Colouring-in micrographs

Colouring-in micrographs – bringing images from the cloistered lab to the general public

Dee Breger writes for TMS

A pleasing image is an accessible image

Colourfull diatoms?! Radiolaria that seem to glow from the inside out?! Coloured electron micrographs have made it into the general media more than once. And probably more often than not, they tend to be copyrighted to one name – Dee Breger. The photo-micrographer and Director of Microscopy at Drexel University, has taken part and won prizes in many photographic competitions including the BG Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition and the Geographical Magazine Photographer of the Year. TMS invites Dee Breger to share her experience and answer why she does it.

Why do it?

While scientists must use original black and white SEM micrographs in their publications and presentations as close to their raw forms as possible, successfully bringing scientific images to the public is a different story. Human eyes have evolved to see millions of colors and people are vastly more comfortable in a colorful world – and therefore more open to the educational content of a colorized scientific image. A second important aspect is that color can be used to separate different structures in a scientific image to make them more easily interpreted by a general public that has little experience in “reading” a scientific image. And most evident of all, colorful images are simply considered more appealing by the public, and a pleasing image is an accessible image.

The “truth”of the image is retained

How is it done?

Originally colorized photographically or by hand, computer enhancement has become the preferred medium for colorizing monochromatic images since the advent of Photoshop and other software programs. The choice of palette is important because it becomes the expression of the “artistic” component of the image and can dominate its initial appeal. But in an educational image, the palette must also work with the depicted structures in such a way that the “truth” of the image is retained rather than overwhelmed by an injudicious addition of color. For this reason, I generally try to choose palettes that add visual punch to familiar colors but are not severe departures from them. For instance, I colorize reptile skin in blues/greens rather than in reds/oranges, because a red palette would not be received as “right” by the viewer. In the case of microplankton, however, I can use bolder hues. The general public has little familiarity with these “invisible seashells”, which are mostly white in any case, and I have found that people respond well to unnatural colors in these images. In this case the public is able to better interpret and understand the structures when they are colorized strongly.

Some micrographs can veer into unforseen directions

‘Literal’ versus ‘Lyrical’

Another factor to colorizing electron images is serendipity: in much the same way that authors report that some of their characters take on lives of their own, the colorization of some micrographs can veer into unforeseen directions as I work on them. Indeed, I view this element of chance as a highly valuable asset to my work and have often found myself colorizing the same image in multiple ways. Sometimes I invert an image and use the inversion as a point of departure for colorizing with a lighter, more fanciful, result. I like to call the original versions ‘literal’ and the inverted versions ‘lyrical’.

I also “idealize” images by fixing broken parts and removing extraneous material. This may be considered by some as an unacceptable departure from the integrity of a scientific image (which, if used in a peer-reviewed journal, it would certainly be!). But I believe that this is preferred, even necessary, when bringing images of exotic subject matter to the public for educational purposes. Our microworld is a visually abstract one, one which, moreover, we are well trained to interpret. We can tell from looking at an image of microplankton whether the ‘bugs’ are intact or not, but most other people can’t.

Our microworld is a visually abstract one

Reconstructing damaged parts or removing extraneous dust or other debris unrelated to the subject may not be the literal truth of the original photographic capture, however these processes can create a larger truth of context, one in which the public can correctly interpret the structure of the subject. When I do reconstruct broken structures, I do so cautiously, with conscious – often laborious – fidelity to the original structure. If I feel at all in doubt as to its integrity, I find a researcher to approve or guide my reconstruction. Replacing backgrounds with textures, color gradients, and/or borders works effectively, particularly when a microplankter has been isolated for a “portrait” effect. This is a purely aesthetic enhancement intended to make the image more appealing to the public. It also eliminates extraneous material that confuses lay audiences and directs their full attention to the delicate, complex, and beautiful structures of these supreme micro-architect.

Dee Breger
Director of Microscopy
Department of Materials Science & Engineering
Drexel University
3141 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia PA 19104