Scientists in many fields use still photography in their research. However, the exact camera specifications and details of their needs are often quite different than those of photographers whose motives are creative or historical in nature. For example, scientists may be concerned with questions relating to ultra-high-speed photography, which may not apply to everyone. As another example, scientists may be concerned with the minutia of camera resolution.

The help page does not explicitly state that only creative or historical photography is on-topic. However superusers on the site seem to think that creative/historical photography is the boundary.

In short, is this site for questions about still photography generally, or only for questions specifically related to creative/historical still photography?

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Questions about scientific and technical photography should absolutely be on topic. Neither the title of the stack nor any portion of the help section specifies pictorial / artistic photography. I truly believe that if we went over to area 51, more than 80% of the responses would be that there is no need for a "sciencePhoto.SE" because "Photo.SE" already handles it.

I recognize that there is a division between the people who design cameras and the people who use them and I think it is a shame. IMO, it has arisen as cameras have become more technologically complex and required the involvement of "pure" engineers. Don't forget, Daguerre and Talbot were both scientific photographers. Plus the flash unit, 35mm frame, and rangefinder camera were all invented by practicing photographers, not engineers. Photo.SE is one the web's premiere resources and I would like to see it play a role in bridging the gap between techs and artists so that those sorts of innovations can continue. I admit that some of the questions that arise concerning very technical details and scientific applications are not of interest to the majority but many people are still helped by these topics. And is it really so bad to have a few scientific discussions dilute the litany of "what filter is this" regularly appearing on the home page?

Photography is the science, art, application and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film. Photography is employed in many fields of science, manufacturing (e.g., photolithography), and business, as well as its more direct uses for art, film and video production, recreational purposes, hobby, and mass communication Wikipedia emphasis by me

Technical photographic techniques have been pivotal to winning World War II, improving quality of life in places like the Tennessee Valley, mitigating natural disasters, and feeding the world.

I will admit I'm a bit biased here because I've devoted my life's work to advancing technical photography and hope that I've helped others in doing so. Further, I think that we engineers and technicians can benefit from pictorial sensibilities just as much as artistic types can benefit from some good science. So beyond the definitive relevance of scientific photography, there is benefit to shared discourse as well. Ergo I believe it will actually enhance this site to allow scientific and technical photographic questions.

I do, however, recognize that questions regarding computer vision and programming are out of scope and that we need to draw a fine but definite line in order to maintain the focus of the SE. I therefore propose this be the litmus test:


EDIT: Modified slightly to reinforce that the SE is about imaging but any "pursuit of an image" is on topic.

If a question (and therefore its answers) enhances a person's ability to create a "durable image" or any part of the image chain including hardware, or software used to create a durable image regardless of the purpose of that image, then it should be considered on topic.


Note that my proposed compromise still leaves a bit of a gray area. I my latter example, design and operation of the flash unit is on topic while design and operation of the gun range is off topic. This does not, however, address the salience of a discussion about the photo registration and trigonometry necessary to determine the speed of the bullet. To me, this is very similar to questions about captioning for PJ or giclee for FA. IMHO those topics were never well agreed upon either.

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    An aside not entirely germane to my answer: I've actually been quite disheartened by the frequency with which technical and scientific photo questions are dismissed. I love photography, I've been behind a viewfinder since I could walk, and I'd run into my burning house to save my hard drive just like many of your would. It makes me sad to be told my craft is worthless just because I take pictures that have utility rather than beauty. It could just be me though. Maybe I just need to grow thicker skin to deal with internet mindsets. – PhotoScientist Jul 30 at 13:51
  • This was precisely the answer that I wanted to get. – Scott Jul 30 at 14:18
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    I like most of this answer, except for the "regardless of purpose" part. That's just going to attract more and more questions like this one, and the site will be less and less hospitable to people actually wanting to learn about photographs. I don't think "yes, I actually am interested in photographs here" is such a high bar. – mattdm Jul 30 at 18:08
  • What if I instead said "regardless of the purpose of the images" That way any use of a camera to make an image is on topic even if that image is never viewed by a human and the question is about the camera not the computer. Fair compromise? I agree with you that the question you've referenced is off topic. discussions of editing notwithstanding, If that OP had asked how many LED's to illuminate a subject for ISO 200 from 6 feet away, for example, IMO its on topic, despite being about electronics (though the burden may be on answers to stick to making an image not designing a circuit) – PhotoScientist Jul 30 at 19:16
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    I am in general not in favor of scientific imaging questions being on-topic at Photo.SE, and have kept out of this subject for a bit. But after your edit, I firmly disagree with this answer. It reads very much like legalese jargon. – scottbb Jul 30 at 22:03
  • @scottbb I'd love for the answer to simply be yes but things get complicated when you try to make everyone happy. What is your reasoning for disallowing such questions? – PhotoScientist Jul 31 at 3:19
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    With reference to the aside in your first comment: there's a difference between "your craft is worthless" and "your craft is sufficiently different to that covered by the primary expertise of this community that you'd be better off making a proposal in Area 51". And with reference to the answer per se, but on similar lines: as it stands, this would permit questions about such topics as operating medical X-ray machines, which are again sufficiently different to what's covered by the primary expertise of this community that they belong in a different stack. – Peter Taylor Jul 31 at 11:58
  • The X-Ray example is interesting since even if you ignored all of my platitudes, that would be included in the wikipedia definition of Photography. I'm inclined to agree that X-Ray imaging is off topic here, though I could see limited cases for it to be relevant (E.G. Nick Veasey.) So we need a new definition of photography. Suggestions? – PhotoScientist Jul 31 at 14:01
  • As to the topic of scientific imaging being wholly different, I completely disagree. My Undergrad degree is from a photo school not an engineering school. We were taught together and collaborated frequently to everyone's benefit. IMO, the division has arisen as pure engineers have become more involved in the design and assembly of imaging systems. Oskar Barnack was a photographer who designed cameras and his gestalt flows through cameras to this very day. It's a shame that modern camera designers may have never even used one in the field. I hope that discourse can help fix that. – PhotoScientist Jul 31 at 14:09
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    If both of those comments are addressed to me, I said sufficiently different rather than wholly different. Obviously the physics is the same. In fact, the X-ray example was inspired by spending several minutes on Sunday afternoon staring up at one and wondering about exposure times (how long do I need to hold my breath?) and apertures (that was just idle curiosity) and how they compare to visual photography. But I wouldn't dream of asking those questions on this site, because there's no reason for anyone here to know the answers and I don't see any long-term value to this community. – Peter Taylor Aug 1 at 14:27
  • @PhotoScientist - Great example: Nick Veasey, recipient of many photographic and design awards including IPA Lucie Awards, AOP, Graphis, Communication Arts, Applied Arts, PX3 and awards from the D&AD also being nominated for the IPA Lucie 2008. He claims to be responsible for realising the possibly largest X-ray to date, a life size Boeing 777 jet, which currently resides upon a hangar at Logan Airport, Boston. – Rob Aug 2 at 5:36
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    Sorry for not getting back to you for a couple days. The reason I don't prefer scientific imaging to be on-topic here is because, in my observations, the majority of the questions in that area that tend to get asked here are about designing or engineering a product or experiment. Many of those questions tend to be XY problems, so we spend a bit of time answering the wrong question, then asking questions of the OP to determine what their real question is, which often doesn't really involve an on-topic question. – scottbb Aug 2 at 18:39
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    IMO, the ideal solution would be either for a scientific imaging Stack via Area 51, or perhaps at Signal Processing. Unfortunately, I don't think Area 51 would be viable, because I don't think there's enough population to support its existence. And not all scientific imaging questions would be welcome at dsp.se. While that is unfortunate, it is perhaps a possible reality that scientific imaging questions in the large don't have a home at Stack Exchange. – scottbb Aug 2 at 18:45
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    I push back at the concept that if it involves a camera, it is photography and hence on topic. Video involves cameras, and we have decided video is off-topic. Historian (i.e., Photo.SE graybeards) will have to let us know if video is off-topic because video.se exists, or if video.se exists because video is off-topic here. But my point is that not all questions about, related to, peripheral to, or mentioning cameras are on-topic. For instance, coded-aperture X-ray imaging, while at its core is fundamentally about pinhole apertures, is so far from the common idea of "camera" as to not be ... – scottbb Aug 2 at 18:49
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    ... useful or on-topic here. Questions about designing a camera, or a camera body to minimize sensor heating issues, etc., should also be off-topic. It's tempting to use a dictionary or first-paragraph-of-Wikipedia definition of photography to define what's in-bounds — that's certainly the engineering-minded or rules-lawyer approach. But that's just an appeal to external authority. We are not constrained to be defined by external sources what is or isn't photography, in the sense of what we consider to be on-topic for this subset of photography Q&A sites on the internet. – scottbb Aug 2 at 18:54

I don't see why scientific photography wouldn't be on topic. We have plenty of directions of pursuit here that would not be of interest to everyone. For example, we routinely deal with questions about darkroom work and about film photography.

Personally, I'd find some aspects of scientific photography, such as ultra-high-speed photography, to be interesting. These are techniques that can be applied to hobbyist photography as well.

The question to ask is this: would allowing scientific photography questions somehow dilute the value of this site? I don't believe it would.

I think they're on topic when the intended result is a scientific photograph. Many of these questions are not, in fact, interested in anything to do with the creation of images using light. Instead, they want to measure or count something, or otherwise provide data about the world to a computer program.

That's a different metric from "creative or historical" in the sense of "artsy or journalistic". There's plenty of room for craft over creativity, or making photographs which have no historical value.

In your edit to your question, you (to my reading, kind of smugly) replaced your actual non-photographic application with "creative or historical purposes", but you missed the essential part. If your goal is gathering data and not producing images with light, your question is still off-topic. And now it's off-topic and kinda smug sounding.

Often, equipment meant for actual creation of photographs is particularly ill-suited for this, which leads to frustration for everyone.

  • What do you mean by "the intended result is a scientific photograph"? In general, science is about testing hypotheses via experiments. Part of those experiments may involve taking photographs. However, the intended result of a photograph, from a scientist's perspective, is almost certainly not a photograph. They intend to use that photograph for some other end. For example, a scientist may wish to use high-speed photography to test a hypothesis about the way a horse runs – Scott Jul 24 at 21:06
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    Yeah — and it's the photograph part that's on topic. If there isn't a photograph part, it's not on topic — even if a camera is used. (Similarly, questions on which consumer camera is best for driving nails into wood are off-topic.) – mattdm Jul 24 at 21:16
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    And the fact that scientists are not generally interested in the photograph for its own sake is actually a key reason most of these questions are off topic — because the photographic result isn't of real importance to the asker, the more detailed responses get, the more they will either drift away from photography (bad for the site) or away from anything relevant to the asker (also bad!) – mattdm Jul 24 at 21:21
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    Your specific question is quite borderline. But instead of editing it to put it squarely on the photographic aspect (which you don't care about), you added some clearly-disengenious fluff. But again, it's not the fluff that matters. – mattdm Jul 24 at 21:24
  • I'm confused. All of the experiment-stuff that I want to do, I understand, and do not need help with. It is strictly the photographic elements which I need assistance with. Possibly my question is poorly worded exactly because I am not a seasoned photographer. What edits would you suggest to make the question more photography-esque? – Scott Jul 24 at 21:27
  • "which you don't care about" - this is patently untrue. The entire reason for coming here is because I would like to take quality photographs, and am unsure how to do so, or even exactly what "quality" means in terms of a photograph. – Scott Jul 24 at 21:29
  • "the more they will either drift away from photography (bad for the site) or away from anything relevant to the asker (also bad!)" {{citation needed}}. – Scott Jul 24 at 21:32
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    @Scott Citation is experience with these types of questions on the site already. I'll add some comments on your question to address the specifics there. – mattdm Jul 25 at 8:12

I know I am an outsider, but I have quite some experience with scope discussions:

At the end of the day, questions are closed for being out of scope because the community to which they are asked (in this case: photographers) cannot answer them or evaluate answers (better than the rest of the Internet).

Yesterday, I asked a a question about – roughly speaking – how to best abuse a regular camera as photon counter with a resolution¹. I fully admit that this question is not about photography in the dictionary sense. However, it is a question that is best asked to photographers, since they are most familiar with the equipment I am using (and the aspects I am asking about). In fact, apart from the camera’s manual all questions I had pertaining to the camera were answered by this site and other photography sites, and I also learnt a lot about regular photography in the process.

So, instead of a complicated definition about what is done with the pictures, I would propose as a criterion²:

Does the question fall within the area of expertise of photographers?

I would expect that this criterion is practically equivalent to PhotoScientist’s one, but clearer.

Some examples of applying this criterion:

  • Which aperture is best suited to gather my data?

    → on-topic since photographers are knowledgeable about this topic.

  • How can I best crunch the numbers from my camera’s raw format?

    → off-topic because photographers don’t do this kind of processing.


¹ Note that I am using a regular camera here because it is by far the most viable way (economically and technically) to get some lenses, a CCD, a computer interface in a handy package. Sometimes, you just can’t beat mass production.
² Note that this criterion does not attempt to capture cases such as video production, which is different as there exists a huge community dedicated to this topic (which can’t be said for scientific photography).

  • Please blog the results of your experiments. I want to read all about it. :) – Scott Aug 7 at 14:10
  • @Scott Nah, I will rather write a paper … publish or perish and stuff … – Wrzlprmft Aug 7 at 15:11
  • Phooey. Papers are personal advertisements. Blogs are the way real information gets disseminated nowadays. I'll wager you $1 that the paper will not remotely contain information to recreate the camera-sensor. "To accomplish this, we created a photon sensor out of a stock Kodak model xoxoxo. Anyhoo, having done this, we proceeded to..." – Scott Aug 7 at 15:33
  • @Scott: You seem to be misunderstanding something. I am not really creating something from the camera. I am just using the camera in slightly unorthodox way. Almost everything I did is summarised in my question so far. – Wrzlprmft Aug 7 at 17:00
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    I can get behind this. – mattdm Aug 15 at 13:32
  • It helps resolve the wedding shoes and earplugs quesiton, too. – mattdm Aug 15 at 13:42
  • However, I submit that using cameras as hammers should still be off topic, even if photographers are likely to know which models are heavier and more durable. :) – mattdm Aug 15 at 13:43

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