I’ve always been fascinated by pet photography, marveling at the exquisite photos some photographers can make of subjects who may be less than cooperative. To investigate the topic, I’ve rounded-up several pet photographers who have a particular interest in photographing cats. I’ll be interviewing each of them in a Q & A series. This first interview is with San Francisco-based photographer Edyta Szyszlo. Edyta’s two cats Desher, an Abyssinian, and Boris, a Russian Blue, model for her frequently. Edyta currently focuses on portraits of people and pets, as well as wedding and product photography. Her background in fine art is obvious in the beautiful photos she captures.

How long have you been photographing pets and how did you get started?

I’ve been in the photography business since 2005. I started working professionally in San Francisco doing commercial photography (food, products, etc.) and some portrait work, but I quickly realized that my passion was in creating portraits of expressions, both human and pet. I moved to Chicago for a couple years specializing in weddings and portraits and now I’m back in San Francisco. As a child growing up in Missouri, I used my dad’s zoom lens Minolta, disposable cameras, and pinhole cameras to photograph our pets, plants, and my friends (after giving them a makeover). I guess it was just natural for me to pursue photography in college and now here I am and loving what I do!

What kind of pet photography do you do? Do you have a specialty?

In general, my style is very much documentary and photo journalistic. I believe in capturing my subject matter in its most comfortable environment and not forcing much direction. You’ll find me running around with dogs at the park or sitting next to a cat’s scratching post or favorite recliner. My goal is to document the pet’s personality and expressions, whether they are a scaredy-cat, ruff-n-tumble or a big hunk of snuggly love! In the end, I want the owner to look at the photograph and feel the memory or personality of their pet.

Do you do anything special to prepare for a photo shoot with a cat?

Well, we all know we love our cats for their unique personalities (wink wink)!  And while we can expect the cat to be a little stubborn, I find that most react well to treats and toys. I usually ask the owners to have favorite items (such as blankets & toys) close by so there isn’t a lot of movement during the shoot. We don’t want to play a chasing game, but instead create an area of comfort that the cat automatically finds interesting. I always make sure I know about the cat’s personality so that I’m able to read them faster. After we do a few studio-type shots with a white backdrop, I move into a ‘you go, I follow’ approach.

What was the most challenging cat photo shoot you have done? Any funny stories?

Surprisingly, I haven’t had a super challenging cat photo shoot (knock on wood).  Having a big camera with a flash can be scary for just about anyone or anything, so that’s always a hurdle that the cat and I have to overcome. Most of the time, the cats’ bellies become full of treats! It’s funny to watch the cat go from scared, to curious, to giving me something in return, to full and happy, thus lazy.

Certain cat breeds are more socially curious. I have an Abyssinian who loves adventure, climbing and people, so she tends to create her own dramas, which are fabulous to photograph! All cats have their little quirks like plastic obsessions, certain smells, or ways they like to be rubbed. My Russian Blue loves the smell and sound of nail files, so I can usually bribe him into some photos with that (I know funny and gross!)

Do you have any tips for readers on how to take great photos of their cats?

First and foremost, lighting! Lighting is key for the perfect photo, and I highly recommend seeking natural light. Use a flash only if you need. Second, relate to your pet on a personal level — get down on the floor and connect to their world. See what they see. And third, have patience! Most of us don’t like having our picture taken, so you have to approach your cat in the same way. Blend playtime and photo-taking together, let them get used to your camera — it will make for memorable photos. Hope that helps!