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Things My Cat Has Taught Me About Photography

Posted By Jeff Wignall On April 29, 2009 @ 7:47 am In Art of Photography | 14 Comments

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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.

boo-boo-porch-08

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.

buddha-stained-glass-jeff-wignall-cat-c

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. 

buddha_boo-wignall

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

cat_in_sink-wignall-1

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.

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14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Things My Cat Has Taught Me About Photography"

#1 Comment By Nuria On April 29, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

Wonderful tips, thank you! Your cat is beautiful! I have a tortie myself.

#2 Comment By Jain Lemos On April 29, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

Love the sink tip, Jeff. What is your cat's name???

#3 Comment By Art Size On April 29, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

Great artical without getting too technical. Even experience photographers need to have helpful hints sometime. Perhaps in a future artical, you can touch on things like: depth of field; composition; and point of interest.

#4 Comment By Dave Kamm On April 29, 2009 @ 10:58 pm

Jeff,

I found this post via a photo-related Twitter feed today. Great tips here. I can really relate to the 'cat getting up and walking toward the photographer' problem!

I made environmental cat portraits a primary focus of my photography during two recent trips to Greece (especially the Greek Islands). You can see an ongoing photo blog of these efforts at [2]. I'd welcome your feedback on these images.

Regards,
Dave

#5 Comment By Jeff Wignall On April 30, 2009 @ 12:51 am

My cat's official name is Buddha, but I usually call her Boo Boo and I have a thousand other names for her, as well. I named her Buddha because she brought me enlightenment. She's reminded me of the important things in life: a good meal, a sunny window with a view and a warm bed :)

#6 Comment By bethb On April 30, 2009 @ 5:45 am

pretty kitty!

#7 Comment By Lynne On April 30, 2009 @ 8:11 am

Hi Jeff-I love photographing my cats too. It's kind of like photographing wildlife inside the house!

#8 Comment By Adrienne On May 2, 2009 @ 11:20 pm

I just love dilute torties ;-) My epic cat, Othello was a tortie, and I had a dilute tortie named Callie who really wanted to be an only child, so she lives with her former cat-sitter, now mom ;-) Great post!!

#9 Comment By Talbert McMullin On June 12, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

I have one of those! Torties are wonderful!

#10 Comment By Fred Brennion On June 22, 2009 @ 10:28 am

Anyone who's a cat lover (I am, and I favor tuxedos) and into photography will love, "Ernie, a Photographer's Memoir" by Tony Mendoza, Chronicle Books, 2001. Here's a snippet from a reviewer at Amazon:

"As you'll be able to see from this 'memoir', cats are not only cute but also fierce, funny, witty, courageous and flexible. Tony Mendoza photographs his cat Ernie as Ernie is simply being a cat of his own. The photographs show exactly how cats are, without the cheesiness or patronizing cuteness.'

The photos are all black and white but that detracts not a whit from Mendoza's artistry. Hey, he took 10,000 pictures of one cat. There HAD to be some great ones in there.

This book is available used on Amazon for literally NOTHING, just S&H. 33 reviews, average 5 stars. Get several and give them to your catlover friends.

As of 2001, Mendoza was teaching photography at Ohio State

#11 Comment By Stacey On December 11, 2009 @ 6:04 am

Really enjoyed this article, helpful about the flash, I too had noticed that the preflash metering always alerts them. And I need to get a longer zoom as my 70-200mm is still not long enough and they come running over for pats and purrs :)

I have a couple of Birmans and they are quite photogenic and generally fairly obliging. Mine dont do anything quite so cute as sleep in the sink tho.

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#12 Comment By Renee On April 21, 2010 @ 10:13 pm

Thanks for the great tips - now I can start getting shots that really show off my playful goofy cat. Amazingly, Paddy doesn't get distracted by the pre-flash and doesn't even blink. I don't know how - I can't get humans to pose that well. (He loves the bathroom sink too.)

#13 Comment By beth On October 17, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

loved this post - excellent suggestions. I have a tortie also, one of four cats, and they do make great photo subjects. Thanks for sharing.

#14 Comment By Beverley On March 6, 2012 @ 1:31 am

Greetings Jeff and Furr Ball friends. Love your site. I have so many photos of my beloved Ricardo . He was 19 when he accended to the higher tree tops of life.. I took him for a professional shoot before he died. He looked at their lense different. It wasnt the same as him prancing himself infront of me. Ricardo taught me so many things. One of the greatest teachers of life. He knew where the light was going to be. Loved the camera. Thanks for your wisdom. Meow for now.


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