I get a lot of comments on my photos of the shelter cats. People are amazed that I can capture the personality of these cats in this tough environment. Many cats are scared, shy and insecure in this relatively new environment to them. The kitten photos, especially ones of the entire litter, are a big hit. And while I am the one who presses the shutter button on the camera, I don’t work alone.
When I started volunteering at PAWS, I had little experience with photography. Knowing that I loved photographing animals, I thought working with the shelter pets would be a great place for me to practice and improve my skills. At first it was just me, my camera and a cat in a room. Eventually I learned to bring things like string and kitty toys to get the cats attention. But they were always a moving target and sometimes I would take me as much as 15 minutes before I could get one decent photo.
Then I started learning about off-camera flash and studio photography. I bought a white sheet and started using a flash. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a step better than what I had been creating. Eventually PAWS bought a strobe and I bought a light stand and umbrella. It was hard, but doable, multitasking to get these photos. It meant holding the camera, playing with a feather toy and trying to keep the cat on a table long enough to press the shutter button to get a photo…in focus! I didn’t photograph many cats because it took so long just to get something that was usable.
After I earned enough points from all of my photography purchases at B & H, THE photo and video store in NYC, I was able to get a couple of savage seamless paper rolls for free. I chose colors that would be a nice background for my photos. At this point, I realized I couldn’t continue to work on my own. So I put out a plea and started working with an assistant. Someone who would help keep the cats on the table and engage them while I focus on getting the shot.
Yes, this means more effort to set up my equipment, but having an assistant also means I can photograph more cats every time I go into PAWS. And those photos of a bucket of kittens? Well, now you know the secret behind the shot! My assistant keeps all the kittens in place and with a few swishes of a feather toy, the kittens pop up and follow it with their eyes, while I just wait until that right moment and press the shutter button!
I’ve had a couple of assistants over the last couple of years. Rebecca, my current one, has been helping for the last 2 years. Unfortunately for me, she is graduated from Penn State and is moving overseas to pursue a Master’s Degree. The hundreds of photos I’ve taken over the years wouldn’t have happened without Rebecca and all the other folks who have assisted me. Like so many other things at PAWS, it really is a team effort and I, alone, don’t deserve all the credit.
Before saying good-bye to Rebecca, I took one last photo of her with this litter of kittens. Not only did she help me with the photos, but she also walked the dogs, took cats to the vet to be spayed or neutered, volunteered on the floor on the cat wing and so much more. Our volunteers from Penn State are invaluable and while we are always sad to see them go, we know they have bright futures waiting for them!