Cat Photography 101

"But Cats Are Hard to Photograph"

Yes, it’s a rare cat that will sit still while you tilt her head just so or arrange her torso in a regal stance. If your cat is anything like mine, by the time you raise the viewfinder to your eye, your companion will have rolled into a less interesting position or trotted out of the room completely.

The fact that cats won't sit still or hold a pose doesn’t mean they are difficult to photograph. Rather, it suggests that you should understand your cat and learn how to turn his habits to your photographic advantage.

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The easiest way to take great images of your cat is to catch him doing something interesting when you are ready to take a picture. All that’s required is familiarity with your cat’s daily routine, a little advance preparation and a bit of patience. Some luck doesn’t hurt either.

Know Your Cat

Cats crave routine. Predictability provides cats a needed sense of safety and security, a warm feeling that all is well in their world and that they are in control. No doubt, you’ve noticed the patterns your cat follows throughout the day.

If you aren’t familiar with your cat’s routine, spend some time observing his behavior. Pay special attention to the timeframes when you are available to take pictures, maybe after dinner or perhaps Saturday afternoons - whenever you generally have free time. Look for times and locations that afford bright light such as near a window or under a skylight.

For example, my beautiful black cat, Lucy likes to lounge on the seat of my exercise machine after breakfast. In the late afternoon, she bird watches thru a window in the dining room. Knowing where Lucy will be throughout the day, allows me to prepare the scene and take test shots in advance so that everything is ready when she arrives. Investing only a few minutes to stage the location pays dividends in more pleasing photographs.

Prepare the Scene

Once you have selected a location, spend some time cleaning up the area. Look at the room thru your camera’s viewfinder along your intended angle of view. Remove any odds and ends that aren’t integral to the photograph. Temporarily rearrange the room if necessary to minimize distractions and create a pleasing composition, or drape the area with a blanket or fabric remnant. If you plan to shoot low enough to show the floor, vacuum or sweep. You don’t want any dirt, cat hair or other debris visible in the final image. Yuck.

Take Test Shots

Take test shots to establish the proper exposure and evaluate the lighting and composition before your cat arrives. I use stuffed animals as surrogates for Archie and Lucy to help find the right camera settings. I have one that is about the color of my orange tabby Archie and a black one for Lucy. But you can use anything that is roughly the size and color of your cat.

Wait for Your Cat

Once you have prepared the scene and established the exposure, all that’s left is to wait for your cat. When she arrives, pick up your camera and start shooting.

Example One

This portrait was shot in the laundry room where Lucy likes to soak up the morning sunlight. Before feeding her breakfast, I draped fabric over the seat of the exercise machine, holding it in place with a few spring clamps. I set Lucy’s stand-in on the seat and took test pictures until I was satisfied with the lighting and exposure. Then waited for Lucy to finish eating and climb onto the fabric.


Example Two

One day while stocking the refrigerator I reached down to grab a grocery bag. When I turned back around, there was Lucy, sitting pretty inside the fridge. We both enjoyed a good laugh before she jumped down. Over the next few weeks, investigating the refrigerator became her new, favorite game.

I thought an image of Lucy exploring the refrigerator would make a charming photo. I cleaned up the fridge, placed Lucy’s stand-in inside and took test shots to adjust the exposure and lighting. I left my camera on the kitchen counter, waiting for Lucy to act. When I noticed her trotting into the kitchen, I followed her, picked up the camera and opened the refrigerator doors. Lucy jumped in; I snapped the picture. Simple.

Use Soft Light

A simple technique to take great cat portraits (and people too) is to photograph your cat in soft light. Picture the hazy, faint shadow you cast on an overcast day. That’s soft light. It creates indistinct, feathered lines between light and shadow. Soft light is easy to work with and always flattering.

Creating Soft Light

Rooms with windows that face north are never in direct sunlight; rather, these rooms receive soft, indirect light. If you are fortunate enough to have northern facing windows that your cat is attracted to, perfect. If not, wait for a cloudy or overcast day; these also produce indirect light. Or soften the direct window light with a homemade diffusor.

On a bright, sunny day a diffusor scatters the sunlight, creating indirect light that wraps around your cat. Tape sheets of tracing paper to cover the window glass. Alternatively, cut a thin, white kitchen trash bag long ways around the perimeter to create one large sheet of plastic. Stick the plastic to the glass starting at the top of the window and work your way down to the bottom.

If you shoot with natural light often, consider purchasing a commercial diffusor. A budget-brand 43-inch commercial diffusor kit runs about $30.00; it’s a good investment.

Prepare the Scene

Place a stool about 1 to 3 feet from the center of the window. Drape a towel or fabric remnant over the seat to create a soft, attractive perch for your cat. If the wall behind your cat is cluttered, hang a blanket or fabric behind the stool to serve as a pleasing backdrop.

Take Test Shots

I like to place a stuffed animal in the scene to evaluate the exposure and composition. But anything that is about the size and color of your cat will work. Place the surrogate on the stool.

Zoom your lens to its telephoto position or mount a medium telephoto lens (something in the range of 90mm – 150mm). Set your camera to Program Mode (often called P Mode).

Program Mode is similar to Automatic Mode (Green Mode); the camera will select all of the exposure settings. However, Program Mode allows the photographer to override the camera’s recommended exposure. It is a better choice for cat photography than Auto Mode. If you are comfortable using your camera on Manual Mode, feel free to use that mode instead, but we’ll keep things simple.

Frame the picture and take a test shot.

Adjust the Exposure

Program Mode works well in most situations. Sometimes, however, you may find that an image is too dark (underexposed) or too bright (overexposed). The camera’s Exposure Compensation control can help fix exposure issues.

Exposure Compensation forces the camera to let in more or less light, brightening or darkening an image. Refer to your camera’s user guide, if you do not know how to apply Exposure Compensation.

If the image is too dark, set Exposure Compensation to +1 (plus). If it is too bright, apply -1 (minus) compensation. If the image is still too dark or light, further increase or decrease Exposure Compensation and take another test picture.

When you achieve the desired exposure, remove the stand-in. Place your cat on the stool or wait for him to discover the seat and jump onto the perch.

Start shooting

Focus the camera on your cat’s eyes. If one eye is closer, focus on the eye that is closest to the camera.

Review the first image or two on the camera’s LCD. You should find your cat well illuminated with soft shadows on the unlit side of his face as shown in the example image.

Once you confirm the lighting and exposure, stop checking the playback and focus your full attention on capturing a beautiful expression.

Don’t Have Time to Hang a Backdrop?

If you don’t want to take the time to set up a backdrop, use a chair instead of a stool and drape a towel or fabric remnant over the back of the chair and down onto the seat. Use spring clamps to hold the fabric in place. This staging technique is illustrated in the image below.

That’s all there is to it. With practice, you can stage and shoot a beautiful portrait in less than 5 minutes.

Give Your Cat A Treat

After the shoot, give your cat a treat. Eventually, your cat will associate yummy delicacies with photo sessions and look forward to seeing you with your camera. Happy shooting.

Written By Member Rick Reichenbach aka @RickR

Rick Reichenbach is a member of the Cat Writers Association and the author of How to Take Beautiful Pictures of Your Cat. He lives in Louisiana with two beautiful cats, Archie and Lucy.

More Cat Photography Tips from TCS Owner Anne Moss

I am not a professional photographer, but I would like to share some of my insights from the photo contest, as well as some tips and ideas I have picked up over the years with my attempts at taking pictures of my own cats. Some of these tips, are oriented towards the more planned out photo sessions, others may benefit you with those spontaneous shots too. Fortunately, with today's digital cameras, you can just click and effortlessly produce a multitude of good quality photographs. One of those could turn out to be that amazing cat picture, so why not give it a try?

Choosing Your Setting

If you have your heart set on creating a special cat picture, the setting is one of the first things to consider. Make sure that your setting is clear and uncluttered so that the cat can be the main focal point in the image. You may want to use a sheet of fabric, or a pretty blanket, to set the background with. A plain one, without a pattern, would probably work best, allowing the eye to focus on the feline in the picture.

Adding a special prop can add life to your picture. Any pretty object can achieve the desired effect, but if you opt for a cat toy, or some other item that your cat is likely to interact with, you can bring a whole new dimension to the scene. Many cats love getting inside boxes and baskets, and these make wonderful props for an imaginative shot.

Timing Your Pictures

Of course, once you have your setting and props ready, there remains the question of the model actually showing up for the shoot. Cats can be capricious models at the best of times. Your cat may sense your anticipation and interpret that as tension, which might very well achieve the opposite effect and drive kitty away from your carefully planned setting.

Prepare the setting in advance, and then be patient. Don't call your cat over, as with some cats, this can be a sure way of driving them away. Let the cat come over and explore the surroundings in her own time. Keep the camera within reach and follow your regular routine, to put your cat at ease.

Keep your cat's daily routine in mind as well. If you're looking for a sleepy look, try and take the pictures around his or her resting times and if action shots are what you're after, then opt for the more wakeful times. These differ from one cat to another, so follow the rhythm of your own in-house model.

Holding the Camera

Many of the latest models of digital cameras have good measures in place to ensure that you get clear focused pictures. It is still advisable to hold your camera in a steady way, especially if you're using the zoom option. When zoomed in, most cameras tend to amplify any tremble and may produce blurred images. So, either avoid using the zoom option or keep it very steady by holding the camera with both hands.

Some cats, and in particular kittens, can be very active. You may actually want to capture them as they move around, climb their cat trees or even make some spectacular jump. Make sure you know how to operate your camera to achieve the best results when taking action shots. Your camera manual (of which you can probably find an online version if you lost your printed copy) should have plenty of information on the right settings in your camera for taking action shots.

Planning Your Picture Composition

As you view your scene on your digital camera screen, think about what you want the focal point of the image to be. Usually, you would want your cat to be in the middle of the picture and to take up a significant amount of image space. You don't want the person viewing your picture to wonder where the cat is… Experimenting with new angles and compositions is great, but when taking pictures of cats, it's best to keep the focus on the felines.

Again, this is where cluttered surroundings can come in the way. I sometimes get submissions to the Meowhoo photo contest where it really is almost too difficult to see the cat, with so many objects lying around and distracting the viewer.

Lighting and other Technical Aspects

If you are passionate about achieving truly good photographs, you may want to do some further reading about the more technical aspects of photography. Good lighting can truly make a difference. Black cats can be a true challenge in terms of lighting, where poor lighting can sometimes make them totally disappear into the background.

Flash Photography poses an even bigger challenge. When your cat gazes directly at the source of the flash, you could end up with an alien-looking feline with "laser" yellow eyes. If you need to use the flash, here's a tip by one of our forums moderators, Gaye Flagg: Try covering your camera's flash assembly with a bit of opaque tissue paper, much like what we use in gift bags or boxes. Tear or cut a small piece and tape it over the camera's flash assembly. This will help to diffuse the light and make the "laser beam" effect lessen. Alternatively, try to get the cat's attention not directly focused on the camera ... you can dangle a favorite toy or some other interesting item over your shoulder to direct your cat's focus of attention away from the camera.

Sharing Your Cat Pictures with the World

Once you have taken some good cat photographs, you may want to share them with the world. The internet provides you with some useful websites where you can upload your photos and then link to them from your website, forum signatures and more. Don't forget to join our forums and post your pictures in our Fur Pictures Only forum, and to submit the best pictures to our monthly picture contests held in that very forum!

Comments? Leave them using the form below. Questions? Please use the cat forums for those!

5 comments on “Cat Photography 101

tarasgirl06 March 15, 2016
Beautiful pix!  I really love Lucy investigating the fridge ;)  I've probably missed more excellent photo ops than I've captured, but that doesn't mean I don't have hundreds of great pix of my beloved cats, and more all the time.  
dennis47 February 23, 2016
The shot of Lucy in the fridge is adorable Reminds me of my Midnight.
Draco February 23, 2016
awesome article!! I am sure it will help people get better shots!
rickr February 23, 2016
Thank you for the kind words.  Yes, draping is a wonderful technique. It's simple, effective and only takes a moment to implement.  Sometimes it helps to use fabric that your cat is attracted to.  Archie and Lucy are fond of soft fabrics, like fleece. 
kittymomma1122 February 23, 2016
Great article. I always wanted to do pictures with a drape, but had never thought to drape the area where they normally go. I tried to make them go on my set up. Needless to say that did not work. I also have black cats and I would have never thought a grey back drop would look so good! Thanks for the tips.

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