getting started

Let’s assume you’re ready to start making wonderful images that will help homeless animals  –you first need to identify a rescue group or shelter to work with. This can be more challenging than you think, because not all non-profit groups are created equal.

Choose a rescue organization without a brick and mortar building if you’re very inexperienced at photographing animals or if you want to work with a specific breed or size of animal.  Shooting animal rescue portraits at an animal shelter is probably the MOST challenging type of assignment. It’s hard to find a place to work with the animals and there is usually more resistance to you (as an outsider) coming in to do the photography.  In addition, it’s difficult to find a quiet place so that the animals can de-stress and relax for the camera. If you’ve had some success and can walk in with some great photos under your arm, by all means approach them. Just do it thoughtfully – the person behind the reception desk may be their current photographer!

Many rescue groups are run by well-intentioned people with little or no business experience. They have no idea how to maintain a website, how to protect your copyright (YES, you maintain the copyright to your images), and sometimes even how to post images online.  It’s best to stay away from these groups and encourage them to become part of a bigger more-organized animal rescue organizations. Here are a few tips from my friend Kathleen Coleman (along with a view comments of my own). Kathleen does a wonderful job of running Dallas Fort Worth Dachschund Rescue.

Selecting a Reputable Rescue Organization

Here are a number of things to consider when selecting a rescue organization. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about their policies and procedures. If the organization’s representatives are defensive, or avoid providing details, you should consider working with a different organization.

1. Does the rescue organization specialize in just one (or very few) breeds? An organization that specializes is more likely to have extensive knowledge about that breed, and is an excellent resource for the adopters, a multi-breed group will give you more variety to shoot and a wider group of people will see your work.

2. Do they serve only a local, defined area, or is it a nation-wide organization? Nation-wide organizations have additional levels of bureaucracy which can potentially cause delays in things such as dogs receiving timely veterinary care, responsiveness to adopter inquiries, and screening abilities.

3. Does the rescue organization limit their admissions to dogs that are adoptable, or do they take non-adoptable, “sanctuary” type dogs? Dogs that are unadoptable can quickly consume an organization’s financial and physical resources. Admitting too many unadoptable dogs can potentially become a “hoarding” situation.

4. Are all their dogs free from treatable infections and illnesses, current on vaccinations, heartworm testing and prevention, spayed or neutered, and microchipped for permanent identification prior to adoption? You do not want to be associated with a group that does not work with healthy animals that are spayed and neutered.

5. Does the rescue organization have a strong, positive, long-term relationship with a veterinary clinic who will do the vet work needed on the rescue dogs? Do they pay their veterinary bills promptly? Some fringe groups don’t manage their funds effectively and can barely afford to feed the animals in their care. Be very careful about linking your reputation to theirs!

6. Does the rescue organization know its financial limitations? Do they accept dogs into their program when they do not have adequate funds available for their care? Always make sure the organization has their 501(c)3 status with the IRS. This way you know they are a legitimate non-profit group.
7. Are the dogs placed in foster homes while they await adoption? Dogs who receive foster care have a huge advantage over dogs housed in kennel-type shelters. Foster care enables the dog to learn the basics of housetraining, leash training and crate training. It is also helpful for behavioral evaluation and for developing proper social skills.

8. Does the rescue organization screen its foster parents? A reputable organization does not tolerate “animal hoarding” on the part of its foster parents. (Understand that animal lovers have big hearts, and want to try to save every animal. However, a true animal lover recognizes their limits.)

9. Are the foster parents treated with respect? Does the organization place financial burdens on their foster parents or expect them to absorb the costs of caring for dogs as they await adoption? It is important that organizations maintain excellent relationships with their foster parents. They should consider their foster parents’ personal situations and abilities to care for dogs, and not use “guilt” to manipulate them into accepting unreasonable responsibilities.

10. What is the minimum period of time the organization holds its dogs prior to adoption? The recommended time frame is at least 3 to 6 weeks. This is necessary to ensure that no hidden medical conditions exist, and also to evaluate the dog’s temperament. Shorter periods of time may apply to dogs who are owner surrenders and for whom there is a reliable health and behavior history.


  1. This is great and was just what I was looking for. I’d like to help out local rescues with their photography but had no idea where to start. This gives me some big points to think about and to research before I choose which organizations to approach.

    1. As promised, we’ve put together a webinar designed to help! The cost is $40 for the two hour online class. Here’s what we will cover:

      1. How to identify and approach a rescue group or shelter in your area

      2. How to build a relationship with your target group and start making a difference

      3. How to MAKE BETTER RESCUE PORTRAITS with your existing camera and some inexpensive tools you might have around the house. We’ll have diagrams and lots of sample photos to illustrate what we do. We will not be discussing professional studio lighting techniques – just lighting that everyone can do at home or in their local shelter.

      We’ve planned a daytime webinar for Wed, Sept 28 from 2-4pm CDT and an evening webinar for Thur, Sept 29 from 5-7pm CDT.

      Each class is limited to 100 attendees, so when the class is full, the link will be removed. I’m sorry, but no refunds. So don’t sign up unless you know you can attend! Attend the webinar with a friend or invite a group to share the experience! If you already volunteer at a shelter, have a webinar party and get a group together!

      You will need a good internet connection with speakers connected to your computer and something to take notes on. After you have paid, we will email you an invitation to the webinar and you will download a simple viewing program from GoToMeeting. We will have a copy of the slide presentation available at no charge after the event. A portion of the proceeds (after expenses) will be donated to animal rescue charities.

      Click this link to pay for the Sept 28 webinar starting at 2p Central Daylight Time:

      Click this link to pay for the Sept 29 webinar starting at 5p Central Daylight Time:

      And don’t forget to take a look at Hearts Speak They also have a facebook page. They will be launching a new website soon and have over 100 professional artists and photographers around the country who have volunteered to help you!

      These webinars are not presented as a profit-maker for my studio, but there are costs involved with hosting an online class and extra people I’ve had to hire to help in the studio while I devote myself to this. I wish I could afford to offer them at no cost, but I feel that $40 is reasonable and hopefully, within reach of just about everyone.

      So thank you! and I hope to see you on one of the Webinars next week.

  2. Hi Teresa!
    Great Idea! After seeing your efforts on Petapixel I wanted to help do my part up here in Canada- I am researching shelters and rescue places as I type. I’m a photographer and a huge dog lover (looking to adopt myself!).
    Keep up the good work – your photos are fantastic!

    1. Probably in January, but we haven’t scheduled one yet. It really depends on the demand. The webinars are so much more convenient for people to attend! We may just continue to do webinars.

  3. Do you have any books you would recomend about pet photography or shelter pet photography? Also have you wirtten any books?

    1. Hi Lorea
      We do have a book, but it’s really not about Shelter Pet Photography, it’s a shooting guide for professional photographers who want to photograph pets. It’s for people that are pretty comfortable with their DSLRs and want to shoot in manual modes. You can visit my pets website and read more about it.

      thanks for asking!

  4. Thank you for this site. I have been wanting to combine my love of animals and photography by starting to do pet photography. But even better one can help local shelter animals! This is a wonderful idea and many great tips on how to start.

  5. Theresa:
    Took your Webinar a few months back and it was enormously helpful! You mentioned then that you were going to do a sort of mini-lighting-setup-for-photos for shelter dogs……did that ever happen? Did I miss it? I sounded great… you could toss it all in the back seat and off you go!!

    Susan Hathaway Ringland
    Gloversville, NY

  6. So glad someone steered me to this site! I am responsible for not only getting photos of all our adoptable animals at the humane society that I work for as rescue coordinator but also for all animals in urgent status at our county intake facility. I am fairly new to the DSLR world and have just have my Nikon D5100 since November so will absorb all the knowledge I can here.

    And many thanks to those of you wanting to help rescues. Those of us working in rescue have a stressful, never ending job to do and having quality folks offer to help us find more homes for the animals is FANTASTIC. And don’t forget, if dogs and cats are not your “thing” there are many parrot rescues and other small animal rescues all over that need help too. ( I do parrot rescue in my spare time). Many of those rescues really really need help because people are not even aware they exist.

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