They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But, for a rescued animal awaiting adoption, an eye-catching profile photo is so much more – it truly can mean the difference between another night at the shelter and the start of a new life with a forever family.
Exactly 10 years ago, a budding Adelaide photographer named Leigh Hyland started snapping stunning photos of our shelter animals – beginning what has grown into a pivotal volunteer photographer program at RSPCA South Australia.
As we celebrate Leigh’s incredible decade of service to animals in need, we’ve asked him to share 10 of his all-time favourite photos shot while volunteering with us. We believe these photos exemplify the technical skill, patience and creativity required to be a skilled RSPCA animal photographer.
1. It all started with an adopted cat
“In mid-2008 my partner and I bought our first house and, since we weren’t renting anymore, she suggested we adopt a cat,” Leigh explains. “She had soon fallen in love with a cheeky looking boy on the Adopt-A-Pet website, who we ended up adopting along with a slightly younger female tabby.
“Around the same time I had bought my first DSLR camera, so obviously I practiced taking photos of the new family members. This photo was taken of our boy ‘Mister’ in a mattress packing box. I collected a few of the images I had taken and sent them to the RSPCA South Australia shelter staff thanking them for their help. They suggested I come in and photograph all the cats, and I didn’t need to be asked twice.
2. Helping tiny kitten sisters find a home
“We adopted our boy because of his precious little face pictured on the adoption website. It’s that emotional connection you want to make with an adoption photo.
“I photographed this little girl and her sister over a number of weeks and they were adopted together because the person couldn’t stand seeing them separated after seeing all the photos of them curled up together. I still get updates on then now and again. I have heard from so many people who have said that it was my photo behind their initial decision to adopt a particular animal.
3. Playing with photography to tell a story
“A photo can tell a powerful emotional story. In the first few years I was also learning the art of photography as I am completely self taught. I do come from a design background so I was always playing with composition, focus and lighting to tell that story.
4. Special mumma cat wins Leigh’s heart
“After about a year at the shelter I went in one day and there was a new arrival, a very chatty very pregnant mum. She was just lying there, looking up at me and meowing – she was so round that she had trouble getting to her food and water, so I moved them for her.
“After a few days she gave birth to a litter of the most amazing colours and coats. After a few weeks she fell very ill yet still took amazing care of her babies. I thought about how much she deserved a loving home so we adopted her – and she is sleeping next to me as I write this.
5. Capturing all the dogs at Million Paws Walk
“Another big milestone every year is the annual Million Paws Walk event. I’ve only missed one in my 10 years volunteering due to being overseas at the time. It’s always an amazing day out and a chance to get some great promo photos.
“I always got amazing images, especially when it was at Elder Park along the river, where this photo was taken.
6. Poor little Lulu’s incredible before-and-after
“You often see animals that come in injured, abused, discarded or just homeless. One of the most fulfilling parts is to see them a few months later, looking happy and healthy in a loving home.
“I’ve done many before-and-after shots during my time volunteering at RSPCA South Australia – the difference is sometimes so great that people have disputed whether it’s the same animal in both photos.
“This is Lulu; she and her sister came is with severe and untreated mange. She was in a pretty bad state, as you can see. In the ‘before’ photo, her eyes were almost swollen shut. Once all the swelling was gone and she had grown most of her fur back, she looked so different!
7. TLC for a puppy farm rescue dog
“This is a dog rescued from a puppy farm. Many live in atrocious condition for years and, once freed, often experience serious with trust issues and other behavioural concerns.
“They require lots of TLC when they first come in to ensure they are safe and stable enough for rehoming.
8. Not all just cats and dogs
“My work with RSPCA South Australia has presented other opportunities in animal welfare. While I was in Bali I spent time with Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA), an organisation that spends a lot of time looking after street dogs. I travelled with one of their desexing teams as well as went into schools with the education team.
“In 2013 I went on an RSPCA South Australia fundraising trip to Malaysia, Borneo, to volunteer at an orangutan sanctuary and photograph orangutans in the wild.
“This photo is of the dominant male Richie at the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, which is open plan – so I had a ranger pulling at my shoulder while taking this because there was nothing between me and Richie as he approached.
9. Leigh’s absolute favourite photo
“This is one of my favourite photos based purely on colour and composition.
“With shelter photography, you are very limited on where and how you can photograph animals. You don’t have beautiful interiors, couches and windows flooding in natural light so you have to make do with the enclosures the animals are in (particularly with cats) and the light you have, which can be very limiting.
10. The happiness of a newly adopted kitten
“In recent years I sadly don’t get to the shelter as much as I used to. My photographic adventure has taken me in many directions and I often travel interstate and give talks on some of my other photographic works. But I always talk about starting out as a volunteer for RSPCA South Australia and the shelter photos are always a popular part of my talk.
“This is one of my most recent shots from the shelter of a little kitten who had just been adopted.”
11. Bonus photo! The face behind the camera…
We couldn’t finish up without showing you the face behind all these magical shots, of course.
From all of us here at RSPCA South Australia, we want to say a huge thanks to Leigh for his tireless voluntary work over the past decade.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of animals have found loving forever homes thanks to his efforts, which have also allowed us to emotively tell the stories of animals in our care. Thank you, Leigh!
Can you spare time to help us save animals? It’s only with the support of kind-hearted volunteers that RSPCA South Australia can reach so many abandoned, neglected, sick and surrendered animals each year. Help us help them – apply to volunteer now.