Transparency of Life

Okay, how about we x-ray some flowers? Something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time, though I have found it very challenging to get access to the necessary equipment (x-ray devices are regulated quite strictly, also very expensive). So then, how was I able to proceed down this rabbit hole?

I was approached by Mat Schwartz, Assistant Professor at NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology) who was familiar with my macro photography and has access to a laboratory CT scanner. CT scans use x-rays, and this scanner is designed to create 3D models of objects placed within it. I didn’t need the modeling aspects, just a plan x-ray function would work nicely!

The trouble with more common x-ray devices is that they are designed to image bone, and therefore have higher power output that would make a flower invisible. With this CT scanner at its lowest power setting of 20KV (it goes up to 100KV for bone and metal). The exposure is configured by setting the voltage, the current and the exposure length appropriate for the subject, and that level of control is required to fine tune the look and feel of the subject. Adjusting these parameters is not at all like operating a normal camera; you can make the image brighter or darker, but also control the contrast by adjusting these variables.

The image was made with Mat’s help operating the device (a Bruker SkyScan), while I chose the specimen, placement, orientation and composition. The camera generates TIF files, and multiple images of the same flower are taken in quick succession and then combined using a median blend to soften any noise and generally improve the image quality right at the beginning of the editing process.

Initially, the resulting image has a light grey background with the flower pushing darker where there is greater density – inverting that starts to get you to the look and feel we see here. Some basic adjustments to curves can set the black and white points, but the detail needs to be enhanced. The resolution isn’t fantastic and the details are a little blurry, so a combination of ON1 Photo RAW for structure, Camera Raw for clarity, and high-pass sharpening techniques were used to get the most out of the textures and details.

It was a thrill to spend a few hours tinkering with compositions in x-ray. Compositionally you need to think differently, because the lines and shapes of the image will not appear the same way we see it. A flower about to bloom or one with internal components (like a bladderwort) will appear completely different in this exotic light. Much like 3D images need to be composed for depth, x-ray images need to be composed for hidden details and transparency.

More of these to come! It was an honour to collaborate with NJIT on the creation of this image, and others like it. Big thanks to Mat and NJIT for making it happen!

click image for larger version