Making science pictures: a fascinating MITx photography course

Last week I completed an exciting six week photography course I found on edX, a MOOC platform I have been following in the past few years. EdX was originally founded by Harvard University and MIT, but nowadays many universities worldwide contribute with their free high quality lectures. Few weeks ago I successfully completed a course on framing - a debate and public speaking technique - offered by Delft University. Now it was the turn of this exciting course by MITx:

Making Science and Engineering Pictures: A Practical Guide to Presenting Your Work

The main instructor was an acclaimed photographer, Felice Frankel, who works closely with MIT scientists and creates pictures to explain or promote their research. Felice's works made it to several covers of Nature, Scientific American and Science.

I started it as an absolute beginner, I mean it. Even though I own a modest SLR camera, I never went over the full automatic pilot with it. Despite such, I could follow all the lessons and I am quite satisfied with my results and proud of my progress. For sure I can give credit to Felice and the teaching staff that I was taught not only concepts, but a frame of mind. Felice constantly invited us to take the freedom to experiment. She never imposed her aesthetic canons on us, but she showed her way of self-assessing her work and examples of parameters that could be varied.

I strongly recommend to my fellow scientists to take the time to follow this course. I will now take the chance to share some of the things I have learned.


The power of flatbed scanners

Using a flatbed scanner to take high-resolution pictures of small 3D objects was lesson one and it was a pleasant surprise. Since I could not get a hold of a proper flatbed scanner, I had to work with a multipurpose scanner/printer. However, I think the quality of the results gives a hint of what amazing things one could do with a proper high-resolution scanner!

I chose some Danish candies, which had reflections and several colours, both features I wanted to experiment with. I simply composed them on the glass and I applied different backgrounds on the top of the scanner with tape. In the scanner menu, I selected the highest resolution (600 dpi) and I saved in TIF format on my usb stick.

Here you can see a gallery of my results and some other examples.

When using a flatbed scanner, try testing with the top open, or changing the composition (rotating, moving, ...).

Smartphone pictures and videos are simply not enough

Given my laziness and my clumsiness with a camera, I often took pictures of the imaging process in the lab simply with my smartphone. I then used such pictures in my talks or meetings. Now I don't think I can go back to that.

During the course we explored two parameters of the camera and the set: depth of field and basics of lighting. In my own word, depth of field is which level of detail we allow the camera to capture, in depth. To do so, you can set different values of aperture in your camera.

As an example, you can see my own work in the following gallery. The model is a 3D printed object.

A smartphone camera definitely does not have such control. In addition, I used a tripod, thus allowing to keep always the same point of view and a stable view.

Lighting was also an interesting example. Given the unconventional summer and little equipment, I did not have much flexibility, yet still I could observe meaningful differences when using different lighting. For example, you can spot a great difference in the following two pictures.

The direct light gives a fully different taste to the object, doesn't it?


Don't give in after one attempt

Presenting your work needs preparation. I will, in the future, put the same care I put in my talks in making the pictures I need. Felice showed many case studies at the end of the course and even someone with a professional eye and tons of experience like her needs to be imaginative and try, try, and try again. You may change the background, the composition of the subject(s), the point of view, the lighting, the camera settings... There are infinitely many possibilities. And then there is post-processing, on which I am still a total zero - even though I plan to change that.

Making good pictures can take your work up to a new level. Imagine having professional looking pics in a funding application, a paper, a conference presentation. They may even win the cover of science magazines or columns. Having nice pictures can mean more clarity or more exposure. In addition, as I learned myself recently, taking a picture of something technical or scientific forces you to reconsider the subject on a brand new light. What are its fundamental parts? What's the beauty of it? Who are you addressing this picture to and what elements are important to stress for the selected audience? I find it extremely fascinating that these considerations may add an original point of view to our scientists' eyes.

Paola Elefante

Digital Scaling Project Manager at Plan International. Proud mother & wife. Shameless nerd&geek. Feminist. Undercover gourmet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.