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Through The Lens: Using Photography To Tell Science Stories

Through The Lens: Using Photography To Tell Science Stories

A behind-the-scenes look at a first-of-its-kind workshop on science photography.

Photo: Team Sane, Shoot for Science.

A close look: Often seen in hordes, this is a picture of a single termite building a mound in a lab. This close-up view shows a lack of external eyes, despite which these insects manage to create homes as tall as 8 feet. (Photo: Team Sane, Shoot for Science)

Sixteen researchers, eight days, four stories, two instructors; the Shoot for Science workshop that was organized from February 19 to 26, 2017, was the brainchild of molecular ecologist turned science-photographer, Prasenjeet Yadav. Co-organised by Anand Varma, a National Geographic photographer based in the US, the core focus of the workshop was on science communication. While scientists pursue questions with a passion, few others have an insight into the scientific process. The language scientists use is often technical and the excitement of science gets lost in jargon. Efforts to bridge this gap are of vital importance—they inform a wide audience about the successes and impacts of science, increase scientific literacy and inspire young students. Effective communication requires time and creativity. The first step is to capture the attention of the audience. Few media achieve that first step more successfully than photography.

The aim of this unique workshop, Shoot for Science, was to enable scientists to tell the story of their science to a wide audience using photography. Training scientists for the job was a natural choice — it would be easier to equip a scientist with the tools and know-how of photography; they already have a deep and personal insight into the process of science.

Supported by funding from National Geographic Society and hosted by the National Centre of Biological Sciences, Bangalore, the workshop began with an introduction to the basics of photography. Armed with cameras provided by Nikon, and an array of lighting and miscellaneous accessories, the participants subsequently worked in groups to develop photo stories around research done by scientists at NCBS. Here is the story of the workshop told in a series of photos, interspersed with some of the stunning pictures produced by these newly-minted science photographers.

(Images credited to ‘Shoot for Science’ were taken behind the scenes. The ones credited to different teams are images taken by the participants during the course of the workshop.)


Photo: Team Agashe.

A simple light source is used to create a compelling shadow of a bacterial colony in a Petri dish containing growth medium on which a leaf pattern has been imprinted. The swirl patterns come from the cooling of medium and glass plate as it solidifies. Do these microbes play a beneficial role in butterfly growth and development? That’s the question being pursued in the Agashe lab.


  Photo: Shoot for Science.

The first day began with a crash course on camera basics. Technical tricks aside, it was the story that was of central importance. To this end, participants spent the afternoon listening to talks from 4 scientists at NCBS. Their first major exercise was to distill the science and draw out stories that could be told using images. They each proposed possible shot ideas that were refined in the following days.Expert tips to help get the light just right: Anand Varma teaches students the application and importance of lighting techniques and how lighting can be used to highlight a particular scientific process in science photography.


Morning sessions on subsequent days were dedicated to hands-on sessions on lighting and composition. Prasenjeet Yadav helps students understand how the direction and intensity of the light source affect the final image.


Photo: Team Agashe.

Here, a plain tiger larva feeds on milkweed leaf. The leaf is placed in microbial growth medium to show abundant growth of microbes. This representational image suggests that the larvae feeding on the leaf eats the bacteria too; this may be essential for its growth and development.


Photo: Shoot for Science.

Kurt Mutchler, senior science photo editor at National Geographic, narrates the stories behind the alluring photo stories he has crafted for the magazine, to a captive audience at Dasheri Auditorium, NCBS. He also shared an editor’s perspective, giving insights into elements that help shape an engaging science story.


Photo: Shoot for Science.

Parijat, one of the participants takes her time composing her picture of a virtual reality set up constructed by the scientists in the Olsson lab.


Photo: Shoot for Science.

Pictures taken in a lab give a glimpse of the arena where all the excitement unfolds. Here, the photographer is seen sharing space with a clutter of equipment and furniture to catch the experiments as they happen.


Photo: Team Brockman.

Capturing bees at night hours to track down certain chemicals that influence behaviour and analyse whether they have a role in timekeeping.


Photo: Shoot for Science.

Not all science happens within the confines of a lab. Here Yadav helps one of the teams capture termites using studio-like conditions in the field.


Photo: Team Sane.

Using water labelled with green fluorescent dyes, scientists in the Sane lab track termites and study how they modulate the moisture content of the soil, making it better suited for their building needs.


Photo: Shoot for Science.

Shoot for Science was an intense course. The participants had a steep learning curve to climb. They took the challenge head-on, clocking long hours in the studio brainstorming together and honing their images and collaborating to create that perfect shot. ”It was a great learning experience. Starting from how to think of communicating a story to how to use a camera, it was all new to me,” said participant Ipsa Jain who had previously only used mobile cameras.

It was heartwarming for the organisers to see how seriously the participants took their assignments and very often, they were pleasantly surprised by their dedication and the quality of the work the teams produced. They hope to sustain this effort and empower a quorum of scientist-photographers in India, who through their images can spread the joy of science, and perhaps inspire aspiring young students to pursue careers in science and science communication.

First appeared in: IndiaBioscience

Author: Harini Barath


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September 25, 2017, 05:33 PM
 Being an insect photographer, i appreciate this initiative to unfold the unexplored information. I am presently working on spider neobrettus sp for last 7 months....so many moments that i could captured are surprising and beyond my imagination ! Hope to present soon for the scientists to explore. Good Luck for this team effort.
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