top of page

Revealing Worlds: The Meeting of Photography and Science

There is extensive overlap between photographic and scientific disciplines. With both fields embracing technology to discover, analyse, document and share new facets of the world and the greater universe, photography and science have enabled the exploration and application of phenomena fundamental to our modern existence.

cell science photography microscopic art iris28
Fayette Reynolds

Borne from a mix of chemistry, physics and engineering, photography is a scientific pursuit. A visual timeline of scientific progress has been secured in photographic imagery from Niépce's Heliograph made in 1827. Milestones such as the first fixed photograph, the first colour photographic image or the first digital photograph are all preserved or documented through the visuality of the photographic process itself, creating a fascinating picture of recent scientific methodologies. And because photography has developed and aided facets of science such as medicine, conservation, botany, zoology, astronomy and aerospace, we witness the visual outcome of science through photography as well as the process of discovery itself.

When Sir John Herschel first discovered the cyanotype in 1842 it was adopted as a means to document organic specimens for scientific research. However, it was Anna Atkins, already an accomplished watercolourist, who thoroughly blended the fields of science and art with the medium. By using the cyanotype process, Atkins hand-printed several albums of detailed textile and botanical specimens. Atkin's best-known work, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions is the world's first book illustrated with supporting photographic content.

Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins science photography iris28
Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins

The beauty and scientific utility of the cyanotype process caught on, with Antarctic artist and naturalist John Davis either making or commissioning a number of cyanotypes from seaweed collected on the Ross Antarctic Expedition. Herbert Dobbie, a New Zealand engineering draughtsman and botanist also produced a book inspired by Atkin's titled New Zealand Ferns: 148 Varieties.

From its earliest years, photographers and scientists sought to use photographic tools to divulge what cannot be seen with the naked human eye. Another example of photography revealing telling visual occurrences beyond the limits of human observation is Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering high-speed chronophotography, which - at the very least - decided a long-running debate about whether a horse in gallop lifted all four hooves off the ground at once.

Commissioned by the former governor of California, Leland Stanford, Muybridge was tasked with making a photographic system that would outperform the naked eye. Over the course of several years, with the help of engineers and technicians from the Central Pacific Railroad, Muybridge developed rapid mechanical shutters and state-of-the-art electrically-triggered mechanisms. Muybridge also experimented with increasingly sensitive photographic emulsions to compensate for necessarily brief exposure times.

Muybridge captured a clear sequence of a horse in a gallop in 1878. Positioning 12 specialized cameras along a race track, Muybridge set up a series of trip wires to activate each shutter as the horse sped past. The elaborate setup was a success, proving horses do locomote at speed with all four hooves lifted in each stride, furthering the reputation of photography as a vital scientific tool.

In 1885 Paul and Prosper Henry, astronomers at the Paris Observatory, were tasked with the project of mapping the heavens in painstaking detail through observation, calculation and precise note-taking. Approaching the Milky Way, the brothers realised the galaxy was far too dense with stars to chart with the human eye. Instead, the two brothers constructed a refractor telescope with a clock-drive designed for photography. They used the sophisticated instrument to photograph stars, nebulae, asteroids and the lunar surface. The brothers also made the first successful photographs of the Planets when they captured Jupiter and Saturn in 1886, changing the way astronomers investigated the heavens to this day.

The moon surface and Ring Nebula by Paul and Prosper Henry
The moon surface and Ring Nebula by Paul and Prosper Henry

Not only did photography ease the burden of transcription and meticulous measurement recording, but it also revealed hidden manifestations invisible to the naked human eye. A micrograph or photomicrograph is a photograph taken with a microscope to reveal the magnified image of a subject. Although micrographs were originally intended solely for scientific analysis, the results were interesting and beautiful in a way that created highly engaging imagery. Thanks to photographers like Wilson Bentley, the first person to take detailed photographs of snowflakes, micrography began to reframe the visuality of the surrounding world through photographic image-making. As Bentley wrote in Popular Mechanics magazine:

Photographing these transient forms of Nature gives to the worker something of the spirit of a discoverer...

Today, contests such as Nikon's Small World are run to showcase life as seen through the combination of microscopes and photographic processes. Other creative groups, such as sculptors, dancers and quilt makers have also incorporated microscopic imagery into their art practice.

Snowflake Study | Wilson Bentley | 1890 | Smithsonian Institut art photography science
Snowflake Study | Wilson Bentley | 1890 | Smithsonian Institute

While photographic images as a whole were being used to capture and analyse visual information, isolated photographic ingredients also proved useful for gathering scientific data. Emulsions are sensitive to visible light, but they can also be sensitive to wavelengths much shorter than 40nm, such as ultraviolet and X-rays. Emulsions can also be sensitized to infrared radiation, with wavelengths slightly longer than 700nm. In both cases, the photographic emulsion has proven to be a valuable tool in revealing phenomena occurring outside regular human vision.

In 1936, prolific scientist Harold Edgerton, a professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, photographed a black-and-white image titled Milk Drop Coronet. Depicting a drop of milk impacting a milky surface, Edgerton's image was painstaking to create, hinging on the precise alignment of equipment settings, surface milk thickness, and the distance travelled by the falling droplet.

With Milk Drop Coronet, Edgerton exemplified his invention of modern stroboscopic photography, a system that utilizes a rapid succession of intense flashes of light in order to capture a quickly moving object. Edgerton's son Robert described the process:

A beam of light and a photocell was trigger the flash after an adjustable electronic delay. A dropper produces a small drop following the main drop of liquid from the neck pinching off in two places. This small drop following the main drop is seen in the photograph of the splash made by the main drop

Identifying the importance of conveying scientific discovery through compelling imagery, milk was selected as an appropriate substance to photograph because it was white and translucent, contrasting with a shadowy black backdrop. Along with a wealth of other subjects, Edgerton continued to experiment with milk droplets for two decades before he achieved a similar result on colour film.

Edgerton's images are considered some of the most important scientific photographs of all time, and a major contribution to the development of controlled electronic flash technology and scientific imaging. Beaumont Newhall, a pioneering photographic historian, included Edgerton's strobe image of the milk drop in the first exhibition of photography at The Museum of Modern Art in 1937. According to Stopping time: the photographs of Harold Edgerton (1987) Newhall later told Edgerton:

Through your perfection of the electronic flash, mankind has seen phenomena never before visible or even imagined

Today, high-speed digital camera technology is regularly utilized in science to image events that occur too fast for our perception. Biomechanics makes use of these cameras to capture high-speed animal motion, such as the boiling strikes of the mantis shrimp or the aerodynamics of bird flight.

From the ground to the air, scientists and photographers have merged skills to study the natural and artificial world from above. Aerial photography was first achieved by the French photographer and balloonist Gaspard-Félix Nadar Tournachon in 1858 over Paris, France. The earliest surviving aerial photograph, taken 360 meters above the city of Boston by James Wallace Black in 1860 is titled Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It, a title aligning humans with a visuality once reserved for high-flying avians. This blend of photography and aviation was soon adopted by scientific groups eager to survey and photograph landscapes and archeological sites like Stonehenge (first documented from a balloon in 1906) from a great height.

Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It | James Wallace Black | 1860 | Public Domain
Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It | James Wallace Black | 1860 | Public Domain

Today, aerial photography with both manned aircraft and drones are used extensively for archeological, environmental, zoological and geological purposes. Whale migrations are regularly tracked and recorded photographically from the air and sites of ancient civilizations are often documented from above. From monitoring rainforests and crop damage to water pollution detection and erosion, the use of aerial photography to survey the Earth below has provided a way to quickly record information about large swaths of land and sea, as well as a means to share visual information to encourage positive action.

Nazca Lines surveyed from the air photography art animals science
Nazca Lines surveyed from the air

Beyond our atmosphere, scientists monitor a vast array of subjects throughout the cosmos with vehicles like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Mars Rovers relaying photographic images back to Earth. The Mars Perseverance Rover is equipped with numerous still cameras. The Mastcam-Z is Perseverance's mast-mounted camera system made up of two duplicate cameras that work together to produce 3D stereoscopic images. As the highest-resolution colour imaging device sent to Mars so far, the system can quickly zoom, focus, and take pictures and video to allow for detailed examinations of distant objects. According to NASA, these cameras can image subjects as small as the tip of a pencil close-up, and render the size of an almond from a football field away.

Other cameras on board the Perseverance include SuperCam, the PIXL and the SHERLOC. SuperCam is equipped with a laser that it uses to examine rocks and soils, documenting the results photographically. PIXL uses X-rays to study chemical elements and SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) uses cameras, spectrometers, and a laser to search for organics and minerals that may have been altered by watery environments in the past. SHERLOC is fittingly aided by WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering), a colour camera for taking close-up images of rock grains and surface textures.

Perhaps one of the most monumental examples of modern photography and science is the James Webb Space Telescope, collecting visual cosmic data approximately 1,500,000 km beyond Earth's orbit around the Sun. As the largest optical telescope in space, the JWST's high resolution and sensitivity allow it to image old, distant, or faint objects beyond the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope. This enables the observation of the first stars, the formation of the first galaxies, and the atmospheric analysis of exoplanets.

The JWST has several cameras on board. NIRCam (Near Infrared Camera) is the primary imager used, with spectral coverage ranging from the edge of the visible through to the near-infrared. To capture hard-to-detect objects in space, NIRCam is equipped with numerous coronagraphs. These devices block light from bright sources, allowing for the photography of fainter and dimmer objects in the area. The NIRCam also features ten mercury-cadmium-telluride detector arrays that capture images similar to charge-coupled devices (CCDs) in conventional digital cameras.

The Heart of the PHantom Galaxy | 2022 | NASA
The Heart of the Phantom Galaxy | 2022 | JWST

One of the most impressive technical aspects of the JWST construction is NIRSpec, the near-infrared spectrograph, which separates incident light into individual colours for detailed analysis. The device's micro shutter works with four 3.81cm squares with an array of 62,000 microscopic shutters. The shutters open and close selectively, capturing light targeted by NIRSpec and allowing the system to observe over 100 objects simultaneously.




IRIS28 receives an affiliate fee from certain online retailers (like Amazon) when readers click over to their website via the links provided on our site. This policy helps support the operation of our blog and allows us to keep access to our content free to the public. In any case, we always remain objective, impartial and unbiased in circumstances where affiliate links are included.

Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.


bottom of page