better cat photos

How to Photograph a Cat

“In a cat’s eye, all things belong to cats.”
– English proverb

Photographing cats can be very tricky. Snapshots are easy, but getting an image that speaks for itself takes intentional effort. My efforts — both professional and as a shelter volunteer — have taught me some fundamental practices. Put them in place, and they’ll go a long way toward ensuring you’ll get shots you’ll be happy with.

When it comes to photographing cats, the first rule of thumb is patience. If you can’t master the first rule, there is no sense whatsoever in proceeding to any subsequent rule. A lack of patience will only result in cat snapshots, not intentional pet portraits. The cat photographer has to be willing to gain the cat’s trust before ever putting the camera to the eye. Depending on the cat’s personality (and your ability to interpret and interact with it), gaining the animal’s trust might take only a moment. More often than not, it will take considerably longer. Be patient and purposeful and the time to put the camera to use will follow. You’re going to have to get very close to get great shots, so it pays to start the process from the start. While you’re practicing being patient, you can also practice watching the cat and learning to interpret its body language. Cats are very demonstrative; from the tail to the eyes, they are trying to tell you something.

The second rule of thumb is to be prepared; the opportunity for that magic shot may only come once and you want to be sure you’ve got the camera to your eye and ready to go when it does. Communicating with the cat’s caregiver and proactively learning something about the cat’s personality before arriving on site is highly beneficial to your preparedness. Experience has also taught me that cats are rarely afraid of diffused fill-flash, and it can be your friend in two different ways. First, it can do what you would expect it to do: fill in the shadows, reveal detail, evenly illuminate your subject, etc. Second, your fill flash will often capture the cat’s attention – however briefly. This may lead to a few seconds of straight-on, eye’s wide open, what-the-heck-is-that? curiosity you can leverage to your advantage. Make sure you use a diffused flash though, as cat’s eyes are highly reflective and you don’t want to blow out one of their most interesting features. I find the Gary Fong collapsible LightSphere to be a fantastic option.

The third rule of thumb is to expect the unexpected. Cats tend to refuse to take direction, so if you want it to look up you can pretty much count on it looking down. You have to get yourself down to the level of the animal and interact with it. Sit or lay on the floor, try to coax it onto a table; do whatever you have to do to gain an interesting perspective for your image. If your goal is to capture a pet portrait, you can’t expect to stand above the cat and shoot down at its back.

These first three rules should help you on your way to better cat photography. If you have a bit of advice on this topic you’d like to share, please leave your comments (or questions) below.

Nikon D300, ISO 200, f/22 at 1/125 sec., 50 mm, flash at 1/4 power diffused with Gary Fong Lightsphere

Nikon D300, ISO 200, f/22 at 1/125 sec., 50 mm, flash at 1/4 power diffused with Gary Fong LightSphere flash diffuser