At some point in time, you are going to work with pictures in your science career. They are also an incredibly effective outreach tool. Check out this article listing some amazing science images from 2014, via iO9(I’m going to be referencing some of these pictures throughout this post).
Do you notice anything in common amongst those images? Many of them are captivating and interesting, even without context. A well composed image will do that for you. You want to capture attention? Make sure your photos, illustrations, graphics, etc are the best they possibly can be. Learn image post-processing (ie photoshop), vector illustration, and photography. You will not only have great outreach material, but you’re academic publications, talks, etc will vastly improve as well.
This week you’ll be creating the content that you will ultimately use in your outreach. Using either an already existing image or a newly created image, make it publication ready. It is easy to spend a lot of time editing just one image, so spend at most 30 minutes on this exercise. We don’t want you to get stuck in post-processing purgatory!
What exactly makes an image compelling is more art than science, but we’re going to give you a few tips that you can use to make this process more manageable.
Image Composition. Believe it or not, you have control over what you display in your image. And how you compose your image is extremely important. Think about what you want your audience to see, vs what you are currently showing them. Think about how they will perceive it, because often perception and reality are not in alignment.
This photo is extremely well composed. The narrative is very simple: the dinosaur this bone belongs to is huge! It conveys that message very well by relating the size of the bone to the boy in the image. Even better, is that the boy seems to have a sense of amazement about him as he looks upon the bone. It is very clear that the photographer spent some time thinking about how the message should be received.
The Rule of Thirds. We already talked about the photography use of the rule of thirds and how it can be used in presentations. What we’d like to share now is when you should break this rule. It is true that aligning your image subject with the imaginary grid lines adds some dramatic flair, but you don’t always need to do this. In fact there are some instances where you just don’t want to.
In this photo, the author intentionally centers the terrifying mosquito tornado. In this instance, the twister is definitely a centerpiece and is treated as such in this composition. In fact, placing it off to the side would just detract from the overall image and serve as nothing more than a distraction. Another good reason to disregard the rule of thirds, is when you are trying to preserve symmetry.
Generally speaking, it is a good idea to keep at least two versions of an image. One where the placement of the subject is centered and another where you are playing with your subject’s placement in the image.
Color and Contrast. One of the most important things to do is to make sure your images are high contrast (and this will apply to everything else on your poster as well). Remember the image of the hawk from last week? Notice how it clearly stands out from the background, even though the colors are similar. That difference is due to contrast. In image terms, contrast is the visual difference between light and dark. The less contrast you have, the more indistinguishable borders/boundaries will be. The more contrast there is, the more pronounced shadows and highlights will become. Below is a before and after image of popcorn, taken by Anthony:
The first image is the original, and the second image has been edited a bit to increase the contrast. Notice how it is much easier to see the texture of the popcorn and the seasoning. The downside to increasing the contrast too much is that your image may have unintended dark areas that become exaggerated. And similarly, your light areas will look grossly overexposed.
Contrast also plays a role in color. Or perhaps it is the other way around…
Recall the color wheel from our middle and high school art education. Each color on the wheel has an opposite, known as its complement.
These complements provide an inherent contrast when paired. One of the easiest ways to provide contrast (and aesthetic) artistically is to use these complements. You can even expand your palette from a two color set, to multiples using complements as a basis. You can try color triads (break the wheel into thirds and use corresponding colors in each third), tetrads (fourths), etc. Adobe provides a helpful website that allows you to play with different colour combinations following these sorts of rules.
But sometimes it isn’t enough to just use complementary colors to provide contrast. For instance, many people are red-green colorblind. So how can we modify our color choice to provide maximum contrast? For that we need to understand color saturation.
One way of thinking of colors is to look at the HSV color space. The HSV (Hue, saturation, value) color space is a cylindrical representation of the color wheel.
Each hue (or color) of the wheel can be thought of in terms of its own color intensity (from white to full color) and blackness. By adjusting the saturation and value you can enhance the contrast between two colors. For example, when dealing with red-green colorblindness you could change the saturation of the green to be less saturated (more white) and adjust the value of the red to be darker:
Check out this example from the European Space Agency:
This image uses hues and saturation to demonstrate temperature intensity and changes in color value to show magnetic field lines.
Leading Lines. Your eye will naturally navigate around an image as you absorb it. But did you know that the content of that image could impact how you look around it? Marketing people are excellent at this. For instance, Cosmopolitan magazine very specifically lays out its cover page to attract your attention to the internal content that will garner sales. That’s why they very commonly put the sex column details in the upper left side of the cover:
The content of the image itself can also influence your eye, and the exploitation of that is called leading lines.
The image above is a classic example, as the road draws your eye to the real star of the show: the scenery. Sometimes leading lines have negative effects:
In this image, the lines in front of the bird draw your eye up, but to nothing. Not only that, they are distracting from the subject (the bird). I’m sure you’ve seen family pictures where someone is standing in front of a tree, or a pole. Since images are two dimensional, these bad cases of leading lines does nothing but distract your audience from an otherwise excellent graphic.
Image Cropping (and Scaling). Unless you are dealing with vector graphics, you will never want to scale your image. Scaling too much will exaggerate the inherent pixelation of an image (based on its resolution, ie the number of pixels per inch in a picture). But you can crop an image.
Cropping allows you to modify an image’s aspect ratio (the ratio of the length to the width), increase the focus on the image subject (without scaling), or even allow you to reposition it. Let’s say you want to apply the rule of thirds to an already existing image. You can do that!