Written by Marjorie Dawson

How to Succeed with Your Cat Close-Up Photography

How to Succeed with Your Cat Close-Up Photography

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Do you struggle with close-up photography? No matter what your camera, whether its a DSLR, a compact camera or a smartphone? You try hard but the photographs don’t work out. It’s so frustrating.

  • This post has been extensively revised for Dash Kitten readers June 2021

Let me share the tips and tricks I have discovered to get you on the road to success as quickly as possible. This post will take you from ‘frozen by fear‘ newbie to a focused picture taker. You can take good closeups!

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Close-up Pet Portraits

Valentin at Neko Ngeru Cat Adoption Cafe
Smartphone Photo © Dash Kitten

NOTE I use terminology that might be unfamiliar so I have added a Resources* list at the bottom of the post.

I put out a call to cat lovers and camera users to find out the kind of cameras they used. I discovered that cameras of all kinds can take an inspiring picture. ; Smartphones, Point and Shoots and DSLR. Whether its pictures of kittens, cats, birds or puppies.

The images here are cute and fun and gorgeous. They capture a moment, an attitude or a treasured memory. The one thing they have in common is their focus on the animal and not much else.

What Camera Do You Need?

As you admire the images in this post, check out the devices they are taken with. Not everyone uses a DSLR* camera for their animal photography. There are smartphones and portable compacts.

I always say there is no best camera for cat photography. Maybe we can dream of luxury Nikon or Canon cameras, but they are not essential to get you taking successful pictures.

TOP TIP The best camera for cat photography is the camera you have, not the one in the shop window.

Sweet Purrfections Persian cat
Full Face Close-Up © SweetPurrfections Award-Winning CWA Image
iPhone Camera

The message then? Pet photography and good images do not mean starting with an expensive top of the range camera. The three types of camera you are most likely to see and use are:

  • Point and Shoot
  • Smartphone (SP)
  • DSLR camera

Point and Shoot Cameras

The compact camera or ‘point and shoot’ is a great option for your pet photoshoot. It’s great if you don’t have a smartphone or if wrangling a heavy DSLR does not appeal.

Compact cameras work better than smartphones in a wider range of light conditions. They usually come with a good zoom lens that is good for getting close for your cat close-up without getting in their whiskers. 

To find a good camera do an online search for the ‘best compact camera’ type posts. Each year new models come out so do a search for the one you like.

Many good point-and-shoot digital cameras have a ‘manual control’ option so it is worth checking your instruction manual to see what you can do, and how to make the most of the camera. 

McSquareDoodles copyright image.
Full Face close-up of Bernie taken from a slightly raised position © McSquareDoodles

I have included the Powershot SX 530 in the camera recommendations for this post. I have seen it in action and been impressed by the results. Check it out at the link.

TIP Explore your camera. Read the manual and learn what your device can do. Check YouTube videos. Do this and everything will be much easier. 

DashKitten.com

Smartphone Cameras

If you have a recent smartphone, it will have a good camera. That camera will shoot images and video of outstanding quality. The more recent the iPhone or Android ‘phone the higher the image resolution will be your pictures will be but all phones take good pictures.

  • My older iPhone4 movie was a Finalist in the BlogPaws® Nose to Nose Awards. Old smartphones rock!

Your smartphone capacity – the number of pictures you can take, will depend on the model but I have never run out of space on my iPhone and I shoot lots of pictures.

Smartphone Top Tips:

  • Smartphones can be fitted with a close-up macro lens.
  • You can change the image resolution on many newer models. This makes your images printable on a canvas or as a greetings card.
  • Many models have a ‘portrait’ mode which allows you to create a more soft-focus background behind a cat.
Life and Cats Downward Shot
Cheeky downward Double Portrait of Mocha Latte and Matisse from © Life & Cats blog. Point and Shoot camera.

DSLR Camera

I am putting my own Canon 1300D, (the Rebel T6) in the spotlight here. I am enjoying my first explorations into the world of DSLR photography. It’s great to use a camera like the professionals do, although they may use smartphone cameras too.

One thing worth remembering is this:

When you read online DSLR how-to’s you may find them insisting that you need to go to ‘manual’ mode. You may also be told that you need more than one lens to do anything worthwhile. This is misleading for beginner photographers and is not true.

The following camera tips are worth remembering:

  • Any ‘go manual’ statement is intimidating if you are new to your DSLR camera. You have lots to explore and learn before you try manual.
  • Your kit lens is perfect for exploring the world of DSLR photography. I love my 18-55mm Canon kit lens.
Camera Model Canon EOS 1300D or the Rebel T6

This is my Canon camera with its kit lens. With this setup, I have been exploring:

  • Av mode, 
  • Sport mode,
  • and my camera’s other pre-sets

I have achieved excellent results that encourage me to keep learning.

I am including some of my own images in this post and these are taken with the 18-55mm kit lens that came with my camera.

TIP There is no special cat photography lens, and the only extra equipment I have right now is a Manfrotto monopod for stability when my camera gets heavy.

“I typically use my Canon or Nikon DSLR for the hands-down quality, but find the convenience of the iPhone fabulous”

Dorothy Wills-Rafferty FiveSibes.com
Playfl cat photograph. Taken with a Canon T6 Rebel 2019
Miranda in super close-up at ground level DashKitten.com ©

If you do want to choose extra lenses for a DSLR

Wait until you see what kind of pet photography appeals to you most.

You may end up photographing funny cats, horses in motion, leaping animals, or capturing an exquisite super close-up shot of a cat’s eye. To know how you want to grow your skills you should experiment and explore as much as you can.

See what works with your basic camera. Discover what you love shooting, then decide if a macro or a spectacular zoom lens is what need. I would like to try a Macro lens and get extremely close to bees, or cats.

Macro Cat Eye Photo
Macro Photo Cat’s Eye – ISO 200 50 mm F/3.5 1/400

Extra lenses come with experience. Invest in these when you have the skills to appreciate what they do.

For a new camera user, expensive extra lenses are not essential to start taking pictures and they don’t magically make your photos better. I have added a 50 mm ‘nifty fifty’ lens to my kit and also a modest telephoto lens. Both I purchased when I felt more confident with my photography.

What Else Do I Need For Feline Photography?

Apart from your camera of choice, you will need:

  • Patience
  • Stability for shooting pictures
  • The willingness to crawl and climb
  • A large bag of treats, because your model will expect to be paid.

What you won’t need to use your digital zoom if you use a compact camera. If you try to take pictures of a bird or dog from too far away you risk blurred and pixelated images as digital zooms are very sensitive to movement.

PATIENCE WITH YOUR CAT

This comes with the territory when taking all kinds of pet pictures. A manic kitten, or a gracious senior cat (who won’t look at you). A dignified older hound or a temperamental bird. Each will need you to do something ordinary photographers can’t always do. 

You may need to be still, and quiet and be prepared to sit in one place a lot longer than you might be used to.  A lot will depend on your cat’s personality.

Patience will help you to cultivate a relationship of trust. Active kittens and community cats are skittish and they may not welcome the attention of a stranger. A quirky family pet or an animal nervous of strangers will need extra time to settle down.

STABILITY FOR YOUR CAMERA

Everyone takes blurry pictures and even the experts don’t get it right every time. You might need extra help keeping your device stable to avoid spoiling a shot but you don’t always need fancy equipment

Brace yourself against anything handy. Lean against a door frame, rest on a pile of books, support your arm on your knee, or rest your elbows on the floor.

A BIT OF AGILITY!

To get a close-up you need to get down at kitten level, or up at shelf level in your catio or visiting a cat cafe. Always be prepared to go the extra step up, down or sideways, even if it takes time to get there.

BRIBES aka TREATS FOR YOUR MODEL

Modelling fees are an essential part of your camera kit. No payment means no picture or second rate efforts with an uncooperative model. Check our colleague Summer at Sparklecat for the quality a treat based photo sessions can generate.

A CLICKER

If you have one you will find a clicker great for getting a cat’s attention in time to capture that moment. Our friend Kitty Cat Chronicles explain all about using a clicker for training. If you are in a mixed pet household a squeaky toy works too.

Be Alert and Ready to Take Pictures

It is not practical to suggest you should be constantly alert. But if you intend to take pictures you need to be ready as quickly as you can. Rather than stalking your cat ready to pounce, set aside time when you know your cat will be doing the kind of things you want.

You can make your life easier if you explore camera pre-sets for your cat photography. Pre-sets help you take pictures more quickly and until you gain experience, they do the hard work for you.

The right camera settings for cat photography change with each device – check your manual.

Our colleague Sidewalk Shoes has the following to say about the AV (aperture priority) pre-set on a DSLR:

Aperture priority just means that you are setting the aperture (the f-stop) and letting the camera choose all the other settings.

The lower the number of your aperture, like f1.8 or f2.8 will let in the most light and have a narrower depth of focus. So, your subject will be in focus, but the focus will drop off quickly and become blurry”.

Beth Tabby Cat cat closeup photograph
© DashKitten.com Beth at the Cat cafe DSLR closeup

Consider Black and White Portraits

As I explore my camera I am learning about more about settings that will show my cat in a new light. One eye-opening experience for me as a beginner has been using black and white.

Although people often expect black and white photos from journalists reporting on dramatic events. The technique is still popular with regular photographers too.

If you want to try black and white photography with your cat, look for simple shapes and textures. To make your life even easier, see if your camera has a black and white or ‘monochrome’ setting.

Tabby cat photography. Black and white closeup shot that is super sharp.

Camera Tips

  • See if you can set focus lock*. This allows you to focus then recompose a close-up shot which might be a help with a restless cat.
  • Check your camera for special functions like ‘Sport mode’ for fast movement. Macro mode or close-up. These are often shown as a graphic like a running athlete or a flower.
  • On a DSLR you can select one of the semi-automatic options such as Av mode – for a soft-focus background, portrait settings or macro. Know your own pre-sets and get off to a flying start.
  • See what you need to adjust on your device to ensure you can use ‘Burst’ mode or ‘Sport’ mode. This lets you take a series of pictures very quickly and capture a licking tongue or paw swipe.
  • A compact camera may only take a limited series of burst shots so check your manual.
  • A smartphone should continue to take pictures in burst mode as long as you are touching the screen. Be aware of the fact you have a lot of very similar images on your camera. Review them as soon as you can. Find the best and delete the rest.

Camera Modes

Point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras both have a ‘manual’ mode and a variety of pre-sets. Experiment with these and see how each one works for you. Take your time with this, it is a learning curve and each person works at a different pace.

Modern smartphones take a good picture but a point and shoot or a DSLR might give you the ability to cope better with a low light situation.  If your wonderful image is too dark, always remember the option to lighten an image using a smartphone image app, or software like Photoshop Elements.

Layla with Nikon CoolPix
© Layla From Layla’s Woof taken with a Nikon Coolpix Point and Shoot. Note the splash of bandana colour adding a touch of fun.

Focus and Exposure Tips

Being ready to take pictures gets you a long way towards your cat photo goal. There are two things you can do to fine-tune your success.

  • Focus for Sharpness and 
  • Exposure for good light.

Using Focus

Focus can seem intimidating but the upside is that you can start with your camera on autofocus. Don’t let anyone intimidate you into feeling this is not an option. It is definitely an option because it gets you taking pictures.

If you are not sure when autofocus* happens in your camera check the manual and look for YouTube how-to videos for your specific device. Pressing the shutter halfway down o triggers a focus mechanism in many cameras.

Smartphones can autofocus. Press lightly on your phone screen and an autofocus option should appear. This works for iPhone and Android.

TIP: To make the most of your focusing skills, learn just how close your camera can get before it cannot take a sharp image.

Using Exposure

Bionic Basil Ginger cat
© BionicBasil Upward close-up of ginger cat Fudge. Taken on an iPhone
A study in tones of rust and orange.

Exposure can be a challenge. Your pictures may be too bright or too dark because light can be hard to judge. Take plenty of pictures in different situations using AUTO mode. Download pictures to your computer and asses what was worked by looking at each picture’s settings.

Natural light is one of the best solutions for shadow problems. Start by shooting feline portraits in a catio, a garden or near a window. See how fur reacts – is soft light better or sunshine?

From the basic ‘we look after everything’ mode move on to use your camera pre-sets then when you are confident, try manual mode. Remember, there is no obligation to rush to be an expert at taking masterful close-ups. This is a learning journey you are meant to enjoy.

Achieving Cat Picture Success

For a successful animal close-up as a beginner or experienced camera-user, the best focus is on the eyes. If you look at the close-ups in this post, most successful photos have the eye as a focal point.

Why Focus On The eye?

If you have limited time to take a picture, maybe of a fractious cat or an active kitten. A focus on the eye means you have a good chance of a quick win. Other parts of the picture may fade out of focus but this is what you want to happen.

  • This is why Av mode on DLR cameras is so popular, the background fades softly keeping the focus on your subject.

If you don’t want to focus on your cat’s eyes you can spotlight any part of the body. A paw, an ear, over the shoulder look can give people a new appreciation of your cat.

© Beth Patterson

For cat close-up photography, ‘toe beans’ or paw pictures are always popular. Cute piggy feet or, a close-up of scaled skin can give people a new appreciation of your favourite animal too.

What to do if you don’t get close enough

If you have not been able to get very close to the cat you want to photograph, and you got as close as you can, don’t despair. You can crop the image in an editing program and it’s perfect.

Everyone can take a good close-up with your own camera and you will take good pictures. The pictures here show every type of camera and this should give you all the inspiration you need to get close to your pet and take pictures.

Bird picture pet close-ups
Beth Patterson © The Daily Dog Tag. DSLR Camera

A Different Look at Cat Closeups

#MarkingsMonday and Helping to Finding Missing Pets

Close-up pictures can be of critical importance when trying to track or trace a missing pet. Never be afraid to get a good closeup if you can. Don’t believe it? Check my post on how facial recognition and markings are helping locate New Zealand’s missing pets.

Photographs are important to help locate a missing pet of any kind. There is a weekly hashtag on Twitter and Instagram called #markingsmonday. It is popular for a reason. Markings are distinctive and unique. For anyone looking for a lost fur family member, clear markings aid identification.

“My Smartphone Won’t Take Close-Ups”

If my iPhone 6 can, maybe your ‘phone can too. Check the manual (or online) for ‘Settings’ and adjustments you can make. Practice how close you can get before you get a blurry shot.

You Can Make Close-ups Look Different

Check this cool collage of Beth who is a new arrival at our local cat cafe. It is a three-layered shot.

What did I do to this photograph?

  1. I made a duplicate of the original picture of Beth which was taken with my DSLR.
  2. On the duplicate image, I cut out the right eye area of the image and enlarged it to focus on the amazing colours and fur texture.
  3. I added a layer and shaded it grey so the close-up of the cat eye with a narrow white outline would stand out.
  4. Then I added our watermark.

If you look carefully at the eye, you can see me. I am the small red smudge in the highlight as I was wearing a bright red cardigan. Wouldn’t you love a macro lens for super close-ups?

Close Up reflection
The Beauty of a Cat’s Eye – Close-Up © DashKitten.com

Let us know how you get on with your cat closeups and if you have any questions let me know in the comments!

*Resources for Camera Information:

  • Focus lock: A handy tool for doing just that. It allows you to focus on the most important part of your scene and then hold that focus while you recompose the shot, ensuring your final image has the correct parts in focus. Camera Mad.
  • Autofocus: Autofocus (AF) is the feature of a camera that tries to ensure that your chosen subject is sharp within the photo. Sensors detect how far away the subject is from the camera, and this information is relayed to the lens, which then uses an electronic motor to adjusts the focal distance of the lens. Shuttermuse
  • DSLR Basics at Dash Kitten for cat close-up photography and everything else.
  • My thanks go to all of the talented bloggers who offered images for this post. Individual images are credited.
  • Point & Shoot Some Limitations/Improvements
  • What is a DSLR Camera? Wikipedia
  • The finer points of Focus Lock
  • Mirrorless Camera – A digital camera that accepts different lenses on the front such as a zoom lens or a super close-up macro lens, but does not use a mirror to reflect the image into the viewfinder.
  • What is a DSLR camera? “A digital single-lens reflex camera (digital SLR or DSLR) is a digital camera that combines the optics and the mechanisms of a single-lens reflex camera with a digital imaging sensor.”Expanded technical details can be found here: Wikipedia

Marjorie Dawson

Marjorie is a motorbike riding blogger and award winning cat photographer who believes that everyone can shoot and edit wonderful pictures they love regardless of the camera they use.

She is a Professional member of the Cat Writers Association, Kuykendall Image Award winner and published photographer at the Guardian newspaper.

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29 thoughts on “How to Succeed with Your Cat Close-Up Photography”

  1. Always great images and information (updated post, June 2021). We use both a CANON SLR and our IPhone … but admittedly often crop-in for our really tight close-ups by using Adobe Creative Cloud; with hand tremors our camera shots do not permit us to go too tight; and we have more flexibility “after the fact”.

    Reply
  2. Useful tips that every beginner should follow to get a better experience in photography. Thanks for the wonderful article.

    Reply
  3. This is a thorough guide! I find it hard to capture good images of my black dog, all you can see are her eyes and teeth! She needs a crazy amount of lighting to really capture the context of her long fur (she’s a Pom). I’ll try some of these tricks to keep her still, which is nearly impossible!

    Reply
  4. Well, according to me S10 is far better than s9. The camera is awesome and the quality of pictures is tremendous. The flow of interface is so mesmerizing.

    -Steve

    Reply
  5. I’m loving everything in this post! Thank you so much for sharing, Marjorie! I have shot dogs and cats for a project a few months ago and I can say that without the right approach, it won’t be successful. These tips you shared here are very helpful and I can’t agree with you more about the treats as well as patience. Tons fo patience is really important above all else. Keep posting! It’s truly an amazing read.

    Reply
  6. Such wonderful photos. Thank you for sharing our photo of Truffle . We used our iPhone X to take the photo and not a DSLR camera. Mom Paula is still learning how to use her camera.

    Reply
  7. I’m quoted! What a nice surprise!

    As a photographer for over (gulp) 40 years, I am so impressed with your posts and tips you offer to folks in such easy layman terms that I see a whole army of pet shutterbugs forming! Wonderful tips! Pinning to share!

    So, I see a book in your future! Yes?!

    Reply
  8. This is great advice, it is pretty amazing what you can do with a smartphone these days. I loved seeing so many different bloggers’ photos! Thanks for including mine.

    Reply
  9. These are great tips . I’m going to have to pin this post to refer back to later. Also, its very evident I’m going to need to upgrade my smartphone soon. Once thing I’m happy about as a photography novice I was smart enough to buy a smartcard so I could save so many more images. You shared some awesome shots too!

    Reply
  10. Love close ups … I still prefer my iPhone to a camera … call me weird but I just can’t be carrying that weight and bilk on all our travels you know?

    Reply
  11. Such a wonderfully informative article, Marjorie! Thank you for sharing all that you’re learning with all of us. I enjoyed the tips about being willing to crawl and climb, being patient and building trust with photographic subjects. I definitely get a lot of the photos I do at the shelter because the cats there know us so well, since we are regular volunteers.

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  12. I love close-up photography no matter the subject. There is so much beauty to be found when getting rid of all the surrounding clutter.

    Reply
  13. Good pet photography tips! I’ve shared a link to your article in a local online cat group.

    I have two favorite ways to take photos. One is to simply take a candid shot of my cat. The other is to highlight an aspect of my cat through a close-up.

    This past year I took a digital photography class. We had to shoot a minimum of 50 photos and then manipulate them in a specified way. This inspired me to experiment!

    Reply
  14. Such valuable tips! I definitely need to re-read this to let some soak in, especially before the summer when I can focus more on taking quality pictures. Thank you for including Bernie’s photo. Just another special moment for his birthday!

    Reply
  15. I bought my DSLR camera almost a year ago but I am still a complete beginner when it comes to taking good photos. This post helps!

    Btw adorable pet photos!

    Reply
  16. I need to check out the lenses you can attach on iPhones. I’ve seen people using them but never looked into it. My derpy kitties are cute but Truffle the Persian is so beautiful- wish I could get a shot like that in Plush’s black Persian face.

    Reply
  17. I take about 15 photos for every one photo I actually like. I have a whole of bloopers that make me smile and I’m saving for some funny project some day.

    I like my DSLR but do sometimes still use my phone. I did invest in special lens a few years ago and love it. As you said, probably not necessary, but I do love it. I learn by doing and still have so much learn about photography, but learning is so much fun!

    Gosh, I love that photo of Dougie’s eyes!

    Reply
  18. Fantastic info packed post and all your photography articles keep me inspired. Patience is key for me, I always want my animals to be ready when I am, but naturally that’s rarely the case. For awhile I was carrying my camera around with me as a way to practice, but I have a bridge camera which although not as heavy as some, isn’t the most comfortable to keep around your neck for any length of time. I mostly just use my smartphone as it’s always on me, handy and takes great pictures when I keep my hand steady!

    Reply
    • I am the same. I always have a ‘phone handy but I need to make my DSLR a specific project or goal for pictures.

      Reply
  19. WOW I am scrolling and suddenly saw Layla and said to myself,, wrong blog LOL till I carried on reading, Layla woofs thank you. Great article as always and love all the photos.

    Reply
  20. This is chock full of information! I still have so much to learn, and so little time to learn it. My goal this year was to improve the photos on my blog, but I haven’t been able to put much into that goal yet. I need to read my camera manual to learn more about the manual settings.

    Reply
    • Thank you Lola. I aim to help get people up and running so they can have fun creating lovely pictures.

      Reply

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