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5 Reasons Your Camera Won’t Steal My Job

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

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By far the most common question I get when I tell people that I am a scientific illustrator is one variation (some more tactful than others) of, “They still use illustrators? Why don’t they just photograph everything?” In fact, it’s a great question. Although photography is fantastically impressive and can offer glimpses into worlds both big and small, it has limitations just like any other medium. That’s where we illustrators get to fill in the blanks.

1. Photography can’t capture small things, at least with the same lighting, shadows, and other visual clues that we are accustomed to. Yes, yes, I know – scanning electron microscopes, confocal microscopes and other technologies are pumping out insanely cool imagery on the nano-scale. But check out this visual representation of a neuron as compared to these photographs taken with microscopes:

Illustration of a neuron © Cosmocyte

This illustration of a neuron is able to combine many visual effects (lighting, focus, color, composition) to convey more information than a single photograph can with the current technology. Illustration © Cosmocyte, Inc.

Photograph taken through a microscope of a Y-type relay cell in a cat's lateral geniculate nucleus. Image courtesy of Murray Sherman, University of Chicago.

Photo of a Purkinje cell

Photograph of a Purkinje cell from the cerebral cortex of a mouse. Taken with a confocal microscope which takes multiple images at different focal lengths and stacks them together to make a clearer final image. Image courtesy of Claire Piochon, University of Chicago.

The photographs of the neurons are great technical feats and are indispensable to science for their descriptive nature. The illustration, however, has depth, color, variations in lighting and focus, and as such is able to convey the complexity and vastness of a network of neurons rather than just describing the shape of a single cell. Taken a step further, the illustration can be animated to tell a much broader story about how neurons interact with each other to relay signals and create sensations or contract muscles. The photographs are just the tip of the iceberg for what can be communicated visually.

2. Photography can’t capture distant things, at least close-up. While the Hubble space telescope (and friends) have far exceeded expectations in obtaining the most mind-blowing pictures of galaxies, nebulae, supernovae, etc., all of this is done from insanely far away. All of the cool facts we know about these distant places are derived from calculations. But calculations don’t inspire Congress to fund space exploration. And they certainly don’t inspire the mainstream. But put out a press release with an alien landscape describing some Earth-like planet 480 light-years away and sha-zzam! Suddenly people are professing their undying love for NASA and demanding they get funded. Or something like that.

Artists' interpretation of CoRoT-7b, an earthlike planet in the constellation Monoceros (Credit: ESO/L)

3. Photography can’t capture extinct things. Well, at least it couldn’t before it was invented (sure, you can find photographs of Tasmanian tigers and other recently extinct taxa floating around, but fuhgettaboutit for our beloved dinosaurs.) So who fills in the blanks between the fossil skeletons and the towering reconstructions that grace the halls of museums the world over? Yep, that’s right! We do. Scientific illustrators, sculptors, and paleoartists. We sure are handy, wouldn’t ya say?

A reconstruction of the head of Daemonosaurus chauliodus by Jeffrey Martz

4. Photography can emphasize the wrong things. As an example, a lot of the fossils that come through our lab are mottled in color – depending on the local conditions when it was buried, some parts are green and others red. In addition, after 375 million years of knockin’ around in the seds, they are cracked, crushed, crumbling, and otherwise messy. Photographs will capture each of these details in spectacular glory and report it back to you like the most dedicated papparazzi. Too bad details such as these are scientifically irrelevant and, frankly, a distraction. (Cue Superman music…) Enter the scientific illustrator! In these situations, illustrators are called in to draw the structure of the bones – the so-called “real” features (as opposed to artifacts of preservation) that scientists are interested in comparing to other specimens worldwide. Illustrators can ignore color variations and minor cracks and complete missing sections based on other specimens; essentially, we act as editors, pruning extraneous visual information. Neat-o.

Photograph of the skull of Daemonosaurus

In this photograph of the skull of Daemonosaurus it is very difficult to ignore the substantial cracks and deformation due to preservation. Photograph by Chip Clark courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Line drawing of the left lateral skull of Daemonosaurus by Sterling Nesbitt.

The line drawing of the left lateral skull of Daemonosaurus makes it much easier to discern what is bone and what is rock. Illustration by Sterling Nesbitt

5. Finally, photography is just one tool, but scientific illustrators and similarly-trained artists are poised to take advantage of multiple different tools, often in the same image. They can embellish photographs with illustrated overlays of nerves and organs. They can scan objects in real life and import them into 3D modeling software to turn them into something else entirely. And they can make complex animations for everything from educational videos to blockbuster movies to hyper-realistic games. The need for visual artists trained in manipulating all the tools of our trade, if anything, is growing by leaps and bounds as the technology becomes ever-more sophisticated and powerful.

These are five great reasons, but I’m sure there are more (no doubt I’ll think of them as soon as I hit “publish.”) Got any others up your sleeves? Chime in.

Cosmocyte: Medical and Scientific Animation
The Sherman Lab and the Hansel Lab at the University of Chicago
NASA reports on CoRoT-7b, an earth-like planet in the constellation Monoceros
Daemonosaurus press release
Daemonosaurus paper: Sues, Hans-Dieter, Sterling J. Nesbitt, David S. Berman and Amy C. Henrici (2011). A late-surviving basal theropod dinosaur from the latest Triassic of North America. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Published online before print April 13, 2011, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0410.

Kalliopi Monoyios About the Author: Kalliopi Monoyios is an independent science illustrator. She has illustrated several popular science books including Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within, and Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Find her at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

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

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  1. 1. SLW-L 3:52 pm 07/12/2011

    Great post. There are countless examples of things that photography just plain cannot do, and in some ways isn’t even all that comparable to illustration. It’s impossible to take a photo of a cross-section of the inside of the earth, for example. Also, illustrations are usually able to communicate complex concepts and show how things work in a much more dynamic and understandable way than photos alone can.

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  2. 2. TikiCosmonaut 6:23 pm 07/12/2011

    Excellent points, all. Sharing.

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  3. 3. mbourne 9:55 pm 07/12/2011

    You can’t take a photograph of an “complete” ecosystem – think John Dawson-esque scenes of different environments including all the common flora and fauna in one large image. You also can’t take a photograph of a map that shows the range of a species across North American (or anywhere). Certain things where you can take a photograph, you will still lose important/essential detail that is out of the range of focus as a photograph cannot focus on everything that is essential all at once; you would need multiple photographs, and then the scientific illustrator’s job is to distill all the information in each into one, meaningful and accurate image. :)

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  4. 4. 10:53 pm 07/12/2011

    Great points, SLW-L and mbourne! And thanks for sharing, Tiki.

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  5. 5. TheDrunkardsTalk 12:20 am 07/13/2011

    Yes, but leave it to magazines and their digital transition to ruin artists’ livelihoods, using stock images and easing access to tinker with intellectual property, Not to mention the diluted purchases of art through image banks. Also, the fact that new art directors persistently drop artists loyal to the magazine, probably instigated by wanting a “new look” for the magazine(Scientific American is one such magazine). Perhaps, magazines could leave it to the artists to be creative, diverge when need be for a “new look”, and support them contractually, instead of perpetually exploiting artists at every turn. It takes a lot to be an artist and accustom yourself to the challenge of imagining new concepts for esoteric scientific ideas. I don’t think camera’s were ever the problem, but I sure am appreciative of the idea that artists are people. Thank you dearly for that, but I hope no one comes away from this article feeling that artists, and art as a whole, are thriving. I love this magazine and what it stands for but; I hope in your scientific conjuring across the disciplines you’ve realized the uniqueness and necessity of art for a little more than these topical reasons (i.e. it can capture really small things). If you are an artist for Scientific American or in general, I suggest you start diversifying now.

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  6. 6. aidel 12:14 pm 07/13/2011

    Absolutely beautiful neuron!

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  7. 7. Glendon Mellow 3:46 pm 07/13/2011

    To TheDrunkardsTalk,

    Both Kalliopi and I work as artists/illustrators and are concerned about issues like copyright and treating artists like people; I think I can speak for us both when I say seeing the human side of science-artists will certainly be explored on this blog. The stories of the people who are compelled to create and nurture their talent are often as interesting as the images themselves.

    As for many publishers using stock images, it’s no secret publishing is going through a lot of changes right now due to online and mobile markets. I don’t think the publishing world has settled into a new model yet. In many (but not all) cases I’m an open source fan; most of my own work online is usable under Creative Commons. Perhaps we’ll explore some of those issues in a future post.

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  8. 8. 6:44 pm 07/13/2011

    Thanks, TheDrunkardsTalk & Glendon for weighing in. I absolutely plan on covering the brave new world of being a creative in a world that is being turned on its head by the web and the sheer pace of change that it engenders. You are right that artists are not necessarily thriving in this environment; we are caught in the same troubling boat as newspapers, publishers, musicians, record companies, and others who are being forced to find new models for their businesses. It’s a topic that deserves to be explored.

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  9. 9. livnfully 12:03 am 07/15/2011

    don’t foresee illustrators going the way of blockbuster and usa today. the medium may die but the creators live on… that’s the other thing cameras can’t capture: the imagination. or future evolution, in that vein.

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  10. 10. Emily D 11:57 am 01/6/2015

    Here is another example of when illustration is more suitable than photography:

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