Cats on White, pt 1

This post originally appeared on Medium.com.

Originally posted over at Medium.com

When I worked for Microsoft, one of my favorite things about the company was how much it encourages employees to participate in and give back to local communities. Donations to charities are matched $1 to $1 and time volunteered is matched at something like $17 / hour (with a maximum of $15,000 / yr, per employee). That’s awesome.

When your company is able, consider a similar policy.

Starting in February of 2012, I got it into my head that I would start volunteering my time. I already liked taking photos — how could I make that useful to someone?

My own pets provided the inspiration. By that, I mean that although I love them, there’s no way adopting more into our household was remotely a good idea for anyone. That doesn’t mean others shouldn’t be adopting. So, I thought I should try to help other animals.

I looked around at shelters / rescues around town. I started by emailing one shelter that was dog-only, but they never got back to me (oh well). Then I contacted the (at the time) Humane Society Fargo-Moorhead, now Homeward Animal Shelter. They were happy to let some strange guy come photograph their animals after filling out a simple volunteer form.

Okay wait, maybe I wasn’t ready for someone to take me up on this. Yikes.
Melo: One of the first cats I photographed.

I knew I wanted to shoot the pets on a white background with the idea being that the cats and dogs would stand out on their own. At the time, I had one flash, a couple radio transmitters, and a light stand/umbrella combo, so that’s where we’ll start this equipment list. I also purchased a random white backdrop cloth because, well, what if they didn’t have a white wall?


That’s how I started out. Honestly, the flash triggers may not even be necessary if your camera has a built-in flash, you can just set your flash to slave mode and go.

I put a couple metal chairs on a long table, draped the backdrop over those chairs and held it in place by putting something heavy on it. Doing it this way means you’re going to end up with a gray background in your photos, with a hopefully well-lit cat or dog in front of it. That also means you’re going to do a fair bit of editing to get the white background to actually be white.

That gets old, quickly.

Notice the gray around the cat that my poor editing skills missed? I got better over time, but it still wasn’t a great experience. **It looks weird and distracts from the animal. **You know, the one you’re trying to promote.

So, can you pull this off using just what I listed (or less!) and some extra time? You bet. Should you? Well, that’s up to you. I had limited time I could spend doing the shoot and limited time I could spend editing the photos. If this was going to be a recurring thing, then I needed to speed it up.


I decided to add a few extra things to my kit.

  • Background stand (Linco Crossbar kit) [No more chairs!]
  • Backdrop clips (Linco clips) [Holds the backdrop taut]
  • A couple spring clips from Home Depot
  • An extra speedlight (Yongnuo YN-560 II)
  • Extra light stand
  • Extra Cactus transceiver

Adding those things allowed me to light the background separately from the animal to make sure it was mostly blown out before I even started processing. Much easier! The new pieces of equipment made set up and tear-down easier and more repeatable.

Since my flash setup allows me to ignore ambient light and know my settings ahead of time, I can set this up anywhere I need to!

At this same time, I started adding in colored blankets for the cats to stand or lay on in the photos. Not only does this provide them with a little more comfort, it adds a bit of scale and character to their photos.
“Snooki” — No, I did not name the cats.

In part two, I’ll elaborate on the actual shooting process that worked for me.


photography volunteer cats