Animal adoption photography guide: Crafting images to help pets find their forever homes

Photo of two adoptable shelter dogs being hugged by a woman

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), approximately 6.5 million animals enter animal shelters throughout the United States every year. Unfortunately, overcrowding, illness, aggressiveness, and/or injury are just a few reasons why shelters are forced to euthanize approximately 1.5 million animals annually.

One way animal shelters prevent overcrowding is by encouraging the public to adopt/rescue animals. The ASPCA also reported that nearly 3.2 million animals are adopted each year. While this number may appear high, it still isn’t nearly high enough. One way shelters promote the animals that are available is through adoption photography.

Pet photography is a great way to show prospective adopters all of the wonderful qualities about an animal and get a virtual feel for the animal’s personality until they’re able to see them in person. This type of photography requires passion and love, and not necessarily “professional skills.” It is a DIY technique that can easily be done by amateur photographers. Let’s take a closer look at how photographing animals can help increase their odds of adoption.

What do you need to be an effective photographer for adoptable animals?

Even though it doesn’t take a professional to shoot animal photography, there are some basic soft skills that everybody behind the lens should possess. Regardless of experience, every good photographer should be:

Of course, having more experience in photography, especially wildlife and/or action photography, may help improve the overall quality of your animal adoption photography experience.

What types of cameras can you use?

The type of camera you use depends on how professional “looking” you want your photos to turn out. You can still create semi-professional photos using a smartphone. If your goal is to capture basic profile shots of the animal, then a smartphone may be the best option for you. However, keep in mind that you may not be able to capture the animal’s movement in detail or take as clear of an image as you would if you were to use a more professional camera.

Photo of a dog being taken on a smartphone.

A DSLR camera is a great option for those who want to step up their photography game with a user-friendly camera. This is a popular option for both amateur and professional photographers. Not only do DSLRs have auto-focus, but they also have numerous manual options that allow you to tailor each shot based on objective and environment.

Photo of a dog taken on a DSLR camera.

Another option is using a mirrorless camera. Unlike some DSLRs, a mirrorless camera captures an image without the use of a mirror in the camera’s body. Instead, mirrorless cameras use electronic viewfinders (EVF) to digitally capture images. This is a great option for individuals who want a more compact camera and the ability to view the image directly through the viewfinder.

What camera accessories are must-haves?

Behind every good photographer is a bag full of accessories to help them along the way. This includes packing extra lenses with varying focal lengths, batteries, camera straps, memory cards, and even personal belongings.

Aside from the varying lenses, if you are photographing animals you may want to consider investing in a:

None of the above are required to get a good photo — but they can be helpful in easing the production process.

Camera lenses

Photographers usually keep a variety of lenses with them while they shoot. Let’s take a look at the different types of lenses photographers may include in their accessories bag and what they’re used for:

Purchasing additional lenses can be costly. This is why any photographer should research each to determine whether or not it is necessary for the completion of their shot. It is also worth noting that whatever lens or accessory item(s) you choose, you should take the time to understand how it works. Not only will this give you a better understanding of the accessory, but it can also help you take better photos in general.

Photo of an adoptable shelter dog.

What are optimal camera settings?

While there’s no single set of camera settings that are best for animal photography, there are specific settings that may be favored over others. The camera settings used will depend on the end composition the photographer has in mind. For example, you may choose to use a shallow depth of field to focus on the animal, rather than the background. Other camera settings to consider include:

Because each setting is so dependent on the other, photographers are encouraged to adjust each setting along the way to see how they impact the other settings. Beginner photographers can access online resources to help them discover foundational photography skills — including a better understanding of the terms above.

Location and safety

One of the most important aspects of photographing adoptable animals is ensuring your safety and that of the animals. It’s important to keep in mind that you may not always know the animal’s background or demeanor. Certain items, sounds, or even surroundings could trigger their fight-or-flight instincts.

To remain as safe as possible, take the following safety tips into consideration:

Not every animal is going to give you a difficult time during a photo session. However, if they’re new to the shelter or have a history of aggression, then the safety tips above may come in handy.

General animal photography tips

Aside from camera settings and safety, there are also general photography tips to keep in mind when shooting adoptable animals. This includes:

Photographing dogs

Dogs can be rambunctious and difficult to predict. However, they can also be lovable and have great personalities. Being able to capture their personalities is crucial when posting them up for adoption. Here are a few tips and tricks to follow when photographing dogs:

Portrait of an adoptable dog.

Your goal is to get the dog adopted so you want to be sure to showcase every positive feature the dog has to offer. If they’re great with people, show them playing with others. If they love to nap, capture them in a cute sleeping position. Every dog has at least one lovable feature — it is your job to find it out and capture it.

Photographing cats

Unlike dogs, cats are a little more difficult to train and often do not follow commands. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to work with cats. Some cats are food motivated, for example, which means having treats on hand is a must. Here are other tips and tricks to consider when photographing adoptable cats:

Side angle photo of an adoptable cat on a smart phone.

Similar to dogs, cats have quite the personality, so it’s equally as important to capture it when you can.

Photographing small animals

Smaller animals like birds, rabbits, and reptiles, aren’t common pets like dogs or cats, but they still show up in shelters. So it is still important to capture professional shots to help increase their chances of adoption. Here are some tips to consider when photographing small animals:

Photo of a parakeet.

Photographing large animals

Large animals can range from large dogs to horses, depending on the shelter. Regardless, they may require more accessories to capture a suitable image. A few things to remember when photographing large animals:

Photo of a horse.

Using a drone is a great way to capture aerial footage of the animal. It also helps the photographer to get a great shot while maintaining a safe distance. However, remember the sound of the drone can be intimidating to some animals. Only use one if you feel confident in your ability to remain safe.

Editing rescue animal photos

Everyone’s editing schedule will vary. If you can, get a start on editing right away. That way your vision of how you want the photo to turn out is still fresh in your mind. Remember, you want the animal to be seen as it is, flaws and all. This is why it’s crucial to remain ethical while editing and refrain from manipulating the image in a way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent the animals.

Photo of an adoptable dog.

Using basic photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom can help you with your photo editing needs. Both programs can be accessed via iPad to help you edit on the go. Photo editing software can help correct color imbalances, lighten/darken photos, and even remove unwanted objects from the photo. You even can go through and remove any imperfections left by the camera like dust glares or scratches. Let’s take a closer look at other ways to edit rescue animal photographs.

Color and exposure corrections

Optimal camera settings can only help so much, and every photographer will have their preference when it comes to editing their images. Some may prefer vibrant, high-contrast, over-exposed photos, while others want minimal changes. Regardless, some color and exposure corrections are usually necessary.

When making these edits, keep in mind the goal of the photo: to compel people to adopt that animal. If your photo is too bright or too dark, it can be difficult for the viewer to completely see the subject. Also, don’t dull or over-saturate the photos. This could make the animal appear to be a different color than what it is — misleading the viewer.

Cropping and downsizing images

Photographers can also crop, increase, or decrease the size of the image in post-production. This type of edit may be done to put more of a focus on the animal, rather than its surroundings. Keep in mind that when making these changes, it can be easy to distort the original image — which is why you should make them in small increments, rather than all at once.

Photo of a dog.

Additional photography resources

While a lot of photography skills are learned over time, there are still a few resources you can use now to help speed along the process. For example, take the time to familiarize yourself with basic photography terms. Doing so can help save you time in the future, that way you don’t have to take the time out of a photoshoot to look something up.

Also, set time aside to brush up on general pet photography tips. Even though some of them may not apply to adoptable animals specifically, they can still help you get a feel for how to photograph certain animals.

Additional animal rescue resources

Animal adoption is a rewarding yet saddening experience all in one. If you are directly employed through the shelter, then you know just how hard the lives are of some animals. If you’re outsourced through a third-party company to take animal photos, take the time to get to know how the shelter runs. Why do they want to hire a professional photographer to take pictures of their animals? What can they tell you about the animals being photographed? You can learn more about animal rescue by using the resources below:

Taking photos of animals is a rewarding experience on its own. You too can make a positive difference in an adoptable animal’s life, one photo at a time.