How Minimal Skill and Effort Can Have a Huge Impact on Foster Dog Adoption Rates

How Minimal Skill and Effort Can Have a Huge Impact on Foster Dog Adoption Rates

Every holiday season (and sometimes in between), we see the typical high-end pet photography shoots as excellent photographers put their time, money, and skill into creating impressive setups and wall-worthy images to help breathe life back into adoption rates. But it can be a lot to commit to a proper studio setup to shoot dogs every month, let alone every year. However, even with minimal effort, skill, and time, the difference you can make at any time of year in a foster dog’s life as a photographer is incredible. You just wouldn’t believe it. So I’ll prove it.

I love animals. But you can’t compare my love and devotion to our best friends to that of my girlfriend’s family. Their household is home to six dogs as well as between one and four foster dogs at any given point in time. But as much time, effort, and expense as they put forth, even they can only do so much. They can rotate four (or even more) foster dogs through, but they can’t adopt each one of them; even with the ample space at their property, a couple people on a hill in Northern California can only do so much. And at the end of the day, it still takes a certain amount of time for a dog to be adopted.

Cecil was adopted in just about a week after these photos were taken.

In fact, with so much less effort than what they're doing, I can do so much more with my skill as a photographer. One day, I was asked to photograph one of the newest puppies when I happened to be visiting for dinner. I was disgusted by the much-too-warm ambient tungsten lighting — all directly overhead everywhere in the room. It's typical indoor lighting, but who likes shooting in that? I didn’t have any lights or reflectors with me, so I went along with it and told them, “Well, you’ll get what you get.”

The next day, I delivered some hastily edited images that most photographers would likely scoff at for their ridiculous contrast, clarity, and vibrance boosts — even I winced as I clicked, "Export." But this was a quick and dirty shoot, and they were appreciated. So with my familial obligations fulfilled, I moved on.

Most dogs take several months to adopt in this area from the particular shelter this dog came from. In those several months, the puppy grows. Unfortunately, but understandably, more people want a puppy than those that want older dogs. They want to go through all of those stages with their new family member: training, playing, chick-magnetizing… So the more time that goes before adoption, the more likely it will be that the dog simply won’t be adopted. There are only two ways to solve this problem: the hard way, and my way.

It's a fine snapshot, but the focus isn't perfect, the composition is lacking, and each subject/element in the image just doesn't have the spacing or separation I'd like to be able to call this anything more than a snapshot. But showing a little eagerness that people want to see is all you need.

A week after the shelter posted the photos I took, I received a text that the puppy I photographed was adopted. Honestly, I was shocked. I didn’t do anything special to set it up. I hadn't even paid attention to lighting. And the editing process was a joke. But here’s the thing: you just don’t need to go through all of that work to take photos that will excite someone about the prospect of sharing their life with a new pet.

In truth, most people like extremely high-contrast images. Most people aren’t photographers and don’t mind the lack of realistic eye color or ultra-sharp hair patterns brought out by an insane ramp of the clarity slider. I'm not saying you can or should lie about how these animals look. But you can completely crush the file to get somewhat decent "faked" lighting because your average person just won't notice. Half of the skill is in being able to shoot more than one frame per second and then being able to pick out the best images.

After some thought, I realized I could keep doing this. It takes me literally five or ten minutes — max — to get fifteen more-than-usable images to put online. And each time — including over the holidays when I was back home and, once again, asked to photograph a puppy — the puppy doesn’t last longer than a week… until it’s adopted.

Again, this is hardly a perfect image. But the sun just started to pour through an opening in the clouds, and that nice light, though imperfectly placed, was enough to bring out some nice color and highlight Cecil just a bit.

Instead of worrying about my setup and my editing and turning this into another personal project that I just don’t need right now, I’m going to make an effort to do more of this in my local community in Los Angeles this season (and likely this entire year). By shining just a slightly better light on all the dogs available for adoption at any shelter, you can help more than you ever could through simply adopting dogs yourself or even asking everyone you know to do the same. Give just a little time to photographing any shelter animal in your area and see how it changes their adoption rates.

If you’re reading this and manage or work at a shelter in the Los Angeles area, reach out to me. But if not, I’ll likely be reaching out to one of you soon enough, anyway.

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Kenneth Jordan's picture

It's true. It takes so little effort to accomplish so much. Hats off to you. I had the honor of being the only one volunteering to take simple snapshots at my local shelter when it first opened.

so good ! :D

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Aweee!!!! This is truly amazing, thank you for sharing this, warms my heart

I wrote multiple times to my local shelters offering to take photographs of the animals they were trying to re- home. They definitely would have been an improvement on what they had... Neither shelter bothered to send a single response. Can't say i didn't try!

Adam Ottke's picture

Totally. That's a bummer. Unfortunately, some shelters lack the personnel to respond promptly and make things happen like this. Sad...

David T's picture

Best go there in person and leave a good impression. So they know you are not a bozo.

Wade Spencer's picture

I've been considering offering up my services to a local shelter and this was just the push I needed. Thank you.

Adam Ottke's picture

Awesome! Glad to hear it! That makes this worth it already ;-)

It's so true. I just adopted a dog, and it was that one photo in particular that drew me to her. She was in her recovery kennel and just looking straight into the camera. It was nicely taken and that was all.

Michael Yearout's picture

I started doing this about 10 years ago at my local shelter (for both dogs and cats). It took a bit of convincing to get them to agree, but they quickly found professional portraits increased their adoption rate by 85 percent! Even I didn't think it would have so great an impact. But that is what the shelter director told me. I continue to volunteer once or twice a month, as time permits and it makes me feel good that I am doing something that helps all the homeless animals find their forever homes. Disclosure: I'm a cat person. But I tolerate dogs.

Jay Sullivan's picture

I’ve been shooting at a shelter nearly every week for five years. It’s very rewarding because everyone loves what you do, even if, like you say, it isn’t always great. And it’s fun to play with all those dogs. I rarely get to see the adopters but someone wrote to me once to say they adopted their dog soley on the basis of my photograph. That makes you feel good. I do have trouble passing on the less than stellar work but sometimes that’s all you can get. I am curious about what other people do for lighting. The shelter is too dark for natural light and working outside isn’t practical for a variety of reasons. The space is too small for studio lights and off-camera speedlights is very hit-or-miss, usually miss. I use on-camera flash bounced into a reflector. It’s not a bad look but I’d like to be able to change it up a bit.