Sources of Public Domain Images

The scientist videographer will often have occasion to use a still image or video footage that s/he has not shot. If you plan to publish your video (on the internet or elsewhere), you will need to get permission to use anyone else’s images.  The exception is when the images are in the public domain.  Where do you find such image collections?  Government websites are a good place to start.  Many government agencies (in the U.S., for example) are creating collections of images and video that are freely available to the public.  In some cases, the images were taken by government employees or were acquired with government funds, automatically placing them in the public domain. In other instances, the agency has compiled scanned images from historical books, maps, and other sources into collections on their websites that can be searched and then downloaded for free.

Below, I list a few of these websites; the list is not exhaustive, but is designed to give you an idea of where to look for images and footage you might need.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a nice gallery of images, including topics such as animals, plants, field research, lab research, illustrations, and education; you can download images at 72 or 300 dpi. The image at right is of Giant Salvinia (USDA, Peggy Greb).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has an extensive collection of images taken in a variety of places around the world by scientists and other employees; high resolution images are available. The photo to the right is of pancake ice taken by Michael Van Woert (NOAA, NESDIS) in Antarctica (located in the Art in Nature Gallery (Patterns and Textures)).


Related NOAA sites contain more still images, animations, and video. An example is the NGDC Digital Marine Geology and Geophysics Images collection, which contains, for example, animations of dives to the ocean floor such as the Mariana Trench (click on photo at right to go directly to the animation).

The NOAA Fisheries Service (Northeast Fisheries Science Center) maintains an archive of historical photos related to fisheries in the northeastern U.S.  Hundreds of photos are available for download and free use with proper credit.  See photo of a basking shark at right (NEFSC, Paul Galtsof).  There are also photo galleries of marine mammals, seabirds, invertebrates, sharks, ships, and scenic views.


The National Marine Sanctuaries maintains a media library containing still images and many video clips of coastal areas, waves, reefs, deep sea views, fish, sharks, and invertebrates.  The media library is searchable.




The NASA Goddard Space Visualization Studio is the premier location for finding photos and especially animations of the earth and space processes.  Whether you’re looking for animations of arctic sea ice changes or volcanic eruptions, you’ll find them here. The NASA Earth Observatory contains an extensive set of photos, maps, and animations of the world that are downloadable and free to use.  NASA’s Visible Earth contains a massive catalog of images and animations, which are searchable.  See a high resolution image of the Sri Lankan coast during the 2004 Asian Tsunami (NASA, VE) below:

If you are looking for images of hazards, land, oceans, atmosphere, life, snow and ice, or human impacts, these NASA sites will likely contain the image or animation you need.


Another site I often visit for historical photos is the Library of Congress (LOC).  Their American Environmental Photographs 1891-1936 collection is a treasure-trove of material. Many of the images in this collection were taken by or of Henry Chandler Cowles (the “father” of American plant ecology); see his photo to the right with students on a botany field trip (note they are all female students!) (LOC, unknown photographer). Interestingly, I can trace my scientific lineage through my graduate adviser and several generations of professors back to Cowles.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has a digital photo collection containing many historical and modern images of earthquakes, national parks, and mines.  See photo at right of an earthquake at Hawkes Bay, New Zealand (1931) (USGS, unknown photographer).  There is also a large collection of historical images taken by pioneer photographers of early USGS expeditions (see stereo photo below of an expedition camp, part of the W.H. Jackson collection).

These are just a few of the many government sites where you can find media in the public domain. There are some sites that purport to catalog public domain images, but beware. Many of these are commercial sites and contain a mixture of images grabbed from government sites (public domain) and images that may be copyrighted.  Try to obtain such media from their original sources, which often offer them at different resolutions and contain all relevant information about the image.  If you do use media from secondary sites, be sure the image is really in the public domain and abide by any restrictions listed with the image you wish to use. For the media offered for download on government sites, the only restriction is that you cannot copyright any public domain image, and it’s always appropriate to credit the source and the photographer, if their name is given.

Shoot Video While You Do Research

It’s possible to film without a camera crew while doing field research. Much of my footage for science videos has been shot while conducting research alone or with one assistant. However, it’s essential to have a tripod or monopod to hold your camera while you are working. I typically set up the camera in one location and aim it at wherever I am sampling. It’s important, however, to shift the view around to get the action from different angles and distances. This approach will give you the variety of footage you need to edit an interesting video.

When shooting, I will film for short intervals, stopping and starting the camera periodically. In the following video, you can see how I set up the camera in one spot to capture a sequence of clips while we collected soil cores on an island off the coast of Belize (you can see the finished video here). I simply rotated the camera to different angles to record each part of the process. This approach facilitated filming while working and did not add too much time to the fieldwork.

Science Video Review: Seven Minutes of Terror

No, this post is not about my recent trip to Sri Lanka and riding in their infamous tuc-tucs in crazy traffic.  It is the title of the recent video released by NASA describing the anticipated descent of the Mars rover Curiosity from orbit to the surface of the red planet planned for August 6 at 1:31 am ET.  The “seven minutes of terror” phrase refers to the time it will take for the vehicle to descend through the atmosphere and be deposited intact and functioning on the ground.  The terror will be experienced by the NASA scientists back on Earth as they wait to learn whether the mission has succeeded or not (60% of Mars missions have failed).

The video has been called “stunning”, “exciting”, and “terrifying” by various news outlets and bloggers.  I don’t think I would go that far, but I would describe the video as excellent and a successful effort to dramatize and advertise the upcoming Mars landing.  It also manages to get across some technical information but in a palatable way. It’s short: 5:07 minutes and highly visual, with outstanding animations and graphics.  Take a look and then read my assessment below:

The video starts off with a good “hook”:  The opening sequence shows Adam Steltzner (EDL engineer) who says, “When people look at it, it looks crazy.  That’s a natural thing. Sometimes when we look at it, it looks crazy.  It is the result of reasoned engineering and thought. But it still looks crazy.”  The video creators have identified an intriguing aspect of the landing, which is the untested approach to putting the rover safely onto the surface of Mars.  The viewer is immediately curious about what’s crazy and why NASA would be trying something so crazy.  The title is also a good attention grabber.  Right from the start, the viewer is wondering what the connection is between this crazy idea and the seven minutes of terror.  This video thus provides a good example of how to capture the attention of viewers and keep them watching.

Information and images are continually introduced, keeping the video moving forward at a steady clip. Each new segment adds a bit more information, e.g., about the challenges of the landing (thin atmosphere), the mechanics of the landing, what will happen if some step fails, how long it will take for scientists waiting back on Earth to learn if the rover has safely landed. Each new aspect is illustrated with a different animation and described by a different scientist who worked on that aspect of the landing.

They kept the text to a minimum and used it to get across startling statistics:  6 vehicle configurations, 76 pyrotechnic devices, 500,000 lines of code…..ZERO margin of error.  This text is superimposed on animations and other graphic sequences that illustrate what those numbers represent.  And the text is moving across the screen, further adding to the impression of movement.  This is the way to use text in a science video.

There is no traditional beginning, middle, and end.  That’s OK, as I’ve described previously.  The lack of these traditional components does not mean that the video is not organized around a logical manner.  In fact, the video has a definite sequence to it, which is highly organized and keyed to the actual landing sequence it is discussing:  what the 7 minutes refers to and what it means to the scientists waiting back on Earth, an explanation of EDL (entry, descent, landing) and all the steps in the landing sequence, violent entry through the atmosphere, Mars atmospheric characteristics and what it means for the landing process, the supersonic parachute and why it’s important, getting the heat shield off, cutting the parachute and coming down on rocket motors, the skycrane maneuver to avoid stirring up dust, and avoiding a collision between the descent vehicle and the rover once it’s on the ground. The ending screen image has a single, bold statement: “Dare Mighty Things” followed by the date and time of the landing event.

The style of the NASA video is more like a movie trailer than a movie, which is appealing and immediately recognizable by the average video viewer.  Most people have seen hundreds of movie trailers and are familiar with the format, so will readily relate to this style.  Even the music sounds reminiscent of movie trailers.  The major difference is the lack of a voice-over narrator, which is more typical of a movie trailer.  Instead, they used the voices of the scientists to substitute for the narration.

Overall, the NASA video has all ten attributes I identified previously as being important in making an interesting and appealing science video.  I recommend studying this video yourself to better understand the features that will help you create better science videos.

Science Video Tip: How to Deal with Lighting Issues

Lighting is probably one of the biggest challenges for scientists making videos, especially while doing fieldwork.

Backlighting is a common mistake in which the subject is positioned in front of a window or other light source, putting their image in shadow. By moving the camera so that the light is behind the camera or to the side will solve this issue.  In the video below, I provide an example in which I wanted to shoot footage in a field station laboratory but the light from the windows was interfering with the shot.  Because of the configuration of the laboratory, it was not possible to shoot the lab bench in a way to put the light behind the camera.  I resolved the problem by blocking the light from the windows with some seat cushions and opening a door to introduce light from the side.

Outdoors, we have little control over light intensity and direction.  It’s difficult to avoid shadows during midday when the sun is overhead.   People often wear caps in the field, and these throw even more shadows on the person’s face.  One solution is to use a reflector.  You can buy one specifically for filming or you can use a folding car shade or even make your own with aluminum foil.  Then, you can use the reflector to light up your subject’s face with the sun overhead.  The limitation is that your subject must stay in one position, and you must also compose the shot so that the reflector is not visible.

Another solution to outdoor lighting and shadows is to shoot on an overcast day or when the sun is low on the horizon.  For me, an overcast day is the ideal shooting situation, which produces sharp images with little or no shadows.  Filming in the early morning or late afternoon is also good and can result in some beautiful, soft lighting and colors.  The latter may not always be possible, so the scientist videographer must be prepared to shoot under less than ideal lighting conditions.

Science Video Tip: Show and Tell

Showing is almost always better than telling. I select aspects of a topic I’m talking about and then shoot footage or create a graphic to illustrate key points. When I interview other scientists, I try to think of ways to have them demonstrate something on camera. One tip is to always ask, “Can you show me what you mean?”, when doing an on-site interview (in a lab or at a field site). This question will often elicit some valuable footage for your movie project.

See this clip that resulted when I asked a scientist to show me what he meant by “relative buoyancy” of a floating marsh: