Holly Sisson: Taking the Best Photos of Your Cat

How do professional animal photographers
capture that perfect, adorable Kodak moment?
Photographer Holly Sisson shares
her secrets and her love for photographing... cats!

Photo İHolly Sisson Legend says that the Native American people of our country often shied away from being photographed by the dedicated and pioneering photographers traveling through the rugged territory of the Old West, in the infancy of photography. The indigenous people, who lived close to the land and were in tune with Nature, thought that photography captured their souls. To me, this is not necessarily a bad thing - the soul remains and the good photographer captures an instant - a quick, insightful peek inside the individual, which we can all enjoy. Photography thus can be art. Or not.

In photographing our elusive felines, that is exactly what we strive to achieve - to capture their playful, cuddly, big-little-cat essence, their unique personalities. However, how do we do this? Although Toronto-based photographer, Holly Sisson has only been photographing for a couple of years, she has the "eye" and a gift for accomplishing just that. With her artistic sensibility and skills of observation, she is able to grab that micro second, that expression, that says it all.

In this interview for CatsCenterstage, Holly graciously shares some of her tips and secrets for photographing cats. We hope your own photos will benefit by her expertise and insight!

Marva Marrow
Editor CatsCenterstage

Q: How long have you been photographing pets and how did you get started?

Holly: I purchased my first Canon DSLR in August 2006, and started shooting professionally in Toronto the next June (2007). I love to incorporate pets into my family sessions, as they are often the first 'babies' of the house, and part of the family. In my home we have had a few different pets before our Siberian cat, Alice, arrived. I just love animals in general, so have photographed fish, hamsters, horses, dogs and, of course, cats!

Q: What kind of pet photography do you do? Do you have a specialty?

Holly: For the most part, pets are captured as part of my family photography, but I am very interested in pet photography on its own, and always open to a family pet photography session. Since I love all animals, I don't have a specialty. I am happy to photograph any and all pets or animals!

Q: Do you do anything special to prepare for a photo shoot with a cat?

Holly: Preparing for a pet photo shoot, in general, would be similar to doing a family shoot. I would discuss with the owner the temperament/personality of their pet (which I do for children as well, very helpful to know prior to the shoot!). Depending on the location (and temperament/personality), I decide which lenses to bring along with my primary Canon body, the 1D MkIV, and my backup Canon, the 5D. It's very important to have backups, as equipment can fail at any time.

For a pet shoot I would definitely bring my favorite lens, my Canon 85mm f1.2L lens, as it is very bright and excellent for low light conditions. It has wonderful "bokeh," which is the background blur you can achieve by shooting with an SLR camera. This is important as it helps to isolate your subject, bringing the focus to them and making the background much less distracting. I would bring my Canon 24-70mm f2.8L lens, which is great for wider angle, and close-up shots. The advantage of a zoom, over a fixed focal length (like the 85mm f1.2L), is that it can make it easier to capture the shot. With a fixed focal lens, you have to move with your feet ,which is sometimes not possible, and can be distracting to the cat.

Photo İHolly Sisson
This photo is an example of an image shot at f1.2 with the 85mm lens

I would also bring my Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens, to capture the amazing eyes of a cat.

Photo İHolly Sisson
This photo and the opening photo to this article are examples of ones shot with that lens.

I could do close ups of cats' eyes, and never grow tired of it, they really are the windows to the soul.

I would also bring along a specialty lens called a "Lensbaby." The Lensbaby has a selective 'sweet spot', in which that area is in focus, and everything around it is out-of-focus. I love it for the creative options it gives, it can be great for focusing on select areas, for example the whiskers.

Photo İHolly Sisson
These are examples of a Lensbaby shot.

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of photographing cats?

Holly: Cats, more than almost any other pet, can be extremely challenging, just by their very nature. My Siberian, Alice, true to her breed, is very tolerant and good-natured. She is not shy, or skittish. Of course the same cannot be said for all cats. I've been fortunate in that the cats that I have photographed have not been tricky subjects.

I have no doubt that there are probably cats out there that couldn't be photographed professionally, as the whole production of a shoot would scare them to the extreme. A professional camera body and lens are large and foreign to a cat that is not used to them. I have a Canon 70-200 mm f2.8L IS lens, that I usually use for dog photography. I could see that it could be helpful for a shy cat, assuming there is room to work with that focal length, as it allows me to be much further from the subject than with my other lenses.

Photo İHolly Sisson
Here is an example shot at 200mm with the Canon 70-200 lens.

Q: Do you have any tips for CatsCenterstage readers about how to take great photos of their cats?

Holly: Absolutely! The advantage you, as the owner, have over a professional is two fold. One, your cat knows you, trusts you, and is comfortable with you. Two, you know your cat! Typically the images that have the most impact, when you look back at them in years to come, are images that truly capture your cat as they are - their personality, their quirks, etc. Photographs are amazing in that they can transport you back in time, in an instant. Capture your cat in their favorite lounging spot, lying in their funny sleeping position, sitting and waiting for dinner (or meowing, as I'm sure Alice isn't the only one to do so!), etc.

Photo İHolly Sisson The challenge, if you do not have professional equipment, is working with the limitations of the equipment you do have. If you have a point and shoot camera, it can be frustrating to capture action, as the camera is slow to shoot compared to a SLR. You could try to pre-focus on a spot where you know the action is going to take place. If you have someone helping you, if, for example they are playing with your cat while you photograph, you could try to push down halfway on the shutter in the area where the action is taking place. Then have your helper get your cat to that spot. The beauty of digital photography is you can shoot and shoot and shoot, and not worry about film development costs. Just take an abundance of photos!

Working in the best light possible is extremely important as well. Point and shoot cameras do not perform well in low-light conditions, and you'll want to avoid the on-camera flash, as it just doesn't do a good job (shadows, red-eye, not to mention you may frighten your cat).

The other challenge to a point and shoot (P & S) camera is depth of field. P & S's are great at wide-angle shots, because they have great depth-of-field, meaning everything is in focus. But you cannot capture that beautiful close-up with the background elements out-of-focus (that amazing bokeh), as they are just not capable of doing that. Given that, it is doubly important to photograph your cat in a clean, non-distracting area. Watch out for background clutter. Make sure, when you are reviewing your images, that you check the background for distracting elements.

I would suggest working to a P & S's strengths. Do the wide-angle 'environmental' shots. Make sure to keep composition rules in mind (i.e. it's generally not a good idea to center your subject, make sure to get down on the same level as your pet, if you shoot from above, shoot from directly above, make it work for the shot).

Photo İHolly Sisson
This photo is a perfect example of breaking the shooting from above, and making it work for you.

I believe that some P & S's are quite good at macro, so focus in tightly on your subject, fill the frame. If your cat likes to sleep by a window, use that to advantage for macro shots, as then you'll be more likely to capture 'catch lights' in the eyes, which bring your subject to life.

Q: What camera equipment do you use?

Holly: I shoot with Canon equipment. I have the following:

  • Primarily camera body is the Canon EOS 1D MkIV. This camera can shoot 10/sec, and has a 1.3 crop factor (focal length x 1.3, e.g. 100mm lens becomes a 130mm lens)
  • Backup camera body is the Canon EOS 5D. This is a full frame body, which is great for wide-angle shots.
  • Canon 85mm f1.2L lens. This is my FAVORITE lens. Amazing in low light, and incredible bokeh.
  • Canon 24-70mm f2.8L lens. This is my second most used lens.
  • Canon 100mm macro f2.8 lens. Always bring this lens to shoots with pets and children. It is also a great portrait lens.
  • Canon 70-200mm f2.8L IS lens. This one is fabulous for certain shoots, i.e. a dog shoot in the park.
  • Canon 50mm f1.4. This is my least used lens, it's only advantage is the shorter focal length for tighter environments, as it is a bright lens, but it just does not compare to the quality of image I can achieve with the 85 f1.2L lens.
  • Lensbaby Composer, with telephoto, wide angle, macro and fisheye lens attachments. Fun lens, with the macro kit anything and everything can be fun to photograph.
  • Canon 580EX II Speedlite. I prefer to use natural light, as much as possible, but can definitely achieve a better quality image by bouncing this off a wall while shooting.

Photo İHolly Sisson

Q: Do you have some suggestions for working with natural or ambient light?

Holly: Without a doubt natural light is the best option to use for photographing cats (or any subject matter). It is important to avoid direct sunlight, as it is generally too contrasty for portraits. If photographing inside, work beside a large window, or other bright spot in the house. Sometimes bathrooms (with windows) can offer amazing light, where the tiles/mirrors bounce the light around. If your cat enjoys hanging out in the bathroom, it might be a great spot for close-up full frame shots, to really show off the beautiful eyes.

Photo İHolly Sisson

Q: How would you suggest that people develop their "eye" - the way to see as the camera sees, so you know what you are really going to get in the photo?

Holly: The best way to develop an eye for photography is to just shoot, shoot, shoot. It doesn't really matter what you photograph, the rules of photography are the same. Composition is very important (as mentioned above), as is light. The wonderful thing about shooting digitally is being able to preview your shot immediately. I still refer to the LCD, occasionally, to see if the idea in my mind works in camera or not.

Also, you can learn a lot by critiquing other people's photography. Why do you like that shot? Why don't you? What works? What doesn't work? You can find photography challenges online (my friend Martin Bailey runs a monthly assignment), which can get you shooting in ways you hadn't considered. You may not be able to use your cat for every assignment, but trust me you will learn how to shoot.

Q: What are ways you use to put the cat at ease - and also avoid having them leap at you and the camera (or vice versa, coaxing a shy one)?

Holly: I think I've already somewhat answered this one, but to answer further, how to avoid them leaping at you...well, that's difficult! When I photographed a beautiful cat I met recently in my neighborhood it was challenging, as he was so friendly!

As soon as I got down low, to photograph him, he was over nuzzling me, purring, and in general being far too close to me to even have a chance to photograph him. I just had to wait it out, which I did. He got distracted by activity on the street, and I just followed him around. If you have a very active cat, it might be best to wait for a quiet period, or have a friend help you direct the cat.

Photo İHolly Sisson

A shy cat can be even more difficult. As I said above, there may well be a cat that is unable to be photographed. If it is your cat, you would likely have more luck than a professional, depending on the personality of the cat. Some can just be shy to begin with. If I was photographing a shy cat, I would work with the owner to make the cat feel comfortable, probably bring a zoom lens to minimize my movements (so as not to startle the cat).

About the photographer: Holly Sisson is a Toronto based photographer who specializes in on-location natural light photography. Holly strives to capture the moment and the natural personality of her subjects. She strives to capture images that will bring a smile to your face and joy to your heart, photographs that you will treasure for a lifetime. See more of Holly's work or contact her: Holly Sisson Photography


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