If you follow our advice to take animals out of their cages before photographing them, you will have to enlist the help of an animal handler. This is someone who will take the animals out of their cages, hold them, and work with them to keep them calm, safe, and relatively stationary while you are working. Photographing animals is much harder than photographing people and a good handler is vital to your success as an animal photographer.
The handler can be a member of the shelter staff, a volunteer, or you can enlist a friend or family member to serve in this role. We recommend the last option if possible. Try to get your spouse, a family member, or a friend who shares your love of animals to go with you on a regular basis so that you can learn how to work together as a team to get the best photographs. Make sure that your handler has gone through the same interview process and training that you have, do not bring in someone who has not.
Your handler will have many responsibilities to both you and the animal. It is a difficult job, in many ways more difficult than yours. They must learn how to quickly develop a bond of trust between themselves and the animals and learn how to recognize and work with all the different personality traits that they will encounter. Being an animal lover is essential! I have been lucky enough to have my wife as a handler for the last couple of years and together we have developed a list of tasks that she can perform to ensure our success.
Getting the Animals
You will most likely be burdened down with your camera and other photographic equipment so your handler is usually the best person to get the animals out of the cages. Ask the shelter staff or volunteers the correct way to do this. Always make sure that the dogs are on a leash at all times.
Calming the Animals
Before you try to photograph the animals, you should let your handler spend a little bit of time with them to calm them. The techniques to do this will differ for cats and dogs and will also differ from cat to cat and from dog to dog.
For dogs, this means taking them for a walk outside. If it has been a while since their last walk they will probably want to relieve themselves so make sure to give them time to do this. Have your handler spend whatever time they think is necessary to calm the dog down. For some dogs this may only take a couple of minute, for others it will take longer. Your handler should speak to the dog in a calm but "in charge" voice and should try techniques such as walking, running, petting, or whatever else comes to mind to make the dog comfortable and calm. At all times, your handler should be in control of the dog and should be ensuring the dog's safety.
Calming cats is usually more difficult than calming dogs. They are often more skittish and the presence of strangers, the noises of dogs barking, and the smells of so many unknown animals and humans usually make them a little on edge. By understanding these factors and working to reduce them you can at least calm the cats as much as possible. We have found that the best approach is to take the cats out of their cages and carry them to a small quiet room somewhere in the shelter and let them stretch their legs a little. If the shelter has an adoption room available you can often use that. If not, ask the staff if there is a small office somewhere you can use. In either case, try to look for a room with a window that cats can look out.
We usually have success by putting the animals on a window sill in an adoption room and let them do whatever they want for a couple of minutes so that they begin to trust us. Again, your animal handler should be ensuring the animal's safety at all times by making sure that the door to the room is closed and that there is any harmful material that the cat can come across. Of course, harmful material for a cat can be just about anything so just do your best.
Grooming the Animals
Once the animal is calm and comfortable with your handler, you and your handler should give them a look over to make sure they look their best. Look for loose particles in their fur and remove them if you can. A quick brushing of the animal will help remove loose particles and fur and would be even better if the animal will let you. Examine the areas around the nose and eyes and check for any leakage. If you spot any, you can usually remove it by carefully wiping it with a damp tissue. If the animal is disturbed by any of these grooming tasks stop immediately. They are not mandatory, they will just help the animals look their best in your photographs and to any potential adopters who see the animal next.
When You Are Ready to Begin
When you and the animals are ready to begin, your handler will have to work with the animal to pose them properly for you. For more information about posing the animals, see Composition and Posing.
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