When you look at an object through a camera, you’ll notice things you might not otherwise see and ask questions you might not have thought to ask before—even about your own research. Felice Frankel, a research scientist in the Department of Chemical Engineering, thinks of photography as a portal to questions.
Frankel’s latest book, Picturing Science and Engineering (MIT Press, 2018), offers advice on how to visually document and explain research through photos. Use her eight tips to start thinking like a photographer and create cover-worthy images of your work.
1) Think about why things look the way they do.
Photograph objects from different points of view and ask yourself what’s going on. It can help you think about your research in new ways. Likewise, encouraging kids to examine interesting photos—or, better yet, take their own—can help get them thinking like scientists. Why are the grooves in this vinyl recording of “Eleanor Rigby” wiggly? How does a record player’s needle turn those grooves into sound? What might that golden stuff between the grooves be?
Science is all about the data, so it’s tempting to want to show every detail. But if you try to pack too much into your image, people won’t know where to look—and will decide they don’t want to look at all. Don’t assume first-time viewers will see what you want them to see. This solid-state light-emitting device developed by professor emeritus Michael Rubner, PhD ’86, has many components; shooting it in front of blocks of wood made it even harder to know what to look at. Using a sheet of paper as the background kept the focus on the device itself.
3) Edit thoughtfully, if at all.
If you do any image enhancement, tell viewers what you did and why. After photographing this yeast colony Professor Gerald Fink’s lab had grown in a petri dish, I digitally removed the dish to highlight the stunning morphology of the colony for a Science cover. A caption explained that edit. And the version with the petri dish—which provides a sense of scale—ran inside the journal.
4) Lighting matters.
Photographs compress three-dimensional objects and scenes into 2D representations, so light and shadows become compositional elements. The highlights on this microreactor developed by Wen-Hsuan Lee, SM ’11, PhD ’15, for her doctoral dissertation change noticeably as the light source moves, emphasizing different parts of the device. Use light and shadows to help viewers focus on what’s important in the image.
5) Take advantage of your smartphone camera.
You can take surprisingly sophisticated photos using a smartphone—and it may be your only option for capturing fleeting images. If you see something amazing that will disappear in 30 seconds, you can’t go hunting for your fancy SLR camera. Use your smartphone and see what you can get. When steam began condensing on the glass lid covering a pan of sautéing peppers, I grabbed my phone and caught the beauty of the condensation and the interesting optics.
6) Don’t underestimate your flatbed scanner.
Sure, they’re great for scanning flat things like pictures, but flatbed scanners also let you easily create very high-resolution images of three-dimensional objects and avoid many of the technical issues involved in using a high-end camera. Choose the highest DPI (dots per inch) setting to capture the most detail. I’ve used them to create remarkable images of decidedly non-flat things like microneedles, pears, and this lustrous abalone shell.
7) Let difference help tell the story.
Look for useful comparisons that reinforce the point of the science. Sometimes juxtaposing an image of the opposite phenomenon helps draw viewers’ attention to what you want them to see. Gerald Fink’s lab at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research asked me to photograph two different kinds of Candida albicans yeast. They expected two separate photos, but I talked them into growing both in the same petri dish so the viewer could easily compare them in a single shot (7a). In another example, chemical engineering professor Paula Hammond ’84, PhD ’93, and Michael Rubner, PhD ’86, professor emeritus of materials science and engineering, developed a technique to get colloids to self-assemble into clusters of a specific size. To help convey the concept of controlled self-assembly, I captured this image (7b) that shows both self-assembled colloids and colloids in a jumbled mass.
8) Perspective is critical.
Go beyond the obvious documentary picture and look for a point of view that will showcase what’s most interesting about the object or phenomenon you are trying to capture. To highlight the flexibility of these soft biometric sensors developed by John Rogers, SM ’92, PhD ’95, of Northwestern University’s School of Engineering, I photographed one of the sensors draped around an irregular ridge of plastic as well as one in its packaging.