Long after human civilization crumbles to dust, alien archaeologists will tap into our primitive (by their standards) worldwide information network and conclude that felines must have ruled the planet. As a photographer and internet user, it is your duty to contribute to that misinformation.
For some reason, we really like taking photos of cats and putting them on the internet. In fact, some Nikons have a Pet Mode setting to help with this important task.
And while it’s a trivial matter to snap a quick pic of Fluffy sleeping in a weird position and post it to Facebook, capturing quality, professional-looking photos of her yawning or chasing a leaf is an entirely different animal.
How should you frame the shot? What’s the best focal length to use? What about lighting? We’ve gathered advice from professional pet photographers as well as tips from our own camera experts to help you answer these questions and more.
1. Be ready
Photography is about capturing moments—the exact action, emotion, or atmosphere of a sliver of time. Your little furball will provide plenty of those moments, but you need to be ready for them.
This means not only having your camera on, but making sure your settings are correct for the situation. If Mittens is about to do something awesome, she’s not going to give you time to tweak your shutter speed, ISO, or aperture settings.
Josh Norem, a professional pet photographer also known as the Furrtographer, told Digital Trends how he takes his close-ups: Shoot in aperture priority mode and use the widest possible aperture setting. He recommends narrowing the aperture a little if you’re so close to the subject that its nose is out of focus.
For capturing cats in motion, many of our tips on sports photography are applicable. Using a shallow depth of field (a wider aperture) to isolate the subject from the background or bumping up the ISO to trade for faster shutter speed will help you get more compelling action shots.
2. Get down there
Professional pet photographer Zoran Milutinovic has a long list of cat photography tips, but one of the most obvious tricks is actually something people tend to overlook: Get down on the cat’s level. In fact, we would even recommend going lower than that, if possible.
Angle is an incredibly important consideration for photographers. A high-angle shot, such as when you’re looming over your cat and shooting downwards, has a tendency to diminish the subject and make it look smaller. In contrast, if you shoot from a lower angle and point your camera upwards, your subject looks more powerful and significant. Guess which one Kitty prefers.
3. Go for the eyes!
When viewing photographs of people, our attention generally focuses on the eyes first. Both Norem and Milutinovic stress the importance of keeping the eyes sharp in their cat photos, Norem going as far as to consider the shot completely wasted if the eyes aren’t in focus.
Many cameras have a setting that automatically locks on to the closest part of the subject as the focus point. When shooting straight on and close up, this would mean Tigger’s nose and not his eyes. Therefore, you should try to set the camera’s focus point yourself and aim accordingly.
Also, pay attention to the rule of thirds when composing and cropping your image. If you get the eyes on one of those power points, you’re golden.
4. Don’t get too flashy
Most photos of cats will likely be taken indoors, where lighting can be a challenge. In ideal circumstances, you take your shots with plenty of natural lighting and don’t need to use flash, which distracts the animal and might even send it scurrying. Even in lower-light settings, you can bump up the ISO and “trade” a wider aperture for faster shutter speed.
But sometimes, that’s just not enough. Breaking out the flash is a bit of a last-ditch effort, but there are ways to prevent it from ruining your shot. Flash diffusers help reduce that harsh, white glow, and pointing the flash toward the subject at an angle or straight upwards in a room with a low ceiling can help alleviate the low-light situation without casting a shadow around your subject.
Whatever you do, don’t point the flash head-on at your cat. When you do that with humans, you get the red-eye effect. With cats, you get those soulless demon eyes.
5. Know when to quit
Even after following all the tips listed above, sometimes, your cat just doesn’t want to cooperate. If you want to take photos that are more compelling than just Patches curled up on your freshly dry-cleaned black blazer, you have to do so on her schedule.
Milutinovic recommends playing to the cat’s curiosity with noises and distractions, and Norem suggests a few smartphone apps designed to draw their attention. However, both photographers concede that patience and readiness are the most important tools. Cats are fickle that way, go figure.