This photomicrograph, taken by researcher Michael Peres, uses polarized light to visualize the elements of formoterol, a drug designed to improve breathing by relaxing muscles in the airways. This is just one of many examples of the power of photography to open new windows into the natural sciences.
In 1839, photography entered the public sphere in the form of daguerreotypes, metal-based images formed using chemicals like iodine and mercury. Almost immediately, a growing class of professional scientists put photography to work, expanding and systematizing what had been largely the domain of amateurs up to that time. The result of their work can be seen as early as 1843, when English botanist Anna Atkins published a book with pictures of algae.
Since then, advances in photography have continued at breakneck speed, increasing both the availability and the power of the technology. Flexible film, introduced in the 1880s by Kodak founder George Eastman, simplified the process of taking pictures. The halftone process, the act of reducing photographs to tiny individual dots, emerged around the same time and opened photography to mass distribution. And although the first color photograph was taken in 1861, it would still be around 100 years before it became widely available and accepted.
Photography branches out
With each development, amateurs and professionals alike have been busy inventing new uses for photography. The natural sciences were no exception.
Michael Peres is an award-winning photo educator, author, and photographer, as well as a faculty member of the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology. Peres explains the evolution of photography in the natural sciences as being driven as much by curiosity as by a commitment to expanding human understanding. “There was a new device and the scientists wanted to try it out,” he says. “They wanted to see if they could help science, help discovery, help teach, learn and improve society as a whole.”
Indeed, from cells to stars, researchers have used increasingly powerful cameras and lenses to observe what was once observable, document new discoveries and raise awareness of the ecosystems we so heavily depend on.
In 1851, a man named John Adams Whipple took the first known photograph (a daguerreotype) of the moon – and the field of astrophotography was born. Nine years later, James Wallace Black got into a hot air balloon and pointed his camera at the city of Boston, hundreds of feet below. The result is the oldest aerial photograph that has come down to us.
Today, rovers, satellites and powerful ground-based telescopes are constantly unveiling new discoveries, ranging from our own atmosphere to deep space. “We can see Mars visually now, and not just guess what’s up there,” Peres says.
Getting us to this point has had its own unique set of problems, namely exposure to high levels of radiation just beyond Earth’s atmosphere. “Cosmic and gamma radiation destroy pixels over time,” he explains. “So our devices can’t live up there very long, and NASA is constantly wrestling with how to protect their camera sensors or create algorithms that deal with dead pixels.”
In many ways, photography plays an overlapping role when it comes to physics and astronomy. This is more clearly the case when scientists study the behaviors of gases and the colors emitted by stars. From this information, scientists are able to determine what types of gases are present, as well as other information about an object’s composition and motion.
Photography has influenced the study of airflow, allowing researchers to answer questions ranging from how to launch an eight-ton plane into the air to how to improve fuel mileage through better aerodynamic. “Photography can help us see what happens when the air passes over a car, or what happens when the air passes over an airplane wing, or what happens when a bird flies through the air based on differences in air density,” says Peres.
Photography has played a particularly crucial role in advancing and expanding the field of biology, Peres says. “Drone and infrared imaging, crop damage and deforestation – what is do not done with photography and biology? »
Many of these efforts are driven by the urgent need to document and raise awareness of the effects of the ongoing climate crisis, particularly in regards to its impact on wildlife and landscapes.. “What happens to rivers and evaporation, mapping, monitoring and measurement – it’s all part of this explosive growth in the role of photography in biology,” says Peres.
Equally impressive is what is happening on the ground at the microscopic level. “Scientists grow cells in Petri dishes and take pictures under a microscope every day to learn how to regenerate nerve cells,” he adds. “Genetic engineering, agriculture, the collapse of the world of bees – we are able to study everything over time through photography.”
Taking a step back, there is also the category of earth sciences more generally. This includes hurricane cameras, cameras that attach to animals living in the ocean, as well as satellites measuring global warming through thermal imaging, and much more.
Peres says that recently, infrared imaging has allowed farmers to use drones to study their crop yields by illuminating diseased versus healthy plants based on their color signatures. “Weather, water, climate change, animal migrations – photography has a part to play in all of this,” he says.
As far as chemistry and photography are concerned, it is mainly the pharmaceutical, forensic and petrochemical industries. “They are gigantic,” says Peres. One of the reasons for this is their ability to capture and study the behavior of materials in all kinds of environments and at the microscopic scale. “They can analyze a material or the presence of crystal creation or chemical reactions using spectrophotometry or ultraviolet,” he explains.
In this way, researchers at these companies are using photography to answer questions such as how to speed up crop yields and even extend the lives of very sick people.
“There’s nothing that doesn’t touch chemistry or that chemistry doesn’t touch,” Peres says. The same could therefore be said of photography.
What the future holds
Photography itself continues to change – and it is changing the world of natural science dramatically. “We cure diseases and discover galaxies through photography,” says Peres. Cameras roam Mars and document our digestive system in the form of tiny pills.
To ensure continued discovery and progress, future generations must learn not only the art but also the ethics of photography within a scientific framework. “Edit a photograph from space and you could delete an entire galaxy,” says Peres.
With a solid set of best practices in place, Peres sees little chance of photography-focused advancements slowing down. On the contrary, it anticipates the opposite. “I’ll bet you the life cycle of how long it took for a discovery continues to get shorter and shorter based on tools and technology and the ability to communicate.”