This guide will answer these questions. I'm an academic who has interviewed lots of shelter and rescue workers, taken lots of pictures, and read lots of things so I can help you maximize both your time and the chances of your animals to be seen, supported, and adopted.
Step 1: What's a good photo anyway?
Good photos have the animal in focus. Good photos do not include cage bars. Good photos avoid red demon eye. This is not as easy as it sounds. Some general tips.
1. Give yourself ten minutes with the animal and expect to take a lot of photos. But don't take more than fifteen minutes--you're busy, and sometimes the animal just isn't feeling it. Coming back hours, days, or a week later will make both your lives happier.
2. Having two humans makes photo-taking much easier. Get someone to help you quick or have volunteers take photos in pairs. That way one person can concentrate on soothing the animal, keeping their attention, and making sure they don't bolt out the door and over the field while the other can focus on the pictures.
3. Take dogs and outdoor animals outdoors. Position cats and indoor animals so they're facing a window or other light source. This helps put a shine in the animal's eye and saves you from needing to use a flash--the prime cause of demon red eyes.
4. It's easier to get animals in focus when they're not moving. If you can, tire the animal out and then take your photos. You can also try using the "sports" or "action" setting on your camera, if it has one, to capture quick motion.
5. It's also easier to get animals in focus when there's no cage bars in front of them. Bars freak out the camera and often cause it to lose focus on the animal--another good reason to take animals outside or move them from a kennel or cage for their photo.
Step 2: Good Photos - Cute
One way to do this is to take a cute photo. Cute animal photos make people say "awwwwww," and there's actually growing science behind the idea that humans are psychologically wired to respond to cuteness with action, whether care-taking, clicking, or getting way good at playing the board game Operation (no joke). To take a cute photo, get down to the animal's eye level. Focus so the head and eyes take up as much of the frame and are as big as possible. Baby animals are, obviously perfect for this but adult animals can take cute pictures too; it's all about the size of the head and the eyes.
Step 3: Good Photos - Personality
But cute photos aren't the only way. Right up there with "cute cat videos" on YouTube are "funny cat videos" and "cat inexplicably playing the piano" videos. Photos of animals where people can see their personality can also create a great connection and help make sure the right people get interested in the animals. Active people and active animals get along--ditto for laid-back, quiet people and laid-back, quiet animals. Good photos aren't about creating one ideal Perfect Pet (tm) but about showing people the spark of life that animates this particular animal.
Taking personality photos is both harder and easier. Easier, because you're trying to catch what the animal naturally does (sleep a lot, play with toys, roll over on their backs) and harder, because you're trying to catch the animal doing something. You can also think of these as the photos that make you laugh, shake your head, or imagine the animal saying something. Don't worry as much about photo quality--catching an expression or a movement is more important. Look at Lolcats for inspiration!
Step 4: Good Photos - Realism
People often search for animals by breed, especially on big adoption sites like PetFinder. Likewise, good potential adopters who are knowledgeable about the breed of animal they're looking for often want to know if an animal has breed characteristics. It's a common misconception that no purebred animals end up in rescues--if you have them, show them off!
These are great photos to have as "extra information." They usually don't have connection-building, attention-grabbing power but they let someone seriously considering coming to adopt an animal know what the animal looks like. Show the animal's full body along with any special characteristics, like Doberman pointed ears or tuxedo cat markings.
Step 5: Cheating - Let's Do It
This is why people created photo-editing. With very few, quick steps you can turn an okay or blah photo into something great. You don't need an expensive program like Photoshop; free image editing software like GIMP will let you do the exact same things. The idea here isn't to go crazy or to create something unreal but to recover how awesome the animal actually looks from the unfortunate picture you've got to work with.
Imagine getting this picture from a foster family. Our focus animal is the dachshund mix in the middle, and they rightly noticed that she's got an adorable expression. Unfortunately, it's a busy, dark picture with a lot of noise and focus problems. Let's get started.
Step 6: Cheating - Crop Photo
To crop a photo, check out tutorials for GIMP and Photoshop.
Step 7: Cheating - Remove Noise
Here, you can see the difference particularly around the dog's eyes and into the shadow of her ear. I've pulled out and enlarged two segments so you can see the effect better. Don't get too crazy with noise reduction or you'll start to lose the detail of the animal's fur; I try to stop as soon as I see a definite improvement.
To remove noise from a photo, check out tutorials for GIMP and Photoshop.
Step 8: Cheating - Color and Contrast
I adjust contrast first using "levels." This means that you adjust the range of black and white in your photo so the blacks are more black, the whites are more white, and there are lots of exciting greys in the middle. Keep an eye on anything light-colored in your photo as you make this adjustment, you don't want it to start looking like it's glowing! I then adjust colors using a hue and saturation tool, increasing the saturation (a fancy word for "richness") of the colors just a bit. Again, a little bit will go a long way here; you're restoring the animal's natural color, not putting them up in neon.
To adjust color and contrast, check out tutorials for GIMP and Photoshop.
Step 9: Cheating - Blur the Background
You need to draw carefully around your animal to select them. The more you zoom in and take care with this step, the better you'll do. Try to select only what's closest to the camera: in this case I chose the dachshund's head and let her body blur with the rest of the background. You can choose how much to blur the background. In this case the foreground isn't that far from the background, so I went with a fairly light blur. If you're got a lot of distance, you can blur more heavily without it looking weird.
To blur the background of a photo, check out tutorials for GIMP and Photoshop.
Step 10: Cheating - Results
That wasn't so hard, right? Now your photo looks way more awesome, and it came from an achievable, everyday photo. You can dive pretty deeply down the rabbit hole of photo-editing, but just these few steps can produce pretty dramatic improvements. As you get a feel for what works, the process speeds up immensely.
Finally, put text on all of your photos that gives viewers the name of your rescue or shelter. It's hard to track a photo back to its origin online, and you don't want any potential adopters, foster parents, or donators to miss you. You can add text in something as simple as MS paint or check out tutorials for adding text in GIMP and Photoshop.
Step 11: Isn't this all kind of shallow?
It can be scary handing off your animals to new adopters. You remember taking them in when they were covered with fleas, whimpering with pain, and wanting nothing to do with humans ever again. Of course you want to make sure both you and a potential adopter are making the right choice so that animal never needs rescuing again, and all this emphasis on pictures and advertising can feel misplaced.
But it's because there are two sides to taking care of an animal that cute, funny, surprising pictures are so important. Adopting an animal is an emotional choice, just like living with and caring for one, so you need to speak to a potential adopter's emotions. Acknowledging that people take in animals when they're searching for connection and companionship isn't the same as pretending it'll always be roses--it's showing potential adopters what that brilliant moment of connection feels like.
Plus, great pictures have proven results. You've probably seen the CBS Sunday Morning spot with Theresa Berg, a professional pet photographer whose photos helped a Texas dachshund rescue increase adoptions by 100%. Similarly, the Los Angeles SPCA launched a major volunteer effort to take the best photos they could. They succeeded in increasing monthly views of their adoption pages by 652%, or 138,000 views! More people, more attention, more adoptions, more fosters, more donations--more choices and resources for you in finding the best home for your animals.
Step 12: Spreading the Love
As you probably already know, Petfinder.com is a major clearinghouse for online adoptions. It's more than worth having pictures and descriptions up there, particularly as Petfinder can share your pets with other sites if you want. Aside from Petfinder and adoption-specific sites, many shelters and rescues have had a strong response to a Facebook page. You can post the same photos and descriptions that you do on Petfinder, but it's also a great place for adopters to let you know how your animals are settling in. By encouraging people to like your Facebook page and share photos of your animals, you increase the number of people who know about you and are potentially interested in your animals. Facebook can be particularly important in building a sense of community around your rescue if you place animals out of state; it gives all of your adopters, volunteers, and fosters a place to gather.
By now, you've probably noticed the comments and jokes I've been putting on most of the photos. Adding little notes and jokes to your animal photos is a great way to help them spread because it allows people to use your photos in their conversations. That way, when people are complaining about being sick on Twitter or commiserating with a tired friend on Facebook, they're also spreading the word that you have a hilarious dog or adorable cat up for adoption.
Step 13: Hearts and Minds
Once you have all of these pictures, keep them. Then, when holidays or big events come around, put together collages of all the awesome, happy animals you have and have helped over the past year. You can post the collages on your website, email them to past adopters and potential donors, or whatever else you want. You can even make slideshows featuring your rescue and put them on YouTube. This will help remind you--and everyone else--of the good you're doing and the awesome animals you're doing it with.
Good luck! Please feel more than free to comment here or contact me with feedback, questions, or any other thoughts and comments you have.