Photography in Geology

Guadalupe Peak, West Texas

Photographs and annotations on the photographs are important for any scientific paper’s ability to clearly, consistently, and concisely explain to the reader observations and ideas. Too often in scientific papers, especially in the field of geology, I see photos with annotations consisting of vague arrows, unclear of what the reader should focus on, or even worse, the annotated photo where the writer relies entirely on the caption to explain to the reader the importance of different features in the photograph.

I don’t consider myself a good photographer by any means. I do love to practice taking photos and I consider every shot I take a chance to learn more about the medium. I’ve mostly self-taught myself the techniques of working a camera and arranging a shot with the exception of a high-school digital media art class where I learned the basics of Adobe Photoshop. Recently, I began reading Ansel Adams’ book Camera and Lens. Reading the forward is what inspired this post.


First why do we need to think about photography? What problems and challenges to we face when preparing photos and annotating figures for publication?

  • Size. Will a 2.5 inches wide conserve detail and resolution?
  • Cost. Figures in a paper cost the author money. Extra for color figures. 
  • Annotation. This must be clear without distracting or obscuring the information in the photograph itself.
  • Color. As mentioned above, even with the proliferation of online journals, color figures cost extra. Color also forces the author to think about readership, colorblindness. Also, many journal articles are consumed via black and white prints on cheap paper, how will the color photos look when printed in black and white?
Serpentine and Asbestos, Quebec
Before we delve into those questions I’d like to share and reflect on some quotes from Ansel Adams. 

Information through photography is abetted by aesthetic factors… There should be a little art in the most practical applications of the medium, and the technical elements must be fully developed in all.

Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas; it is an exalted profession and a creative art.

Should we add a little art into our scientific photos? What Ansel Adams is telling us here is that we should have a complete understanding of our technical camera equipment. An understanding of camera aperture and shutter speed can be useful for different lighting situations. For instance I know that my Nikon D7000 tends to overexpose photos in bright direct light when the auto setting is on. By understanding the technical limitations of my camera, I can counteract that with manual settings to take a better photo.

Tiny hoodoos. Xuantunich, Belize

Countless photographs are dull and unrewarding simply because they convey only the surface light and shadow of the world–not the substance or the spirit. Why is an Edward Weston photograph of a rock vastly more exciting than a very competent informational or technical picture of the same rock? The chances are that the latter might by physically “sharper,” and may reveal to a geologist certain physical facts in all the aspects that the Weston picture cannot do.

So I wonder if we can strike a balance between the technical and the art, the dull and the spirit. Can we make photos that are both factually compelling and creatively compelling?

The difference between the creative approach and the factual approach is one of purpose, sensitivity and the ability to visualize an emotionally and aesthetically exciting image… It is a safe assumption that aesthetic and emotional factors accent the informational content of any image; they create interest, and this spurs the desire for comprehension. 

So let’s work to make photos and figures that create interest in our work and “spur[s] the desire for comprehension” of our science.

Carlsbad Caverns, NM


I highly recommend learning the manual settings of your camera. When I got my Nikon D7000 I was given a book specific to the D7000. It was a great resource for lens and settings recommendations for shooting everything from portraits and landscapes to macro and moshpits. 
For anyone interested you can check out my photography on Instagram and DeviantArt. Comments and criticisms on my photos are always welcome. I always want to know what I could have done to make a photo better.

Have any thoughts on the state of figures and photos in science? Let us know in the comments.


    What do you do with reviewer comments?

    A few months ago I submitted a grant proposal requesting money to perform some tests on a small aspect of one chapter of my PhD research. My grant proposal was rejected. I wasn’t surprised, this was the first grant I had ever written, so surely it was far from perfect. I could have expanded the importance of my research, gone into more detail on the analysis to be performed, worked harder on the accompanying figure, ect. When a grant proposal is returned (either accepted or rejected) to the author it includes feedback from the reviewers. In this case the reviews had a specified format for the reviewers to follow: i.e. Objectives and comments, Significance and comments, ect. I was quite surprised at the disparity between the two reviewers opinion’s of my proposal. 

    For instance Reviewer #2 said the problem I was addressing was “Clearly Defined”, the significance of my project was “Interesting/Novel/Innovative” (the form probably just had check boxes for the reviewer to click), and that my methodology was “Clearly stated, well conceived and success likely”. Awesome, right?
    Reviewer #1 disagreed. The problem I was addressing was “Not defined”,the significance was “Unacceptable”, My methodology was “Too vague to evaluate chances”. The accompanying comments from Reviewer #1 indicated that there was a complete disconnect and lack of basic understanding with my field of study, so far that I’m guessing the review wasn’t a geologist?). I will give them the benefit of the doubt in that my proposal was probably the billionth proposal they had read, that they had read it late at night long after the 10th cup of coffee had worn off, and that they were skimming every other sentence. Based on Reviewer #1’s comments it is clear that they did not know the terms, jargon, and ideas I was discussing. The proposal was supposed to be written for a general geology audience, so maybe I should have defined more terms. However, there was a tight word limit for each section of the proposal so I had to pick which jargon I should define. If I defined every piece of jargon I used that’s all my proposal would have been, with no discussion of what I actually wanted to do or how my idea is significant. Also, a quick Google search for one of the misunderstood terms yields a clear and simple explanation in the first result.
    Based on Reviewer #2’s comments it is clear that they completely understood my proposed project and why I wanted to do it. Reviewer #1’s comments show they didn’t read my proposal. So where do I go from here? How do I find that middle ground where I demonstrate that I know what I’m talking about, still connect to a general audience, and stay within the word limit. I guess in future proposals I will have to set aside space to define terms.
    What are your thoughts? As a reviewer do you have time to look up unfamiliar words or concepts? Do you have any stories of particularly useless reviews? Or particularly useful reviews for that matter?

    Drilling Deep for Earthquakes

    This video was posted on the California Academy of Sciences website. Here Harold Tobin explains the goals of the NanTroSEIZE drilling project and how it ties into the larger picture of earthquake hazard assessment. This ship was also used during the JFAST project to drill the Tohuku earthquake fault. I’ve posted about the JFAST project before and here or learn more from their official page.

    #SciWrite update and day two of Geocon 2012

    Alright this day started off with exciting news. My #SciWrite manuscript was accepted with moderate revisions.  This is the first manuscript I’ve ever written and was too excited to make the morning Geoconvention 2012 talks. Instead I spent time reading through reviewer comments and emailing with my co-authors. Can you blame me?

    How I felt upon hearing the news my manuscript was accepted with moderate revisions.

    In lieu of morning talk coverage, here’s an owl:

    and an owl cleaning itself

    Eventually I closed my laptop and popped into the Future Petroleum Resources of Canada III: Arctic Archipelago in time to see Dylan Tullius discussed the reservoir potential of the early Cretaceous Isachsen Formation in the Sverdrup Basin. He gave an excellent talk and had beautiful slides. I stuck around after the coffee break for Ashton Embry’s talk on episodic tectonism recorded in the depositional history of the Sverdrup Basin.

    After lunch I sat in on the Carbonate Sedimentology session. The highlight of that session was a talk given by Graham Banks on porosity in northern Iraq carbonate reservoirs. Graham and his team found fine-grained carbonates with a complex fracture network that created a high permeability reservoir. They utilized a fracture analysis tool called the Sky Held Imaging Tool (whoever came up with that name didn’t think it through) to map fracture patterns with stitched images. Graham showed two very cool photos of bitumen seeping out of an outcrop wall. The session wrapped up with a talk by Stephen Longfield and Hadi Slayman on combining facies analysis and geostatistics to model reservoir permeability.

    The Japan Trench Fast Drilling Project and the unprecedented drilling depth

    Right now my advisor, Christie Rowe, is located at the orange dot in the above picture. What are a bunch of earth scientists doing on a boat off the coast of Japan? They’re drilling with the goal of piercing part of the fault that slipped during the Tohoku earthquake (M9) of 2011. That earthquake had a fault slip of approximately 50 m (Lay et al. 2011) that caused a devastating tsunami. The Japan Trench Fast Drilling Project, or JFAST hopes to drill into the fault at the plate boundary.

    The drill site is located at a water depth of 6910 m and the researchers hope to drill 1000 m below the sea floor. These depth goals put the Chikyu research vessel on record setting waters. The awesome thing is that GPS transponders on the sea floor at the drill site allow the Chikyu to be positioned within 3 cm accuracy above the drill site. Science rules.

    The drilling has two main goals. First, the recovery of fault rock samples. Check out this blog post by Christie Rowe for why we care about fault rocks. The fault rock core will provide insights into the nature of seismogenic earthquakes, which can be compared with what we know about ancient fault rocks exposed in the field. Second, the fault will be instrumented to record the residual heat, fault permeability, and fluid/rock chemical properties. The residual heat will be used to gain insight into the frictional strength of the rock.

    Follow along with developments here: The researchers are required to blog.