How do you feel about being photographed? Love it? Hate it?

I guess its a safe generalisation to say that most people don’t like being in front of the camera. Or at least they believe they don’t – I have this suspicion that many people actually enjoy being the centre of attention every now and then, and to be made to feel special, which is typically what happens when you’re the subject of a photo shoot. Whether my suspicions are founded or not, the bottom line is that people who admit to actually enjoying being photographed are few and far between.

And if there are few people among the general population who enjoy being photographed, the percentage is probably even smaller among the scientific community, who often joke that, after all, they didn’t spend years of scientific training to pursue a career in modelling! To be honest, given what scientists have been put through over the years – coloured strobe lights, being forced to stare meaningfully at a tube of arbitrary fluorescent liquid, etc – perhaps it is understandable that they don’t want to do it.

Acknowledging this fact, it is important as a photographer to do your utmost to put your subject at ease during a photo shoot, and to avoid forcing someone to do something they’re not comfortable with in front of the camera.

In science photography, it is critical to try and get at least some level of understanding of the scientist’s work, what it is that they do, and how they interact with the equipment in their laboratories. By careful observation while the scientist demonstrates what he or she does, the photographer can identify potential photo opportunities. Good composition and timing can make a striking photograph out of a scene that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.

An alternative approach is to employ laboratory equipment as a prop when doing a portrait of the scientist. In this case, the idea is not to illustrate the scientist’s work in the laboratory, but merely to use the laboratory to provide context to the portrait. The focus is completely different, but it is an approach that often works well in less technical publications.

From the scientist’s point of view, being the subject of a professionally shot photographic profile can, more often than not, be beneficial to their scientific career. Being profiled in a publication such as a company annual report or technology publication, or an external industry newsletter or magazine, obviously boosts the scientist’s visibility, both inside and outside your workplace. This in turn can lead to increased exposure for their work, and even increased funding opportunities.

I have worked with scientists who understood this dynamic very well, and who relished the opportunity to increase their public profile through the visual media. Scientists who are ‘willing subjects’ for photo shoots quickly endear themselves to the communications and publications staff in the organisation, resulting in more regular photo requests, which in turn increases exposure for their scientific endeavours.

And with good planning, being photographed needn’t take up much of your time – with a well-prepared photographer, a well-defined topic and a willing subject, amazing results can be achieved in a surprisingly short amount of time.