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Scientific Photography:
photographic journeys into the unknown!

Scientific photography is about visualizing things that can't be seen with the unaided eye. It is used to describe natural and man-made phenomena in a way that clarifies, educates, and illuminates.

Through scientific photography, we can describe things to other scientists, but also to the public, which in many cases supports the research with its tax money.

Science photography that is beautiful and otherwise aesthetically pleasing is able to capture the imagination of the viewer to a degree unlike any other style of photography. Something about images of things never scene before: witness the fascination with the remarkable space photographs brought back by the Hubble telescope. Scientific photographs address a deep human need to explore, to push frontiers, and to answer fundamental questions about the world around us.

Photography careers that use scientific photography are rare, but they exist. Most of the practitioners of scientific imaging are trained in a particular field of study, and use photography to explain their work to other scientists and to the general public.

Having worked with researchers in a number of settings, I can tell you that the average quality level of scientific photographs leaves much to be desired. That's too bad, because good photography is essential to communicating new scientific ideas to people with a limited understanding of the subject.

A scientist who understands basic photography is a rare, but valuable team member. As photography jobs go, scientific photography is more than anything driven by a thirst for discovery, and for creating striking images of things that have never been seen before.

Before we move on, here's a list of the other pages in this Macro Photography Careers section:

What does a Scientific Photographer do?

The answer to that question is as varied as science itself. If a process or a phenomenon or an object can be seen, it can (and should) be photographed. If it can not be seen, but is believed to exist in a certain state outside of our normal comprehension, it's a safe bet that someone is figuring out how to photograph it! A scientific photographer will understand both the objects to be photographed (i.e., what makes it unique or special), and the equipment necessary to acquire the image.

Over the years, scientific imaging has grown up alongside scientific progress in many fields. This is due not only to the questions that scientific photography help us answer, but to the new questions that arise out of those answers. That is the essence of science!

Scientific disciplines as varied as Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Geology, Oceanography, Astronomy, Medicine, and Engineering will all have specific uses for scientific photography.

There are several technical photography techniques that have arisen in response to the need to visualize things that are hidden. They include infrared and ultraviolet imaging, stroboscopic photography, Schlieren techniques, electron microscopy, polarized lighting and many others.

A scientific photographer has a dizzying variety of photography principles to wade through when choosing how to photograph a particular subject. Here are just a few:

  • Lighting. Strobe/flash vs. continuous illumination? White light or filtered (colored) light? Lighting techniques to reveal surface texture, shape, or structure (visit the photography lighting section to learn more)?
  • Magnification. Scientific photography encompasses the extremely large (astro-photography) all the way down to the extremely small. The tools required to capture these objects range from space telescopes to electron microscopes, with objects of every imaginable size represented in between.
  • Lab work or field work? Do we bring our subjects into a controlled space, or do we strike out to find it in the great outdoors?
  • In vivo vs. in vitro. In other words, are we photographing live critters, or something that lives in a test tube or Petri dish?
  • Role of time. Some scientific phenomena are very brief, others take place over a long time. Scientific photographers will understand how to incorporate the element of time into their images...and it isn't just with shutter speed! Extended- or micro-second duration photography will be employed as the situation warrants.
  • Ethical considerations. Scientific photography, like scientific research, digs into many of the core issues that define us as human beings. As such, it risks wandering into areas into which society dictates special care and sensitivity. Does capturing a particular scientific photograph violate accepted ethical standards? Photography of subjects in animal research, for example, is tightly regulated.
  • Aesthetic considerations. A scientific image that evokes a sense of beauty and wonder can have an incalculable effect on the viewer. Some of the most iconic images in history fall into this category; here are some famous examples:

scientific photography earthrise "Earthrise": this image, from the Apollo 8 mission as it orbited the moon in 1968, struck a deep chord with millions of viewers. Never before had Planet Earth's fragile beauty been on such graceful display. Photo by NASA.
Until Eadweard Muybridge made "The Horse in Motion" series (1878), the question of whether a galloping horse's hooves all leave the ground at the same time was open to debate. This is a prime example of how scientific photography reveals aspects of the natural world that are hidden from the unaided eye. Photo Library of Congress. scientific photography horse in motion
scientific photography milk drop A milk drop, frozen in time by Harold "Doc" Edgerton, a pioneer in the use of high-speed strobe. Photo courtesy Edgerton Digital Collections.

What qualities make a good scientific photographer?

Most photography jobs in scientific photography are held by people with primary training as scientists, researchers, or research assistants. Even so, just as there are special skills that make good scientists, there are qualities that define successful scientific photographers.

Scientific photography demands technical precision. All images must be as well-focused, as well-exposed, and as free of distractions as the situation permits. A keen understanding of the subject being photographed, a sense of curiosity and imagination, and a well-developed artistic sensibility are essential, along with a firm grasp of basic science. This includes basic optics, the physics of light, and electronic imaging.

Scientific images are used routinely in published research papers, posters, lectures, and in grant applications. A solid background and/or flair for graphic arts is priceless!

Science is about solving problems and answering questions. Any scientific photographer worth his/her salt will approach an imaging conundrum with an open mind and a curiosity about how to use the equipment available to get the shot. He/she will also know when equipment upgrades are necessary, and will understand the market to make intelligent purchases. 

If all else fails, build it yourself! Many of the greatest photography inventions began as contraptions cobbled together in the lab. Electronic flash is a perfect example: stroboscopes used in engineering were modified to synchronize with cameras, with stunning results (see the milk drop photo above).

One final point: Successful scientific photography is highly collaborative. Scientific imaging specialists must be able to communicate well to overcome obstacles to acquiring great images.

Scientific Photography and the Macro Photographer

Photographing small stuff is a matter of routine in scientific photography. Makes sense: if the purpose of scientific imaging is to reveal things never seen before, then it follows that high magnification photography would play a big role.

Decisions about how to photography a particular object or phenomenon often revolve around what degree of magnification to use. High magnification is usually associated with more detail, which is a good thing. However, there is a trade-off. As magnification increases, photographic control decreases. High-magnification microscopes are usually equipped with limited lighting controls, whereas lower magnification macro photography and close-up photography set-ups allow full lighting manipulation as well as more mobility in choosing the shooting angle.

Scientific photographers must have mastered the basic principles of close-up and macro photography. They will use appropriate macro lenses, macro accessories, and lighting accessories, such as ring flash. They must also understand filtration and basic lighting principles.

Photography equipment in this field must be rugged and able to withstand heavy use: insist on the best professional equipment available. Beware of the high cost of cheap equipment! Break-downs are expensive!

Where can I learn scientific photography?

Most people who practice scientific and technical photography are employed first and foremost as scientists or research assistants. For these folks, photography skills are an add-on to their core skills. But where, oh where, can a person learn photography without dropping everything and enrolling in photography school?

A person working in the sciences can learn photography through formal coursework, home-study, workshops, or on the job. This website offers a lot of material in and around macro photography, and close-up photography, but also about basic photography, photography lighting, and digital photography.

If an undergraduate degree or certificate program fits your circumstances, congratulations! A 2- or 4-year photography degree should be augmented with study in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics. Degree programs abound, and although it would be impossible to list all of them here, I know and respect many graduates of the Biomedical Photography program at Rochester Institute of Technology. I will fill out this list as time goes on.

There is no one clear path into photography careers, as illustrated by my own long, strange trip into a photography job. Visit the Macro Photography Careers page where we discuss education and more, written for those interested in photography jobs.

The future of Scientific Photography

Industries change, and it is impossible to predict the future with any certainty. It is also difficult to find official data that projects the future of a specialty area such as scientific photography. What I offer is my opinion, based on my experience working as an ophthalmic photographer, a sub-specialty in which scientific photography principles carry a lot of weight.

The world of science is astoundingly complex, and there are a lot of big, big problems in this world that need solving. It is indisputable that our ability to image intricate phenomena continues to improve as the years march on. It is therefore a safe bet that imaging will help scientists to explain the work they are doing, to catalyze support within and outside of the scientific community.

There will be an increasing need for good visual communicators working in the sciences. I do predict a need for specialist scientific photographers, however not as much as for scientists and researchers who know how to photograph! Those that can, or who make the effort to learn photography will add a powerful weapon to their skill-set, and will experience first-hand the joy of creating images that no one has seen before.

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