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Science Photography

Check out the rest of this series from Chris Linder, who went from writing grants as an oceanographer to getting NSF grants to visually document scientists. His insights range from grant writing to packing for the extreme conditions of Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. Here he explains how he uses his images to redefine stereotypes about the scientists he documents. To learn more about Chris’s latest expedition to the Bering Sea, register now for his webinar live on location and see daily photo essays from the expedition.
A researcher pushes ice floes away from a delicate instrument. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

A researcher pushes ice floes away from a delicate instrument. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

Ultimately, my goals as a photographer are to communicate three things: the process of doing science, the excitement of science as a career, and the beauty of the earth’s most remote places.

The “Live from the Poles” project has given the public a glimpse into a world that very few people will ever experience — the inner workings of major polar research expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. I believe that the “behind the scenes” moments of overcoming logistical hurdles, deploying instruments, and just plain surviving in the polar regions are all important stories that are seldom covered by traditional media. Let’s face it, working at the edge of the map is adventurous, and I shoot the expeditions like any other adrenalin-soaked activity like mountain biking or climbing. Which relates to my second goal…

I believe that scientists have suffered from a branding problem. What do you think of when you hear the word “scientist”? At least when I was growing up, it conjured images of white-bearded men scribbling obtuse formulas on blackboards or huddling over bubbling test tubes. While this stereotype may have some basis in fact, it doesn’t accurately describe the scientists I know. My colleagues at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and other earth science research institutions often brave punishing weather conditions to collect their field data, on glaciers, mountains, oceans, and volcanoes. I have photographed oceanographers working in the Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras in winter, when waves up to 30 feet high threw our 177-foot research ship around like a child’s toy. I have trudged alongside glaciologists as they explored miles of rugged terrain on the Greenland Ice Sheet. These people are as tough as nails and determined to the core. With my photographs, I am hoping to create a new image of active, adventurous scientists. By extension, I hope that our audience, particularly kids, will develop a stronger interest in science as a career.

My final goal, to document the pristine and otherworldly environment of the polar regions is, in some ways, the easiest task and in other ways the hardest. Obviously, these places are incredible locations for landscape photography. There are no tripod holes from previous shooters here — in many cases I am seeing landscapes that no other human eyes have looked upon. But to get the very best shots, you need to give up certain comforts, like sleep. Often, the best light for landscape photography in the Arctic and Antarctic occurs in the middle of the “night.” During our final week on the Greenland Ice Sheet last summer, the entire sky flushed pink for an hour every night at about 2 a.m. Sleep becomes a luxury in conditions like that; I pushed myself hard every day to document the science, napped for a few hours, shot until 5am, then repeat. I just tell myself, you can catch up on sleep when you get back.

Check out the rest of this series from Chris Linder, who went from writing grants as an oceanographer to getting NSF grants to visually document scientists. His insights range from grant writing to this post about packing for the extreme conditions of Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. Also, you can register now for Chris’s upcoming webinar live from the Bering Sea.

As Chris explains, this is why he uses hard cases for his gear.

As Chris explains, this is why he uses hard cases for his gear. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

The simple answer to the question, “How much gear do you take?” is, “As much as I am allowed.” Each expedition has presented a different sort of logistical challenge. For a ship-based expedition, like the trip aboard the Swedish icebreaking ship Oden, there was really no limitation to what I could bring. A 400-foot-long icebreaker is like a small floating city, and typically you can walk your gear right onto the ship.

For other trips, like shooting in remote Antarctic field camps, I was severely weight-limited. Everyone traveling to McMurdo Station (the largest U.S. base on Antarctica) is allowed only 85 pounds of personal luggage on the C-5 flight from Christchurch to McMurdo (not including carry-on). When you factor in the heavy weight of parkas, cold-weather gear, and boots, there isn’t much room left for photography equipment. So for that trip I loaded my heaviest gear into a small carry-on backpack and packed the rest of the lenses, tripod, and accessories into socks, long underwear, and parkas, and stuffed them into a combination of hard and soft cases.

Generally, while traveling I carry a small backpack with essential camera gear plus two hard-plastic Pelican cases—one for laptops, chargers, and hard drives, and the other for extra photography and communications equipment. Often the cases will be sitting out in the rain or snow for hours at a time in transit, so waterproof hard cases are essential. On a typical expedition, I will bring:

  • MacBook Pro for photo editing
  • Dell laptop for Iridium satellite data communication (if necessary)
  • two 320GB Lacie rugged hard drives for photo storage
  • assortment of cables and chargers
  • two Nikon camera bodies (D2Xs and D300)
  • assortment of lenses (10.5mm, 12-24mm, 17-55mm, 70-200mm, 105mm macro, 300mm)
  • accessories (1.4x teleconverter, strobe, gels)
  • communications equipment (Iridium satellite phone or BGAN Inmarsat, data modem, chargers)
  • carbon-fiber tripod and heavy-duty ballhead
  • small collapsible reflector/diffuser

On location, I prefer to work out of a waist-belt system made by ThinkTank. I carry one body with two lenses in a Digi Holster 50 and the rest in lens cases strapped to a heavy-duty waist belt. This system allows me to quickly swap lenses without slowing down, while also preserving my spine. Since 99% of my photographs are not posed, being ready to grab a shot at a moment’s notice is critical.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: What’s was the hardest lesson you ever learned about packing or traveling with gear?

Chris Linder has made a career for himself documenting scientists working largely in the Arctic and Antarctic. Check out his earlier posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) for great tips about writing grants and working with institutions to make your grants more appealing. And don’t miss his next post about the logistics of packing for and working in extreme weather conditions.
My favorite shots are the result of careful planning, like knowing exactly where to stand to capture this dye release into a glacial river.

Chris's favorite shots are the result of careful planning, like knowing exactly where to stand to capture this dye release into a glacial river. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

My first Arctic expedition was also my first foray into digital photography. This was 2002. The D1, with a whopping 2.74 megapixels, was Nikon’s flagship camera and lower priced bodies like the D100 had not yet hit the market. But the premise of our project was that we would be updating a website daily with images and text, so Woods Hole sent me out with a 5-megapixel Nikon point-and-shoot as a supplement to my film SLR gear. I had never used a digital camera before and had only rudimentary experience with Photoshop. The learning curve was steep. I practiced with the camera before the trip but there were huge limitations compared to using an SLR system: the zoom lens had a small range of focal lengths, creative control of aperture and shutter speeds was limited, and, perhaps worst of all, the camera responded very slowly (both in terms of shutter lag and frame rate).

Yet, shooting with that first digital camera opened my eyes to the power of digital. I could see my results immediately — I knew when I had the shot or didn’t. Using a small point-and-shoot with a tilting LCD also allowed me to get some really candid shots that would not have been possible with a huge DSLR. The following year, I upgraded to a D100 and said goodbye to film.

Knowing the science allows me to anticipate where to stand not only to get the shot, but also not be crushed by equipment or swept overboard!

Doing his research allows Chris to anticipate where to stand not only to get the shot, but also not be crushed by equipment or swept overboard. ©Chris Linder/WHOI

A more important lesson I learned (and continue to learn) was how to photograph scientists. This may be patently obvious, but scientists do not have training as models. A surefire way to destroy a really intense moment, like a group of researchers discussing a recent result, is to wave a huge SLR in front of their faces. More than anything, I learned how to get the shots I needed while at the same time preserving the scientists’ respect and trust. Remaining unobtrusive is key. I always keep in mind that the fieldwork I am photographing is the result of years of hard work to get funding and prepare for an expedition. Time is a precious resource when you’re in the field, so I make it a point to never interrupt their work to stage a scene.

Everything I shoot is completely natural and unscripted and sometimes quite raw. Which isn’t to say that I wander about aimlessly hoping for lucky shots. I apply the same patience I learned from the grant writing process to carefully researching my subjects. This means I know what is going to happen (like when and where an instrument will be brought on deck) and will wait for the players and light to come together, sometimes for hours. I usually spend this observation phase with the camera ready but down, out of sight. As the hours and days go by, I eventually fade into the background, and voila, I’m invisible. Of course, it’s also essential to do your share carrying boxes, washing bottles, making dinner, or otherwise showing that you’re part of the team and not afraid to get your hands dirty doing real work. When you’ve earned the respect of the team—when you become a member of team—it’s a lot easier to get the shot.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: How has research helped you get more access and make better photos?

Chris Linder received a National Science Foundation grant for his “Live from the Poles” project in part because of the strength of his proposal, excerpted below, which outlined a “media team” that would travel with research scientists to Antarctica and document their work. Check out Chris’s earlier posts (1, 2, 3, 4) for lots more great tips about getting grant money for photography from unusual places. And don’t miss post “6” explaining the importance of researching your subject so you can stay out of their way and get the best shots.
On the job at Cape Crozier, Antarctica. © Chris Linder/WHOI

On the job at Cape Crozier, Antarctica. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

When I wrote the “Live from the Poles” proposal with the WHOI Director of Communications, this was our justification and plan for the embedded media team:

“Insightful writing and compelling images are the heart of every successful publication. The core of this project is support for a professional science writer and field photographer to join each expedition. Scientists are frequently working around the clock when in the field, and have little time to describe their fieldwork with written dispatches and photography. They also cannot be expected to have the training required to produce professional photographs and video clips. To ensure that the groundbreaking research conducted during this historical period [International Polar Year] is properly documented, support for the writer/photographer team is critical to this proposal. The team will be responsible for filing daily dispatches including science updates, logistical challenges, team member profiles, and life at sea (or on the ice). The team will also coordinate real-time phone patches from PIs [Principal Investigators] in the field to museum audiences, National Public Radio stations, Scholastic magazine, and manage student Q&As with scientists. An experienced shore-based team at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) will manage Web updates from the field, and prepare publication of photo essays and articles in Oceanus magazine, which receives 30,000 visits online each month.”

To summarize, we were cognizant of the lack of quality photographs coming out of scientific expeditions and saw an opportunity to assemble a professional team to tell visual stories from the field. The trick was to do it daily from some of the most remote places in the world.

So why photograph science fieldwork? There has never been a more important time to understand how our planet works. Glaciers and Arctic pack ice are shrinking at an unprecedented rate. Rising temperatures are causing profound shifts in ecosystems. In the October issue of Scientific American, John Holdren, a Harvard physicist and President-elect Obama’s White House science adviser, wrote that “the ongoing disruption of the earth’s climate by man-made greenhouse gases is already well beyond dangerous and is careening toward completely unmanageable.” According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, a consensus of the world’s scientific experts, we (human beings) are causing unprecedented changes to our climate.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a doom and gloom kind of guy. Despite the challenges that rising global temperatures will present in the coming years, I believe in human ingenuity and resilience. And scientists are out there in some of the harshest places on our planet, like the Greenland Ice Sheet and Antarctica, collecting data on past and present changes so we can better predict future conditions.

I’m an idealist; I see science as a noble, selfless profession. By photographing scientists in the field, I am hoping to communicate a deeper understanding and respect for the scientific process and profession, and to urge people to use scientific knowledge of the world to help sustain it.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Chris is one of the few photographers documenting the scientists studying climate change, but many photographers are publicizing it through their images directly. Who are your favorite photographers working on climate change right now?

February 23rd, 2009

Tips from a science photographer 4

Posted by Chris Linder

In “Tips from a science photographer 3,” Chris outlined how he partners with museums and educational institutions to make his work more appealing to grant committees. Don’t miss his next post on how he designed the “Live From the Poles” expeditions that garnered funding from the National Science Foundation and led him to a full-time photography career.
Chris's work for Woods Hole Oceanographic has led to other jobs, like this project photographing the construction of the new Yankee Stadium.

Chris's work for Woods Hole Oceanographic has led to other jobs, like this project photographing the construction of the new Yankee Stadium. © Chris Linder

While my projects with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) take up most of my time, I now spend roughly a quarter of my year running my own freelance photography business. The reputation I have established through my WHOI work has led to some tough but rewarding assignments, like documenting shellfish farmers on Cape Cod, construction workers at the new Yankee Stadium, and medical students at a summer internship. Although the people and the settings could not be more different, the general theme is the same: people working outdoors.

A second tangible extension of my photography for WHOI is my involvement with the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). My efforts in communicating conservation science topics like climate change led me to cross paths with ILCP Director Cristina Mittermeier several years ago. She encouraged me to apply, and I joined the ILCP as an Emerging Member in 2007. Working with world-class photographers who have been covering environmental topics for decades has been a life-altering event. I participated in a RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition) in May 2008 to document the impact of oil and gas development in Wyoming and will be participating in another RAVE focused on the environmental consequences of the US-Mexico border wall in January-February 2009. Working alongside photographers that share my passion for the environment is inspiring. Many of the ILCP Fellows, like Frans Lanting, Gary Braasch, and James Balog have been role models to me as I have developed my own photographic vision. Working alongside them on RAVEs and other ILCP projects is an incredible opportunity.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Starting out by photographing something you know very well is often a good way to build a portfolio that can lead to a wide range of assignments. Please share your story if you’ve had a similar experience.

February 16th, 2009

Tips from a science photographer 3

Posted by Chris Linder

In “Tips from a science photographer 2,” Chris explains how to write a photography-based science grant. In this post, he demonstrates how strategic partnership with museums can make a grant proposal more attractive. Check back for “4“: How visually documenting science projects can lead to other photography assignments.
The Field Museum in Chicago is one of eight partner museums in Chris's "Live from the Poles" project. © Chris Linder/WHOI

The Field Museum in Chicago is one of eight museums Chris partners with for the "Live From the Poles" projects. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

One of the biggest hurdles you face as a photographer when writing an education and outreach grant is: How do you get your message out there? Who is the audience and how do you reach them? You may have the best idea in the world for communicating science, but if your audience is your 58 Facebook friends, chances are you’re going to end up with a “Proposal Declined.”

To increase the audience for our “Live from the Poles” proposal, we teamed up with eight science and natural history museums across the country: the Museum of Science, Boston; Liberty Science Center, Jersey City; Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh; the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC; the Houston Museum of Natural Science; The Field Museum, Chicago; Birch Aquarium at Scripps, La Jolla, Calif.; and the Pacific Science Center, Seattle.

This collaboration has been one of the highlights of the “Live from the Poles project. It’s very symbiotic—the museums deliver kids and adults that are eager to learn about science and we provide the content: cutting-edge polar science, explained in an easy-to-digest format (daily photo essays from the field and live question-and-answer talks via satellite phone). It’s very satisfying to me, as a native Midwesterner, to teach kids in Chicago about polar oceanography through a public program at the Field Museum.

In addition to the live talks while we are in the field, museums use my still images for exhibits and slideshow presentations. Working closely with the Field Museum, I created a photography exhibition titled “Exploring the Arctic Seafloor” that is currently touring natural history and science museums across the country (at The Field Museum in Chicago from Feb. 22 to July 6).

There’s no question that effective partnerships make you more attractive to proposal reviewers, especially if each partner brings a strong component to the proposed work. Analyze your proposal for weaknesses and then find a partner that specializes in those weak areas. It takes a lot of phone calls, e-mails, and meetings to keep the team organized, but the rewards are substantial.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Are there other photographers out here who have successful partnership with museums or other educational institutions? How did you initially connect with the institutions and what have the rewards been for both of you?

February 9th, 2009

Tips from a science photographer 2

Posted by Chris Linder

In “Tips from a science photographer 1,” Chris explains how he went from writing grants as an oceanographer to receiving grants from the National Science Foundation to visually document scientific work. In this post he explains how to write a photography-based science grant. Check out “3“: How to partner with museums to make your grant proposal more attractive.
Much of Chris Linder's photographs, like this image, are made while helping with research. ©Chris Linder

Many of Chris Linder's photographs, like this image, are made while helping with research. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

Although there are a number of federal agencies that fund science, including NASA, the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the bulk of my grant-writing experience has been with the National Science Foundation (NSF). Each funding institution is different, so I will focus on the NSF process.

I know of only one National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that supports artistic endeavors: the Antarctic Artists and Writers grant. That is an unusual grant since it provides logistics support and access to the Antarctic continent only; no other funds are supplied.

If you want to photograph science and be paid for your work through an NSF grant, you need to either partner with a researcher submitting a scientific proposal or get your own science education grant.

1. Collaborating with a researcher
All proposals to NSF are evaluated based primarily on two criteria: “Intellectual Merit” and “Broader Impacts.” Intellectual merit is straightforward: are the proposed scientific advances worthy of funding? NSF more loosely defines broader impacts as “how well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training and learning?” More »

February 2nd, 2009

Tips from a science photographer 1

Posted by Chris Linder

Chris Linder gets big photography grants from an unlikely source: the National Science Foundation. Every Monday until he leaves for his April 4 “Live from the Poles” expedition, he’ll share tips about photographing for science institutions and preparing for an Arctic photo expedition. Check out “2”: How to write a photography-based grant for the National Science Foundation.
"On my first expedition for Woods Hole Oceanographic, I photographed researchers at work in the Irminger Sea east of Greenland." © Chris Linder

"On my first expedition for Woods Hole Oceanographic, I photographed researchers at work in the Irminger Sea east of Greenland." Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

When I started at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) nearly ten years ago, I was an avid photographer but had no idea that I would someday be paid to photograph researchers on the Greenland Ice Sheet and Antarctica. My first oceanography cruise for Woods Hole, in the summer of 2001, was a month aboard the 177-foot long research vessel Oceanus studying the turbulent waters west of Iceland. My job was to stand a science watch. That entails helping wrangle unwieldy instruments over the side of the ship and making sure that all of the equipment is recording data properly.

When I wasn’t on watch, I indulged my passion for photography. But it wasn’t the photographs of pilot whales and icebergs that caught the chief scientist’s eye — it was the photographs of people working aboard the ship. As a member of the science party, it was easy for me to capture candid moments of people working on deck, analyzing water samples, and playing cards. At the time I had no idea of the value of what I was doing. But when I returned home from the expedition, the photographs were used in calendars, annual reports, and presentations.

The following year, that same scientist hired me to document his 3-year project working in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. In addition to documenting the work with my camera, I also wrote daily first-person essays describing the experience and facilitated direct communication between the scientists and school kids. It was a tremendously rewarding experience, and for the first time I discovered the power of photography as an educational tool. It was also the start of a new niche for me at Woods Hole—that of a field photographer and outreach specialist. Now, although I still help with analyzing data and publishing papers, science photography and other education projects make up the bulk of my work.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Any other photographers out there who made a name for yourself by visually documenting an industry you used to be part of? What were the keys to your success?

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