Science Is an Untapped Photography Niche




Photography: PNNL – Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Today’s photography market has brought opportunity to every photographer with a store of talent and a stock of camera equipment but it’s also brought plenty of competition. If prices for stock images have fallen to microstock levels it’s because good photos are now common enough for buyers to shop for bargain prices. That presents a challenge for photographers hoping to stand out in the market. More worryingly, as duplication becomes the most common reason for stock companies to reject submissions, it may even represent a closing of the opportunities that photographers have been enjoying. But while stock sites might be filled with images of flowers, businessmen and offices, they struggle to provide specific images for buyers with particularly special needs.

Standard images (sunsets, puppies, a guy in a suit holding a briefcase) are plentiful on iStock and contributors face stiff competition,” iStockPhoto has told us. “There still is a tremendous need for specialty shots. For example, shots that convey specific scientific concepts with appropriate props and models.”

Those kinds of photos though aren’t always easy to create. Contributors to PhotoResearchers.com, a specialist scientific stock site, are often professional scientists first and photographers second, experts with access to the kind of expensive equipment necessary to shoot cells or capture microscopic images. But not all scientific photos need the kind of gear usually found in laboratories or the kind of knowledge picked up while taking science degrees. Sometimes the same type of image created by any kind of photography enthusiast can be made scientific with just a little extra thought.

It’s All in the Description

This shot of Yellow Daisies, for example, is exactly the kind of photo that many enthusiasts would be happy to shoot without leaving their back yard. This shot is of the same subject (and has sold more downloads) but look at the difference in the descriptions. While the second photo, offered as a design element, makes do with the description “Sunflower isolated, white background,” repeated in German, the first photograph offers a ton of vital information about the subject:

“Rudbeckia hirta – Black-Eyed Susan.

Rudbeckia is flowering plant commonly known as coneflowers. Close flowering relatives are Echinacea, Dracopis and Ratibida. They are herbaceous, mostly perennial plants. The flowers are produced in daisy-like inflorescences, with yellow or orange florets arranged in a prominent, cone-shaped head. They are popular garden flowers, distinguished for their long flowering times. There are many cultivars of these species. The name was given in honor of Uppsala University botanists professors Olof Rudbeck (father and son). The plant is also a popular garden ornamental..”

That kind of detail (swiped apparently from Wikipedia) changes the nature of the image entirely. The photograph is no longer just a pretty picture of flowers. It’s a picture of Rudbeckia hirta, a popular garden ornamental.

Simply adding scientific detail to the description then can be one way to move a standard image closer to a scientific photo. Another can be to include scientific tags in the keyword description. The Latin names of plants can help to do that but it’s also possible to mention the parts of the photo’s subject. iStockPhoto offers over 410,000 photos to someone searching for “flowers.” It offers fewer than 15,000 results however to buyers looking for “stamen” even though many of those other shots will show the plant’s reproductive bits too.

Scientific Images Don’t Have to Be Flat, But It Can Help

More usually though, photographers hoping to capture some of the scientific market will need to shoot very different kinds of compositions. Just as photographers hoping to sell standard stock photos should look at adverts and magazines to see the types of compositions that designers like to use so photographers hoping to sell scientific photos need to spend time looking through textbooks, nature guides and science magazines to see the shots those buyers find the most attractive. They’re rarely as artistic or as creative as the images used in popular science publications like National Geographic. The pictures in the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Birds, for example, are well-taken and interesting but to an artistic photographer, they can look a little flat. They weren’t shot to be admired though. They were chosen for their ability to help an ornithologist identify the bird in front of him. That means the colors have to be clear and the details should be apparent but they don’t have to deliver the bird’s personality or create an emotional impact. It’s a different way of shooting — and one that can be combined with a regular, artistic shoot.

It’s not just the style that differs though. Demand within scientific imagery can vary too. In general, the harder the image is to obtain the less competition the contributor will face and the greater the chances that a stock company will accept it. For most photographers though the most difficult images to shoot are also impossible to shoot. But even scientific publications have a weakness for the most photogenic subjects. Shots of interesting-looking creatures such as mantises and pitcher plants, hairy spiders and giant trees tend to enjoy greater sales than images of pigeons and grass lawns.

Events can make for interesting scientific pictures too. Some photographers have managed to build an entire career out of the moment a water droplet explodes but shots of butterflies emerging from cocoons, carnivores catching prey, and flowers in mid-bud all contain elements of action that make for pictures that are both interesting to the eye and informative to the scientific reader.

And, of course, if you’re really looking to develop scientific shots as a specialist niche there are few challenges as interesting as macrophotography with its basket of dedicated equipment, library of special techniques and yard-full of subjects, from parts of large plants to the fangs of tiny bugs. They’re all a challenge to shoot, they’re accessible, and many of them are commercial too.


One comment for this post.

  1. Bob Davies Said:

    Hey Scott

    Fantastic post. I saw this and wondered what other ideas within the science niche were highly relevant, I pulled a bunch of science topics which will sell well from the picNiche database and put them in a post on the picNiche blog :)
    Hopefully it's useful to your readers.
    http://picniche.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/science-themed-stock-photo-ideas-to-shoot/

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