By: Nathan Cool
How to capture a special moment of your furry feline friend.
There's a method to the madness known as "herding cats". Unlike dogs, most cats don't take commands. For this reason, some people think of cats as being snobbish, standoffish, or just plain rude or hateful. This though isn't altogether true.
Cats, unlike dogs, are more self-sufficient. For millenia, dogs have stayed by their masters' side, taking commands in exchange for rewards. Cats, meanwhile, were allowed to run free, doing their tasks of rodent elimination all on their own. It's been the breeding that's to blame, where dogs have learned to listen, yet cats were encouraged to be independent. Think of this: people never let their dogs out to roam free at night, but until recently, it was common to do so with a cat.
Cat's also have a unique language. Since they are smaller and tend to be solitary ambush predators, they've learned to remain silent. But, their language speaks loud and clear when you get to know them. For instance, when their tails twitch/wag, it usually means they are annoyed -- the opposite of when a dog does this. When a cat's ears are flat, they are likely pissed off, or are readying for an attack. Tails up on a cat means happy, and when they lightly rub you, then they like you. Light "love" bites and licking are also signs of affection. And, rolling over to show you their belly, or bending forward slightly to show you their backside are also signs they are comfortable around you.
Knowing these simple signs can help to plan a photo shoot with your pet. But, it takes more than knowledge to garner a pose for a purring portrait. Patience, instead, is the key.
I've found it useful to first introduce myself slowly, not making eye contact with a cat. Doing so can be construed as a sign of aggression. Instead, I tend to ignore the cat, and let it come to me to sniff me out. When I finally do look at the cat, it's good to speak softly in a "baby" like voice, and, most importantly, close my eyes. Long blinks with a soothing voice communicates to the cat that you are not a threat. Once the cat also blinks, I'm in! But the shooting doesn't start there.
Cats are curious, not just for play, but for their safety as well. New elements brought into their environment could be threats. I'll slowly bring out my cameras, keeping lens caps on and screens shut to allow the cat to smell it if they want, but with no threat of getting fur or paw prints on the equipment. Then, the initial shooting can begin.
As with dogs, the first part of any pet shoot starts with me being an innocent bystander, just slowly moseying around, using a telephoto with high ISO to avoid flash, allowing me to stay at a distance but capture the cat in its natural environment. I may make slight tweaks to the furniture, props, and the owners as well, to work well with the available light on the scene. After about 30 minutes or more of this, I then work on backdrops.
Cats love to lay on things (more so than dogs, which love to lay on fabric as well). Now that I've won that cat over and they feel comfortable with me, I'll set up a backdrop stand, and then layout a large backdrop. I carry 10'x20' muslins, which allow me to drape tons of fabric over the floor, a bed, furniture, or what have you. Then, the trick: just walk away.
Once you turn your back on the cat, their curiosity instinct takes over, as they can now prowl and explore with no threat of intervention on your part. Almost every time, without fail, after waiting for five minutes, I'll turn around to see that furry feline having a heyday on the backdrop. Now it's shooting time.
During the wait time though, when the cat is exploring the backdrop fabric, it's time for me to prep. I'll hook up some lighting and reflectors, gauge my depth of field, shutter speeds and more, and then slowly have everything in position to swoop in unexpected, but prepared. I tend to use bounce flash off reflectors and flags (sometimes flash benders, depending on the room), which sometimes takes an assistant. Either way, the shot is planned without the cat knowing it, the cat goes naturally into posing position, and then the magic begins.
First, staying a distance away, I'll lay down on the floor, softly speaking all the while so the cat knows I'm not crouching into a pounce position (which would seem threatening). I have any assistants (which sometimes includes the pet owner) move into position with any equipment I've given them the task to hold. As I softly speak to the cat, they tend to look right at me, curious as to what in the heck I'm doing, and why I seem like such a nut-job lying on the floor with this funny looking giant eyeball placed in front of my face. It's now go-time: snap, snap, snap. Make sure all your flashes have fresh batteries so refresh is rapid.
And, another trick: use a slightly higher ISO than you normally would for a flash, and don't overdo the shutter speed. This way, your flashes don't have to work as hard and refresh is quicker.
There's a reason why people portrait shoots typically last an hour, but pets can run two hours easily. Patience, lots of pictures, and working with the personality of a cautious subject has its challenges. All can be easily overcome, and the results are always well worth it.