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If social media has taught us anything, it is that common political ground may be hard to find in this country, but common visual ground is as close as the nearest kitten. The release of Sigma’s much-anticipated 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens presented the perfect opportunity to test its portrait-making capabilities while sharing a few tips on how to up your cat-photography game.
I was fortunate enough to have my models provided by Brooklyn Cat Café, a not-for-profit extension of the Brooklyn Bridge Animal Welfare Coalition, a no-kill shelter that helps stray and abandoned animals find good homes. Notable for being the first permanent cat café in Brooklyn, BCC provides a place for those unable to own a cat to get their feline fix, while offering those interested in adopting a new pet a cast of characters to choose from. Every cat featured in this article is (or, in the case of the kittens, will soon be) available for adoption.
To document behind the scenes in the long and narrow space of the café, we brought along Sigma’s equally new, ultra-wide 12-24mm f/4 DG HSM Art Lens, and two bodies; a Nikon D5 DSLR and the 50.6MP behemoth, the Canon EOS 5DS R DSLR. To improve the ambient lighting on location, we packed the Bescor AL-576KB LED Studio 2-Light Battery Kit.
Two approaches to portraits were used: in (our portable) studio and in the “wild” of the café. Since we were shooting on location and during visitor hours, our studio setup prioritized space and time. The Bescor lights were quick to set up/tear down and their single-knob control was easy to adjust. Clean backgrounds were created with a couple of rolls of seamless paper and a collapsible support.
Opinion is divided among pet photographers as to whether strobe or continuous lighting works best when working with cats. For this project, LEDs were chosen for their portability, minimal heat output, and psychological effect on the models. As is true of any type of portrait, the best photographs are created when you and your subject are comfortable and relaxed. Since some cats spook easily, firing strobes in a room full of mixed feline personalities seemed like a recipe for disaster. The Bescor lighting kit provided exactly the extra boost that our dimly-lit location required. In an effort to adapt to the cramped quarters and integrate as seamlessly as possible with the mixed available light in our makeshift studio, we decided to bounce the lights off of the white ceiling in the café. This resulted in an even “fur” light for our models.
When working with cats in studio, creating a wide-reaching, diffused light is never a bad idea. One of the greatest difficulties when making portraits of cats is your inability to control when and where the model decides to pose. Each additional light source that you add to your setup limits the physical space where your cat can be while still getting the desired results. Rest assured that the same neurological hardwiring that causes cats to gravitate toward clothes that are the opposite color of their fur also causes them to avoid elaborately lit locations like the plague. It is hard to overstate the importance of having an extra set of hands on set to help calm and “direct” your model. Nevertheless, while treats, toys, and pets may entice a cat, the decision to pose is ultimately in the mind of the sitter.
It is hard to imagine a better setting for testing the focusing capabilities of Sigma’s updated Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) than in a room full of cats. Unless your cat is snoozing, forget trying to manual focus unless you have superhuman reflexes or are looking to create a series of blurry images. Focusing was quick, quiet, and accurate, allowing sharp images to be captured with ease—even when shooting with the aperture wide open.
The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 is not a lens that many users will carry around for casual portraits; its high performance is made possible by a relatively hefty build. Taking photographs of cats requires a bit of flexibility. Capturing my models at eye level meant spending a considerable amount of time rolling around on the floor with them. Keeping the camera and lens where they needed to be definitely added some muscle tone by the end of the shoot.
Cats are inquisitive creatures and many were quick to ditch their jobs as models to investigate the fancy contraption pointed at them. While not an issue when shooting under more typical portrait conditions, the minimum close focus (33.5") was a bit limiting when working in a small space with curious models. Sigma fans will have to wait for a lens with macro capabilities to be added to the Art series.
There are a number of reasons why seamless paper is the background of choice when working with cats. First, its smooth surface is as irresistible as a sunny window for many cats. When I leave a roll of seamless out at home it is a matter of minutes before I catch my cat on it rolling around, sleeping, or awkwardly sitting—waiting for her portrait to be taken. There are practical reasons to choose seamless paper over other options, as well. While a sassy cat can quickly repurpose a fabric background into a scratching post or bathroom, even the worst behavior on seamless can be cut and discarded with no tears shed. Similarly, paper eliminates the need to remove hair tediously from dark backgrounds.
As with almost anything involving cats, the easiest way to photograph them is on their own terms. If you don’t mind allowing your subject to choose where he or she is photographed, this is the simplest and most cost-efficient approach. One of the greatest benefits of shooting cats “in the wild” is their love of windows and sunlight. To this end, a simple reflector can be used to balance available natural light.
Cat cafés, while a relatively novel concept in the United States, began nearly two decades ago in Taiwan. Their popularity quickly spread to Japan before becoming a global phenomenon. Brooklyn Cat Café first opened its doors in Brooklyn Heights in the spring of 2016. It has the distinction of being the first cat café in New York City owned and operated by a non-profit. In addition to regular play hours, the café hosts movies, happy hours, and even yoga with the cats (something that would have served this writer well before the shoot).
Alongside a small army of cats, BCC is home to a rat named Ivory who is currently helping a mother cat named Trudie raise a litter of kittens. The affection shared by Ivory and the kittens offers an inspiring example of inter-species comradery from which we could all learn. They currently share a terrarium until the kittens are old enough to receive their first vaccinations and are able to meet and play with the rest of the cats. If you can’t make it in to Brooklyn to meet them in person, you can watch Trudie, Ivory, and the kittens on BCC’s Kitten Cam.
How do you photograph your own pets? Tell us below, in the Comments section.