Why Black Cats Have Black Fur and How to Take Great Photos of Them for National Black Cat Appreciation Day

Today is National Black Cat Appreciation Day and being blessed with a mini-panther in my life, our handsome rescue, Shadow, I know just how special these beautiful cats are. But, beautiful as they are, black cats are still considered by many to bring bad luck, simply because of the color of their fur. Those of us with black cats in our lives know we are the lucky ones to have them and in honor of the day, I thought I’d share some facts on what makes a black cat, black as well as some tips on how to take stunning photos of them.

To begin, interestingly, black cats are not a breed. From rescues to purebred to long-haired, short-haired, and more – there are endless types of black cats and it’s all due to science, genetics, and DNA.

Cats might be felines, but it begins with the birds and the bees. When two cats mate and produce a litter of kittens, each kitten receives half of his genetic makeup in the form of chromosomes – two pairs from each parent. These genes determine your kitty’s temperament, coat color, coat length, eye color, and other physical characteristics. Called an allele, for black it’s known as B and for a cat to be a true, solid black cat, both of its parents need to have the B gene.

There are three basic gene combinations that govern a cat’s traits, determining how much black, or what color combinations. According to an article in Basepaws, “Cat Coat Genetics,” those are “BB,” meaning two dominant genes, “Bb” meaning a dominant and recessive gene, and “bb,” meaning two recessive genes. Brown, chocolate, cinnamon, and similar coat colors are products of the feline primary gene for coat color (B/b/b1) and the intensity and pattern of these colors depends on the other genes involved in formulating the final feline phenotype.

Tabby is also a common color pattern (mackerel, classic, spotted, or ticked) and black cats can be tabbies in disguise. The tabby pattern is typically distinguished by bands of different colors and is the result of the dominant allele of the agouti gene (A). Thus, for a cat to be solid black, it must also carry a recessive gene known as a non-agouti (a), so that the tabby pattern doesn’t appear. Cats who have the dominant agouti gene will retain the tabby pattern and if a cat has the black allele, but the expression of the tabby gene isn’t completely repressed, ghostly tabby stripes could be faintly visible on the tail or legs, or the classic “M” pattern on the head, especially if the cat is sitting in bright sunlight.

According to JaneA Kelley, in an article for Catster magazine, a black cat’s fur can even be rusty colored. This is due to heavy exposure to the sun, or possibly from a deficiency in an enzyme called tyrosine which is necessary for the creation of eumelanin, the pigment that makes your cat’s fur black. And even like humans, as black cats age, they can go grey.

Shadow is a solid black cat with the dominant BB genes.

So now that we know what makes a black cat, black, what about taking pictures of these gorgeous beauties so we can share our appreciation with others in photos? Because honestly, 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. Have no fear – I’m here to share some tips, tricks, and simple photography techniques to take great black cat photos – 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. 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 lighter 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 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 cats in a dark or fluorescent-lit indoor area, Adopt a Pet.com 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 meowWOOFphoto.com 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. If possible, try to place the cat on light-colored towels, sheets, blankets, tablecloths, etc. for that lighter contrast.

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.

If you don’t want to go that route, consider cute bandanas, collars, or big bowties (cat willing) for the photoshoot. And if the 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.

So, what are you waiting for! Go out there and appreciate your black cat with some pawsome photos! And more so, share them and spread the word so more black cats are adopted from shelters and so we can dispel all those crazy and unfunded superstitions and myths that still persist.

Me and my Shadow!

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  1. Wonderful post! We celebrate with you and the endless joys of house panthers🐈‍⬛

  2. In Scotland, black cats are considered GOOD luck. Those Scots are super smart. MOUSES!

  3. jmuhj says:

    Shadow is indeed gloriously gorgeously handsome!

    Though I love all cats, black and tortoiseshell are my favorite coat colorations. The lustrousness of black fur is unparalleled, and they are the most stylish and elegant of all cats to my mind.

    There was a black tabby in my life. He looked completely black until he stepped into direct sunlight. Then the stripes came out! He was quite striking. Like the black leopard, only he was a black tigret!

    Several black cats have graced my life, most recently our beloved angel Calo, who was built like a bulldog. One of his nicknames was “The Bullcat” for this reason.

  4. Brian Frum says:

    Shadow, you are so seriously handsome and we wish you a Happy Black Cat Appreciation Day!

  5. The mom has a hard time taking good photos of me. So thanks for these tips! ~Ernie

  6. Great tips. I have so much trouble photographing my black cats which is why they are rarely featured on my blog.

  7. Leah says:

    Interesting about the genetics! And great photos tips! We have 3 solid black cats and one blk and wte tuxie. The tuxie and 2 of the black cats are from one litter. One of the boys, Boss, has faint tabby stripes visible in some light conditions, while the black of his siblings is very solid. These cats have two tabby brothers. Our other black cat Franklin is unrelated; he has the blackest fur I’ve ever seen on any cat.

  8. databbiesotrouttowne says:

    shadow; dood, ewe iz one handsum houz panther !!! black catz due rox….all wayz haz and all wayz
    will…. ♥♥♥

    sam, de houz panther frum trout towne… had hiz photoz taken in “black and white”; sew it waz all wayz
    eazee ta ” see him ” !!!! 🙂 ♥♥

  9. alice jena says:

    thanks for all of your articles…I now have another cat & this time it is black with a white tummy…He joins my two old grey gals and my middle aged Burmese /mix. He is a bit feral as he comes from a Hoarder situation.

  10. meowmeowmans says:

    Looking good, Shadow! Happy Black Cat Appreciation Day! 🙂

    I always focus on the eyes when photographing black cats. It totally works!