Cats on White, pt 2

This post originally appeared on Medium.com.

Cats on White, Part 2

In part one, I wrote a bit about how to get started volunteering your photography at a local shelter and some of the supplies you would need to replicate the same look I was doing when I did the same.

In this episode, it’s all about the actual shoot. My goal was to always be done two hours from the start. “Goal” is used loosely here, because although I could set up and tear down quickly, the amount of time I would spend at the shelter on a given day was highly dependent on the number of new animals they had taken in since I was there previously. Generally, I was there at least every other week to keep that number manageable.

The first key to having a successful shoot is to practice. Do you have pets of your own? Start there. No pets, but kids? Great. None of the above, but some nice stuffed animals from your childhood? That’s easy-mode but will work great for some practice.

Go through the drill of setting up your gear. Batteries not charged? Good thing you’re practicing. Gear not where you thought? Whew, it’s only practice. You should practice until you get it right, until you know where in your bags each piece of equipment is, and until you do it right.
Kirby, my cat and test subject, who has not forgiven me to this day.

Practice until you get it right.

I know that sounds silly, but the last thing you want to do is show up for your first session and look like you have no idea what you’re doing (believe me, I’ve been there). You also become instantly and intensely aware of the peoples time that you’re borrowing. You don’t want to waste their time — you’re trying to help, after all! Be prepared.

You’re now at the shelter and all set up — what now?

I may have conveniently left a couple things off my original list.

First, you need space. A room. Something big enough for you and the animals you’ll be working with, with space for your equipment to be set up, too.

You need to be able to work with the animals without tripping over everything. Oh, and since they’re cats? Fewer small spaces for them to hide is great.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, you’ll need someone from the shelter to help. Someone the animals trust and that you can trust to keep the animals calm and on the table.

I was incredibly fortunate to have that in the staff at the shelter. They were dependable, helpful, friendly, and cared about the animals at the shelter above everything else.

Heather and Kelsi, who dressed for Halloween.

They were dependable, helpful, friendly, and cared about the animals at the shelter above all else.


Have the shelter keep a list of the highest-priority pets first, and start there. Your goal is to make the animal look as good as possible. Even if they haven’t gone through grooming or anything else, get them from their “good side”. Bribe them with treats to stay on the table, let them sniff your gear to get comfortable, and take a shot or two when they glance your way.

Your helper from the shelter likely deals with animals all day, but even if they don’t (they do clerical or other types of work), they’ll get very skilled at catching cats right before they leap off the table. But, even if they miss a catch or need to leave the room to help someone, don’t fret. Most cats in a shelter, if they’ve been there for a little while, will come to you for a toy, a treat, or a pet. So offer each of those and grab them when you get a chance — you’ll learn to avoid the claws — and get them back on the table for their shot.

I took five to ten photos per cat, but, I was more than willing to call it good after a single photo if I knew I had the shot I wanted. If the cat came in, acted friendly, looked nice, and stared straight at me, it was the easiest moment of the day and I was almost sorry to take the single shot and ask for the next one.

When shooting, all of the same principles that apply when photographing people, landscapes, or anything else still apply. Focus on the eyes before anything else, properly expose for the fur (your flash settings should already have this for you, but you may need to tweak it base on the animal), rule of thirds (and being willing to break it), and everything else.

Advise your helper on what you need, too. They should keep the animal on the table, happy, and looking generally in your direction. It’s very easy to remove your helper’s hands from the shot as long as they aren’t directly touching the animal. Hovering hands to catch a leaper? Perfectly easy to edit out or push to pure white.


Tough animals take the rest of the time that the easy ones don’t. Sometimes the animals won’t like you, and you shouldn’t take it personally, but it does mean that you’re going to have to work harder. Best case is that they try to hide from you on their blanket. Worst case is they run and you have to catch them.

Okay, actual worst case is that they eat you, but you’ll catch that before it happens.

In order, “Moose”, “Dani”, “Tommy”, “Doris”, and “Tonce”.

As you go down the shelter’s list of animals they would like photographed, be sure you’re also keeping track of in what order you actually do them. This will help you match the list of names up with your actual photographs to ensure that you have at least one photo of each animal published. When they’re relying on you to capture all of them, missing one can be a pain: for you, when “Tommy” is missing but “Kimberly” is there and they’re just two of eight orange kittens; and for the shelter, because they’ll have to go to the animal’s kennel and snap a picture with their point & shoot rather than having a consistently great looking page of adoptable animals.


So, don’t forget one. If you know you’re going to do many similar-looking animals in a row, take a photo of something else around the room to put a break in your photos.

I always went with the shelter’s resident cat, Plato, who pretty much ran the place. Easy to identify and (generally) not on the table.

That’s a lot of cats. What about dogs?

This same strategy works great for dogs, too. Smaller dogs can even use the same table setup you already have. Bigger dogs will need to stay on the floor, so just pull the table out of the setup and drop the backdrop down a little bit.

A note on smaller dogs: they’re not as nimble as cats, no matter what they think. Be careful about them trying to jump off the table — they can easily get hurt.

I named this series “Cats on White”, but it applies to all types of animals — cats just sounded better in the title.

“Babe” and “Leon”

Dogs will also behave a little bit differently than cats. They’ll be much more interested in coming and smelling you than they will be in sitting still and staring. They’re also possibly a little dirtier than the cats — rainy day + dirt means you’re going to be Photoshopping mud out of the background after the shoot.

Leon, above and on the right, was simply the cuddliest dog I ever photographed. Despite being one of the biggest, he came straight over to me and curled up “in” my lap and just wanted to stay there. I wanted to take him home right then and there.

Alright, you did it! Now what?

Congratulations on your first successful volunteer experience and cat/dog photo shoot. You have your memory card(s) full of photos and a solid list of animal names you’ll never remember. Where do you go from here? Cull and process your images so you're delivering at least one of each animal.

Then? Get ready for next time.


cats photography volunteer