My cat is one of my favorite subjects to photograph. She sleeps next to me while I write, so she’s an easy target. But she can be a difficult challenge, too. Fortunately, challenges are a great way to learn.
Here are a few things my cat has taught me about photography.
Get Low for a Fresh Perspective
Since most of us stand somewhere between five feet and six-and-a-half feet off the ground, that’s the height from which we shoot most of our photos. Easy and convenient, but predictable. You’d be surprised how few people bother to kneel down or lie on the ground to shoot a photo — even when the subject happens to be at ground level, where my cat often is.
Getting low works well with pets because you’re shooting at their eye level. But it also provides a fresh perspective with almost any subject and really adds nice variety to your photos.
Some cameras (like my Canon point-and-shoot) have an articulated LCD screen that makes it easy to see the image even when you’re lying flat-out on the ground, because you can aim the screen up at a comfortable angle (it’s tough to use that peep-hole viewfinder when you’re lying on the ground). I love that articulated LCD, by the way, and it’s a feature to keep in mind next time you’re looking for a new camera.
Get down low, get up high, do whatever it takes to make your photos interesting.
Get Intimate with a Long Zoom
One problem I have in photographing my cat is that the minute I see her in a cute pose and lift up a camera or walk toward her, she thinks it’s time to eat or play. So, of course, she walks over to me. End of shooting session.
I’ve learned that the best way to get candids of her is to keep a long zoom on my camera and photograph her from across the room. In fact, I keep a 75-300mm Nikkor zoom on one of my older D70 bodies all the time, and I can shoot full face shots like the one below from at least 10 feet away. She barely even notices that I’m photographing her.
Photographing your subject with a long lens is a great way to get candid close-up shots without influencing your subject with your presence. This makes for shots that are more relaxed and natural-looking.
Listen to the Light
One day, I found my cat sleeping in the dim but quiet light of a bay window. While I was tempted to pop on the flash, I didn’t.
Sometimes, turning on the flash is like using dynamite to clean out a gutter; it’s a bit of an overreaction. Sit quietly for a moment and “listen” to the light around you. Unless you’re sitting in complete darkness, light is speaking to you, luring you to its presence — you simply have to be still and hear its call. Window light is the portrait light the masters used.
I shot the picture below by letting the gentleness of the north light speak, and used only the existing light. I rested the camera on the arm of a couch to steady it.
Light will speak to you. Just perk up your eyes and listen.
Wait for the Natural Moment
Everyone knows what “red eye” looks like in pictures of people — that weird red glow in the pupil caused by the flash reflecting off the eye’s retinal surface. Flash photos of pets can cause the same thing, but I call it “green eye” because with most cats and dogs the result is either a green or blue-green pupil. It looks positively demonic.
You can use your red-eye reduction flash mode to get rid of the effect in both people and pets, but I hate that mode. To eliminate the red eye, the flash fires a series of pre-flashes that cause the pupil to contract and thereby avoid reflections from the retina.
The trouble is that people and pets can see the pre-flashing and it makes them aware that you’re taking their picture. This usually ruins the moment.
With people, it’s easy enough to simply keep the flash in its normal mode and then change your position slightly so that the flash is not firing directly into their eyes. If you shoot from slightly to the side, or above or below your subject, that small shift in position pretty much solves red eye.
With pets, it’s more difficult — because if you start to move, what happens? They move.
I’ve found with my cat that the best thing to do is to have the camera ready and then just wait for her to look away naturally. Once her head is turned slightly, there’s no chance of red eye.
In the photo above, if I had put on the red-eye mode or tried to change my position, she would not have that nice natural pose she has.
Be patient and wait for the natural moment.
Keep Your Sink Clean
My cat is always finding new and interesting places to sleep, and it takes me a while to discover them. Recently, she began disappearing inside the house and then returning with her butt and tail all wet. I eventually learned she’d started sleeping in the bathroom sink, which had a slow drip, explaining the wetness.
After I had shot a few frames of her, I noticed to my dismay that the sink needed cleaning. I had to use Photoshop to “clone away” the spots of dirt. Fortunately, she still sleeps there — so now I keep the sink spotless.
Be prepared. Keep your sink clean.