For the record, I am not a cat person. I like the things they hunt too much to have much to do with felines. Cats though, have an anthropomorphic nature, so when old they deserve looking after with dignity and respect and so some end up in a friend’s cat hospice. When she asked for some pictures, I approached it like I would a portrait shoot to bring out the cats’ individuality.
Catastrophes Cat Rescue looks after any cat which comes its way, but pictures of one cat could be much like another and I wanted more of a story and knew the charity also looked after ill, injured and elderly animals and its these ‘misfits’ I wanted to show – each missing body part helped tell the story of a hard knock life.
Cats are independently-minded and, unlike dogs, will not sit still for a treat. What they will sit still for is sunlight and a comfortable seat. So that dictated where I set up the make-shift studio. Catastrophes has a summerhouse and the day I visited the sun was beating down, so I positioned a stool and added a cushion. Almost instantly it had an occupant. Not the one I wanted, but some subservient human [me] had set out a perfect place to sleep after a tiring morning of sleeping and a cat took full advantage. I could see this was going to be a problem I hadn’t counted on. It was also an opportunity. If one cat liked my spot, my chosen subjects would to.
Next step was to build the exposure. I wanted a black background so used, black material as a back drop and flash to light my subjects. Portable flashguns were my choice as they are small enough to fit in the diminutive studio space, are easily moved and produce enough light to create a black background and well lit subject.
I chose a three light set up. Two flashguns at the front with diffusers to soften the light and a backlight to pick out the subject from the background.
I would move the backlight depending on whether the subject faced left or right, which made the flashgun option much easier to work quickly with.
My first subject was an old British shorthair who sat and looked at me with distain for the intrusion into his life. So engrossed in his glare was he that he didn’t notice me take five or six shots. He just sat and glared. I moved and he glared. He was still glaring when I gently lifted him off the cushion and placed him back in his chosen spot. He then promptly went back to sleep.
Working with cats is about keeping calm. Sudden movements and trying to position them the way you want rather than them making up their mind how and where to sit will result in a fail. You may want to capture that funny look they do, but cats will only do what they want and nothing else, so just let them.
Next was a black cat with no tail. I kept the exposure the same and focused on the cat’s yellow eyes. Nothing else mattered as I knew the exposure would be OK and I could make final adjustments in post production. As long as the eyes looked right I didn’t care I couldn’t see the rest of the cat on my camera’s screen in the bright sunlight.
The real problem came with a white cat. Firstly, she had seen much better days so wasn’t too flighty, but she stayed standing, unwilling to sit or lie down. That was fine, but I had to work quickly. I took a single shot and checked the exposure and the flank looked blown. Rather than getting up and moving, which could disturb my subject, I slithered the aperture down one stop and tried again, the exposure was better and was adjustable in post production so I concentrated on taking the few images I would get. I always concentrate on the face, in portraits, it’s the most important thing. I could just blat away, but I like to see when my subject looks right
So herding cats is not as hard as the saying suggests. Just stay calm, find a spot the subject likes and they stick around. Sometimes they have to be forcibly removed for the next subject. And one last thing, to get them to look in a particular direction try using a feather on a stick. But if you are too slow, it won’t last long believe me. Even a cat at the end of a hard knock life is still a killing machine.
Gavin Parsons studied photography at Huntingdonshire college one of the most eminent stepping-stones into commercial photography in the 1990s. His career skewed into journalism when he accepted the role of technical writer on Practical Photography magazine and then slid into the water and he became one of the UK’s top underwater photographers and was the editor of Sport Diver magazine.
Gavin is an award winning wildlife photographer, accomplished environmental portrait photographer and now a Youtuber with a growing channel dedicated to all things photographic.