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Photographing Rats


Grove Pashley
From the November/December 1995 Rat & Mouse Gazette

EQUIPMENT


The two most important things youíll need to get great rat or mouse photos is patience and a lot of film! Youíll also need a camera. Most people have 35mm SLRs (single lens reflex) and the standard point and shoot 35mm cameras. Both of these cameras will take fine photos, though the 35mm SLR usually is superior, allowing you more creative control and interchangeable lenses between 80mm and 150mm. This allows you to get tighter on the rats without being right on top of them. The longer lens (150mm) affords you the luxury of shooting your rat or mouse from a distance, catching her unaware and in the act of being herself.

The point and shoot cameras are best if they are equipped with a zoom lens. This is because most will not focus closer than three to four feet. If you use a point and shoot camera, you may need to refer to your camera manual. If this is the case, then keep your distance and zoom up on them. My point and shoot camera will zoom to 115mm which is great for getting those closeups!


LIGHTING


Another factor in getting great photos is the lighting used for your setups. Most people use the flash on their cameras, which is usually built into the camera, or the attachable type. Flash photos are fine for some situations, such as indoors at night when daylight isnít available, but the problem that occurs most often is Ďred-eye.í For the most part, this is unavoidable, especially with the point and shoot cameras. I try to avoid using my flash and use natural daylight instead, which I feel is more flattering than the harsh camera flash.

When photographing my rats, I usually have an idea as to what I want to accomplish with the shot. I will set up a table next to a bright window for my lighting with a background and props in place. I keep in mind that the rats donít like to keep still, so I plan my shoot accordingly. This can be done by limiting the area where the rat will be Ďposingí and having a Ďrat wranglerí or assistant nearby to help place them on their mark. To confine them Iíve used books or other objects to stop them from running away, as well as propping them up onto objects where movement is limited. I also have to make sure that my camera is shooting at shutter speeds of at least 125 of a second and shoot film with speeds of around 400 ASA. Otherwise, the little guys will become little speed blurs with the low light from indoor natural light. Another good trick for keeping them in place is baiting them with treats such as pine nuts and Nutrical. I wait with camera in place (usually at a rat perceptive or lower - theyíre cuter from this angle) and shoot at the right moment.

Itís helpful as well to have the camera on a tripod so thereís less chance of losing focus if you move. When Iím shooting the rats in my studio I use the same method, only I use more sophisticated lighting, but the main concept is the same: keeping the subject confined to a small area, getting a flattering angle, and shooting lots and lots of film.


SETS


I am constantly trying to think of new ideas to show off rats in unique ways. This can be done successfully with the right props. The right prop or background can be the difference between a good photo and a great one. Oftentimes, Iíll be in an antique store and stumble upon some unusual object which would be the perfect rat prop Ė a photo is concepted! Iíve used fresh and dried flowers, birdís nest, natural grass, fabrics such as satin, bed quilts, old fish netting, old drinking cups, ship pulleys, old tires, a corral fence and a piano that was used for the movie ďImmortal Beloved.Ē Fortunately, I also have access to most Hollywood prop houses where I get some of my ideas and props. Definitely an advantage, but not a necessity, since simple household items are perfect for interesting shots. Look around your house for an interesting window ledge, old antique books to stack, or that old lace doily. Itís all in the way you look at things.

When doing the big rat shoot, donít leave anything to chance. Think about foreground, background, props. Creating your set can be done with endless variations. Want that high fashion seamless look? Buy some paper on a roll and tape one end to the table edge, unspooling it upwards, creating a smooth curve. Prop the roll up higher so the paper is essentially hanging onto the table and secured with the tape. When shooting, the curve will be soft and subtle, giving the illusion of an endless space. Be sure and take note of what your background looks like as you look through the camera. Are there any personal items cluttering up the background? Is there a bright white or black object that might overpower your subject? Is there clutter on the set with your rat, and does it add or detract from your pet?

Sometimes it helps to sketch the idea first so you can be sure and take everything into account. With the Christmas shot (from the November/December 1995 issue), I worked from a sketch first so Iíd know exactly what I needed to accomplish. This also helps with prop shopping.


STEP BY STEP


It might help to know exactly how I got the Christmas cover shot, so Iíll go step by step on the process. While I used professional studio lighting, this shot could easily have been pulled off with natural light.

  1. I want to concept a Christmas card using my rats. What to do... I doodle out some sketches on paper, trying different concepts like rats in stockings, rats on presents, rats on... cookies! After a few different sketches, I decide on just the one.
  2. I need a tree, but thatís too big and cumbersome, so I just buy some branches and prop them up with brackets. I purchase ornaments, being especially careful with them because they will soon be returned. (Professional photographer trick Ė always try and return props!) Next, itís box after box of decorative holiday cookies so Iíll have some waiting in the wings. (I will keep these for later.) I may not like how a certain cookie looks on the set or a rat may eat the corner off of one, making it unsightly on film, so I need quantity.
  3. I place the camera and start building the set, looking through the lens periodically, so I donít over build. Youíd be surprised how little you have to actually do to pull off a set.
  4. Get my trusty assistant to help with the rats and they are brought to the set. Oh no, a cookie is broken. We take time to rebuild and start again.
  5. The rats are excited by the strange new playground and spend a lot of time running toward the camera. And I thought the cookies would keep their attention.
  6. They eventually start tiring of being thrown continuously on the plate and stay put. A photo is born!