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Great Photography Saves Lives

Does that shelter photo really make a difference in adoptions? In 2014 the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science took a look at 468 photos of various dogs adopted via Petfinder across the US. The goal was to discover how much of a difference an image makes in adoption, as well as what aspects of the photo most capture the attention of adopters.

You can read the entire study here, but in brief, they found having a good image made a world of difference in how quickly dogs were adopted. The dogs with a high quality profile photo were adopted within 14 days, compared to 43 days otherwise.  Among adult dogs, being outside made a big difference, with an average adoption time of 37 days compared to 51 days for indoor photos. In my personal experience photographing “old timers” (both dogs and cats that have been at the shelter way too long) in nearly every case the pet was adopted soon after their new image was posted online.

The study found these to be some of the most important aspects of the image to adopters:

  • the dog making direct eye contact with the camera
  • the dog standing up
  • the dog posing in an outdoor location
  • the overall quality of the image

Interestingly, the things I see many people do to make dogs appear more friendly, like wearing a bandana, flower or shirt, having a toy in the photo, or dogs with tongues out, didn’t have much sway on potential adopters.  The take away from the study is a photo of the dog or cat looking into the camera and enjoying an outdoor setting is the biggest factor in getting adopters to inquire.

With that said, below are 5 key recommendations for getting the most out of your shelters adoption photos, even if all you have to work with is a point and shoot or a smartphone.

TIP #1

Create a relaxing environment when you can. Let them play and then snap some photos.  Take the dog outside, and remove the leash whenever possible.  Look for interesting backgrounds like trees, benches, colorful walls or doors and arches.

Make sure there are no distracting elements in the photo like a fence, kennel, bars of any type and other obvious things like a garbage can and dog poop (or anything that the viewer might think is dog poop!).

TIP #2

Try not to shoot into the sun or in direct hard sunlight. Sunrise and sunset are optimal times for photography because they offer the best colors without too much brightness.

Overcast or cloudy days can also work in your favor – but if you don’t have that option or the choice of time of day, find an area with open shade, i.e. the side of a building or in a door way.  This creates softer light and will improve the overall image quality.

TIP #3

Get the dog to look directly in the camera.  This is not always easy with shy, frightened or stressed dogs. When you hold an object in front of your face dogs can become uncomfortable as they can not read your facial expression.  Try holding the camera at their level so they can see your face.

If they are treat (the stinker the better – not a plain old cookie) or toy motivated hold the item directly over the camera lens to get their attention.  Also making funny noises to get their attention will often have them perk their ears or tilt their head which is a great look for an adoption photo.  Don’t do this too much though as it quickly looses appeal.

TIP #4

The main goal of every portrait should be to make a connection with the viewer. The best way to do that is to focus on the eyes, so go for close-up headshot.  Also be sure to pull-back and get a full-body shot.

Shoot from above, get down on their level, or get below them and look up for differing looks.

TIP #5

Stay calm and be patient.  You probably have too many dogs that need adopting and a bunch of other stuff you need to do, but rushing this process will not result in the best images.

When you are calm and relaxed the dog will feel more comfortable.  Use a clam, friendly tone in your voice, spend sometime petting and loving on the dog and enjoy the process.


Find a professional to do it for you. is a great organization where you can find a local pro, like me, to help with your photos.  Get in touch, I’m happy to help.

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