Cover stories: Making the robotic ray cover

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Science  08 Jul 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6295, pp. 97
DOI: 10.1126/science.aah5050

Cover stories offer a look at the process behind the art on the cover: who made it, how it got made, and why.

Editing photographs for Science is always exciting, but I had never encountered anything like the challenge of photographing the tiny transparent “ray” on the cover of this week’s issue.

The 16-mm-long ray—an amazing assemblage of metal, organic muscle tissue, and clear polymer—“swims” in response to a pulsing light. I was fascinated to learn about this scientific achievement but worried about the cover. Photograph a tiny transparent device that moves in response to light? This was going to require creativity, problem-solving, patience, and luck.

After brainstorming cover concepts with Deputy Editor Jake Yeston and Senior Editor Phillip Szuromi, I began reviewing photographers with the technical skills and studio experience needed to create an engaging portrait of this little critter. After a long search, I chose Ken Richardson, a talented Boston-based photographer experienced in shooting scientific subjects. As we talked about the project, Ken proposed a variety of approaches, lighting techniques, and shooting angles. Because he was not able to see the rays in person before arriving at the lab, Ken knew he would need to be flexible and adaptable.

The corresponding author, Kevin Kit Parker, runs the Disease Biophysics Group at Harvard. His team of scientists and visual artists was available to provide information and assistance on the day of the shoot. Ken began by positioning a petri dish containing clear solution on a glass table; in it floated one of the tiny robotic rays. Ken placed lights at different angles around the ray to provide depth and dimension, finally adding a colored gel on one light for dramatic effect.

One of the first photos of the shoot shows a floating robotic ray.

Credit: Ken Richardson

The first set of photographs needed refinement. It was difficult to see the ray’s muscle fibers or the texture of its plastic and gold layers. I conferred with Photography Managing Editor Bill Douthitt and Design Director Beth Rakouskas to evaluate the first set of images and provide feedback. We asked Ken to make lighting and color adjustments to show more detail and bring the ray to life.

Ken modified his approach, rethinking the lighting and placing one of the rays on a slide that contained water droplets. This eliminated the element of movement and allowed Ken to capture crisp images. His second set of photographs illuminated the intricate structure of the ray with remarkable clarity, revealing details not visible to the naked eye.

For the third and final set of photographs, Ken returned the ray to the petri dish and added a second ray to the composition. Building on his initial efforts, Ken created a more sophisticated lighting solution. He took a final set of photographs as a technician used a pulsing blue light to induce movement in the rays. The result was dramatic. The photos exposed the beautiful texture in the ray’s plastic “skin,” highlighting the gold plating and creating a sense of interaction between the two rays.

A dramatic depiction of two robotic rays responding to a pulsing light.

Credit: Ken Richardson

With an amazing set of photographs to choose from, narrowing the selection was difficult. The elegant and stunningly detailed image we ultimately chose for the cover has a deceptive simplicity. Achieving that look took planning, patience, and collaboration between the research, photography, editing, and design teams.

Christy Steele, Photo Editor at Science

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