Kathy Tuite Leistner has been a photographer for almost 30 years. She is the owner of Leistner Photo and works part time for the local papers in East Rockway, New York and especially enjoys sports and pet photography. Her photographs have been published in national magazines and books, including Women See Men.
Below Leistner shares her experiences volunteering for her local animal shelter—to help increase adoptions of cats and dogs.
What inspired you to begin taking photos of shelter pets?
During the Christmas season, I donate my services at two local vets to shoot pet portraits with Santa where the funds raised go to a local pet charity. This past year, one of the charities was Bobbi and The Strays and they sent volunteers to Assis Vet in Malverne with two dogs that were up for adoption. The volunteers were so nice and so appreciated the photos I took that one of their coordinators, Heather, asked me to come by the shelter and shoot more photos to improve their website and increase adoptions. After one visit there I was hooked on shelter photography. Surprisingly, I am a dog lover, but I have really enjoyed photographing the cats as much as the dogs!
Having great shots of the stray dogs and cats makes a tremendous difference. Because there are so many shelters now, many folks will get their first look online from the shelter’s website. If the web photos are blurred or dark or the pet looks scared, these strays will usually be passed over in favor of the pet that looks like it is ready to jump into your arms and blend into your family.
I do understand that my photographs are only the first step to finding these pets a forever home, that there is much more that needs to happen once the prospective owner arrives at the shelter. The key is to create interest in a pet so that people actually get in their car and drive to the shelter and want to meet that pet or a few of the pets.
As I mentioned earlier, I am surprised to find how much I do enjoy photographing the cats and kittens. The area where they are kept is indoors so that part makes it easier, you have less variables in lighting and distractions found outdoors. I always work with a volunteer or employee of the shelter when I photograph the animals. I have two main cat people and two main dog people that I regularly shoot with. Having a shelter assistant helps me tremendously. They know the cat’s personalities well and they know how much of my posing and playing with them they can tolerate.
I try not to overdue the props with the cats and their patience can be limited. I once put some Easter eggs in a cat’s bed for a spring shot and all was well until I decided to take the eggs out and then I had a disgruntled cat. The cats respond well to a variety of toys and sometimes to being brushed or held. I try to find toys with colors that work with the cat’s fur and the different backgrounds found in the shelter.
There are some dogs that require special handling, as they may be aggressive if the situation is stressful for them. These dogs are handled by employees while I shoot and we both spend some time with the dogs to establish trust and lessen any fears before I start shooting. I use toys with the dogs too and treats, but I try to show all the dogs with a person in some routine activities: walking, playing, being held, being pet, etc. I will shoot a traditional type portrait, but I try to focus, especially with the dogs, on their interaction with humans. I will use some props, like ties, flowers, scarves, but I do most of my shots without them.
I try to shoot outdoors on the shelters grounds, but I have brought studio backgrounds and lights. I think the more spontaneous photographs outdoors are more effective, maybe not as “pretty,” but have more emotion attached to the images.
Can you share a story of how your photos helped a pet find his or her forever home?
I follow the adoptions on Bobbi’s facebook page so I can see how quickly the photographs find the pets their forever homes. I hear stories from the volunteers and the employees how it has made a difference to bring more people in to look and adopt pets, sometimes there are multiple prospective owners and the staff can have even better options to pick the right adopter.
There was one case that I was so happy to see found a home, a young pit/bulldog mix was tossed out of a van a few blocks from the shelter shortly before I arrived for a photoshoot. I saw her on her first day there and I saw the kindness she received from the employees and owners.
Ellie was probably a bait dog, she was covered in cuts and had a broken tail. I was able to photograph her that day with an employee who befriended the lost pup. A photograph I took that day on my iphone, was enlarged to 16 x 20 and hung in an iphoneography group show. Ellie had a list of people waiting to adopt her and she was quickly adopted after her cuts were healed and she was spayed.
Cell phone cameras don’t do a great job indoors, but can work outside, shoot low or high to simplify backgrounds. If possible find a digital camera with 10 megs and a lens that can work in low light.
Take your time to get to know the pet if you are a volunteer, and don’t overdue your enthusiasm, stay calm and quiet. The pets you are photographing need to feel safe and they need to trust you. Move slowly, wear comfortable clothes, and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, literally. Bring some toys and squeakers (some pets are not interested so don’t push it), bring clean up bags, wipes (eyes), dry erase board and markers to note pet’s names (I shoot the pet with the board next to it), props (if you like, optional), and several kinds of treats.
Get to know your volunteer, what are their strengths with handling the pets and keep those in mind. You’re there for a few hours, these loyal volunteers are there day in and day out, appreciate the knowledge they can bring about individual pets and or what that particular shelter needs. Be a good listener to them and to the animal you are shooting. Don’t force these the animals to pose in ways that increase their tension, make it fun for them, the volunteers, and you. Take breaks and enjoy what you do. A few hours at a time is better than a whole day. Bring a few prints back for the shelter and their volunteers.
I shoot with a variety of equipment. For cats indoors, I use available light and a panasonic lumix LX7 camera with an aperture of f 1.4. For dogs, generally I use a 50 f 1.4 or a 70-200 F2.8, both nikkor lens on Nikons D700 or D600. I generally shoot the highest quality I can on any of the cameras and on my professional Nikons I shoot both jpg and raw. I process my images in Adobe Photo Shop 6 Bridge, then into Nik Snapseed, and sometimes back into PS 6. I will enhance the colors somewhat and sometimes remove the leash from the image so the viewer can focus more on the dog, but I don’t alter the image of the dog so that I only give a true representation of what the dog looks like on that day. Truth is important, this is advertising, but most importantly, my goal is to show the viewer the good qualities and the interesting personalities that come through with each portrait and to push my equipment, in non-optimal conditions to hopefully change the life of the stray.