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Snowflakes, Bias, and Science Photography

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Wilson Bentley's meticulously photographed snowflakes (1902).

“Science Photography” can be read two ways:

1. as illustration of scientific subject matter, or

2. as a tool to gather data as part of the scientific process.

What’s the difference? Images can be intended to convey information, or to collect it. Most science photography, including the majority of images featured in this blog, is of the first sort. Photographs in National Geographic. Images for textbooks. Portraits of scientists at work. Most of the best scientific images are planned ahead of time to be maximally illustrative.

The downside to these communicative photographs is that the various decisions in planning, framing, lighting, and timing an exposure introduce biases. If images are designed to fit a preexisting narrative, which most are, what of our ability to learn anything useful from a photograph? If, for example, I wish to photograph a scavenging hyena- because, duh, that’s what hyenas do- my photographs will show scavenging hyenas. Viewers would reasonably conclude from the images that hyenas are scavengers. Yet careful research shows that- duhhyenas are actually predators. Like lions.

Photography can lie by omission. Science photography is no different.

Photography is not itself scientific unless it plays by the same rules as other types of data collection. As a sampling technique, camera rigs must be designed so as to test the question, rather than arranged to drive a particular conclusion. In many cases, this means camera traps, or random or regular timing of the shutter, or more complete coverage of the area.

I bring this up as a roundabout way to mention a delightful new camera system for photographing snowflakes in midair. Not just the pretty ones, but a sample of all snowflakes, untouched, as they fall:

University of Utah researchers developed a high-speed camera system that spent the past two winters photographing snowflakes in 3-D as they fell – and they don’t look much like those perfect-but-rare snowflakes often seen in photos.

“Until our device, there was no good instrument for automatically photographing the shapes and sizes of snowflakes in free-fall,” says Tim Garrett, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences. “We are photographing these snowflakes completely untouched by any device, as they exist naturally in the air.”

Snowflakes in traditional photographs “tend to be of a particular type that conveniently lies flat on a microscope slide, where a camera can get them perfectly in focus, and the photographer can take the time to get the light exactly right,” he says.

Have a look:

This is snow as it is, not as we wish it to be.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Richard Salisbury 4:04 am 04/18/2013

    For my money, the snowflakes photographed on the fly are much more beautiful. They take my breath away.

    Link to this
  2. 2. khill 12:15 pm 04/18/2013

    As happens more often than by chance, RadioLab has a great piece on this. it looks like their site is having some problems, so be patient.

    Link to this

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