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Photographer Holly Andres shoots pictures of Kristyn Vitale and her cat Carl on set during the photo shoot.

HOLLY ANDRES

Cats on camera

Cats are adorable. They’re full of personality—and unpredictability. But after years of focusing on the canine mind, researchers are finally turning to felines. A feature in this week’s issue of Science explores this work and cats’ social behavior.

Kristyn Vitale, a postdoc at Oregon State University in Corvallis, is one researcher studying cat cognition. At her laboratory and during home visits, she learns how cats react to pointing commands, frightful objects, and impossible tasks. Do they look to their owners for help, or acknowledge information that humans provide? Kristyn says they do.

In her research, Kristyn can hold the attention of her test subjects, but I knew capturing those elusive moments in still photographs would be tricky. Photographing live animals is challenging. They don’t take direction, and snapping the perfect moment usually involves lots of luck. At Science, we’ve coaxed sharks and mice into some photogenic moments for our stories. Photographer Christopher Auger-Dominguez even got one mouse to sing for us. For this story, I needed a photographer who could reliably create interesting pictures of uncooperative subjects.

KRISTYN VITALE/OSU

A cat cautiously approaches a fan with streamers during one of Kristyn Vitale’s laboratory experiments. The fan is a frightening object, but by picking up on human emotional cues the cat calms down.

Thankfully, I found Holly Andres, a photographer impressively diverse in fine art and editorial assignments. Her interest and skill in photographing cats and dogs was perfect for this project. Between her visual expertise and Kristyn’s training skills, I felt confident we would capture the moments needed for the story.

To avoid the distracting clutter usually found in laboratories or homes, I decided to have the shoot done using a seamless backdrop. This would allow readers to focus on Kristyn and the cats. Oregon State University provided a large arena space, giving Holly and her assistant room to set up the backdrop and lights. Kristyn lined up our talent: five different cats.

Using careful planning and expertise, I anticipated capturing moments of the cats engaging with Kristyn, showing readers the general setup of her experiments and how she communicates with her feline subjects. What I did not anticipate was how this bright, unfamiliar environment would affect the cats.

KRISTYN VITALE/OSU

The arena space Oregon State University provided for the photo shoot.

Holly also had her own assumptions. “I went into [the photo shoot] thinking these cats are going to be really comfortable with unfamiliar situations, and they’re going to have this experience and training that is going to make photographing them easier than in that past,” she says. “What I learned is that cats will be cats.”

The unfamiliar large arena with the flashing lights was not the testing environment these cats were used to. Their pupils dilated. They hissed and tried to escape.

“I’ve been around cats long enough to know they were pretty frightened,” Holly says. She knew she was on borrowed time with them, so she made sure to have all her variables ready to go. To get the cats to look in a particular direction, an assistant waved keys and a feather wand off camera. Holly’s light was dialed in, her focus was set, and she responded quickly, snapping each picture before the cats ran off the backdrop.

Kristyn’s presence was comforting for the cats. “It’s clear Kristyn speaks the language of cats. She understands these cats, and they seem to know her. I think that’s probably one of the reasons why we were able to capture some footage,” Holly says. Working together and with some time and patience, Holly and Kristyn were able to produce a few revealing images.

HOLLY ANDRES

Kristyn holds, Kitty, a Siamese cat, as it approaches a fan.

“Our attempt was to recreate the experiments Kristyn had been conducting in her research. But because of the circumstances and the cats’ response to the unfamiliar situation, the photographs are not an authentic translation of that experience,” Holly says.

In the end, although these photographs might not meet a scientific standard, they still accomplish what we needed: They grab readers’ attention in order to tell the story of Kristyn’s research.

Emily Petersen is a Photo Editor at Science.