Advanced Photography Tips

Have the basics down? Here you can find advanced photography tips from award-winning photographer, Nanette Martin and much more!

Nanette Martin’s work has been found in LIFE, People and Sports Illustrated. Since Hurricane Katerina (2005), Nanette has photographed more than 8,500 homeless animals in 53 shelters across 11 states. She is dedicated to helping shelter pets get adopted through her non-profit organization, Shelter Me Photography, Inc.


Having the proper lighting is a crucial component of creating a great pet photo.  There are two primary types of lighting in photography, natural (the sun) and artificial (studio lights and camera flashes):

Natural Light –  Natural light is preferable to artificial light as it causes little to no color distortion to the image the way studio lights can do.  Unless a bulb is daylight corrected, it will emit a color the camera can see even if the human eye cannot (e.g., florescent bulbs are green to the camera). The down side to natural light is that it is not constant (changes with cloud cover, time of day and time of year) and accessibility may be an issue if you do not have a secure, shaded area out of earshot and line of sight of the shelter population.

Artificial Light – Artificial light is used when shooting inside (or outside before sunrise or after sunset) and is either continuous (stays on until you turn it off, like a light bulb) or intermittent (strobes or built in camera flashes). When it comes to artificial lighting there are several kinds

    • Continuous lighting – Continuous lighting allows the photographer to constantly see how the light is striking his subject and adjust accordingly. Cool lights (such as the Interfit Super Coolite 6 Kit) are highly recommended for photographing indoors, as they work with any camera. In addition, continuous lighting is less startling to the animals.
    • Strobes (flashes) – Strobes produce short bursts of light and can be very simple to use, like those in Point and Shoot cameras.  They adjust automatically but are directionally limited, or very complicated, like studio packs, which require higher end cameras and an understanding of the fundamentals of photography and light. Although the PAS cameras are simple to operate, they often create red eye.  NOTE: Some PAS cameras have a setting to fix red eye problems prior to downloading the images.

Indirect Light (soft)This light is preferred when photographing animals, especially those with black or white fur.  Indirect light casts poorly defined shadows with soft edges and originates from a large source like sunlight filtered through clouds or reflected off a light colored wall.

Direct Light (hard) –  Direct light casts strong, well defined shadows and originates directly from a point source, like the sun on a clear day or a spotlight. Direct light is not recommended, however, if you have no other choice then make sure your camera’s flash is turned on. The flash will act as a fill, meaning it will fill in the shadows that form under the eyebrows and individual hairs. This option should be considered as a last resort as it is difficult to create an evenly lit pet with much detail in the fur.

*Nanette’s Lighting Tip*

“Think of it this way: Direct sunlight bounces whereas reflected sunlight wraps or hugs. For example, when direct sunlight hits a black dog, it strikes the fur and bounces off, illuminating the outermost hairs and creating thousands of tiny hard shadows below each individual hair, creating a contrasty image without much detail. When indirect light coming from a sun lit, light colored building or photography reflector hits a black dog, the (soft) light wraps around each hair, lighting not just the outermost hairs but also the underlying ones as well as the space between, creating an evenly lit dog with detail in both the highlights and shadows.”



Camera Equipment

There many cameras on the market, but what is best for shelter photography? Nanette recommends a camera that is lightweight and durable, at least 10 megapixels, has continuous shooting mode, a hot shoe (the mounting point for a flash) and preferably video capabilities. See Nanette’s top 4 cameras for shelters and Camera Buying 101 comparison chart.

Megapixel, shutter speed, compression, what does it all mean? Find out in our Photography Glossary


Advanced Tips for Different Animal types

Dogs – Often the easiest of all species with which to connect and photographs best outdoors with natural light (when possible). When trying to capture a great photo, most dogs will respond to noise; useful photography tools can include balls, squeaky toys and of course, treats! Some dogs can be very energetic or bouncy, making them difficult to photograph. Try a sudden, loud shriek, it can sometimes stop an energetic dog in his bounce. Have a dog with teary eyes?  Make sure to wipe them prior to the photography shoot, it’s easier than editing them out later.


Cats –  Usually easiest photographed when in an enclosed room (unless, of course, a shelter has an outdoor cat enclosure). Try using a small, adjustable height folding table, it can make a great photography table for your adoptable cats. If using a drop sheet for the background, it can also be used as fence of sorts that will help keep the cat on the table. Try hanging a backdrop around three of the four sides of a folding table and secure the corners down (“A” clamps work great).



Birds – When photographing birds, particularly colorful ones, try to keep complimentary colors in mind. Using complimentary colors create much more contrast and can help your adoptable birds really stand out. For example, a green bird would likely look great photographed against a red or orange background.   Or, a bright white cockatoo will really stand out against a black or really dark background.  See our blog post on photographing birds for more information.




Small Pets – These pets tend to be quick and curious, so shooting with a video camera or camera with macro mode can be helpful. A video camera comes in handy for those small pets that move very quickly. Try shooting them in video mode and then selecting a frame to get a great photo.  Marco mode is great option for getting in really close and capturing super sharp, focused photos, which can be key for capturing the personality of small pets.  Find out more about using macro mode in our blog post.  While all pets can benefit from photos shot at eye-level, this particularly important when photographing small animals, as they are often best photographed when you can get down on their level.



Barnyard Pets – Photographing barnyard animals presents a different challenge than cats and dogs. More often than not, they can’t be picked up, easily moved or posed. Consider the time of day so that you can make sure to make great use of natural lighting you’ll need to capture barnyard pets. Two of the most important things when photographing barnyard pets, like with nature photography in general, are a fast lens and a lot of patience. Have patience and wait for the shot to present itself and then use a fast lens to capture it.




White Pets – White pets, like black pets, can sometimes be difficult to capture in photographs. Lighting is key when photographing white pets and you’ll want to make sure they are in well-lit room, or if possible in shady spot outdoors with natural light. A lightbox can really come in handy when photographing white pets (and small pets too!) and there are quick and inexpensive ways to set one up. Find out more about Photographing White Pets and how to create an easy, inexpensive lightbox



Black Pets – Black pets are well-known as being some of the most difficult to photograph. Much like white pets, the right lighting is crucial. Dim lighting will hide the pet’s features and really bright or direct light can play unsightly tricks with the pet’s fur. Black pets photograph best in diffused or reflected light. If you’re outdoors, try shooting in a shaded area out of the direct sunlight with the sun behind your subject. When indoors, try shooting with a large window or the light source behind the pet. Avoid using your flash! A camera’s flash with most often create a harsh light that will be unflattering for a black coat.