Take tack sharp photos of your speedy pets

by petros mitropoulos

If your furry friend is always a blurry blob in your pictures because he zooms around the house at supersonic speed, help is on the way! Here’s how to stop your speedy pet in his tracks, and take tack sharp photos of him in action.
 
Nikon D700  .  Nikkor 50mm f/1.8  .  50mmmm  .  1/125ss  .  f/3.3  .  ISO 200
 
This is Kaiser, my beloved three-month-old kitten, playing in my living room. At that age he was a frisky and wildly animated character, but he also had a gentle, endearing side and so much style in his every move. I couldn’t resist photographing his many personalities when he was young; my furry, four-legged supermodel kept me very entertained.

"He loves bits of paper as much as he loves chocolate, but that’s a story for another day."

Cats love all little things. Forget about fancy toys from the pet shop — they lose interest in those in nanoseconds. To keep them enthralled for hours on end, you only need some pins or shoelaces, buttons or paperclips, or as in Kaiser’s case, tiny scraps of paper. He loves bits of paper as much as he loves chocolate, but that’s a story for another day. 

It was a lazy afternoon when I saw him playing with a shred of paper that he had found, and I instantly grabbed my camera to take a shot. I used a Nikon D700 and a 50mm f/1.8 lens, which takes tack sharp photos of the subject while creating a soft, out-of-focus background. It’s an all-around lens that I frequently use indoors with good results.

I attached a Nikon SB-600 Speedlight flash to the camera’s hot shoe, and I set it to i-TTL mode. The flash provided some extra light to freeze the action since there was not enough natural light coming in through the window behind me. I pointed the flash toward the white ceiling, creating a good source of indirect fill light and no harsh shadows. I set the camera’s white balance to Auto, the camera to Manual and selected a large aperture of f/3.3. I wanted to make a sharp photo, but also blur the background using a shallow depth of field. That way, the bookshelf would remain out of focus and not distract from the main subject. I set the shutter speed to 1/125 second — I thought that was fast enough to freeze the action, and from experience I knew that it would work well with the flash’s sync capabilities. I also shot in RAW format: it is the best quality file that the camera can produce, and it provides the most latitude in post-processing. 

"He was quicker than manual focus, and even quicker than the camera’s autofocus. I had a hard time predicting his movements, resulting in horrible images that were blurred and poorly composed."

In portrait photography, the subject must have sharp eyes. Although I was using a fast wide-angle lens and a flash, I still had great difficulty in getting even one photo with focused eyes. That little monster was quick! He was quicker than manual focus, and even quicker than the camera’s autofocus. I had a hard time predicting his movements, resulting in horrible images that were blurred and poorly composed. “It’s not quite a piece of cake to capture little creatures, boy,” my dad once said to me. He was absolutely right.

I then had an idea: I would stick a piece of paper to a specific spot on the floor. That would give me time to pre-focus and compose the shot as well. Perfect! Once the paper was taped to the floor, I positioned myself about four feet away from my target. I stayed low to the floor, knowing that the most interesting portraits of animals are shot at their eye level. 

"My deadly paper hunter repeatedly charged and pounced on his target, but this time I succeeded in capturing him in action."

I focused on the paper, recomposed my frame and then waited for the kitten. Enter Kaiser, stage right. He started to bite the paper and tried numerous times to rip it off the floor. After so many unsuccessful attempts, he became infuriated! He jumped up and down on the paper, bit it, scratched it, mewed at it and then hid beside the couch to the right of the picture, crouched and poised as he planned his next attack on his victim. My deadly paper hunter repeatedly charged and pounced on his target, but this time I succeeded in capturing him in action.
 
POST PROCESSING
This image didn’t need require much post-processing. Fortunately, I started with a well-framed photo, a pin sharp face and interesting action. However, I used Aperture to make minor adjustments to the RAW file and then exported the image to Photoshop CS4. 

1) In Aperture, I checked the histogram and noticed that the kitten’s hair was more grey than white, so I increased Exposure to +3.

2) With the rule of thirds in mind, I cropped out about 10% of the right side in order to move him a bit to the right of center.

3) I exported the image to Photoshop. I did not use a tripod, so my horizon was a bit slanted. This was corrected with the Straighten tool, using the curtains as my vertical guide.

4) Using the Dodge tool set to 10% Opacity, I lightened the midtones of the left eye that were too dark. 

5) I always sharpen last, either with Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask filter, High Pass filter or with Aperture’s Edges sharpening tool at its default settings.
 
TIPS
1) It is very important to be very patient when you are photographing pets. Set up in a place familiar to them and where they will be most comfortable.

2) Use a flash if you shoot indoors to freeze the action, and set the camera to a low ISO.

3) Mark the floor where you will be shooting so that you can pre-focus. Your lens needs to be ready when the action starts.
 
BIOGRAPHY
I am a passionate photographer from Athens, Greece. I became interested in photography in 2003, and for the past few years I have become more ambitious about my work. I like to experiment with different styles and techniques. I enjoy shooting everyday moments, portraits, architecture and abstract images, but very recently landscape photography has become my obsession.

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