teresa berg cat photography

SHELTER CATS: Saving lives with your camera


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!

shelter cats teresa berg

This list of tips may seem rather obvious, but let’s all start here: 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.focus on rescue blog_0606
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
make cats comfortable teresa berg photography

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!