Awkward science stock photography

A collection of evidence suggesting that the people who take stock photographs have absolutely no idea what the process of science looks like, beyond a vague understanding that it probably involves white coats (and also beakers full of liquid).


  1. Maybe the photographers know both what real science looks like… and what it *should* look like.

    1. I just clicked through to say exactly that. It may not be so much a case of the photographers not knowing what science looks like, as knowing what their customers think science looks like. Or maybe knowing what their customers think the public thinks that science looks like.

      All of which is informed by what actually sells. What’s selling is the iconography of science, which means white coats, coloured beakers, and probably Jacob’s Ladders, not anonymous-looking undergrads manipulating stats in MathLab.

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    2. Yup.

      An alternate explanation: Those photos are targeted at the lay demographic, very few of whom have any idea what science looks like.An alternate alternate explanation: These are visual setups for punchlines. The image in this article, with chicken and eggs, should make that pretty plain.

    3. In a sense, it’s imagery shorthand.  It’s obvious what’s going on here – some scientists are studying how a hen lays an egg.  If you were to show an actual photo of a biologist doing the same thing, it would be some guy/gal in a gimme t-shirt and cargo shorts sitting in front of a computer screen looking at data, i.e. not very obvious.

      What surprises me is only one person in this photo is wearing glasses.

    4. Exactly, These photos symbolic of science rather than documentary. I find no flaw in that. It is just an abstract representation. Photography is art.

    1.  I’m not sure how important it is to in this case, but I’m gonna disagree. The purpose certainly isn’t for the art… The whole utility of stock photography is that we have access to scenes that are specific that we can’t easily reproduce. Saying that the current state of stock photography represents what it’s “meant to” be is like saying that the stock photos of science are what science is “meant to” be…

      BTW, women really do laugh a lot when eating salads!!!

  2. Stock photographers might make personal photos that truly reflect real life, but when it comes to stock the main audience is photo editors and end licensing – many editors have zero idea what reality is and often could care less. They just need to sell ads.

    That said, there are a good many art directors and photo editors out there that care. But, as a photographer, I’m still surprised at the stuff I see in publications (online and off) art directed by otherwise reasonable people…

      1. I wonder how many people know that “stunt cock” is an actual job description in the porno business?  I couldn’t stop laughing when I heard about it.  Then I realized that I WANT that on my resume’.

    1. Yup.  It also often involves speaking to chickens and observing how they respond.  Welcome to the wild and woolly world of research labs.

  3.  That Chicken does seem to have found some attentive prospects for his research. I think the next phase is then navigation and discovery test, you can see the eggs that still need final preparations before they are used as inducements for the humans to search their local environment.

  4. The rule is, it’s not a convincing science picture unless someone is eyeballing an eppendorf pipette contraption.  Or at least that’s what the missus tells me.

    See this, for example?  That’s some real science there, am I right?  You know I’m right.

    1. Keep the pipette, lose the appearance of sanity, and then you’ll have a real science photo.

  5. Having posed the question, the scientists leaned in, anxious to hear their subject’s response as to why it crossed the road.

  6. “A collection of evidence suggesting that the people who take stock photographs have absolutely no idea what the process of science looks like…”

    On the contrary the white-coat clad scientists are looking at a chicken and some eggs as if to evoke the paradigmatic question of cause and effect “which came first the chicken or the egg?”

  7. I think the chicken is trying to tell us something.


    What is it girl?


    Oh, no!  Timmie fell in the well!

  8. It’s mostly a case of the diminished cost of entry. It’s pretty clear from the quality of those images that the problem is that anyone can be a stock photographer, not that stock photography is inherently bad. Not limited to stock photography, either.

  9. I kinda like the picture with the chicken because the people actually look like ‘real’ people and not like grinning soap opera models… Same goes for the chicken; doesn’t look like some douchey poseur chicken.

  10. I used to work in the drug discovery lab (chemistry) at a major pharmaceutical company. One day, it was declared that our lab would be the subject of photos for the company Annual Report. The photo team came in an told us to just go about our normal work, and they would just take photos.

    But, real science is brown, tan, and black tar like stuff, or endless liters of clear liquids. You work in fume hoods because, well, fumes.

    Anyway, the photo team left after about 30 mins. Later that day we were called to a meeting, where we were asked to stop what we were doing, and prepare for a new shoot the next morning, with “interesting” chemistry. So we had to break out the food coloring and dry ice in water, and basically make it all “pretty”.

    Real science is ugly, that’s the problem for photographers.

    1. I have to say haven’t most people working in a lab had to do that at some point. Usually involving – what do we have that will make a pretty coloured liquid. 

  11. The example picture is rubbish. Not one of the ‘scientists’ has their pointing finger extended and placed somewhere on their lips, a practically impossible circumstance in a real-life laboratory situation with this number of boffins present. If you’ll forgive my getting technical with a largely lay crowd, the photo lacks ‘pensivity’.

  12. “Frank, I understand you’re upset with the changes, but its normal in my lab for grad students to spend at least a year or two as a chicken.”

  13. Of course, all the photos of artists in berets holding a paint brush in their mouth: absolutely authentic.

  14. I often wonder what lay people would think of the images of scientists in ads targeted to scientists. Trade magazines like The Scientist carry lots of pictures of people using the latest sexy antibodies and robotic sequencers. They appeal to scientists who order stuff: neither the senior scientist, nor the grad student, but the thirty-something lab manager.

    They don’t talk to chickens, for the most part. No colored liquids. No Erlenmeyer flasks, because what thirty-something has ever seen one of those? 

    As in popular advertising, you do see the ecstatic expressions over using the product.  Also, the typical advertising ethnic diversity is there, with Asian being the plurality, albeit at a lower proportion than reality.

  15. This is actually a picture of a secret Police interrogation.  They are trying to get him to admit to crossing the road.

  16. You really gotta click the link to see the other photos, the chicken one actually seems pretty reasonable compared to apparently drunk lab-coated guys drinking from beakers and shoving magnets up to their faces, or sexy female scientists who walk around topless in the lab.

  17. Author here. I whipped up a follow-up collection of awkward science stock photography here:


    1. You could do a whole site called Boobs and Beakers. I can’t imagine who uses some of those.

      1. Having worked as a designer for a vanity press, believe me, there’s no shortage of self-published authors who will request such things (and much worse) for their covers. 

  18. I did a PhD in theoretical/computational physics, with post-docs in Japan and Australia.  And I can state with authority that – at least in my case – the stock picture presents an accurate portrayal of the daily life of a physicist.  Frequently though we used a duck instead of a chicken.

  19. Ha! When I read the post title and say the picture for some reason my brain immediately imagined the bearded gentleman on the far right earnestly saying “Here kitty kitty kitty, kitty kitty”

    1. There’s a subset of porn in which men with olive skin get turbaned with whatever happens to be sitting around, commonly a crocheted scarf, afghan or bed/ table linens, in order to make Hot Arab Men.

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