FOCUS on saving lives… How to photograph Rescues

adorable studio pet photos

FOCUS on saving lives… How to photograph Rescues

Photographed above is Momma Serenity and her five Siamese mix babies.  Foster mom Melissa assisted Kelly to help get these amazing photos. The photos are used for each animal’s page on the Cats-Can, Inc website which feeds to Adopt-a-Pet and several other adoption sites statewide. As of August 26, 2015, the photos have been uploaded  online for just two days and already have three pending adoptions.

A great photo can be a life changer for a rescue animal.

A great percentage of people looking for a new pet use the internet to find one. They browse through the photos online through large pet adoption websites such as Petfinder, looking for the one funny, lovable, or perhaps shy little portrait that catches their eye.  They fall in love with the animal’s personality in the photo- it is the first step in the adoption process, that leads the path to the adoption event to meet the animal. We truly believe a great photo can help a rescue get adopted.
How to Photograph Rescue Cats and Kittens in a Pet Store Photographing rescue cats and kittens in a pet store is very challenging. The surroundings are very busy with shoppers. Some pet store shoppers bring their dogs.   The cats and kittens are brought in for the day from their warm, cozy foster homes and placed in the stacked cages on display hoping to meet their forever families.  Though they are given warm blankets to rest on and toys in their cages, some of the animals are scared, shy, and easily distracted.  It takes a lot of patience and dedication. Getting the purr-fect shot could take 10 seconds, 10 minutes or even a half hour.  Here are some practical tips on how to photograph a rescue cat in a pet store at an adoption event, including a link to a tutorial how to make a photo box for the shoot, and must know camera settings. Check back for a follow up  Photoshop tutorial on how to smooth out the background wrinkles.



  1. PREPARE for the Rescue Photo Shoot: Make a Photo box- to be done beforehand. See  How to Make a Photo Box. A photo box is very helpful in giving the rescue animal a sense of security because they are surrounded by walls on three sides.  It also helps contain the animal in one place, making it easier to get a photo.
  2. PREPARE by choosing your backgrounds and props before hand. Use colorful happy backgrounds and props. Using props are great for several reasons.  First they add a comfortable, relateable, home feel to the image. Secondly, for those animals that may want to run away, using hat boxes and other props they can fit in, helps give them a more secure feeling.  It is their initial instinct to hide in strange settings.  I let the animal tell me what props to use, based on their behavior.
  3. PREPARE by bringing an assortment of feather teasers, and treats to get the animals attention during the photo shoot.
  4. At the store – choose a location in the store where you will place your photo box.  Set-up a card table for your box in a quiet corner close to the adoption event area. Some pet stores have a cat room with a door that can be closed with clear windows.  If you can set-up your box in the cat room that would be even better.  If a cat or kitten gets loose in the store that would not be good.  Using a cat room with a door that you can shut, gives the animal and you more peace and quiet and a safety zone to catch the animal in if it gets away!
  5. ALWAYS have a volunteer assistant on hand to help with the rescue animals.  Kelly likes to use the cats/kittens foster parent to help with the animal. The cats are much more at ease with someone they know and recognize and are more willing to relax and play.  Another volunteer assistant should be on standby. The most important job of the assistant is to ensure the animal does not jump out of the box and run away  in the store. The second most important job of the assistant is to interact and play with the rescue to get the perfect photo.
  6. BEFORE you begin the photo shoot at the store, you should check and adjust your white balance camera settings first. Most pet stores use flourescent lights. Do not use flash. Kelly recommends using a gray card to set a custom white balance on your DSLR camera.  This will ensure your photo do not have a purple colorcast, and will keep your whites truly white.
  7. Choose your lens wisely.  Kelly uses a variety of fixed macro lenses for her pet photography beginning with a 50 mm, 85mm, and 100mm. Her favorite go to for the pet stores is the 50mm because there is a small space.  She uses the 100mm in studio because she has more room to back up.  Use a large aperature, and your shutter speed should be at least as fast as your lens length.  Shoot in macro to blur the background and keep your foreground sharp. Kelly suggests as large as your camera will go- f2.8.  Adjust your ISO after you have decided what you want your settings to be. Above images were taken with a Canon Mark III,  50mm lens f2.8, ss 90 iso 800, spot metering, custom white balance taken with gray card.
  8. DURING the shoot, You and your volunteer assistant should plan to spend at least 10 minutes caring, petting and loving the animal in the photo box, before attempting to take any photos.  Show the animal the props and toys you brought, interact and play with the animal. Give it a treat. Talk to the animal in a soft voice. Gaining the animal’s trust is a must. If the cat’s foster mom is there to assist, this step can be substantially shortened as the animal will already be at ease.
  9. With such a large aperature, you must focus on the eyes.  Get on the cats level. Use of an assistant is a must to help bring the animal’s eyes up and to the camera lens.  With the fourescent lights so far above in the pet stores, it is even more important to catch a glimpse of light in the eyes to keep them from looking dark and hollow.  The animal’s personality speaks from it’s eyes.
  10. Try to use feather teasers and treats. Teach your assistant what to do by demonstrating beforehand. Dip the teaser down in front of the animal, then up and to the side of the camera lens to get that picture. Make funny noises, but be sure they don’t scare the cat.  It takes alot of patience. If you feel it is not working, give the animal and you a break, by trying again later and moving on. The second time around is always a charm!
    kitten inside cardboard box photo booth
    kitten inside cardboard box photo booth
Kelly is a professional pet photographer and big animal advocate. She spends her spare time as a foster mom for rescued kittens at Cats-Can and has been volunteering with this local no-kill rescue group since May.  She volunteers her time and photography on weekends – photographing new cats and kittens that come in each week.