I belong to the Lanark County Camera Club, here in Perth, Ontario. In the spring, one of my colleagues in the camera club was looking for volunteers to work with the local animal shelter to photograph cats and dogs for adoption. The idea was to get people with photography skills to take cute photos of the animals for the adoption website. It’s a great idea. We all know how a cute photo of a kitten can tug at the old heart strings….
That’s exactly the idea behind this volunteer photography – make images of animals needing good homes. Not just images, but GOOD images. Ones that show the animal’s personality a bit and will make you think, “Awwww…. These kinds of photos will help boost adoption rates, which is the ultimate goal.
When I signed up to do my first photo shoot last April, I thought to myself, “I’ve never really photographed pets, aside from my own cat. But how difficult can this be?” I found out pretty quickly that it’s pretty challenging. Kittens and young cats are often full of energy and trying to photograph a moving fur-ball takes skill! In fact, those photos from my first shoot were pretty lousy! But on the second and third shoots, I started to figure things out – the best aperture to use for appropriate depth of field; necessary shutter speeds to freeze the action of a fluffy kitten moving faster than the speed of sound (I wondered where that sonic boom came from); whether or not to use flash. All of this came via trial and error (more error than anything, initially).
Other challenges included photographing the cats (we don’t work much with the dogs, but that’s mainly because I’m a cat lover and know cat behaviour really well, so I’m most comfortable with them) in a room full of metal cages. Not the nicest backdrop by any means. So instead we improvise. I usually bring coloured tissue paper (or in the case of this latest shoot, Christmas wrapping paper to tape to the wall to create a nice backdrop. I also bring props – colourful bandanas, pieces of cloth, feather boas, etc. But don’t forget THE most important props – cat toys and TREATS. Yes, TREATS will be your biggest item for success. Most cats are ruled by their stomachs and are happy to pay attention to you if you have treats in your hand. Just make sure before giving treats, that the kitty is not on any special diet and not supposed to have them.
I’m very lucky to have a good friend, Donna-Marie, also a cat lover, as a partner to work with. We trade off roles as photographer and kitty wrangler. The kitty wrangler is responsible for getting the kitty into position, using the props, getting kitty’s attention, trying to get that cute, wide-eyed look, stuff like that. Trust me, it’s not an easy job. In fact, none of it is easy. I wear knee pads and my grubby clothes because I’m normally getting up and down off the floor, rolling around on the floor and assuming all kinds of contorted positions in order to get the good shots. In fact, at the end of a 3 hour shoot, I’m tired! I usually end up going home tired and sore and head straight to a glass of wine and the hot tub. But more importantly, I have a smile on my face. If you’re a cat-lover, it’s impossible not to smile. Kitty-therapy is great. In order to get good shots, you have to interact with the animal. That might mean picking the cat up and snuggling them if they like that. For cats that are more cautious or nervous, it might simply be a scratch behind the ears. The key is to take TIME with each animal. Go for quality, not quantity. Spend time with each cat. It always amazes me how a very nervous cat, initially posing with its eyes narrowed and its ears back, can 10 minutes later, be relaxed, playing with toys and purring. It’s amazing what a bit of love will do.
Once you’ve established a comfortable rapport with the animal, the key is to try to bring out it’s personality and to capture that personality in your images. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, but oh, so rewarding. I’m still learning. In fact, the photo shoot I did yesterday was the first in a few months and I realized how rusty I’d become. But it is always, always fun.
One practical piece of advice, if you have your own cat at home, it’s a good idea to change your clothes as soon as you get home. Because of the stress and often crowded conditions, many of the animals in a shelter suffer from upper respiratory infections and other contagious conditions. You don’t want to pass those on to your own pet and so it’s a good idea to change all your clothes and put them in the laundry right away. Wash your hands before your pet your cat. It might sound a bit over the top, but my furry pal Maggie-cat is 16 and a half years old; she has medical conditions and is more susceptible to contagious diseases. So I have to be ultra careful with her. But it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Our kitty photos hopefully help increase the adoption rates and that’s why we volunteer our time. We volunteer our time with the Lanark Animal Welfare Society in Smiths Falls, Ontario. They are still developing their website to use more of the photos we take, but since most things are done on a volunteer basis, it takes time.
If you’re a photography, why not consider donating one day a month to photographing pets at your local RSPCA or humane society. I honestly believe that great photos really do make a difference.
Here are a few photos from some of our shoots.
When we photograph kitties, it’s in a small room filled with cages. We don’t have a dedicated photography room with fancy backdrops and great lighting. Often we’re in the adoption room photographing cats while the public are visiting, looking at cats they might want to adopt. It can get crowded with several people in the room. But the key is to just do your best. Work with what you have. Sometimes the background is nothing but an ugly wall or a window. Using a shallow depth of field can shift the focus away from these features and onto the animal. Use props and portable backdrops consisting of inexpensive gift wrapping. Of course you could make stunning photos if you were in a photo studio with all strobe lights, reflectors, etc. But that’s just not our reality. You have to be willing to do your best under the circumstance. Remember, any good photos you take are better than no photos.
Another benefit of your photography, in addition to hopefully boosting adoption rates, is that the animals get to spend time with you. They need socialization with humans and most of all, they need loving. It’s hard for them to get that when they are in cages most of the time. At the facility we shoot at, the staff and volunteers work exceptionally hard and they all try to spend time with each animal each day. But they can only spend so much time each day with each animal. So any time you spend with an animal, while you photograph it, will be a big benefit to the animal. They all need love.
All images on this page are copyright Shelley L. Ball.