Rat feet macro project

Domestic rats make for a wholly enjoyable and rewarding pet. Rats get a lot of bad press which is wholly unfair, and this includes domestic rats too.

Over the years I have photographed our pet rats in many guises (have a look at this gallery), using different methods, but during this time of lockdown I decided to try something different.

See the photos!

I'll add here, if you don't want to read this full article, click the image above to go to the gallery of processed photos, or the link in this line.

TL;DR click the image above to see the photos. 😎

Update 28th April 2020: part II of this project can be seen here

Update 27th May 2020: I've produced a greeting card from one of the photos in this series. See here.

Why do this?

You see I've always been fascinated with how rats use their feet. If you've ever watched a rat feed, or any similar small mammal, you'll notice that their front feet are well adapted to perform the function of hands.

Where possible rats hold their food with both front feet in order to eat it, and in this way the front feet act as hands. If you imagine how you would eat a large slice of watermelon using your hands, that is how a rat would hold most food. Watching a rat eat a slice of cucumber is like watching a very hairy human eat a slice of watermelon... in my humble opinion. 😁

Comparisons with people notwithstanding, a rats front feet almost look like little furry hands, save for the fact they only have 4 digits. Rats are incredibly intelligent and I can't help but feel that if they had a fully formed 5th digit on their front feet, they'd be capable of so much more.

So with this fascination of how they use their feet, I decided to concentrate on photographing just that: their feet.

Turning this into a small project, I've photographed the feet of our pet rats against a number of backgrounds, and during these photography sessions I have been given other ideas that I might be able to try out too, later on.

To get the photos I used a macro lens as this enabled me to get closer, more detailed photos.

Of course looking to photograph something detailed on a creature that doesn't like sitting/standing still is a bit of a challenge.

Requirements & planning

To this end in order to get the photos I needed the following:

- Fast shutter speed to enable me to get the photos before the rat modelling for me moved.

- Localised light on the foot I was photographing. This would enable me to get the foot lit sufficiently (as I wouldn't be using a flash) without causing any discomfort to the rat.

- A lens that would enable me to get close shots without needing to get too close to the animal.

- A distraction for the rat while I was taking the photos. Thankfully with rats (or any animal) food makes for a useful distraction.

- Various backgrounds to make the photos interesting.

So taking all that into consideration I wound up with the following kit and settings:

- DSLR body

- 100mm macro lens

- Single point auto focus as manual focussing would have been too time consuming and fiddly given the nature of the shoot.

- Shutter speeds between 1/1000th of a second and 1/200th of a second depending on lighting

- ISO between 1250 and 640

- Aperture settings between f/2.8 and f/8.0

- Spot metering mode

- A fairly powerful LED torch which was aimed at the rats feet in a narrow beam so as not to disturb the animal.

- Suitable coloured cushions for the rats to be placed on so I could photograph their feet.

- A number of treats for the rats to eat while photographing them. These ranged from chocolate drops, dry food treats, and small bowls of yoghurt.

- A willing helper to hold the rats/help shepard them/hold and direct the torch. In this case it was my partner who would hold them and supply treats while I took the photos.

Some of the tools...

  • Macro lens

    Macro lens

    I used the Canon 100mm macro lens for this shoot. At 100mm it meant I didn't need to get so close to the animal as to disturb it.

  • Torch


    A cheap and cheerful multi-purpose torch was used to light the rat's feet.

The photo sessions

Photo sessions were kept short, for two reasons:

1) To keep stress levels in the rats low. Our boys are used to being photographed by me, but this was a bit more detailed and I needed to get closer to them, so for this reason we kept the sessions short - 5 to 10 minutes max.

2) Not to overfeed the rats on treats because give a rat a free supply of food and it won't stop eating. We didn't want to introduce a weight problem to our boys. 😄

To get the volumes of photos I needed we did sessions twice a day, tying in with the usual social out time for the rats from their cage.

So with all this in place, and some trial and error, trying different light sources and compositions, I got a number of shots.

For the successful ones you can see them here.

As of 28th April 2020, part II can be seen here.

In post processing (using Lightroom) I tended to increase Texture and Clarity, along with Sharpening. For some backgrounds I increased the saturation to boost the colour (like the red background shots for example), and in some photos I reduced the saturation to make the shot feel more stark.

Moving on?

Photographing close macro photos needs a smaller aperture and getting close to your subject reduces your depth of field. Looking at some of these photos when I try this again I will use apertures of F/16 and above if possible, rather than the range I did use this time.

I'm pleased with the results of these shoots, and have some ideas for future shoots. The photo of one of the rats holding a treat with both hands was only a chance shot, which following some corrective work in Lightroom came out okay. I want to get more photos like this going forward, but will use a smaller aperture next time.

In the meantime I hope you enjoy these photos, and also that it might have inspired you to maybe try something similar.

Don't forget if you want to ask me anything about this little project, you can do so via my Photography Advice page.

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