Explore the fascinating world of scientific photography.
Scientific photographers use cameras to gather data and record natural phenomena. Learn about different types of science photos and find out how to build your skills.
What is scientific photography?
Scientific photography is the use of photos to collect scientific data and imagery for scientific research and applied sciences like engineering and medicine. While scientific photos can produce beautiful shots of the natural world, their main purpose is to record accurate images and share them with others to move science forward.
Functions of scientific photos.
Soon after early photographers’ successful experiments with silver-plate daguerreotypes in the late 1830s, they recognized photography’s potential as a scientific tool. In fact, the oldest surviving photo of the moon dates back to 1840. Then, as now, scientific photos could serve as both data records and teaching tools.
Photos as data
As photographic techniques improved throughout the 20th century — and leapt forward with the development of electron microscopes, digital camera technology, and space telescopes like NASA’s Hubble — the scientific value of photos has expanded to cover everything from cell structures to supernovas.
“Now there are all sorts of ways that you can process images in order to extract data,” says scientific photographer Heather Wilson. “If you have a cell tissue specimen on a slide and you want to know how many of those cells are of a certain type, you can use a tissue dye and software to learn that, for example, 42% of the pixels are the color of a particular cell type. So you can use post-processing to pull data out of images.”
A good photo can even help prove or disprove hypotheses. In her research in paleobiology, Wilson identified new organisms from fossils. “You have to be able to show people specific features of the organism. You need really good-quality images so that someone else can either disagree or agree with you that you found something new.”
Photos as teaching tools
Photographic imaging can also help non-scientists gain a better understanding of the natural world, and they can attract attention to important work in ways that words and numbers can’t. In fields like climate science, photos can more powerfully convey the seriousness of the crisis we face.
“Scientific photography needs to also be something that can appeal to and draw in the public’s attention,” says conservationist photographer Ellen Morris Bishop. If you can take great photos, you may find a more receptive audience for your work.
Specialties in scientific photography.
Today, most scientific fields involve some form of photography. Here are just a few examples of how science and photography overlap.
Photos of the night sky can teach us about the composition of our universe and its origins. Through spectroscopy, astronomers can separate the wavelengths of light bouncing off a planet and determine the chemical makeup of its atmosphere. And of course, photos of planets, comets, moons, and galaxies can teach us about how objects behave in space.
The fields of geology, meteorology, and oceanography all require good photography. Photos can tell us about the processes of rock formation and erosion, atmospheric circulation, and weather systems. Underwater images help scientists identify species and study their behavior. They can also help us measure the health of ocean ecosystems by recording the bleaching of coral reefs.
Scientists estimate there are 8.7 million species of plants and animals on Earth, and just over a million have been identified, so biologists have their work cut out for them. Whether you’re interested in capturing insects up close with macro photography or you’re studying the migration pattern of a herd of African elephants, you can use photography to record your data and build interest in your findings.
How to become a scientific photographer.
Most scientific photographers don’t set out to become professional photographers. They pursue a scientific discipline and become skilled photographers through the course of their work. “In papers dealing with genetics or geology, it’s often the researchers who are doing their own photos,” says Wilson. Others may start out as photographers first, find they have a passion for their particular subject, and learn the science by following that passion.
If you’re a photographer first, study science.
To take scientific photographs, you don’t have to be a professional scientist with a bachelor’s degree or PhD in science. However, some formal education in science can help you get your start. By taking photos for classes or working as an assistant to a professor, you can begin to build a portfolio of work. Also, the deeper your understanding of your subject matter — whether it’s a mountain or the Milky Way — the better you’ll be able to capture and describe it.
If your interest lies in creating images of objects you can’t see with the naked eye, universities and colleges can afford expensive equipment like electron microscopes and X-ray machines. Through coursework and research, you can learn how to use these machines, develop your ability to make images from them, and build your portfolio.
“Basic photography skills make it so much easier to do what you need to do, but they also give you more of an idea of what you can do.”
If you’re a scientist first, study photography.
You don’t need expensive tools to start building your skills. You can take scientific photos with any digital camera. “For macro images, you can use an iPhone or Android, or any cell phone with a good camera. The images that they take are good, and there are some things you can do with a phone that you really can’t do with a conventional camera, like panoramas,” Bishop says.
While you learn the science, learn as much as you can about photography so you can take better pictures and see more creative possibilities in your approach to them. Study all aspects of photography — including the technical aspects like aperture, f-stop, white balance, and focus stacking — to learn how adjusting your camera will affect your photos.
“Basic photography skills make it so much easier to do what you need to do, but they also give you more of an idea of what you can do,” Wilson says. “My DSLR has a million menus, and knowing how to use those functions is invaluable. There’s only so much you can do in post-processing if you haven’t taken the image that you want in the first place.”
Bishop recommends taking a photography class. “There are thousands of great workshops people can take, all the way from an extensive month-long trip somewhere to just something through your local museum,” she says. “And some workshops will open your eyes to the possibilities of different camera lenses and different kinds of cameras.”
Take many photos.
With a digital camera, you’re only limited by your battery life and data card, so you can snap shot after shot from several different angles and camera settings. “Practice, and go back and review your images, thinking about what you really wanted to show in that image,” Bishop says. “It’s not polluting to throw away a bunch of digital images. My favorite Ansel Adams quote is, ‘The most important piece of equipment in the darkroom is the wastebasket.’”
Post-process with a light touch.
When you edit scientific photos, you shouldn’t fundamentally change the image from how it appears to the human eye, but you can use editing software like Adobe Photoshop and Photoshop Lightroom for light image manipulation.
“I only do in Photoshop what I could have accomplished with a camera if I were more skilled in taking the photograph in the first place or had better lighting,” Wilson says. “What’s really great in something like Photoshop is that you can hone in on the shadows or highlights.”
In her paleobiology work, Wilson had to photograph flat and shiny fossils. “It’s really hard to get an image where you can show all of the details without some of them being washed out because they’re too bright or too dark. And so it’s really helpful to use something like Photoshop to go in and just change the exposure on different areas of your image so people can see what you could see when you looked at the object,” Wilson says.
Make a difference by blending science and fine art.
To make a greater impact in the world, scientists need to find ways into the public conversation, and beautiful photos are one way to draw attention to their work, both from their peers and the public at large.
“Scientists who use photography — and virtually all of us do — can help people gain a better understanding of what they’re depicting if they take the time to look at composition, color, sharpness, accuracy,” Bishop says. “All the things that go into making a great photograph.”
She also recommends taking a writing or journalism class. “Learning to write for the general public is really rewarding. We don’t all have to be Carl Sagan or E.O. Wilson, but both of them were scientists in their own right. Both could captivate the general public, and I think that’s something that more scientists should aspire to.”
Whatever your aspirations, if you are curious about the world around you and you want to capture it accurately with your camera, you’re already on your way to becoming a scientific photographer.
Share this article
Not sure which apps are best for you?
Not sure which apps are best for you?
Take a minute. We'll help you figure it out.
Take a minute. We'll help you figure it out.
You may also like