the bag away. Some dogs aren’t treat motivated at all and you’ll have to try the next item on the list.

shelter animal portrait by terran bayer photographyPhotographed for Lionel’s Legacy Senior Dog Rescue

4. Toys

If you’re photographing cats, feather toys are a must. For dogs, try squeaky tennis balls in varying sizes and tug ropes. Most animals want to play and have fun; shelter and rescue pets are no different. Oftentimes they’re so excited for attention and something out of the ordinary that they can’t wait to play with you. Sometimes, though — going back to the whole “patience” thing — they just need a little time to warm up to the idea.

shelter animal portrait on savage seamless paper by terran bayer photographyPhotographed for Helen Woodward Animal Center

5. A Calm Attitude

Animals pick up on the energy of those around them. The calmer you are — and the calmer the energy of the people helping you — the easier this is all going to be. I’ve been known to stop a shoot, ask everyone to take a step back (I do, too), close his or her eyes, take a deep breath, and relax. I know everyone thinks I’m crazy when I do this, but nine times out of 10, it makes a huge difference and we can continue with the shoot in a whole different way.

shelter animal portrait by terran bayer photographyPhotographed for Lionel’s Legacy Senior Dog Rescue

6. Stay Safe

Always, always, always be safe. If an animal has known aggression issues, keep that animal on a secure leash at all times, use a long lens, and don’t get close. I almost had my face bitten by a dog with aggression issues. The dog seemed just fine so I was photographing up close when the dog lunged at me. Neither the handler nor I saw any warning signs but I’m not going to say the dog didn’t give any — we just didn’t see them. Thankfully, I was able to fall backward to get away from the dog and the handler had a firm grip on the leash to keep the dog from getting closer to me. So, be careful and don’t put yourself in the position that I stupidly put myself in. We all have to learn and I am just grateful my lesson came without permanent scars.

shelter animal portrait by terran bayer photographyPhotographed for Lionel’s Legacy Senior Dog Rescue

7. Find an Assistant

This may be someone you bring with you or it may be a rescue or shelter volunteer or employee. For shelter and rescue shoots, it’s typically the volunteers and employees who help me out. I can’t tell you how amazingly helpful it is to have another person there. They may be holding a dog’s leash, a reflector, treat, or toy, or moving around behind me to get the animal’s attention. Having an assistant makes life 10,000 times easier. Get one.

shelter animal portrait on savage seamless paper by terran bayer photographyPhotographed for Helen Woodward Animal Center

8. Show Off the Animal’s Features

It’s the main goal of every portrait: make a connection with the viewer. The best way to do that is to focus on the eyes — they are the gateway to the soul, you know. I always aim for one beautiful close-up headshot, one pulled-back full-body shot, and then, if time remains, a fun shot of the animal running, playing, rolling, sleeping, or something that is going to catch the attention of the viewer. Shoot from above, get down on their level, or get below them and look up for differing looks. Experiment with bandannas, collar adornments, and other props, if you’d like. I highly recommend this for dogs who are hard-to-adopt breeds, such as pit bulls. I, personally, think they are the cutest dogs in the world with the happiest smiles and wiggliest butts but not everyone sees them the way I do; sometimes the public needs a little help. Experiment and have fun!

shelter animal portrait by terran bayer photographyPhotographed for Aztec Doberman Rescue

9. Photographing in Outdoor Locations

If your shelter or rescue has some green grass, nice architecture, trees, and you can make it look beautiful, do it! Get the dogs out of their kennels so people see happy critters in situations where they can picture themselves being, too. Keep the dogs on a leash if the area you’re shooting in isn’t 100% secure. Try to stay away from chain-link fences and anything that has a “prison” feel. Look for trees, benches, colorful walls or doors, arches, and other interesting backgrounds.

shelter animal portrait by terran bayer photographyPhotographed for Lionel’s Legacy Senior Dog Rescue

10. Photographing in Indoor Locations

Not every shelter has an outdoor location and not every animal is a good candidate for being photographed outdoors. Maybe you just want to try out a new backdrop or test some new studio lighting techniques. Whatever the case may be, this is when I break out my roll of 107″ Savage seamless paper. It allows me to create stunning indoor portraits of the pets without the distracting elements of a busy shelter in the background. It’s also a lot of fun to experiment with different colored backdrops and floor drops to help bring even more flair to the portraits! This is where you really get to create exactly what you want.

shelter animal portrait on savage seamless paper by terran bayer photographyPhotographed for Helen Woodward Animal Center

Bonus Tip: Find the Right Shelter or Rescue to Work With

Not every animal rescue or shelter is right for every photographer. Find one or more that you feel a connection with and start building relationships with them. You should be approaching them because you want to do something good, not because you want to get anything out of it. The shelter or rescue should absolutely respect you, your work, and any boundaries you need to set so that you can continue to give back — such as only photographing a certain number of times a month — but only get into rescue and shelter photography because you want to help the animals. If it’s not a good fit, it’s okay to admit it and find another way to give back. And, if it is, AWESOME! Go forth, take amazing photos, and help one more animal find his or her forever family!

Terran Bayer

Terran Bayer is an award-winning professional pet photographer and graphic designer based in San Diego, California. Through her business, Westway Studio, Terran specializes in capturing the hearts and souls of our four-legged family members. Their time with us goes by so quickly and she takes pride in being able to provide families with lasting memories that celebrate every pet's individual personality. 

 

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