It’s time for another installment of our Cat Photography Q & A, and this time we’re talking with Colleen Carnevale of Colleen’s Custom Pet Photography. We featured some of Colleen’s photos in Catification, showing off Karen Rae’s gorgeous felines in San Diego. Get to know a little more about Colleen and the work she’s doing!
How long have you been photographing pets and how did you get started?
I’ve enjoyed noodling with a camera since I was a child (snapped my first photo when I was 5), but didn’t think of photography as anything other than a hobby until about eight years ago. The traditional office job I thought I would have until retirement was suddenly eliminated and I had to re-evaluate what I was doing with my life. I took a deep breath and decided that instead of staying on the “supposed to do” path, I’d do what I loved. I’m happiest with a camera in my hands and an animal in front of my lens; once I focused on that fact, pet photography was my path.
San Diego, California, where I’m based, is one of the most pet-friendly cities anywhere with amazing weather year-round and has been a great place to hone my skills. I met people who were volunteering with various rescue groups in the area and started taking adoption photos for them. I still set aside time every month to help in that way. Friends have spread the word about me and my photography business has grown from there.
What kind of pet photography do you do?
I’m a firm believer that the experience of being photographed should be as stress-free as possible for our animal companions, so I take the photos in the place where the animal is happiest and feels the most secure. Usually (particularly with cats) that’s inside their home but it can also happen at the beach or a park or even on a hiking trail.
Do you have a specialty?
As much as I enjoy all the animals I photograph, I have a particular passion for photographing cats. My cats, my friends cats, complete strangers’ cats — I can’t get enough of those fabulous felines. One of my favorite things to do is capture details; extreme close-up images of their faces, their paws.
Do you do anything special to prepare for a photo shoot with a cat?
Absolutely. Long before I arrive I’m getting as much information as I can about likes, dislikes, fears, triggers — anything I could accidentally do that might create a problem. I also ask the human to give them some extra play time before I arrive — in part that’s to help tire them out a bit, but also to create a positive environment.
When I arrive, I quietly place all the equipment and backdrops and other paraphernalia that comes with me in a corner on the floor for them to investigate, climb on, whatever they want. Believe it or not, I simply ignore the kitties until they start to get curious about me. Once it’s been determined that I’m not a scary monster, we start to have fun. We play in whatever way they want to play, I may offer a treat or two (always check with the human and make sure there aren’t any food allergies or diet restrictions). Most important, I remind the humans that this needs to feel fun, so even if it doesn’t seem like it’s going well at first, keep a relaxed but upbeat attitude. If their person starts to seem anxious, an animal will pick up on that and get anxious right along with them.
What was the most challenging cat photo shoot you have done? Any funny stories?
The kitties in shelters and cat sanctuaries where I’m taking adoption photos are often a challenge because it can be a stressful environment for them — particularly if they haven’t been there very long yet. It’s hard to capture their personalities when they don’t feel they can let their guard down.
Without question the funniest session was when I went to photograph YouTube celebrity kitties Cole and Marmalade. Already an unabashed fan of those two, I was thrilled that I’d be meeting them. But their humans were getting ready to move and the home was filled with boxes half packed and stacked — it was clearly not their normal living environment and we all know how cats feel about change. Cole was relatively accommodating but Marmalade decided he wanted nothing to do with the entire situation and wouldn’t stay in the same room with me. Of course I won’t ever force a photo, so we just kept giving him time and hoping he’d relax, but after several hours we agreed it just wasn’t going to work out. I packed things away, and just as I was ready to leave, out he pops and sits down in front of me cool as you please. We managed to get a few snaps of him with his human that I love.
Do you have any tips for readers about how to take great photos of their cats?
When it comes to photographing your cat, you have an advantage over any professional photographer, and that’s the relationship the two of you share. Use that. I can’t say it enough times, you need to keep it fun for them. They don’t necessarily know what it is you’re trying to do and it’s not hard for confusion to become fear — that’s the last thing you want. If there is a second human that they like, have that person available to help entertain them while you take photos. Stand back and let them be themselves; you want their photos to reflect the personality you love so much.
For the more technically inclined readers, can you please tell us what equipment you use? (camera, lens, lighting, filters, etc.)
I use a Nikon D3 as my primary camera, and most of the time my Nikkor 24-70mm portrait lens. Lighting is critical to the success of any photo; I avoid using any kind of flashes so there’s nothing to startle or frighten the animals. I bring continuous lights with me, with diffuser panels that soften the light and keep it from being too harsh. I tend to use a relatively shallow depth of field so when you’re looking at the photos your eye goes to the animal and not what surrounds them.
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