Photographing Kittens and Cats

The following article was given to us by Michael Olsen at CallisteCats Birmans

Cats are the hardest subject I know of to photograph, especially when using a digital camera – digicams have a very slow shutter speed so the shots are frequently blurry, and you have to anticipate poses by about half a second because of shutter delay. The following advice is geared for users of digicams, but will be of interest to anyone interested in photographing cats and kittens.

Yes, this is how I took the ‘studio’ shots on this site!

Your equipment and studio set-up. Use a heavy tripod. You may be able to find a nice used one for under $100 at a camera store. Hand-held digital shots are always blurry.

Photograph from the level of the subject. Slightly above or below also works, but too much away from level and you’ll get a ‘snapshot’ look.

Use an AC adapter or NiMH rechargeable batteries.

Remove all cats except the one(s) you’re photographing from the studio.

Buy several fabric remnants, with colors chosen to compliment your subjects, and to bring attention to (‘punch’) their minor points such as eyes. For photographing Birmans I find that various shades of blue, light and dark beige, and black or navy blue are best – blues draw attention to the Birmans eyes, but I also use beiges that are either nearly white or much darker than their body color. Avoid backdrops that are the same color as any part of the cat as you will loose edge definition of the subject. Choose fabrics with pronounced textures, but avoid patterns as a rule. The only exceptions might be very simple patterns like polkadots or stars, or a piece of very recognizable fabric such as a tartan or a flag. You neither want a pattern that competes for your viewer’s attention, nor a pattern that may require the viewer to figure out ‘what’s that?’

To prepare a backdrop iron it perfectly smooth, and then lay the remnants onto a large flat surface like a bed or floor. Mist the fabric with water and then bunch-up the fabric to deliberately form wrinkles, then let it dry crumpled up. Create wrinkles that will be oriented longitudinally as the fabric hangs. Never store the backdrops folded – always store them bunched-up to avoid rectilinear creases. The wrinkles give a very pleasing mottled or textured appearance, especially when illuminated from one side. On the other hand, if you have a piece which you want to keep very flat, then roll it up like a scroll for storage.

Set up your ‘studio’ on a ledge or counter. My studio is a ledge in an alcove off our dining room, isolated from the rest of the house. To hang a backdrop I use library clamps tied to either end of a piece of string, draped over two picture hooks high up on the wall. Typically, I’ll drape a light colored backdrop down the wall and onto the ledge, then lay a darker piece on the ledge and overlapping the backdrop where it drapes onto the ledge. Using dark below makes the Birmans white gloving really stand out. Try experimenting with a softly folded or scalloped edge where the bottom sheet lays over the backdrop, as this yields a nice 3-dimensional transition rather than a sudden sharp edge where the two pieces of fabric meet. I’ve also achieved some very nice shots by loosely draping a large remnant over a kitty condo and positioning it in front of a contrasting backdrop.

Using cute props can be a pain as they add one more thing that will need to be posed and can go wrong, however I have seen some nice ‘interest’ shots of kittens examining a single flower (usually a rose) laying on the stage. If you use a prop, be sure it’s not in the cat’s shadow, and that it is not too far forward or behind the cat, as it may then fall out of focus.

If you’re using a digicam, do not use your camera’s flash. Cats red-eye really easily. Instead, set up a high intensity halogen work lamp to bounce light off the ceiling and onto the subject. Halogen lamps cost about $20 at a hardware store, they have a clamp to clip to a chair back or table edge, crank out about 400 watts, and get really hot!

‘White balance’ your digicam by setting the camera’s ambient lighting option to incandescent if your camera has that capability. You may also have to ‘white card’ to balance your digicam – check the manual.

Now it’s time for the shoot! To pose cats, what I find works best is to use the stick end of a feather toy to get their attention, then (if using a digicam with a shutter delay) press the shutter while the toy is still in the photo and simultaneously withdraw the toy toward the camera. By the time the shutter clicks, the toy will be out of the frame. If you withdraw the toy up or to the side, that’s where the cat(s) will be looking – so withdraw the stick toward and then behind the camera to encourage them to look at the camera. I use the stick end because using a feather tends to produce awkward poses, especially when photographing multiple cats – they will all be looking in the same general direction, but will not be ‘focused’. Also, cats tend to play very aggressively with the stick end of the toy, so their eyes are wider and brighter. Your goal is to get the cat focused. If a shoot is going really well, all you have to do is tap the camera with the toy and you will get some great ‘look into my eyes’ shots. If you want really penetrating shots, get the cat’s attention while the toy is several inches behind the camera. The penetrating stares of native peoples that have made National Geographic photos famous are possible because primitive people don’t understand cameras, and are looking at the photographer behind the camera. Cats will do this too, and penetrating looks are easy to set-up if you know how. Take some of these shots and you’ll see what I mean!

Considering the split-second timing involved, photographing multiple kittens and cats is more difficult when two (or more) people get involved – a helper will tend to distract the subjects, and you’re apt to get beautiful, heart-stopping poses of a basket full of kitties – with one little bugger looking off to the side!

If you’re using a digicam then you’re not using film, so take lots of shots. Ideally, you will have no shots left when the kitties tell you they’ve had enough.

Finally, a comment about photo touch-up. I use and recommend Paint Shop Pro 6. For touch-up, the PSP smudge tool (the ‘finger’ button) works much better than airbrush, but the clone tool (the twin paint brushes) is fastest and will produce nearly flawless repairs. Experiment with the various settings (on the toggle control palette) of airbrush, smudge, and clone. More importantly, get into the habit of color sampling frequently while you touch-up – every half-inch or so. You can color select on the fly by control+left clicking to pick-up a foreground color selection, and control + right clicking for background. This is vitally important if you airbrush a large region, otherwise the repair will be an obvious monochrome splotch. If you select slightly different foreground and background colors, this will allow you to alternate colors while airbrushing – the left mouse button will airbrush one color, and the right button will airbrush the other. Also, become familiar with the density, opacity, and other ‘brush’ settings. I rarely airbrush with greater than 70% density and 50% opacity, as blending into the background becomes impossible. If you lower the density and opacity you can generally use a larger brush size and repair large areas quickly with multiple passes.

That completes my introductory primer on photographing cats!

Michael Olsen  CallisteCats Birmans