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Rat Photography Tips

My husband, Alan, and I work together to get our rat photos.  I choose the photo composition (angle of shoot, depth of field, cropping), design the set, and do the rat wrangling.  While Al mans the camera and handles lighting.  Many people have asked us how we get such good shots of our rats, so here's some information and tips on taking the perfect ratty photo.


Part 1 - Camera equipment and settings

Since many people don't have access to the kind of professional camera equipment we use, I've split this into two camera sections:  SLR (manual settings) and Compact (simple point and shoot).

SLR

Camera:  Any SLR will do, preferably with auto focus and auto exposure metering (since rats rarely sit still for long).  A rapid fire shutter release can be handy too.

Lens:  Use a zoom lens so you can stay as far away from the rats as possible... they either don't like having a lens poked in their face, or love it so much they leave nose prints on the lens.   Also use the fastest lens (i.e. largest aperture) you have to reduce motion blur as your rats rampage about the set.

Settings:  Use a medium aperture.  Too large and you get no depth of field and end up with rat eyes in focus behind a blurry nose.  Too small and the slow shutter will result in rat blurs.  If available, use point focus.

Film:  if using a film camera, choose a fast film to prevent rat blurs... 400-800 asa or at least 200 asa.

Flash:  Avoid using a direct flash, if possible.  Natural even lighting is best (e.g. next to a filtered window or outside in bright sunlight).  If you need extra light, bounce the flash off the wall or ceiling or use a diffuser.  Front facing flashes tend to "burn" the rat's nose (i.e. make it appear all white in the photo).

What we use:  Nikon D70 digital SLR body, AF Nikkor 80-200mm 1:2.8 D lens, SB26 Speed light, monopod or tripod as needed.
 

Compact

Film:  If using a film camera use a fast film to prevent rat blurs: 400-800, or at least 200 asa.

Lens:  If available, use the zoom feature.  This allows you to be further away from the rat... rats don't usually like having noisy cameras stuck in their faces.

Flash:  Avoid using the flash, if possible, although with most zoom compacts it will be a necessity (as the lenses have such small apertures).  Natural, even lighting is best (e.g. next to a filtered window or outside in bright sunlight).  Flashes will "burn" the rat's nose (i.e. make it appear all white in the photo) and rats often get scared by the high pitched re-charge sound.

Composition:  Don't try to get too near the rats for close ups (most compact cameras aren't good at close range).  It's better to take a wide angle shot that is in focus, which you can later have enlarged and cropped (or crop it by scanner).

An example:
 
Before cropping After cropping

Expect to take lots and lots of photos to get a few great shots.

A note on digital cameras:  Many digital cameras have an annoying delay time between when you press the shutter and when it finally takes.  This is due to the camera's autofocus. This makes rat photograpy rather difficult, since the rats have usually moved by the time it takes.   You can avoid this delay by using the "focus lock" feature of your camera.  That is, you focus on a point where you expect your rat to be (i.e. at the edge of the hammock or nest box door) by half depressing the shutter.  This locks the focus at that point.  Then wait until your rat moves into position and depress the shutter fully.  It will take immediately without the autofocus delay.

What we use:  Canon PowerShot A30.  This is a relatively cheap compact digital camera with excellent  exposure metering and macro focus.

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Part 2 - Sets and rat wrangling

You will need at least 2 people:  one photographer and one rat wrangler.  A third might be handy for keeping the set presentable (rats love to knock things over and scent mark everything).

Choose a small area that the rats can't climb down from, like a small table or chair.  A chair is perfect as it also provides the frame for a set backdrop.

Drape the chair (seat and back) with a backdrop, securing it in place with pegs.  A sheet or towel will do, although we prefer to use a piece of velveteen/velour... the matte sheen is perfect for photography and rat pee doesn't soak into it immediately and leave a dark stain that might ruin the photo (be ready with tissues).  Preferably choose a plain colour that accentuates your rat's colours and markings.

Design your set and props, and check the composition through the lens before adding the rats (use Tiptoe as a model).

Keep the props simple... after all, the rats are the stars of the shoot.  And they will knock everything over.

If your rats are the inquisitive type, don't let them see the props until they are actually put on the set... that way they'll stay put to investigate and give you lots of cute ratty expressions.  If they're scaredy rats, let them sniff and get comfortable with everything beforehand.  This goes for the camera too... let them hear the shutter and film advance (and perhaps the flash going off) before they are on the set... otherwise it might spook them.

To get your rat to look the right way is a trial and error ordeal.  Try making noises, distracting them with treats, or blowing air onto them from your mouth.  Of course, you can also experiment with smearing peanut butter or cream cheese onto props to make your rat stay put, or simply offer them a treat.

How do you get a Champion stud rat like Excalibur Gaspar here to stand up next to his trophy?  Dangle a girl rat over his head, of course!

Have a toy strewn rat "holding area" nearby so they can take a break between shots.  Lots of treats and scritches and praise too.

Be patient.  Although they might knock the props over, pee on everything, and offer you their furry butts to shoot, any second that perfect shot might appear... be ready for it.

Good luck and I hope this helps you take that perfect ratty photo!

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