Snapping pictures in the lab is more than just posting selfies on social media, says Dr Matthew Partridge...
When I first started as a researcher, I had a Sony Ericsson flip phone.
It could take photos, but these photos had a pixel resolution that makes a chess board look crisp. It was also equipped with a lens that made every photo look like it was being viewed through frosted glass.
As it happens, I actually found the memory card from that phone the other day and all the photos I took back in 2004. A few very blurry photos of my uni friends, one photo of an episode of Friends on a TV (…don’t ask) and eight photos from my lab at the time.
Little did I know back in 2004 that these eight blurry photos were the first of what would turn out to be a very large library of lab photos and experiment photos I'd take with a phone over the next 15 years.
In 2004 I took 8 photos on my ancient phone. So far in 2019 I have taken over 360 photos in my lab.
I'd like to say that it all changed when I got a smart phone but actually that growth has been pretty linear as both the simplicity of taking a photo and my attitude to taking lab photos changed.
Back in 2014 I took photos to record my results (I think, they are so blurry, honestly, I can't really tell) so that I could print them out in my lab report. Now I use my phone camera to record a huge range of things in the lab including:
Settings on software that is made in such a way that restarting wipes said settings. Side note: if you make software like this, I hate you a little bit.
Position of dials on gas bottle, voltage controllers and coffee machines. This is almost impossible to record any other way as the units on the dials have long since rubbed off. I tried writing down "a bit to the left of the third scratch" but it wasn't as good…
Strange results I want to share straight away with WhatsApp messages like "wtf is this" and "SEE! I do do lab work".
Data that is a pain to export either because the system was developed back when floppy disks were exciting technology or because it only exports to a proprietary format supported by a long bankrupt company.
Finally, for social media and for sharing what I'm doing with the world. Text is great but nothing says "OMG I've made purple goo" like a photo of some actual purple goo.
Taking photos in the lab isn't just about funny selfies and colourful Instagram pictures, it's now a functional part of how I record and log what I am doing at any moment.
Given some of the work I do I am somewhat surprised my phones don't meet strange chemical ends. Although it’s true that I have very nearly burnt the camera CCD out by shining a laser into it. But they've lived and will go on to take a lot more photos and videos of science.
If only I could find an Instagram filter which made my results better.
Dr Matthew Partridge is a senior Research Fellow at the Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton but describes himself as a biochemist who has accidentally ended up working with optical sensor systems.