Why use illustrations when we have easy access to photography?

Before the widespread use of photography, scientific illustration was essential to study and communicate Natural History and Anatomy.

Many naturalists and anatomists were also skilled artists, like one of my favorites: Ernst Haeckel. And others, who were not so skilled, commissioned beautiful and detailed engravings from professional artists to publish with their research, the new species of plants and animals that they encountered on their expeditions.

Why is illustration still so important for recording and communicating science?

I’ll give you at least 9 reasons …

1. Illustration simplifies

Illustration simplifies complex messages, allows us to clean and eliminate all the elements that cause noise and are unnecessary in the image, highlighting the most important, which makes it clearer and easier to interpret.

Illustration “Anatomy of a sea urchin”, author: Alex Ries, vs. photography, author: Philippe Bourjon.

2. Archetype vs. holotype

It allows us to represent the archetype of a species, drawing the general aspects, in the position and views that best suit us. We omit the particular marks of a single specimen (holotype), which may have scars, amputations or unusual patterns.

Illustration “Potato beetle”, author: Isa Loureiro, vs. Photography.

3. Describes ideas or processes

The illustration allows us to order and represent a large amount of data clearly.

You can describe concepts, ideas, relationships or processes in a single image, through infographics, image sequences (step by step or comic), comparing two different phases of the same process side by side, showing elements at different scales, etc.

Infographic illustration “How to make a pessimist … or not”, author: Isa Loureiro.

4. No model needed

There is no need for a physical model, with a detailed description we can create an illustration. That is why it is so important in areas such as paleontology, archeology, anthropology …

We can recreate extinct species, ancient cultures, tools and objects that no longer exist and of which we have only a few traces and signs.

Illustration of Smilodon, saber-toothed tiger, author: Charles R. Knight, based on paleontological research.

5. It lets us see on the inside

With the illustration we can represent cuts, sections or transparencies to show aspects that cannot be seen from the outside and photography cannot reach. It allows us to see the interior and exterior elements at the same time and understand how they are related.

Illustration “Fragmosis in the tree ant Colobopsis truncata“, author: Isa Loureiro. Photograph of fragmosis in the ant Colobopsis nipponica, author Minsoo Dong

6. Makes the invisible visible

It allows us to represent very small elements down to an atomic scale or more … imagination is the limit! We can represent microorganisms, cells, atoms or molecules … their relationships and interactions, which even with microscopes cannot be seen very clearly.

Illustration “SARS-CoV-2”, author: Isa Loureiro, vs. Transmission electron micrograph, by NIAID.

7. It’s kinder

We can represent in a more friendly and respectful way anatomical or medical subjects that in photography are bloody and unpleasant to see for a more susceptible patient public.

Illustration “Aneurysm surgery of the carotid artery in the sylvian fissure of the brain”, author: Daniel Casanova, vs. Photography.

8. It adapts to the audience

It allows us to create images in different graphic styles and adapt them to be more attractive and understandable by a specific type of audience, such as children.

Illustration “Synapse and neurotransmitters”. Excerpt from the book “The Human Brain. Explained by Dr. Santiago Ramón y Cajal” by Dr. Pablo Barrecheguren and Isa Loureiro

9. Illustration is art

We must never underestimate the emotional connection to the audience that an illustration provides. It allows us to create images that appeal to the senses and emotions. Its artistic value and beauty are recognized in addition to its scientific content.

Illustrations “The bones, muscles and tendons of the hand” and “Studies of the arm showing the movements of the biceps”, author: Leonardo da Vinci

Illustration of the metamorphosis of a butterfly in its host plant, author: Maria Sibylla Merian.

Does this mean that photography is not good for scientific communication?

— Of course it is! —

  • Digital photography is a more immediate and very practical process.
  • Done by a good professional, it can also have added artistic value (but not necessarily cheaper than an illustration).
  • It represents the models and habitats (that exist today) with complete fidelity.
  • It is needed as a reference or basis for many illustration projects.
  • It is a necessary resource for gathering information in field work.

If what you are looking for is an illustration, an infographic, a photograph or graphic design … none of them will add real value to your project if they are not supported by a good planning and communication strategy, to make your audience fall in love with science.