How to Photograph Cats
Have you ever wondered how to photograph cats? Start with a fresh can of tuna...
OK, maybe that's not really a key photographic concept - but it should perk up a feline that has balled up for a good afternoon nap.
Which brings us right into our first major problem with cat photography: getting the cat to DO something.
However, once the cat is in motion then you've got a second problem on your hands: getting the cat to STOP long enough so you can take a photo.
The good news here is that there are several creative camera techniques you can use to vastly improve the quality of your cat photos.
Photograph on THEIR Schedule
Since cats are such independent free spirits, about the only way to get a decent photo of them is to wait until they're good and ready.
If your cats are like mine, they spend much of their time asleep on the bed, couch, or an article of clothing where they can deposit a pile of fur.
Since a photo of a cat with its head buried in its tail isn't going to make for a stunning photo, you have to wait until they are up and about.
Once the cat is active, you pretty much have to trail around the house like a cat paparazzo, camera in hand.
The opportunities for good photos are going to be few and far between so you have to be prepared.
Cats won't wait around for you to get a decent shot and they SURE won't repeat any behavior just for your benefit. Once the moment's lost, it's gone forever.
That's why my first tip on how to photograph cats is this: once the cat is up and about, be ready to photograph.
Photograph at THEIR Level
One of the first things that you can do to immediately improve your cat photographs is to get down on the floor.
When you stand above them and take photos looking down, cats look small and are dwarfed by the scenery around them.
Once you're down at their level, you can take portraits head-on, which also increases your chances that the cat will actually be looking at the camera.
You'll want to use two autofocus techniques to capture the right moment:
- Press down halfway on the shutter release button to pre-focus - this way, the camera won't have to focus when you're ready to take a photo
- Make sure you focus on the cat's eyes, especially if your camera has a multi-point autofocus - out of focus eyes can ruin an otherwise nice cat portrait
A photography problem that's slightly annoying with humans becomes a real problem when you're photographing cats.
If you've photographed felines in the past, you'll know it well - it's what I call the "demon kitty" look.
The same thing happens with humans - it's called red-eye - and it's the result of using a flash that is in close proximity to your lens.
The light from the direct flash bounces off the back of your subject's eyes and is reflected into the lens, which results in glowing eyes.
The first solution to this problem is to avoid flash altogether, and just rely on the available light.
Your Friend, ISO
If you're trying to photograph your cat, chances are that you're indoors.
This means that the light you have to work with is quite dim, and the brightness level is directly related to the weather (sunny = bright, overcast = dark) and the time of day.
If you simply disable your camera's flash, the camera will slow down the shutter speed accordingly to let in enough light for a good exposure.
The slow shutter speed is partnered with a new problem: image blur.
If the shutter speed drops below 1/60th of a second, you'll certainly wind up with a blurry photo if the cat is in motion, and you might see some blur if the cat is stationary.
You need to find a way to coax a faster shutter speed out of the camera, even though you're not using the flash.
The answer is ISO - a setting that boosts the quantity of light that your camera's sensor absorbs.
A higher ISO setting means that the sensor absorbs more light in less time. The net effect of a more absorbant sensor is faster shutter speeds - ones that will effectively eliminate the blur from any cat photo you take.
Working With Flash
While increasing the ISO and working with natural light is certainly effective for a variety of cat photos, it won't always get you the best shot.
For example, if you're taking photos indoors at night with just a few lamps for illumination, there's no way that you're going to get a clear shot, not even if you boost ISO to the maximum.
Furthermore, extremely high ISO settings degrade the quality of the image by introducing grain or digital "noise".
If you'd like a nice clear kitty photo without increasing the ISO and without capturing the "green-eye" look, then there's only one option left: get your flash off the camera.
When you remove the flash from the camera, you're ensuring that the light that it puts out is not bouncing off the eyes straight into the lens.
With the flash off the camera, you're also able to create more dramatic lighting effects, and you can manipulate the quality of the light to suit the mood of your photograph.
For a sunlit look, use a bare external flash unit and - with the help of a flash extension cord - hold it above your head and off to either the left or right side of the camera.
Slightly Diffuse Flash
If you're finding that the bare bulb flash is creating light that's too harsh with really dark shadows, then diffuse the flash a bit.
There are a variety of small external flash diffusers that fit right over the head of the flash and spread out the light just enough to give your cat portrait a softer look.
Very Diffuse Flash
To mimic the quality of window light, fire the flash through a large piece of white diffusion material.
If you want to go pro, then you can purchase two types of diffusers: a shoot-through umbrella or a softbox. The one you get will depend in some regard on what type of flash you're using.
If you don't feel like spending the money, then just use a white bed sheet and hold and/or pin it into place in between the flash and the cat.
There you have it: now you know how to photograph cats.
I'll be the first to admit that there's not much technique to it. Unlike dogs, cats are fairly sedentary which makes it much easier to take photos of them.
However, a great cat photo will be the result of good lighting (whether natural or flash) and a fair amount of luck to capture the cat at just the right moment.
Photographing cats requires a great deal of patience and sometimes you'll just have to sit around and wait for that moment when your cat strikes a great pose or looks at the camera.
When that time comes, you have to have to be ready:
- Make sure that you're down at the level of the cat, not standing above
- Pre-focus on the cat's eyes so you'll be ready to take the photo
- Increase the ISO setting on your camera, open the lens aperture wide and shoot with available light
- If it's really dark, use an external flash unit away from the camera in order to prevent the glowing eye effect
As a last resort, just rub a little catnip on your camera - that's SURE to get their attention.
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