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Andrew Alden

Accretionary Wedge #56: The Geologist as Photographer

By April 11, 2013

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basaltJohn Keats famously wrote, about an antique artwork, that "beauty is truth, truth beauty," and readers ever since have pondered exactly how that makes sense. When geologists photograph their objects of interest, I think I can say fairly, they fall on the side of truth. What makes a landscape beautiful, or a rock beautiful or a fossil beautiful, is more than just its superficial attractiveness. These things also have geological information. In documenting them, the geologist's task is like that of the portrait photographer: to show the beauty in the true. That's why we put ourselves with Audubon and his birds rather than Monet and his waterlilies.

My own goals as a geological photographer have always been to instruct people. To do that I avoid the beautiful—museum specimens and other things you'll never find on an average day. The important thing for me is to help you see the ordinary. That's why I used a cobble of lava that I picked up on a Hawaiian beach as an example of basalt. I took a lot of poor photos of it, under many different kinds of light and different backgrounds. I learned new ways to use my photo software to make the results closer to the way I actually saw this stone. Finally I got some decent images and uploaded them.

That was back in the late 1990s here an About.com. It was pleasant, soon afterward, when textbook publishers began offering to pay for my photos. But it wasn't a total surprise, because I knew that no one else was taking instructive pictures of ordinary things.

That piece of basalt, over the years, has paid for my last two cameras and my photo software with enough left over for some new field equipment. Lately the money has faded away, and that's OK because it was never my main focus. I think that real photographers have caught on, and more power to them.

But today there are lots of geologists sharing their photos, and I don't want to speak for any of them. That's why I've asked them to offer their own photos and their own points of view as part of the Accretionary Wedge blog carnival number 56. I'll add links as they come in and edit this post.

The blogger known as Silver Fox describes a visionary mindset that has her mapping and diagramming the landscape as she passes through it and frames it in her viewfinder: "The photographs I shoot often already have contacts and fault lines drawn and visible in my mind, and the erosional or depositional remnants of geologic time are jumping out of the scenery and into the frame."

Lockwood Dewitt considers his 30 years of photographing things and weighs in on the side of information: "even if a shot is gorgeous, if it's not telling a story, or part of a story, it's not one I'll be likely to take."

Hollis Marriott is a professional botanist, but she carries around with her a keen geological eye. On her blog In the Company of Plants and Rocks, she presents "What I See": Barneby's clover and the Nugget Sandstone it thrives on.

Siim Sepp, the Estonian creator of the highly photo-centric Sandatlas blog, says in his entry, "Geology is so highly visual science that camera is much more useful tool for me than my rock hammer." I can say, to corroborate his thought, that I've been hammering less and photographing more as the years go on.

Garry "Geotripper" Hayes shows a photo from Utah's iconic Arches National Park in which the iconic Delicate Arch is barely glimpsed, focusing instead on the deep background, because "the geologist's eye takes in more than icons."

Ole Tjugen, on his new Overburden Blog, looked for a photo without a hammer in it. His postcard-perfect shot of a fjord takes on real meaning as he explains how this beautiful photo is also true.

Bethany Ellis's Patterns of Nature blog is definitely drawn to the image: large, crisp and well composed. In her post she sees a familiar landmark through new eyes: "as a geology student I now have a new appreciation for this natural icon."

Jessica Ball posts in her Magma Cum Laude blog about a photograph from her field area in Guatemala's Santiaguito volcanic complex. It keeps her both grounded and elevated—grounded in being reminded how small she is, elevated in "recapturing the sense of awe and delight I felt at that moment."
Hawaiian basalt — Geology Guide photo


April 12, 2013 at 12:01 pm
(1) Jon H says:

Excellent post! I tried an experiment about a decade ago now with CC-BY photos via GeologyRocks (http://www.geologyrocks.co.uk/images), attempting to build up a catalogue of useful photos and diagrams. A few of mine have been used elsewhere (but no sales, sadly!). 10 years later, I think there are now much better sites, but a list of free-to-use images would be a great asset to any geo-educator.

I also write an article on how to photograph geo specimens – outdated and needs a facelift, but might still be useful: http://www.geologyrocks.co.uk/articles/photographing_geological_specimens

April 13, 2013 at 6:28 pm
(2) Christine says:

I’m still trying to decide how I want to record the rocks I observe. Part of me knows that a consistent look, a neutral background, and a measurable object for comparison makes scientific sense. But some of my favorite photographs are the ones I take the moment I find a specimen, with the natural surroundings in the background, and the only comparison the size of my fingernail or palm. The jury is still out.



April 15, 2013 at 3:48 am
(3) Tony K. says:

Geology is one of the few interests I can think of that is so demanding on a camera. Not just that it might be carried in to some harsh environments, but that also you can find yourself trying to take an extreme close-up one moment, then trying to take an extreme telephoto picture of some distant formation the next.

Perhaps there is an article in this? “Good cameras for Geology”? I am looking around for a replacement camera right now and am struggling a bit over going for something around $300-400 that would not be too disastrous if I lost or damaged it, or do I go for one around $1,500 that should be weatherproofed and so less likely to get damaged, but it would hurt a lot more financially if it did get damaged.

Interchangeable lenses for a DSLR, or fixed lens, cheap, super-zoom camera? It is fun trying to pick one, but a little frustrating as my knowledge of cameras is limited.

April 15, 2013 at 4:47 pm
(4) Geology Guide says:

Tony, it depends on your needs. Cheap point-and-shoots are good enough for most blog posts and even most journal article figures. That’s what I’ve always relied on. I think a good camera for geology is two cameras—of any sort.

April 15, 2013 at 11:13 am
(5) rfault says:

Photographer to Geologist: I was photographing geology while I was winding down a career in photography in LA. Looking back, one of the first images was of the San Andreas fault as in runs through Palmdale, CA. I was attracted by its design and contrast to surroundings.

Fast forward 15 years, I’m in Portland, OR where I’ve been studying geology and photography has taken a back-seat but I’m still drawn to the intrinsic beauty of geology, at both the micro and macro, but with more knowledge about what I’ve photographed. I’ve met geologist who are less aware of this attraction, but attracted nonetheless.

April 17, 2013 at 4:03 am
(6) Pencho Dimitroff says:

I’m relatively new to About Geology so please excuse me,etal. Sorry, but I still use a SLR with analog ‘chrome’ film, and find I get more life out of film than pixils. Also, I photograph fireworks and find that analog film is much more forgiving !!! This theme carries over to my geology photography. When I fly, I try to fly early in the mornings or late afternoons to take advantage of LSAP (low sun angle photogra- phy). The results are slides with more ‘depth’ for some reason than with a digital camera (probably because my dig. cam. is a ‘point-and- shoot’ model (?) -my budget prevents me from working with a $1-3000 dig. cam.; yes, many of you are thinking with all of that ‘chrome’ film you are buying you could get a good dig. cam., but what holds me back is that feeling that I get that better ‘picture depth’ in my geology photos in the ‘chrome’ mode. And I really like my ‘chrome’ close-up and landscape geology photos as well. If I shoot the close and landscape geology photos with my ‘point-and-shoot’ cam. the resulting print photos are “not bad’,i.e., I can live with the results. My future camera choice is dreaming on a stereo ‘Chrome’ cam., but that is way in the fiuture.

April 17, 2013 at 9:05 am
(7) Hollis says:

Here’s my contribution:


Neat topic btw.

April 18, 2013 at 2:38 am
(8) Garry Hayes says:

Here is the photo I chose. Thanks for hosting this month! http://geotripper.blogspot.com/2013/04/accretionary-wedge-56-because-every.html

April 18, 2013 at 10:15 am
(9) Siim Sepp says:

Here is my contribution:
Geology and photography

Thanks for the interesting and inspiring topic!

April 19, 2013 at 2:28 am
(10) Ole Tjugen says:

Mine is here:


Like Pencho I prefer film, this was actually shot as a chrome using a 13x18cm large format camera. Not the thing you usually want to bring on a field trip. :)

Ole Tjugen

April 20, 2013 at 7:31 am
(11) Bethany Ellis says:

This is my first time participating in the Accretionary Wedge but I have enjoyed reading the other posts. I hope my contribution isn’t too late.



Bethany :D

April 22, 2013 at 3:49 pm
(12) Jessica Ball says:
October 14, 2013 at 1:29 am
(13) Sanuja says:

As a Geology student, I am also looking into cameras that can take detailed images at macro level. Thanks for the article.

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