Putting scientists in the picture

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Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image

MIT Press: 2002. 335 pp. $55, £36.50
Swirl of colour: ice can be seen melting in water by photographing gradients in the refractive index. Credit: K. VANDIVER

Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst had it right when he wrote: “The illustrations are a detail, though a very important one. Illustrations embellish a page; illustrations attract the eye and... materially aid the comprehension of an unaccustomed reader.” Hearst was referring to artists' illustrations of newspaper stories in the late nineteenth century, but his insight was prescient about today's photography. He was later an avid photographer, so he would surely have been delighted at the burgeoning of photographic techniques that has occurred since the simple optics of his day. Technological developments have led to the atomic, microscopic, macroscopic and galactic scales of contemporary science images.

Even mediocre pictures can briefly attract the eye, if that's all we want from them. Better, though, is to enhance the viewer's comprehension by elevating images to media quality with the application of techniques used by professional artists and photographers. How to bring these techniques to the research community? Enter Felice Frankel and her exceptional manual, Envisioning Science.

Frankel, a photographer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a leader in the growing movement to enhance the quality of technical images from science and engineering. Her goal in this meticulously organized book is to help readers create “an image that communicates your work more effectively to both colleagues and the general public”. These are two distinct audiences, but Frankel's mission suggests that they don't necessarily require divergent approaches. A high-quality, technically and aesthetically proficient image is always an effective vehicle for transmitting information. A poorly lit or composed photo can convey less information than intended, and one that includes distracting extraneous details can obscure the message as well. These are especially important considerations for interdisciplinary communication.

Spice it up: images of gas deposition on a patterned polymer (top) can be made more compelling (bottom) with a bit of imagination. Credit: K. VAETH

The use of stimulating images attracts the often science-shy public as nothing else can; accompanying textual information is then more likely to be absorbed in a fluid, agreeable way. And, as Frankel points out, public interest creates a supportive climate for research. For all these reasons, universities have begun to recognize and invest in the powers of higher-quality scientific imagery.

Written in a conversational tone, Envisioning Science is primarily a comprehensive lab manual for the optimum photography of research samples. Covering both film-based and digital techniques, it is also a generous reference book for photographic facts and resources, and includes exercises, a bibliography and two useful indexes. But it is also an art book in the sense that it is a beautifully designed array of arresting images (nearly all the author's). And it is a science guidebook in that the images chosen to illustrate the points under consideration derive from many disciplines and tell diverse stories.

An introductory section sets the stage for the core of the book: chapters that present concise, easy-to-assimilate descriptions of equipment and methods, copiously illustrated with comparative or before-and-after photographs. The initial chapter on the basics of picture-making includes data on sample preparation, composition, lighting, exposure and depth of field. Subsequent chapters tailor these topics to the photography of small samples 4–10 cm in size, and for using a stereomicroscope to document samples ranging from 50 mm to 4 mm. A chapter on compound microscopes (for samples down to 1 mm) includes a section on biological fluorescence microscopy. The final chapter discusses archiving, scanning and communicating with the public, including an important comment on digital alteration of scientific images. The manual also covers the representation of motion and looks at related image-producing technologies.

Envisioning Science has everything that researchers need to start producing far higher-quality photographs of their own samples. The book's few minor problems are overwhelmed by an abundance of data, provided in succinct nuggets of information, encompassing the hows and whys of improving scientific photography for papers, conferences, journal covers and public venues. Non-science photographers could also benefit from this manual, as will general readers with an interest in science.

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Breger, D. Putting scientists in the picture. Nature 419, 114–115 (2002) doi:10.1038/419114a

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