Cameras are everywhere, and chances are you have one. Or two. Or even many more. If I add mine up, I think I have 3 right now. They’re in iPods, almost every cell phone, and companies like GoPro have made camera technology in expensive and accessible to a broad swath of society.
My first camera was my father’s Nikon SLR (single lens reflex, or generally a camera with a separate lens) about 20 years ago, followed by my own cheap “compact camera” (with an integrated lens, now called a “point-and-shoot”).
Now, I have my own digital SLR (a Canon Rebel XT that’s 7 years old, with an assortment of lenses), a point-and-shoot Olympus (now 6 years old), and the camera on my iPod touch (being a Luddite, I don’t have a cell phone). I’ve taken probably more than 25,000 photographs in the last 8 years, mostly during field work or vacations. On a recent 1-week visit to Denmark and Sweden, I racked up about 2000 images alone.
I’ve had no formal training in photography. But I know how to compose a shot, and a few basics about how cameras work under different lighting conditions. This has all mostly come about from playing around and trying different things.
Photographs are an important part of science communication, especially web-based outreach. The adage that “a photo is worth a thousand words” aside, people like photos, especially when they enhance, augment, or complement the science. I like to include photos from the field in my conference presentations, for example.
Which brings me to a map on an ostrich egg. No, really.
An article in the National Post that originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun recently announced that the oldest globe to include the New World was etched on an ostrich egg in 1504, and included parts of Newfoundland. Having spent some time in Newfoundland myself, I was doubly interested. Both articles included a photograph of the ornamental globe, yet the photograph did not show the New World, or even the Atlantic. In fact, it’s centred around 30° east of Greenwich, or Africa, the Middle East, and eastern Europe. Newfoundland sits a comfortable 56° west of Greenwich, or about 1/4 of the world away. Even accounting for poor cartography by modern standards, the photograph did not show the supposed point it was included to illustrate.
Though not in the same realm of importance, what if this photograph of Neil Armstrong landing on the Moon:
was replaced with this shot of the Moon (hey, it’s the same thing, isn’t it?).
Recently, the Chicago Sun-Times fired all of its photographers, and issued iPhones to its journalists instead (plus paying insanely low rates to freelancers). The best illustration of the effects of this policy were made when the Chicago Black Hawks won the Stanley Cup:
EDIT: apparently, the Sun-Times is just the wrap around. Here’s their actual cover.
(ht Kimberly Rondeau)
In a world with more and more cameras, there are fewer and fewer good photographs being used. Perhaps it’s partially a dilution of the good work with the mediocre (or even downright bad), but I think it’s also a function of everyone and their dog having a camera and thinking they can recreate Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs with a Blackberry and some filters on Instagram. If only.
Some helpful tips
But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re out in the field taking your own photos (which I highly encourage), or just using images for presentations, reports, or outreach, there are some simple things to think about:
- Does the image illustrate what you want it to? (i.e., avoid the ostrich egg globe problem)
- Does the image ADD anything to the text? Or is it just a snapshot of something that’s mentioned (often the case with news stories about politicians)
- Is the composition aesthetically pleasing? Where are your eyes drawn first, do certain parts of the image distract from the main point?
- Is the image over- or under-exposed (too light or too dark)? This can generally be fixed pretty easily with software that comes standard with most computers / cameras.
I’m not saying that every photo you want to include needs to be fit for publication in National Geographic or the New York Times, but it should be better than the 3-second snap a 14-year-old just posted to Facebook or Tumblr or Instagram of their latest meal.
If you’re taking photos yourself (and you should!), play around. Digital photos are cheap compared with film (especially these days, and yes, you can still by film and have it developed, though no longer in 1 hour while you wait). Take photos of stuff inside and outside, natural and man-made, people and landscapes, close-up and far away. Take more than just photos documenting methods or sites (though those are important, too). Think about why you’re taking a photo. Do you want a picture for your title slide of a presentation? The cover of a report? Are you documenting a particular phenomenon?
Be prepared to ditch most of the photos you take. Be ruthless. When I first started, I tried for 1 shot of a particular bird, for example. Consequently, the photo probably isn’t the greatest – it’s blurry, part of what I wanted to show is cut off, etc. Now, I’ll rapid fire and probably delete the 90% that are junk, out of focus, or not framed the way I want. But I’m left with excellent photos that I’m proud to show.