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Larry Johnson
Larry Johnson

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

Larry Johnson
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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The Real Bay of Pigs: Big Major Cay in the Bahamas
iStock
iStock

When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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Christine Colby
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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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