Lighting Sermon… Cat Whispering and a complex lighting setup

• Swamp Dog Speaks Note: This post details a national ad shoot which required relatively complex lighting of the most difficult photographic subject in the world – CATS!!! Swamp Dog figures if you can light and shoot cats, you can light and shoot any damned thing… SO if you have an interest in lighting, check out this tale… Light is light, even on cats…

Have you ever considered the difficulty you might encounter if you had to shoot a three-cat-picture for a significant national ad campaign where each cat had to calmly behave exactly as in a drawn ad layout?

Throughout my career I’ve shot an absurdly varied array of subject matter including things like Super Bowls, the Olympics, Presidents and captains of industry, hardcore photojournalistic picture stories, studio and product illustrations of all kinds, interiors and architectural, food, fashion, travel, blah, blah; I could go on but you get the idea. During over 35 years working daily in this business, there’s not much I haven’t photographed.

After all this experience I can say with absolute certainty, NOTHING is more high pressure than shooting cats to a comp on deadline. (comp = ad layout) Even though this particular shoot was about a CAT POOP product, it was deadly serious since an entire team of creatives from a large NY ad agency had flown out for the shoot.

Final Tidy Cat image as delivered to the very happy advertising agency. When the Cat Whisperers do their jobs and the cats cooperate, everyone purrs…

Everyone present at any official cat shoot must adhere to the ironclad mandatory rules: no talking, no movement, no music, no sound at all (just like in a recording studio), no nothing. The Queen cat trainer has my full permission to yell at me or anyone who breaks these rules… On my first national ad shoot of cats, I dropped a small piece of gear and, you bet, the trainer yelled in my face!!! Yikes!

This is a passive cat shoot where the behaviors were “relatively” simple EXCEPT – IT’S CATS!!! Even simple cat behaviors are usually nowhere near as easy to get cats to perform as it might seem, though this shoot required “only” these more passive “tricks.”

On some cat ad shoots, the comps call for much more difficult-to-capture, active behaviors showing my feline friends running or leaping or doing other lightning fast antics, behaviors which can be tough to capture in an indoor, lit scenario. “Quick as a kitten” is an expression to remember when setting out to photograph cats. Sports cameras like my Canon 1D Mark IV – which shoots 10 frames per second – are as mandatory for cat and dog photography as for sporting events. High speed strobes with quick flash durations are absolutely required.

Shooting active cats moving or leaping quickly for ad agencies made this photographer realize shooting cats requires the reaction skills of an experienced professional sports photographer coupled with the lighting and compositional skills of an architectural/interiors photographer, a somewhat odd combination of skills. (few cat shoots are outdoors; most sports shooters hate interiors…)

Typical ad agency layout showing roughly – sometimes precisely – how the client and agency would like the final image to look. Sometimes the comp is intended to offer a “rough idea”; sometimes it is literal.

Cats sometimes do the desired behaviors quickly and naturally while at times patience is the photographers best virtue since the most amazing photograph may occur only once in a quick motion, a split second the photographer must nail without fail. With cats even more than dogs, the necessity to “capture the moment” is remarkably like classic Photojournalism – decisive moments must be captured, subtle or dramatic. Even cats moving slowly can quickly do something very cool just once so the necessity of being prepared to capture such moments is much like Photojournalism.

This photographer came by this odd combination of skills shooting sports and capturing assorted moments in Photojournalism for years then, later, as a staff magazine Travel photographer where interiors were occasionally part of the job, since while traveling for one magazine you might be near a shoot for the homes and gardens magazine.

If you can’t light a home with style – that is, with nice ambience – or capture a soccer player bouncing a ball off his head – shooting cats at the command of an advertising agency Creative Director might end up being a very frustrating project. Shooting cats is about as tough as it gets, as a photographer, especially when the shots are action-based.

THEN there are The Cats, actually teams of cats. As everyone knows, cats aren’t famous for coming when called or cooperating on much of anything. Even on major shoots with prepped cats we use teams of cats SO for each cat you see here there are two identical cats on standby – in case Cat A decides he’s not into this photo shoot stuff. If Cat A bails, we have his brother, Cat B, to sub in until Cat A possibly comes out of his trailer, good to go…

Cat Photography Fact: It’s one thing shooting your own or a friends’ cats laying around on the deck or sofa or cool cats in cool light while on vacation but quite another set of problems when required to MAKE a cat do that exact same before, at the command of an advertising agency.

Some of my favorite cat shots were totally simple – there was my cat or a friend’s cat in gorgeous light doing something cool – naturally. If you think you want to be a cat photographer, be keenly aware it is NOT the same making a cat do a behavior as it is getting a nice casual shot of a cat at home. I honestly think of cat photography where cats must be nailed performing specific behaviors as some of the most difficult photography of my career.

This is an example of an “easy” cat pic, a behavior my cat just happened to be doing one evening. Easy. However, making him do this on command for an ad agency might be super difficult. If you shoot cats, be grateful for the freebies…

For the Tidy Cat shoot, the Creative Director’s instructions were that he wanted “a rosy look, kind of like the kid’s movie “Babe The Pig,” warmer than real life, richly saturated and appealing…” That was the easy part – lighting with ambience is easy after all these years.

As for the lighting, it may be important to mention I use ZERO lighting formulas. (or flash meters, even before digital camera preview panes) I mention this not to boast but to assure you if you practice lighting long enough, it truly does become second nature to the point you can focus on the image, rather than the technical aspects of lighting. I’ve been doing lighting so long, things like strobe exposure are now second nature.

If you look closely at the photograph of the set, you can count, I think, 10 strobes. I know there were 10 strobes only because one of my told me after the shoot, a curious but almost irrelevant fact to me. The most important aspect of lighting this shoot was in building the light, not by formula, but by how it needed to be lit, based on my own aesthetics coupled with those of the ad agency Creative Director.

For a shot like this, I construct the lighting as if building a freeform structure. No rules apply. Where did I begin??? I began by adding overall set illumination to the scene by mounting, in this case, a 3’x4′ Chimera Super Pro softbox over the set. This light provides BASIC illumination overall, although I should quickly add I’m not a fan of BIG overall light, in many cases, unless it is accentuated with various smaller, more specific lights to create atmosphere. I much prefer lots of very specific, highly controlled small lights – like you might see in a restaurant with lots of small lamps creating a nice ambience – to give depth and dimension to a photograph. I then add various accent lights to the set itself to add slashes or blobs of light here and there – to my own taste. Typically, once I show this lighting to the art and creative directors, they’re cool with it.

This casual snapshot of the lighting setup for Tidy Cat should help clarify the lighting explanations below…

••• The various lights were set something like this; look closely at the set photograph:

• A light with a metal grid is laying on the floor illuminating the boots.
• The door is lit with a light clamped to the top of the door with a Monfrotto Super Clamp, lighting a bit of the door and a bit of the yellow jacket.
• A window frame is mounted set-left through which a direct strobe is directed to create a rough illusion of window-frame shadows on the wall. This was added for depth and, no, abstract shadows were fine – this was a fantasy image, Babe the Pig style…
• A Chimera XS Super Pro Softbox on a boom is mounted mid-set to illuminate the red chair and the floor behind the lead cat. This light also provides a bit of illumination for the two background cats, though they were also “filled” with direct strobes bearing 7″ grids. (fill, not main light)
• Off set nearest the camera another grid mounted strobe illuminates the bottom of the door, bouncing warm light onto the set from the warmly stained door. I sometimes bounce light off colored walls, etc, to alter white light – average white balance is highly overrated, in my mind.
• At set-left a light partially covered with black Cinefoil is directed at the lower left portion of the image to illuminate – underlit slightly – the radiator and brooms.
• Direct strobes with grids are directed at each cat’s face though at low power to merely add a bit of sparkle to the eyes.
• The last cat lit here was the lead cat, illuminated using a Chimera Super Pro XS softbox with a fabric grid, to prevent the light from spraying onto more moody portions of the set. I strafed the cat litter with low angle side light – a direct flash head with a tight angle metal grid – to create contrast in the litter, even trying to keep that direct strobe light off the cat’s paw, so as not to wash it out.
• Also note that next to the tall, black Cambo Monostand, a monstrous but cool camera stand, is a shiny piece of wrinkled mylar mounted on a piece of foam core. The actual key light on the lead cat’s face is illuminated by light spilling onto this highly reflective material and bouncing back onto the cat’s face.

OK, so that’s the EASY part. Lighting is easy if you practice it daily for as long as it takes to actually learn to “see the light.” Learning lighting is NOT something you can do quickly. Learning lighting takes practice and, honestly, your best instructor are the many mistakes you make along the way to the expert level.

The HARD PART of this shoot was not the lighting – it was getting the cats gently into place – as everyone held their breaths, almost literally, and in motionless silence. We were extremely concerned the chosen STAR cat, the white and yellow cat, might not paw the litter as shown in the comp. I popped the strobes again and again to get the cats accustomed to flashing lights then started shooting, laying on the floor in a yoga-like position or like a Hindu praying, prostrate at the cats feet, moving extra slowly, since these critters are SO easily distracted.

Low and behold the lead cat was INTO IT!!!! This cat instantly eased our fears by doing the behavior again and again, precisely to comp! WhooHoo!!! We actually had more trouble keeping the background cats in place. The lead cat was a super model – a real PRO! It was if he was thinking, “Ok, I’ll do it again with my paw a bit more to the left; now I’ll do it more the right and I’ll look dead into the lens, as requested by the creative director.” After our Star cat, amazingly, did the behavior again and again I called it a wrap. Everyone busted out in cheers. Our Star cat was a hero, the shoot was setup and done in under 4 hours and our NY clients were able to catch an early flight, confidant Swamp Dog nailed it!!!


malcolm bramwell - May 8, 2013 - 10:45 AM

What a juggling act! Brilliant. Getting the lighting right is challenging enough but to get three cats to cooperate is truly amazing. I know you have a rapport with animals but this is remarkable.

malcolm bramwell - May 7, 2013 - 6:10 PM

As an avid cat photographer volunteer at HSSV I can really appreciate this story. Getting the lighting right seems pretty challenging to me, but to then get three cats to do what is required is amazing. With cats in particular I know that patience and silence is the key, and usually I take time to socialize them before asking them if it is OK to take their photograph.
As the saying goes, this is over the top!

lois - May 5, 2013 - 12:30 PM

love the information you give… thanks again for educating the world.