Taking pictures for the purpose of species identification is different than taking souvenir pictures or producing a perfect art shot. To avoid the disappointment of not being able to identify later that amazing plant or creature you found because you did not photograph the correct part, here are a few tips to get the right identification shots.
The EwA Guide to Getting Good Pictures for Identification
Taking ‘Ethical’ Photos
✧ Be a safe and respectful naturalist — do not touch animals or poisonous plants, and stay on trails.
✧ Watch where you step! When you’re taking photos, it’s easy to trample other plants without noticing.
Taking Identifiable Photos
✧ Make sure your camera (or phone) location 📍function is on, to record exact location (latitude and longitude) of the photo
✧ Get close, but not too close. Plants are hard to id from far away. However, when it comes to animals, respect the wildlife and keep your distance. That’s where a camera with a good zoom is much better than a smartphone. Use that zoom!
✧ Avoid contact with live wildlife, and never touch a dead animal
✧ Know the limitations of your camera. The use of digital cameras has made photography easier by allowing you to see your photo before you leave the area. It doesn’t make things easier when the animal is only around for a couple of seconds!
Manyfixed focus (point-and-shoot) cameras cannot focus closer than three or four feet. Read your instruction manual to be sure. Make sure you know how to focus your camera on closer objects. Even some smartphone cameras can take excellent close-up photos.
- A flash can greatly increase your chances of getting a useful photograph, except that the flash will reflect off of any wet surfaces and eliminate some of your intended subjects. Take multiple photos and submit the best.
✧ Catching details with your phone. Phone macro photo is fun and possible. Go for it! To get close-up photos of small details there are now many great and inexpensive options. Search for ‘cheap macro lenses smartphone’ on the web and you’ll get thousands of choices!
✧ Take photos that are sharp and in focus.
✧ Usually, several pictures will be better than one (different angles, different views)
✧ When possible, try to take photos that are well-lit (sun in your back)
✧ Keep it simple. Choose angles and lighting that make the details easy to see.
✧ It’s not about art. Keep “art photos” and “identification photos” separate. Unusual lighting and interesting angles make great art, but they also make it hard to identify species. Take your art shots, then take some simple shots for identification.
✧ Don’t forget to take photos of the habitat / surrounding environment
✧ Be sure to include in your field notes the date, location
✧ Tweak your photos. Think about cropping your picture to focus on the species. Sharpen your picture to reveal details. Increase the contrast to show the true color of the subject, or improve a washed picture.
Species-specific Photography — The Details
Remember that respecting the habitat and the bird’s welfare is the number one ethical rule for anyone enjoying the activity of birding or photography. [More → the EwA Birding Etiquette]
- the entire bird as well as in relation to its surrounding to have a sense of size
- side view and close-ups of head, beak, feet are identification keys
- its habitat: this is an important identification key for hard to identify bird species
Think about taking video snaps of what they are doing. Bird behavior helps a lot the process of identification, as a bird can behave in very unique ways depending on its species.
Chances are that you might even catch a call or a song in the process. And when it comes to birds, soundscapes are golden for distinguishing among hard to identify species within bird families. Finches and sparrows are perfect illustrations of this!
- Head: Rusty cap, white stripe over eye, black line through eye
- Breast: Plain, no streaks or dark central spot
- Head: Rusty cap, the bill is dark above and yellow below
- Breast: Plain with a dark central spot
- Walk slowly. Don’t sneak up: it is a predator behavior that will stress the bird and get it on alert.
- Stay at a distance & zoom in. Like any other animals, distance is key. Being too close stresses the bird, and even might trigger alarm behavior. Use your camera zoom instead.
- Don’t focus on the bird: the camera zoom can be perceived as a threat. Take your time, once the bird realizes that you ‘are safe’, it will relax.
- Bird in flight! Use the “sports” or “continuous shots” mode of your camera. If your camera has a viewfinder, use it: it’s easier to follow a bird this way. Point your camera at the bird getting it in the middle of the viewfinder or screen. Using your whole body – not just your neck and shoulders – follow the bird trying to keep it in the center. And… press the shutter! Hold that shutter down (in continuous mode). 📷 Example: Clear snap of a Red-tail hawk in flight »
Quick Note about Unethical Bird Photography
Some photographers indulge in unethical practice pictures for the purpose of getting “better” pictures. Such practices include baiting (attract a bird with food), flushing (chasing, brusque movement to get another angle photo of the bird), interrupting what the bird is doing (to entice the bird to move to have another shot)… All these constitute unacceptable behavior going against our etiquette and the recommendations of experts.
🌺 Non-woody Plants
Remember to watch where you step. When you’re taking photos, it’s easy to trample other plants without noticing. Avoid cutting the plant to take a picture.
- the plant as a whole
- when in bloom, take photos of the flowers from different angles: top, side and bottom
- close-up of the front and back of the leaves
- don’t forget the stem
- any fruits, seeds, buds, if available or other interesting features.
- the surroundings – what other plants and natural features are nearby?
- give a sense of the size and scale of the different elements (leaf, flower, seed, buds) with your hand or a ruler
- if your camera is having trouble focusing, put your hand right behind the plant and focus on your hand
- use only one plant per observations (i.e., avoid taking pictures from a different individual plant)
- 4-6 pictures per observation are best
- take a moment to just look, smell, and enjoy!
FLOWER & BUDS: They can look very different, depending on your angle. Take photos from different angles. Try to catch all the interesting features including petal count & symmetry,
LEAF: Is the leaf simple (one part) or complex (multi-part)? Is the edge smooth or toothed (jagged)? How are the leaves arranged on the stem?
STEM: Is the stem round or square? How are the leaves and flowers arranged? Are there hairs, thorns, residue, or other interesting features?
🌳 Trees & Shrubs
Follow the tips for photographing a non-woody plant and add to that… A tree has important features to show other than leaves, buds, and flowers, such as its bark and root systems. Don’t forget them…
- the tree/shrub as a whole, showing its shape and tree crown, including its base (and roots)
- its bark −are there some lenticels showing?
- when in bloom, take photos of the flowers from different angles: top, side and
- close-up of the front and back of the leaves and their stem
- any fruits, seeds, buds, if available or other interesting features
- the surroundings – are there some fungi residing on it or at its base, what other plants surround the tree or are hosted by the tree?
- give a sense of the size and scale of the different elements (leaf, flower, seed, bud, lenticelle, bark) with your hand or a ruler. 📷 Example: Sassafras fruit (with hand for size) »
- if your camera is having trouble focusing, put your hand right behind the element and focus on your hand
- 4-6 pictures per observation are best
Remember to watch where you step. When you’re taking photos, it’s easy to trample plants and fungi without noticing. Avoid uprooting a fungus to take a picture: we discourage ‘picking’ because that will not only will kill the mushroom, but will also have a negative effect on the ecosystem of which the mushroom is a very important part. If one has to collect for a scientific study, then do not collect a specimen when this is the only one in that area.
- the mushroom as a whole (side photo may be best).
- the cap from above.
- its underside of the cap (to see if
itthere are gills, pores, teeth, etc.) is very useful, if possible. Do not pick the fungus to get the picture, use a mirror instead, slide it underneath, and take a picture of the reflection.
- its stem (look if a ring is present)
- any other interesting features you notice
- its environment: what is nearby? Does it grow on (a host) or next to a deciduous or a coniferous tree, or on lichens bed?
A Note about spores: Some fungi cannot be identified without a spore print or staining, which is not always possible in the field. Still, we discourage uprooting mushrooms for safety/toxicity reasons, as well as for avoiding the risk of uprooting an endangered specimen (a very few are listed as endangered, yet the low numbers of endangered fungi are likely due to the fact that it is almost impossible for us to monitor fungal populations).
Remember that respecting the habitat and the welfare of
- Photograph the entire animal.
- Take photos of its habitat / the surrounding environment.
- If the animal is a social animal, don’t forget to document the animal within its group.
- Photos of tracks and scat (animal poop) are helpful. 📷 Example: Tracks »
- If you find bones, take a photo with your hand or this ruler for scale.
🐝 Insects & Spiders
Many entomologists don’t think twice about killing an insect for the greater purpose of classifying it. Is it even controversial? Not at this moment, probably because it’s not even thought about. Yet in light of the rapid decline of insect populations worldwide, and simply because they don’t deserve to die for our picture, we strongly encourage leaving that bug alone. Tread lightly, just take the pic you can…
- the entire insect / spider / egg (clutch) / larva / nymph / pupa
- top, side, and
close-upof the face are helpful
- if it has visible or spread wings, photograph its wing veins
- 2-3 pictures per observation when possible are best
- its habitat: where it has landed or what it is resting on
The Butterfly & Moth case: For most
Here are examples of good single pictures of butterflies:
🦎 Amphibians & Reptiles
In some cases, to get a good, recognizable photograph you might need to handle a specimen. Amphibians and reptiles are under the lethal threats of harmful disease that we can spread by contact. It is imperative to proper handling protocol. [More → the EwA Herping Etiquette]
- the entire animal
- if it is a snake, try to get close-up pictures of its head and tail, but put safety first as it could be venomous.
FROGS: Virtually all frogs can be identified by a three-quarter view, where you are slightly above and off to one side of the animal. This view will show most identifying features, such as a mask, spots, warts and dorso-lateral folds.
SALAMANDERS: Most salamanders are easily identified from a photograph that is taken directly above them. Since most species are small, try to get as close as your lens will allow. Try to show all legs. It is best to place the salamander on a neutral colored background (a leaf, light bark or backpack) for contrast. A picture of the underside is helpful for identification of some species. 📷 Example of a salamander larva with
TURTLES: Most of the time a good picture of the top shell (carapace) will suffice. The young of some species of turtles have a different pattern from the adults, so be sure to get a clear shot. A picture of the bottom shell (plastron) is also recommended.
SNAKES: As a group, snakes have a wide variation in colors and patterns, even within members of the same species. Hatchling and juvenile snakes can be dramatically different from adults in color and pattern, and some species have various color morphs as adults. It is best to photograph from above from as close (and safe) a position as possible.
» Wildlife Etiquettes
Help the protection and conservation of the habitats and species that you enjoy. Thanks!
» Pictures & Contributors
We are thankful to EwA citizen scientists for providing us with this guide's illustrations!
- © Joseph Mac Indewar (from Joe's iNaturalist records)
- © Laura Costello (from Laura's iNaturalist records)
- © William Mac Indewar (from Bill's iNaturalist records)
- © Daniel Onea (from Dan's iNaturalist records)
- © Claire O'Neill (from Claire's iNaturalist records)
» General Literature
- Handbook Of Biodiversity Methods - Survey, Evaluation And Monitoring by Hill, D. (2005)
- As Insect Populations Decline, Scientists Are Trying to Understand Why by Hoof, M. (2018)
- Identifying and Documenting Vernal Pools in New Hampshire published by New Hampshire Fish and Game Department l Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program (3rd edition)
- Camera Trapping Guide: Tracks, Sign, and Behavior of Eastern Wildlife by Pesaturo, J. (2018)
- Handbook for Wildlife Monitoring Using Camera‐traps by Ancrenaz, M. et al. (2012)
- A Practical Guide to Using Camera Traps for Wildlife Monitoring in Natural Resource Management Projects by Molloy, S. et al. (2018) | DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.28025.57449
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◊ Note that this Guide is and will remain a work in progress. If there is anything else you would like to see added, please let us know and we’ll do our best to include it. Let’s be Earthwise Aware. Let’s enjoy and protect wildlife responsibly! Thanks for your support!