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Re: [Phys-l] What software do you use to present experiments?

Alex Brown asked about software for depicting pictures of experiments. I use two methods to depict apparatus and other pictorial aspects of experiments.

(1) Long ago I bought 2-D drafting software. Before getting that, I had a drawing table complete with drawing machine, so I was a reasonably competent draftsman. The computer software really speeded things up and did not take long for me to learn. Today, most drafting software can output JPG or TIF or "window placeable metafiles" that can be imported into MSWord or other word processors. Some also can put drawings in MSWord using an OLE connection.

I've used various flavors over the years. Right now I use Visual Cadd which is outstanding, but has grown from a $99 program to a several-hundred-dollar program. I have been able to get inexpensive updates, but it is difficult for me to recommend that a person who does occasional drafting would want to spend several hundred for the initial investment. For those that ask about drafting software that is not expensive, I recommend they check-out the academic discounts for TurboCadd-14 from IMSI (about $140). I have TurboCadd, but don't use it because I like Visual Cadd better, but TurboCadd is pretty good. If you need 3-D and rendering, also check out Rhino-4 (academic about $150) from Rhinocerous.

(2) I use digital photography, but am aware of the "clutter" problems that Alex mentioned. Basically you fix this problem with good photography and labeling. In my opinion, if you intend to use a point-and-shoot digital camera, and don't intend to do special lighting, forget it. I use a digital-SLR (currently Nikon D70). Although I might include a photo of the entire apparatus, it is important to frame just the component I am trying to explain. I always use available light or aim additional lights; I never use the on-camera flash. Unless you have multiple pro-flash units with flood lights so you can see all the shadows and fix them before you take the shot, don't use flash. On-camera flash produces more problems than it fixes.

I have been a photographer for over 40 years, buying my first SLR 35mm camera when I was 15 years old. So I am a pretty good photographer. That makes a load of difference right from the start. You have to visualize, then be able to get, the shot you want to communicate. Although some experimental setups are simple enough that I can just hold the camera, use room lights, and take the shot, many times I use a tripod, extra lights, and "stage" the shot. That's the way the pro-photographers would do it, and that's what you need to do if you want clear uncluttered photographs. As you set it up and view it through the camera, you can spot things that need moved because they clutter the picture.

Then I use editing software (I use Photoshop C3) to further fix and annotate the photo. You can add text and arrows to point out anything you want to point out. You can also darken or lighten various items to downplay them or highlight them.

Finally I save the photo as a JPG and insert it into the word processor as a "figure" because almost all word processing programs can import a JPG. I must use MSWord for a lot of university stuff because that's the official word processor for our campus. But I do not use MSWord for my lab handouts because MSWord, in my opinion, does not integrate pictures, figures, and captions nearly as well as Corel's WordPerfect.

In summary...

(A) Sometimes a photo is best, sometimes a drawing is best.

(B) With either method, put some thought into what you are trying to show and how best to show it.

(C) If taking a photo, be prepared to stage the shot with good lighting. When viewing the shot through the camera, take time to move extraneous things out of the picture. Choose your angle and distance carefully. Getting closer and using "tight framing" is usually better. Don't use flash unless you have multiple flash units and know how to position them.

(D) Get the photo into photo-editing software for touch-up and possibly annotation.

(E) When you merge the photo/drawing with the text, don't let it be too small. I often use a quarter page or even a half-page.

Michael D. Edmiston, Ph.D.
Professor of Chemistry and Physics
Bluffton University
1 University Drive
Bluffton, OH 45817