Tuesday, 19 May 2015

10 tips for photographing your cat

As a pet photographer, the top three animals I photograph are dogs, cats and horses. All three are very different to photograph. I thought today I’d speak more about photographing cats.

If you’re interested in some basic tips about photographing dogs, take a look here.

Every month I go to my local Cats Protection Adoption Centre and take pictures of their new arrivals for their website. 

Cats are, by far, the trickiest animal I’ve ever photographed! Over the past couple of years I must have photographed nearly three hundred cats (both rescue and private commissions) – you’d think it would get easier…it doesn’t! Cats are free spirits, there’s no asking them to sit and stay, there’s no getting them to lay down or roll over if they don’t want to (although I’d never ask a dog to do want they don’t want to do either! There’s no point having a picture of an unhappy dog is there!)

So, here's some tips.

1. Introduce yourself/the camera

After photographing so many cats, I can kind of tell straight away those who will be open to having their pictures taken and those that will be a bit shy. 

What I always do is spend a few minutes with each cat before taking pictures. Sometimes this is limited if there are a lot to photograph in a shelter situation - but if it was a private commission I’d spend a good 5-10 minutes with each cat stroking it, and showing it the camera,  letting them hear the noises it makes and speaking gently to them.

Don’t go straight for taking the picture. Put yourself in the cats shoes (paws) if someone came straight up to you and shoved a camera in your face, you’re not going to be happy about it – nor’s the cat. Respect and kindness at all times – a winning combination!

2. Light

As with all animal photography, I don’t use flash at all. It can spook them and the very last thing I want is the cat to have a memory of me that is frightening. I want them to feel comfortable and happy to have me around. So, if you haven’t got good light, you’re scuppered. 

Find an area with good natural light – a bright room, the garden, etc. You don’t want full on sunshine. Harsh sunshine can cause awful shadows and contrast within an image – and, whilst these can look amazing in black and white images as seen below, on the whole, you’re looking for good, shaded light that will allow the camera to pick up all the desirable details and miss out all the others! 

Remember, harsh sunlight will often show unwanted aspects to fur, like dust particles, stray moulted hair, etc – not pretty in the final shot and a lot of work in post-production (if you’re going to edit the images).

Harsh sunlight can give beautiful images

3. Space

Unless you want to be following your cat from room to room to take its picture – the best thing to do is choose one room (the light one) and close the door! With rescue cats at shelters, their pens/cages are perfect spaces as they ‘contain’ the cat, so they can’t dart off as cats oft do.

4. Be aware of the cat’s body language

Make sure though that the cat isn’t intimidated and is happy at all times. Don’t force it with them – if you do the images will come out with a miserable looking cat, and that’s not good (for the cat or the image). You’re looking for perky ears and relaxed body language. If the cat is looking on edge, it’s best to walk away, and then try again a bit later.

This cat is a little nervous and not at all happy with the camera in front of him. Walk away and come back.

General signs your cat is happy
  • Pricked ears, forward and alert
  • Bright eyes (but not staring with huge round pupils!)
  • Pricked and/or relaxed tail
  • Open to being touched and stroked/willingness to walk towards you
  • Sitting with tail curled around them
  • Rolling/rubbing
  • Purring
General signs your cat is unhappy
  • Ears back or flattened to the head
  • Stooped body language (ready to run away)
  • Tail twitching with a stare that would freeze the Sahara
  • Half-moon eyes (or Lady Di eyes as I call them)
Although this cat is happy enough to be photographed, it's not entirely sure and is very aware of things around him.

5   5. Preparing the cat

Clean the sleepy dust from their eyes – manky eyes make notteth the shot of the year!

Give the cat a rub over with your hands to smoothe away moulted fur – to the naked eye, it’s nothing much, but to the camera, it can sometimes be so blindingly obvious it can ruin an otherwise really good shot.

6. Props

I very very rarely use props in any of my photography and their use really depends on the kind of image you want. Fluffy knitted throws for the cat to lie on, or cushions work well. You can also use baskets for them to curl up in, fancy boxes, large bowls, etc. Whatever takes your fancy (or more importantly, your cat’s fancy).

7. Camera

For the technically prone people:

If you’ve got a DSLR you’ll want to make sure your shutter speed is fast – I try to keep the camera at 1/800 or faster, and keep your lens as wide open as possible. I use a 50mm F1.4 for all my cat photography and set ISO as needed.

If you have a point and shoot:

Select sports mode. Many point and shoots these days have ISO settings (refer to your camera’s manual regarding this – as it’s a bit long winded to explain all the technicals at this point –  maybe I’ll cover that in a later post)

8. Get down low.

Generally, this is the key to all animal photographs. Taking pictures of animals on their level as opposed to yours is far more effective. There are of course exceptions to that rule, which I’ll talk about in a minute.

9. Get the cat’s interest

Use tasty treats. Here in the UK we have ‘Dreamies’ – these I’ve found are irresistible to cats! I show the treat to the cat, so they can smell it, and then move it up to the lens of the camera. Often the cat’s gaze will follow the treat for a perfect straight on shot.

Cat Nip is good – but try and use this nearing the end of your session – as no doubt you’ll get a very chilled, rolly-abouty cat, who might dribble and look generally mental! Using catnip is great to get some ‘different’ shots and angles of cats – but shouldn’t be used at the start of the session!

Toys. Sometimes the Dreamies just don’t cut the mustard and you need to find something else. Feathers are always a safe option! String, something that jangles (keys). All good things to grab attention.

Noises – I use all kinds of noises, from smacking lips, to screeching! They sound entirely bonkers, but work to get attention! Don’t make a bellowing sound though, you want their attention, not for them to run away!

10.  Different angles

Whilst getting down to your cat’s level is a really good idea and I would even go as far to say that 90% of my images are taken with me laying/kneeling on the floor with them. Sometimes other angles are good:

Like the cat looking up at you. This is the sight we generally see when they’re looking for food or attention and is quite endearing.

Don’t forget other angles too. Profile pictures, paws, tails, etc. These images are great if you’re wanting to build a collection of images to display on the wall.

And most of all?

Have fun! Spend time with your cat, make it a special experience for them. Give treats, strokes, and lots of love, and you’ll have a cracking set of images to show for it!

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  1. I am not a photographer. However, your hints, tips and advice makes looking at your photographs in a completely different light and appreciation. They are truly beautiful pictures of gorgeous animals.

  2. Thanks for the great tips. We have recently added a new furry energetic friend into our home from Cats Protection and getting the 'money' shot of him so far has been near impossible :)

    1. Hopefully they will help :) Patience is key! If you have any probs, shout out, I'm happy to help with advice :)

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  4. It is really a photographer, which I can not imagine that all of the cats are so euphoric.
    I am very happy and very happy to take a very clear and awesome moment for the cat.
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