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Larry Johnson

11 Tips for Taking Purrfect Cat Pics From a Professional Feline Photographer

Original image
Larry Johnson

Despite growing up with a dog, Larry Johnson ended up becoming one of the photography world’s most recognized feline portraitists. The former music teacher started taking landscape photos after he moved to South Florida from his native Chicago. While selling his shots of wildflowers, sunsets, and other natural scenes at an art show, Johnson met the manager of a cat show. She needed images of her kitty for the event’s catalog cover, and before Johnson knew it, he was photographing local cat club events on a regular basis.

Gradually, Johnson learned the ins and outs of handling his furry subjects—and found that he actually enjoyed capturing them on camera. “I guess I had some affinity with the animals, because they all seemed to like me,” Johnson tells mental_floss. Plus, “it’s really lots of fun, and quite different from studio work like school portraits—you know, ‘Click, sit, smile, next.’ It takes finesse and work to even get [a cat] into a picture, much less to capture each breed in the way it ought to look like.”

Two decades ago, Johnson made the jump to full-time photographer. Today, the shutterbug is based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but he spends much of his time traveling the world, snapping shots of felines for clients ranging from elite breeders to commercial magazines, books, and catalogs. While each animal requires a unique approach, Johnson says his photos are bound by a common theme: “I want people to look at my photographs and go, ‘Oh, that’s my cat.’”

Inspired to host your own feline photo shoot? Johnson provided us with some tips and tricks designed to help you immortalize a kitty's cuteness.

1. WORK WITH THE CAT’S PERSONALITY. 

“First, you have to understand that each animal has their own personality, and each breed has its own personality,” Johnson says. For instance, furry cats like Persians and Himalayans tend to be lazy and placid, and lend themselves well to seated and lying-down shots. These cats are also much more alert in the morning than in the late afternoon. Since their large eyes tend to droop when they're tired, Johnson always chooses to photograph longhairs early in the day at cat shows.

On the other end of the spectrum, Abyssinians, Russian Blues, and Cornish Rexes are hyper and playful. Johnson will wait until the early evening to photograph the rangy felines to ensure they've "gotten their energy out" during the day. They're also extremely agile animals, and like to hang off the tops of tall surfaces and perches. Use this trait to your advantage by choosing companion props like cat condos and baskets.

Age is also a factor. Johnson jokes that "everything in the world is a toy" to a kitten, meaning they're often more dynamic subjects than some older cats. But they're also difficult to manage. To deal with this challenge, Johnson relies on an ingenious strategy: He gently wakes the baby cats up from slumber and places them into his desired pose while they're still half-asleep. This way, he gets the shot he wants in half the time.

Also, keep in mind that each cat is different. Some are food-oriented, meaning a treat or two might be a good way to sweeten them up before a photo session. Others like to be petted, and are soothed when their owners touch them. Getting each cat to cooperate for the camera requires a different strategy.

2. KEEP THE BACKGROUND SIMPLE.

“I like to keep it simple and not busy in the background,” Johnson says. “Solid colors or a blank area or wall can work. The cat should be the focus of the image, and too much can be distracting.”

That being said, some cats tend to photograph better against bright backdrops, while others look better against a subdued white or black canvas. Feel free to experiment by draping couches, chairs, or other surfaces with different fabrics to see what looks best.

3. TAKE THE PICTURES IN A FAMILIAR SETTING.

According to Johnson, it’s better to photograph a cat in its own house than in a crowded show venue or a fancy studio. “If they’re in their own home, they know the places that they like to be. It feels good to them. And that’s where you need to capture them,” he says.

Johnson shows up to a home or venue with his portable studio—which includes lights, props, camera, and backdrops—and lets the cat follow him as he sets up. “I’ll pet them, and talk to them, and let them smell me,” he says.

4. BE CAUTIOUS WITH THE FLASH.

Johnson tries to photograph cats in bright, well-lit rooms so that the flash won’t startle them when it goes off. However, some felines still “freak out” from the burst of light or its accompanying noise, he says. To avoid this, Johnson will turn his flash off and shoot near windows or other sources of natural light. If there's no sunlight, he'll simply turn up his modeling lights.

5. ENGAGE THE CAT WITH TOYS ...

“Dogs are command-oriented,” Johnson says. “‘Sit!’ ‘Stay!’ ‘Yes, sir!’” You tell that to a cat and they’re like, ‘I’m out of here. You gotta be kidding me.' I have to approach them in a different way.”

Johnson gains a cat’s attention by waving around toys like “peacock feathers, pheasant feathers, or little jiggly things that they play with.” This way, they’re more likely to engage with him than to just “sit under the chair or in the corner and watch." (Johnson makes sure that the toys are attached to long sticks so that his hands don't show up in the photograph.)

Johnson also uses toys to ensure that a cat will stay in one place during a photo session. He places the kitty on a surface —usually a small table—and moves the toy around in circles. As the cat follows the toy from one end of the table to the other, Johnson will have its owner or a team of handlers stroke its fur. Between the playing and the petting, the cat eventually decides, "'Well, this is a fun place. I guess I'll stay here,'" Johnson says. "It's very psychological."

6. ... BUT USE CATNIP SPARINGLY.

“I usually don’t use catnip because each cat reacts very differently to it,” Johnson says. The herb makes some kitties silly and distracted, and thus more difficult to photograph. However, Johnson will rub a pinch of nip onto the end of a toy or another item. He’ll use the scented object to lure a wary cat onto a couch or chair, or into a camera-friendly pose.

7. CHOOSE YOUR EQUIPMENT WISELY.

Johnson uses a digital camera and shoots on manual. "I use studio strobes, so the shutter speeds need to match the flash sync. I will adjust to higher shutter speeds if the light is constant and less bright," he says. Also, Johnson typically uses a lens set to a F10 aperture.

Don't have professional gear? Use your smartphone camera and take pictures in a well-lit area without direct sunlight, like near a window. If you own an iPhone, the Burst Mode feature "can be helpful if the cat is being active," Johnson says.

8. CLIP THE CAT’S CLAWS PRE-PHOTO SESSION.

Some cats don’t like being touched or handled by a person who isn’t their owner. Use your intuition to feel out the cat’s mood. If it’s acting aggressive or agitated, it's probably a good idea to reschedule the shoot for another time. And Johnson recommends asking the cat’s owner to clip its claws pre-photo session so you won't be on the receiving end of any painful swats.

9. PLAY A LITTLE MUSIC.

Cats are very sensitive to sound. They’ll get scared if they hear a loud or sudden noise, making them more difficult to photograph. But according to Johnson, that doesn't mean the room should be super quiet; sounds are amplified in a silent space, so Johnson prefers to play some light music during his shoots. Also, avoid moving your cat from a loud space to a silent one (or vice versa) pre-photo session, as it will take your cat a while to adjust to the new noise levels.

When it comes to human noises, Johnson likes to use little trills, whistles, and purrs to get a cat’s attention.

10. GET CLOSE—BUT NOT TOO CLOSE.

Photographing a cat can be tricky. If you’re too far away, the cat will lose interest in the camera. If you’re too close, it will try to rub against you, swat your equipment, or play with you. Johnson makes sure to leave about 3 feet of distance between him and his subjects. If he's shooting a sleeping cat, or a feline that's naturally posed in position he wants, Johnson will move farther away and use a zoom lens.

11. USE PHOTO EDITING SOFTWARE SPARINGLY.

Do use photo-editing software like Photoshop to remove stray hairs, clean up runny eyes, eliminate fur frizz or static, and retouch backgrounds. Don’t use it to alter the cat’s appearance. In doing so, you’re changing the essence of the animal, Johnson says. “I will not make the eyes larger,” Johnson says. “I will not make the ears smaller, or bigger, or add space between the two of them. I will not make the cat longer or shorter.”

All photographs courtesy of Larry Johnson. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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