Animal Shelter Photography: Prettify or Reality?

By Elisa Black-Taylor

Should animal shelter photography prettify the animals or show harsh reality? This is a continuation of an article Michael wrote a year or so back. Michael’s article basically explains how good shelter photos of cats and dogs can mean the difference between life and death.

The idea for this article came after the shelter in Greenville where my cats were all rescued from has made the decision to do their photography “in-house” instead of using a professional approach. For the record, the shelter claims they haven’t banned photographers, but it’s been upsetting to those professional, as well as semi-professional animal photographers who have been offering their services to the shelter free of charge.

If you go on their Facebook page ( now you can see the difference in the style of photography between photos taken in September versus photos taken in August and before.

Posed method of shelter animal photography

Until September 7th I will give 10 cents to an animal charity for every comment. It is a way to help animal welfare without much effort at no cost. Comments help this website too, which is about animal welfare.

Instead of posed cats and dogs against beautiful backdrops, you now see cages and concrete floors. This was very upsetting to me because I’ve been a believer that professional photos of the euthanasia list animals would help get them adopted faster than showing the real horror of their confinement.

Reality animal rescue photos

Prettified or Reality?

I’ve always been a believer that people are more likely to identify and connect with a beautiful, happy cat or dog than with one that looks like it came off one of those late night commercials put on by the Humane Society of the United States. Those of you in the U.S. know the ones I mean, where every animal looks sad and miserable and you can hardly wait for the commercial to end.

This all turned into a little test last week, when I got into a discussion on whether potential adopters would rather see a beautiful, possibly airbrushed photo, or the truth. In other words, which style is more likely to urge a potential adopter to contact the shelter about rescuing a cat or dog? I was surprised to learn most people want to see the harsh reality. Many believe the cages and concrete floor and the heartbreaking expression on a death row animals face are more likely to motivate an adopter into getting an animal off of death row and into their home.

Another concern came up during the discussion I was having. If a photo is made by a professional and made to look exceptional using Photoshop or a similar program, it may not give a true impression on how the animal really looks. Sometimes to the point of making that animal almost totally unrecognizable.

I’m the first to admit I use a feature called “bloom” on my PhotoScape editing software. I’m not intelligent enough to use Photoshop, despite an antique degree in photography and 12 years experience as a professional photographer. It’s easy to tell that many photos taken at shelters have been softened before being put online. But does this present what many would call a half truth in how the animal really looks?

How do you feel about how shelter cats and dogs are portrayed in their photos? Do you want to see the harsh reality that shows depressed and sometimes sick animals. Or would you prefer to keep your blinders on and have professional photographers sugar-coat the situation by creating the illusion of health and happiness?


11 thoughts on “Animal Shelter Photography: Prettify or Reality?”

  1. Whatever gets them adopted. I think it may well be the pretty photos that get them adopted better – so be it then. This is an interesting topic. If I lived by a shelter I would be very happy to take on this job of photographing them as best as I could.

    • I would like to photograph rescue cats and dogs. I should find a local shelter and ask but they probably have their own systems and are probably miles away. Mind you, it does me an idea. I might investigate that. It is about available time. I am quite busy for an old geezer about to receive his state pension….

  2. Good subject, Elisa. Firstly, there is not much prettifying going on. The posed pics are not much better than the “real” ones. The photographer just put a scarf around the dog and took him out of the cage.

    However, the argument that pictures should be real (to tug at the heart-strings) is interesting. I had always believed that making the rescue cats and dogs more attractive would help them get adopted but perhaps not.

    My personal choice is that posed and prettified – done to a higher standard than seen on this page – is preferable.

    A mini studio somewhere out the back of the shelter should be set up and a proper job done. No Photoshopping. The picture should be real with respect to the cat or dog but the presentation should be attractive so people can visaulise the cat in their home and the cat or dog should be clean and groomed. Let the natural beauty of the animals shine.

    • A few notes in reply:

      You must work within the confines and constraints of the system. In a four to five hour volunteer shift we would often photograph thirty plus dogs. On teh surface that sounds like a lot of time, but factor in that we are responsible for finding the dogs as well as photographing them. Greenville has very very little in the way of tracking animals within the system. We would often spend half an hour trying to locate the dog we were to photograph. In actual time in front of the camera we were lucky to have two minutes with a terrified dog. Our backdrop is a concrete wall. The shelter does not allow us to use backdrops or props. The bandana is our only option.

      Regarding photoshop. You are woefully misguided in the proper application of photoshop if you dismiss it with a simply no. If I have a dog that is showing aggression but as massive “eye boogers” we photoshop them away rather than scaring the dog further and as a result having a DHEC bite record on the animal. Furthermore animals are often caked in feces and sometimes bloodied from living in close quarters with unfamiliar dogs. Would you have me show the poop stuck to a dogs head and blood on it’s white fur or photoshop it away? A true professional photographer enhances an image without altering it’s true form via photoshop.

      I have left as volunteer coordinator with the shelter due to many disagreements with management but continue to work with dogs through rescue groups needing photography. By doing so I am able to produce an image that far exceeds the images we were shoehorned into shooting at the GCAC shelter.

      Never forget that parameters are in place that you are unaware of.

      Todd Williams

      • Thanks Todd for shedding some light on this difficult work. Appreciated – really. I see the restraints more clearly now.

        The shelter does not allow us to use backdrops or props..

        Why is that? It seems like a strange decision to me.

        massive “eye boogers” we photoshop them..etc…

        I was generalising. Sorry. I agree some gentle prettifying is OK. Definitely. I do it myself, removing minor “defects” around the eyes etc. However, it does make me ask why the shelter doesn’t clean up the dogs in reality. Why depend on Photoshop? Feces, eye gunge etc can removed physically and isn’t it good for the dog? It seems that time constraints and staffing levels prevents this in which case it appears that Grenville is constantly under crisis management.

        This is an interesting subject. I guess you agree that some prettifying is better than the raw reality picture.

        • It’s an eye-opener to learn the dogs and cats have feces and blood on them. Doesn’t surprise me with all the negativity I’ve heard over the past 2 months. I know a lot more than I’m able to write about here but I’m confident the animal lovers in the Greenville area will bring about positive change. Todd spoke at the council meeting last night. Wish I could have been there to hear what was discussed.

          • Elisa, I am surprised that Todd is asked to photograph dogs with blood and feces on them. It does not give me the impression that the place is managed well or that the cats and dogs are well cared for. I may be too harsh and critical but if the shelter can’t even wash the dogs what chance of preventing disease?

      • No wonder you’re frustrated Todd. Blood and feces and everything. OMG! My Furby has a runny eye a lot of the time that I use a mole removal feature to remove. I do miss your shelter photos. The shelter made a big mistake when they lost you.


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