"The image changes the heart and the heart changes the Mind."
-Nanette Martin, Shelter Me Photography
Shelter photography is quite possibly the most challenging type of photography there is, as it involves working in a very noisy environment with subjects that do not speak, and are easily distracted, scared, shy, anxious, etc. Additionally, the photographer and crew must work as quickly and discreetly as possible to avoid interrupting shelter operations. The following list offers some insight and suggested practices for those who want to become shelter photographers:
- Be prepared for the commitment. Once you get started, it's hard to walk away.
- Practice patience; you are going to need lots of it.
- Get a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera and practice! As far as I know, all point & shoot cameras have shutter lag (the delay between the time you press the shutter button and when the camera takes the picture); DSLRs do not. Connecting with a shelter pet is vital to capturing its spirit and sometimes that connection only lasts a fraction of a second. If your camera has shutter lag, you'll miss it.
- Practice photographing moving subjects, like your own pet, squirrels, ducks, geese, sporting events, etc. Practice holding the camera properly (horizontally for subjects wider than they are tall, vertically for subjects taller than they are wide and left hand under the lens for support). Your subject should be in focus without motion blur.
- Practice getting your subject's attention. Start with your own pet if you have one then practice on one that doesn't know you. Make noises with your mouth, squeeze a squeaky toy, toss a ball, offer a treat, etc. Develop a system and use it. Leave your humility at the door and accept the fact that you will at some point make a fool of yourself. It's okay, because that fool can and will save a life.
- Fill the frame with the subject. This is a very important skill to learn, as doing so gathers more information (pixels) about your subject, which translates into a better quality image in the computer. It is also a quick and easy way to separate your subject from its surroundings, making it the "star" of the picture.
- Make sure the eyes are in focus, as they are what viewers connect with.
- Get help. Ideally, you want at least two shelter workers bringing the dogs to you plus one more in case you need help getting the attention of the pet you're shooting.
- Get down low. Shooting from above minimizes the subject, so be respectful and shoot from their eye level. Doing so makes it easier to get their attention.
- Get the pet's attention. Remember all that time you spent practicing to be a fool (see #5 above), feeling self-conscious and well, foolish? Well, it's now showtime! Some pets are audibly stimulated while others are visually stimulated. The sooner you figure out which one to use the better. Pay attention to the pet's energy/disposition (are they scared, depressed, hyper, anxious, etc.?) and respond accordingly (e.g., don't make a loud piercing noise to attract a scared dog). Use the system you developed in #5. Dogs that have been surrendered might know phrases like: "Wanna go for a walk?" or "Wanna treat?" Ideally, you want them to look directly into your lens with perky ears and a tongue that's under control.
- Don't give up. Getting "the shot" can take 10 seconds, 10 minutes or a half hour or more depending on, among other things, the skill level of the photographer and handler and the disposition of the animal. If you are struggling, take a break or move the pet to the end of the line. Whatever you do, don't give up. Having a DSLR is really important when you have a wild one as it will allow you to fire multiple frames per second; chances are one of them will capture a usable image.
- Be aware that a great picture can have a far-reaching effect. It will likely facilitate an adoption for the shelter and enrich the lives of the adopting family, both of which are tremendous accomplishments! It can also boost the morale of shelter workers who have their hearts broken on a regular basis and know that they may be giving a pet the only love it will ever know. Helping that pet find a home is the greatest gift you can give that worker.
- Always be professional, courteous and appreciative. Photographing shelter pets requires incredible patience, determination and cooperation between the photography crew and shelter staff. Anyone who works or has spent much time in a shelter environment knows there are inherent, everyday stressors that can cause tempers to flare. To avoid becoming another stressor for the shelter staff, always be professional, courteous and appreciative for the work they do, especially if they are assisting you. And remember, people will be people. Let it go. You're there for the pets.