How to Take Photos in the Field
If part of your job as a scientist involves going into the field to collect data, good photos of your work are a huge asset. They are solid gold for outreach to management, funding organizations and donors. They may be useful in journal articles, your institution’s publications, or the general-interest press. And, they’re nice souvenirs.
But few scientists think much about photos while in the field; they are too focused on the work itself. Or they take casual snapshots that fail to convey the grandeur of a landscape, or the excitement of the research. It need not be this way. As a reporter who has documented dozens of field expeditions, I’m here to say: You can do this, do it well, and still get the research done.
A colleague recently suggested I write up a formal guide to photographing your own fieldwork. This is not that. It’s more a look at images from various expeditions that hopefully illustrate some tenets of picture-taking, and get at some of my own thought processes. To be honest, I’m mainly a point-and-shoot person, lacking a lot of technical skills or fancy equipment. I just follow the action, and a few basic rules.
All the below are from my online photo essays depicting field trips by scientists from Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Most were taken with relatively inexpensive consumer cameras. At this point, you could probably accomplish much the same with a cell phone.
I have pulled a shot or two from each expedition. Click on any photo, and it will take you to the full photo essay; each one is also linked to a written story.
Most photographers start with what’s called a shot list: a list of must-have photos that tell your story. “Getting there” is often the first one on mine. Here, a fast-moving fishing boat off Panama is taking volcanologist Connie Class (right) and colleagues to sample rocks from seaside outcrops. How you frame the picture is key; embracing empty space is one way. I shot when I saw everyone neatly silhouetted against the sky. I also liked this moment because it has such a sense of expectation, with the upraised boat prow and Connie’s hair flying in the wind.
I almost never have people pose for anything; it usually looks boring and inauthentic. I just wait for the right moments to come along, and shoot. However, sometimes a formal portrait works. This is paleontologist Paul Olsen, on the eve of a major operation to drill into 200-million-year-old rocks in northern Arizona. The unreal-looking backdrop of the Painted Desert, the waning evening light, and Paul’s upright figure against the landscape he was investigating made me demand that he stand still for a minute and look at the camera.
Geochemist Beizhan Yan, left, was studying how fracking in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, might affect rural water supplies. Here, he visited retiree Mary Alice Heaney, who was worried about a field next door slated to be torn up for a gas well. I feel it is important to convey the human dimension of any work when possible. The contrast between the strong light outside and them sitting together inside I thought gave a feeling of intimacy, and also provided a clear frame.
In order to maintain viewer interest, one needs to take photos at a variety of distances: close, medium, long. This one is long. At Iceland’s Hellisheidi power plant, our scientists were helping with a project to inject carbon emissions underground. In big landscapes, the presence of a human establishes scale; the geologist in her yellow raincoat also adds a point of interest to an otherwise amorphous scene.
Indoor shots of computers and lab instruments are often necessary evils. They can help tell a story, but are rarely much to look at. This was an exception. Here, volcanologist Einat Lev (left) and U.S. Geological Survey scientist Matt Patrick, at the USGS observatory on Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano. The brainlike thing on the screen is a real-time-image of a nearby lava lake.
For your shot list, document every step of your data-collecting process. Here’s Tree Ring Lab technician Javier Martin Fernandez coring a tree in southern Missouri. I took pretty much this same picture dozens of times, from different angles with different people, at different scales. Redoing every shot-list image will greatly increase your chances of getting something good, if only by chance. The great National Geographic photographer Robert Clark, with whom I once worked, told me: The only real difference between an amateur and a professional is that the professional takes more pictures.
Inevitable on the geology shot list: person pounding a rock. Near Chile’s remote Quizapu volcano, grad student Rayen Gho took a turn. This photo illustrates photography’s “rule of thirds.” That is, divide the image into thirds with two equidistant vertical lines, and then again with two horizontal ones. Try to have the main point(s) of interest fall along one of these lines. Not all photos can be composed this way, but you’ll see that many are. (Check the Paul Olsen portrait and the tree-ring shots, above, and several others further down.) Below, you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Try to include fun non-work moments, especially ones that speak to how you adapt to field conditions. This was our first chilly evening near Quizapu, after hiking all day at high elevation. Our tents and warmer clothes, loaded onto pack horses, had not yet caught up with us, and everyone was freezing.
A relevant image need not always show the research itself. At the Kenya National Museum, during a trip with geologist Chris Lepre to investigate the roots of early humanity, I ran into two homo sapiens visiting the glassed-in remains of our ancestor Homo erectus. The skeleton itself would not have made much of a picture; it was the women’s reaction that gave it a spark.
They always tell you: Don’t shoot into the sun. However. Ecologist Natalie Boelman was in northern Alaska, where the boreal forest peters out into tundra, investigating how fast-warming climate might spur the northward march of trees. I thought the blinding sunlight, and its reflection on the lens, helped tell the story.
In Madhya Pradesh, India, thousands of people have been evicted from forest preserves to make way for wildlife; geographer Ruth deFries and a grad student were investigating their fates. Newly resettled Suresh Kumar (with pan) and Jamni Bai were separating rice from chaff when we visited. I got dusted with chaff, and that was fine. Sometimes you must jump into the middle of something to capture it. (Within reason; always ask permission, and don’t get in anybody’s way!)
When someone is moving fast, it often pays to shoot rapid-fire bursts to capture the right instant. Here, paleoclimatologist Billy D’Andrea yanks some gear from a frigid Norwegian lake. By the way, this is another illustration of the rule of thirds.
The Jordanian shore of the Dead Sea. A trip led in part by geochemist Yael Kiro was looking into the shocking recent shrinkage of the sea, due to water overuse and climate change. The meter-high stair steps you see are previous beach lines, each representing just one year’s retreat of the water. Here, positioning myself was key to getting the shot. We at first were walking together; but to have my comrades provide a human scale for this strange landscape, I sprinted down ahead of them to the water’s edge, turned around and shot.
Here’s another way to position yourself. Ecologist Marie Uriarte was in Puerto Rico documenting damage done by 2017’s Hurricane Maria. To get at both the emptiness of the torn-up canopy above and the quick regeneration of the forest floor below, I bellied myself prone into the greenery and shot up-slope.
Ultimate positioning device: the drone. So far, I’ve only photographed them being used, not used them to photograph. But as more researchers gain access to them, it’s worth considering. This was a trip to the Greenland ice sheet led by geophysicist Marco Tedesco. Uh-oh. I shot into the sun again; but something told me it would work.
Just to recap: Use a variety of scales. It allows you to get at the same idea in different ways. This was from an expedition to the Caribbean island of Barbados, aimed at gauging past sea levels by studying upraised ancient coral reefs. These cliffs, being surveyed by geodynamicist Jacqueline Austermann, are made entirely of coral.
Same coral, different scale. Expedition leader Maureen Raymo inspects a deposit further inland.
Coral specimen, really close up. I kept the human hand in for scale.
Connect with local culture, if you can; it often applies to your story, even in unlikely fields like hard-core geology. On the volcanic island of Anjouan, off east Africa, geologists including Steve Goldstein (left) hunted specimens of quartzite, a metamorphic rock that conventional theory says shouldn’t be there. But it is. Farmer Ali Saindou, right, flagged us down and showed us a chunk of the mysterious rock. “Great for sharpening knives!” he said.
Fun photos can be had without exotic travel. Paleoclimatologist Nicole Davi explores a rare old-growth forest preserved on a decommissioned military base on New Jersey’s Sandy Hook peninsula. I took this picture spontaneously. Only upon later analysis can I say what drew me: the filtered afternoon light, the gnarly texture of the ancient tree–and the delight on Nikki’s face.
Want more? Here are a few other guides to basic photography that offer useful, simple information.
Cell Phone Photography 101
40 Tips to Take Better Photos
How to Take Professional Photos: A Beginner’s Guide
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