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What Does a Scientific Photographer Do?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2016
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A scientific photographer documents natural and experimental phenomena for educational or research purposes. The focus of this field in photography is the accurate and detailed recording of scientific data. Composition, lighting, and similar issues are of concern, but the non-artistic requirements can dictate the ultimate framing and presentation of the image. Since many scientific phenomena are visually arresting, some scientific photographers do blur the line between art and science, and may produce works that are considered aesthetically pleasing as well as scientifically useful.

Some scientific photographers record experiments. This documentation includes photographing conditions in the lab as well as during each stage of the event. Depending on the nature of the experiment, it may be necessary for a scientific photographer to use techniques like micrography, where images are taken through a microscope. Experimenters use the photographs in their publications to illustrate how the work was done and to show their results.

Others may take photographs for illustrative purposes. Scientific texts benefit from having photos to accompany their information, and images are also used in reference materials like flower keys for botanists. These images require the use of ideal sample specimens for the most accurate reference images. News publications may call upon scientific photographers to document phenomena of interest for a story, where the images need to be both informative and interesting to members of the public.

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Another occupation for a scientific photographer can involve imaging to further scientific research and understanding. Rosalind Franklin, for example, used x-ray crystallagraphy to highlight key components of the structure of DNA. Her work contributed significantly to the understanding of human genetics. As she illustrated, scientific photographers can work with energy in the nonvisible areas of the spectrum, including infrared, ultraviolet, and other forms of radiation, to develop detailed images that generate valuable information about the natural world.

After taking pictures, the scientific photographer develops and processes them with care. Photographers do not want to alter or obscure results with their images, and must be careful with activities like color pass filtering to make sure they don't remove or confuse data. They are also concerned with issues like focus, composition, and style, as these can make the difference between a clear, understandable image and a dull, uninformative picture.

Working as a scientific photographer requires an understanding of both science and photography. The photographer may need to manipulate certain aspects of the environment without disrupting the science when taking pictures to get clear, usable images. These could include simple steps, such as moving a specimen onto a colored background to create more contrast so the resulting image will stand out. Photographers can use a variety of cameras, lenses, and filters to capture different phenomena of interest.

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