Smartphone Photography and Marketing Tips from the Pros for National Black Cat Day to Increase Adoptions and Black Cat Awareness!

October is National Black Cat Awareness Month* and last Saturday (aka Caturday) to promote the cause, I shared a photo on several Facebook pages dedicated to black cats of my black cat rescue, Shadow, with the brief caption, “Celebrate! The Beautiful Black Cat.” The picture was simple – a closeup of him with an uncluttered, softened background, with my equally simple call to action in the text of the post: “October is Black Cat Awareness Month, so let’s celebrate this Caturday by sharing the awesomeness of black cats with pictures of your beauties today! This lovely model is our rescue, Shadow, who showed up at our doorstep about a year ago.”

While everything I did was deliberate – picking a bold, striking photo of Shadow as the backdrop to create an eye-pleasing graphic design to encourage a call to action, I truly had no idea it would take off to the degree it did. By the end of the weekend, there were thousands of collective shares, positive and loving comments, and photos of black cats from others, with interaction still continuing today.

I’m not mentioning this to boast, but rather to highlight a point of just how devoted those of us that have black cats are to our mini-panther brethren, leaving one to ponder how they are often overlooked in adoptions in favor of cats with more varied color patterns or because of the false and archaic stereotype that still persists today, that they are harbingers of bad luck, misfortune, and wickedness.

Truth is, much of the problem is due to the simple fact, as beautiful as they are, black cats are notoriously difficult to photograph, with their lustrous, shimming coat often turning into a dark loaf of cat bread in your pictures, which in turn means they’re more likely to be overlooked by potential adopters. While I’m blessed to live with an extremely talented and experienced photographer, my finance Dan, who takes gorgeous pictures of our cats with his high-end camera equipment that I often share on this blog, including the above picture of Shadow I used for my graphic design, with today National Black Cat Day, I’m here to share some tips, tricks, and simple promotional techniques for those like me who don’t have the equipment or expertise, so that anyone can become a photography or marketing expert and goodwill ambassador on behalf of the black cat – all with nothing more than a simple Smartphone!

1. It’s said eyes are the window to the soul, but it’s especially true for black cats as they may be the only color the cat can offer in a photo. Take the extra effort to make sure you are capturing them at their best — in focus, expressive, and properly exposed. I asked Dan his secret and he recommends you get down on the cat’s level to take the photo rather than hovering over him – you’ll get better focus and he’ll be less distracted with what you’re doing. Wave a feather toy above your camera to get his attention so he’ll open his eyes wide for your shot. The contrast you’ll get between a black face and brown, gold, green or blue eyes can be absolutely striking.

2. When framing your shot, keep it steady and use the built-in focus feature in your camera to lock it in. Tap where you want to set focus – a yellow box will appear and lock the focus and exposure on the most important part of your photograph. While in focus mode, you can also adjust the exposure on your subject – simply swipe the sun symbol up or down on the screen next to the yellow box.

3. Temper the light. Although it would seem the more light the better, that’s not the case for our mini-panther friends. The key, according to world-renown award-winning cat photographer, Larry Johnson, is to control the light source, balancing between shadow and highlight. Images taken in a low or little light scenario will make everything pixilated or grainy and unpleasant to the eye. And unless you want a silhouette, he says avoid having a background area that is not too light or bright behind the cat, as the camera is automatically geared to expose for the bright areas and not the dark areas of the cat.

Bright, natural sunlight generally makes the best photos, but not directly on the cat. If there’s no sunlight, Johnson recommends making sure there is plenty of light around – open all the window shades and turn on the lights. Use a single diffused light placed above and in front of your subject, or a well-placed floor lamp that is arranged behind you without causing shadows. He also suggests keeping a piece of white cardboard or foamboard handy, too. You can fill in the shadows using it as an inexpensive reflector to bounce light toward your subject and to bring in just a touch of soft light to break up the contrast, letting the details stand out.

If you’re photographing rescue cats in a dark or fluorescent-lit indoor cat kennel, Adopt a suggests investing in a continuous softbox kit or a LED handheld light specifically meant for Smartphone photography. These items can be found online, typically between $30 – $50. And Bob Walker award-winning author/photographer of The Cats’ House and reveals this tip. “Cameras actually think black cats are gray! Historically, meters analyzed the light and dark reflected areas of scenes in black-and-white and guessed the “correct” balanced exposure was mid-gray. If the viewfinder was filled mostly with a black subject, the camera brain overexposed it, turning your black cat, gray. The solution: underexpose your setting. Now your kitty will look as you see him!”

4. The golden hour. Professional photographers live for those precious moments – the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset in which the color of the sky goes from red and orange to yellow, allowing for exquisitely stunning photos because the light that exists during this period isn’t harsh and doesn’t produce strong shadows. Most think of it in terms of outdoors but shooting during this time of day can be just as effective indoors.

Backlighting, side lighting, and rim lighting – anything attributed to outdoor golden hour shooting – all can be achieved with this low angle of light when the sun is nearly parallel to your subject. Use windows or an open door that allow horizontal light to stream through, creating a natural softbox within your own home. The positioning of the sun and the diffused softness it creates are the perfect time to grab your camera to focus on some candid shots of your feline friend who is probably napping in the last remnants of a sun puddle anyway.

Between the light-colored background to a fabric pattern that allows Shadow’s coat to shine, his wide-open golden eyes make for an exquisite golden hour photo.

5. Background check. Pay attention to your surroundings. Granted, some photo opportunities are fleeting, giving you but a few seconds to snap a shot or two of kitty, but in instances when you can frame your shot, limit the messy clutter and look for contrast against the black fur of the cat. When photographing black cats in a rescue setting, such as a cage, swap out darker colored towels or bedding for lighter colored ones. For fosters where you have more freedom, use light-colored sheets, blankets, tablecloths, rugs, etc. to photograph the cat.

6. Props to creativity. Thanks to digital technology, we live in the day and age of instant fun. There are endless apps you can download on your Smartphone, many for free, some free, but with charges for upgrades, some with a monthly fee, and some with a one-time charge. They offer a wide variety of frames, graphics, stickers, quotes, fonts, and more – many of them with highly sophisticated professional-grade graphics available so nearly any photo can turn into a clever and eye-pleasing image. They also feature ready-sized templates for social media sites, so you can design and upload right from your phone. Here’s a great list of apps available with detailed information on features, cost, and user ratings.

Being budget-conscious, I chose to install the Typic app on my phone for a one-time charge of $3.99 giving me access to some frames, fun font styles, and sticker items to illustrate how it works. The app offers many more features, but they were at an upgrade price to unlock, so the example I’m showing below is with bare-bones budgeting, with the results not nearly as dramatic as what I could have achieved had I chose a more robust package.

I used a backyard shot of Shadow – his eyes are open, but they aren’t sharply focused and while he’s a handsome cat, the photo doesn’t necessarily evoke a call to action. Plugging it into Typic I put a bold frame around him so I could add a catchy and heart-stopping message: “Panther Prince Charming Looking For His Forever Cinderalla Home.” I also adjusted the vibrancy of his fur and surroundings, added a crown to play on the royalty aspect and a bokeh effect to give the image a more dreamy look. The result – his eyes pop more and while the photo is still nowhere near professional caliber, for marketing purposes and grabbing someone’s attention, it works.

Shadow before and after, using basic features from the Typic app.

If you don’t want to go that route, consider cute bandanas, collars, or big bowties (cat willing) for the photo shoot. And if kitty doesn’t like to play dress-up, she probably won’t mind some colorful cat toys, stuffed animals, or holiday-themed items next to her to give the photo some pizzazz.

7. It’s in the details. While every bit of the black cat is exquisitely glorious, not every picture needs to show the cat from head to tail. Close-ups of ears, noses, paws, eyes, etc. – all can have a charm and mystique of their own, so don’t discount a shot just because you can’t capture the whole cat. You might also be able to crop a less than ideal photo into something appealing by zooming in on a particular feature and removing the remainder of the photo.

8. If you build it, they will come. Is your cat curled up into a ball of nondescript black fur? Consider setting up photo opportunities that kitty can’t resist and grab your camera for some fun and cool candid shots. Put an empty box on the floor – even better, sprinkle it with some catnip. Or a paper bag, or open a window or shake a treat bag. Bring out a step stool or a ladder and drape it with a light-colored cloth or fabric with patterns that will contrast well with the dark color of the cat. Very few cats can resist climbing and it has the makings of a great photo. Use your imagination, preset the lighting so you’re good to go and the possibilities are endless.

9. Fussy is as fussy does. Cats can be quite fussy and barring circumstances that do not allow otherwise, you should be too. There is but one chance for a good first impression and when it comes to promoting positive black cat awareness, you want the best photo possible. With digital technology, there is no reason to settle for a bad picture. Keep taking photos until you get the shot you want and delete the blurry ones, or the ones with the eyes closed, etc. Or if the photos you’re taking are not what you had in mind, try again at a different time of the day when the lighting changes to see if that helps. Be patient. Get to know the cat’s personality and develop a relationship. Bond with treats, playtime, petting, and more, and a cat who might have been stressed out around you at one time, will be more relaxed at another, allowing for a more natural photo.

10. Experiment. You don’t have to be an expert to edit your photos to professional standards. Camera phones have built-in editing tools – everything from portrait mode for beautiful studio-style photos to an instant magic wand to auto-enhance your photo to super-easy filters to adjust the color tone to manual settings where you can manipulate the color, brightness, sharpness, exposure, saturation, brilliance, highlights, shadows, contrast and more if you don’t have editing programs such as Photoshop or Lightroom. And best of all, if you don’t like the changes you made, just discard them without harming the original photo (or create a duplicate photo so you have an original and one to experiment with). Here’s more on how to use your Smartphone editing settings from the experts at Apple for the iPhone, and here for android users.

For National Black Cat Day, I wanted to create a photo I could share for marketing purposes to promote this post and I purposely set out to take a photo with my iPhone of Shadow. Naturally, there were issues. Several. One, we’re having a rain spell, and that beautiful golden hour sunlight I’ve been touting doesn’t exist. That meant creating a lighting environment suitable for Shadow in our very poorly lit home. He spends most of his time napping in front of the refrigerator – a dark blob against a ghastly washed-out cream-color floor and silver refrigerator.

Original photo before editing.

Even with putting on every light, the effect was atrocious so I had to figure out ways of grabbing him to find more suitable lighting. The trouble is, he’s currently being bullied by catmate, Jazmine, so he’s very wary of everything and tends to run at the drop of a hat back to his safe spot next to the refrigerator. By some miracle, I found a sliver of sunlight sneaking through my office window, so I brought him in immediately, plunked him on the cat tree next to the window, and snapped a couple of quick shots. None of the pictures were ideal – overexposed background and blurry cat – but I still gave it a try and brought one of the images into Photoshop.

While I did share all the great apps you can use on your Smartphone, I have eyesight issues, so I prefer doing my graphic designs using the large screen on my computer. I cropped the image to focus more on Shadow and less on the background, softened the image by blurring the outer edges, as well as to clone the leaf pattern of the tree to impose over areas that were overexposed. Next was to use some appealing fonts and copy, and voila, a suitable design that will instill a call to action, my ultimate goal.

The finished product for National Black Cat Day after a few editing techniques.

Once you have that purr-fectly pawsome photo the real fun begins: dispelling all those negative and inaccurate misconceptions about black cats by promoting just how wonderful they are as pets and finding that beautiful panther cat a furever home. It all starts with a great story.

According to Best Friends Animal Society, step one on the road to adoption is a show-stopping first sentence. Whether posting copy on your rescue website, a social media page, a sign on a kennel cage, or a site such as you want to quickly grab the reader’s attention…and heart. Something such as “Shadow is a 1-year-old, neutered domestic male, short-haired black cat, up to date on shots” is not going to cut it.

Use descriptive adjectives and action verbs to help build a relationship. Try this instead, “Looking for your black knight in shining armor? Dashing and debonair Shadow with eyes of gold is set to sweep in and capture your heart – will you be his forever home?” Once you’ve caught the reader’s attention, then share the basics – age, sex, etc. – followed by details about the cat. recommends you start with the positives first, such as “sweet cat with a good disposition, litter trained and accepting of other cats.”

They continue, if there are negatives, you should list them, but do it constructively, with a positive spin. For example, if Shadow tends to scratch people who try to pet him, don’t say “Shadow will sometimes lash out and scratch if you try to pet him.” Say, “Shadow is a sweet and loving boy, but sometimes he scratches if you pet him too much. He doesn’t mean to do it, he really does love petting, but he was abandoned as a kitten and has some trust issues. He’ll tell you when he’s had enough with a twitch of his tail and with patience this beautiful mini-panther will be purring at your gentle hands in no time.”

The goal is to keep the reader interested and honestly informed, with the intention of a good fit. Pet rescue listings are different from other forms of marketing that people are barraged with. Someone is actively looking for a pet, so for maximum interest, the focus needs to be on the pet and the personality. And while it might seem a good idea to post graphic pictures of cats in situations of abuse, neglect, or with urgent pleas to adopt or the cat will be put down, Elizabeth Doyle, Best Friends senior creative copywriter states in the article Pet Profiles: How to Write Adoptable Animal Bios, “experience has shown us that frightening and depressing messages often put adopters off the idea of rescuing a pet and only leave them feeling sad or intimidated by the adoption process.”

You also want to ensure the perfect fit, as adoptions are meant to be a life-long commitment. Adoptions out of pity or guilt might not always be ideal. There are numerous questions and scenarios that have to be respected – what is your current living situation? Do you have other cats or pets? What age? And if you’re adopting a cat with a handicap, are you properly equipped to take care of the cat? Once it’s determined you are indeed the perfect fit, Lory Chadwick, General Manager for Cats Exclusive, Inc. says follow-up is key. Something as simple as answering the phone or an email will go a long way to ensuring a cat will be adopted. If a shelter does not answer the phone right away or does not get back to the adopter in a timely manner, more times than not, they will have moved on to another shelter.

Lastly, if a staff member is not qualified to take a great picture, or write compelling copy,  Christine Michaels, founder of Riverfront Cats and black cat advocate recommends finding either a volunteer or professional photographer that can get the job done. Ideally, the goal is to have the cat adopted for more than his looks, but in order for that to happen and to get the public into your rescue venue or shelter; you have to put your best photo face forward. The photo and unique bio will be used for cross-promotional efforts and you want it to have as much impact as possible.

These are but a few tips, ideas, and suggestions. How about you? What photography or marketing tips do you have for taking great pictures of our black cat friends? What works, what doesn’t? We’d love to hear from you.

*Black Cat Awareness Month was created in 2013 by Layla Morgan Wilde of Cat Wisdom 101. She added “International” in 2016 but dropped it when her Black Cats Tell All Book was published in 2017. Her premise was not to necessarily adopt during October but to create awareness of how adoptable black cats are and diffuse the lingering negative superstitions with more than just a day devoted to the cause.

Me and my Shadow!

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  1. With two housepanthers to photograph, I take a lot of photos, then delete most of them.
    The most difficult part is the background; I have thought about getting a photographers background or a sheet to use, but it’s the in-the-moment images that I adore.
    Black Cats Rock!

  2. jmuhj says:

    Excellent article and thank you for these great suggestions! Our beloved house panfurs are no longer here with us, but black cats are the most beautiful, elegant, stylish, lustrous and lovely, IMHO (although I love ALL cats, of course!) and it’s not in my background to have those ridiculous and harmful superstitions, which I wish everyone who cared would just stop bringing up!

  3. Catwoods says:

    Lots of great tips, and gorgeous photos of Shadow! I have three active housepanthers and it’s always a challenge to get a photo in good light.

  4. Ellen Pilch says:

    Great tips. I have a hard time getting shots of my 3 black kitties.

  5. Great tips and beautiful photos!!!

  6. When I unexpectedly got owned by a house panther, I had no clue how to photograph her! I still struggle sometimes – but it’s definitely an art to get a great shot. I’m VERY lucky that she loves to be admired and she’ll let me photograph her – and even pose for me. This post is definitely a keeper. I remember Monique from Silver Paws studio suggested photographing black cats on a dark background – but I haven’t gotten it to work for me. I love Sue Doute’s pictures of Ernie – and she’s told me she doesn’t do any photo-editing – which blew me away!

  7. Layla says:

    Thanks Deb for the shout out to Cat Wisdom 101. Awesome post and kudos to Dan for his photos!

  8. meowmeowmans says:

    Great tips, Deb. Thank you!

    Between Gracie and Ava, and Zoe before them, and the cats at PAWS, I get lots of practice photographing black cats. 🙂