I am often asked the question “What makes a good science photo?”. While a comprehensive answer to this question is probably a large enough subject to fill a book, it might be useful to briefly touch on a couple of important requirements that I believe need to be addressed to create good science photography.
In a nutshell, a science photo should be technically correct, informative, and, if possible, visually appealing and stimulating.
When photographing scientific equipment and subjects in a laboratory environment, the photographer is often faced with technically challenging conditions – complex combinations of natural and artificial light, high contrast and widely varying light intensities. Space in which to manoeuvre might be very limited, making it difficult to access the subject, and to achieve a good photographic angle.
To handle these situations, the science photographer needs the backup of good technical training. In particular, understanding light is a critical skill, and the photographer needs to be comfortable working with a mobile lighting setup or, more often than not, needs to have the ability to make the most of the ambient available light to get a usable shot.
In science photography technical correctness is important, but not necessarily sufficient to lift the image above the average. Ideally, the image should do more than just visually represent the subject – to contribute at the level of science communication, the image should add some additional information to the subject being photographed.
For example, when photographing a moving object, it is useful to use a slower shutter speed to illustrate this motion, instead of freezing the movement with a standard snapshot. However, care should be taken not to introduce excessive movement, which might blur the subject to such an extent that it is no longer possible to see what is being photographed. Another good example comes from the laser technology field. In the actual lab, the lasers beams are not visible to the naked eye. In a laser display smoke is often used so the audience can see the beams, but this is not normally an option in a laboratory setup. Thus the photographer needs to use innovative techniques to show the path of the laser beams, in order to turn the photo into an informative visual document.
At a more conceptual level, it is often useful to capture scientific activities from a novel angle, which could help generate a different and deeper understanding of the subject being photographed. Capturing the image from the “normal” viewpoint may not have the required impact, and finding a unique view can often help in creating a more informative image.
In general, while you require technical proficiency to create a technically correct image, having a background and interest in, and some level of understanding of your scientific subject allows you as the photographer to move to the next level to create images that are informative, and of value as part of the science communication process.
While being ‘pretty’ may not be a requirement of all science photography, it is often the more visually appealing photo that resonates with the audience, in particular when using the image in the popularising of science among a non-scientific audience. Science subject matter can be notoriously bland and boring to the non-scientist viewer, and the challenge to the science photographer therefore becomes finding a way of making the subject more visually appealing.
Often the beauty lies in some small aspect of the subject, and the photographer needs to be able to find the beauty in the detail. Capturing the subject from in interesting dynamic angle could also contribute to the creation of a more appealing image. The challenge therefore becomes finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Finally, I believe there is a lot of value and beauty to be found at the intersection of science and art.
Photographic images can be manipulated, physically and digitally, to create something new and vastly different from the original photograph – the scope and possibilities in this regard are endless.