How can you take stunning photos of cats?
I love to photograph cats, and over the years, I’ve developed techniques that produce beautiful results. Below, I share my favorite tips to improve your cat photography, including advice on:
- Camera settings
- And more
By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know how to capture beautiful photos of your feline friends, and you’ll (hopefully!) have plenty of ideas for cat shots of your own.
Let’s dive right in.
1. For the best cat photos, be patient
First things first: When photographing cats, expect a high failure rate. Most of your shots won’t work; after all, cats don’t strike stunning poses for long periods of time!
(In my experience, they’re likely to walk up to you and sniff your lens just as you hit the shutter button.)
Instead, you must embrace the randomness and slow progress of a cat photoshoot. Enjoy watching the cat, be patient, and have your camera ready.
That way, when your cat strikes an interesting pose, you can simply fire off a few frames and get the shot.
Also, if you’re photographing a cat that lives with you (as opposed to conducting a scheduled photoshoot with a cat), then I highly recommend you always keep a camera handy, even if it’s just a phone. Cats tend to strike funny poses, especially when they’re half asleep, but you must have a camera nearby; otherwise, the cat will hear you digging around for your camera and change positions.
Similarly, if you’re outside with your cat, keep your camera at the ready for some outdoor action shots. If you need to fetch your gear from inside the house, then you’ll miss great opportunities.
2. Use sounds and toys to get the cat’s attention
As I emphasized in the previous tip, cats love to defy photographers. They’ll turn away just as you frame up your shot, they’ll lie down just as you’re ready to shoot some action, and they’ll sniff the lens right when you know you’ve found the perfect composition.
Fortunately, cats aren’t totally unpredictable. There are a few easy techniques you can use to get your cat’s attention.
First, cats are intrigued by rustling noises, so if you crunch a paper bag with one hand while keeping the camera up with the other, your cat will often look over and you’ll be able to nab a few frames.
An alternative is finger snapping, where you snap your fingers until the cat turns to investigate. In my experience, this usually works, but only for a time – after a few moments, the cat will recognize what’s going on and get bored.
Finally, if you prefer livelier photos, consider bringing out a toy. You can shoot with one hand while moving the toy with the other, and while your keeper rate will be pretty low, you’ll certainly get shots of your cat looking engaged.
Note that all of these methods do involve one-handed shooting (unless you’re working with an assistant). You’ll need to keep your shutter speed fast enough to prevent blur, and while I discuss settings in greater depth later on, Aperture Priority is a good mode to use (as it keeps the camera in charge but relinquishes control as needed).
3. Get down on your cat’s level
This cat photography tip is a big one, and it goes hand in hand with a mistake I see all the time from beginner cat shooters.
You see, most cat (and dog) photographers, when starting out, photograph their animal from human height. And this rarely works well, for two reasons:
- It shows the pet from so high up that the shot loses intimacy.
- It decreases the distance between the cat and the background. The result is generally a cat surrounded by a sharp floor, as opposed to (ideally) a cat in front of a blurry wall or a blurry outdoor scene.
Instead, it’s important to get down on your cat’s level. Look them in the eye with the camera. This type of photo – where you are part of the cat’s world, not the other way around – tends to have more impact and better show off the animal’s personality.
If you struggle to get down in such low positions, consider using a camera with a tilting or fully articulating screen. That way, you can compose eye-level shots while remaining comfortably above your camera.
And by the way, you don’t always need to get on the ground for a good result. What’s important is that you stay on a level with the cat, which means that you can capture climbing shots from a standing height:
4. Frame your subject for the best compositions
Want to create stunning cat photography compositions? Then it pays to emphasize your main subject as much as possible.
And one easy way to do this is by framing your cat with other compositional elements.
For instance, you can shoot through long grass, shrubs, or tree foliage, which will give the cat a nice, natural frame:
Or you can shoot through human-made objects, such as chair legs, banister railings, towel cupboards, and even windows. It’s a fun technique, and one that comes with endless variations; the key is to get creative!
You should also experiment with different apertures as you work. For instance, a wide aperture – such as f/2.8 – is great for creating a blurry foreground frame, which works great when handling more natural elements (like leaves). Whereas a narrow aperture – f/8, for example – will keep the foreground frame sharp and create a completely different effect.
(The more you test your different camera settings, the more familiar you’ll get – and the more your creative horizons will expand!)
5. Nail focus on the eyes
Pet photos must include sharp eyes. This is true of cat photos, dog photos, bird photos, and even wildlife photos, because without sharp eyes, the whole image will feel off-kilter.
Unfortunately, keeping the eye in focus can be tough, especially if you’re shooting up close or your cat is very active. Here are a few simple tips:
- If your camera has Animal Eye AF, test it out and see whether you like the result.
- If your cat tends to be active for a few moments before becoming motionless, then consider using your camera’s AF-S mode. Wait until the cat is still, use a single AF point to lock focus on the eyes, then recompose and take your shot.
- If all else fails, switch over to manual focusing. It might seem unwieldy, but if you can learn to accurately focus manually, you’ll easily increase your keeper rate.
By the way, if you’re struggling to get an eye in focus, feel free to narrow the aperture (assuming you have sufficient light). Narrowing the aperture will increase the depth of field so that a larger portion of the image is sharp, which will in turn give greater leeway when focusing on the cat.
And one more thing: If you’re taking a cat photo from an angle, aim to keep the nearest eye in focus, as it looks unnatural to feature a blurry near eye and a sharp far eye. Whereas if you’re photographing the cat from the front, as I did in the photo below, make sure that both eyes are tack sharp:
6. Try an off-camera flash for the best lighting effects
Most beginner cat photographers shoot in natural light, and that’s completely fine. In fact, natural light – especially if it’s diffused by cloudy skies – can look incredible in cat shots.
But if you want to increase your flexibility as a cat photographer, I do recommend you learn how to use flash; it’ll let you take photos even when the light is low or isn’t cooperating, and the more flexible your approach, the better, right?
To get started with flash, I encourage you to purchase an adjustable speedlight. You can mount this to your camera or use it off-camera on a lighting stand, which makes for a versatile shooting setup. Plus, a speedlight lets you avoid the dreaded red-eye effect (just make sure you’re not shooting directly into the eyes of the cat but are instead working from an angle).
Once you get a speedlight, add a small softbox or diffuser, which will soften the light to avoid harsh shadows and that unpleasant deer-in-the-headlights look.
Then just play around with different angles and approaches. You might try to bounce the flash off walls to create interesting sidelighting, or you might mount the flash on a stand at a 45-degree angle to create a dramatic effect.
Of course, you’ll need to pay careful attention to the compositions of your photos, and good lighting doesn’t necessarily guarantee great shots – but if you can master flash cat photography, then you’ll be miles ahead of the game.
One more tip: Try photographing your cat outside when the sun is low in the sky. Make sure your cat sits between you and the sun so the sunlight catches the cat’s fur. And add a bit of fill flash to ensure the cat’s face pops. (Here, it’s okay to use flash directly; you won’t get unpleasant red-eye or reflective effects if the flash is diluted by significant daylight.)
7. Use plenty of focal lengths for a variety of shots
You can shoot cats with a single prime lens – but if you want to capture a variety of photos that really tell a story, then I highly recommend you work with multiple focal lengths.
Here, a handful of primes is a decent option, though a zoom – such as a 70-200mm lens – will give you lots of flexibility and won’t need to be swapped on and off your camera over the course of the photoshoot.
Personally, I’m a fan of portrait-type lenses in the 85mm to 130mm focal-length range for cat photos, as these lenses let you shoot without getting in the cat’s face, while also allowing you to get reasonably close (which is important if you plan to photograph indoors).
A good beginner cat photography lens is a macro option, like a Canon 100mm f/2.8 or a Nikon 105mm f/2.8. You can use it to capture beautiful portraits, then you can move in for some close-ups of the eyes and paws:
I’d also encourage you to invest in a wider lens, such as a 24-70mm zoom or a 35mm prime; a wide-angle lens is great for grabbing full-body and environmental shots of your cat, and while it probably won’t see as much use as a short telephoto lens, it’ll still be nice to have around.
You can also photograph a cat with a smartphone camera. No, it won’t offer the same level of image quality or settings flexibility as a dedicated DSLR or mirrorless body, but it’s an easy way to get started with the equipment you have. Use your wide-angle lens to get environmental cat shots, and use the telephoto lens for headshots and standard portraits.
8. Use the right cat photography settings
You can do cat photography with your camera set to Auto mode, but you’re bound to get frustrated pretty quickly. Auto mode doesn’t let you adjust exposure variables, which means that you’ll be unable to control the shutter speed (which affects sharpness), the aperture (which affects depth of field), and the ISO (which affects noise levels).
Instead, most cameras offer several better options.
First, you might try Aperture Priority mode, which allows you to set the ISO and aperture while your camera selects the shutter speed. I generally recommend you set the ISO to its lowest value, then select the aperture for the depth of field effect you’re after (remember, a wide aperture, such as f/2.8, will limit depth of field to create a very blurry background, while a narrow aperture, such as f/8, will increase depth of field to keep everything sharp). If your camera sets a too-slow shutter speed, you can always increase the ISO or widen the aperture further (this, in turn, will force the camera to increase the shutter speed).
If you’re already familiar with basic camera settings or you want to dive straight into the deep end, then you can try shooting in Manual mode. Here, you pick your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO; the goal is to choose the three settings so your exposure bar (generally present in the camera viewfinder) is balanced.
I think Manual mode is good for slower-paced photoshoots with consistent lighting, whereas Aperture Priority mode does well when the cat is moving and/or the light is changing rapidly. Both options are great, however, so I suggest you pick one, start learning, and stick with it!
I’d also encourage you to set your camera to its continuous shooting mode, also known as burst mode. Then, when you hold down the shutter button, your camera will fire off a series of photos – and this will allow you to capture split-second moments that would normally be missed, such as your cat running around the yard or scurrying up a tree.
(You’ll need a fast shutter speed, too, if you want crisp shots of the action. I’d suggest a minimum 1/500s shutter speed, and you may want to increase it depending on the cat’s speed.)
9. Pay attention to cat tones and exposure
Your camera meter evaluates the proper exposure (i.e., brightness) for each scene, and while it generally does a good job, it tends to struggle when faced with very bright or very dark cats.
You see, your camera’s meter believes that all scenes should average out to a nice middle gray. So if you meter off a white cat, the meter will often underexpose the scene (i.e., it’ll try to take a white cat and turn it gray). And if you meter off a black cat, the meter will often overexpose the scene (i.e., it’ll take the black cat and try to turn it gray).
Neither of these results look very nice; the white cat will seem murky gray, while the black cat will lose its beautiful luster.
So what do you do?
That depends on your camera’s shooting mode. If you’re using Aperture Priority mode, you can dial in positive exposure compensation to brighten a white cat, and you can dial in negative exposure compensation to darken a black cat. (Many cameras include a dedicated exposure compensation button; check your camera manual if you’re not sure how this works!)
If you’re using Manual mode, however, you’ll need to make the relevant adjustments to your shutter speed, aperture, or ISO. Slow down the shutter speed, widen the aperture, or increase the ISO to brighten up a white cat; increase the shutter speed, narrow the aperture, or lower the ISO to darken a black cat. Make sense?
Cat photography tips: final words
Cat photography is so much fun. And if you can remember a few of these simple tips, your results will drastically improve.
So grab your camera, find a cat, and start practicing!
Now over to you:
Which of these tips do you plan to use in your own cat photography? Do you have any favorite techniques of your own? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- 9 Tips for Taking Better Photos of Cats
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES
- ADVANCED GUIDES