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Successful Science Photographers Have Access. Here’s How To Get It.

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


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A female fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, bearing the white mutation that prevents the compound eyes from developing their normal red color. Laboratory stock at the University of California, San Diego.

If you spend time reading online photography fora, which you do because you’re here, you will already know the key to great photos is owning the Canikon Extended 15-1000mm F1.2 Stabilized Howitzer XL III.

You probably can’t afford the Canikon XL III. But if you could, you’d know to shoot in camera raw with mirror lock-up and to process with the HDR pre-set and the new firmware upgrade. Anything less is… less.

I am being facetious, of course. But the point is, gear is pathologically overemphasized in photography. If photographers were writers, they’d spend their free time arguing about which make and model of keyboard produces the best novels. Instead of, say, how to write.

Evolutionary biologist Yuko Ulrich examines an experiment tracking division of labor in differently sized colonies of the clonal raider ant, Cerapachys biroi. The Rockefeller University, New York, USA.

The truth about good photography is somewhat less technical. People who make a living at it do own the heavy gear, but far more importantly, they have access to high-value subjects. Professional sports photographers have passes to be on the field. Successful glamour photographers know the top designers and models. These assets are much harder to come by, forming a substantial barrier to entering the career.

Successful science photography is no different. Science images that sell are usually those depicting subjects covered in textbooks and magazines, so science photographers must gain access to laboratories, field stations, and other places where high-impact research happens.

A brood nest of Adetomyrma dracula ants. Captive lab colony collected by myrmecologist Brian Fisher and photographed at the California Academy of Sciences

The good news is that access is far easier for most scientific facilities than it is for many other types of photography. It can be as easy as sending an email. Researchers routinely use images for talks, classes, papers, and websites, so they are often receptive when a photographer offers to shoot their projects. For the budding photographer, images exchanged for lab access can build a diverse science portfolio. For the established photographer, well-funded laboratories may pay to commission a set of photographs, or they may write the photographer into the outreach portion of a grant.

Male and female Aedes aegypti yellow fever mosquitoes encounter each other in a laboratory enclosure at Rockefeller University in New York.

For those interested in science photography, here are guidelines for contacting and working with labs.

1. Do your research. By visiting the lab web page and reading the recent technical publications, you will know the types of questions addressed by the group and the interests of people in the lab beyond just the lead investigator’s. For field studies, you’ll want to know when and where the researchers travel. Your background knowledge will convey that you are serious.

2. Assemble a small, 10-20 image portfolio of relevant photographs to send in your introductory email. The lab will want to know what sorts of images to expect.

3. Ask the lab for their image wish list. After all, they know their subject better than you do and can point you to the most intriguing stories. Their wish list combining with your wish list will help you schedule an appropriate amount of time and can guide your selection of lenses and other gear.

4. Don’t promise images you aren’t sure you can deliver. Some subjects are small, fast, dark, have patterns visible only under ultra-violet light, or any number of other technical challenges. If you aren’t certain, try practicing on similar subjects with your regular gear before you make arrangements. Sometimes you may need to rent additional equipment.

5. Before arriving at the lab, make sure you know their expectations, and that they know yours. This means you will have discussed how many images are involved, who will own the rights (hint: unless you are getting paid enough to put a down payment on a house, you should keep the rights), how much time they will have to spend supervising and assisting you, and your conditions for downstream image use. For example, will you allow the lab to put your images in Creative Commons licensed journals? Can students print your images on conference posters?

6. Once in the lab, ask where you can and cannot go. Laboratories have experiments running. The last thing you want to do is accidentally set some poor grad student back 6 months by disturbing the wrong lab bench!

7. If the participants are willing, take photographs of the researchers at work. In the moment, it can be disturbingly easy to focus on just the research at the expense of the people doing it. Adding a human element to your photographs will broaden the appeal of the resulting photo series, and it will give the researchers a more personal memento.

An Indian jumping ant Harpegnathos saltator, photographed in a research colony at Juergen Liebig's laboratory at Arizona State University.

Evolutionary biologist Joan Strassmann examines a culture of Dictyostelium social amoebae at Washington University in St. Louis.

 

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is an Illinois-based entomologist who 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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