Geologist Photographer, Photographer Geologist

The TV screen flickered to life as my family arranged themselves on the couch. On-screen, an aerial photo of Porto Rafti, a small seaside town east of Athens, Greece, marked the beginning of a two-week undergraduate geology department field trip to Cyprus. Figuring it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I had diligently photographed everything notable. I began regaling the family with photos of layered gabbro, sheeted dikes, pillow basalts, slag, boudinage, gypsum, corals, umber, and more. But halfway through, my dad interrupted to ask, “So, were there any people on this field trip with you”?

Or Dinosaurs? Dinosaurs would be fine, too. (Source: Jurassic Park / University Studios)
Or Dinosaurs? Dinosaurs would be fine, too. (Image source: Jurassic Park / Universal Studios)

It was a jarring question, and I realized my family was about to be bored out of their skulls.  If the roles were reversed it would be like sitting through “And here were are standing in front of the Historical Building. And here we are inside The Building. Oh, and this is a great one of your father pointing out the millwork on the ceiling joists”. I had wanted to share with them my portraits of Cyprus and the fascinating geology of an ophiolite. They wanted smiling faces in front of stuff – and not just for scale. The story on screen was not the one they expected, and I wound up fast-forwarding through most of the geology-centric photos.

brittle_ductile_faultsCommon advice when speaking to the ‘public’ is to respect your audience, which would have served me well. Photos are a form of communication, and as in all forms it is important to keep the audience in mind so part of the image stays with them. Sometimes the form is academic, to fill the frame with brittle and ductile faults (right). We can annotate, measure, discuss, hypothesize, and argue about the rocks. These are the sorts of photos to put in conference talks, the simplest “true” photos of the Geologist as Photographer Wedge.

However, geology is a global science, and geologists have the opportunity to photograph some wonderful locations (even in our own backyard, or in the lab). Extending beyond the utilitarian will naturally draw more interest to geological phenomena. There are multiple ways to improve image aesthetics, the simplest of which is to improve technical ability: composure, lighting, post-processing, etc. Tips and resources are everywhere, and a subset deal specifically with geological photography. However, there’s a field resource I think is underused by almost every geologist photographer: Humans. And not just for scale.

People crowd outcrops, poke their head into frame at inopportune times, shy away from the camera, or maybe only ever show their backside. But at the same time, they are interacting with the environment, picking up rocks, and pointing out interesting features. Capturing these aspects can be difficult, but when done properly will make for more dynamic photos. You can still get the academic shots and record sweeping vistas. It’s something I’ve noticed more by following National Geographic’s new blog PROOF, which tells some behind the scenes stories from Nat Geo photographers.

BIF and JeremyAn easy place to start is with your trip leader, as they typically gesture at everything and point out interesting features that everyone can see. Geologists get animated in the field, too, and are more animated in front of an outcrop.

Candid shots are rather more difficult, but it seems worth the effort when a broader audience will be interested in the photos. I think visiting zoos has helped me to practice for the field (not to draw too close a comparison…), because you get a feel for how patient and predictive you need to be to get a good photo. For example, one of my current favorites is of a relatively simple geologic feature, below:

students on rocks
Notre Dame students examine a large-scale reduction band in the Jacobsville Sandstone at Presque Isle Park, Marquette, MI.

Field work (and field trips) typically involve long hours, so it is not uncommon to be in the out for both the morning and evening golden hour. Above, our early morning expedition was rewarded with a clear sunrise on Lake Superior. For the geologists, the reduction band in the Jacobsville sandstone shows up clearly as the large ‘diagonal’ band at our feet. But there’s another layer of texture on top that draws other viewers in. The group was not scattered across the band for long, and I had to get into position and adjust my aperture to get a well-exposed and properly framed shot before the next shift.

People feature in more than half the photos (approaching 65%) from my last two field trips, up from less than a third in the Cyprus trip mentioned above. I’ll end with an encouragement for everyone to try and take more interesting photos of people in the field, and include one more photo below. The two halves show the same thing (ejecta strewn fields) on two planetary bodies, and it is the humans that tie the photos together.

Top: Boulder field at Camelot Crater from the Apollo 17 mission. Panorama compiled by Warren Harold of NASA/JSC. Bottom: Looking outward from the rim of Meteor Crater
Top: Boulder field at Camelot Crater from the Apollo 17 mission. Panorama compiled by Warren Harold of NASA/JSC. Bottom: Looking outward from the rim of Meteor Crater

This was originally intended to be part of Accretionary Wedge #56 (Geologist as Photographer) but wound up heading in a different direction and taking too long to be included.

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