As science and technology become increasingly important in our everyday lives, photographing their many forms becomes just as important. Companies and the media need compelling visuals to communicate messages about them, for everything from smartphones to healthcare and medical research to renewable energy.
A science and technology assignment encompasses any photography of science or technology from product images in a studio setting to labs and workshops, or the application of science in the real world. This differs from a scientific photographer’s work, which usually documents experiments for organizations or the scientific community. Some scientific photographers also use highly specialized equipment and techniques to reveal things that are invisible to the human eye, through disciplines such as astrophotography or photomicrography.
Of course, some images from a scientific photographer may be used for publicity, news, or features. However, when it comes to larger features or advertising campaigns, a commercial or editorial photographer is usually hired for their expertise in visually communicating what the company, institution, or editor is trying to convey. This can be a generalist or photographer specializing in science and technology photography.
A photographer specializing in this subject will be more experienced in crafting an image that communicates what the client needs to get across. For example, a client may want to show their technological sophistication or position themselves as a state-of-the-art company.
As this example illustrates, the specialty overlaps with healthcare, industrial, still-life, and advertising photography, and many photographers work across these categories. So, for example, the above image could have been shot for a healthcare story, as well as a science and technology story. Similarly, a product shot of a new tech device can either be a still life or a technology shot.
A photographer in this space needs an affinity for science and technology. Although they are not expected to understand the subject in great detail, they need to be aware of the bigger picture and where it fits into society and the commercial world. For Boston-based photographer Nicole Loeb, a love for science and technology took hold during her childhood.
Creating photos and videos of brilliant people conducting life-changing research is an honor. My mother was a microbiologist and would take me to her lab after school, so I have always felt comfortable in the environment and understood how exciting new machinery and technology can be for scientists! I find it fascinating to create photos and work in this industry, and love asking questions such as, ‘Why are you passionate about gene and cell therapy or manufacturing robotics?’ It helps me understand an assignment better.
Buffalo-based science and technology photographer Scott Gable is also driven by a passion for learning, which helps him produce better photographs.
I learn a lot about whatever process, tool, or engineering feat I’m shooting. This kind of behind-the-curtain nuggets of learning start to gel with other things I’ve shot and learned about, and I feel like my understanding of the world is better for it.
But it’s not just about having a broad understanding of the subject. A science and technology photographer also needs to know how to get the best out of people. Nicole added,
You need to be comfortable with people who may be a little quirky – the genius and impressive type of quirky. And you must be efficient because time is a rare commodity for many scientists. You must also understand the big picture and how the imagery will be important for the company’s growth, recruitment, pitch decks, website, and fundraising.
Regarding skills and equipment, assignments can vary hugely – from reportage-style features to elaborately lit still-life photographs of a product, and everything in between. Scott noted the importance of being adaptable on set.
You need to be flexible with how you shoot. Some projects require a minimal kit and the ability to move quickly from one scene or location to another. Other times, you’re lugging six cases of lights and equipment to shoot just one machine. I love seeing what people can make, do, or build, and then make it look amazing with lights and angles.
That means photographers need to be very versatile and be able to work with the restrictions that may come with, for example, a lab or factory environment. They have to communicate effectively to explore those limits and get the most out of a production. For example, photoshoots in industrial or lab settings must involve discussions of setups in advance, determining what can and can’t be done within a space.
In an increasingly visual culture, publications and brands are using photography and video to communicate science and technology concepts more effectively, making this a growing market. Like in many areas of photography, clients are now looking to photographers for more than a pure depiction of a subject. In a world that’s saturated with images from stock libraries and where generative AI platforms can conjure up any image with a quick prompt, clients are looking to photographers for creative ways of getting their message across. They need to be able to do more than just show what a lab or piece of technology looks like: they need to capitalize on their creativity and professional expertise to communicate ideas and concepts through images.
Of course, many science and technology assignments are shot by generalist photographers – for example, photojournalists or advertising photographers. However, with shrinking budgets, clients are less inclined to take risks. So, the photographer whose portfolio has projects that are the closest match to the client’s vision will most likely get the job.
For generalist photographers, competition is high, especially in cities. So, many photographers find that it pays (literally) to specialize and find a niche. In areas with many tech companies, having a science and technology-focused portfolio can give photographers a considerable advantage, as they give the client a better idea of what to expect. In addition to more potential commissions, this can also lead to higher pay. It also makes it more likely that clients will remember and recommend you because you’ve made a name for yourself in this field.
Both Nicole and Scott specialize in science and technology photography but also work in other fields. For example, Scott has a solid science and technology portfolio but also produces powerful travel and landscape photography. Nicole’s passion for science and technology is obvious from her website, but she also shoots lifestyle and portrait photography. Having more than one specialty works well for some photographers, as it allows them to offer a strong portfolio for each field, but allows them the flexibility to pursue a wider range of clients.
Having a strong specialization helps Nicole and Scott find work. Nicole finds that her extensive experience and background give her clients confidence in her work.
Marketing teams who are looking for Boston biotech photographers and videographers find comfort in my background and experience. I understand where and how the images may be used – often for recruiting and fundraising. My perspective of this is imperative to creating imagery that conveys those important messages.
Finding work in this field depends on building relationships via a network, approaching clients, and looking for recommendations. As the clients are often less in the media circus, LinkedIn can be a better place to make connections than, for example, Instagram.
When hiring a photographer in this genre, it’s not just about their specialization; the style must also fit. Emily Petersen is a photo editor for Science Magazine. She said,
When searching for a new freelance photographer, I look for portfolios with a style that would fit the story. That way, I don’t feel I have to reinvent the wheel, but I can collaborate and add to an existing creative process.
Style is also an essential factor for Monica Bradley, who commissions photography for the renowned Scientific American magazine.
First and foremost, I am interested in style and image quality. I look for photographers with a style consistent with our brand. For Scientific American, I look for large format images, or images with a feeling of large format photography, beautiful exposures, light, and color. When the technology is of industrial size, I go for photographers who don’t rely on wide angles to fit the scene into the frame. For still life and in situ imagery, I am looking for not only a documentation of the object, but also beautiful, compelling photography.
For Monica, a photographer’s portfolio needs to demonstrate their skills, proving they can deliver more than one perfect shot.
The second quality I might look for is tear sheets and a clear indication that the photographer can go into a potentially difficult situation and make feature quality photographs happen. There is a difference between the ability to take one nice shot at a location and the ability to shoot an eight-page feature.
Pricing heavily depends on a photographer’s experience and the caliber of their clients. An experienced photographer, who is established in this niche, can sometimes command higher prices than a generalist, in particular for assignments that need specialist skills.
The range of prices has more to do with the type of work and client. They can range from very low, for example, when covering a factory for a local newspaper, to very high, when capturing product shots of coveted technical gadgets.
Still, certain organizations may be able to assist if you’re looking for ballpark figures. For instance, The UK National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has up-to-date price guides based on the fees NUJ members got paid for similar jobs. In other countries, including the US, it’s difficult to find credible and comprehensive price guides for photographers. Most would provide general business advice on setting prices and settle at that.
Specialization can help a photographer establish themselves in that field, find more work, and often command better pay. This will set them apart from the competition, but the most successful photographers have an additional advantage: they do it because they love it. All the photographers we spoke to are driven by their passion for science and technology, a perspective echoed by Scott.
I don’t shoot personal projects centered around science and technology to fill out my portfolio, but because I really love shooting that kind of work. I didn’t find the niche; the niche found me.
PhotoPedagogy: Science and Photography
Wired: The Best Science and Tech Photography
YouTube: Pro Photography: Become a Specialist or Generalist?