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How To Create Great Images

You’ve heard it before: A picture is worth 1,000 words. But somehow, even in today’s visual-frenzied world, many of us are uncomfortable creating and using images.

How do I make it look good? How does copyright work? Is all this really worth my time?

If those questions sound familiar, this is the tip sheet for you. Follow these simple steps and the next time you have to explain your project or give a presentation, you’ll be armed with some eye-catching visuals to give the great impression your work deserves.


Why create images?

It helps people hear about your work. In the online world (which is also the real world), people are far more likely to pay attention to and share something if it’s attached to a relevant image.

It helps people understand your work. Our brains process images incredibly rapidly. A strong visual will not only quickly convey what your work is about—it’ll also help the message stick in people’s minds.


Types of images

There are a zillion types of images—and don’t even get us started on videos! In general, these are the ones most relevant to community science:

Photographs. Use photos to show the people and places your work concerns. Who are the real people you’re trying to help? What are the on-the-ground problems they face? And don’t forget yourself! Having photos of your team at work helps people connect with what you do and why it’s valuable.

Infographics. Use a mix of words and graphics to convey key facts at a glance. Come up with a few things you want people to know about your work or its impacts. Then summarize them with a few words, numbers, icons or charts.

Data visualizations. These help you capture complex collections of numbers in a way the brain can comprehend. They’re incredibly useful for sharing scientific findings. But they often can’t stand alone—try to pair these with other visuals to provide context and explain how to interpret the data.


Pro tips for the novice

People like people. Scientists often want to let the data to speak for itself, but don’t discount the importance of having a human connection. Find ways to incorporate human faces and human stories in your visuals to drive home the real-world impact you (hope to) have.

Make it routine. Trust us: It’s way easier to take a photo now than to build a time machine in the future. Gather images at every stage of your project, from the first meeting to the big presentation at the end. This will give you a nice collection to work with when you’re communicating about the project later.

Think big. Large, high-resolution images are crucial. If your phone or camera offers you the option to reduce image size, just say no! Take full-resolution photos and create large infographics and data visualizations. This will allow you to use your images in a variety of contexts (think posters) and make sure they’re crystal clear each and every time.

Use a good camera (hint: you probably have one in your pocket). Most smartphones have great cameras built in, and you don’t need to be a trained photographer to wield them effectively. Learn how to use your phone’s camera. Take plenty of close-ups, opt for well-lit scenes and avoid using the flash.

Take advantage of software. You don’t have to be a graphic designer to crop a photo or make a chart look good. If you have graphics experts or resources at your institution, use them. If you don’t, look for software tools for basic photo editing and graphics. There are many free, user-friendly options for creating just about any type of visual!


Common pitfalls to avoid

Blurry or low-resolution photos. Choose “original” or “highest” resolution in your camera settings, and check photos as you’re taking them to make sure things are in focus.

Wide-angle landscapes or photos of a room full of people. Sometimes it’s useful to show a lot in one photo, but more often, the subject (and the impact) just gets lost. Try to get plenty of close-ups, as well as medium and wide-angle photos.

Thinking one image is enough. It’s not! Plan to share information about your project in many venues, such as websites, newsletters, social media, reports and presentations. You’ll want a variety of images to tell your story effectively.

Using someone else’s image without permission. If it’s really a great image, take the time to ask permission to use it. Better yet, create your own image to convey the message in a way that’s more relevant to your work.


Staying above board

Copyright. Assume images are copyrighted unless specified otherwise. Before using an image, learn who created it and respect their rules for sharing and attribution.

Privacy and permission. Taking photos of people is great. Taking photos without permission is not. If someone will be recognizable from your photo, ask before you click and especially before you share. Tell them why you’d like to take the photo and how it will be used.

Specify your rules. When sharing your image online, tell others whether they can use it, too. For example, you can indicate that it’s in the public domain, or specify a license such as Creative Commons to indicate the conditions under which it may be shared.