You don’t see as many photographers posting cat images. There’s a reason for that — cats are TRICKY to photograph. Especially in a shelter setting. They are by their very nature more elusive and wary of new sights and sounds, so getting them to sit for the camera is a challenge. But so worth it!
This list of tips may seem rather obvious, but let’s all start here:
- Bring a helper (unless you have four arms and enjoy trying to be everywhere at once). And it needs to be someone who understands cats.
- Use as much natural light as possible, but bring supplemental flash for those that just refuse to come out of their cages. We like to use a 36″ umbrella on a small light stand and get our flash OFF THE CAMERA. You need a little extra practice and some extra equipment to do it this way, but it will definitely give you a nice natural soft light. An umbrella spreads out the light and eliminates most of the harsh shadows.
- Give them something comfortable to lay on. Dogs will sit almost anywhere. Cats? not so much. We used a bean bag with fabric stretched over it (similar to what we use for newborn babies) and the cats loved it!
- Use a fast lens so you can shoot at a shallow depth of field to throw the background out of focus. The images here were shot at 1.8 or 2.0, because cages, litter boxes, signs and food bowls are DISTRACTING. Again – a little training is necessary – but it is time well spent.
- Practice being quiet and moving slowly. If you burst in to the cat room with the same sound effects and squeekers that you use for dogs, you will fail.
- Learn about cat body language. For example: the faster the tail whips back and forth, the more trouble you’re in. Or when the ears go back, you’re going to need to take a breath and restore the calm in the room. It’s not hard to read a cat — unless you’re a dog person. Petfinder has a good article here.
- Cats don’t enjoy performing, but they do like to play. Once they have determined you’re not a risk to them, they will get interested in toys. So practice with a feather on a string, a string of pearls, a lightweight ribbon, or some crinkly foil puff-ball-thingys.
I want the cat to be the focus of attention, so I try to use simple backgrounds (this was a $10 canvas drop cloth from the home improvement store after I washed it about 20 times) stretched on a pvc frame with a bean bag underneath. You can see similar set ups here but there are lots of other variations. Just a bean bag by itself would work, but you’d have lots of wrinkles to deal with. I don’t like wrinkles.
Here are some of the shots we had to do for the shy ones that didn’t want to come out of their cages. Notice how the blurry backgrounds sometimes hide a lot of the clutter you inevitably find in a crowded shelter. There were over 50 adult cats living here at Operation Kindness, which is this area’s largest no-kill shelter. It’s comforting to know they will be here until they are adopted and are not at risk of euthanasia. Thanks, Operation Kindness for letting us play with the kitties!
It starts because we love pets. Cell phone photos, social media, animal rescue work, dog parks — pretty soon your only friends are pet lovers and neighbors with pets. You buy a camera. People see your camera and think “hey, fancy camera! she really knows something about photography” –but do you really?
DSLRs are great tools, but they don’t do all the thinking for you. And they don’t have your vision. If only they could read our minds! For the last 8 years I’ve been teaching people how to use their cameras. Really use them. In manual, in different shooting modes, in studio settings, in animal shelters and outdoors. I don’t have a day job. I am a full time professional photographer with a real studio. And I’m a passionate animal advocate.
There are very few short cuts (if you’re still reading you’ve probably found that out) to learning it right. And to be honest, I’m a little tired of people calling themselves photographers when they really only know one or two tricks! Yes, we all have to start somewhere, but please be honest with yourself. If you love it enough to buy an expensive camera — don’t you want to do more than just get one good shot out of every 25? Maybe you’d like to do it full time some day?
Our workshops are designed to not only help you get lots of good photographs, but to have fun doing it. You spend a few days with people who love pets like you do and you have great fun learning hands-on with live models in the studio playing with light. If that sounds like something you would like to do, sign up for our next workshop!
2017 Studio Shooters Unleashed: July 14-16, in Dallas at Teresa Berg Photography. Tuition is $995 (lunch and snacks included). Special rates at the local Marriott (around $75 per night!) and no rental car needed. Once you get to the hotel we all carpool back and forth — it’s just a mile). Call us for more info: 972-250-2415 and visit our blog: www.unleashedworkshops.com
Our DOG SHOTS workshop, scheduled for Saturday February 25th is now open for registration. This is our most basic workshop with emphasis on using the manual settings on your camera for great pet portraits.
Most of the attendees at DOG SHOTS are animal rescue volunteers and pet lovers who really want to move in to professional quality portraits. The only requirement is that you use a camera that has manual settings, like DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. It’s a great way to learn to use light and all the tricks for getting the dog to pose and look at the camera.
We meet at the Teresa Berg Photography studio in Dallas and then go to the nearby park. This workshop uses only natural light and reflectors (so NOT a lot of expensive equipment) and live dog models. We discuss different backgrounds, light, composition and how to set up your shots. It’s a great way to figure out if you want to be a professional pet photographer!
Interested? The one day workshop is $295 and includes lunch. We even have a nearby hotel with great rates for those of you who might come in from out of town. Call the studio at 972-250-2415 with your questions or to sign up. We only take 10 attendees so everyone gets plenty of time to work hands on with Teresa and her assistant.
Ever get bored with your options? I am constantly looking for something interesting to do with adoptable dogs. And it’s great practice if you think you may someday want to photograph for clients. So today I was setting up a 5’X6′ printed canvas background from one of my favorite professional photo labs Simply Color Lab. If you haven’t discovered them, you can open up a free account and download their ordering software, by clicking the link.
We have an inexpensive backdrop stand which we spent about $90 for here . And a couple of clamps to hold the backdrop to the stand. It’s easy to transport if you’re working at a shelter. If you’re planning on using it all the time, invest in a better one — but for our occasional use, this one works fine.
As you can see by the set up shots, we used an area rug to cover the bottom edge of the backdrop. We often find good deals on rugs at Overstock.com, or even garage sales and thrift stores. The rugs are the heaviest and most inconvenient part of this set up to transport. If they’re big enough for the big dogs, they’re heavy! So I’d try and work with the smallest size that you can shoot on — maybe 4×6? This one is larger because we used to use it in our reception area here at the studio. Some photographers use a strip of baseboard or molding to make a nice edge where the backdrop meets the floor. We like to use area rugs because they keep the dogs from slipping around, and the photos look like you’re at home, not a photo studio. Beware of accidents, though — shelter dogs love to leave their scent (pee!) on our area rugs.
The background is narrow, but usually ample for one dog. Beware of the pattern though — if you’re using a leash to keep the dog in place (which we highly recommend) you will need to photoshop it out of the background and the pattern makes that a slower process. Like all of our adoption photos, we’re more interested in showing off the dog, not the props, so we kept the rest of the shot clean and simple. I’ve even seen a rug nailed up on the wall that makes a great backdrop, just avoid anything wrinkly. You can also use just the rug as your background by standing over your subject and shooting down at him. So stretch your wings and try something new!
Over the next few weeks (and months) we’ll be doing a series of casual (free!)videos designed to support you and your pet photography. If you would take the time to comment and tell us what your biggest pet portrait challenges are and where you need the most help, we’ll try to address them in upcoming videos. So fire away!
In the mean time, here is a pullback shot of our new natural light shooting area in the studio. We covered the 10×10 opening from the garage door with floor to ceiling glass and created a giant window. This one is facing west (not ideal ) but creates beautiful light until late afternoon when it’s too bright — even with diffusion. We will use this set up next week for animal adoption photos for a local rescue group.
To the left you see a simple stand up reflector made of two 4×8 sheets of insulation board. Silver on one side and lightweight and cheap…. from our local home improvement store. White foam core would also have worked, but we wanted the reflected light to be a little sharper and more “specular” for this black dog’s fur. With black dogs I always use a silver reflector. Our client also brought her cat. Here’s a close up:
Want to learn “hands on” with Teresa? We have three seats left in our spring DOG SHOTS workshop. It’s a one day basic class held at her studio and the nearby park. Perfect for new photographers or anyone with a DSLR who wants to make better portraits of their pets or adoptable animals. Tuition is $295, which includes lunch. Call the studio to sign up: 972-250-2415
Sunday, September 13th we’re planning our popular beginner workshop: DOG SHOTS at the Teresa Berg Photography studio in Dallas. If you’ve got a DSLR and you need some help with composition, lighting and managing those four-legged models, this is a great place to start. Many of our attendees are doing photography for shelters and rescue groups but not getting the results they want. Some are thinking of opening their own business some day and are just “testing the waters” and some are just pet lovers who are tired of struggling with their cameras. If any of these describes YOU, then join us in Dallas, September 13th. It’s very “hands on” –you will use YOUR equipment and work through beautiful shots with live models, step by step. And meet other people who love it as much as you do! The class is $295, and we only take 10 people, so when it’s full, it’s full. Call the studio to sign up: 972-250-2415. Credit cards or paypal cheerfully accepted.
I know a lot of shelters are short on space…. in fact, they often say they have “no room for photography.” We all know that sometimes getting your foot in the door is the biggest obstacle — so having a small portable studio that travels is something to think about. In the photo below, we took half a v-flat and simply clamped our background paper to it. The great thing about v-flats is that they stand up on their own. A v-flat is simply two very thick foam core poster boards hinged together with gaffer’s tape. You can google “gaffer’s tape” — it’s a photographer’s best friend — and pick it up at a photo supply store or order it online from Adorama or B and H Photo. You’ll find a million uses for it. Our v-flat is black on one side and white on the other, so we used white tape on the white side and black tape on the black side as our hinge. As you can see, the side that doesn’t hold the background paper becomes your white reflector. If you set this up next to a big window or patio door, you don’t need a light. We used a Westcott TD6 in a huge softbox, but you could use a smaller softbox or umbrella (much cheaper) to diffuse the light and take up less space. Each side measures 4’x4′ – so if you don’t have an SUV or a truck, this idea may not work for you as you won’t be able to get it into an average passenger car.
Once you’ve hinged your two pieces of foam core together (we sandwiched two 3/8″ pieces back to back because we couldn’t find 1/2″ think foam core) you’re ready to shoot. You can even shoot on the white or black WITHOUT attaching a roll of seamless background paper, but we wanted colorful shots that jumped off the screen, so we bought a few fun colors (53″ wide –from the same place you get your gaffer’s tape!). A few colorful bandanas or flowers and you’re all set. This setup really only needs about a five foot square area — but then you need a place for the photographer and the helper holding the dog’s leash, so a quiet 10’x 10′ corner would work nicely. We can even use a small chair (for little dogs to sit on) and not run off the background. Once they see how fast the dogs get adopted with nice photos online they will be falling all over themselves to give you the space that you need!
We do several dog calendars each year and they are lots of fun…. but not all calendars are good money makers. Here are five tips to get you started off on the right foot (paw)….
1. Plan out all the finances in advance and only partner with a reputable rescue group. Do NOT offer to pay all the expenses. A good rescue group should see the value and raise the money for printing costs. The more calendars you print, the cheaper they are per calendar, so set a realistic number and figure the costs up front.
2. Decide where the profits are coming from — will you sell ads in your calendar? sell sponsorships? One page of ads could cover ALL the costs of printing and make calendar sales a lot more profitable. Some groups even sell the positions — so maybe you have a supporter that’s willing to spend $500 to get their dog in the calendar. What would a local merchant pay for an ad in your calendar? Ask them! Then ask them if they would sell the calendars in their shop.
3. Line up plenty of volunteers to help you on shooting day(s). You can easily shoot the whole calendar in one day if you have helpers and a great location with lots of shooting options. This year’s Dachshund calendar (for 2016) was shot on the campus of Southern Methodist University, which gave us lots of variety in one place.
4. Work ahead. Calendars only sell between September and January. Anything you don’t sell before February 1st goes in the recycling bin so shoot now and plan to start selling them early in the fall!
5. Be sure and get a model release signed by every dog owner — you need permission to publish the images. You can google and find a form that works for you. Good luck!
If it’s one thing we always find at animal shelters and around our neighborhoods, it’s concrete. Instead of passing it over for the grass or dirt — make it work to your advantage. Concrete makes a great natural reflector! Putting a black dog on a sidewalk or driveway can make a huge difference in your final shot. And it’s one reflector they are sure not to be afraid of! If you can find a spot of color in the background (like the row of pine trees in the photo below) you’ve got a little bit of magic. What you don’t see is that there was a parking lot behind the pine trees –which we neutralized by throwing the background out of focus (this was shot at f2.0 with an 85mm lens) and laying flat on the ground to shoot slightly “up” at the puppy. So take your fastest lens with you and use the concrete to have some fun!
We still have three spots left for our Portfolio Shooting Day in Minneapolis in August. Leave a comment on this blog if you’d like more information.
Possibly one of the toughest assignment for any pet photographer is photographing pets on site at an animal shelter. If you’re just starting out, I strongly encourage you to work with a rescue group and photograph pets that have had some time in a foster home –they’ll be more socialized and calm and your job will be much easier. We all know that pets in a shelter are not relaxed and a quiet corner for photography may be hard to find. So do yourself a favor if you’re new to this and start with pets that live in foster homes. It’s not cheating! Every pet that gets adopted makes room for a pet that might be euthanized because rescue groups pull many of their pets from the shelters.
If you’re not already connected with a rescue group they’re easy to find. Google is your friend. Take the time to research the group you’re interested in –make sure they’re organized with a good track record, professionally managed with a good web presence. Social media is huge for getting pets adopted.
Do you need something in writing? Yes. But it does NOT necessarily have to be a five page contract with witnesses and notary signatures. A simple one page (even one paragraph) letter signed by both parties is usually sufficient. You can spell out what you’re willing to do for them and what they are allowed to do with your images.
I personally do not give shelters or rescue groups printable images. The images I give are sized for the web only. Usually 4×5″ at 150ppi. You could even send smaller images (72ppi is common for online use). All of the images I send are watermarked because I own a business and images are how I make my living. You do not necessarily need to put your name on your images but if you don’t, other people will use them as their own. If that doesn’t matter to you, save yourself the time and send them without your name. When one of the groups I work with needs an image for their website or advertising or promotional purposes they simply call or email me and ask permission. If the image is to be printed in their brochure, or other collateral materials, they give me photo credit and I send them files that are larger and without a watermark.
If you have questions about re-sizing your images there are literally thousands of good tutorials on youtube.com here but you will need software like Photoshop, Photoshop Elements (the lite version of Photoshop), Picasa, or even in a pinch, Microsoft Picture Editor. Here’s a typical adoption photo with my standard watermark.