For all of us who’ve tried to take a photograph of a cat, we all know how impossible it is to capture the perfect pose because cats are constantly in action! I have stacks of photos of cats with missing heads, tails or who are mere blurs. So I’m always filled with envy when I look at cat books and see row-upon-row of perfectly-posed cats. Just how do these professional cat photographers do it? Here’s how Tetsu Yamazaki, one of the world’s top cat photographers demonstrates his magic.
Tetsu Yamazaki is famous for the book “Legacy of the Cat“. The book is considered the definitive classic not only because it is filled with expert information on the 37 breeds of cat represented in cat shows, it’s illustrated with beautiful photos which capture the magic of each of these breeds.I was thrilled to meet Tetsu and his wife, Hiroki, at a recent cat show – UK CoonTICA’s “Somewhere over the Rainbow”. Tetsu’s presence highlighted the significance of the show as it the first TICA Western European regional show.For someone with such a prestigious reputation, Tetsu and his wife were unassuming, warm and open. They happily chatted to me about his life and work as a cat photographer.
Q: Why did he become a cat photograph?
A: He fell into it by accident. 34 years ago, the photographic industry
was going through a bit of a lull and he was at a loose end. A friend had
been commissioned to do a cat photography book and insisted that he take
the photos. So he did. At the end of that the publisher decided that he
was a good cat photographer. And so did the people who bought the book. So he didn’t make a conscious decision to become a cat photographer – it was almost an act of fate that saw him become one.
He’s recently done a new edition of his book “Legacy of the Cat” because
when he photographed the first edition 20 years ago, many breeds of cat we
have today were still not available, for example, the Bengal was a new
breed then, and there were no Munchkins.
Q: Has his style changed much over the 20 years?
A: Not really because a lot of what people want to see in their cat photos is the same. However, his photographs try to capture the cat in its natural pose.
As my cat soulmate Sonya (who was also there) reminded me, his wife Hiroki showed us a special Japanese edition of a cat magazine which featured the work of several cat photographers. Hiroki turned to the pages of Persian cats – she explained that two (or three ?) other photographers had contributed photos on that breed. Most of the cats were in static poses and she pointed to each in turn saying “other photographer, other photographer, other photographer..” – until the last photo, where the Persian cat was standing on its hind legs waving its paws in the air – “Tetsu photo!”
Q: What’s the main secret of cat photography?
A: Play with the cat. Engage with the cat. Bring out the playfulness of
the cat. Some cats are more walking cats. Some look better when turning. So he tries to suit his style of play to the cat. In that way the cat will almost take the photograph itself! There was something almost Zen in the way he described his method, but it makes sense – why force the cat to do something it doesn’t feel comfortable with? Better to play to its strengths and natural movements.Q: Which cats are the easiest and which the hardest breeds of cats to photograph?
A: It’s not breed-specific. It all depends on the personality and
temperament of the cat. And also the desires of the cat owners. For
example, owners of Persian cats have often trained their cats to adopt very
passive and still positions, to preserve their beautiful coats. So that’s
what the photo will consist of: a beautiful cat sitting still! He finds that playful cats are easy to photograph as they will engage with the photographer.
Q: What kind of studio setup does he use?
A: Because his work involves a lot of travelling to different cat shows, his studio has to be portable, and simple to setup and transport. For example, at the CoonTICA show, the room that was allocated to him was a classroom. On one side, he taped a plain white background to the wall, which overhung a table. The cat to be photographed was placed on the table. Directly overhead was a light with an umbrella diffuser and opposite the table at a diagonal was another.
Q: So no light box? [this is a 3-sided box made of translucent material in which the cat is placed. I’ve seen this at a lot of UK cat shows and assumed that it was the norm as it means the cat has nowhere to escape and can be easily controlled. ]A: No, he doesn’t use a light box. (I’m not a technical person, but my understanding of his explanation was that to shoot with a light box means he would have to stand closer to get at arm’s length to the cat and that would mean using a camera with a wide-angle lens or if he stood back, he would need a telephoto lens which would make for a heavy camera. He prefers to shoot single-handed (for reasons which are explained later).
He also prefers using a table because it allows the cat to move naturally and pose itself. Q: But what if the cat jumps off the table and tries to run away?
A: If the cat jumps off the table as sometimes happens, it usually jumps
back up because it knows that Tetsu would play with it on the table.
Q: What sort of toys did he use to play with the cats?
A: At most of the UK cat shows I’ve been to, all the cat photographers use cat wands to get the cat’s attention and direct the gaze – these are standard shop-bought wands of about 2 feet long with a lure at the end.
Tetsu had customised his own wands. He had taken 3 Japanese fishing rods made of bamboo of approximately six feet. At the end of each rod was a lure. One had some sparkly bits, the second a long feather, and the third a piece of paper. Their extra long length allowed him to stand well back from the table and hold it up very high to pulll the cat’s gaze upwards. And because the rods were telescopic, they retracted to about a foot long and could be easily packed for travel.
The fishing rods were very thin and whippy so that when he flicked his wrist sharply, the feather made a sound that was very like the clap of a bird’s wing taking off. I was very impressed – this was a cat magician in action!
Q: So did his assistant hold the rods while Tetsu took the photos?
A: No, Tetsu held the rod in his left hand. In is right hand he held his camera. He was both cat wrangler and photographer. Again, this was very different from a lot of cat photographers I’ve observed where they depend on having an assistant to direct the cat while the photographer composed the picture. It made sense though – rather than rely on an assistant, by doing both, Tetsu was able to play and direct the cat into poses he wanted. It gave him more control over the subject and the photo.
(Later, I read that this method of photographing a cat by holding the camera in the right hand is recognised as Tetsu’s trademark – “to photograph Tetsu-style” it’s called!) Q: What sort of camera does he use? A: Because of his technique of being both wrangler and photographer, he needs a camera that is light enough to be held in his right hand. The camera he currently uses is a Canon EOS 50D. When he first started out in cat photography 34 years ago (and remember this was before digital photography had been invented) his camera was a roll-film camera, the Bronica. The Bronica was like a Hasselblad, with an overhead viewfinder, so that the user could hold the camera at waist height and still be able to see the subject on the screen. Tetsu actually preferred this old-style camera as it meant that he could film a cat on a table while standing up, whereas with modern-day cameras with viewfinders on the back, he sometimes has to kneel to get on the same level as the cat. ********
What struck me throughout the interview was Tetsu’s joy in his work, and sense of going with the flow. He prefers to play with the cat and let it express itself naturally. There was no straining for effect. This was a kind of Zen magician of cat photography.
I asked if he had a website or was on Facebook or Flickr, and he told me that he didn’t have any of these public presences. I found that very refreshing in an age where people believe that if you’re not on a social media site you don’t exist! But Tetsu explained that he preferred to keep a low profile, enjoying his life on the outskirts of Tokyo, away from the frenzy of the city and letting his jobs take him where they did, all over the world.Tetsu does have an e-mail address though and you can contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org. He also recently signed up with image library Animal Photography. Please check out Tetsu’s page for some wonderful photos of cats.