Monday, April 8, 2013

Cat Show Photography

A Perfect British Short-hair

One thing Kathy and I look forward to every spring and summer are the regional cat shows. If you think that the dog is man's best friend, well you just don't know cats. Especially once a feline bonds with it's owner, there's no turning back - you'll enjoy a lifelong loyalty that no other creature can give you.

Photographing the shows is very enjoyable, of course. A cat show can be somewhat boring I guess, if you're expecting the cats to perform like idiots (read - "dogs"), perhaps you don't realize that cats just aren't into that - they only do the fun stuff at home when they think nobody's watching. When seen in public, however, their dignity is everything to them, and so they're either in cages, or being hoisted around by the show Judges.

Last year, I did a brief article on what kind of equipment you'd need at a cat show. This remains true. This year, I'm going to provide a little info on how to set up your equipment for best results. This will all be in reference to the Canon DSLR line, but if you know your stuff, you should be able to translate the terminology into Nikon, Sony, Olympus or any other brand of reasonable quality camera that meets the minimal requirements I spoke of last year. So here it is, point by point:

  • Forget about RAW - this is a golden rule for most any type of event photography - expect to come away with at least 300 pictures - you don't want to have to process that many RAW files later.
  • Make sure your flash is turned off completely. A flash might startle the cats, and to me it's cruelty, as their eyesight is super sensitive. This applies to any situation when photographing animals in general. I did notice lot's of people with small point 'n shoot cameras were flashing away at the show, but this doesn't make it right.
  • Use the largest and finest JPEG setting you have, because you're going to want to leave lot's of room for cropping each photo afterwards.  You might be shooting at 16 MP, and cropping down to the 4 to 10 MP range; this will still give spectacular results.
  • Cat Show venues vary greatly in terms of lighting, and distance between yourself and the cats. This particular show in Riverview NB was by far the worst venue I've ever seen, and I wasn't prepared for it. The problem was space - it was unbelievably small and crowded, although the lighting was exceptionally good. I started in with my 70-210 Zoom, but soon found I couldn't get far enough way because of the over-crowding - most of the cats had to loose their tails, as with the magnificent specimen above. I soon went back put to the car to put on my EF 40 STM lens, which gave me lot's of the needed crop space. In all other venues, however, you'll need at least a 70mm (APS-C 110mm equivalent).
  • Auto White Balance is essential - the lighting varies from fluorescent to incandescent and any mixture in between.
  • You need to stop motion blur, so you'll need at least 1/125 shutter speed and to get reasonable sharpness, you'll want to stop your lens down a notch. Set your ISO accordingly (do not use Auto ISO). You might need to go as high as 3200, but in Riverview, I was able to shoot at 800, and the lighting was so good, I could've gotten by at 400. You might get a bit of noise - don't worry about it.
  • Remember the Picture Mode setting ("Standard, Landscape, Portrait, etc")- it is totally according to your own preference; the only important thing is to make sure you set it to what you prefer, because you're shooting JPEG only - no RAW means it cannot be changed afterwards, although with photo editing software, you can adjust contrast, brightness, saturation and sharpness individually on your computer. However, it's best to get your JPEG settings closest to your personal preference inside the camera.
  • If you're auto-focusing, there is a fair amount of motion involved - the judges tend to move the cats around a lot (you'd be surprised). So set your camera for "AI Focus", and make sure all of your Auto Focus Points are engaged. If you're experienced (you're probably not wasting your time reading this are you? heheh); but if you know how, you'll do better with a manual focus lens.  I used to use my Jupiter-9 at f4, and got pretty good at manually following the focus as the cats were whirled about. Since then, I've gotten lazy, and use my EF lenses.
  • Burst mode is useful  but purely optional. Keep in mind if you're shooting at 5 fps, you'll end up throwing most of your shots away. I find it better to wait for the best shot and click once, although I've experimented with Burst on occasion. You can always leave your camera in Burst Mode anyway, as it only comes into play if you hold your shutter button down steady.
  • For most of your shots, make sure the cats eyes are in the picture, and set your focus on the eyes. The eyes are the cat's best feature. Sometimes with Auto Focus, the camera might focus on another part of the cat than what you intended  which makes a good case for taking time to practice your manual focus technique.

That's about it for the camera. Now on to Post-processing:

  • Like I said above, you'll want to "shoot to crop", probably. This means you should have some space and surroundings about the cat, which you can re-compose and reduce down by cropping. Make sure you leave a little space, typically in front of, and above the cat.
  • Make full use of the one-click auto-fix in your editing software  in GIMP, it's called (strangely enough) "auto white balance".
  • Finally, you might want to raise the highlights with the "colour > curve" function.

That's about all. The rest is up to you. These guidelines could be used in many similar situations, like the now popular reptile shows, or even canine events.


  1. No question your pictures are good and this is what counts.
    In my opinion, if you have to use a higher ISO, RAW pictures makes a big difference.
    I am not so good at optimizing my pictures while shooting that I would be happy not to postprocess my pictures and I just cannot imagine postprocessing jpg pictures except for cropping. Retouching colors of a jpg file is a mess unless the picture is close to optimal; this is my personal opinion
    Everybody has his/her preferences.

  2. Thanks for the input Daniel, and you raise a valuable point- essentially when you post-process a JPG, it is destructive, even though it "looks better" on the screen, a histogram will show how much "comb effect" and noise you've introduced into the picture. When you PP a RAW on the other hand, it is not a destructive process, but rather you are changing the data without losing anything. This is a great subject for tomorrow's post! Also, if I were being paid by the show as an official photographer, there is no question - the RAW files would be essential to get the best possible images, and the time spent working on them would be worthwhile.

    I usually do shoot RAW, except for when I'm doing events like this, and I know there will be hundreds of shots to deal with afterwards. With my other subject matter being landscapes and cityscapes mostly, I shoot film, or when using digital, then RAW certainly. I scan my film negs to TIFF (another great topic). But in this case, the pics are just for me, and this Blog, so the JPG's are adequate to the task at hand.

  3. I found this very helpful and along the lines that I currently use.

  4. I'm very interested in photographing things like cat shows and dog shows, but I have trouble getting a good balance of shutter speed and enough light. How do you get by this? When I was at the last cat show, the lighting was fairly poor, but with the settings I had, they turned out lovely and bright... only the shutter speed was too slow because of it, and so many of my shots were blurry and unusable. How do you get around this? Do you shoot with a specific aperture lens? Any help you can give would be great.

    1. Riana - from your question -"Do you shoot with a specific aperture lens?" I am assuming that you have an interchangeable lens camera, and if you do not, it would be next to impossible to get good show shots with available light, unless you use flash. I find typically at these shows, you need to use the widest aperture (lowest number) and the highest ISO setting available on your camera. I recently bought a fixed 50mm f1.4 lens to allow me to make even better shots at the shows, and also for night photography. Using a Zoom Lens, especially a "kit zoom" will not work well, because typically working from f3.5 - 5.6, they don't open wide enough, AND the f3.5 is only available to you at the zoom's wide angles. So if you zoom to 100mm let's say, your aperture will end up being at f5.6, and this will result in a slow shutter speed. Many better zooms are available that stay constant at f2.8 through the zoom range, and so would work well, but these cost $600 to $1000.

      It's perfectly OK to use your flash in some situations - it'll give you enough light, and the strobe effect that a flash gives will help stop motion blur too. However, out of concern for the cats, so as not to freak them out, I prefer to not use my flash, but rather, make sure I have a lens that opens to at worst f2.8.


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