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Interview with Sarah Beth Ernhart

US pet photographer Sarah Beth Ernhart shares a collection of portraits from her book 'Kittenhood', which features stunning life-size kittens!

In the March 2016 issue of Your Cat magazine, US pet photographer Sarah Beth Ernhart shares a collection of portraits from her book 'Kittenhood', which features stunning life-size kittens!

Here, we speak to Sarah about the book - and why photographing kittens is the purrfect job!

Q Hi Sarah! How did you get into pet photography?

I grew up on a small hobby farm in northern Minnesota, and was always surrounded by animals: dogs, cats (so many barn cats!), horses, sheep, rabbits, cows, chickens, etc. I had a cheap camera as a kid, and took pictures of my pets and friends at home. My first photography class was in 8th grade, where I got to borrow a 'real' camera, and learned how to develop film. My only other photography class was in college, again all film and darkroom work. I always enjoyed photography, but I have no real formal training in it.

My degree is in graphic design, and I worked for a small ad agency for about two years. My first foray into digital photography was at my graphic design job, where I got to help out with product photography and business head shots. The more I learned about it, I was enjoying it more than the design work, and it turned out I was actually fairly good at it. I eventually quit my design job, and started a part-time business photographing kids, weddings, family portraits, as well as freelancing graphic design.

However, I've always been more of an 'animal person' than a 'people person', and the kid/family stuff wasn't really for me. I started volunteering with local animal rescues, and through them became connected with other pet businesses (doggy daycares, grooming, supply stores, etc). I quickly became entrenched in the pet world. There weren't a lot of other photographers specialising in pets at the time, so I stood out and grew my name fairly quickly. Now it's all I do, and I love it!

Q What inspired you to shoot the images for 'Kittenhood'?

The publisher actually approached me, after finding my work online. They had already produced the book 'Puppyhood' and were looking for a companion piece. With my studio experience and life-long love of cats, it was a bit of a dream job! 

Q What do you enjoy most about photographing kittens?

Kittens are super playful, and their unpredictable antics are so much fun (and can definitely be challenging to capture in-camera!). It was great learning about the different breeds, and - of course - snuggling all the cute kitties. It took quite a bit of coordinating and travelling to find 25 different breeds of young kittens, and get them all done in the timeframe.

I had many favorites when shooting the book, but the two stand-outs for me were the Siberians and the Devon Rex. The fluffy Siberians were raised in a home with older kids, who played with them every day. As a result, they were by far the calmest, most friendly of all the kittens I met. Combined with how soft and classically cute they are, they were definitely memorable. 

The Devon Rex kittens were fascinating to me, with their short wavy fur, crinkly whiskers, and intense eyes. They were some of the most active kittens, and it was hilarious watching them play together. Their exotic look and approachability were a lot of fun, and if I were to have a purebred cat some day, I'd love to get a Devon Rex. 

Q Tell us a little about your involvement in rescue centres and your Joy Sessions service...

My pet photography career really took off when I began volunteering with a local rescue, and the connections I made there led to a lot of other great opportunities. Every month, since 2010, I've been donating a portion of my session fees to my designated rescues every month. I've worked with over 40 different organisations, photographing some of their animals, attending spay/neuter clinics, and making donations. I've expanded more into wildlife rescue and education organizations, in addition to companion animals.

My Joy Sessions are special sessions just for terminally ill or elderly pets. The namesake of my service was Joy, a Black Lab. Shortly before Christmas in 2009, I had a photo shoot with a woman named Joan. Joan was living at home in hospice care, and relied on the companionship and day-to-day help of her Service Dog, Joy. Joy was her rock, her best friend, and had saved Joan's life on more than one occasion. Their bond was palpable, and it was easy to see that both of them were very loved.

Her apartment was filled with the word 'Joy' in artwork and pillows and Christmas decorations. She even wore a 'Joy' sweatshirt during our session. In speaking with Joan, I started to see that what I do is more meaningful than what it may initially appear to be; it's not just snapping cute pictures of pets, it's preserving memories of some of the most important aspects of people's lives.

Without knowing it at the time, she and Joy sparked the idea to offer photo sessions specifically for pets that are nearing the end of their lives. So when creating a name for this new service, I couldn't think of anything or anyone I'd met who embodied such love and such a deep connection as Joan and Joy. And so, the 'Joy Session' was born.

Q Finally, any top tips for readers wanting to photograph their cats and kittens at home?

There are two big issues that are common when photographing cats and kittens at home: 1) They appear too dark or possibly blurry; and 2) They have the glowing 'laser eyes'. The easiest way to take care of both issues at once, is to photograph your cats during the day, near a window.

If the images are too dark, it means there's not sufficient light to make a good photo. Without enough light, your camera - any camera, whether it's a phone camera, digital or film - can't capture what we see with our eyes. The camera may try to slow the shutter speed down to compensate and let in more light, and if your cat is moving while that happens, you'll get a blurry image.

If you can place your cat near a window, with the daylight falling on them, they'll be in the best possible position to capture a nice photo. I like to place myself next to the window as well, so I can see the side of the cat the light is falling on. 

The 'laser eyes' happens when a light hits their eyes and reflects back. It's similar to what happens to us when we get 'red eye' in pictures: we're looking at the camera, the flash goes off, and it directly hits our eyes. If you have a built-in flash on your camera, turn it off! With your cat right by the window in the daylight, you won't need it, and you won't get that problem.

Another way to get fun pictures of your cats and kittens, is to get down on their level, or get them up to your level. Cats love being up high, so place some furniture near the window, or set them up on a cat tree. Get out their favorite toys and catch them in action. Capture the quiet, everyday moments that you'll always want to remember: sleeping in their favorite bed, watching birds out the window, having a grooming session, snuggling with you on the couch. Most of the pictures I have of my older cat, Simon, are selfies of us just hanging out together!

Visit Sarah Beth Ernhart's website or follow Sarah Beth Photography on Facebook for more fantastic feline images!

Win the book!

Sarah's book, 'Kittenhood', showcases adorable kittens in life-size photographs taken in the early weeks of their lives. The book itself is oversized at 11 by 13 inches, allowing enough space to bring each of the little ones to life.

Twenty-five breeds are captured in engaging photographs, showing all the details that make kittens so irresistible, from their soft, fluffy bellies to their tiny teeth, large eyes, beautiful colouring and expressive tails! Buy a copy for £15.99 (hardback), published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

*We have three copies of 'Kittenhood' by Sarah Beth Ernhart to win in the current issue of Your Cat magazine - pick up a copy of the March 2016 issue for your chance to win!