Since the very beginning of photography, cats have been a popular subject to be immortalized in images. This is true today more than ever, when everyone has access to a camera in their pocket that’s with them 24/7, and can share them to anyone in the world instantly on international social media platforms.
However, cat photography can often be difficult for beginners, as felines can be quite a difficult subject to work with, as they can’t speak, don’t like to sit still, and see humans as beneath them. Many novice cat photographers end up with blurry, grainy, and out-of-focus shots and a lot of disappointment over not being able to capture memories of their furry friends.
This article will give you 20 tips on how to up your cat photography, ranging from how to set your camera to achieve the best results, how to best capture your photos, and how to process them once you’re done with your shoot.
Camera Settings for Cat Photography – preparing for your shoot
1. Use manual or semi-auto settings – don’t rely on your camera to figure out your exposure, as this can result in blurry or improperly exposed images. If you’re comfortable with it, use full manual mode. Aperture priority and shutter priority modes can be useful if the lighting is changing. Avoid the full automatic setting on your camera, as well as the various “scene” settings that some manufacturers include.
2. High shutter speed – keep your shutter speed high enough to prevent blurring in your images. Cats can move around very quickly, and some won’t stay put for very long. Shoot at 1/250th of a second or higher, depending on your lens, to make sure that motion is frozen. Some lighting situations can make this difficult, but it’s generally better to change your ISO or aperture values before lowering this, unless a cat is being very still.
3. Fast aperture – this will help you out in two ways. One – it will add some emphasis to your subject cat by blurring the background or foreground. Two – it will help you to add more light to the image, and help you maintain a higher shutter speed. Ideally, you should shoot at the lowest aperture you can. For zoom lenses, the lowest is typically f/2.8, and for prime lenses, it could be much lower. It would be a good idea to bring some prime lenses along if you can.
4. Keep ISO high as needed – don’t be afraid of raising your ISO. While it can introduce some grain into your shots, it’s better to have a grainy shot than an underexposed or blurry one. Set it as high as necessary to maintain your shutter speed, or keep it on auto mode, with the camera making the necessary changes to maintain the shutter speed. For most modern APS-C or Micro Four-Thirds cameras, you should be pretty safe up to about 6400 ISO, and you can go even higher with a full frame camera.
5. Continuous shooting mode – use your camera’s highest continuous shooting speed. This will help you get more in-focus shots of fast moving cats, and a greater variety of shots as they make different facial expressions. Later, this will give you more flexibility when editing your photos, as you could potentially have more good shots to choose from. Pick a camera with a good burst rate, and use a memory card with a high read and write speed so that you can keep shooting continuously as long as you need to. Modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras should give you plenty of flexibility in this regard.
6. Focusing – if you’re using autofocus lenses, choose a focus mode that allows you to track a moving subject, as excited cats will rarely sit still. If you’re shooting calmer or sleepier cats, any focus mode that lets you find the cat’s eyes will do. For manual focus lenses, turn on your camera’s focus peaking, pre-focus, and move your body to achieve proper focus. Another thing to keep in mind is the close focus distance of your lens – the closer, the better, as a very close distance can allow you to fill the frame with your subject, or even potentially take macro shots of specific details.
7. Shoot in RAW or RAW + JPEG – in order to give yourself the most flexibility when editing your photos, shoot your images in RAW mode. Make sure your memory card is large enough to accommodate the file size, as they will be larger than JPEGs alone. If you need to post them or send them to someone immediately, shoot in RAW + JPEG so that you can keep the benefits of both file types.
The Cat Photoshoot – composition, lighting, and action
8. Keep your lighting in mind – some cats will tend to hang around in dark corners or hide in the shadows. Do your best to bring them out into a more well-lit area, turning on artificial lights if necessary. Something else to consider is using window lighting – cats love lounging in sunbeams, which can create interesting, contrasty images, with the shapes of the window drawing attention to certain parts of your images. Avoid using a speedlight or on camera flash, as it can startle the cats and make them run away from you. Additionally, keep in mind the color of the cat that you’re shooting – a black or dark cat will be harder to expose for in a dark situation, while a white or light cat will be hard to see in brighter light.
9. Focus on the eyes – cat’s eyes, much like human eyes, are very beautiful with intricate details. They can be very expressive, showing the cat’s emotional state and personality, and are typically very colorful. Do your best to keep your focus on the eyes – either using focus peaking, or with your camera’s animal eye autofocus mode. Try to look for shots where there is a good amount of light coming into the cat’s eyes, as this can help show off the details of the eye, as well as create more interesting color interactions with the rest of the composition.
10. Use toys or treats, or even your hands – cats love to play and will instinctively jump at certain kinds of toys. Bring along something that they can play with – a laser pointer, feather wants, or even some yarn. If you don’t have any, even just using your hands can work, though you do have to be wary of minor bites or scratches. Playing with the cat will help you get some good action shots, lunging at the toy, jumping in the air, or looking ready to pounce on the red dot of the laser pointer. It can also help tire them out so that you can get shots of them relaxing later on.
11. Keep your environment/background in mind – search for interesting compositions in your location. If you’re indoors, use doorways, windows, furniture, or other objects to create an engaging frame around your subject. The cat might want to sit on a box, bed, or specific chair, and you can use this to your advantage by showing only the cat’s face or paws poking out from where they sit. If you’re outdoors, consider finding interesting plants, trees, or flowers for the cat to be near or interact with. If you’re in a more urban environment, you could even use bicycles, parked cars, or man-made structures to your advantage when searching for a composition. Another thing to think about when outdoors is moving around – as you’re not constrained by four walls, you can convince the cat to move with you to get you a better and more interesting composition.
12. Switch up your focal lengths – it’s a good idea to bring several prime lenses with you, or a fast zoom lens, or even both, depending on your preference. Using different focal lengths can give multiple perspectives on the subject and make them appear larger or smaller within their environment. Using a wide-angle lens and getting close to a cat can make them appear larger and will emphasize the part of them that’s closest to you – you can use this to place extra emphasis on the face and eyes or paws. A standard focal length from 35-50mm will give you a more natural perspective on the cat, and allow you to get a decently shallow depth of field, while still including some of the environment around the subject. A telephoto lens of 85mm of longer can be good for getting shots of a shy cat, or for getting a portrait of a cat’s face with a very shallow depth of field. Even longer lenses can be great for shooting outdoor stray or feral cats.
13. Shoot from multiple angles – don’t just shoot from a standing or sitting height. For some shots, trying to get close to the floor or whatever surface your subject happens to be standing on can create a shot where the cat appears larger, especially when shot with a wide-angle lens. Shooting directly down at a cat while they look up at you can also make for an interesting composition. Generally, just take a lot of shots from many different angles, paying special attention to try to get on the same level as the cat. Using a camera with an articulating screen or viewfinder can be helpful with this.
14. Wait for the cats to pose/make a gesture – separately from playing with the cat to get action shots of them, it can also be helpful to be patient and wait for them to strike a pose or make a specific facial expression on their own. Good poses to look for include them closing their eyes and “smiling”, licking their chops or nose, rolling over, using their paw to investigate something, or looking at something that’s outside of the frame. Making sure the cat is tired out from playing can get them to make a different variety of expressions, and can help you get some shots of them sleeping in an odd position.
15. Get to know the cat’s personality – not every cat will behave exactly the same. Some are timid, shy, and don’t like humans all that much. Others are incredibly cuddly and won’t leave you alone while they rub up against you. Some are very independent and don’t mind relaxing near you, while others will want to play as soon as they see you. Spend some time getting to know how your subject cats will react to you, and you can tailor your style of shooting with them to better reflect their personality. If possible, visit the cat multiple times to get them used to you as well. A cat that is comfortable with you will be much more willing to let their personality shine, and this can make certain types of photos much easier to capture
16. If possible, bring a friend or assistant – having someone else along with you to get the cat’s attention can be very helpful. They can play with the cat, distract them with food, or provide a warm lap for the cat to lounge on. This can also provide you with some good shots of the interactions between humans and cats, including the cat sniffing their hand, the person holding the cat, or even the two touching faces or noses together. If they have a camera of their own, encourage them to bring it along, or provide them with one if you have a spare, so that they can get even more photos. Bringing friends can also just be a fun experience – visiting a cat rescue or cat café together is always a great time.
Post-processing of Cat Photography – after your shoot
17. Brighten the eyes a little – in addition to using the lighting situation of your location to your advantage, you can use post-processing to accentuate the brightness of your cat subject’s eyes. Use your photo editing program’s dodge tool or custom layers to brighten the iris of the cat’s eye. Take care not to go overboard – the irises have fine details in them that you don’t want to blow out, and it can sometimes be easy to make it look as if the cat’s eyes are glowing. To add a little contrast, consider using the burn tool to darken areas of the pupil where there are no reflections.
18. Make sure there is plenty of detail in the coat – in the in-focus areas of your image, you should aim to have as much detail in the cat’s fur as possible. Ideally, it should be relatively easy to make out individual hairs. This can be somewhat tricky with pure black or pure white cats – either reduce the shadow or highlight intensity depending on which color cat you’re working with in order to bring out the details in their fur. When using a vintage lens, or one with a more artistic rendering, some loss of detail might be expected, but even those will provide you with plenty of sharpness in the subject.
19. Experiment with black and white and color – sometimes you don’t have as much control over your environment and subject as you would like, and certain colors can be distracting from the overall composition and scene. In these cases, it can help to reduce the vibrancy of those distracting colors and help you create a more harmonious and engaging image. Sometimes, it can even be good to convert an image to black and white, typically if you want the forms and shapes of the image to take priority over colors. Use your editing software to experiment with multiple color grades for each shot in order to determine which ones you like. Something to be careful with with color editing – be careful to make sure you’re not desaturating the cat’s eyes, as they could be the same color as another distracting object in frame – use masking and selection tools to make sure the eyes maintain their color.
20. Cull your in-focus images – often in cat photography, you will take some photos that are just a little bit out of focus due to the erratic movements of your feline subject. While the composition, colors, and other aspects of your image can be good, it’s best to toss any out-of-focus shots that you have. Depending on how you intend to use your image, you may have a little more leeway in this – if you plan to post your images on Instagram, then you might be able to handle a slightly out-of-focus image due to the small size, while making a large print will make those flaws more apparent.
Above all, the best thing to remember in every aspect of cat photography is patience. It involves a lot of waiting, time spent getting to know your subjects, and a good deal of effort put into post-processing your images. However, having patience throughout your photoshoot and post-processing will reward you with better photos, better memories of your feline friends, and more satisfaction in the quality of your work.
By Jonathan Daisey