Several years ago I was contacted by the Oxford-Lafayette Humane Society to see if I could help them make better cat photos. Their dog photos looked great, they were disappointed in their cats photos. Better photos boost adoptions and reduce euthanasia.
I asked the shelter if they could provide a volunteer to assist with car wrangling and that's how I met Penni Bolton. Penni is great with the cats and most important, she is patient. You can't make a cat do anything it doesn't want to do, the trick is making the cat want to do what you want it to do. :)
My goal was to come up with a simple and inexpensive system that I can set-up in minutes, get great results and be as stress free for the cats as possible. Here are a few things I have learned from making cat photos for a few years now:
We photograph the cats every Sunday at 7am so we can shoot the photos before the shelter volunteers arrive. Less commotion means less distraction and stress for the cats and we don't want to get in the way of the volunteers who need to perform their duties. We close the door to minimize noise and prevent any cats from getting away.
I cover the window with a dark towel and and inexpensive white vinyl window shade. The towel keeps daylight from coming in and messing up the color balance, the whit vinyl window shade provides a clean, simple background and the cats take one look at the shiny surface and instinctively know they can't climb it. Also turn off the room lights, this helps calm the cats and prevents the room lights from interfering with your lights. To get accurate, attractive colors, you need to have only one type of light on the cats.
We use a white towel and white background so the cats stand out, and so the photos reproduce well in newspapers. Take just a moment to set your camera's white balance once your lights are all set and before you photograph your first cat. This simple step will save you lots of time editing your photos and will give better results.
Our 'stage' is a garbage can with a white towel on top. Putting the cats on the stage keeps them from wandering around and raises them up to a comfortable working level. Be VERY careful when photographing kittens to be sure they don't jump off and possibly injure themselves. The same warning extends to removing kittens from their cage, often several will try to come out at once when you open the door.
Be patient, often the cats are new to the environment and scared. Sitting on a towel under bright lights is reminiscent of a trip to the veterinarian, so it's not unusual for the cats to be scared at first. Some times we get a cat that is really unhappy or uncooperative, so we put them back and come back to them the next week. Same goes for cats that have a 'cold' or are recovering from spay surgery.
We have found that most cats can be engaged with a toy or food. We prefer to use a toy to get the cat to look where we want them to look and get them on their feet. We try our best to get at least three good photos of each cat, a good overall photo and a photo of any distinguishing characteristics (bobtail, polydactyl, disabilities, attractive coats, etc.) Treats will work if the cat doesn't respond to a toy.
We make an extra effort to get great photos of adult cats since they are less likely to be adopted, especially black, senior or disabled cats. A great photo can be the difference between them getting adopted or not. The shelter tells me adoptions go up when we shoot the cat's photos and drop off when we are off for a few weeks. I hope the shelter will one day have a room that I can help them set up as a cat photo studio so I can leave my lights there and teach them to take cat photos when I am out of town.
Thank You Penni for your amazing cat wrangling skills every week and to Ellen Phillips for shooting/editing this video so we can share our experience with others.