Photographer readies shelter pets for close-ups

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CORVALLIS, Ore. — Micha Sanders speaks in soothing tones to Tide Pool, a diminutive mixed-breed poodle atop a wooden picnic table. He moves his face closer to the animal's snout and strokes his head.

When Sanders' attention diverts briefly to a bulky camera and a pouch of dog treats, Tide Pool hops down and wanders to the other end of the fenced yard at Heartland Humane Society.

"It's just like with children. Every pet is different, so you have to go with their personality and be patient," Sanders says.

It's not uncommon for Heartland to take calls from people in Portland, Bend or northern California who are interested in adopting animals that they saw and read about online. Websites such as petfinder.com and petango.com have changed how people seek out and choose their potential shelter-pet match. So Sanders figured it makes sense that the animals should have a great photo that showcases their personality to potential adopters.

"Once they get comfortable with me, they start acting normal and their expressions come out," he says. "If they're a shy dog, I'll try to capture that in the shot instead of getting them all animated and smiling. I'll put them on the table, and I don't mind if they shake a little bit, because that's their personality."

Some of the worst Heartland pet photos were taken with a point-and-shoot camera in an exam room, he said. They were dark and out of focus, with the flash causing distracting red eyes. The angle was often unflattering, the expression not always reflective of the animal's personality.

When cats aren't relaxed, their pupils get huge, and it shows in the picture, he says. Some dogs fixate on a treat they're waiting for, a concentrated stare that doesn't transfer well in photos.

"One of the tricks — and I don't like to do this too much — is just walk them a little bit until they start panting," he said. "As soon as they start panting, they look like they're smiling."

Typically, animals get adopted faster when they have a good photo, according to Heartland director Andrea Thornberry.

After starting out as a volunteer two years ago, Sanders was hired full-time to work in the shelter's lobby while continuing to shoot photos on the side. Last month, he was hired solely as a contract photographer for the shelter.

After Tide Pool's shoot, Sanders sets his lens on a jolly chocolate Labrador retriever, Gunner.

A lively Sanders barks and squeaks and shouts. "Whatever it takes to get those expressions."

Gunner happily lies down in front of the photographer, who then positions himself on his stomach, pointing the camera up at the dog's face. Sanders scoots back a few inches and Gunner, in turn, stands up and moves closer, sniffing the lens. Sanders scoots back a few more inches -- same result. Once he's backed into some bushes and his pant legs are riding up at his knees, he jumps up and tries something new.

"If they're a super-outgoing dog, like Gunner — a big, happy Lab — I want a big smile," he says. "I want the tongue hanging out like they're just having a blast."