Beginner Cat Photo Skills

How A High Contrast Cat Photo Grabs Attention

If you look at the photos in this post you will agree that the use of light and high contrast adds drama to them. The surprise is that I have so many photos like this and I get lots of questions about them.

We tend to judge photographs as good when they are clear, sharp and perfectly composed but, from the response I get when I post photos like the ones you see in this post, I am not sure this is true all the time. I am convinced that you can take photos like this so I gathered some of the best I have and reviewed the camera settings for you to try.

Extremes of light and shade can make your photographs look eye-catching because the focus is 100% on your cat, the background fades or is dark enough to frame the cat in a really nice way.

Extreme Lighting Adds Drama and Intensity

This image of Peaches from Neko Ngeru Cat Adoption Cafe (FAQ/Site) is a perfect example.

I focused from quite far away with a telephoto lens using Aperture Priority.

  • The lens setting as low as I could get it f/5.6.
  • The background is dark because of the bright sunshine.
  • The shutter speed is 1/125.
Ginger lady cat in bright sunshine casting dark shadows
ISO 200 146 mm 53 mm f/5.6 1/125

f/numbers used to be marked by mechanical indents in a ring on the lens that controlled the iris. These were ‘stops’, each stop corresponding to an area half the size of the preceding stop. So f/2 has half the area of f/1.4, f/2.8 half the area of f/2 (or one fourth the area of f/1.4). And so forth.


F Numbers and High Contrast Cat Photos

If you are new or not very practised with your DSLR, you should remember this. The lower the F-number the wider the aperture of your lens.

Yes, this is a contrary way to look at it as a beginner but it is something everyone gets used to over time. You can imagine a stop of f/1.4 being as wide as a dinner plate and F/5.6 the size of a small coin, if you laid them side by side on a table.

The lower the F-number of your lens, the wider a lens can go, and the more expensive the lens will be due to the demands of the optics involved. The more expensive lenses are used by professionals like sports or wildlife photographers and achieve breathtaking results but the old quote still holds true.

It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer using it that matters.

Silver tabby grooming on a chair in very bright light.
Silver – ISO 3200 233 mm f/5.6 1/80

The photo here of Silver the kitten have a whisker clean is similar to the ginger picture. Strong sunlight, and the added cuteness of a little pink tongue and paw pads. bring the photo to life.

The difference between this and the one of Peaches is that I used a much higher ISO here – 3200.

I usually start at ISO 200 as this is good for clear sharp pictures but my first photographs were very dark. I had to put on my ‘experimenter’s hat’ and bumped the ISO up as high as I could until I captured several good images. This one is the best, and the cutest.

I made a note of the most useful guidelines to start with when you start adjusting your f-stops for cat photos

f22Very bright. Snow or white sand.
f16Sunny weather.
f11Bright but some cloud.
f8A cloudy day.
FfAn overcast day or inside.
f4Varying shade or maybe sunset time.
f2.8Dusk or dim light.

Not Every Photo Needs Special Settings

If the idea of using more extreme camera settings intimidates you then look at this picture of Tiger Lily.

When I took it, I was trying out manual mode. The F-stop is F8 which is often used as a cloudy day setting. I got this result – dramatically shaded eyes, some deep shadows and vibrant shades of brown. The lesson here? Move outside your comfort zone, it might just work. Be prepared to fail and succeed with every adjustment you make.

Extreme light Tiger Lily
Tiger Lily Reflects – ISO 200 250 mm f/8 1/80

*In photography, through-the-lens (TTL) metering refers to a feature of cameras whereby the intensity of light reflected from the scene is measured through the lens; as opposed to using a separate metering window or external hand-held light meter.

Full Wikipedia Text

Experiment- Settings Create Drama

The key is to be fearless and experiment. Sometimes your photos will be amazing and oter times you will have a disaster of a photo. Both of these will keep you on your photo toes, and hep you grow your skills even as a beginner.

  • Remember, don’t judge your images until you have downloaded them, and looked for your ‘diamond in the dust’.

I have discovered that my own best results have been created by starting in the same place each time and exploring from there. I begin changing ISO, or shutter speed, or aperture (if I am in manual mode).

  1. I will often start with my settings at ISO 200 and adjust around this. We all have to start somewhere!
  2. If I am taking cat photos I might stick to Aperture Priority (A on a Nikon) mode.
  3. Using either Aperture Priority or Manual I can push my f-stop out of the usual range for the light. The neighbour tabby below has a shutter speed of 1/400 which is quite fast for me.
  4. Then I move further to extreme settings.
  5. Some will work, some won’t. It’s part of the adventure not a measure of success or failure.
Black and white closeup of a cat with dramatic high contrast.
Neighbourhood Tabby Cat – ISO 200 250 mm f/5.6 1/400
Dramatic high contrast with coloured filters
Tabby with Hue & Saturation Filter Neighbourhood Tabby Cat – ISO 200 250 mm f/5.6 1/400

In photography, shutter speed or exposure time is the length of time when the film or digital sensor inside the camera is exposed to light, also when a camera’s shutter is open when taking a photograph. The amount of light that reaches the film or image sensor is proportional to the exposure time. 1/500 of a second will let half as much light in as 1/250.

Full Wikipedia Text

My Top Extreme Photo Tip

One thing I do that helps is this. I listen to my shutter. As an aspiring cat photographer I listen to as well as look at my camera.

If the shutter sounds like a slow click or clunk I start to adjust settings because something is not working with my starter settings and I need to start making adjustments.

  • I try changing the ISO
  • I might adjust the shutter speed in manual
  • I might push the f-stop up or down.
Two grooming cats showing affection
Connor Gets a Clean Up – ISO 200 100 mm f/13 1/100

Use Black and White for Your Dramatic Photos

A final idea if you are not too happy with your photo.

Before you press the delete button, take some time to try adjustments using monochrome. The black and white photo option in your software settings can transform a photograph into something different and amazing.

The photo below of Anzu shows her turning away at a sudden sound. Initially, I was disappointed not to get a cute kitten ‘full face’ shot, but I opened the picture in Affinity Photo and adjusted a variety of tone and intensity settings. The result is a much more interesting shot than a tabby looking away, don’t you agree?

To adjust your images, you can use any photo software you have access to. Not everyone needs (or wants to pay for) Photoshop, but you can use online photo editors like Punapic or Foor for free, or photo software such as Mac’s Photos, GIMP, or Affinity Photo.

Anzu in dramatic high contrast black and white
Anzu Looks Away – ISO 100 50 mm f/4 1/125

Finally, I am adding a cat photo showcase that helps to show you how contrast adds drama by using lighting conditions that put your cat in the spotlight. The light may be sunshine, or it may be beside a lamp or window but it can certainly make your cat photos look totally different.

Have you ready to be brave and explore the bright light of summer?

Regal black cat Saxon
Saxon ISO 200 53 mm f/5.6 1/125
Black cat in a sunny spot taking his ease. Black and White Photography
Saxon in Black and White
Connor basking in the sunshine
The Sun Worshipper – ISO 800 89 mm f/7.1 1/540
Connor Cat in sunlight
Connor Looks Up
ISO 400 100 mm f/13 1/100

Photo Resouces

  • There is a comprehensive table showing shutter speeds at Shuttermuse. This is my current favourite read to improve F-stops.
  • Monochrome with Dash Kitten Black and Whute Tutorial


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14 thoughts on “How A High Contrast Cat Photo Grabs Attention”

  1. All of these photos are lovely! That is a great tip to listen to the camera for a slow shutter. It can be easy to let that get away from you.

    On a barely related note, I once was photographing a wedding (professionally) and had a man ask me during the reception to please turn off my shutter since it was a DSLR. I just looked at him blankly, trying to figure out what he meant. He thought that I had an option to turn on the sound of a shutter to be “cool.” I had to show him that my camera actually had a shutter.

  2. I loved those pictures!
    I have a few, got them almost by accident, LOL! Some are posted in today’s post. (4/25/2021).

  3. These are some great tips and I agree with you, experimenting is the key to improving your skills as a photographer. If you always stay in your ‘comfort zone’ and only use the settings that you’re familiar with, you’ll never expand your knowledge. When I first started taking pictures for our local marching band, I had little to no knowledge of taking action photography, let alone when both the subject is moving AND I’m moving… it was an interesting learning curve but experience is the best teacher in situations like that. I am now viewing my pet photography in the same way…

  4. Love the photos and the black and white ones are so dramatic but awesome, I love B&W photos there is something unique about them

  5. The contrast is amazing!! I will start playing with it. I tend to be too scared to try anything new or different but these look great!

  6. These pictures are stunning! You are absolutely right about not judging your photos until uploading them. There have been many times I think my photos are terrible, then upload them and surprise myself at how good some actually are. I love reading all of your tips!


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