Donate your photography skills to your local RSPCA

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.

This is Lucas. Our goal is to get a good, square ‘mugshot’ of each cat as well as some showing the full body markings and especially, those cute photos showing the cat’s personality – you know, the ones that make you think, “Awwww….”

Check out the whiskers on this cute little guy.

How could you not love a face like this?

Aim for some playful shots.

Make images that highlight the animal’s strong points. This cutie has the most wonderful ear tufts and whiskers…

Not all images need to be face-on. Also, including props that add a bit of colour are great!

I use props like coloured tissue paper and coloured backgrounds to create a more pleasing backdrop.

This beautiful little girl, Patsy, was not at all happy when we first took her out of her cage. Her ears were back a bit and she just had that look of not being happy. So we gave her lots of time, reassured her, and gave her lots of love.

Ten minutes later, these were the sorts of images we were getting. Patsy had relaxed, warmed up to us, and was happy. So we were able to capture images that showed her true personality simply by being patient and connecting with her on her terms.

By the end of the photo shoot, she was Ms. Mellow. You can tell by her body posture. And she even played with some of the toys we presented to her. Seeing Patsy’s change in behaviour from nervous and untrusting to that of relaxed and trusting was worth every minute we spent with her.

This is little Ralphy. He was sick with an upper respiratory infection, but we still managed to get some cute photos of him. Soon as he had recovered, he was adopted quickly.

Sometimes the lighting conditions were terrible and other times they were nice. We just learned to make the best of it.

Sometimes the best images aren’t your best technical images or are far from the most aesthetically pleasing images. But in this case, it shows that Logan is a real people cat – he loves people and is very affectionate. Seeing this kind of behaviour can really boost adoption rates because let’s face it, everyone wants to adopt a pet that will be affectionate and that you can play with.

Especially with cats, having them look up and to the side is a very appealing pose.

This is Polar Bear. I couldn’t resist his cute little face. Even though you don’t see his face straight-on, I love this shot. It makes him look cuddly.

Sometimes, the kitty-through-the-cage-bars image can tug at the old heart strings…

A key to making cats look really appealing is to get their attention with a toy or a treat – anything to get that wide-eyed look. Those big, round eyes are very appealing, much more so than a cat that is squinting. Squinting cats tend to convey a grumpy or angry look. So get kitty’s attention and get those eyes big.

With Christmas coming up, we thought some themed images would be appropriate.

A few cat treats in the bottom of a gift bag can make it look like kitty is opening her present from Santa. 😉

I love using a very shallow depth of field to isolate just one part of the cat’s features.

Images showing behaviour – either interacting with people or with other animals – are great for showing that this particular kitty would be a good one if adopted into a home with other pets.

Sometimes, kitties are shy or frightened and won’t come out of their cubby-hole. But that’s ok. Just work with what you have. You can still get some great shots.

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.

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8 Comments

Filed under Digital Photography, learning, Mammals, photography

8 responses to “Donate your photography skills to your local RSPCA

  1. What a lovely post, and such a good idea. I think you are doing these cats a huge favour with your great shots – it must attract favourable attention and quicker adoptions.

  2. shelby

    Great write up Shelley. I miss photographing the cats. Hopefully when I finish my course next summer I can start back again. You have some good ideas I didn’t try. Instead was thinking how I could grow a few more arms and hands.

    • Lynda

      It’s Lynda not Shelby

      • Thanks Lynda. It’s a real learning process, isn’t it? Challenging and you definitely learn by doing. The cats are all so different so being flexible and adaptable is so important. Donna-Marie and I work together and take turns being photographer or kitty wrangler. 🙂 That REALLY helps. Trying to photograph them on your own is very, very difficult. The props really help too. I just need to get more coloured paper for nice backgrounds. Good luck with your course! I can imagine you miss the kitties. It’ll be great to have you back once your course is done.:)

  3. What a great service you are doing. Great shots! 🙂

  4. Pingback: Photos for a good cause | 44th Parallel Photography

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