I like to combine my hobbies and share my enthusiasm, so its natural that I'd want to photograph my rats. Here's a detailed tip sheet aimed at all levels of photographers. Some things may be too basic for you and others may go over your head. The important thing is to try and understand what I'm getting at and work to improve your results a step at a time.
It's often forgotten that photography is the art of capturing light. Cameras have gotten a lot better at imaging in low light conditions, but it's a huge technical challenge to photograph without reasonably bright light and rats as you know live in fast forward.
A digital camera deals with a paucity of light in one or more of four ways:
(1) It slows the shutter, risking motion blur;
(2) It widens the aperture, resulting in a shallow depth of focus;
(3) It raises the sensitivity (ISO) increasing noise;
(4) It adds light, blinding the critter with flash.
It follows that you need to have enough light to take decent photos. How much is enough? I would recommend outdoor light or at least indoor afternoon light by a window if you can. Some cameras can do a reasonable job with less, but you need to test to find out. You need a shutter speed of no slower than 1/60 of a second, ideally 1/125 to 1/200. If your camera won't tell you how it's shooting, check that you can avoid the four symptoms above. If you really must use flash, indirect, bounced flash will disturb them less and look more natural. Ideally though, you need to get them to come out to play in the daytime.
While almost any camera will do the job, given enough light, if you have the luxury of choosing between cameras, I'll tell you what to look for. It's not a matter of reaching for the most expensive, or even the most modern camera, because shooting rats (click click, not pew pew) demands a peculiar set of attributes, because rats do not generally behave as paid fashion models.
The number one consideration is to pick a camera that can focus very fast, even at close range and doesn't have much delay between when you press the trigger and when the photo is taken. If it takes longer than a blink to do this, you might still get a nice photo, but it probably won't be the photo that you intended to take.
If you decide that you don't have a camera that can shoot without much trigger delay, you can always go back to film! Film cameras have less shutter delay but tend to have a longer minimum focussing distance. What you do is back off and prefocus, then later crop the image once it has been scanned into digital.
I shot these with a cheap 1970's film camera.
The close ups are centre-crops and so have less detail.
You can also get reasonable results with a phone camera if you have enough light and time it right. These were taken with a Blackberry.
You can see that neither of these above photosets have quite the same technical image quality of the more modern compact camera that I used to shoot the rest of the images with (A Ricoh GRD IV) but they have their own look and charm and the content warms my heart.
I would also choose a camera that has a wide lens and use its widest setting. We're not on safari photographing lions and yours rats won't eat you (no guarantees) so we don't need to stand a long way away. Pets that will look into your eyes are always cutest when photographed with a wide lens. If you get close enough so that the rat almost fills the frame, the perspective draws the viewer in and conveys a sense of intimacy that a long lens would not.
A wide lens also has a deeper depth of field, which means less work for the autofocus mechanism, as more of the picture will be in focus. Don't buy into the modern fad of trying to drop the background way out of focus with a long lens and wide aperture. We are not shooting portraits and the technique is unforgiving. If you wish to achieve background separation, choose a plain, undistracting background with low contrast. Make sure the background is significantly distant, shoot wide and close. If necessary, you can tweak the background focus in photoshop, but always remember that you can defocus an image, but you can't bring an out of focus image into sharp focus.
If you are so close that the depth of field is razor thin, focus on the eyes, not the tip of the nose. Rats have a long face and this can be a problem. If your camera has a Dog mode, then it may be able to do recognise its facial features and do this for you. I caution that your rat may be moving too fast for this t work, so it's a bit hit and miss. You're better off with a deeper depth of field.
For the same reason, I would suggest that you choose to stop down to a small aperture, such as f/8 if you can. While it's all the rage with photography enthusiasts to try and get just the subject in focus, dropping the background into a pleasant undistracting blur, let me repeat myself and say that a blurred subject is useless and I want a bit more margin for error. This is exactly the opposite of the technique of taking a portrait and a great portrait lens might make a bad rat lens. Indeed, most any lens on the market can work in the range of f/4 to f/8, even the cheapest.
If you can't set things like aperture or shutter speed, maybe your camera has a mode for pets? Choose dog over cat if such options exist because the face shape of a rat is closer to a dog than a cat and I have yet to see a camera with a rodent mode. Failing this, choose kids or sport, although these modes may not work so well on close ups.
Remember what I said about sometimes 'lesser' cameras being better for photographing rats than more expensive ones? I recommend a camera with a reasonably small sensor. Generally a good compact camera will be better than a DSLR, because small sensors are easier to focus on up close than big sensors. It's a quirk of optical engineering. Given enough light, there shouldn't be much difference in image quality or sensor noise either.
Setting, Content and Composition
I prefer not to photograph rats in cages or in their nest. For a start, I feel it casts a poor ambience and looks cluttered. I prefer to photograph a rat free ranging, even if the rat is sat on a platform so small that there isn't much room to run around. Actually, that's a good idea, as you don't need to pursue or stalk your victim... I mean beloved pet.
I like to fill the lens, but remember that if the distance from the camera to front of the subject is proportionally very much closer to the lens than the back of the subject, then you may not get all the subject in focus.
One way around that is to arrange the subject horizontally.
Action shots can either be frozen in time, or you may wish to slow the shutter just a little and convey movement through motion blur.
Try to vary your photographs, unless shooting a series. A series should have a compositional theme or tell a story to help it to hang together. Remember photography, like painting, is not simply a matter of capturing an image, but of conveying a meaning. Without a point of interest, or something to say, we'd just be documenting.
Observe the rules of good composition, but don't be their slave. Crop close, but not too close. I like to leave some headroom, some active space. In this photo of Baby scaling a palm to get closer to the camera, you can see her leaning out, so I cropped wide on the left to leave her some space to lean into. The portrait orientation shows some of her tail and this serves to balance both the rat and the composition.
Compare these two images. In the first, she is clearly looking out.
In the second, she is looking at something.
Also, I have lowered the perspective to almost her eyeline. It gives the viewer a rat's eye view.
One way to get a rat to slow down is to give it something to play with, destroy, or to eat, such as an expensive Italian sofa, or better, an item of food. Just remember that rats' instinct is to grab and run with food, so it may be an idea to secure the food to the surface forcing it to eat in situ. Another way is to have someone hold the rat and give some TLC. Rats love attention and everyone loves seeing a happy rat. I find it hard to photograph a rat that I am holding myself, but that's mostly because my rats don't consider being carried to be a passive activity and roam all over me and under my clothes. I suppose you could conceivably train a rat to stay, but mine are probably too well fed to be trained.
Rats have two ends, the pretty end and the not so pretty end. With few exceptions they look better pointing towards you than away.
My rats fortunately quite like the camera and the difficulty is they have a tendency to almost try to climb onto the camera to get to me.
You can review your photos, but once the camera is working as intended, just shoot. This goes for film as well as digital. Stay in the moment. Don't spend time deleting shots while they play. Shoot till the card fills or the batteries run dry. Everyone makes some mistakes; only show your best and you will look like a pro.
If you have photoediting software, you can fix a lot of problems with colour balance and exposure on your desktop. I am a big fan of using Curves to fix lighting, but even an auto enhancement can help a lot. Just don't lose the detail in highlights and shadows; black and white rats are very susceptible to this. Again, be prepared to break the rules. Here I have badly blown the highlights. There is no detail in the white area because it's all pure white. It doesn't much matter in this particular image because all the facial detail in dark and has been exposed properly.
If the image is a little unfocussed, sharpening algorithms can be used when reducing image size and they can rescue marginal images. Photoshop is king, but if you cannot stretch to the cost, FastStone Image viewer should do the job. It's easy to learn and it's 100% free!
Final Words (for now)
Regardless of your results, relax, enjoy your rats and keep trying. It's all about the rats and your shared enjoyment. Even if the pictures aren't technically perfect they joy will shine through.
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