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Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image

Author: Felice Frankel

Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002

ISBN: David S. McIn

Summary:Science, though, aspires to be objective, so taking photographs in the support of science is a challenge. Felice Frankel is a prominent scientific photographer, whose work regularly appears in journals like Nature, Science, and Journal of Physical Chemistry.

In 1968, the designers Charles and Ray Eames made a ten minute documentary called "Powers of Ten." While the idea of a movie about scientific notation may not seem compelling, "Powers of Ten" was actually exploring the idea of scale. What do things look like from a meter away? From a millimeter? From a micron? From a million kilometers? Some of the great breakthroughs of science came from looking at objects outside of our normal scale. In 1662 Robert Hooke published Micrographia, and showed readers what cork, among other things, looks like at the microscopic level. He used the word "cells" to describe the small units that seemed to make up the sample, and the term stuck. Fifty years earlier, Galileo used a telescope to study the surface of the moon. He found that the shadows on the moon varied with the moon's phase, providing more evidence that the moon circles the Earth and the Earth circles the sun.

Hooke and Galileo had to use woodblock prints to convey what they had seen. Two centuries later, photography provided a new way of capturing and sharing visual information. Later, combining cameras with microscopes gave scientists a way of sharing what they were seeing. But photographs don't reproduce what exists, they just capture a glimpse of it. They are two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional world. They can only record what light reflects off or passes through their subjects, and when the light changes, the picture changes. This is why photography is an art, because it is subjective.

Science, though, aspires to be objective, so taking photographs in the support of science is a challenge. Felice Frankel is a prominent scientific photographer, whose work regularly appears in journals like Nature, Science, and Journal of Physical Chemistry. During her career she has received grants from both the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is a Research Scientist at MIT, and she was the co-author of the 1997 book On the Surface of Things. Now she has written a book that is ostensibly a manual for the researcher who wants to capture and communicate his or her work. Envisioning Science begins with the on overview of images in science (written by Phylis Morrison, who was a scientific advisor for "Powers of Ten" thirty-four years ago). Frankel then introduces the basics of photography—composition, point of view, lighting, apertures, exposures, and such. The bulk of the book deals with working at different levels of scale. Small things can be photographed with a camera alone. Smaller things need a stereomicroscope, or a compound microscope, or a scanning electron microscope. As Frankel points out, "more magnification doesn't necessarily give more information," but each level of scale brings its own challenges.

The book assumes the reader already understands photography. As somebody who doesn't, I found it all the more interesting. For instance, why does aperture matter? A higher f-stop, like f/4 ("f over four") allows more light in but also decreases the depth of the field, so that the objects in the background are not in sharp focus. Reducing the aperture by stopping down to, say, f/32 increases the depth of the field and allows the background to appear more clearly. This is where the art come in. Does showing the background help the photographer tell the story, or does it get in the way?

Frankel's discussion of different types of light and how they are best used is eye-opening. "There is never only one way to light your sample." One can work with daylight. Or, inside, the lighting might be come from tungsten-filament light bulbs, fluorescent tubes, or halogen bulbs. And don't forget, visible light is only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Ultraviolet light can produce fluorescence in what is being photographed, highlighting different elements in the picture. (Anybody who was ever a teenager with a black light knows this already.) The direction of the light is just as important. Direct light and the shadows it brings produce a very different picture from reflected light. And, when photographing very small things, transmitting light through the sample can yield the clearest picture. My new favorite lighting trick is using interference patterns in polarized light to produce a range of colors. Nomarski differential contrast captures more information than conventional lighting can.

Photos, like writing, benefit from editing. In the pre-digital age, most "editing" was done at the time of the shoot. Adjust the lighting. Use a polarizing filter. Make the dust on the sample less visible by judicious use of reflected lighting. After the picture was taken, the only ways to edit the image were by cropping it or making adjustments in the print making. Digital photography, and software programs like Photoshop, have changed all that. Although Frankel does not typically use a digital camera, she digitizes her film using a high-end scanner. Then she can manipulate the image. Sometimes this means changing the color of the background. Or inverting the colors in a black-and-white print. Or rotating or de-skewing an image. Or adding color to an image taken with a scanning electron microscope. All of these changes, one hopes, are in the service of science. But Frankel warns, "When you digitally alter an image, you are changing the data." She doesn't say not to do it. Just to be clear about what you have done.

The photographer is really a storyteller. Knowing what details to leave out is just as important as knowing what to include. But is that manipulating the data, something of a sin of omission? Perhaps, but telling the story means finding what is important and then figuring out how to help other people see it. The most famous American photographer of the Twentieth Century was probably Ansel Adams. His gift was capturing spectacular images that pulled the viewer in. Yet when a centennial exhibition of his work was hung this year, curated by the director emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art, most of the prints on display were small contact prints, made without an enlarger and certainly smaller than the large images that Adams made during his life. The curator seemed to be focusing on the accuracy of what Adams' camera had captured, rather than the art the he produced. But which is more important for a photographer, the accuracy of his images, or the art? Even in science photography, objective accuracy is not the sole standard. The question must always be, what is the photographer trying to show me. Which makes the artist sound like an artist and a storyteller.

Reading Envisioning Science made me wonder about the role of the visual in business communication. Let's ignore advertising for a moment, and just look at the way business people communicate with each other. It's almost all words: phone calls, memos, reports, emails. And the primary use of presentation software like PowerPoint, it seems, is just to arrange words horizontally on the page, instead of vertically. When people do include images in their presentations, they are usually the pictorial equivalent of clip art. Highlighting something that has been said on the page, but not adding any new information of their own.

All in all, business communication uses very little bandwidth. Why? Because we are lazy? Cowardly? Because we don't have digital cameras? Because we have don't have Photoshop on our desktops? I think it is a problem of visual literacy. Even though every parent these days seems to come equipped with a video camera, and grandparents are using email to distribute digital pictures of their grandchildren, the change hasn't made it across the corporate threshold. Which is too bad. One of the greatest changes in business in the last ten years is the vastness of the data that is being produced. There are some advances in tools for visualization, like British Petroleum's use of HIVEs, or Highly Immersive Visualization Environments. But by and large, most of us are no more adept at communicating large amounts of information than our grandparents were. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but most of us would just prefer to type faster.

Once I was working for a firm that was thinking about renovating its lobby. The partner in charge showed us a slide show he put together. "Here's what somebody coming into our building experiences," he said. Slide by slide, we saw how run-down, how confusing, and how second-rate we seemed. Coming in the same doors every day, we had forgotten what the walls around us looked like. Seeing it fresh, through the new eyes of the camera, made us all understand what others were seeing. There was nothing fancy in the images, no editing, and certainly no Nomarski differential contrast. But there was an insight, and that's what the photographer made us see.

The job of anybody who is trying to communicate is twofold. Identify what is important, and then help others to see it. Looking at how somebody like Frankel does this is useful. Whether you are a photographer or a copy writer, a scientist or a grandparent (or both), understanding techniques for communicating more effectively is always worthwhile. Frankel writes that "regardless of technological advances, the basic techniques of photography—lighting, framing and composition, background—will always apply." What she shows us, just as importantly, is that it's all about the story.

by David McIntosh


©  David S. McIntosh, Center for Business Innovation, Cambridge MA.