Science signs and technology tags

Second derivative

Considering these samples of ‘maths graffiti’ that I’ve noticed over the past couple of weeks, I can only assume politics, religion and culture are not the only forces driving today’s graffiti artists to pick up their spray cans.

Maths rule!

While these may be fairly basic, and not exactly on par with the mindblowing creations some graffiti artists are capable of, it did get me thinking about the role of graffiti in science communication – surely some good graffiti with a science theme can help to increase the  ‘coolness coefficient’ of maths and science?

So how about creating a science graffiti wall at a local University science building?  Even an entire building can very effectively be transformed through art and graffiti – just have a look at the campus building of The Learning Connexion (TLC) next time you’re in Lower Hutt, Wellington.

Mar-Eco graffiti in Brazil. Picture by Anette Petersen

Of course communicating science through novel artistic techniques such as graffiti is not new.  As an example, a Norway-based network of scientists and students called Mar-Eco ( have used graffiti as one channel in its quest to popularise international marine research.  As part of its public outreach work, a wall of graffiti displaying deep-sea species was created in one of the suburbs of Salvador in Brazil, with the hope of reaching an audience rarely targeted in the communication of science.

If you’ve come across any graffiti with a science or technology focus, please let me know – I’m very keen on expanding my collection of science graffiti images.

Tips for managing a digital photo library

A few years ago, before the advent of the digital photography era, many organisations went to great lengths to maintain and archive their collections of photographic slides and negatives.

These days, these physical collections may still be kept in an archive, but focus has moved to electronic image libraries – collecting, sorting and storing company images in digital format.

One of the big advantages of digital photo libraries is that, if a copy of the photo collection is kept online (for example on an ftp server), the collection of images is readily available for a wider audience in the organisation, and can be accessed from different locations.  This is very useful, in particular when an organisation has branches or satellite offices in different regions.  Staff can contribute to the library by uploading images, while also having access to the image library from any location.

While having an extensive and accessible library of professionally photographed images has many advantages, both to the organisation and to the individuals featured in these photographs, there are some issues that need to be kept in mind in maintaining such a collection.

FIrstly, it is critical that someone be given exclusive responsibility to organise and maintain the photo library, as the sheer volume of digital photographs that get produced in large organisations can quickly get out of hand.  Various software tools are available that allow the ‘image librarian’ to tag individual images according to a number of criteria, e.g. the area where it was shot, the person(s) featured in the photos, the event where it was taken, etc.  Photos can also be sorted into different folders according to various criteria, and older, out-of-date photos can be archived.

If the image library can be accessed from various locations and by various people, it is useful to limit general access to read-only, to avoid accidental damage to the photo library.  If different people are given write-access, a proper workflow system should be in place to keep things from turning chaotic.

Secondly, not all images are equal.  Often an organisation will have a collection of images that was commissioned with a very specific aim – to reinforce the company brand, and to support the key principles/values of the organisation.  These images may have been commissioned at considerable expense, to be used in key publications or promotional material, and the last thing you want is for the impact of the images to be diluted as a result of everyone using them.  As such, these “hero-images” should be ring-fenced and kept separate, made accessible only to the communications and marketing department, for example.

Another important consideration is that people images can get dated fairly quickly.  This applies to all people photos, whether they are generic stock images or photos of actual scientists, but in the case of actual staff, who are known and recognised throughout the organisation, dated images are more obvious and stand out more clearly.  For example, using images in your annual report featuring an individual who has since left the organisation, can definitely send out the wrong message.  Similarly outdated photos of key individuals can also result in confusing visual communication, especially if these photos do not represent their current activities/position in the organisation.

As such, effort needs to be spent to keep staff images current – removing (or at least archiving) photos of staff that have left, regularly updating current staff images, and commissioning profile shoots for new staff.

Certain members of an organisation, such as Board and Management members, as well as key scientists, who have a particularly high and visible public profile, need at least an annual profile update, ideally resulting in a diverse enough image library that the same image, or a limited set of images shot at the same time (with the individual sporting the same outfit in all the images), are not used over and over in public communications.

When I started out as a photographer, my biggest concern was getting the photos I took, out to the client as fast as possible, without worrying too much about managing the image library that I was building up.  However, after a couple of months, and some calls from clients requesting images that they’d misplaced, I soon realised the time spent finding specific images among the growing mass of images I had on my computer, was not worthwhile, and that I’d do better adopting a more formal image management approach.

So take it from me, as someone with thousands upon thousands of images to maintain – the effort you spend managing your photo library will be worth every cent of your investment.

Having your picture taken

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.

Requirements for science photography

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.

Technically correct

Dealing with complex combinations of natural and artificial light, as well as high contrast scenes, are some of the technical challenges facing the science photographer.

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.


The photographer can use novel angles to illustrate actions.

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.

Specific techniques are required to visualise phenomena such as laser trails.

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.

Techniques such as long exposures to capture motion can also make an image more informative

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.

Visually appealing

Finding the beauty in the detail.

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.

Capturing subjects from a dynamic angle.

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.

Image from the Sciencelens Science Art collection.

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.

Covering all the angles

Following our discussion on creative communication, it might be useful to spend some more time illustrating the idea of photographing the same subject in different ways, in order to facilitate multiple application of the photos.

To support this discussion I will use an earlier photo shoot I was commissioned to do, photographing a young scientist, Dr Tumi Semete, whose exemplary research was to be featured in a number of publications.

The first point worth noting is that the shoot coincided with an interview with the scientist, conducted by the company’s publications editor.  This had the advantage that the focus was not exclusively on the photo shoot, so I was free to move around and photograph different angles and subjects. Also, by paying attention to what was being discussed in the interview, I had more insight into what I needed to capture to compliment the article and other related applications.

Secondly, I was briefed beforehand that the photographs would be used in a number of different publications, so I needed to be comprehensive in my coverage.

Following below are examples of the different angles and types of images that can be captured during a science photography shoot, illustrating the range of applications that can be covered without spending much extra photography time.

The documentary angle. Capturing some shots during the initial interview phase, enabled us to get good informal, natural and unposed documentary style images highlighting the personality of the subject.
The person-focused lab portrait. Technical action portraits can be created by photographing the scientist in his/her work environment. Being a portrait, the focus needs to stay on the person, and techniques like shallow depth of field can be effectively used to blur the surrounding detail in the shot, thus ensuring that the environment does not draw the attention from the subject. Such a portrait could effectively illustrate a primarily person-focused article.
The technology-focused lab photo. While keeping the human subject prominent in the frame, this photograph differs from the portrait above in the sense that the laboratory equipment is kept in focus, and it takes up a prominent part of the image. Focus therefore shifts to the technology, making this photograph useful in an article with a more technical research angle.
The people in action lab shot. If other laboratory personnel are available, it is useful to set up some shots, or photograph from such an angle, that other people are introduced, either as part of the focus of the image, or in the background. This results in a more generic laboratory image which can be useful as a general illustrative image for brochures and other publications.
The technical details. While photographing a scientist in a laboratory environment, keeping an eye out for interesting details and technical equipment for detail-shots adds another dimension to a shoot. These types of images can be used effectively as additional design elements in publications, websites etc, and often end up being useful to the client even after the person-specific portraits become outdated.
The traditional portrait. Pretty much a must-have during a shoot like this, capturing a good formal, corporate portrait is critical. For a more corporate feel, and to provide variety from the laboratory images, this photo was staged in a boardroom environment.
The informal portrait. While traditional, formal portraits are important for corporate publications, having a more funky, informal portrait can often be invaluable. In this particular series, this image ended up being used extensively, in particular in publications aimed at promoting careers in science to younger audiences.

Creative communication

The task at hand – the planning, design and layout of a company information document, featuring research highlights from the past year. It is a big and important publication, aimed at key stakeholders, and intended to grow the client base of the organisation. The graphic design team, in conjunction with the editor assigned with responsibility for the document, have been brainstorming the look and feel, and have a strong design concept in mind.

Meanwhile, the marketing department has commissioned a photographer to create a portfolio of photos covering the scientists and the projects to be featured in the publication. The photographer has completed the task, and the photographs produced cannot be faulted – classic corporate portraits done in subtle shades of blue and grey. Formal and serious, as has always been the style of the company.

The only problem is that the publication, created to expand the client base of the company, is being aimed at a slightly younger and more dynamic market. The document has been edited to speak in a young, modern language, and the designers have a vibrant and slightly edgy look in mind, with lots of diagonal lines and warm reds, yellows and oranges. The newly commissioned photographs – classic, formal and serious – are worthless in this context, and the company is left with two choices: abandon the planned publication design, or commission another new set of photographs. Both these options are unnecessary, costly and time-consuming, and could have been avoided had there been open and regular communication between the editor, designers and photographer.

While the above is just a theoretical scenario, similar situations occur regularly due to a lack of communication between the different players required to provide creative inputs or contributions to publications.

Even when the photographer is clearly briefed on the requirements regarding the content, style and proposed look and feel of photographs needed for a specific publication, working too strictly within these constraints during a photo shoot might also be limiting. The graphic designer or communications manager may well be aware of other publications coming up soon, covering the same subject matter in a different context or with a different style. For example, photos of the scientists and projects mentioned in the scenario above may also be required for the company’s Annual Report, which is typically a more formal corporate document. Thus, if the photographer only took dynamic, angled and non-traditional photos as per the requirements of the original document we discussed, an extra photo shoot will have to be arranged to create the more formal and traditional images required for the annual report.  However, if these additional slightly longer term requirements were also communicated to the photographer, he could make sure that both dynamic and traditional angles were covered in the photo shoot.

Getting by without an art director

In advertising, and in particular in the large professional advertising studios, individuals are assigned specific coordinating roles to assure that all the creative inputs (editorial copy, design elements, visual material etc) are aligned to the same goal. Creative directors, or sometimes art directors, are responsible for the creative concept, and communicate this to the graphic designers, photographers, copyrighters etc.

In publishing, art directors typically work with the publications editors. Together, they work on a concept for sections and pages of a publication. Individually, the art director is mostly responsible for the visual look and feel of the publication, which means communicating with designers, photographers and illustrators. The editor, on the other hand, has ultimate responsibility for the publication’s verbal and textual content.

In the Corporate sector, however, organisations seldom have the luxury of having a creative director or art director on staff, and as such the marketing and communications staff, editors, graphic designers and photographers need to take responsibility on themselves to ensure that communication channels between them remain active and open.

Even if the brief is open and undefined, the photographer can take responsibility by enquiring about the application of the images, and the proposed look and feel of the document they are shooting for. In addition, as mentioned earlier, he/she may do the client a great favour by also covering other angles and styles not specifically asked for. Importantly, however, the photographer should clear this with the client first – there is nothing as uncomfortable as when the photographer believes he is doing the client a favour by covering additional angles and styles, while the client feels the photographer is merely trying to make up time by producing extra images that have not been requested in the brief.

The bottom line

Clear communication is critical, both to ensure that the outputs of the photographer match the requirements of the design team, and to ensure that there are matched expectations between the client and the different service providers.

Discussing science art

The main purpose of science photography is to support science communication, in other words, to illustrate a scientific concept/activity/environment in the clearest and most illuminating way possible.

That said, in some cases images created for scientific purposes can also have direct  aesthetic and artistic appeal, or have the potential to be manipulated in such a way that it becomes a unique work of art.

Microscopic images, or images shot using techniques such as time-lapse photography, can be visually unique and appealing.  Similarly a close-up photograph of part of an object, or an object shot at an unusual angle, can create artistically evocative abstract forms/patterns.

This article, however, presents samples from Sciencelens’ new offering involving the digital and physical manipulation of science images to create digital ‘science art’.

Sciencelens photographer Gerry le Roux and his graphic artist wife Wouna work together using digital image manipulation combined with digital and physical drawing, painting, colouring etc to create science art.  These unique pieces can be created on commission.

Science Art is reproduced as archival quality Giclée prints, on fine art paper or high quality stretched canvas, and are often utilised to decorate corporate science environments or presented as gifts to valued clients.

Commissioned Sciencelens Science Art are typically based on photographs illustrating the client’s unique environment, or a specific flagship project that the client is involved in.  Ideally the input images are photographed with the specific commissioning in mind.   As such the appeal of the resultant artwork becomes unique and client-specific.

In each piece, the processing and manipulation is unique and non-repeatable, and the manipulation is guided by the character of the photograph(s) forming the basis of the work.  While much of the manipulation is done using image processing software such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, these go far beyond generic manipulation using Photoshop filters etc.

To find out more about the Sciencelens Science Art offering, or to commission an artwork for your organisation, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

I shoot it. You pay for it. But who owns it?

Whenever a photograph is taken, a creative act is committed, and copyright comes into play. In New Zealand‘s Copyright Law of 1994, a photograph is protected as an artistic work. As such, it is automatically copyrighted the moment it is created – there is no need to apply for, or register, copyright for the photo.

However, in the act of taking a photo, a number of parties are involved. In corporate and commercial photography the main actors are the photographer who invests his creativity and intellectual capital into the photo, and the client, who pays for the photo and may also provide creative input into the process. The immediate question is who owns the copyright to the photo? And what rights do this give one party and take away from the other?

What the Law says

When looking at the New Zealand Copyright Law as it applies to photography, the situation is reasonably simple. In terms of ownership, the default scenario is that the person who takes the photo is the first owner of copyright of the material. However, there are two important exceptions:

  1. Employees – if a photograph is taken by a photographer in the course of his/her employment, the employer is the first owner of copyright, unless there is agreement to the contrary.
  2. Commissioned material – if a client commissions and pays for a photograph to be taken, s/he become the first owner of copyright unless there is agreement to the contrary.

The commissioning rule

Point two above, known as the ‘commissioning rule’, has long been a matter of debate in copyright law worldwide, and is currently under review in New Zealand (see The Commissioning Rule, Contracts and the Copyright Act 1994: A Discussion Paper, at

In a number of other countries, including the UK and Ireland, the commissioning rule has been removed from copyright law as it pertains to creative artifacts. Australia and Canada are also moving towards the situation where copyright is retained by the photographer, independent of commissioning.

A number of arguments have been put forward for and against the commissioning rule. Those against the rule argue that treating commissioned photographers differently from non-commissioned photographers may undervalue the creative contribution of these photographers. While the commissioner may have creative input into the creation of the photograph, it remains the photographer who ultimately decides the composition, light, point of focus and other specific settings that make the taking of a photograph an act of artistic creativity. On a more practical level, photographers argue that they are unfairly disadvantaged where a work is used for subsequent purposes that are not reflected in the price paid. By retaining copyright, the photographer also retains more control over the use of the photo, thus allowing him to protect his ideas from being stolen, replicated, or misused.

In defense of the commissioning rule, it is argued that if copyright is retained by the photographer, it places the client in a difficult position, as he has to get permission from the photographer each time he wants to use the photo in a different context. Over time it might become difficult to get hold of the original author, or even the subsequent owner of the image (since copyright applies up to 50 years after the death of the copyright owner).

The importance of an agreement

It is important to note that the arguments above pertain to the Copyright Law as is, assuming there is no additional contract/agreement between the photographer and client. As stated in the law, the employee rule and commissioning rule apply ‘unless there is agreement to the contrary’.

In drawing up a contract/agreement between photographer and client, the commissioning rule may be cancelled. For example, the standard terms of conditions proposed by both the Advertising and Illustrative Photographers Association (AIPA) and the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography Inc (NZIPP) include a condition allowing the photographer to retain copyright. The NZIPP states:

All copyright that arises out of the performance of the Photographer’s obligations under this contract shall arise not by commission but shall be the creation of the Photographer.  The Photographer shall remain the first owner of the Photographic Works and the Client shall be supplied with the Photographic Works for use on the basis of the terms of this Licence.

Aside from overriding the commissioning rule, a number of limiting conditions may be set, protecting the photographer and the client.  For example, whether he retains copyright or not, the photographer should be granted the right to use his images for specific purposes such as submissions for awards as well as advertising/promotion. In this regard, the standard conditions of use set out by the AIPA and NZIPP suggests the following:

The Photographer always retains the right to use the Photographic Works in any manner at any time and in any part of the world for the purposes of:
(a) Entering the Photographic Works into photographic competitions or awards and for their use in any material published in connection with promoting those competitions and awards; and
(b) Advertising or otherwise promoting the Photographer’s Photographic Works; and
(c) Submitting the Photographic Works for display at art galleries or other premises; and
(d) Using the Photographic Works for any other purpose within the Photographer’s business activities.

If the commissioning rule is overridden and the photographer retains copyright, the agreement should of course stipulate the licence that the photographer grants to the client, i.e. the extent to which the client may use the image. This could, for example state that the photo(s) may be used for any client-specific publications and on the client’s website, but that it may not be passed on to a third party (another organisation, an external magazine, etc) to use without the consent of the photographer. Alternatively it can limit the time-period for which the client may use the image.

Moral rights

Whether there is a specific agreement in place regarding copyright and the allowed use of a photograph or not, an additional factor that comes into play in creative works is the moral right of the creator. Artists are, by law, granted certain moral rights pertaining to their creations. Specifically, the artist has the right to be identified as the author of a work when it is published/displayed, and has the right to object to derogatory treatment of a work. In the photographer/client agreement, moral rights may also be defined in more detail, and penalties specified for cases where the moral rights of the photographer are not upheld.

In conclusion

Whichever option one goes for, it is important to remember that copyright and ownership of a photograph is an important matter, that needs to be addressed when contracting a photographer. Whether the photographer or the client retains ownership of the photo, some agreement should be in place to (1) give both parties sufficient rights to the image, and (2) protect both parties from misuse of the image by the other party.