Despite growing up with a dog, Larry Johnson ended up becoming one of the photography world’s most recognized feline portraitists. The former music teacher started taking landscape photos after he moved to South Florida from his native Chicago. While selling his shots of wildflowers, sunsets, and other natural scenes at an art show, Johnson met the manager of a cat show. She needed images of her kitty for the event’s catalog cover, and before Johnson knew it, he was photographing local cat club events on a regular basis.
Gradually, Johnson learned the ins and outs of handling his furry subjects—and found that he actually enjoyed capturing them on camera. “I guess I had some affinity with the animals, because they all seemed to like me,” Johnson tells mental_floss. Plus, “it’s really lots of fun, and quite different from studio work like school portraits—you know, ‘Click, sit, smile, next.’ It takes finesse and work to even get [a cat] into a picture, much less to capture each breed in the way it ought to look like.”
Two decades ago, Johnson made the jump to full-time photographer. Today, the shutterbug is based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but he spends much of his time traveling the world, snapping shots of felines for clients ranging from elite breeders to commercial magazines, books, and catalogs. While each animal requires a unique approach, Johnson says his photos are bound by a common theme: “I want people to look at my photographs and go, ‘Oh, that’s my cat.’”
Inspired to host your own feline photo shoot? Johnson provided us with some tips and tricks designed to help you immortalize a kitty's cuteness.
1. WORK WITH THE CAT’S PERSONALITY.
“First, you have to understand that each animal has their own personality, and each breed has its own personality,” Johnson says. For instance, furry cats like Persians and Himalayans tend to be lazy and placid, and lend themselves well to seated and lying-down shots. These cats are also much more alert in the morning than in the late afternoon. Since their large eyes tend to droop when they're tired, Johnson always chooses to photograph longhairs early in the day at cat shows.
On the other end of the spectrum, Abyssinians, Russian Blues, and Cornish Rexes are hyper and playful. Johnson will wait until the early evening to photograph the rangy felines to ensure they've "gotten their energy out" during the day. They're also extremely agile animals, and like to hang off the tops of tall surfaces and perches. Use this trait to your advantage by choosing companion props like cat condos and baskets.
Age is also a factor. Johnson jokes that "everything in the world is a toy" to a kitten, meaning they're often more dynamic subjects than some older cats. But they're also difficult to manage. To deal with this challenge, Johnson relies on an ingenious strategy: He gently wakes the baby cats up from slumber and places them into his desired pose while they're still half-asleep. This way, he gets the shot he wants in half the time.
Also, keep in mind that each cat is different. Some are food-oriented, meaning a treat or two might be a good way to sweeten them up before a photo session. Others like to be petted, and are soothed when their owners touch them. Getting each cat to cooperate for the camera requires a different strategy.
2. KEEP THE BACKGROUND SIMPLE.
“I like to keep it simple and not busy in the background,” Johnson says. “Solid colors or a blank area or wall can work. The cat should be the focus of the image, and too much can be distracting.”
That being said, some cats tend to photograph better against bright backdrops, while others look better against a subdued white or black canvas. Feel free to experiment by draping couches, chairs, or other surfaces with different fabrics to see what looks best.
3. TAKE THE PICTURES IN A FAMILIAR SETTING.
According to Johnson, it’s better to photograph a cat in its own house than in a crowded show venue or a fancy studio. “If they’re in their own home, they know the places that they like to be. It feels good to them. And that’s where you need to capture them,” he says.
Johnson shows up to a home or venue with his portable studio—which includes lights, props, camera, and backdrops—and lets the cat follow him as he sets up. “I’ll pet them, and talk to them, and let them smell me,” he says.
4. BE CAUTIOUS WITH THE FLASH.
Johnson tries to photograph cats in bright, well-lit rooms so that the flash won’t startle them when it goes off. However, some felines still “freak out” from the burst of light or its accompanying noise, he says. To avoid this, Johnson will turn his flash off and shoot near windows or other sources of natural light. If there's no sunlight, he'll simply turn up his modeling lights.
5. ENGAGE THE CAT WITH TOYS ...
“Dogs are command-oriented,” Johnson says. “‘Sit!’ ‘Stay!’ ‘Yes, sir!’” You tell that to a cat and they’re like, ‘I’m out of here. You gotta be kidding me.' I have to approach them in a different way.”
Johnson gains a cat’s attention by waving around toys like “peacock feathers, pheasant feathers, or little jiggly things that they play with.” This way, they’re more likely to engage with him than to just “sit under the chair or in the corner and watch." (Johnson makes sure that the toys are attached to long sticks so that his hands don't show up in the photograph.)
Johnson also uses toys to ensure that a cat will stay in one place during a photo session. He places the kitty on a surface —usually a small table—and moves the toy around in circles. As the cat follows the toy from one end of the table to the other, Johnson will have its owner or a team of handlers stroke its fur. Between the playing and the petting, the cat eventually decides, "'Well, this is a fun place. I guess I'll stay here,'" Johnson says. "It's very psychological."
6. ... BUT USE CATNIP SPARINGLY.
“I usually don’t use catnip because each cat reacts very differently to it,” Johnson says. The herb makes some kitties silly and distracted, and thus more difficult to photograph. However, Johnson will rub a pinch of nip onto the end of a toy or another item. He’ll use the scented object to lure a wary cat onto a couch or chair, or into a camera-friendly pose.
7. CHOOSE YOUR EQUIPMENT WISELY.
Johnson uses a digital camera and shoots on manual. "I use studio strobes, so the shutter speeds need to match the flash sync. I will adjust to higher shutter speeds if the light is constant and less bright," he says. Also, Johnson typically uses a lens set to a F10 aperture.
Don't have professional gear? Use your smartphone camera and take pictures in a well-lit area without direct sunlight, like near a window. If you own an iPhone, the Burst Mode feature "can be helpful if the cat is being active," Johnson says.
8. CLIP THE CAT’S CLAWS PRE-PHOTO SESSION.
Some cats don’t like being touched or handled by a person who isn’t their owner. Use your intuition to feel out the cat’s mood. If it’s acting aggressive or agitated, it's probably a good idea to reschedule the shoot for another time. And Johnson recommends asking the cat’s owner to clip its claws pre-photo session so you won't be on the receiving end of any painful swats.
9. PLAY A LITTLE MUSIC.
Cats are very sensitive to sound. They’ll get scared if they hear a loud or sudden noise, making them more difficult to photograph. But according to Johnson, that doesn't mean the room should be super quiet; sounds are amplified in a silent space, so Johnson prefers to play some light music during his shoots. Also, avoid moving your cat from a loud space to a silent one (or vice versa) pre-photo session, as it will take your cat a while to adjust to the new noise levels.
When it comes to human noises, Johnson likes to use little trills, whistles, and purrs to get a cat’s attention.
10. GET CLOSE—BUT NOT TOO CLOSE.
Photographing a cat can be tricky. If you’re too far away, the cat will lose interest in the camera. If you’re too close, it will try to rub against you, swat your equipment, or play with you. Johnson makes sure to leave about 3 feet of distance between him and his subjects. If he's shooting a sleeping cat, or a feline that's naturally posed in position he wants, Johnson will move farther away and use a zoom lens.
11. USE PHOTO EDITING SOFTWARE SPARINGLY.
Do use photo-editing software like Photoshop to remove stray hairs, clean up runny eyes, eliminate fur frizz or static, and retouch backgrounds. Don’t use it to alter the cat’s appearance. In doing so, you’re changing the essence of the animal, Johnson says. “I will not make the eyes larger,” Johnson says. “I will not make the ears smaller, or bigger, or add space between the two of them. I will not make the cat longer or shorter.”
All photographs courtesy of Larry Johnson.