How to photograph cats

09th July 2012
I had this article about how to photograph cats published in Your Cat magazine last month



Create cat photos that will make you purr with joy

Cats make wonderful photographic subjects because they offer everything from serenity to savagery, often within a split second!

Here are some simple tricks for ensuring you can improve your cat photos with a compact camera. Cameras can be quite complicated, but in truth most poor photos are let down by how they've been composed. Understanding how to compose photos will instantly improve your photos and there are some simple tricks that are very easy to grasp.

Get closer
Not being close enough to their subject is one of the biggest mistakes people make when composing their photos. Robert Capa was one of the leading photo journalists of the 20th Century and he once said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough."

This is coming from a man who photographed the D-day landings at Omaha Beach; so if he was prepared to get a bit closer on a day like that, you should be able to take three steps nearer to your cat.



If you aren't close enough you can end up with a perimeter of unnecessary clutter around your subject. Before you press the shutter button take a look around the image and see if there is anything there that doesn't enhance the photo. If there is, then move closer or change your position until it's gone.

Avoid distracting backgrounds
Plain backgrounds are generally the best. When photographing your cat try to position him against a nice plain wall or in front of a tree trunk outside. The simplicity will be much more pleasing.

Get down to their level
When photographing anything that's smaller than us you should always crouch or lie down until you're at their level. This makes the photo far more intimate and ensures the cat's face is at a natural angle rather than from above.

The rule of thirds
Most people instinctively put their main subject right in the middle of the photo. Instinctively our brains finds this kind of composition rather static and boring. Fortunately the rule of thirds is a simple technique that can help you compose almost any scene. Imagine your photo has two evenly spaced vertical lines and two evenly spaced horizontal lines running right across it. Put the main focus of your photo where the vertical and horizontal lines intersect. The main focus is normally your cat's eyes, since that's the part you want to be most in focus. To focus on the eyes you make sure your focusing point (indicated by a coloured light on the screen) is pointing at it. Then, half press the shutter button. If you’re not happy with the composition of the photo at this point then you can adjust it slightly because the camera will continue to focus on the eye if you keep the shutter button half pressed. Once you’re happy press the shutter button all the way down.

Avoiding blurred photos
This is another common problem if you're new to photography. The more light there is the faster the shutter speed you can achieve. Having a fast shutter speed freezes motion and prevents blurred photos. If you and your cat are both completely still then you are likely to need a shutter speed of 100th of a second to ensure a sharp photo. If your shutter speed is slower than this then you can increase it by selecting a higher ISO number from your menu. Typical numbers are 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1600. If you're inside you'll normally need 800 or 1600 because there's less light. Flash Avoid using a flash on a compact camera because you'll end up with harsh shadows and your cat will sometimes have those glowing red or green eyes that will make your dear cat look like a little alien! It's caused by the light from the direct flash bouncing off the back of your subject's eyes and being reflected back into the lens.

Only use flash if you're unable to get a sharp photo even on your highest ISO setting.

Photographing black or white cats
Cameras are designed to make everything a mid-tone grey. This is because it is trying to capture as much detail in the blacks and the whites as possible. This means white and black subjects both become greyer than they really are. This is why most people are disappointed with their photos of snow scenes. If you have a black or a white cat you need to use the exposure compensation setting. This setting allows you to ‘tell’ the camera that you want to make the photo darker or lighter than the camera normally would. So, if your cat is black you need to under expose it and if your cat is white then over expose it. Most cameras have a simple sliding scale with a plus at one end and a minus at the other. Tweak the settings until you're happy with the result.

Manipulating your cat
The most obvious problem you are likely to have with photographing your cat is that they’re unlikely to do any of the things you want them to. Although they are single-minded, they are also quite predictable. Cats spend a great deal of time curled up asleep, which is the perfect time to start practicing your new photography knowledge because you have plenty of time to think.

If you want your cat to pose then you need to put his favourite treat in a photographically pleasing location. While your cat is devouring the unexpected snack you can quickly leap into action before they wander off again. To save time you want to make sure you have the right settings organised in advance and an idea of the composition you want. Windows are ideal locations because they let plenty of natural light fall on your subject and good light is the foundation of a great photo. Another good spot - particularly this time of year - is next to garden flowers, to add a splash of colour.

Of course the best way of ensuring you capture a nice photo of your cat is to have someone hold them. That way there’s no escape! You can even put the camera on a tripod and set the camera’s timer so you can take a photo of yourself cuddling your cat. Try to ensure your face is close to your cat. This makes the photo more intimate, but it also helps both of you remain in focus.

The most challenging type of photography is action photography because you have to work fast and deal with movement and the unpredictability of the situation. Even professional photographers will throw away more action photos than they keep, so don't despair. Get an assistant to fire your cat up with a dangly toy. There are two settings you need to change for action photos. Firstly, set your camera to 'high-speed shooting' which enables you to hold down the shutter and take photos in rapid succession. Secondly, change the focus setting to 'continuous auto focus' so that the camera tracks the subject as it moves.

The megapixel mystery
We’ve all heard of megapixels, but what are they and are they important? The more megapixels your camera has the more ‘dots’ it will use to create your photo and more ‘dots’ means more detail. However, once you get past a certain point your eyes can’t see the extra detail anyway. Once you get past about six megapixels then you’d have to print your photos quite large before you would notice any pixelation. Pixelation is where the jagged edges of the dots are actually visible because there aren’t enough of them to provide the detail required at that size.

To understand how many dots you need for a specific print size all you do is multiply the print size by the resolution desired. The standard resolution for printing is 300 dots per inch. So, to print an 8x10 inch photo you would need 2400 pixels by 3000 pixels. If you were displaying an image on the internet (where 72 dots per inch is acceptable) you would only need 576 pixels by 720 pixels.

Want to improve your photography further?
If you want to take you photography to the next level then you really need an SLR camera. In simplistic terms these are the cameras that enable you to change lenses. All the example photos created in the article were taken with a compact camera to illustrate what can be done with them. However, it was much quicker and easier to create the following image with the SLR camera at the end of the session.



The reason is that the SLR camera takes a photo the instant you press the shutter button. However, compact cameras have a slight delay. This pause is often crucial when photographing a cat because by the time the camera reacts to you pressing the button, the cat has moved. Very frustrating!

Want to learn more?
Photography forums like www.ephotozine.com are excellent for improving your photography because you can get help from more experienced photographers. There are also free photography tutorials you can read and you can even upload your own photos and get feedback from other members.

Comments

Photo comment By Darius Wheel: this is a great resource mate!

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