Pet Photographer Susan Schmitz Helps Rescue Dogs by Making Them Models

She takes pictures of rescue pets, helping them stand out in adoption listings; she then sells the photos to help fund more shoots!

Heather Marcoux  |  Dec 15th 2014


Susan Schmitz has photographed hundreds of animals for her stock-photo business, A Dog’s Life Photography, but her models aren’t highly trained professionals.

“At the time that they were photographed, they were homeless,” explains Schmitz. “They were struggling.”

The Arizona-based photographer works with local rescue groups to organize photo shoots that serve a dual purpose. The groups receive professional photos to use in adoption listings, while Schmitz licenses the same photos as stock photography. The profits from the photos, as well an an artistic grant she received from one of the photo agencies, Shutterstock, have allowed her to continue shooting portraits of rescue animals. Long after Schmitz’ models have been adopted, their images continue to bankroll photo shoots for other animals in need.

“I can go to Petco or PetSmart and just walk around for hours finding my photos on products — calendars, keychains and coffee mugs.”

Monetizing the photos she takes of homeless pets allows Schmitz to devote time to local rescue groups but still continue to pay the bills at her photography studio. The sustainable business model she has created helps save lives without costing the cash-strapped groups a dime.

“Having a professional photo helps the dogs stand out from the sea of dogs available for adoption,” says Schmitz, whose work gets the animals noticed on websites such as Petfinder.

“I isolate the animals on a white background. It really brings out their expression, it brings out their personality.”

She has more than 800 different animals in her stock photography library — all of whom have found homes after posing for a picture.

“I can’t stay they’ve been adopted just because of my photos,” says Schmitz. “I’m just one part of the rescue community that helps these animals. These rescue groups don’t give up.”

Schmitz works with several rescue groups, but collaborates most often with Lost Our Home Pet Foundation out of Tempe, Arizona.

“They started back when the economy took a turn for the worst and people were losing their homes,” explains Schmitz. “They would go out and find the abandoned animals that were left when people were foreclosed upon — they would just leave their animals behind.”

Schmitz supported Lost Our Home as the organization worked with local law enforcement and real estate agents to rescue these abandoned animals, and she continues to support the group by snapping photos of adoptable pets.

“They’ve just really grown, and they are doing such an amazing job,” she says.

Many would say the same about Schmitz, who offers local rescues the chance to bring two animals to her studio once a month and sometimes also sets up a mobile studio at shelters.

After photographing hundreds of dogs and cats over the years, Schmitz is finally getting to the point where she can’t quite recall the names of the animals when she spots her shots in public, but she can usually recognize her own work.

“The other day, I was driving home from a friend’s house and saw one of the cats I photographed on a big billboard,” she says.

The cat’s stock photo was on the billboard as part of a shelter campaign. It’s quite common for Schmitz’s photos to be selected for adoption-related materials, even though those selecting the stock images often don’t know they’re looking at real shelter survivors (and helping more by buying the photo).

“Without even knowing it, they’re saving an animal,” says Schmitz.

Her own dog, Oliver — whom Schmitz adopted after photographing — is quickly becoming one of her top models, and his pictures are often used in adoption-related campaigns.

“He’s promoting shelters, animal rescues, and spay and neuter clinics around the world,” says Schmitz, who recently adopted a second terrier who can follow Oliver’s top-model lead. “Her name is Abdie. She’s just getting started as a stock model.”

Schmitz has some advice for photographers who, like Abdie the dog model, are just getting started. “I would encourage other photographers to get involved and give back. Even if it’s not in the animal community, there’s always a need for charities to have good photos.”

Schmitz says donating her time to rescue groups was how she transitioned from taking pictures of families and kids to capturing the subjects that she found the most compelling — pets. She says volunteering helped her hone her skills and make important contacts that have benefited her business. Schmitz encourages other photographers interested in rescue to check out HeART Speak.

“That organization brings together photographers from around the world who are willing to devote their time to rescue groups and do something similar to what I’m doing,” she explains. Schmitz hopes other people (not just photographers) find a way to contribute to the rescue organizations who need help.

She may not think she deserves the credit, but to the hundreds of animals who found homes because of her portraits, Schmitz is more than just a photographer — she’s a hero.

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About the Author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but the addition of a second cat Specter and and the dog duo of GhostBuster and Marshmallow make her fur family complete. Sixteen paws is definitely enough. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook, and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google+.