It's no surprise that a great photo makes a world of difference in helping a dog get adopted. As potential forever families flip through photos on websites like Petfinder or through the adoptable dogs section of local rescues, the dogs with the most compelling photographs are the ones that will get the most attention. But exactly how big of a difference does it make?

A recent study from the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science took a look at 468 photos of young and adult black Labrador mixed breed dogs adopted via Petfinder across the United States. The goal was to discover how much of a difference a great photo makes, as well as what aspects of a photo most captures the attention of potential adopters.

Having a good photograph made a huge difference. Dogs with a high quality adoption profile photo were adopted within 14 days, compared to 43 days for those with a poor photo. Among adult dogs, being outside made a significant difference, with an average adoption time of 37 days for outdoor photos compared to 51 days for indoor photos.

The study found that some of the most important traits of a photo that lead to an adoption include:

  • the dog making direct eye contact with the camera
  • the dog standing up
  • the dog posing in an outdoor location
  • the sharpness and overall quality of the image

Interestingly, the aspects that seemed like they would make a dog appear more friendly, such as a dog wearing a bandana, having a toy, or having an open mouth with a visible tongue, didn't seem to sway people who were looking to adopt.

While this study is limited in size and scope and may not cover all the intricate details about what in a photograph helps a dog get adopted, what's clear is that a sharp, clear photograph of a dog looking at the camera while enjoying an outdoor setting is a great bet for getting potential adopters interested in submitting an application. With that in mind, here are five photography tips that will help shelter volunteers capture these key elements in adoption portraits.

1. Find a quiet, comfortable outdoor setting.

Outdoor settings are one of the key aspects of a photograph that captures the attention of potential adopters. Perhaps it helps people envision walks or hikes with the dog, or games of fetch on a sunny day. Whatever the reason, outdoor settings work. But when photographing shelter dogs, don't just go to any outdoor location. If at all possible, find a place that's quiet and preferably enclosed by trees or shrubbery if not by fences. This will help a potentially stressed dog relax and be away from triggers like too many people or other dogs.

Let the dog explore the new setting before beginning. Allow the handler to walk the dog around a little, get to know the new smells, and settle in. This will help decrease distraction when you begin to shoot. The outdoor setting is important, but having a relaxed dog within that outdoor setting is just as important.

small dog on log smellingLetting the dog check out new sights and smells before you start will decrease how distracted the dog is during your shoot. (All photos, except where noted: Jaymi Heimbuch)

2. Pay attention to your background.

As you position the dog for his or her photographs, pay attention to what's going on in the background. Try to select a nice soft background without a lot of distraction. For example, a background of shrubs, grasses or trees works great, or even a nice skyline. Think about your composition and set up a shot that allows the dog to stand out from the background.

You want the portrait to be all about the dog, and nothing else.

3. Use a wide aperture to blur the background.

Another trick to getting nice backgrounds is to use a wide aperture, such as f/1.8 or f/2. Wide apertures create a shallow depth of field, blurring out anything in front of or behind your subject. If all you have to work with is a cluttered background, using a wide-open aperture will help blur it out and decrease that distraction.

small white dog in flowersIf you're dealing with a somewhat cluttered setting, use a shallow depth of field to bring focus to your subject.

Be sure to keep the focus on the dog's eyes — remember that eye contact and a sharp image are both key qualities to a successful image, so if anything, you want nice sharp eyes in your photograph. A shallow depth of field also brings even more attention to those beautiful eyes, which could help draw in more adoption applications for the dog.

small white dog portraitBring lots of attention to a dog's eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul and the clincher for adoption applications.

4. Bring treats, toys and squeakers to gain eye contact — but use them sparingly.

Eye contact is an important part of a compelling pet photograph, so it's a smart idea to have a few strategies in place for reaching that goal. Some dogs don't like looking at the camera, or they could simply care less about you as the photographer, so you'll want to have several tricks up your sleeve.

One trick is to come to the shoot with a couple types of very smelly treats, such as tripe. You may not even have to provide the treat as long as it smells interesting enough to get the dog's attention. You can keep the treat in your closed hand and just wave it in front of the dog's nose to get him interested in the smell, and thus you. Once a dog has the treat, you have to wait for the dog to stop chewing and get the interest back on you again. So if the smell alone works and all you need to do is wave your closed hand, keep using that strategy rather than giving up the treat.

Another option is to have a squeaker toy or ball. Some dogs care a lot about these items, some dogs don't, so it's hit or miss. But speaking of squeakers, a third strategy is to practice a repertoire of odd sounds — squeaks, mews, peeps, pops, gasps, whistles ... You never know what will get a dog's attention. If a certain sound works, use it sparingly. A dog will often get bored of a sound and stop reacting to it, so if you hit on a sound that works, use it wisely and with well-timed clicks of the shutter.

5. Wait for a happy, relaxed expression or pose.

Finally, a compelling photograph is a dog that is clearly relaxed and comfortable. A portrait of a stressed, anxious, distracted, or nervous dog won't do much to reach your goal. If the dog is looking everywhere but at you, straining against the leash to get at smells, or looking anxious or nervous about the situation, then sit back and wait for the dog to adjust. Let the dog get to know you a bit, suss out the environment and calm down. Once the dog is settled, you'll have a much better chance of capturing his real personality for the portrait.

large mastiff breed dogIt may take some time and patience, but waiting for a relaxed, calm, happy expression from the dog will pay off in spades for the adoption profile.

The dog may have been waiting weeks or months (or years) to be adopted, so you as the photographer can wait a few minutes for the dog to relax to capture a portrait that will help the dog get adopted as soon as possible.

More resources for excellent adoptable dog photographs

A book called "Shelter Photography Field Guide" from HeARTs Speak, a nonprofit that connects photographers with animal rescues and shelters, is an excellent resource for anyone working or volunteering at a shelter or who's in charge of the intake and adoption photos.

field guide for shelter animal photographyA field guide for shelter workers and volunteers explains insider tips and tricks for taking great photos and writing eye-catching profiles for adoptable pets. (Photo: HeARTs Speak)

The book walks you through tips for location and backgrounds for photos, working with dogs and cats, and post-processing images. It even walks you through the image guidelines for different adoption websites, and how to use your images in social media to get the most attention on the adoptable animal.

HeARTs Speak member and professional photographer and designer Natalia Martinez of The Labs & Co created a downloadable, fully customizable text overlay for photographs, where important information about the pet such as size, weight, if the ideal home can include children or other pets, and so on can be included on the image itself. This strategy is perfect for sharing images over social media to get more exposure at a glance for adoptable dogs.

adoptable dog photoA handy customizable text overlay can be downloaded from The Labs & Co to help make shelter pet adoption photos even more fancy. (Photo: The Labs & Co)

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Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.