Purr-fect image: How to take better photos of your cat

October 27, 2014

When David Sutton explains the fine points of photographing a cat, you listen. One of the most skilled pet and portrait photographers in the business, heís had his work exhibited around the world, and he has a steady stream of four-legged clients visiting his Evanston, Ill., studio. (Take a peek at his website, suttonstudios.com .)

Photographing a cat, he says, can be ó not surprisingly ó challenging. But not impossible.

"I donít think any cat is unphotographable," he says.

Our model for the day was Clifford, a year-old orange feline who was awaiting adoption at Paws shelter in Chicago. Clifford took a morning off from lounging to pose. But Sutton was working at a disadvantage.

"Cats are very sensitive to changes in their environment," he says. "Theyíre homebodies. So (their home) is the ideal place to do it."

Bringing them to a studio or other location adds pressure on them, he said. Riding in a car and being in a carrier are not their favorite pastimes.

So letís assume you want to take a photo of little Bucko on his home turf. Youíll need some planning.

"Pay attention to places the cat likes to be," Sutton says. "There are probably three or four. And pay attention to the light. Cultivate an awareness. Where do lighting and background come together nicely? What time of day? Itís almost more of a meditation."

He suggests using natural light, coming from the side or behind you, "so youíre defining the shape of the animal with shadows and light."

A professional-looking background is not essential; you may want some elements from your home in the photo. If they detract, scrap them. If they enhance the shot, keep them.

Once you have your session mapped out, get an accomplice. This will be much easier with help. They can be in the photo, or they can simply be a second set of hands to keep Bucko in line. And being a cat, Bucko will need some gentle correcting.

"If you keep putting a cat in the same place over and over," he says, "theyíll eventually get frustrated and park themselves and let you take the picture."

If your assistant is in the shot, have her hold the cat with a firm grip, a hand under the back end supporting its legs and tail. If the hind quarters are supported, the animal wonít twist.

"Make the cat feel comfortable and get the faces together. You only have to look good for a 60th of a second."

Here are more of Suttonís tips.

Try various points of view. You can stand above the animal and shoot, getting a birdís-eye view, but Sutton says, "I find portraits are more compelling at eye level. Either put the animal up on something or you get down on the floor. I think itís more natural." Another shot he uses is of the owner from the shins down, with the cat around their feet.

Donít draw a crowd. The more family members in the shot the less compelling the picture will be. Sutton suggests two people and one pet.

Look at the entire frame. Most amateurs look at the subject in the viewfinder and snap right away.

Turn off the flash. It can frighten the animal.

Eye contact is key. To get the cat to look into the lens, use a toy (Sutton used a feather on a stick). Hold it high, get the catís attention, then bring it down to near the camera so the cat is looking right into the lens.

The animalís expression is important. "With some animals, if their ears are back they look suspicious, tentative, scared. If theyíre looking at you and their ears are forward, the animals look most accessible, warm."

Take a lot of pictures, then winnow them down to one to three keepers.

Figure on spending 15 to 30 minutes shooting. "Cats and dogs will put up with you that long, then everybodyís worn out," Sutton says. "Donít expect to get the job done in a minute. Photography now is so easy, people believe itís a really simple process. But the key word is Ďprocess.í if you want a good portrait, you have to take some time."

Degree of difficulty: Hard (well, maybe it depends on the cat)

Materials needed: Camera, cat toy, human helper, patience



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